When people connect the words “spirituality” or “spiritual development” with “Islam”, it normally brings to mind a third word: tasawwuf or Sufism – the name that has been given since early times to the science of spiritual development within the Islamic tradition. When you juxtapose these words and the Qur’an, however, a problem sometimes arises. This is because there are some groups who maintain that tasawwuf is something basically separate from Islam, a kind of optional extra at best, and, therefore, in fact that it has no basis in the Qur’an. You find these groups both inside and outside Islam. There are non- muslims who claim that you can be a Sufi without even having to be Muslim and quite a number of Muslims who make accusations against Sufis which are tantamount to excluding them from Islam altogether. Both these positions are, of course, absurd. Islam is by definition a spiritual tradition and the Qur’an is, from beginning to end, full of references to spiritual development and growth. Indeed from one point of view the Qur’an could be said to be nothing other than an instruction manual for human spiritual development.
In the famous hadith of Jibril the Prophet @ informed us that our deen is made up of three distinct yet inseparable components: Islam described by the five pillars, in other words the outward actions; Iman, divided into its six pillars, in other words the inner belief structure; and Ihsan defined by the words “an t’abuda’llaha ka’annaka tarahu fa in lam tarahu fa innahu yarak” meaning, “that you worship Allah as if you could see Him for, if you do not see Him, He sees you.” It is this third element of Ihsan that the people of knowledge have always said makes up the spiritual dimension of Islam. It implies that believing Muslims necessarily have eyes that look beyond this world and that we must take on those qualities and practices that increase our ability to do this to a greater and greater extent. We believe what our Lord tells us in a wonderfully succinct phrase in Surat an-Nahl, which in a way sums up the whole spiritual teaching of the Qur’an: ma ‘indakum yanfad wa ma ‘inda’llahi baq – “What is with you (in other words this world and everything in it) runs out and what is with Allah goes on forever.”
Allah makes it clear in the Qur’an that this is one of the main things that separate the unbeliever from the believer. He says of the unbelievers in Surat ar-Rum: They know an outward aspect of the life of this world but are heedless of the World to come. 30:6 And they say of themselves in Surat al-Muminun: What you have been promised is sheer nonsense! What is there but our life in this world? We die and we live and we will not be raised again. 23:36-7 However, Allah ta’ala makes it abundantly clear that this is complete ignorance on their part and demonstrates their total inability to understand the true nature of existence. He says in Surat al-‘Ankabut: The life of the dunya is nothing but a game and a diversion. The abode of the akhira – that is truly Life if they only knew. 29:64 And He emphasises the point further in Surat al-‘Ala, telling us that the life beyond this world is altogether better than anything we can experience here when He clearly states: …the Next World is better and longer lasting. 87:16-17
What this means, of course, is that the Muslim has a completely different perspective on life than that of the unbelievers. Our consciousness is not trapped within the empirical confines of material existence but extends beyond it to the unseen worlds of angelic activity and Divine Power and looks forward to the after death realities of the grave, the Day of Judgment, and the endless timelessness which follows them. And more than that, the believer actually prefers the life-to-come, with its infinite rewards and endless delights, over life in this world, with its inevitable unpleasantnesses and difficulties, because they know it will be better for them. In one of several similar ayats Allah says in Surat Yusuf: The reward of the Next World is better for those who believe and have taqwa. 12:57 This attitude has been the hallmark and unassailable strength of the Muslims throughout their entire history.
The early Muslims were famous for it and it has been remarked upon by people who have been confronted by the reality of living Islam down through the centuries right up to our own time. There is the famous example of the British Prime Minister in the middle of the 19th Century who said addressing Parliament about the war which was then taking place in Afghanistan – some things never seem to change and some lessons of history never seem to get learned – anyway, the then Prime Minister said, “How can you fight a people who, when they look into the mouths of our cannons, see the Gates of Paradise opening in front of them.” However, as we ourselves know if we are honest about our own lives, this preference for the Next World is by no means an automatic by-product of Islam; it is not something we necessarily come to feel by just saying the shahada and doing our five prayers. Most of us, in fact, spend an incredible amount of energy clinging desperately to this life, doing everything we can to make it as prolonged and comfortable for ourselves as we possibly can, relegating the Next World into some kind of hazy distant future. Yet that, of course, is very far from the way things really are.
