“A day in which neither wealth nor children shall be of any benefit, except one who comes to God with a sound heart” (Sūrat’l-Shu‘arā’: 88-89).
Spiritual purification of the self is the essence of Islamic teachings. Knowledge of this science was traditionally learned by keeping company with good teachers and righteous companions. However, this option is largely unavailable to most of us. What follows is advice that I have been gathering from various scholars regarding spiritual purification. I have compiled the following as a reminder for myself and for those searching for similar advice.
Begin with Repentance
Sins are barriers which restrict the opportunity to do good works; so begin your journey with sincere repentance. List all of the main sins you aim to eliminate in the future and ask forgiveness for those sins specifically. A specific repentance with the intention of starting on a spiritual quest will act as a starting line for you. It will put you in the right frame of mind and will allow you to be cognizant of committing these sins again.
Why ask for forgiveness if we know we will commit these sins again?
Ibn Atallāh summarizes a few reasons: Allah loves those who constantly repent (Qur’ān Sūrat’l-Baqarah: 222); our Prophet , the best of creation, would seek repentance over 70 times a day; repentance from a sin reduces its sweetness – it discourages you from doing it again
Establish Daily Routines (Awrad)
Just like our physical muscles, our spiritual muscles need to undergo regular training in order to be strengthened. Imām Al-Ghazāli exhorts on the importance of routines, “Your time should not be without structure, such that you occupy yourself arbitrarily with whatever comes along. Rather, you must take account of yourself and order your worship during the day and the night, assigning to each period of time an activity that must not be neglected nor replaced by another activity. By the ordering of this time, the blessing will show in itself.”
Following is a brief list of actions one must perform regularly, without excuse or neglect.
a) The Obligatory Prayers
This one is so obvious it doesn’t need to be stated. However, the reality is, most of us struggle to keep up with our five prayers on time. Those already doing this should work on offering the voluntary prayers (sunnan rawatib) and supererogatory prayers (dhuda, ishrāq, ṣalāt’l-wuḍū’ etc).
Sound actions emanate from sound states. If you are struggling to keep up with the prayers, look at the spiritual causes that might be hindering your access to this blessing. Are your constantly engaged in sins for which you feel no guilt or remorse? What type of people are you surrounded by? Do you sleep in a state of ritual purity to facilitate waking up for Fajr? Are the intentions behind your acts sincere?
‘Actions are by their intentions’, so check yours. Sincerity in intention is to seek God’s pleasure alone. How do you know if you are sincere? Imām Qushayri quotes in his Risala, “The major flaw of the sincere one is that he is aware of his sincerity. When God Most High wants to render his sincerity pure, he removes from his sincerity his awareness of being sincere.” In others words, you have to constantly re evaluate and renew your intentions. The moment you start noticing your sincerity, you’ve become insincere.
b) Have a daily reading of Qur’ān
Whether it is a hizb (i.e. 1/60 of Quran), a few pages or a few lines, pick an amount that you can commit to reading from the Qur’ān everyday. Make it a routine to read that amount after one of the obligatory prayers—after Fajr is usually the best time to do so.
c) Daily Supplications (Dhikr) for Morning and Evenings
Having a regular wird (a designated amount) of dhikr is also necessary in one’s daily routine. The Prophet recommended supplications for mornings and evenings. These have been complied in numerous books and litanies. Set aside a time, usually after Fajr and Maghrib, to recite them. Imām al-Haddad’s Wird-al-Latif and Ratib-al-Shahir are from one of the most comprehensive and easy to recite (takes just 10-15 mins), based completely on Qur’ān and Sunnah. Other places these supplications can be found are in books like Hisn al Muslim, Adhkar Imām Nawawi and other collections.
d) Salutations (Salam) upon the Prophet
In your daily supplications be sure to include a routine of salutations upon the Prophet . We should aim to do this throughout our day, but including it in our daily routine inculcates the practice. One way to do this is to establish the habit of saying ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam whenever he is mentioned. The most famous book of salutations upon the Prophet is Imām Jazuli’s Dalā’il al Khairāt. The book has set aside a chapter of salutations for each day of the week; it can be recited on a weekly or daily basis.
