A toxic mixture of 21st century work practices, addictive social media apps, and “always on” Internet connected devices is depriving many of us the focused attention needed for the spiritual experience that is endemic to traditional Islam.
In addition, many seekers of spirituality have been skeptical about mysticism out of a fear of falling into deviant practices or be stamped with labels like Sufi that have taken totally different meanings recently.
Being Muslim these days appears being relegated to a series of do’s and dont’s, “checking the box” on prayer, fasting, taraweeh, etc., and stripping the spirituality away from the acts of Shariah.
In the post-truth “Google it” world, it is hard to discern fact from fiction, leaving an attention-deprived professional very few effective means to find the right way. With more information easily accessible, paradoxically, knowledge has become harder to get. It may be more effective for Muslims to seek guidance from the learned masters of Islamic knowledge or verify online sources of information with them.
I had an opportunity to go over the teachings of orthodox Islamic mysticism with Shaykh Abu Ibrahim John Starling, the Imam of our local mosque in New Jersey, USA. The Imam went over the translation of the book ‘The Exquisite Pearl’ or Al-durut ul Fakhirah (درةالفاخرة) written by Shaykh Abdul Rahman Saadi (d. 1956 C.E.).
The book takes lessons from Madarijil Salikeen (مدارج السالكين) or ‘The Steps of the Seekers’ written by Imam Ibn al Qayyim al Jawziyyah (d. 1350 C.E.), which in turn is based on the book Manazilil Saaireen (منازل سايرين) or ‘The Stations of the Wayfarer’ written by Shaykh-ul-Islam Abdullah Harawi Ansari (d. 1088 C.E.).
Ibn al Qayyim in his Madarijil simply elucidated Shaykh Harawi Ansari’s more mystified ideas or clarified things that would have been confusing for an elementary reader. Shaykh Harawi was from Hirat, Afghanistan, did a tafseer of Quran in Persian, and was given the title of Shaykhul Islam before Ibni Tayyimiyah was given this title.
The subject of these writings is the purification of the heart from lowly things.
The practice of suluk (سلوك) is to aspire to get closer to God and seek spiritual sustenance through inner struggle or mujahadah.
One of the fruits of a sound aspiration is that of being granted inner peace.
Ibn al Qayyim identified four barriers to this struggle:
Nafs, the lustful ‘self’.
Hawa, the desire.
Shaytan, the Devil.
Dunya, attachment to worldly things.
The most obligatory struggle is the one against these four barriers to get closer to God.
Shaykh Abdul Rahman Saadi’s Al-durut ul Fakhirah, translated to English in 2002, is a poem that covers 17 stations or maqamat (مقامات) of a spiritual journey as a primer to the subject of suluk.
The book elucidates the main stations (maqamat or manāzil) that the heart is required to reach as part of its journeying to God or Daar al Salam (دارالسلام). Each station or maqam is a praiseworthy quality that the heart succeeds in firmly rooting itself in. If the praiseworthy quality (like sincerity, love, hope…) wavers and has not settled in, the heart is said to be in a state (hāl) and not at a station (maqām).
On the journey towards ‘Dar al Salam,’ the first station is that of YAQAZ (یقظ۔) or ‘awakening.’ There are three ways to reach this maqam (to create this praiseworthy quality of awakening in the heart):
Acknowledge the blessings and the grace of God,
Understand the dangers of sin or transgression
Be in tune with the increase and decrease.
While we acknowledge the blessings bestowed on us, we are helpless in identifying them all due to their extensive nature. We realize how sin can obliterate our awakening to these blessings. It is in His infinite wisdom to increase or decrease the blessings bestowed on us.
The second station is that of AZAM (عزم) or ‘iradah or aspiration.’ One needs to have an aspiration that is not just a yearning but a desire coupled with action. The character, or Khuluq, in Arabic comes from the word Khalaq, which means that you attain the qualities of character by doing things so much that they become as if you were born or created with them.