Once when the Prophet @ was performing the eclipse prayer with the Companions, he at one point reached his hand out towards the right and then withdrew it and at another he leaned his whole body back and away from the left. When they asked him why he had done that, he said that first he had seen a bunch of grapes in the Garden and had wanted to reach out and pluck it to show people what was in store for them and then he had seen the Fire and had recoiled from the intensity of its heat. No, the other world is very close and very real and awareness of that is something that, as we have seen, really is a characteristic of the true Muslim. The key to it is in the ayat we just looked at. The Next World is certainly better but it is only better for “those who believe and have taqwa.” So the vital thing is to have taqwa.
Taqwa is probably the single most important quality it is possible for a human being to possess. It is the first quality of the believers mentioned by Allah in the Qur’an, appearing in the second ayat of Surat al- Baqara. ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, radiya’Llahu ‘anhu, made a particularly vivid and existential metaphor describing what it is. He asked Ubayy ibn Ka’b, radiya’Llahu ‘anhu, if he had ever gone along a narrow path through thorny bushes. “Yes,” replied Ka’b. “What did you do?” ‘Umar asked him. “I gathered in my clothes and was very careful not to get caught up.” “That,” said ‘Umar, “is taqwa.” Countless words have been written about it, and countless words spoken, but it is perhaps best defined as active awareness of the Divine Presence, that very definition of spirituality which is ihsan itself. However, the point I am making here is that it is not something we are born with, it is something that must be acquired and acquisition of it is precisely the process of spiritual development that the Qur’an teaches us.
In an ayat in Surat al-Ma’ida Allah ta’ala says: …provided they have taqwa and iman and do right actions, and then again have taqwa and iman, and then have taqwa and do good. Allah loves good-doers. 5:93 The words translated as “do good” and “good-doers” in this passage – ahsanu and muhsinin – are directly related to the word ihsan and what it shows us is that the development of spirituality within the individual Muslim or Muslima, what we might call their spiritual progress, is an actual organic process involving the growth of taqwa at every stage. This process is referred to throughout the Qur’an as tazkiyyatu’n-nafs or purification of the self. We find in Surat ash-Shams: And by the self and what proportioned it and inspired it with depravity or godliness; he who purifies it has succeeded, he who covers it up has failed. 91:7-10 And there are several ayats in which it is made clear that the purification of his community in this way is one of the principle tasks of the Prophet @. One representative ayat in Surat al- Baqara is: For this We sent a Messenger to you from among you to recite Our Signs to you and purify you and teach you the Book and Wisdom and teach you things you did not know before. 2:151
So what is this nafs or self which is in need of purification, which has to be purified in order for success, that spiritual awareness which constitutes ihsan, to be achieved. Starting from the moment of our birth, the individual identity of each of us is inexorably built up over time. Everyone has certain determined genetic elements, preordaining their physical form and basic temperamental characteristics, and these combine with the many varied experiences that make up their early lives. Before very long, based on these factors, every individual adopts a more or less fixed picture of their own identity. This self-picture, this acquired identity, from then on becomes the “me” through which all of us interface with the world. However, this acquired identity is far less fixed than most of us think and is in reality quite fluid and open to quite radical transformation, given the means that make that transformation possible.
As I have said this nafs or self-form has come into existence through its association with this world and is always in danger of identifying itself totally with it. Its purification involves loosening the bonds which tie us to this world and make us imagine that it is all that there really is, and freeing us to be able to turn away from it to the world of the spirit from which we came and to which we will certainly return. Imam Busiri puts the matter beautifully in couplet in his magnificent poem written in praise of the Prophet @, entitled al-Burda. He says: The nafs is like an infant – if you allow it to, it will grow up loving to suckle; if you wean it, it will be weaned. The metaphor is clear. Al-Busiri likens the nafs to an infant and this world to the breast and the purification process we have been talking about to the weaning of the infant/nafs from the breast of this world. But just as weaning is not always an entirely easy business, so the purification of the nafs, the turning of the heart away from this world towards Allah, also has its inevitable difficulties. Allah ta’ala tells us that we will almost certainly be severely tested in the process, asking us in Surat al-Baqara: Or did you suppose that you would enter the Garden without facing the same as those who came before you? Poverty and illness afflicted them and they were shaken to the point that the Prophet and those who believed with him said, “When is Allah's help coming?” 2:212 And again in Sura Ali ‘Imran: Or did you imagine that you were going to enter the Garden without Allah knowing those among you who had struggled and knowing the steadfast? 3:142
