So you’re the cream of the theological crop. You’ve been studying or researching Islamic theology, whether basic or advanced, and you’ve become familiar with what a big fat lie atheism has turned out to be. Whether it’s been through YouTube videos and bloggers, or tomes on epistemology, ontology and theology, or you were blessed to just never have to deal with pesky modern doubts, you now no longer simply ‘believe’ in Allah. The existence of Allah just seems rationally obvious and watertight to you. And yet, something seems to be missing.
You are not alone. First, say Alhamdulillah with your heart. With the blessings of Allah, whatever you did worked, even if only for now until the next big fitnah. But that emptiness you feel in light of the intellectual certainty, what is that? Why is it so hard to ‘feel’ what you sincerely believe to be true?
This is something I have been struggling with for a few years. And I’ve come to understand the problem after having taken many of my students through the same intellectual journey. My students start as the average young skeptic you will find among most Muslim youth: questioning everything they possibly can about Islam after the last YouTube argument they found from either an Islamophobe or an Ex-Muslim. By the end, most of them (at least the academically attuned amongst them), develop very stable theological and ontological perspectives. But I noticed more of them coming to me for spiritual advice. It seems that I opened them up to the realization that even though they are now intellectually ripe, they may be spiritually starved.
They don’t want to leave Islam, and don’t see the rationale in doing so, but they seem to feel utterly disconnected from the Creator that they are so convinced exists.
So what is the solution? It’s one word, with what can end up being a complex discussion under it: Tasawwuf. But there is a lot of baggage from popular culture and the modern lifestyle as well. So let us try to be brief, quick and helpful. Even if the above is not your main concern, I hope this will be of benefit in providing structure to spiritual endeavours.
Tasawwuf is the ‘science’ of Islamic spirituality – and sadly it has earned a bad reputation through the commentary of the ignorant and internet trolls who keep sharing activities of fringe Sufi groups or out-of-context statements. But the truth is, there is no escaping that it is the official classical science of Islamic spirituality. And although one can study it as a science and study large tomes on it such as Imam al-Ghazzali’s multivolume masterpiece the Ihya-Ulum-ul-Din, it’s essence and mastery comes from practical implementation in your daily life. No book is going to magically transform you overnight – although in rare cases its possible. It can help to teach you or help you do dhikr or give you role models in stories, but the effort in the end will have to come from you, and you will have to make time for it in your busy daily schedule.
Without going into too many details and tangents, here are some core ‘pillars’ of Tasawwuf, that you can structure your journey with to becoming spiritually healthy and ‘connected’ with Allah on a personal level. Please note that they are not definitive and this is not an exhaustive list, and may differ depending on different scholars.
1) Suhbah – Companionship – Islam is a social religion, it’s not for loners. The company you keep often has a dramatic impact on your spiritual success. Firstly, ensure you have a mentor or murshid, for knowledge-based issues (so a qualified Mufti or scholar), and for spiritual-based issues (a specialist in the spiritual sciences), finding someone who has both is ideal. Although I don’t want to make people feel boxed in with their choices, the latter are difficult to find outside of Sufi gatherings and tariqahs, so find your local circles of Sufi Muslims and find your mentor there. Beware of false shaykhs though or overzealous ‘Sufis’ who transgress the bounds of the Shariah. If you are uncomfortable with Sufi tariqahs or Sufi circles in particular, find a scholar of Islam who demonstrates good spiritual habits and is well-read in the spiritual sciences, and accompany him/her. If there is no one in your vicinity (which for most Muslims should be rare) find one online and keep their company through seeking advice.
Other than a murshid, look to the company you keep, especially friends. Do your friends support you spiritually, like remind you to pray, inviting you to dhikr, telling you about conferences and classes on Islamic Studies, or are they a detriment to your soul, enticing you to sin, making you accustomed to immoral habits and attitudes, and gossiping behind everyone’s back? We may not be able to choose our families, but we can definitely choose our friends. I’m not asking you to make friends with religious robots, but normal people for whom the Creator and love of Him and His Messenger plays an important role in their lives.
Marry a righteous spouse with similar spiritual aspirations. Make your home a home of worship, dhikr, knowledge and illumination. Fill your life with excellence in companionship and building a connection with Allah will become an automatic activity.
