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Practical Tips for Purification of the Heart

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“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 ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) 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 ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) 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 ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), 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, alāt’l-wuū’ 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 ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) 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 ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) 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 allallāhu ‘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 ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) 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.

Reading List

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 Pathanother 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]

Waleed Ahmed writes on current affairs and politics for MuslimMatters. He focuses on Muslim minorities, human rights and the Middle-Eastern conflict. Based out of Montreal, he's currently pursuing a Ph.D. at McGill University in fundamental physics. Waleed also has a keen interest in studying Arabic and French. He spends his spare time reading, playing basketball and praying for Jon Stewart to run in the next presidential election.

22 Comments

22 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Umara Tanwer

    July 31, 2013 at 12:19 AM

    Assalaamu Alaikum. JazakAllah khair for this very beneficial post!

  2. Avatar

    amel

    July 31, 2013 at 2:52 PM

    its a really good post, giving pointers on what should be done daily, jazakAllah

  3. Avatar

    Traveller

    July 31, 2013 at 5:33 PM

    May Allah reward you in abundance brother, the links are amazing thank you.

  4. Avatar

    Hili Cliffe

    August 1, 2013 at 5:21 AM

    How sure are we that our sin is forgiven? Doesn’t it depend on Allah’s decision?

    • Avatar

      Zaheer

      August 3, 2013 at 1:09 PM

      Salaam,

      Not sure brother Waleed stated this anywhere in the article, or if you’re just asking out of interest’s sake – the answer, of course, is that Allah’s decision encompasses everything, so naturally it is His (s.w.t.) decision whether he forgives the sins of an individual, or not.

      However, this is precisely why we should make istighfaar, and then make istighfaar, and again, and again. We are never certain that Allah has forgiven us, so we constantly seek His (s.w.t.) forgiveness until He (s.w.t.) returns us to Him (s.w.t.).

      On a relevant side-note: many people get discouraged from seeking forgiveness, and from making du’a in general, because there are no “signs” that Allah has forgiven them or has answered their du’a. This is the first mistake to make because it demonstrates lack of faith – Waleed’s excellent example of the Nabi Muhammad (s.a.w.s.) making constant istighfar, even though he never committed sin and any sin he may have committed would have been instantly forgiven, is a sign for us. We have numerous sins, and no automatic protection from Allah for them, unless He (s.w.t.) wills. So, by rights, we should be making much more istighfar than our beloved Nabi (s.a.w.s)

      • Avatar

        Hili Cliffe

        August 6, 2013 at 7:24 AM

        Hello?

        May I thank for your effort to reply to my question. However, I am shocked that being a Muslim I cannot be sure that my sins are forgiven. It means that I cannot rest assured of the kingdom of Allah (s.w.t). It is thus just guess work. How will you therefore tell somebody to repent of his sin if you yourself are not sure if that person will be forgiven. It implies that if thus believing in Isa bin Marriam can bring forgiveness as christian’s Bible claim, then He is worth following.

        • Avatar

          Zaheer

          August 6, 2013 at 9:11 AM

          Hello Hilli,

          I think you may have misunderstood. Or, rather, my explanation was inadequate:-)

          What I meant was, everything is in Allah’s decree – we cannot say, “Okay, I asked for forgiveness, now Allah has forgiven me”. This doesn’t mean we should despair in Allah’s mercy, never ask for forgiveness, and na’uthibllah, start worshipping Isa (a.s) and asking him for forgiveness.

          What it does mean, is that we should never feel secure that our sins are forgiven, and that we can “rest” and not increase our good deeds, spiritual levels, and du’a.

          So, while no one can guarantee that their, or anyone else’s sin has been forgiven, the Qur’an and Sunnah has taught us that Allah’s mercy is vast, and that so long as we make sincere repentance, there is the possibility of Allah forgiving it. And all sins, besides ascribing partners to Him (s.w.t.), can be forgiven even after we die, if He (s.w.t.) so wills.

          The important thing is that we don’t despair when committing sin, but feel regret, make repentance, and move on (i.e. don’t dwell on the sin and whether Allah has forgiven it or not). Assume the best of your Lord, as our Nabi (s.a.w.s.) has said, but fear His (s.w.t.) punishment as well. In this way, the balance between hope in His (s.w.t.) mercy and fear of His (s.w.t.) punishment can be achieved. The vehicle? Du’a:-)

          Hope this explains what I meant.

    • Avatar

      abdirahman

      December 25, 2014 at 8:53 AM

      The real diseases are sins and one must repent from them all the time. We can never be sure if Allah accepted our repentence. However a sign that shows your prayers has been accepted is that you stop commiting those sins.

