The following discussion has been taken from the General Discussion Forum of Studying Islam (http://www.studying-islam.org), one of our sister sites. While Jhangeer Hanif is the moderator of this discussion, Aslam Mirhas compiled it for publication in the journal (Editor).
Aslam: How should one attain tazkiyah-i-nafs?
Ayesha: I believe, there are two things that help us attain tazkiyah-i-nafs:
1. A well developed sense of right and wrong; something that is already present in every human being naturally. We call it 'the conscience'. We either pay heed to it and continuously keep questioning our own deeds/thoughts/behaviours in a just manner or subdue its cries. The former path is a very arduous one that needs a lot of courage and effort.
2. We also go through some 'natural pruning' through the tests that come our way in this life. If we seek Allah's help and try to develop the right approach towards these tests (patience, remembrance, seeking His mercy and protection against all evil, forgiveness for our sins), we can hope to take a step towards the tazkiyah-i-nafs that is so important in anyone's life.
Jhangeer Hanif:You will agree that inner purification is not something tangible; on the contrary, very impalpable indeed. I mean we cannot say about any person that he is purified because of his strict apparent adherence with religious directives and moral imperatives.
It is however evident that the only way prescribed by the Holy Qur'an to attain inner purification is the divine religion of Islam. This means that a believer can only attain it by acting upon the dictations of his sense of morality and also the decrees of the shari'ah. As a person submits himself to both these sources of guidance, he comes to experience purity of heart. However, he has to be very vigilant to protect it from the adverse winds which are unleashed by Evil.
In this regard, what Ayesha has suggested above is very helpful. We need to listen to the calls of our conscience and analyze our deeds.
Anonymous: I agree. But attaining this ultimate state is extremely difficult.
Jhangeer Hanif: Yes, to comply with Islam is a bit difficult especially in these times. However, Allah helps those who undertake to achieve this end.
Anonymous: Thank you so much for your reply. I hope and pray that Allah guides us to the straight path. Amen
Aslam: Some of my friends insist that without the guidance of a spiritual mentor tazkiyah-i-nafs is almost impossible. Are they right?
Jhangeer Hanif: Of course not. There is no basis of such belief in the Holy Qur'an and the Sunnah. It is your adherence to the religion of Islam that leads you to inner purification.
However, the importance of teacher who helps you learn Islam cannot be denied. But that should be just a teacher-student relationship.
Safia: I need to talk about the matter of having a mentor or not. I was told we need one but in my opinion we don't need any further guidance after the Qur'an and the Hadith. We might need some one to explain what we don't understand but no other human being can be followed except the Prophet (sws). Please shed some light on this.
Jhangeer Hanif: The word 'guidance' conveys different meanings in different contexts, you'd agree. In the perspective of a religion, guidance means Divine Guidance. As far as this sort of guidance is concerned, it has been given to mankind through ultimate sources, the Holy Qur'an and the Sunnah. Both sources are secure and protected; the former in the hearts of the Muslims and the latter in the practice of the Muslims. Both them sources cater the needs of mankind regarding divine guidance for their life in this world.
Since both sources are subject to human interpretation differences inevitably arise. It is this point where a person needs to turn to other people. Because Muslim scholars devote their lives to understanding religion, they should be benefited from in this regard. But their opinion is not more than the expert opinion of an architect or engineer. And because we do not accept such experts to be error free and weigh their opinion in the scales of sense and reason, the opinion of scholars should also be objectively judged. If it is found in conformity with the Qur'an, it should be accepted. This is what I meant by the relationship of a teacher and student. You may call it a relationship of a mentor and pupil. And this is indeed desirable. It would be foolish to bypass the expert scholars and start learning Islam all by yourself.
As our parents teach us good manners and etiquette, some of our teachers also do the same. Sometimes, they can do this thing far better than our parents can since the former usually have read a lot about the Prophets of Allah and other great personalities of human history; these teachers know well when, how, where a student should be told about his mistake and thereafter be asked to rectify it. As you see, this whole thing depends upon the experience of the teacher and is not of divine nature. Therefore, a student should learn from many teachers and not one. He should assess what thing he can learn better from one teacher and what from the other. There is no question of one mentor because he is not going to be error free—some type of superhuman.