The third station is that of IKHLAAS (اخلاص) or ‘sincerity.’
It has many levels. First, one should avoid being a show-off (avoid riya), second do the pious action without a desire to be compensated, third to do it not to feel proud but for the love of God, the fourth, to do it in accordance with legal religious way, and the fifth to be bashful about the good act as if one didn’t do it.
The fourth station is that of balance between KHOUF WA RAJA (خوف و رجا) or fear and hope.
If you do something good, fear that it may not be accepted but hope that you will get the jaza. If you do something bad, fear that you may be punished but hope that you will be forgiven. Fear your actions and hope for the mercy of God.
A wayfarer is like a bird whose head is love and its two wings are fear and hope. The love directs the wayfarer to the ‘Daar al Salam’ of God and the two wings make the flight possible. Without the head (love), the bird is dead and lost. If one of the wings isn’t there, the bird becomes an easy prey for the predator.
The fifth station is that of ALMAHABAH (المحبة) or ‘love.’
The object of the love is the Creator and one needs to love God willingly and eagerly. Everything one does should be to please the Creator and not something that earns His displeasure.
There are ten practical ways to increase love for God:
Recite Quran and ponder on its meaning
Do voluntary deeds after completing obligatory deeds
Remember God with tongue, heart, and actions,
Give precedence to what He loves over what you love when overtaken by desires
Familiarize the heart with God’s names and attributes
Observe God’s goodness, kindness, and bounties, both public and hidden
Have Inkisarul Qalb, or softening of the heart and let go of the ego
Get up for Tahajjud, the prayer in the last third of the night
Sit in the company of those who love God
Remain away from every cause that comes between the heart and Allah
Love is the basis of everything we do and is the essence of ibadah or worship. The stronger the love, the stronger the worship.
The sixth station is that of ZIKR (ذكر) or ‘remembrance.’ The more one remembers God, the more one will have love for Him and vice versa. One can find easy ways to do Zikr throughout the day, like remembering duas to make after waking up, or while going to the bathroom, or to begin eating.
The seventh station of QARB UL ALLAH (قرب اللَّه ) or ‘getting nearer to God’ is reached when one does voluntary acts of worship after building a foundation of doing obligatory acts that cannot be abandoned. For example, one needs to show more eagerness for asr prayer than for taraweeh.
There is a Hadith Qudsi that says when the human being (abd or servant) gets closer to God, He becomes his eyes, ears, hands, and feet. Incidentally, these are the things that are used by a human being to sin and in our ceremonial cleansing or wudu, these are the things that are washed even though there may not be any dirt on them. It is as if you wash your sins and if someone’s wudu is good, his prayer will be good.
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The eighth station is that of SELF INSPECTION. If one acts with ujab (عجب) or ego, then one doesn’t reach this station. Even if one is an Aa’rif (one who has known and understood the ultimate truth), it is for them to continue to introspect in order to identify how to excel and become better. One should not become conceited or think that one has done something extraordinary, even if they are advanced in their spiritual journey.
The ninth station is SABR (صبر) or ‘patience’ with doing obligatory acts, patience with avoiding transgression, and being patient with what befalls you.
Our Prophet (ﷺ) said that (صلاة نؤر صدقہ برہان صبر ضیاع)- The prayer is similar to reflected light like the light of the moon, patience is like light of a type associated with heat and burning, and charity is like light of a type between moon’s cold light and a fire’s hot light.
In essence, patience is very hard.
The tenth station of RIDA (رِضا) or ‘contentment,’ is not to be confused with giving up striving. Rida is being content with what befalls you or with your affairs. The key idea is that one is not content in the moment (حال) but has deep rooted contentment (داسخ).
The eleventh station is that of SHUKUR ( شکر) or ‘gratitude.’ It involves (تصدیق باالقلب) or being thankful in heart first, then being thankful with tongue, and then using what has been bestowed on you to achieve right results.
