The path espoused by the Quran and Sunnah for purifying one’s soul is amazingly very clear and actually easy to follow for all those whose intentions are pure. Indeed, it is a path that is open for every human to follow. It basically is comprised of three components: (1) purification of one’s beliefs; (2) drawing closer to Allah by performing the obligatory deeds and (3) drawing even closer to Allah by the voluntary deeds.
The Proper Belief in Allah
The proper belief in Allah is without a doubt the first aspect on the road to self-purification and the key to real success and happiness in this life and in the Hereafter.
“He has certainly succeeded who has purified himself”
The Quranic commentators note that this is referring first to purifying oneself from shirk (associating partners with Allah) and kufr (disbelief). It has been narrated that ibn Abbaas explained this verse by saying, “Whoever purifies himself from shirk.”
Indeed, it has been deviations from the correct belief in God that has misled most of humankind. In other words, for much of humankind today, it is not the case that they do not believe in God but it is the case that their belief, based on their own whims and desires or their choice to blindly follow others, is distorted and not based on any true source of knowledge concerning God. For example, many people today believe that as long as a person is a “nice” person and does not do harm to others, God would never be displeased with such a person and they will enter Paradise or achieve some kind of bliss.
Thus, having the proper belief about God does not even enter into the equation, as long as the person is a “nice” person. Actually, a person could be a devil worshipper or a believer in one hundred idols yet all of that does not seem to matter. Although one may commonly hear such ideas expressed, all such thoughts are simply the people’s own suppositions about God. They are false and have no proof to support them.
In reality, the acceptance of this fact—that there is none worthy of worship except Allah, the first statement of the testimony of faith—is the first step in becoming a Muslim and on the road to purification of the soul, purifying one’s beliefs and one’s heart from any form of shirk or associating partners with Allah.
Associating partners with Allah is a great form of wrongdoing. In particular, one is completely wronging one’s own soul and dignity by submitting to and worshipping beings that do not deserve a human’s worship whatsoever. Allah has stated in the Quran, while quoting Luqmaan,
“Indeed associating [partners with Allah] is a great wrongdoing”
On the other end of the spectrum there is the committing of shirk, which includes all of the other beliefs prevalent in the world today. This includes the other “monotheistic” faiths of Judaism and Christianity. Those who commit shirk go to an extreme for which, in truth, there is no excuse. Their own souls and beings know that their shirk is completely repugnant and that they are following it only to satisfy some lowly desires. Hence, Allah will forgive any sin except shirk.
Allah says, “Allah does not forgive that partners should be set up with Him; but He forgives whatever is less than that for whom He pleases; to set up partners with Allah is to devise a sin most heinous indeed”
Those who commit shirk are deserving of an eternal damnation as it was their intention to forever remain along the path of their false beliefs. Hence, Allah has forbidden His pleasure and paradise for them, saying,
“Whoever joins others with Allah, Allah will forbid him the Garden, and the Fire will be his abode. There will for the wrongdoers be no one to help”
Once again, therefore, without this first step of purification—the purification of one’s beliefs at least to the extent of removing all forms of shirk—nothing else will be of any avail. The heart must be purified first with tauheed before one can truly move on to anything else. If that is not done first, then all of the following steps will be in vain. Any deed that is not done purely and solely for the sake of Allah will be in vain and rejected by Allah. A hadith states that Allah has said, “I am the most self-sufficient and am in no need of having a partner. Whoever does a deed for My sake as well as for someone [or something] else will have that action rejected by Me with the one he associates [with Allah].”
The Proper Attitude Toward the Messenger (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him)
Directly related to the belief in tauheed and directly related to the question of purification of the soul is one’s attitude toward the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). One does not become a Muslim and one does not begin on the path of purification until he makes the testimony of faith. This testimony is composed of two very different but essential components: “I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” By making this testimony, the person is affirming his intent to worship none other than Allah as well as to worship Allah in the manner set forth by the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). With respect to both matters, the individual dedicates himself to Allah via the teachings that have come through the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).