Safia: Thank you so much for discussing this matter in such detail. It has become clear to me now. However there is another thing which I don't understand. A very common practice in Pakistan is to pledge (bay'at) at the hands of a spiritual guru and promise to keep away from all vices. In this way one is answerable to that spiritual guru as one on each visit tells his spiritual guru that he has or hasn't been able to keep his promise. My question is: Are we in anyway answerable to a certain person (spiritual guru)? Aren't we only answerable to Allah? Is this the right way? I hope you understand what I am trying to say here. Please explain.
Jhangeer Hanif: The Holy Qur'an says:
O people who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Prophet (sws) and those of you who are in authority, and if you disagree among yourselves in any matter, refer it to God and the Prophet if you believe in Allah and the Last Day. This is better and more seemly as regards the consequences. (4:59)
Thus, we are supposed to follow not only Allah and His Prophet but also those who are at the realm of state affairs. In order to administer the collective affairs of the Muslim, the need for establishing a state is imperative. It is not that Islam introduced this provision of establishing a state. Humans have always strived to live under a collective system. The religion of Islam binds us to follow the rulers, whether we like them or not. The Holy Prophet (sws) says:
Whether they like it or not, it is obligatory on the faithful to listen and to obey their rulers except when they be ordered to commit a sin. If they are ordered so, they should neither listen nor obey. (Muslim, No: 1839)
So we the Muslims are required to follow our rulers in all circumstances. The only possibility that impedes the obedience is when these rulers ask us to go against the decrees of Islam; if they command us not to say the salah (the Prayer), then there is no obedience etc.
Viewed thus, our obedience is required for those in authority and not a spiritual guru. Pledging to a spiritual guru for obedience has no basis in the Qur'an and the Sunnah. It is an innovation in faith and should be avoided.
Safia: Thank you for clarifying this concept for me.
Aslam: Salah plays an important role in cleansing the soul (tazkiyah-i-nafs). Surah 'Ala (87:14-15) alludes to this fact.
Safia: Thank you so much for this valuable piece of information. I agree with you completely.
Jhangeer Hanif: We however must try to offer the prayer while pondering over the meaning of what we say. For this end, we must learn the meaning of the Arabic words we utter.
Tariq Hashmi: What else would you suggest to help us rid of monotonously offering of the prayers? This necessarily hinders us in benefiting from the fruits it is likely to yield – Tazkiyah being the prime one.
Jhangeer Hanif: Everything that contributes to develop your relationship with Allah definitely helps you offer the prayer properly – with presence of mind. For instance, studying the Holy Qur'an, the fasting, spending in the way of Allah, spending additional time in a mosque and meditating, visiting graveyards to be reminded of death, reading the biography of the Prophet (sws) and of his Companions (rta) etc.
Actually, no fixed and time-calculated strategy can be forwarded in this regard. Every person should analyze his situation and circumstances, and try his level best to develop a good relationship with Allah, which in turn, will help him say a meaningful prayer.
Tariq Hashmi: This helped greatly. But I wanted to know how we can make our prayers meaningful as you had written in your previous assertion that we should ponder over the meaning of what we utter. Can we say supplications different from the ones commonly said in different parts of the prayer or even make supplications in our own language especially in the last part of the prayer, that is, qa'dah?
Jhangeer Hanif: Yes, you may say different supplications in the qa'dah than those which are commonly said. In fact, there are different supplications ascribed to the Prophet (sws) to be said in the qa'dah. This shows that the Prophet (sws) did not want to fix a particular supplication for this part of the prayer as he had instituted Surah Fatihah to be recited in the qiyam.
Aslam: I usually recite supplications in prostration when I offer optional prayers.
When I prostrate, I feel I'm laying everything at the feet of my Lord. sajdah (prostration) is a mini-Islam – Islam that is nothing other than surrendering – because in sajdah one puts every part of body on the ground before his Lord, indicating his/her resignation to the Creator. Long and absorbing sujud at night help me a lot in bringing me closer to my Lord, purging me of the filth I accumulate in the day.
