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The Soul of Islam is a Vigilant and Mindful Heart

Revelation tells us that muraqabah, vigilance of Allah, is one of the sublimest spiritual stations. We are told too that habituating our heart to such vigilance requires training the heart gradually and step-by-step. Masters of the heart instruct us to accustom ourselves to being mindful and shy of Allah, even if it be for short periods at a time – persevering in this even in our day-to-day affairs, let alone when engaged in acts of worship – until such mindfulness or vigilance becomes part and parcel of our nature; a habit of our heart.

Vigilance, muraqabah, is to be mindful of Allah in all our states, realising that: وَهُوَ مَعَكُمْ أَيْنَ مَا كُنْتُمْ – He is with you wherever you are. [Q.57:4]

It is to feel His reassuring presence, being aware that: وَنَحْنُ أَقْرَبُ إِلَيْهِ مِنْ حَبْلِ الْوَرِيدِ – We are closer to him than his jugular vein. [Q.50:16]

It is to know that nothing is ever hidden from Him, thereby feeling reverently respectful and shy before Him: فَإِنَّهُ يَعْلَمُ السِّرَّ وَأَخْفَى – For He knows what is secret, and what is yet more hidden [Q.20:7]

Above all, it is to know that His care, help and loving concern are ever near: وَإِذَا سَأَلَكَ عِبَادِي عَنِّي فَإِنِّي قَرِيبٌ أُجِيبُ دَعْوَةَ الدَّاعِي إِذَا دَعَانِي – When My servants ask you about Me, I am near; answering the prayer of the suppliant when he prays to Me. [Q.2:186]

The more we interiorise such core realities of faith, the profounder will be our vigilance of Him, and presence of heart whilst worshiping Him. For a heart in which vigilance of Allah firmly takes root, is a heart that becomes occupied with Him above everything else.

That vigilance of Allah be ingrained and be made a habit of the heart is paramount, in order for its fruits to appear on us. The least of these fruits is that one does nothing, when alone with Allah, that he would be ashamed of doing should a person of virtue and rank be watching him. If, say our spiritual masters, when one calls to mind the fact that Allah sees us, we find a shyness in our heart which prevents us from disobeying Him or spurs us on to obey Him, then something of the lights of vigilance, the anwar al-muraqabah, have dawned on the heart. Eventually, as the heart becomes accustomed to vigilance, and as the awareness of Allah’s nearness deepens within, the heart begins to be totally immersed in Allah; being now raised to the degrees of mushahadah – of worshiping God as though seeing Him.

How to Nurture Presence of Heart with God?

CEY_13434008691Without doubt, the greatest trait to nurture in our worship of God and in our journey to Him is hudur al-qalb – “presence of heart”. It says in one hadith: ‘Ask God [in a state where] you are certain of being responded to; and realise that God does not respond to a supplication from a heedless and inattentive heart.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.3479] Thus, a mindless heart elicits little or no response from Heaven; whereas an attentive heart, present with its Lord, does. What is meant by presence of heart (for the heart to feel the presence of the One being invoked or remembered) is that the heart be liberated from distractions and be focused and attentive to its Lord. Such is the courtesy (adab) sought from the servant in his or her worship of the Generous Lord.

As we seek to break out of the prisons of our pleasures and distractions, and allow our lives to be illumined by faith and loving submission, the focus must be to educate our heart. The above hadith tells us that works of faith, presented to God from a heedless heart, count for very little; if anything at all. Ibn al-Qayyim wrote: ‘Whoever purposes the shari‘ah, its sources and wellspring, will know how actions of the limbs are tied to works of the heart and how they are of no benefit without them, and how works of the heart are more obligatory than those of the limbs. Acts of devotion (‘ubudiyyah) of the heart are far greater, more numerous and more continuous than devotion of the limbs. For they are obligatory at each and every moment.’1

He also wrote: ‘Acts of the limbs, without works of the heart, either lack any benefit, or else contain very little benefit.’2

Presence of heart with God is not only required in our salat and du‘a, it is something sought during each moment of our life. One way to nurture presence is by kathrat al-dhikr – “remembering God frequently,” wherever and whenever possible. At first, says al-Ghazali, dhikr is just with the tongue; the heart having very little share in it. Then the heart, with considerable effort, is made to be present in dhikr – although if left to itself, ‘it would drift into the valleys of idle thought.’ It then begins taking root in the heart and dominates it, such that it now takes effort to not make dhikr. Finally comes “extinction” and being “lost” in the One being remembered. Thus, he writes: ‘It starts with dhikr of the tongue; then by the heart being pressed into remembering; then the heart remembering spontaneously, thereby leading to it being dominated by the One being remembered and to the effacement of the one remembering.’3