    • Avatar

      nb

      March 13, 2016 at 1:50 AM

      Part of repentance is having faith in Allah’s promise that he WILL forgive you. Yes we don’t know until day of Judgment if its accepted but we BELIEVE it is, Allah is what you think of Him so have the BEST opinion of Him. You will always commit sin that’s why we always turn back to Allah not because we are hung up on the past. Also, taubah means turning back, not seeking forgiveness,Our Nabi S.A.W would “turn back” to Allah i.e remember Him after being occupied with worldly work, which is normal and we all need to keep remembering Allah. Allahu Alim

    • Avatar

      Hassan

      May 25, 2016 at 6:57 PM

      Well it surely depends upon the decision of ALLAH but if you are repenting with true heart and pure intention you’ll have a satisfaction. This is the indication that ALLAH has forgiven you. I hope it answered your question.

    • Avatar

      Fatima Irene

      August 4, 2016 at 7:52 AM

      assalamu alaikum. When you cannot do that sin again, it only means that Allah s.w.t. has already forgiven you. Of course don’t forget to ask for His forgiveness first. There is always forgiveness from Allah s.w.t. whenever you ask for it, because that is who Allah s.w.t. is! The Most Forgiving. :)

  5. Avatar

    Guest

    August 2, 2013 at 12:02 PM

    thank you! much needed now that ramadan is ending

  6. Pingback: The TMI Hijabi |

  7. Avatar

    Kimberly Kate

    October 9, 2014 at 10:05 AM

    Assalaamu’alaykum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakaatuhu. JazakAllahu Khayran.

  8. Avatar

    Ahmed Siddiqui

    March 5, 2015 at 11:38 AM

    Alham-du-Lillah. There is nothing wrong with this article. In my opinion the remedy for the purification of heart is very basic . Every individual that comes to the Masjid follow these rituals regularly without any doubt. This topic is a real heavy duty topic and it requires tremendous research and explanation. There is a difference in over the counter medications and prescribed medications, both of them have healing power and effectiveness except that later one is superior to the earlier one. May Allah guide us all. My comments are not intended to hurt any body’s felling’s except that I am still thirsty.

  9. Avatar

    addina

    March 22, 2015 at 1:34 PM

    Thank you for sharing this article. May Allah keep firm our hearts in this religion.

  10. Avatar

    Kutub

    August 13, 2015 at 10:12 AM

    Jaza kallah for the post .indeed good advice for spiritual enhancement.

  11. Avatar

    khalidoon

    July 1, 2016 at 8:53 AM

    Jazakkallahu khair. MashaaAllah this is really a great help to those who are in need of such advices like me. But may i ask, how may i be sincere then if being aware that i am sincere means i am not sincere? I hope you help me be enlighten in this matter sukran

    • Avatar

      Waleed Ahmed

      July 1, 2016 at 5:17 PM

      waiiyak. we can’t know if we’re sincere and whether an act we did was in fact accepted by God. we have to constantly check our intentions and keep renewing it while we do our acts..its a constant struggle

  12. Avatar

    Sana

    July 2, 2016 at 4:29 PM

    Very beneficial article,very helpful and enriching,may Allah bless u and all of us aameen

  13. Avatar

    Adam

    July 28, 2016 at 1:03 PM

    Allah says that he forgives sins times in the Qur’an. All u have to do is worship none but Him. Follow the way of Muhammad peace be upon him. And the messenger said to follow up an evil deed with a good deed and the latter will wipe out the former. Meaning if u fall into a sin then do something of good ie charity, be dutiful to parents, help someone in need, help an orphan etc. Lots good we can do if we think. Read the Qur’an if u are unsure about things. It was sent as a book of guidance after all. Allah protect this deen and Bestow ur mercy on the believers. Ameen.

  14. Avatar

    A sinner

    November 8, 2016 at 8:27 AM

    Allahumma innaka ‘afuwwun, tuhibbul-‘afwa, fa’fu ‘anni
    (O Allah, You are Most Forgiving, and You love forgiveness; so forgive me).” :'( :'(

    brothers and sisters plz keep me in your prayer.