In general make an effort to, “Keep your tongue moist with the remembrance of Allāh.”
Control you diet
Imām Al-Ghazāli considered the stomach and genitals to be the dominators of our desires; if they are in control; all other limbs are kept in check. Controlling our diet is especially needed, given that we live in a society where obesity is a serious problem and we don’t think twice about eating to satiety.
Imām Al-Haddād succinctly summarize the moderation we need to bring to our diets: Do not make good and pleasurable food your prime concern…Beware of eating excessively and frequently eating to satiety, for even if it be from halal foods it will still be the beginning of many evils. It results in hardening of the heart, loss of perspicacity, confused thinking, laziness in worship, and other things. The way to be moderate is to stop eating while still desiring to eat, and not to start eating until you really want food. The sign that yours is a real desire is that you desire any kind of food.
Following is a list of manuals that outline in greater detail the steps one needs to take to attain purification of the heart. While many books have been written on the subject; these books are known for the ‘hands-on’ approach taken by the authors.
1) The Book of Assistance by Imām Al-Haddād: A must read for anyone seeking spiritual purification. The book is known for succinctness and practicality.
2) The Beginning of Guidance by Imām Al-Ghazāli: Hujjat al-Islam’s goal in this book is to outline beneficial knowledge; he also lays out a timetable to which one should aspire to follow. Written in the post-Ihya period, it’s a must read for students of knowledge and the layperson alike.
3) Purification of the Hearts by Imām Mawlud: Presented in English with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s commentary, the book outlines spiritual diseases and their remedies.
4) The Bride-Groom’s Crown by Ibn Atallāh: Dr. Sherman Jackson presents his new translation as “Sufism for Non-Sufis?” Aiming to bridge the divide between the jurist and the Sufi, Ibn Attalāh takes on a Zarruqian approach and writes this manual for anyone seeking to cleanse his or her soul.
The last piece of advice is to make du‘ā’ and to avoid sins. Practical measures outlined above need to be coupled with constant prayer asking God to grant you a pure heart. In addition, while sins are inevitable, an active effort needs to be made to avoid sins we commit consistently. As mentioned earlier, sins are barriers that limit the opportunity to do good works; avoiding them and constantly seeking forgiveness is therefore vital.
Imam Nawawi’s Spiritual Bucket List
All of the above has been summarized succinctly in a paragraph by Imam Nawwawi in his Maqasid. Print it out, put it up on a wall and work towards achieving this spiritual bucket list. (Taken from Shaykh Hamza’s translation of Sidi Ahmed Zarruq’s Foundations of the Spiritual Path – another beneficial read):
One reaches Allah Most High by repenting from all things, unlawful or offensive; seeking sacred knowledge in accordance with one’s needs; maintaining ritual purity; performing the obligatory prayers in the ﬁrst of their time and in congregation, including the Sunna prayers that correspond to each of the obligatory prayers; adhering to the eight raka’ats of the midmorning prayer (Duha) and the six raka’ats after the sunset prayer and before the night prayer; performing the night prayers (tahajjud) after awaking from one’s sleep; fulﬁlling the witr prayer; fasting on Mondays and Thursdays and on the three days of the full moon – i.e. the 13th,14th, and 15th of the lunar month – and also the days of the year in which fasting is recommended; reciting the Quran with the heart’s presence coupled with reﬂection upon its meanings; frequently asking forgiveness of Allah (istighfar); maintaining prayers and blessings upon the Prophet, peace be upon him; and, ﬁnally, adhering to the meritorious invocations of the morning and the evening that have come to us from the Sunna (adhkaar as-sabaah wa al-masa)