In other words, explains Ibn al-Qayyim, ‘the power of dhikr takes hold of the servant, causing him to lose consciousness of himself and his remembrance, in the One he is remembering.’ He goes on to explain that as this occurs, ‘the servant is bound to drift through the doors of indwelling (hulul) and unionism (ittihad) – unless he has a sound theology (‘aqidah sahihah).’4 Whatever else such extinction or fana’ connotes, it does not mean that one has “merged” or “become one” with Allah. Such unionism or belief of indwelling is utterly false and is, at best, merely a perception. The reality is that the servant always remains distinctly the servant and the Lord distinctly the Lord. In fact, to believe otherwise would be blasphemous or kufr.

Scholars depict this level of faith as maqam al-mushahadah – “the Station of Spiritual Witnessing” – basing it on the words of the Prophet, peace be upon him, in which he explained spiritual excellence (ihsan) to be: ‘That you worship Allah as though seeing Him, and though you may not see Him, know that He sees you.’ [Muslim, no.80] This witnessing Allah with the heart is where, writes Ibn Rajab, ‘the heart is illumined with faith, and the inner sight arrives at gnosis, so much so that the Unseen becomes, as it were, seen (wa huwa an yutanawwara’l-qalbu bi’l-iman wa tanfudha’l-basiratu fi’l-irfan hatta yasira’l-ghaybu ka’l-ayan).’5

Another hadith that bespeaks of the same spiritual state is the following: ‘My servant does not draw close to Me with anything more loved by Me than the obligatory duties I have enjoined on him. My servant continues to draw closer to me with the optional deeds till I love him. When I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his hand with which he grasps and his foot with which he walks.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.6502] Returning again to Ibn Rajab, who explains:

‘What these words mean is that whoever strives to draw near to Allah by [performing] the obligatory deeds, then the optional ones, He shall draw him closer to Himself and will raise him from the degree of iman to that of ihsan. He will now come to worship Allah with presence (hudur) and vigilance (muraqabah), as if seeing Him. His heart will be filled with gnosis of Allah, exalted is He; along with love, veneration, fear, awe, and magnification of Him; intimacy with Him; and longing for Him, until this gnosis that resides in the heart begets spiritual witnessing of Him by the inner sight … What is in the hearts of such lovers [of God] who are drawn near to Him continues to grow and grow, until their hearts are filled by it; nothing remains in their hearts save it; and nor can their limbs move except in compliance with what is in their hearts. Whosoever’s state is like this, then it is said of him: “Nothing remains in his heart but Allah.” That is, [nothing remains but] gnosis, love and remembrance of Him. In this sense, there is a well-known Israelite report, “Allah said: My heavens cannot contain Me, nor can My earth. But the heart of My believing slave contains Me.”67

He further says: ‘When the heart is filled with Allah’s greatness, exalted is He, it wipes out traces of everything other than Him from the heart. Now nothing of the person’s ego remains, nor any [false] desires, nor any will; save what the Master wills for him. It is at this point that the servant does not utter, except His remembrance and does not move, except by His command. Whenever he speaks, he speaks by Allah; when he hears, he hears by Him; when he sees, he sees by Him; and when he grasps, he grasps by Him. This is what is meant by His words: “I am his hearing by which he hears, his sight by which he sees …” Whoever indicates other than this, is only intimating at the deviation of Indwelling or Unionism; and Allah and His Messenger are free of him.’8

So how is presence of heart nurtured? It starts by cultivating vigilance, or mindfulness of God within our hearts – as per the second part of the hadith about ihsan: ‘… though you may not see Him, know that He sees you.’

Vigilance (muraqabah), as masters of the inward life tell us, is to be mindful of Allah in all our states, particularly in the state of worship, realising that He is with you wherever you are; [57:4] to feel His presence, being aware that He is closer to him than his jugular vein; [50:16] to know that nothing is ever concealed from Him, thereby feeling shy and modest before Him, for He knows what is secret, and what is yet more hidden; [20:7] and to know that His care and help are ever near at hand: When My servants ask you about Me, tell them I am near; answering the prayer of the suppliant when he prays to Me. [2:186] The more we can envisage such realities about Allah in our heart, the profounder will be our vigilance of Him and our presence of heart in our worship of Him. For a heart in which vigilance of Allah profoundly resides, is a heart that becomes occupied with Him to the exclusion of all else.