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#Islam

The Day I Die | Imam Omar Suleiman

Imam Omar Suleiman

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Janazah, funeral, legacy, Omar Suleiman, Edhi

Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (may Allah be pleased with him) in the midst of the torture he endured at the hands of his oppressors used to say: baynana wa baynahum aljanaa’iz, which means, “the difference between us and them will show in our funerals.” The man who instigated the ideological deviation that led to his torture was an appointed judge named Ahmad Ibn Abi Du’ad. At the moment of Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal making those remarks, it appeared Imam Ahmad would die disgraced in a dungeon but Ahmad Ibn Abi Du’ad would have a state funeral with thousands of mourners. Instead, Imam Ahmad persevered through his struggle, was embraced by the people, and honored by Allah with the biggest Janazah ever known to the Arabs with millions of people pouring in from all over. Ahmad Ibn Abu Du’ad was cast aside and buried without anyone attending his janazah out of revulsion.

Now sometimes righteous people do die in isolation, and wicked people are given grand exits. There are people like Uthman Ibn Affan (may Allah be pleased with him) who was murdered by the people of fitnah, then buried at night far away from the people out of fear of the large numbers that would’ve poured out to his janazah and potentially mobilized against his oppressors. But it may be that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)  inspired Imam Ahmad with the vision to see his victory in this life before the next. To elaborate a bit on his statement though, allow me to reflect:

A wise man once said to me,

“Always put your funeral in front of you, and work backwards in constructing your life accordingly.” 

With the deaths of righteous people, that advice always advances to the front of my thoughts. When a person passes away, typically only good things will be said of them. But it’s important to pay attention to 2 aspects about those good things being said:

1. Is there congruence in the particular good quality being attested to about the deceased.

2. Are those good qualities being attested to actually truly of the deceased. 

The first one deals with consistency of character, the second one with sincerity of intention which is only known by the Creator and His servant. In regards to the first one, take our sister Hodan Nalayeh (may Allah have mercy on her) who was murdered tragically last week in a terrorist attack in Somalia. Everyone that spoke of her said practically the same thing about how she interacted with them and/or benefitted them. There is complete harmony with all of the testimonies about her. And in that case we all become the witnesses of our sister on the day of judgment, testifying to her good character.

For many that pass away, neither the deceased nor the community fully appreciates the way they benefitted others until that day. It was narrated that when Zainul Abideen Ali Ibn Al Husayn (may Allah be pleased with them), the great grandson of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) passed away, he had marks on his shoulders from the bags he used to carry to the doorsteps of the poor at night when no one else was watching. The narrations state that the people of Madinah used to live off his charity not knowing the source of it until his death.

How many people will miss you when you die because of the joy you brought to their lives? How many of those that you comforted when they were abandoned by others? That you spent on when they were deprived by others? That you advocated for when they were oppressed by others? 

Will your family miss you because of an empty bed in the home or a deep void in their hearts? Will it be the loss of your spending only that grieves them, or the loss of your smile? Will it be the loss of the stability you provided them only, or the loss of your service and sacrifices for them?

But Zainul Abideen didn’t care for the recipients of his charity to know that he was the source of it, because He was fully in tune with it’s true Divine source. He didn’t want to be thanked in this world, but in the next. He didn’t want the eulogy, he wanted Eternity. 

He understood that if you become distracted by the allure of this world, you may merely become of it. Focus on bettering the future which you cannot escape, rather than the present that you cannot dictate. Focus on the interview with the One who needs no resume, rather than the judgments of those who are just as disposable as you. 

اللَّهُمَّ اجْعَلْ خَيْرَ زَمَانِيْ آخِرَهُ، وَخَيْرَ عَمَلِيْ خَوَاتِمَهُ، وَخَيْرَ أَيَّامِيْ يِوْمَ أَلقَاكَ

“O Allah, let the best of my lifetime be its ending, and my best deed be that which I seal [my life with], and the best of my days the day I meet You.”

Which brings us to the second aspect of your funeral, the sincerity of the good you’re being praised for. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “increase your remembrance of the destroyer of pleasures.” Death only destroys the temporary pleasures of this world, not the pleasure of the Most Merciful in the next. Keeping that in perspective will help you work towards that without being distracted. If it is the praise of the people you seek, that is as temporary as the world that occupies both your worldly vehicle ie. your body, and your companions in this world who shall perish soon after you.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) mentioned the one who passes away with the people lavishing praise on him that he is unworthy of. In a narration in Al Tirmidhi, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “No one dies and they stand over him crying and saying: ‘Oh what a great man he was! Oh how honored he was!’ except that two angels are appointed for him to poke him and say: Is that really you?”

But if it is Allah’s praise that you sought all along, the deeds that you put forth shall await you in your grave in the form of heavenly ornaments. Those that were known to the community, those that were known to only a select few, and those that were known by no one but Allah and you.

May Allah give us all a good ending, and an even better eternity.