2) Ilm – Knowledge – The pursuit of religious knowledge is the greatest supererogatory act of worship – Imam al-Nawawi. After learning your basic theology and fiqh, keep attending circles of knowledge to enrich your understanding of Islam and appreciate it more. Learn the Sirah, Tafsir, Hadith on a regular basis – even once a week is sufficient to keep you grounded – there is so much to do beyond the basic Islamic Education that every Muslim is supposed to have (see my article on being an ‘Informed Muslim’). Learn about the Names of Allah and the characteristics of His Prophet ﷺ. How you can build a deep personal connection with those who you don’t know? Read the odd book on Islamic topics now and then. The key is quality and consistency, and to reap the benefits from knowledge via practice and teaching to family and friends, not just acquire information to be stored in our heads.
Beware of those who masquerade as scholars, but are just simple Khatibs. Don’t be shy to politely and respectfully ask people for their credentials before you learn from them. Sometimes learning from unqualified folks can be more damaging than learning anything at all. Seek Allah’s help in looking for expertise and you will find it.
3) Dhikr – Remembrance – This is the heart of the pillars themselves. Dhikr is the essence of reviving the heart and souls. “Is it not except with dhikr that the hearts find tranquility.”
The essence of dhikr is in the heart. Dhikr just repeated on the tongue without presence, reflection over meanings and illumination in the heart is just words on the tongue. They might be ‘rewarded’ but they don’t achieve the goal of dhikr – to connect with Allah, His infinite majesty, might, and Power – to humble and annihiliate one’s self in His presence – only to be collected together by submission to His Will and Power and embrace the purity of tawakkul.
So begin by focusing on quality, rather than quantity, feel the echoes of every word in dhikr and its meaning reverberate through your heart, soul and being, and you will begin to witness the presence of Allah in your daily life. It can even be as simple as prolonging the sujud and taking serene quiet moments to reflect over the transcendent meanings of Subhana Rabbiyal-A’la.
Dhikr can be done as individuals or in groups, and variety is the key to ensure that the nafs does not get bored. Istighfar and tawbah are an important type of dhikr that should also be consistently done – the Prophet ﷺ himself used to seek forgiveness a hundred times a day – then what about us? Dua is another aspect of dhikr – but a different form, it is an excellent means of practically implementing one’s submission and helplessness to the Creator, and achieving tangible results in return.
Consistency is key. Having a daily wird or routine of dhikr and dua is critical for every Muslim. This should also be accompanied by the loftiest dhikr: the daily reading of the Qur’an and reflection over its meanings – even if by only a translation – although minor dhikr in Arabic should never be abandoned due to its ease and simplicity.
Dhikr is the forgotten essence of Islamic spirituality, especially in our busy distracted lives where the overburdening modern-lifestyle responsibilities of the dunya, the distractions of endless streaming entertainment, the inundation of information and images that plague our smartphone-addicted minds – can all distract the heart and keep it attached to the lowest plane of existence – the material – and the prevent it from ‘seeing’ into the higher planes of existence – the corporeal, the spiritual and the celestial. The modern world has caused our hearts to sputter and drown in shallow water, whereas it is only in deep contemplative waters with the dhikr of Allah to our hearts find serenity.
Dhikr and Dua are how we as human beings speak to and connect with our Creator. If you not with heartfelt presence speak to the One you seek, how can you expect a response?
4) Khalwah – Seclusion – Seclusion is the isolation of oneself and dedication of one’s time and essence to purely Allah and nothing else. The Prophet ﷺ is the best example in this case – he spent many nights – sometimes ten or a whole month at a time in the cave of Hira before revelation. He spent his nights in deep reflection over his self, the people, the natural world, Allah and His attributes before he received the gift of revelation.
Khalwah doesn’t have to be super prolonged or prohibitively long and distant. It can just be in the corner of one’s house, in the middle of the night, or just in the car for 15 minutes before work starts. The key is to utilize the time – while being relaxed and calm – for reflection over one’s spiritual journey, taking oneself to account for shortcomings, reflecting over spiritual goals, reflecting over the blessings hidden or open of Allah, reflections of self-improvement. The longer the better, but again, start small, build up slowly. Focus on quality and consistency more than anything else.