Hence, everyone has to understand who the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was and what is his role in purifying one’s soul. His role is simple: His is the human example that every Muslim must aspire to as his way was based on guidance from Allah. His life and behavior is the one showing all Muslims the proper way to purify their souls. This is true whether one is speaking about how to pray, fast, fight, order good, become patient, earn Allah’s love, become a devout worshipper, deal with friends, associates, family, orphans and so forth.
Commenting on the phenomenon of failing to recognize or turn to the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) as the teacher of purification of the soul, ibn al-Qayyim wrote,
The concept of purification of the souls must be submitted to the way of the messengers. Allah has sent them alone for the purpose of this purification and has put them in charge of it. He has placed in their hands the call, teachings and clarification. They have been sent to cure the souls of the nations. Allah says, “It is He Who has sent among the Unlettered a messenger from among themselves, to rehearse to them His Signs, to purify them, and to instruct them in the Book and Wisdom, although they had been before in manifest error” (al-Jumu’ah 2). Purification of the soul is more difficult and harder than curing one’s physical body. Whoever [tries to] purify his soul via spiritual exercises, striving and seclusion which the messengers never taught is like a sick person who tries to cure himself based on his own personal opinion. What is the place of his opinion with respect to the knowledge of the physician? The messengers are the physicians of the hearts. There is no way to purify the hearts or make them sound except via their paths and at their hands, with a complete submission and obedience to them.
Furthermore, Allah makes it clear that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was sent to these people to be an example par excellence for anyone who wants to come closer to Allah and be successful in the Hereafter. Allah says, “You have indeed in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful pattern (of conduct) for any one whose hope is in Allah and the Final Day, and who engages much in the remembrance of Allah” (al-Ahzaab 21). Hence, the true believer would do his best to emulate the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) in all matters of his life as sanctioned by the Sharee’ah. This desire to emulate is called “pursuance” by Islahi and he explains it thusly,
The scope of pursuance is much wider than that of obedience. Under obedience fall only those things which are in the nature of Commandments, highly stressed duties and the do’s and don’ts, but in the ambit of pursuance fall even the commendatory and non-obligatory acts… Man may obey something without the least tinge of sincerity and love in it. But in pursuance the sentiments of reverence and regard for the pursued in one’s life is an essential condition…
The reason behind the zest of the Companions in the pursuance of the Prophet was the love of God, and to become a beloved of His could not be attained only through obedience to the Prophet, but in fact through following him sincerely in all walks of life. The Prophet is the embodiment of the cognition of God and every air and style of his is the sign of such cognition. That is why those who love God love every iota in the life of the Prophet. In the life of the Prophet they observe the knowledge that is acquired through the cognition of God; they notice actions that result from such cognition and they watch habits that God is pleased with… And since they do it all for the love of God, they are rewarded by Him and become His beloved. It is this fact brought out in the following verse of the Quran:
“Say (O Mohammad), ‘If you love God, follow me: God will love you’”
There is another important fact that definitively needs to be emphasized concerning the belief in the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). He is not just an example, but he is the example. There is no manner of living and no belief system that is superior to that of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). Furthermore, there is no individual who was closer and more beloved to Allah than the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).
A person will not be able to completely internalize this and act upon this concept until he has a strong love and appreciation for the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). In fact, this love for the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) is a requirement of the faith itself. In other words, one’s faith cannot be proper without it and one cannot purify himself without it. The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) himself said, “None of you are true believers until I am more beloved to him than his father, his children and all of mankind.”