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#Islam

The Spirituality Of Gratitude

Shaykh Tarik Ata

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Gratitude

The Quran tells the reader of the importance of gratitude in two ways. First, worship, which is the essence of the relationship between man and the Creator, is conditional to gratitude “and be grateful to Allah if it is [indeed] Him that you worship” (2:172). The verse suggests that in order for an individual to truly worship Allah then they must express gratitude to Allah and that an ungrateful individual cannot be a worshiper of Allah. The second verse states the following “And be grateful to Me and do not deny Me” (2:152). The Arabic word used, translated here as ‘deny,’ is kufr which linguistically means to cover up. The word was adopted by the Quran to refer to someone who rejects Allah after learning of Him. Both the linguistic and Quranic definitions are possibly meant in this verse and both arrive at the same conclusion. That is, the absence of gratitude is an indicator of one’s rejection of Allah; the question is how and why?

What Does Shukr Mean?

Understanding a Quranic concept begins with understanding the word chosen by the Quran. The word shukr is used throughout the Quran and is commonly translated as gratitude. From a purely linguistic definition, shukr is “the effect food has on the body of an animal” (Ibn Qayyim v. 2 p. 200). What is meant here is that when an animal eats food it becomes heavier which has a clear and visible effect on the animal. Therefore, shukr is the manifestation of a blessing or blessings on the entirety of a person. From here, spiritualists understood the goal of shukr and added an extra element to the definition and that is the acknowledgment that those blessings are from Allah. Thus, the definition of shukr as an Islamic spiritual concept is “the manifestation of Allah’s blessings verbally through praise and acknowledgment; emotionally on the heart through witnessing the blessings and loving Allah; and physically through submission and servitude” (Ibid).

Based on this definition, the goal of shukr can be broken into five categories. First, gratitude that brings about the submission of the individual to his benefactor. In order for an act to be worthy of gratitude, the beneficiary must conclude that the benefactor’s action was done for the sake of the beneficiary – thus making the benefactor benevolent. In other words, the benefactor is not benefiting in the least (Emmons et al 2004 p. 62). When the individual recognizes his benefactor, Allah, as being completely independent of the individual and perfect in of himself, one concludes that the actions of the benefactor are purely in the best interest of the beneficiary resulting in the building of trust in Allah. The Quran utilizes this point multiple times explicitly stating that Allah has nothing to gain from the creations servitude nor does he lose anything from because of their disobedience (Q 2:255, 4:133, 35:15, 47:38). Through shukr, a person’s spirituality increases by recognizing Allah’s perfection and their own imperfection thus building the feeling of need for Allah and trust in him (Emmons et al 2002 p. 463).

Gratitude in Knowing That Allah Loves Us

The second category is love for the benefactor. Similar to the previous category, by identifying the motive of the benefactor one can better appreciate their favors. “Gratitude is fundamentally a moral affect with empathy at its foundation: In order to acknowledge the cost of the gift, the recipient must identity with the psychological state of the one who has provided it” (Emmons 2002 p. 461).[1] That is, by recognizing Allah’s perfection one concludes that his blessings are entirely in the best interest of the beneficiary despite not bringing any return to Him. Thus, the Quran utilizes this concept repeatedly and to list a few, the Quran reminds the human reader that he created the human species directly with his two hands (38:75), he created them in the best physical and mental form (95:4), gave him nobility (17:70), commanded the angels to prostrate to him out of reverence (38:72-3), made him unique by giving him knowledge and language (2:31), exiled Satan who refused to revere him (7:13), allowed him into Paradise (7:19), forgave his mistake (2:37), designated angels to protect each individual (13:11) and supplicate Allah to forgive the believers (40:7-9), created an entire world that caters to his needs (2:29), among plenty of other blessings which express Allah’s love, care, and compassion of the human.

The remaining three categories revolve around the individual acting upon their gratitude by acknowledging them, praising Allah for them and using them in a manner acceptable to Allah. In order for gratitude to play a role in spirituality the blessings one enjoys must be utilized in a manner that connects them with Allah. Initially, one must acknowledge that all blessings are from him thus establishing a connection between the self and Allah. This is then elevated to where the individual views these blessings as more than inanimate objects but entities that serve a purpose. By doing this one begins to see and appreciate the wisdoms behind these created entities enlightening the individual to the Creators abilities and qualities. Finally, after recognizing the general and specific wisdoms behind each creation, one feels a greater sense of purpose, responsibility, and loyalty. That is, engaging the previous five categories establishes love for the benefactor (Ibn Qayyim v. 2 p. 203). Observing the care and compassion of the benefactor for his creation establishes the feeling of loyalty towards the one who has cared for us as well as responsibility since He created everything with purpose.

