On a dark and stormy night in the dark cave of man's mind, Shaitaan once lit a campfire and settled down to tell a story- a myth, in fact. It went like this:
Once upon a time Islam was revealed to a Prophet of near God-like perfection. He shared it with his friends, who were all superhumans lacking any embarrassing or inconvenient biological urges. They implemented it with inspirational dedication, passion, and flawlessness. Since then it has been passed down through the generations, and only a privileged few are able to embody the wisdom, piety, and errorless rejection of sin that its holiness demands. By Shaitaan, the End.
Shaitaan is possibly millions of years old and pretty damned (literally!) sneaky. His goal, at the end of the day, is to get as many of us into hell with him as possible, and one of the ways that he does this is by using this myth of effortless, perfect implementation of Islam by effortless, perfect Muslims.
The idea is simple. Shaitaan says:
Do it all perfectly or just stop, because you're embarrassing yourself.
In fact, a person like you has no chance of getting into Jannah.
In fact, just kill yourself now. At least it will be over sooner.
His message is so insidious that people all over the world actually give up trying to be better Muslims because they fall short of their own expectations for how effortless and impeccable their Islam should be. They try hard to implement Islam- they go through the motions even when their hearts aren't in it, and because they find themselves being pulled in two directions, they assume they're doing something hypocritical or wrong and they stop altogether.
Shaitaan wants you to believe that there are naturally religious people, and then there's everybody else. And the reason why you are having a hard time isn't because spirituality is one of man's greatest struggles, it's because you aren't one of the beautiful people. So the sister who yearns for the wind in her hair gives up hijab because she feels like she's living a lie. The brother who has a beard shaves it because he feels he doesn't deserve one until he can quit marijuana. The convert won't pray until they're sure they've got all the words right. All of these are success stories for the myth of the Naturally Good Muslim. They are Muslims who, instead of realising that struggle was a sign of progress, saw difficulty as a sign of defeat.
Some people do fall for it. Others- like imām Sufyaan ath-Thawri- saw through this cheap trick and insisted on praying at night for twenty years even though he wasn't “feeling it.”
Imagine if, one day he had just thrown his hands up and said “You know what? I'm not cut out for this, I've been praying for twenty years and I've yet to find this whole peace and contentment with my ṣalāh. What's the point? I'm never going to get it right…”
Shaitaan is trying to convince you that because your Islam is less than perfect, you're a failure who should give up already. In reality, everyone is a sinner and the Jihad of the nafs is a constant struggle for everyone. The best people aren't those who sin, but those whose sins cause them to try even harder and draw even closer to Allāh next time. For some people, major sins can be major set-backs. For others, they are life-changing events that mark the end of heedlessness and the beginning of seeking Allāh's pleasure.
Every Muslim is a combination of successes and failures when it comes to their religious practice. So as a sinner, you're in great company! Everyone, everywhere, accumulates sin on a daily basis, and if everyone like you took Shaitaan's advice and just killed themselves, we'd all be dead.
O My servants, you sin by night and by day, and I forgive all sins, so seek forgiveness of Me and I shall forgive you.
-Excerpt from Hadith Qudsi, full hadith here.
Shaitaan wants you to think that the passing grade for this test is 100% and failure is everything else. But if you believe him, then you're buying into an insult to Allāh. How? Allāh is The Most Merciful, Most Forgiving- Most Loving, Most Gracious, Most Kind- He alone has attained perfection and as The All-Knowing, He knows how and what we're made of, so by what crazy logic would He mercilessly penalize us for not reaching a standard that He best knows that we can never attain?
Shaitaan might add at this point: well, ok, Allāh is The Best. But you can't think that you're getting into Jannah with *that* old sack of a soul. Have you seen the state of your nafs? Brother, it is bad.
If you think you're too bad for Allāh to forgive, then you're grossly underestimating Allāh's capacity for forgiveness. You're implying that your teeny-tiny mortal capacity to sin is even greater than Allāh's capacity to forgive. Please, don't insult God. They don't call Him Al-Ghaffar, The Continuously Forgiving, for nothing.
On the authority of Anas (may Allāh be pleased with him), who said:I heard the Messenger of Allāh (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) say: Allāh the Almighty said:
O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind.
O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you.
O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great at it.
Related by at-Tirmidhi (also by Ahmad ibn Hanbal). Its chain of authorities is sound.
Whenever I read that Hadith, it puts a certain picture in my head, and in my primitive photoshop imagination, it looks like this:
Repentance for a mountain of sins is equal to a mountain of blessings. So, the greater the sin you've committed, the greater the reward for seeking forgiveness. Knowing that this is how Allāh works helps us appreciate how truly generous Allāh is in His forgiveness- instead of seeking forgiveness on a level -10 sin and only being returned to a clean slate with 0, we seek forgiveness on a level -10 and in response are given a +10 in its place. AllahuAkbar.
Shaitaan wants you to forget that Allāh is the Greatest- even in His capacity to forgive those who sincerely ask it. He wants you to think that you only have two choices; perfection or failure, and since perfection ain't gonna happen, what option does Shaitaan leave you? Killing yourself and getting it over with already. But, there's a third option that Shaitaan doesn't want you to remember:
Between perfection and failure lies your only real choice: Fight.