Make sure to leave all distractions behind. Take nothing but a Qur’an, prayer beads and a book of remembrances. If possible, let it be in a natural setting, where the signs of Allah are presented in a glorious display of natural beauty. Go for a walk in a park or near the beach and do your dhikr there.
As a whole, perhaps consider less time with a smartphone. Disconnect. Go on an internet or smartphone fast, either during Ramadan or outside of it. Spend more time doing nothing, or just being ‘bored’ i.e. alone with your thoughts and feelings about Allah, and less time with your mind constantly being busy and overburdened with useless information or problems that you can’t do anything about.
If you still have trouble connecting, consider seeing a psychiatrist. Some types of mild mood/bipolar disorders or depression can interfere with the connection of the mind to the heart. Some minds become so attached to being hyperactive or emotionally charged that they have a hard time slowing down and learning to live the moment, and reach into the spiritual plane of existence.
If necessary, try meditative techniques like mindfulness. Although Islamic ‘meditation’ via dhikr, dua and prayer is much more important and useful, there is no reason why a person cannot utilize mindfulness to help themselves attain a more ‘Islamic’ style of spiritual grounding and calmness.
5) Taqwa – Protecting oneself against disobedience – Efforts to become ‘spiritual’ may be fruitless or the devil’s deception if not accompanied by the observance of the Shariah. Give abandoning the major sins priority – not praying the five daily prayers, missing fasts in Ramadan without an excuse, backbiting/slandering others, dealing in riba, consuming intoxicants, having ill conduct towards one’s parents and cutting off family relations are all examples of major sins that the pursuit of spiritual development MUST prioritize the obedience of Allah and abandoning His disobedience. How can one expect to attain a loving personal relationship with Allah and to feel His presence in one’s life in we anger displease Him by disobeying His commands and prohibitions?
Don’t forget the sins of the heart – arrogance, riya or insincerity, hatred, envy, and a lack of mercy are all forms of sinful characteristics of the heart and soul. They may not manifest clearly in the bodily actions, or they may even be masked by apparent and deceiving excellence in bodily actions, but they can cause the heart and soul to rot and become corrupt from the inside.
Beyond the haram and the halal is the recommended and the disliked. Although few of us will reach this station, we should always try to be in this zone so that our obligatory acts will remain protected by a defensive wall of optional acts.
Furthermore, for the spiritually blessed, is the station of going beyond just the recommended acts and avoiding the disliked, to simply avoid wasting time in that which brings no fruit in the hereafter.
5) Mujahadah – Struggle against the self – A lot of people expect to become spiritual or connect with Allah without putting in the work and effort. One can’t listen to a lecture and expect to achieve a wishful ‘Eman High’. Such verbiage doesn’t exist in the science of Tasawwuf, and in fact the enlightened ‘hal’ that people experience and mistake to be high ‘Eman’ actually has a method to achieving it. You are currently reading it.
Yes, start simple, small and consistent, but that requires that giving spiritual development priority, and that arranging your schedule and daily activities to reflect that priority. A Muslim must then put in the necessary effort to ensure that they for example, pray their five daily prayers on time, and that they stop, relax, reflect over meanings and breathe during their prayers to allow for spiritual development to occur.
The most fundamental level of mujahadah is to at least be discontent with our current state. Only then can we move forward, and put in the necessary effort and work to steer away from major sins, obey our Creator, have a daily wird of dua, dhikr and Qur’an, and to resort back to these principles whenever we falter. It also requires effort, work and motivation to separate oneself from bad company, to seek out spiritual mentorship and maintain contact with it. Some people will require more effort than others, but there is a point where Allah’s help starts to make things easier.
One need only look at the life of the Prophet ﷺ to realize how much effort is required to achieve spiritual excellence. The Prophet ﷺ was the embodiment of this principle, tirelessly calling people to Islam, teaching, enduring harm, fighting in battles, suffering from hunger, and praying long nights where his feet would become red from the time he spent standing.
May Allah return us to the companionship of our beloved Messenger ﷺ in an eternal abode, and grant us the tawfiq and enlightenment to become spiritually attuned to His presence and to help us develop a personal relationship with Him.