The twelfth station for the wayfarer is the station of TAWWAKUL (توکل) or reliance/trust, which is the concept that nothing good or bad comes except from God.
There are two connected aspects to tawwakul – having a balance between reliance on God and striving for results. One cannot just have tawwakul without action or just rely on one’s actions alone without trust in God.
Both will lead to either not achieving results or in dissatisfaction. One’s heart is attached to God and the body is striving in action.
On tawwakul, there is a Hadith Qudsi that my servant will find me as he thinks of me. It is critical to feel positive and reliant on God and God will bestow what is good to the abd or servant.
The thirteenth station is that of IHSAN (اِحسان ) or ‘excellence.’ One should strive for excellence in everything one does. هل جزاءالاحسانِ إلا لاِحسان – One should worship God as if one sees Him, and if one can’t do that, one should worship Him knowing that He sees you.
The former is the highest level of ihsan called mushahida. One doesn’t do mushahida by imagining how God looks like but by observing the effects of the actions of God in one’s life. One doesn’t see the world as it happens but sees the divine intention in it and that is a way to see God. The latter is a lower level of excellence called muraqabah and one worships God as if He sees you. This is the level where one holds oneself accountable.
The fourteenth station is that of HUSN KHALAQ (حسن خلق) or ‘good character.’
There are three elements to it, based on the Quran: Be forgiving, enjoin good, and stay away from the fools.
When asked to explain this, it was said that this ayah is about keeping the ties of kinship and giving better in return to others no matter if they have done you right or wrong.
Good character is about ilm, irshad, and ihsan (علم و إرشاد و احسان) – using knowledge, guidance, and benevolence.
Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani said that “Be with the Truth without creation, and be with the creation without nafs”. This is to say that when you are with God, forget about the duniya or the creation of God and when you are with people, be without ego.
“Let not [your attachment to] the people come between you and al-Haqq and let not [favoring] yourself come between you and the people. If one does not do this, he will be in continued confusion, and his affairs will always be at loss.”
The fifteenth station is that of Riyayah (رِعايه) or ‘attentive care.’ A riyayi is a shepherd and like the flock of sheep they take care of, the wayfarer needs to take care of the propriety of one’s conduct.
A worshipper should expend all efforts to make sure that his or her actions are performed excellently and correctly while safeguarding them from anything that might corrupt the action. One should contemplate and reflect on one’s deficiencies.
The sixteenth station is that of ZUHUD (زهد) or ‘renunciation’ – The wayfarer must empty the heart from every distraction and keep the love of God in it.
There are three levels of zuhd, the first level is when one empties one’s heart from anything that is unlawful, this is ‘zuhd ul aam’ or the renunciation of the commoner.
The second level is when one not only empties one’s heart from anything that is unlawful but you also empty it from anything that is unnecessary. This is the ‘zuhd ul khaas’ or renunciation of the elite.
The third level is the ‘zuhd ul Arifeen,’ the renunciation of one who has nothing but God in their heart. Someone asked should a Zahid be poor, the answer is no. A Zahid can be rich but their heart is not attached to wealth.
Shaykhul Islam lbni Tayimmiyah said that one should treat wealth as toilet, use it when one needs it but don’t care otherwise.
The seventeenth and final station is that of RIFAQAH (رفقاء) or ‘companionship.’
Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) said that a good Rafiq or companion is like a perfume seller. Even if you do not buy anything from his or her shop, you will still smell good from just visiting. And a bad friend is like being with a bellower at a blacksmith’s shop. Your clothes will get dirty or singed.
Developing these seventeen praiseworthy qualities in the heart are to gain inner peace and to be prepared to meet our Lord in peace.
The author has only a common man’s knowledge about Islam and is simply summarizing what he learned. Comments or questions can be sent to [email protected].
Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position and policy of Free Press Kashmir. Feedback and counterviews on the debate are welcome at [email protected].
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