Fight shaitaan's insistence upon your failure, fight your own soul's inclination to sin, fight your own weaknesses and no matter how hard you've been hit or how long you've been laying on the ground- get up and keep fighting. Fight shaitaan as hard as he's fighting you, as long as he's fighting you, and don't stop fighting him until the Angel of Death draws your soul gently away from your body and into the safety of your grave, spacious and fragrant with the winds of Jannah, where you can finally relax a little, reassured and kept company by your good deeds until Allāh raises you on Qiyama.
Just because your heart is aching right now, and you're locked in the seemingly endless cycle of sin, regret, and self-reproach doesn't mean you're a lost cause. It's actually good news, and here's why. The human heart (or soul, or nafs) has three settings according to the Qur'an.
The Lowest, Default Setting: Nafs al-Amarra bis Su'
The lowest level is the Nafs al-Amarra bis Su' or the soul that is inclined to evil, and a majority of humankind lives in this guiltless, no-regrets, live for the moment mode. This seems to be the default setting for most pop music as well.
And I do not free myself from blame. Indeed the human self is inclined to evil, except when my Lord bestows His Mercy (upon whom He wills). Indeed my Lord is Forgiving, Merciful.” (Surah Yusuf: 53)
Knowing that it's possible to have varying levels of soundness to one's heart/nafs- Muslims don't rely on the soundness of their heart to provide a compass to morality. It is not your heart's job to point you towards what's right, it only points you towards what it wants. So in a sense, you don't follow your heart as much as your heart follows you.
Have you seen the one who takes as god his own desire? Then would you be responsible for him? Surah Al Furqan: 43
The Medium Setting: Nafs al-Lawwama
“I do call to witness the Resurrection Day. And I do call to witness the self-reproaching Soul.” Surah Al-Qiyamah: 1-2
This is a soul that battles with its desires, that commits sin and then reproaches itself and tries harder next time. It has awareness of its shortcomings, but despite its imperfections, it hasn't given up. Your guilt and self-reproach about the shortcomings in your Islamic practice are evidence of having made progress on your spiritual journey. The bad news is though, is that Shaitaan is trying to knock you down a notch so that instead of trying harder, you just stop trying altogether- whether because you've killed yourself, or because you've decided that you're a hypocrite and you've written yourself off as ever being a “good” Muslim.
Alḥamdulillāh though, Allāh has good news for the Reproaching Soul.
“And hasten to forgiveness from your Lord and a garden as wide as the heavens and earth, prepared for the righteous- Who spend [in the cause of Allāh ] during ease and hardship and who restrain anger and who pardon the people – and Allāh loves the doers of good; And those who, when they commit an immorality or wrong themselves [by transgression], remember Allāh and seek forgiveness for their sins – and who can forgive sins except Allāh ? – and [who] do not persist in what they have done while they know.” Qur'an 3:133-135
The very fact that you are aware of your shortcomings, even pained by them- is reassuring proof that you have a Nafs al-Lawwama. If you didn't care, didn't want to care, and didn't even want to hear about why you should try to give a care- well, that would be worse. Sure, you'd probably be happier and more “at peace with your self,” as many modern proponents of self-worship would say, but you'd actually be wallowing in heedlessness.
The Highest setting: Nafs al-Mutma'inna
“O you satisfied soul. Return to your Lord pleased with yourself and pleasing to Him. Enter among My servants. And enter My paradise.” (Surah Al-Fajr: 27-30)
You might not be here yet, but that's ok. You can still strive to accomplish this. The Contented Soul, or the Satisfied Soul, is the highest setting for your heart. It is a place of happiness, peace, acceptance, and sweetness of faith. It takes hard work to get there, and Allāh has good tidings for the Contented Soul but get this- not even the Contented Soul is a perfect soul. It's just a very happy one, and very close to Allāh. I'd write more about it, but I've yet to get there myself. :)
So, in a nutshell:
- No one is perfect except Allāh, so don't hate yourself for being an imperfect Muslim.
- You're not the only one accumulating sin every day that you're alive, so don't let Shaitaan pick on you.
- The difference between a good Muslim and a bad Muslim is not that one sins and one doesn't- it's that one seeks forgiveness & tries harder, and one doesn't.
- Shaitaan's trying to trick you into thinking you're a failure so that you give up.
- Believing him is the only way to lose.
- Fighting him is the only way to win.
There's one more thing that we need to remind you of:
On no soul does Allāh place a burden greater than it can bear.
That means that whatever situation you're in -despite how hard it seem and how badly Shaitaan is trying to bring you down- you can overcome this. You can succeed. You can find a way- either out or through- that is pleasing to Allāh and perhaps even terribly frustrating to Shaitaan.
There is nothing coming that you can't handle, not because you're great, but because Allāh is the Greatest. He knows what you're capable of, and He promised your challenges would never exceed your strengths. Allāh sets us up for growth, not failure. And Allāh never, ever breaks His promises.
Shaitaan, on the other hand, has been lying to you. He's saying that anyone who's struggling with deen shouldn't even bother to try, whereas Allāh gives double the normal reward to those who have difficulty reading Qu'ran. The Prophet Muḥammad, peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him said “The magnitude of the reward goes along with the magnitude of the affliction.” (Tirmidhi)
The more you're afflicted now- whether it be with stress, illness, financial difficulties, emotional turmoil or self reproach- the more you will be rewarded when you succeed, and the fact that you're struggling right now isn't a sign that you should just give up and kill yourself, it's an invitation from Allāh to come closer to Him.
Will you accept?