We can see from these two extracts that purification comes by two distinct routes: directly from Allah through difficulties that occur naturally during the course of our lives and also by means of the personal struggle referred to in the word jahadu in the second passage. In a number of hadiths the Prophet @ reminded us how trials of all kinds we encounter in our lives are in reality opportunities for us to draw nearer to Allah, telling us, for instance, that fever strips away wrong actions from us just as iron is purified by a furnace or leaves fall from trees in autumn and he goes as far as to say that even being pricked by a thorn will remove a believer’s sins. This shows us that all the difficulties believers have to face can bring them closer to Allah, provided, of course, that they see them in the right light and realise that Allah has, in truth, sent them as a blessing in disguise. Allah spells this out for us in a well-known passage in Surat al-Baqara: We will test you with a certain amount of fear and hunger and loss of wealth and life and fruits. But give good news to the steadfast: those who, when disaster strikes them, say, “We belong to Allah and to Him we will return.” Those are the people who will have blessings and mercy from their Lord; they are the ones who are guided. 2:154-6
The other parallel means of purification is self-imposed, referred to earlier in the phrase “those who have struggled” – jahadu – which could, of course, be equally translated as “those who have done jihad”. Now jihad is a word whose meaning has become limited by many people, both Muslims and non- muslims, to physical fighting, to warfare, but its real meaning, as many of us know, is much broader than that. It certainly includes fighting physically in the Way of Allah to defend and establish the deen but it also includes all other kinds of struggle and striving of in the Way of Allah, particularly the kind of efforts you expend to oppose your own lower desires with the intention of drawing closer to Allah. We find this aspect of it pithily summed up in the Qur’an in Surat an-Naziat: As for him who overstepped the bounds and preferred the life of this world, the Blazing Fire will be his refuge. But as for him who feared the Station of his Lord and forbade the lower self its appetites, the Garden will be his refuge. 79:37-40 That the word jihad bears this meaning is conclusively shown by the fact that Allah ta’ala uses it in Makkan suras before there was any thought of actual physical fighting. He says, for example, in Surat al-‘Ankabut: As for those who do jihad in Our Way, We will guide them to Our Paths. Allah is with the good-doers. 29:69 And notice again, at the end of this ayat, the reference to the good-doers, the muhsinin, the people of ihsan, making it evident that the jihad referred to here leads to the spiritual development of the people concerned, their progress on the path leading to a heightened awareness of their Lord.
The question is what does this jihad consist of, how exactly does one forbid the appetites of the lower self, what are the actions that bring about the purification of the heart? What it is certainly not a matter of is violence or extremism in any shape or form either in connection with oneself or other people. The kind of extreme asceticism practised by some religious traditions in the supposed search for spiritual enlightenment has no place whatsoever in Islam. The Prophet @ was the most balanced and moderate of men in every respect and nothing that lies outside the harmonious pattern of behaviour he left us can have any part to play in any part of our lives, spiritual or otherwise. There is a wise saying current among the people of spiritual knowledge that goes some way towards indicating the best approach to take in this matter. They say: “The best way to fight the enemy is to love the friend.” What they mean by this is that the best way to overcome the inner obstacles that inevitably impede the progress of anyone who has embarked on the path of the purification of their own heart is to pay as little attention as possible to the difficulties encountered and concentrate on those qualities and actions that are known to be pleasing to Allah.
There is a famous hadith qudsi from Sahih Bukhari transmitted by Abu Hurayra, radiya’llahu ‘anhu, found in Imam Nawwawi’s Forty Hadith, part of which beautifully encapsulates this. Allah ta’ala says on the tongue of His Messenger @: “My slave does not draw near to me by anything more loved by Me than what I have made obligatory on him and My slave does not cease drawing nearer to Me by voluntary acts until I love him…” So the striving of the Muslim on the path of self- purification must first and foremost focus on scrupulous observance of the shari’a, on those things that Allah has made obligatory for us, and then extend beyond that to voluntary actions that are pleasing to Allah. There are, of course, any number of these and every page of the Qur’an is devoted to telling us what they are, so in one sense it is simply a matter of taking the Book of Allah seriously and acting on its instructions, nothing more and nothing less than that. But in the nature of things some actions will be more effective than others in bringing about the desired result.