Blessings Even in Hardship

One may interject by referring to the many individuals and societies that are plagued with hardships and do not have blessings to appreciate. No doubt this is a reality and the Quran address this indirectly. Upon analysis, one finds that the blessings which the Quran references and encourages the reader to appreciate are not wealth or health; rather, it is the sun, the moon, trees, and the natural world in general. Perhaps the reason for this is what shukr seeks to drive us towards. There are two things all these objects have in common (1) they are gifts given by Allah to all humans and all individuals enjoy them and (2) humans are dependent upon them. Everyone has access to the sun, no one can take it away, and we are critically dependent upon it. When the Quran draws our attention to these blessings, the reader should begin to appreciate the natural world at a different level and Surah an Nahl does precisely that. This chapter was likely revealed during the time of hijrah (immigration); a time when the companions lost everything – their homes, wealth, and tribes. The chapter works to counsel them by teaching them that the true blessings a person enjoys is all around them and no matter how much was taken from them, no one can take away the greater blessings of Allah.

In sum, these verses bring light to the crucial role shukr plays in faith. It serves as a means to better know Allah which can be achieved through a series of phases. First, the individual must search for the blessings which then leads to a shift in perspective from focusing on the wants to focusing on what is available. This leads to greater appreciation and recognition of the positives in one’s life allowing the person more optimism. Second, the person must link those blessings to the benefactor – Allah – which reveals many elements of who He is and His concern for His creation. Once this is internalized in the person’s hearts, its benefits begin to manifest itself on the person’s heart, mind, and body; it manifests itself in the form of love for Allah and submission to him. Shukr ultimately reveals the extent of Allah’s love and concern for the individual which therein strengthens the trust and love of the individual for Allah and ultimately their submission to Him.

Allah knows best.

Emmons, Robert A., and Charles M. Shelton. “Gratitude and the science of positive psychology.” Handbook of positive psychology 18 (2002): 459-471.

Emmons, Robert A., and Michael E. McCullough, eds. The psychology of gratitude. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Jawziyyah, Ibn Qayyim. madārij al-sālikīn bayn manāzil iyyāka naʿbud wa iyyāka nastaʿīn مدارج السالكين بين منازل إياك نعبد وإياك نستعين [The Levels of Spirituality between the Dynamics of “It is You Alone we Worship and it is You Alone we Seek Help From]. Cario: Hadith Publications, 2005.

[1] Islamically speaking, it is not befitting to claim that Allah has a psyche or that he can be analyzed psychologically.

Download a longer version of this article here: The Sprituality of Gratitude

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When Faith Hurts: Do Good Deeds = Good Life?

Loving Allah and trusting the Wisdom and Purpose in everything He throws your way- even if it hurts. It is a time to learn.

Zeba Khan

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hurts, hardship. Allah, test, why Allah is testing me

The Messenger of Allahṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said that the faith in our hearts wears out the way our clothes wear out. Deterioration, maintenance, and renewal are part of the cycle.  That’s life with all that hurts. That’s normal.

But what happens when that’s life, but life is not your normal? What happens when it feels like life isn’t normal, hasn’t been normal, and won’t be normal for a foreseeably long time?  For some of us, refreshing faith becomes secondary to just keeping it.

It’s easier to say Alhamdulillah when you are happy. It’s harder when you’re not. That’s human nature though. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there is something wrong with what we teach about faith that can leave us unprepared for when Allah tests it. I believe that our discussions about faith tend to be overly simplistic. They revolve around a few basic concepts, and are more or less summed up with:

Faith = Happiness

Righteousness = Ease

Prayer = Problem Solved

Good Deeds Equals Good Life?

Basically, the TLDR is Good Deeds = The Good Life. None of these statements are technically untrue. The sweetness of faith is a joy that is beyond any other gratitude, for any other thing in this world. Righteousness in the sight of Allah will put you on the path to the good life in the afterlife. Making dua can be the solution to your problems. But when we say these things to people who have true faith but not happiness, or righteous behavior yet distressing hardship, we’re kind of implying that that either Islam is broken (because their prayers seem unanswered), or they are broken (because their prayers are undeserving of answers.) And neither of those is true either.

Allow me to elaborate. I think it’s safe to say that there is not a single parent who has not begged Allah to make their sick or disabled child well again. Yet, our Ummah still has sick and disabled children. Through history, people have begged Allah for a loved one’s life, and then buried them – so is prayer not equal to problem solved?

