Have you ever wondered what the foremost factor is for success in the hereafter, or even how to begin to attain traits associated with such success? If you have these questions, I salute you because these are the questions of all true believers. The essential element of staying on the right path is to make moral and ethical choices by engaging in rational thought and reason before taking any action. As we try to make wise choices, we need a reminder to hold ourselves on the right path to ensure our success. A combination of intellect, using reasoning and ethics, is a good starting point, but that does not ensure success on its own. Our compass taqwā, or God-consciousness, or piety, is the reminder that can help guide our path to Allah.
Taqwā (God-consciousness) and its derivatives appear more than 250 times in the Qurʾān and it is the Islamic concept of self-restraint. The more good deeds one does and the more one refrains from the impermissible, the stronger one’s taqwā becomes. The term taqwā comes from the Arabic root “wa-qa-ya” which means “protection” or “support.” Unfortunately, many translate it as fear, but this is incorrect. However, because having fear is a prerequisite to protecting oneself from something harmful, people may sometimes refer to taqwā as having fear of Allah. In other words, fear is one of the results of taqwā, but not taqwā itself. We fear sin for the distance it may induce between us and Allah, or we fear sin for the consequences it may have. It is worth mentioning that fear without hope toward Allah is not beneficial, but is in fact toxic and dangerous for one’s faith. Fear by itself creates hopelessness in the infinite mercy of Allah, which is a serious sin. The Ahl al-Bayt (ʿa) taught us that to seek proximity, one must have two wings: fear and hope. Imām ʿAlī as-Sajjād (ʿa) states in the well-known Duʿā of Abū Ḥamzah Thumālī:
“O, My Lord! When I look at the sins I have committed, I become fearful, and when I look at Your generosity, I harbor hope.”
Allah is not meant to be viewed as an abominable or frightening entity–but a just merciful one. In fact, He himself introduces Himself as the All-Kind and All-Merciful. In addition, from this mercy, also stems justice. There is no justice without fairness and in this, Allah is absolute perfection. This notion is overwhelmingly present in the Qurʾān, including in the teachings of our beloved Prophet (ṣ) and his Ahl al-Bayt (ʿa). In Duʿā Jawshan al-Kabīr, it is said:
“O Who is not hoped but for His favor, and is not feared but His justice.”
Therefore, we fear the result of sins without repentance, leading inevitably to the displeasure of our Lord. But, we also have hope in His mercy, because we trust that He will never do injustice in the slightest to any soul.
Purity and impurity
The Lord, who created everything with His Absolute Might and Wisdom, commands us to avoid impurity and enjoy purity. Imagine that you created a product, is it not true that you as the designer of this product know best in what condition this product can work optimally? This is similar to us. The Creator of you and I has the ultimate wisdom of what actions cause harm to us. Therefore, out of His kindness, He forbids us from committing those actions.
Allah states in the Noble Qurʾān:
“Say, ‘My Lord has forbidden immoralities – both open and secret – and sin, and unjustified aggression, and that you associate with Allah anything for which He revealed no sanction, and that you say about Allah what you do not know.’” (7:33)
If we ponder more in-depth into the concepts of permissible and prohibited, we would understand that it is in our best interest to abide by the commands of our Creator. The only way to achieve a peaceful life is to follow the teachings of our Lord, His Messengers, and the Ahl al-Bayt (ʿa). In a profound narration, Imām Muḥammad al-Jawād (ʿa) has said: “Your heart will tell you the truth, put your hand on your heart, because your heart will be at ease with ḥalāl (permissible actions) and will be disturbed with sins. Indeed believers will abandon (even) minor sin out of fear of committing major sin.” We know that sometimes it is small bad deeds that can lead one to greater and much more worrisome bad deeds.
Preconditioning, Watching Over the Soul and Self-Examination
Dear friends, there are three practical tips to practice taqwā:
When we start our day, we should renew our intentions for fulfilling our duties and practicing within the lawful bounds of our faith. We have to hold on to the rope of Allah and believe that our beloved Lord is present; in this way, we condition ourselves to avoid sins and fulfill our obligation.
While we promise to be on the right path, we must watch our actions; in a sense, it’s a constant self-monitoring and self-awareness. With this practice, we build a spiritual will power which results in nearness to Allah. Seeking help from Ahl al-Bayt (ʿa), as they are the light of guidance, is always beneficial.
Lastly is self-examination. This part is the completion of all other steps. Every night we must spend some time evaluating ourselves. If we committed sins, we should seek forgiveness. If we did good deeds, we should praise Allah and ask Him to increase our opportunities to enhance our righteous deeds. Imām Jaʿfar aṣ-Ṣādiq (ʿa) narrated that Imām ʿAlī (ʿa) advised one of his devoted companions with the following statement:
“O Abū Dharr! Hold yourself accountable before they hold you accountable, and for your accounting to be easy tomorrow.”
The following will delve deeper into the above steps for spiritual self building.
When one wants to grow closer to their Creator, there is a precursor to that closeness. Firstly, one should strive to understand what responsibilities one must accept in relation to their Creator’s commandments. Beyond knowledge of those responsibilities is the implementation and perfection of them. To spiritually progress requires identifying what needs improvement in a person’s life. Whether it is to consistently complete one’s prayers and abide by the lawful and unlawful, for example, this spiritual building is never-ending and is meant to be a constant work in progress for every believer. That should not deter us from seeking growth, instead, it should inspire us to rise to the challenge. That being said, it is helpful to focus on a larger goal and identify a few weaknesses to work on at a time, instead of a large list that may feel overwhelming.
For your own safe keeping, write some personal reflections below based on the following prompts:
Where are you spiritually, today? Think about the actions that bring you closer to Allah and how you feel about those, as well as the negative ones that push you away from Allah.
Where would you like to go spiritually, tomorrow? Are there any practical things you can change right now that would assist you in moving toward that direction? What can you keep doing well?
List some personal goals you’d like to achieve:
The following are some of the instructions of scholars on moral and ethical traits for self-development. Three steps are needed to refine the soul after embracing Islam as taught by the Qurʿān and the tradition of the Ahl al-Bayt (ʿa): mushāratah, murāqabah, and muḥāsabah. We must have intellectual conviction and recognize that faith is not just mental acrobatics or believing deeply in one’s heart, but rather it is demonstrated by our actions.
Mushāraṭah is to make a firm intention on a daily basis to stay away from all sin and do all our lawful duties. At the beginning of the day, we can address our nafs (inner self) directly, advising it to stay on the straight path throughout that day.
Setting a firm intention today for:
Murāqabah is one of the pillars of spiritual development. It is remaining vigilant throughout the day so that we avoid sin and ensure we perform our responsibilities. We see ourselves in the presence of Allah and try not to become heedless of that fact.
My actions requiring murāqabah:
Muḥāsabah is to take account of oneself. At the end of the day it is important to review one’s actions. If, God forbid, we made a mistake, we should ask for forgiveness. We may retrace our steps and try to look a little deeper to see what caused this slip and address that real core issue. If we see success and the favor of Allah in doing our responsibilities, we give credit where credit is due. We thank Allah for the success and praise Him. This helps us develop Islamic self-confidence where we realize Allah can do great things through us and our hands. His Grace is not limited. If we follow His commands, He will take our hands.
My actions that require muḥāsabah: