Freedom from sin

by Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks

In talking about sin another urgent question needs to be looked at. Why and how do people fall into it? Knowledge of the causes and then of managing them wisely with the intention of ultimately removing them is one of the fundamental ways of overcoming the disease. There are both general and specific causes of sin whether they are sins of the body or sins of the heart. In this and the next essay we will look at the general causes. The specific causes of sin will be dealt with in future essays and as the need arises. Generally speaking people fall into a particular sin as a result of mainly four causes:

  1. Lack of knowledge
  2. The influences of Shaytan
  3. The nafs or lower self
  4. Friends and peer groups

Let us look briefly at each of these points starting with the first and second:

Lack of Knowledge.

Lack of knowledge is the great shortcoming of humankind. Educational systems of all types exist precisely to overcome this universal human weakness. Quite obviously sins cannot be avoided if they are not known to be sins. The beginning of right living or the persuance of the good life depends entirely on the degree of knowledge of the devotee. It has to be remembered though that knowledge can be both acquired (kasbi) or innate (fitri). Often people with a minutae of acquired knowledge feel dissatisfied with their lives. This dissatisfaction sometimes has its source in the innate knowledge of goodness and evil that every soul is inspired with. As Allah, the Most High, says: "And by the Soul and its creation in perfect proportion and balance, And the knowledge of evil and good He inspired into it." [Surah al-Shams,v 7-8]. Much of Islamic spirituality is geared to the awakening of that innate sense of good and evil. But this innate understanding of good and evil is not enough. Human nature is complex. Circumstance and upbringing can blind the fitrah. Some scholars hold that it can even be changed and distorted. As a result all of the well-known schools of spiritual development or tariqah (pl. turuq) as they are known stipulates the acquisition of a basic knowledge of Islam before higher instruction is given. And this, with good reason, if only to ensure that the student has a firm foundation on which to develop. It is hoped of-course that a basic knowledge of sin has been clearly described in the previous essays in this series.

Learning and acquiring knowledge is obligatory in Islam. One cannot go to the masjid everyday for the daily salah and neglect the important duty of gaining more knowledge. The two must go together. Doing the one and neglecting the other and still imagining that we are improving as Muslims is one of the great delusions of our time. The Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him said, " Seeking knowledge is an obligation on every Muslim male and female"[ Narrated by Bukhari]. In this hadith we have one of the rare occasions where the Nabi, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, specifically uses the Arabic term "faridah" or "obligation" mainly to underline the importance of knowledge.

Shaytan and the heart

In order to explain in meaningful terms the relationship between our heart and the workings of Shaytan, Ibn Qudama compares the heart to a fortress. He says " Know that the heart is like a fortress. The Shaytan is the enemy who wants to invade the fortress, own, and control it. And there is no way to protect the fortress except by guarding the entrances. The doors cannot be guarded if we are ignorant of them and the Shaytan cannot be repelled except through knowledge of his routes of penetration. The doors and pathways of the Shaytan are the qualities of the slave and they are many." [Mukhtasar minhaj al-qasidin, Abridgement of the path of the seekers, Ibn Qudama, pg. 193-194].

Traditionally the word heart (qalb) has a number of different applications. In this passage the author uses it to refer to the entire non-physical part of us. And we know the heart in this sense is both susceptible to higher influences in the form of guidance from Allah, the Most High, and tends to rebel against that guidance through its desires and passions. Now the point of the author is that Shaytan is able to influence us and work his tricks of illusion and deception precisely because we are not vigilant enough and not knowledgeable enough of our shortcomings and of our negative qualities. Take for example envy and greed. When these shortcomings are stimulated for some reason. We become, for example, envious of the wealth, fame or knowledge of another individual, or we become greedy for more worldly possessions. The first thing that then happens is the natural light (nur) of the heart becomes dim. It must be remembered here that innately (bil-fitrah) we are equipped to know the Devils ruse. Every human being is gifted with the light (nur) of insight. This insight however, is blocked and even seriously impaired if greed and envy gets the upperhand over us. Once this happens, once we fall victim to envy and greed and many other negative qualities – such as fascination with money, impatience, suspicion, bad-temper and so forth - Shaytan comes into our hearts and beautifies the actions that result from these blameworthy attributes. Whether the actions we want to take are haram or ugly in the extreme, we will do them because Shaytan makes them appear acceptable to us. The result is we adopt a sinful path while at the same ironically thinking we are living the good life.

Much of what we are still going to discuss in this column is going to deal with the crucial subject of self-discipline and self-knowledge and how these can be harnessed to overcome the influences of Shaytan.

The nafs (the self)

The Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, said in a tradition narrated by al-Baihaqi , " Your worst enemy is your nafs within you". In another tradition he, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, is reported to have said, " We now return from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad, the jihad against the nafs". Another hadith, about which Imam Nawawi expressed reservations and which Imam al-Mawardi in his Adab al-dunya wa al-din argues is sound at least in its meaning, says, " He who knows himself knows his Lord". The person who knows and comes to realise the essential weakness, insignificance, powerlessness and impermanence of himself (his nafs) will realise and know the Strength, Greatness, Power and Permanence of Allah, the Most High. In other words one of the paths to knowledge of Allah, the Most High, is honest self-reflection and knowledge of the self (nafs). If this is true then the converse is equally true. The individual who is ignorant of himself (his nafs) will be ignorant of Allah, the Most High. These traditions and meanings are adequate proof of the importance of acquiring a good working knowledge of the nafs, its nature and ways of curing its illnesses.

In the Quran Allah, the Most High says, "O peaceful nafs (al-nafs al-mutma’innah) return to your Lord, satisfied and satisfied with. Enter into my jannah enter together with my slaves". In another verse Allah, the Most High, revealed that Zulaykhah said, " Surely it is the nafs (al-nafs al-ammarah bi al-su’) that commands with evil". In surah al-qiyamah Allah, the Most High, says, " Verily I swear by the the day of judgement and verily I swear by the reproaching self (al-nafs al-lawwamah)". Taken together these verses show the different phases and modes of the nafs. At one level of development it is completely at peace and at another level it is fiery, passionate and incitely. It drives one to cross the boundaries of good. In the other verse Allah, Most High swears by the reproaching nafs or the conscience as we would say today. We know that Allah, the Most High, in some instances swears by certain things to underline its importance. In this surah the day of judgement and the conscience is mentioned together and both of these realities we know play key roles in the process of moral and ethical transformation.

What then is the nafs? Opinions have differed on this crucial issue. A good working definition is given by Shaykh al-Kurdi, he says, " Know that the nafs is a divine subtlety and it is the ruh (human spirit) before it entered and became connected to the body. And Allah, the Most High, created the spirits before the physical bodies during which time it was near and close to Allah, the Most High. When He ordered them to connect and be associated with the physical body they perceived the world and became veiled from the Divine Presence as a result of attachment to the physical world…..".

To clarify all of this we have to bear in mind the following points. Everyone of us have basically two sides to him or herself. On the one hand is the physical body, which forms the subject of modern medicine, and on the other hand there is the non-physical side which psychologists and others attempt to understand. Our non-physical self we know as our emotions, our thoughts and feelings, our passions and desires even our complexes. These non-physical elements we collectively refer to as our "self". The earlier and later scholars of tassawuf used the term’s al-nafs al-insani (human soul) to refer to our emotional and rational nature and the term al-nafs al-hayawani (vital or animal soul) to refer to the element that animates the body and gives it perception. The vital soul is also the source according to them of our passions and physical drives like hunger, anger and sex. Now the "nafs" according to al-Kurdi includes or comprises of both of these dimensions. It is one integral entity also called the "ruh" or spirit when it is still in its pure state prior to creation. Once the "ruh" enters the body and gives it life it acquires a new character. It aquires an outer dimension called the vital soul (al-nafs al-hayawani) and an inner dimension called human soul (al-nafs al-insani). Now as a result of these changes the "ruh" is now called the "nafs".

As a footnote we must bear in mind that the word "qalb" or heart is also often used to refer to our inner selves or our emotions, rationality and beyond. The word "nafs" or self is also often used to refer specifically to the outer vital soul or our passions and desires.

In all of this it crucial to understand that our passions and our desires, our thoughts and emotions, if kept unchecked and undisciplined and unpurified, are the most important source of sin. Our thoughts and emotions can reach great and noble heights only if we are able to free them from the incessant fire of our drives and passions. When we are dominated by our passions and desires we are at the level of developement called al-nafs al-ammarah bi al-su’ or the evil self. In this condition our passions determine the way we think and feel and consequently act. The great vices of pride, arrogance, envy, slothfullness, hate and greed develope. This is the veil that imprisons us and prevents the nur of the Divine Presence from penetrating our hearts and minds.

And as we are subjected to the discipline of knowledge, salah, fasting and other ‘ibadaat we gain mastery and greater control over our selves. As a result our thoughts and feelings are increasingly purified, deeper levels of the "ruh" or "nafs" are uncovered or if you will deeper functions of the mind are realized and awakened. Once the passions quieten down and the inherent tendencies of the "ruh" start to emerge and awaken we have progressed to the level of al-nafs al-mutma’innah or the peaceful self.