Both Bukhari and Muslim transmit another hadith narrated by Abu Hurayra, radiya’llahu ‘anhu, in which the Prophet @ said: “Belief has over seventy – or over sixty – branches. The best of which is the words, ‘There is no god but Allah,’ and the least of which is removing an obstruction from the road…” This indicates that the best thing we can do, after ensuring that we are firmly implementing the shari’a, is the action of remembrance of Allah, dhikru’llah. Allah says to us in Surat al- ‘Ala: He who has purified himself will have success, He who remembers the Name of his Lord and prays. 87:14-15 The importance of dhikru’llah with respect to the path of self-purification outlined in the Qur’an cannot be overstated. It is the one action we are instructed to perform without any limit. Allah instructs us in Surat al-Ahzab: You who believe! remember Allah a great deal… 33:41 We are told to remember Allah standing, sitting and lying down. The word appears in the Qur’an in various forms around 300 times. This talk is not the place to go into the all the ramifications of this subject – it might, for instance, be said that every action of the Prophet @ was in a sense dhikru’llah – what is certain is that the constant practice of dhikru’llah in one form or another is absolutely indispensable for the path of self-purification put forward in the Qur’an.
This has inevitably had to be a very brief and partial glimpse at the way the Qur’an deals with the vital and pivotal matter of spiritual development. From a certain point of view it is something that cannot really be talked about at all since it is, in the end, a matter of direct personal experience which no number of words will ever be able to adequately describe. What is clear from what we have seen, however, is that the Qur’an presents to us a process of spiritual purification, which Muslims must go through during the course of their lives. This is so that we can free ourselves from complete absorption in this material world we inhabit and become open to the reality of the world of the spirit which lies beyond it and to that awareness of the Divine Presence called Ihsan, which is the third integral and indispensable element of our deen. This presupposes an inward transformation, an inner journey which starts when the individual concerned becomes aware of their own state of inner impurity and during the course of which, through the trials and struggle we have been talking about, that impurity is gradually removed until finally, if Allah wills, a state of complete inner purity is achieved, when the person involved finds themselves to be in some ways the same but in other ways very different from what they originally imagined themselves to be.
Bit by bit the Muslim on this journey goes through a series of stages. The self they had thought to be quite fixed turns out to be far more fluid than they had imagined and real inward changes occur. Acknowledging this and marking its various stages of development, in the Qur’an Allah refers to the nafs, the human self undertaking this journey, in several ways, so that it is given different names according to the spiritual progress it has made. In its most opaque degenerate state the human self is called an-nafs al-ammara – the commanding soul – taken from an ayat in Sura Yusuf in which Allah says: Certainly the lower self commands to evil acts – except for those my Lord has mercy on. 12:53 In this state the unregenerated human self has little or no self-reflective capacity and so is unaware of its own state of utter impurity. It is, therefore, helplessly subject to its own unbridled appetites, illicit desires and worst impulses and unable even to see that it is acting wrongly and self- destructively. Any restraint displayed by such a self is purely for reasons of social convention or fear of legal retribution, not out of any real understanding of wrongdoing.
In the next stage it is called an-nafs al-lawwama – the self- reproaching self. This name comes from an oath made by Allah in the second ayat of Surat al-Qiyyama in which He says: No! I swear by the self-reproaching self. 75:2 At this stage the person concerned is at least to some extent aware of their own faults and has some inner consciousness of the difference between right and wrong action. They are still firmly attached to this world but accept that they will be answerable in the Next World for their actions in this one. They lack self-control and veer between wrongdoing and acts of obedience to Allah without any real ability to keep themselves on a straight course. This is the state of the majority of ordinary Muslims.
The name given to the human self in the third stage of spiritual development is an-nafs al-mulhama – the inspired soul. This is taken from the two ayats we looked at before in Surat ash-Shams: And the soul and what proportioned it and inspired it with depravity or godliness. 91:7-8 At this stage the person involved has reached a point when their heart is sufficiently purified to be able to clearly discriminate between what will bring them benefit and what will cause them harm and, moreover, to choose those actions which are beneficial rather than harmful for them. Such people's hearts are on a pivot, swinging between this world and the light of their Lord. This is the state of people firmly established on the path of purification.
At the fourth stage the human self is called an-nafs al- mutma'inna – the serene self – taken from the last ayat in Surat al-Fajr: O self at rest and at peace return to your Lord well-pleasing and well-pleased! (89:30-1) This is someone whose heart is now completely purified. Love of this world has left such people and, although they continue to participate fully in life in this world, they are in reality turned permanently towards their Lord. Nothing is now able to disturb their luminous serenity. They have become still points in time and space, a locus of lights, where the timeless, spaceless presence of Allah is reflected and remembered continually. They are people who are unswervingly established in right action and good character and exemplify the saying of the Prophet @ recorded in the Muwatta and the Musnad of Imam Ahmad: Ma buithtu illa li’utammima makarima’l-akhlaq: “I have only been sent to perfect good character.” So that some people say that spirituality in Islam is in fact nothing other than the enlightened behaviour which comes from having true nobility of character.