We’re told that vigilance is one of the sublimest of all spiritual stations. We’re told too that habituating our heart to such vigilance requires training the heart: gradually and step-by-step. Shaykh Ahmad b. Ibrahim al-Wasiti asks to accustom ourselves to being mindful and shy of Allah; even if it be for short periods at a time – persevering in this in our mundane day-to-day affairs, when at university or work, and when engaged in acts of worship – until such mindfulness and vigilance becomes part and parcel of our nature.9

That vigilance of Allah be ingrained and be made a habit of the heart is paramount, so that its fruits appear upon us. The least of these fruits is that one does nothing, when alone with Allah, that he would be ashamed of doing should a man of virtue and rank be watching him. If, say the shaykhs of the path, when you call to mind the fact that Allah sees you, you find a shyness in your heart which prevents you from disobeying Him or spurs you on to obey Him, then something of the lights of vigilance (anwar al-muraqabah) have dawned on your heart. Eventually, as the heart becomes accustomed to vigilance, and as the awareness of Allah’s nearness deepens within, the heart begins to be totally immersed in Allah and extinct in Him; being now raised to the degrees of mushahadah – worshiping Allah as though seeing Him.

The Qur’an says: Is the reward of ihsan anything but ihsan? [55:60] The believer, having lived his life in the pursuit of Allah’s good pleasure, and having striven in this world to worship Him as though seeing Him, is rewarded in the Afterlife with its supreme and sublimest delight: the beatific vision of Allah (ru’yatu’Llah). A celebrated hadith speaks about this rapturous joy in the following words:

‘When the people of Heaven enter Heaven and those of Hell enter Hell, a herald shall call out, saying: “O people of Paradise! There is a tryst for you with your Lord, which He wishes to bring about for you.” “What might that tryst be?” they enquire. “Did He not make heavy our scales, whiten our faces, and bring us into Heaven and deliver us from Hell?” Then the veil will be lifted and they shall gaze upon the Face of Allah. By Allah, never will the believers be given anything more beloved to them than of gazing upon His Face.’ [Muslim, no.181]

Allahumma inna nas’aluka ladhdhatan-nazr
ila wajhika wa shawqa
ila liqa’iq.

1. Bada’i‘ al-Fawa’id (Cairo: Maktabah al-Qahirah, 1972), 3:230.

2. Madarij al-Salikin (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2008), 1:206.

3. Al-Ghazali, Kitab al-Arba‘in fi Usul al-Din (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2006), 85-7.

4. Al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 134.

5. Jami al-Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:129.

6. Similar views on this report can be seen in: Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 18:122; and al-Sakhawi, al-Maqasid al-Hasanah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2002), no.988 – where they categorically reject its ascription to the Prophet, peace be upon him. Rather it is, as stated, from the isra’iliyyat reports.

7. Jami al-Ulum wa’l-Hikam, 2:345-6.

8. ibid., 2:347.

9. Miftah Tariq al-Awliya (Beirut: Dar al-Bashshar al-Islamiyyah, 1999), 34-5.

You Have Wings to Fly, So Don’t Crawl

Hand glidersIn January of this year, I had the opportunity (the good fortune) to accompany Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoon on one of his travels in the UK. My reasons for wanting to do so were simple: Shaykh Jaleel isn’t only a scholar of the outward shariah sciences, he is a profound spiritual guide too. Keeping company with those who can instruct you in shariah rules and more importantly, whose presence can help reform your inward state, is a crucial teaching of the Qur’an – and one which is too often forgotten or overlooked. O you who believe! Fear God, and be with the truthful ones [9:119], says Allah in the Qur’an.

What follows are just a few of the pearls the three of us who accompanied the Shaykh gleaned from our suhbah, or spiritual companionship with him. All our conversations were in Urdu; so for the most part I have sought to convey the overall meanings of his words, while at other times I have attempted a direct translation of them:

Having settled down in our car journey (and with his permission), I asked the Shaykh, may Allah protect him, how one can acquire presence of heart (hudur al-qalb) in one’s prayer and other acts of worship?

The Shaykh replied that there are two things that are powerful aids in bringing about presence of heart: (i) Constant remembrance (dhikr) of God. (ii) Vigilance (muraqabah) of God. Vigilance is to focus on God, particularly the afal al-rabb or “Divine Acts”, so as to see that all the good in this world emanates from God’s acts and His enabling grace (tawfiq); and all evil as being from His acts but our own acquisition (kasb).

