“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).
The Prophet is reported to have said, “In the body there is a morsel of flesh, if it is sound, the whole body is sound. If it is corrupted, the whole body is corrupted. Indeed, it is the heart.” Spiritual purification of the self is thus 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 unavailable to many 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 we must begin with sincere repentance. The Prophet said, “When a servant commits a sin, a spot is inscribed on his heart. Should he then refrain and ask for forgiveness, it is removed. When he repeats it a larger one appears, until his heart is enveloped by it”. In a hadith qudsi, God says,”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”.
While we will continue to struggle with wrong actions, they must not be a reason for us to despair and give up on drawing closer to God. Do good works and the attachment to sins will wane with time. A specific repentance with the intention of starting on a spiritual quest will act as a starting line and will put us in the right frame of mind.
Why ask for forgiveness if we know we will commit 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 you constantly engaged in wrong actions from which you haven’t repented? What type of company do you keep; do they have concern for faith and prayer ? Is your heart regularly exposed to environments where major ills are committed (e.g. consumption of intoxicants)? Worship is a gift that can be taken away, so be careful. A scholar reported his experience stating that, “I once said something about someone I should not have said, and I was deprived of the night prayer for forty days”.
‘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.”
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. You can pick one which you like or vary between them. Other places these supplications can be found are in books like Hisn al Muslim, Adhkar Imām Nawawi and other collections.
d) Salutations (Salawat) upon the Prophet
Sending prayers on the Prophet helps us engender love for him and is key for cleansing the heart. In our daily supplications, we must include a routine of salutations (Arabic: salawat, Urdu: durood) on him. 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. Pick a salwat you like and make it a habit of repeating it. 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) Agenda To Change our Condition by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid Shakir. A short book written for Western readers in mind. It sets our practical steps one should take to achieve Taqwa (God-consciousness).
2) The Book of Assistance by Imām Al-Haddād: A must read for anyone seeking spiritual purification. The book is known for succinctness and practicality.
3) 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.
4) Purification of the Hearts by Imām Mawlud: Presented in English with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s commentary, the book outlines spiritual diseases and their remedies.
The last piece of advice is to make du‘ā’. Practical measures outlined above need to be coupled with constant prayer asking God to grant us a pure heart and help us abstain from sins. Guidance and steadfastness is a gift from God, so it must be asked for. The following is a beneficial prayer to be recited regularly:
يَا مُقَلِّب الْقُلُوب ثَبِّتْ قَلْبـِي عَلَى دِينك
“O Over-Turner of Hearts! Make firm my heart upon your religion”
Imam Nawawi’s Spiritual Bucket List
All of the above has been summarized succinctly in a paragraph by Imam Nawwawi in his Maqasid. While it appears challenging, we must have high aspirations and should 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)
[Last Updated: January 2018]