What is absolutely certain is that there is a quantum leap, a vast difference, between someone who has not yet embarked on this path of purification and someone who has travelled it to the end. The former is brutish, bestial, subhuman, no matter how much of a civilised veneer they may display on the outside. Allah says of such people: Such people are like cattle; in fact they are even further astray. 7:179 Nothing good can come from such a person. The latter, on the other hand, the one who has trodden the path of purifcation to its end, is illuminated and illuminating. They are rightly guided themselves and a fund of right guidance to other people. Only good can come from them. In Surat an-Nahl we find a passage clearly illustrating the difference between these two states: Allah makes a metaphor of two men: one of them deaf and dumb, unable to do anything, a burden on his master, no matter where he directs him he brings no good, is he the same as someone who commands justice and is on a Straight Path. 16:76 And the people of knowledge often quote a trenchant saying which makes the same point. They say, “A thousand words from someone with a heart full of impurities will not achieve a single thing, but one word from someone whose heart has been purified will achieve a thousand things.”
At this point I would like to reiterate something I have touched on more than once during the course of this talk, something that it is vital to grasp if anything I have said is to have any value at all. The spiritual path I have been trying to outline is not some add-on to Islam, not something reserved to Muslims with a spiritual inclination, not something in any way extraneous to ordinary Islam. It is absolutely intrinsic to the deen, inseparable from it, something without which no one’s Islam can be considered complete. Whatever you may have heard and whatever anyone says, nothing in the true spiritual path and practice of the Muslims throughout the centuries lies outside the bounds of Islam, it is all firmly rooted in the Book and the Sunna and does not stray beyond them by a single iota. A great ‘alim, Ahmad Zarruq, said of the spiritual path:
“Acting according to Islam is essential for it. In other words there can be no spiritual purification which is not accompanied by correct implementation of the shari’a, since the outward judgements of Allah Almighty can only be known through the shari’a. In the same way there can be no correct implementation of the shari’a which is not accompanied by spiritual purification, since there can be no action without the sincere-turning-to-Allah that is necessary for a sound intention. And neither of these are possible without faith since the validity of both of them is dependent on it. So they must be combined together due to their essential mutual interdependence, just as spirits are combined with bodies – the spirit only knows existence through the body and the body only knows existence through the spirit, the one completes the other. The relationship between spiritual purification and correct implementation of the shari’a is the same as that between the spirit and the body.”
Taking this to its logical conclusion Imam al-Ghazali said of the legal ruling governing the spiritual path: “It is an individual obligation (fard ‘ayn) for every Muslim since, apart from the Prophets, ‘alayhimu’s-salam, no one’s heart is free of sickness or defect.” In other words the path of spiritual purification set out in the Qur’an is not some sort of optional extra for us, it is something that every single Muslim has consciously to take on. All of us have to set out seriously on the path of the purification of our own hearts. We live in a land and at a time in which Islam is both misrepresented and misunderstood and it is our Divinely imposed responsibility to see this situation rectified. No one can do this except us but we will only be able to do it if we take on our deen completely, all three elements; Islam, Iman and, most importantly, Ihsan. We have been given by Allah the task of establishing His deen in this country and from the time of the Companions onwards this task has only ever been achieved by people who have purified their hearts from love of this world and filled them with love of Allah and His Messenger.
Are we such people, are you such a person? Or are we rather slaves of this time, devoted basically to the short-term gratification of our lower desires, willing to give up a little time each day to our five salats and a month to Ramadan but not willing to take on the path of spiritual transformation which alone can lead to the true establishment of Islam both in ourselves and in the society which surrounds us. That is what spiritual development in the Qur’an is all about. It is about you and me whether we take it on or not. And it is an urgent issue which has very real implications for the lives of every one of us, both in this world and the Next. We can be docile sheep, submitting passively to the usurious butcher‘s knife of banking capitalism in the nihilist consumer society we live in. Or we can be people engaged in the glorious, Divinely appointed adventure of transforming ourselves and our society in the cause of a regenerated and regenerating Islam. The choice is clear and the choice is ours. But what choice will we actually make?