The actual morning of the journey was a delightful surprise for Shaykh Jaleel. Coming as he does from Pakistan, the Shaykh had never seen, or experienced, snow before. So to see the entire street, the cars, trees and roof-tops covered in a thick fluffy blanket of snow did nothing short of bring a radiant smile to the Shaykh’s face. About an hour or so into the journey, as we were on the motorway, the Shaykh asked what the lorries in front of us were doing. We said that they were gritting the roads, so as to give the tyres better grip on the snowy road. He asked what they were using. Rock salt (grit), we told him. He then went on to say:

Allah has placed much blessings in salt. Here, he said, you use it to grit roads to make it safer to drive. In Pakistan, we use it to help gel ice-cream. Salt, he said, is also found in the sea. If Allah hadn’t put salt there, how could it be kept clean or purified – given the number of sea-creatures or corpses that die and decay in it on a daily basis. He sighed for a bit and then said: Our tears have salt in it, out of Allah’s love and compassion for those who weep. It helps keep eyes healthy when they shed tears. I think, at that point, we all sighed and exclaimed, subhana’Llah! A few minutes later, vigilance of the afal al-rabb, I felt, was beginning to deepen in me.

Along with his God-given gift of stirring in souls an acute love and yearning for Allah, Shaykh Jaleel also felt it important to speak about the inherent natures of truth (haqq) and falsehood (batil), and of faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr). As we were approaching the north of the country, he said:

Truth is like a needle, with ease it can puncture a hole in the fabric of kufr! He also said that we needn’t fret about the huge sums of money or resources being ploughed into propping-up the current global, materialistic monoculture; and neither be overly concerned about the lack of resources at the disposal of believers. Falsehood, he went on to say, is like a corpse; while truth is like a living person. It requires a lot of effort and power to prop-up a corpse; even more to make it move. But just a little effort – a nudge, even – is all that is needed to make a living person move! In other words, he said, do whatever little you can in terms of the truth, and it will be filled with much barakah.

In between a little casual chat, some resting, and the dhikr, reflection and long periods of silence, Shaykh Jaleel, may Allah protect him, also stressed the following:

The salik or “seeker”, in this day and age, tends to be negligent of three matters: Firstly, nurturing a strong connection (rabitah) with his shaykh, in much the same way a child is connected to its mother and her nourishment. Secondly, being constant in his dhikr of Allah. Thirdly, striving against sins.

There were many other gems to be gathered in the overall two day trip: not all of them were verbal. Many were simply a matter of keeping to adab and silence, and observing and learning. I hope to relay more of such benefits in a future posting, insha’Llah. May Allah shade and protect Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoon, and reward him with abundant goodness. Amin.

Are You Seeking with the Seekers or Sleeping with the Sleepers?

6005159607_7484bcfe47It is said that: ‘Every person is either a traveller, an arriver, or a non-traveller.’ That is, one is either journeying to God through acts of faith, devotion and loving submission, desiring to being drawn closer to Him; or has spiritually ‘arrived’ at God and has been led to true God-conciousness; or has yet to make that sharp turn away from the lower concerns of this material world (dunya) towards the sublimer concerns of the akhirah or Hereafter: ‘O my people! The life of this world is nothing but a passing comfort; but the Hereafter, that is the everlasting abode.’ [Q.40:39]

To this end, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, exhorted: ‘Be in the world as though you were a stranger or a traveller.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.6416]

In Islam’s scheme of things, human life is presented as a journey to God. Life is an on-going quest to draw near to God so as to abide in His presence. The Qur’an speaks of an occasion where human beings have already experienced nearness to God, in their pre-earthly existence and pre-bodily forms, when He gave to them an audience on the “Day of the Covenant”. This great covenant (mithaq) is mentioned in the verse: When your Lord brought forth offspring from the children of Adam, from their loins, and had them testify about themselves [saying]: ‘Am I not your Lord?’ They responded: ‘Yes, to this we testify!’ [Q.7:172]

The Qur’an further promises believers a more intimate qurb or nearness to Him, in Paradise, at the end of time – to be raised in His presence and to be given the Beatific Vision of Him: On that day some face will be radiant, gazing at their Lord. [Q.75:22-23] But while on this earth, Man (his spirit now wrapped in a physical body) must strive to retrieve the consciousness of that initial nearness, through observing God’s will and living out his earthly existence in constant recognition of God’s presence.

In practice, this means training and taming the nafs (the ‘lower self’ or ‘ego’) through the appropriate measures and provisions set-out in the Qur’an and Prophetic Sunnah. This entails cultivating the heart’s purity by internalising acts of obedience, fostering in it worldly detachment (zuhd), illuminating it with constant and abundant remembrance of God (dhikr), and continually perceiving in it God’s activity on earth through vigilant observation (muraqabah).

At the heart of this spiritual journey or wayfaring (suluk) is realising our own inability and indigence before God, whilst acknowledging Him to be the only true actor. Only by turning the reigns over to God, say the masters of the inward life, can one become a seeker or wayfarer (salik) and take their first real steps in the journey to Him.

With this said, what each of us should be asking ourselves is this: Am I seeking with the seekers or still sleeping with the sleepers?

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