Many righteous people stand up, and are then ostracized for their faith. Many people speak truth in the face of a tyrant only to be punished for it. Many of us live with complete conviction, with unshakeable belief in the existence and wisdom and mercy of Allah, and still find ourselves unhappy and afraid of what He has willed for us.

Are We Broken?

No, but our spiritual education is. In order to fix it, we have to be upfront with each other. We have to admit that we can be happy with Allah and still find ourselves devastated by the tests He puts before us, because faith is not a protection from struggle.

Has anyone ever said this to you? Have you ever said this to anyone else?

No one ever told me. It was hard for me to learn that lesson on my own, when I pleaded with Allah to make my son’s autism go away, and it didn’t. Everyone told me –Make dua! The prayer of a mother for her child is special! Allah will never turn you down!

It was hard trying to make sense of what seemed like conflicting messages- that Allah knows best, but a mother’s prayer is always answered. It was even harder facing people who tried to reassure me of that, even when it obviously wasn’t working.

“Just make dua! Allah will respond!”

I’m sure people mean well. But it’s hard not to be offended. Either they assume I have never bothered to pray for my son, or they imply that there must be good reason why Allah’s not granting to my prayers. What they don’t consider is that allowing my test to persist – even if I don’t want it to- is also a valid response from Allah.

I have been told to think back in my life, and try to determine what sin caused my child’s disability, as if the only reason why Allah wouldn’t give me what I asked for was because I was so bad I didn’t deserve it. As if good deeds equaled the good life, and if my life wasn’t good, it’s because I hadn’t been good either.

Bad Things Happen to Good People

You can assume whatever you like about my character, but bad things do happen to good people, even when they pray. You can try your hardest and still fall short. You can pray your whole life for something that will never come to you. And strength of faith in that circumstance doesn’t mean living in a state of unfulfilled hope, it means accepting the wisdom in the test that Allah has decreed for you.

That’s a bit uncomfortable, isn’t it.  When we talk about prayer and hope, we prefer to talk about Zakariyyah 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) – who begged Allah for a child and was gifted with one long after anyone thought it even possible. But we also need to talk about Abu Talib.

The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was raised by his uncle Abu Talib, and in his mission to preach Islam he was protected by Abu Talib.  But Abu Talib died without accepting Islam, was there something wrong with the Prophet, that Allah did not give him what he asked for? Was he not good enough? Did he not pray hard enough? Astaghfirullah, no. So if Prophets of God can ask for things and still not get them, why are we assuming otherwise for ourselves?

Making a Bargain with Allah

If we can understand that faith is not a contract for which we trade prayers for services, then maybe we can cope better when fate cannot be bargained with. Maybe it won’t have to hurt so bad – on spiritual level – when Allah withholds what we ask for, even when we asked for the “right” things in the right way and at all the right times.

Life is not simple. Faith is not simple. The will of Allah is not simple, no matter how much we want it to be, and when oversimplify it, we create a Muslim version of Prosperity Gospel without meaning to.

If you’ve never heard of it, prosperity gospel is a religious belief among some Christians that health and wealth and success are the will of God, and therefore faith, good deeds and charity increase one’s wellbeing. Have faith, and God will reward you in this life and the next. That’s nice. But it’s too simple. Because the belief that Good Deeds = The Good Life doesn’t explain how Ibraheem 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him)’s father tried to have him burnt alive.

Yusuf 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him)’s brothers left him for dead in the bottom of a well. He grew up a slave and spent years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Aasiya 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) – the wife of the Pharoah – one of the four best women in the history of womankind – died from her husband’s torture.

Good people are not guaranteed good lives. Islam is what we need, not a system of practices that we use to fulfill our needs.

When we limit our understanding of faith to a simplistic, almost contractual relationship with Allah, then we can’t even explain the things that Allah Tested His own prophets with.

Nor can we understand, or even begin to cope with- what He Tests the rest of us with either. We have to be real in our talk about faith, because otherwise we set each other up for unrealistic expectations and lack of preparation for when we face hardship. Faith is not protection from hardship. Faith is part of hardship. And hardship is part of faith.

Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) asks us in the opening of Surah ‘Ankabut,

Do people think once they say, “We believe,” that they will be left without being put to the test? We certainly tested those before them. And ˹in this way˺ Allah will clearly distinguish between those who are truthful and those who are liars.

Allah says in Surah Baqarah, ayah 155: “And most certainly shall We try you by means of danger, and hunger, and loss of worldly goods, of lives and of the fruits of your labor. But give glad tidings to those who are patient in adversity.

tests, hurts, faith , hardship

Allah Tests Everyone Differently

Allah tests each of us differently, but in every single case – every single time – a test is an invitation to success. Hardship is the process through which we prove ourselves. Experiencing it– and then drawing closer to Allah through it –is how faith is tested as well as strengthened.