Friends and peer groups

The final general cause of sin we having a look at is the impact of social circles on the direction people take in their lives. It is crucial that we look at this matter in a balanced and mature fashion. Many parents we talk to have the tendency to place all the blame of their childs misbehavior on the circle of friends. This is not entirely correct, indeed in this kind of judgement we are denying our children their independence and their sense of individual responsibility. The same points apply in the case of the disgruntled wife towards her husband and vice versa. In saying this we are not denying that the group has an impact. The point here is that we have to look at both the individual and the social circle. In the previous essay we briefly looked at the nafs and its basic impulses and drives and how that impacts on our behavior and our relationship with Allah, the Most High. This is sufficient to prove that the individual carries a large portion of the responsibility. We need to work hard on excavating and reviving our own spiritual tendencies and on disciplining the rebellious elements in our selves. We also have the added responsibility of assisting our families to those same ends. Much of the work starts in the family and on the relationships inside the family. It amounts to denial to simply blame the circle of friends for all the woes of the world. This however is not the complete tale. It would be equally shortsighted to ignore the influences outside the family.

Imam Ghazali, may Allah be satisfied with him, in his excellent book " The beginning of guidance" recognizes that in addition to basic requirement of being faithful to the commands of Allah, the Most High, who we mix with and on what basis we mix with them is fundamental to the spiritual life. Lets start with a verse from the Quran. Allah, the Most High says in Surah al-Kahf, verse 28, " And tie yourself to those who call on their Lord in the mornings and at night seeking only His Face…" and towards the end of the same verse He, the Most High, says, "…. And do not follow (obey) those whom we closed off their hearts from Our remembrance and who follow their own whims and desires…". It is clear from this verse that Allah instructs his Nabi, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, and consequently the entire ummah to associate with others on the basis of certain criteria. On the one hand we are instructed to associate with the spiritually enlightened and on the other to break ties with the spiritually dead. The word used in the verse to connote spiritual blindness is "ghaflah". The meanings of this term include the shortcomings of negligence, forgetfulness, and intellectual blindness. It is also instructive to note that these traits form the basis of the unrepentant sinful life. So we are obliged to be discriminatory in the choice of our associations and that for a very important reason. Both Imams Bukhari and Muslim, may Allah be satisfied with them, narrates a hadith of Abu Musa al-Ash’ari, may Allah be pleased with his soul, that the Nabi, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, said, " The example of a good companion (jalis) and a bad one is like a perfume vendor and a blacksmith. The perfume vendor either gives you something or you purchase an item from him or you receive a pleasant fragrance from him. The blacksmith however either burns your clothes or you acquire a bad smelling odor from him." In another tradition narrated by Abu Daud and Tirmidhi, may Allah be satisfied with them, the Nabi said, " A man adopts the din of his close friends, so look carefully at the person you befriend." A third tradition I want to cite here from the collections of both Bukhari and Muslim is one often not seen in this context and a hadith I believe to be critical in any discussion of companionship and friendship. Abu Hurairah, may Allah be pleased with him, narrates that the Nabi said, " Women are married for their wealth, pedigree, beauty and din, go and marry them for their din and you will succeed." The lessons from these prophetic traditions are numerous. We will consider a few relevant to the issue under discussion. It is human nature to absorb to a degree the qualities of people we respect, admire, and regularly associate with. This process of absorption is effectively compared by the Nabi to the way perfume and the stench of the blacksmith’s shop or even the smoke and smell of burning wood clings to one’s clothes. It is also generally accepted that although temperament fails to escape the laws of hereditary, environment can effectively change and fundamentally modify those traits. If one is serious about one’s spirituality and moral development and that of one’s children we have to choose our friends and associates. All of these sayings directly teach against passive friendships. It’s not a good practice just to fall into a friendship or companionship no matter how the person’s style or personality impresses one. Suhbah or companionship is encouraged in Islam. Friendship is to be valued and respected. They fulfill all sorts of needs the individual might have. But all this goes with a price. The central focus of a Muslim ought to be his din for the simple reason that din is ultimately his vehicle of nearness to Allah, the Most High. This principle is given an interesting context in the third hadith quoted earlier. After indicating the common and largely materialistic motives of the choice of partners, the Nabi says ". Go marry them for their din…". The reason for this, Imam Nawawi in his " Gardens of the Pious" indicates is precisely because our wives are our closest companions. And when she is strongly orientated towards the religious life we should actively seek her companionship to improve our own.

Passive friendships, refusal to exercise our intellects in the choice of friendships and indiscrimination in the choice of marital partners can open up all the woes of a sinful and spiritually alienated life.

Ghazali however reminds us in his "Beginning of guidance", " Know that your Companion that never leaves you whether you are travelling or staying at home, asleep or awake, indeed in life as in death is your Lord, Master, Owner and Creator, and whenever you perform remembrance of Him, He is your company. And He, the Most High, has said so ( Imam Ghazali is referring to a hadith qudsi here), " I am the jalis ( someone who regularly sits with one) of the person who remembers Me."

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