On this point, also, Islahi has made an excellent comment, noting that the love for the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) is a love based on intellect and principles which a person comes to foster with a principle or an ideology, and because of which he keeps that principle and that particular ideology predominant everywhere in his life, and sacrifices every other principle, way of life or desire to that cherished principle or way of life, but not vice versa. For the promotion and upliftment of this principle and ideology he can see everything else degraded but cannot tolerate the degradation of his cherished ideology. If his own self is in the way of his ideology he gives it a fight, and if others stand in the way to block it he fights them, so much so that even if the demands of his own wife and children and relatives collide with the demands of this ideology, he stands on the side of his ideology to support it and without any pangs of love and regards, spurns the wishes of his wife and children and the demands of his tribe and nation.
When a love of this nature is truly internalized, it becomes natural for the person to emulate and imitate his object of admiration. One see this phenomenon in all walks of life. This explains why fans, for example, want to know so many details about the actors, athletes or stars that they idolize. Part of the goal is to know about them and part of the goal is to try to emulate them as much as possible. This feeling of devotion and willingness to emulate must be even greater for the person who realizes that via emulation and following of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) he can conquer the true way to spiritual purification.
In sum, in order to truly purify one’s soul, one must make sure that one’s attitude toward the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) is correct. One must have belief in the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and that belief must be correct. One must also obey the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), seek to emulate him and love him and his way. When all of these matters are fulfilled, one is on the firmest path leading to the purification of the soul, which in itself was one of the main purposes for the sending of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).
Murad offers one more interesting point concerning the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and his role in the purification of one’s soul. After discussing the materialism of Western societies, how such societies are even creeping upon the Muslim world and how the West’s ultimate emphasis upon what can be materially measured and denial of the unseen is the antithesis of Islam, he noted,
Once you have chosen to live in a “Western type” society, the only source of light for you is the Messenger of Allah. He was also faced with an almost similar situation. As he came down from the cave of Hira’, after his experience of receiving the light of Divine guidance, he re-entered a culture and society which were quite “alien” to his Message. His Message began by linking the whole of life to the name of Allah. That was the starting point. All knowledge, all culture, all civilisation and all human action must be centred on one pivot and that is the name of Allah. This was a totally strange Message for the society in which he had to operate. So, we need to look at the Prophet’s Sunnah in the context of operating in an “alien” society and see how we can practise a genuine Islamic culture…
Secondly, while living in an “alien” culture, you have to preserve your Islamic identity—not only through rational arguments, but through emotional, cultural and civilisational symbols. It is only the Sunnah that can provide these emotional and civilisational symbols through which you will not only preserve your identity but strengthen and advance it.
- For the explanation of this verse and why it must be in reference to disbelief and idolatry, see al-Fakhar al-Raazi, Al-Tafseer al-Kabeer (Beirut: Daar Ihyaa al-Turaath al-Arabi, n.d.), vol. 31, pp. 146-147. Cf., also, Jalaal al-Deen al-Suyooti, al-Durr fi al-Tafseer al-Mathoor (Beirut: Daar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyyah, 1990), vol. 6, p. 567-568.
- Quoted in al-Tabari, vol. 15, p. 156.
- This author has heard this statement from numerous people who are adherents of Christianity, Judaism and, amazingly, Islam.
- Recorded by Muslim.
- Ibn al-Qayyim, Madaarij, vol. 2, p. 315.
- There are some matters that are specific to the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) only and there are some acts of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) that were due to custom, for example, and not necessarily meant as exemplary for all peoples.
- Islahi, pp. 92-93.
- The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, “Allah took me as His most intimate friend (khaleel) as He had earlier taken Abraham as His most intimate friend.” (Recorded by Muslim.) The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) also said, “If I were to take an inhabitant of the Earth as my most intimate friend, I would choose Abu Bakr. But Allah, the Most Gracious, has taken your companion [that is, the Prophet] as His most intimate friend.” (Recorded by Muslim.)
- Recorded by al-Bukhari and Muslim.
- Islahi, pp. 95-96.
- Islahi (p. 96) noted, “Obedience without love is hypocrisy and love without obedience and pursuance [that is, emulation] is innovation.”
- Murad, pp. 91-93.