If we can change how we perceive hardship, then we can also change how we perceive each other. On our cultural subconscious, we still see worldly failure as being equivalent to spiritual failure. So when we see people who are homeless, we assume fault. When we see people facing depression or divorce, we assume fault. We even look at refugees and victims and special needs children and we look for fault. Because if it’s that bad then it’s has to be someone’s fault, right?

Fault is how we place blame. Blame is how we know whose mistake it is. But the will of Allah is never a mistake, it’s a test.  Instead of faulting each other for what Allah tests us with, we could respect each other for the struggles we all endure. We could see each other with more compassion for our challenges, and less aversion when Allah tests us with dealing each other.

So when you’ve done things the right way, but the right things aren’t happening. Or you’ve been charitable to others, and they’re being evil towards you. Or you’ve earned only halal, but haram- it’s been taken away from you, remember this- your faith is being tested. Allah tests those that He loves. When He raises the difficulty level, Allah is extending a direct invitation for you to climb higher.

So How Do We Succeed When Faced With Failure?

The first thing to do is redefine failure. There is only one true failure in this life, and that is dying on the wrong side of Siraat ul Mustaqeem, because if close your eyes and wake up in Jahannam, no success in this life can compensate for that.

I find that helpful to remember, when I fail to stay fit because I can’t exercise without hurting myself, when I fail to fast in Ramadan because it’s dangerous for me to do so- when I fail to discover a cure for my family’s personal assortment of medical issues through rigorous internet “research,” none of that is my failure either. And I can feel a lot of different ways about these situations, but I do not feel guilty- because it’s not my fault. And I do not feel bitter, because my test is my honor. Even when I do feel scared.

Being scared in not a failure either. Neither is being unemployed. Being unmarried is not a failure. Being childless is not a failure. Being divorced is not a failure. Nothing unpleasant or miserable or unexpected is a failure. It’s all just a test, and seeing it as a test means you have the state of mind to look for the correct answers.

Not even sin is failure, because as long as you are alive, your sin stands as an invitation to forgiveness. The bigger the sin, the greater the blessings of repenting from it.  Everything that goes bad is the opening of the door for good. A major sin can be the first step on a journey that starts with repentance and moves you closer to Allah every day thereafter. Sin only becomes failure when it takes you farther away from Allah, rather than closer to him.

Jahannam is the Only Failure

Addiction is not a failure. Depression is not a failure. Poverty is not a failure. Jahannam is the only failure. Everything else is a gap in expectations.

You assumed you would have something, but it’s not written for you. You assumed you’d ask Allah for something and He’d give it to you, but what is that assumption based on again? That good deeds are the guarantee to the good life, and that prayer equals problem solved?

Allah has all the knowledge, Allah has the wisdom, Allah is the best of Planners – how are you assuming that your wishes supersede His will? Even when you put your wishes in the form of a prayer?

They don’t. It is absolutely true that Allah may choose to rewrite Qadr itself based on your prayers – but that’s still His choice. Allah has always, and will always be in control of this world. And that means your world too. If you still think you’re in control, you will find it really, really hard to cope the first time you realize you’re not.

When we understand that we don’t get to control what happens and what doesn’t, we can then release ourselves from the misplaced guilt of things going wrong.  Lots of special needs parents struggle with guilt. I meet them often – and every single parent has asked the question- directly or indirectly-

What did I do for my child to deserve this?

Can you hear the presumption in there? That the parents were good, so why did something bad happen? They were expecting for good deeds to equal the good life.

There’s a second presumption in there too, that their life choices were a determining factor of what happened to their child. That is a presumption of control. And as long as you try to hold on to that presumption of control, there is the constant feeling of failure when it just doesn’t work the way you think it will.

I am not proposing that we lose hope in Allah and despair of His Mercy. I am in no way insinuating that Allah doesn’t hear every prayer, hasn’t counted every tear, and isn’t intimately aware of your pain and your challenges. Allah hears your prayers, and in His wisdom, sometimes he grants us exactly what we want. In His Wisdom, sometimes he grants us exactly what we need.

Even if we don’t see it.

Even if it scares us.

Even if it hurts us – because Allah has promised that He will never, ever break us.

hurts, hardship, special needs

Allah Tests Us in His Mercy

I am proposing that we put trust in the wisdom of Allah, and understand that when He tests us, that is part of his mercy, not a deviation from it. When He grants something to us, that is part of His mercy, and when he withholds something from us, that too is part of His Mercy, even if we don’t like it. Even when we ask Him to take it away.