Sometimes overwhelmed by the surging feelings of gratitude or helplessness I want to prostrate myself before my Lord then and there! But some scholars say that one must offer sajdah (prostration) while in state of wudu (i.e. the state of having performed ablution).
They deem it a grave sin to prostrate if one is not in state of wudu. Are they right?
Ayesha: A grave sin? It is difficult to digest. Maybe it only is preferable to prostrate with ablution. Aren't grave sins amply listed in the Qur'an? Must our scholars always contribute to its lengthening?
You are so right about the feeling of closeness with God that a prolonged prostration brings. What do these scholars base their opinion upon?
Safia: In my opinion sajdah brings one closer to Allah than anything else. What I fail to understand is why one must perform ablution for that? I think sajdah can be done whenever a person wants as it is something very personal between Allah and the worshipper. Am I right?
Jhangeer Hanif: Of course, a person can prostrate as and when he feels like with/without ablution. He can also recite/touch the Holy Qur'an without wudu . However, we must know that we cannot offer salah, be a supererogatory or obligatory, without ablution.
We are fully authorised to say supplications when in ruku' or sajdah. However, the Prophet (sws) has forbidden us to recite the Holy Qur'an in these two positions.
Ayesha: Alright. So the Prophet (sws) has forbidden us to recite the Holy Qur'an while in ruku' or sajdah. Thanks for this information.
There are times when I recite supplications from the Holy Qur'an while prostrating as a part of supplication and not as recital. Is that forbidden as well?
Your help would be highly appreciated.
Safia:Like Ayesha I would also like to know whether supplications from the Qur'an can be said during ruku' or sajdah
Jhangeer Hanif:Yes of course, supplications from the Holy Qur'an can be said when you are doing ruku' or sajdah.
It needs to be appreciated that you are saying these words as supplications though they are taken from the Holy Qur'an. Saying supplications is perfectly compatible with the spirit of the ruku' or sajdah whereas reciting the Holy Qur'an is not.
For instance, reciting part of Surah Baqarah regarding the anecdote of the cow would be quite incompatible with the spirit of the ruku' or sajdah. However, saying any supplication would be in congruence with the spirit of these two positions.
We must know that, in these positions, we actually place our emotions before the Lord; saying supplications is therefore the most beautiful way to do that.
Aslam:What are the pitfalls which can derail a seeker of tazkiyah-i-nafs (purification of soul)?
Jhangeer Hanif:Undertaking anything which is against the shari'ah or a person's sense of morality is what divests him of his inner purification. Inner Purification is indeed too vulnerable, I must add. Utmost care, therefore, should be taken.
Actually, the conceptual framework of your mind also works detrimental to the purity of heart. You need to keep your head clean in order to keep your inner-self clean.
Aslam: Exactly this is my problem. I'm haunted by very bad and filthy thoughts. Filthy literature has defiled my mind. Now I have given up reading this filth but it's very hard for me to purge my mind of the dirty thoughts. These thoughts have stymied my journey to my Lord, making my tazkiyah-i-nafs almost impossible.
Amatullah: It is good to note that you said 'almost impossible' which means that it is possible to purge your mind of dirty thoughts. Try as much as you can to always occupy your mind with more positive things. Like if the thought comes when you are in a certain position - change it. But if you are praying seek refuge from the accursed Satan and try to move your thoughts from it. Allah has said in the Qur'an that if evil thoughts or whisperings of Satan comes to your mind seek refuge in Allah from Satan the accursed.
The mere fact that you want to rid yourself of these thoughts insha Allah ensures that you will succeed. Read more of the Qur'an and dwell on it, also fast more often.
Set your mind on winning this war and fight it, Allah will not ignore your prayers and you will attain purity. Consider this also as a test from the All knowing who tests His slaves in whatever form He likes. May Allah protect us all.
Jhangeer Hanif: Dear Aslam, you now have the very positive and effective suggestions to act upon.
As I said earlier, there is indeed an immediate connection between head and soul. If you will fight to keep your head clean, you will be able to cleanse your soul. I'd love to quote:
God is the Way as well as the Destination. Whoever has set out on His way has already found the Destination. So, move on we must and drag we must further with all our heart and soul.