The third thing I would like to propose, is that we correct our understanding of – Fa Inna Ma’Al usri yusraa, Inna Ma’al usri yusra.

So verily, definitely, for sure- with hardship there is ease. Again, Inna – for sure, with hardship there is ease.

I’m sure lots of you have said this to people you loved, or to yourself when you’re struggling with something and you’re just trying to get through it. But did you mean that this hardship will end, and then things will be good again? Like as soon as things have been hard for a while, Allah will make them easy again?

Would you believe that’s not really what that means? Ma’a means with, not after. With this hardship, there is ease. And maybe you’re like aww man, but I wanted the ease! I want the hardship to go away and Allah I’m ready for my ease now!

But that hardship, will bring you ease. Allah does not tell us what the ease will be, or when it will be- but He says it’s there, so trust Him. Even if you can’t see it right away, or in this life –it will become apparent.

I can tell you some of the ease I found with mine.

Learning When It Hurts

When my son was diagnosed with autism, my husband and I had to drop everything. We dropped our plans to save, to travel, and to live the charmed life of neurotypical parents whose only fears are that their children may grow up and NOT become Muslim doctors. We spent our earnings and our savings and our time and our nights and our tears and Alhamdulillah, we learned patience. We learned perspective. We learned compassion.

We really learned what we thought we already knew – about unconditional love and acceptance. We learned to be bigger than our fears, and smaller than our own egos. We learned to give and take help. We learn to accept what wisdom our cultures could offer us, and respectfully decline what did not. We learn to set boundaries and make rules that did justice by our children and our family, regardless of whether they were popular. With hardship comes ease.

When we couldn’t afford therapy for my son, my husband and I founded a not for profit organization in the UAE that provided it for my son and dozens of other people’s sons and daughters. Three and a half years ago I left that organization to seek better educational opportunities for my son here in the US, but it’s still running. The seed that our challenges planted has grown into something beyond us. With our hardship came ease for ourselves and others as well.

When I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, my health issues were upgraded from challenging to permanent. I had to rethink how I lived, how I planned, how I dressed, and even – my relationship with Allah. But if I had never been sick, I would never have started writing. When it hurt, I wrote. When I was scared, I wrote. When I was lonely, I wrote. And by and by the grindstone of fear and sickness and frustration sharpened my skills. Where I am today both spiritually and professionally – is actually a direct result of both autism and chronic illness. With hardship comes ease.

I don’t like my hardships, but I don’t have to. You don’t have to either. Being a good Muslim doesn’t always mean being a happy Muslim. It just means being Muslim, no matter the circumstances.

That means loving Allah and trusting the Wisdom and Purpose in everything He throws your way – even if not loving everything He throws your way. You may hate your circumstances, and you may not be able to do anything about them, but as long as you trust Allah and use your hardships to come closer to him, you cannot fail, even if this life, you feel as if you never really succeeded.

hurts, depression, faith , hardship

Faith Wears Out In Our hearts, The Way Our Cothes Wear Out on Our Bodies

The hardship that damages and stains us is Allah’s invitation to repair, renew, and refresh ourselves. Our test are an invitation, an opportunity, an obstacle – but not a punishment or divine cruelty. And when we know that those tests will come, and some may even stay, then we can be better prepared for it.

Trust Allah when He says that He does not burden any soul with more than it can bear. He told us so in Surah Baqarah Ayah 286. Remember that when you are afraid, and Allah will never cause your fear to destroy you. Take your fear to Allah, and He will strengthen you, and reward you for your bravery.

Remember that when you are in pain. Allah will never cause your pain to destroy you. Take your pain to Him, and He will soothe you and reward you for your patience. Take it all to Allah – the loneliness, the anxiety, the confusion. Do not assume that the only emotions a “good Muslim” takes to Allah are gratitude and happiness and awe. Take them all to Allah, uncertainty, disappointment, anger — and He will bless you in all of those states, and guide you to what is better for you in this life, and the next, even if it’s not what you expected.

The struggles in your life are a test, and whether you pass or fail is not determined on whether you conquer them, only on whether you endure them. Expect that they will come, because having faith is not protection from struggle. Faith is protection from being broken by the struggle.

I ask Allah to protect us all from hardship, but protect us in our hardships as well. I ask Allah to grant us peace from His peace, and strength from His strength, to patiently endure and grow through our endurance.

Ameen.

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