Continuing our Ramadaan series, this post continues the book entitled “Purification of the Heart: Signs, Symptoms and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart” – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson‘s translation and commentary of Imam Muḥammad Mawlūd’s didactic poem “Matharat al-Qulub” (purification of the heart). The Imam was a 19th century Mauritanian scholar. For notes on the copyright status of the book, as well as links to purchase your own copy, please see the introductory post of the series.
Comprehensive Treatment for the Heart
POEM VERSES 170–175 A comprehensive treatment plan for the heart’s diseases is to deny the self of its desires, Enjoin hunger, keep worship vigilance in the night, be silent, and meditate in private; Also keep company with good people who possess sincerity, those who are emulated in their states and statements; And, finally, take refuge in the One unto whom all affairs return. That is the most beneficial treatment for all of the previous diseases. This must be to the point in which you are like a man drowning or someone lost in a barren desert and see no source of succor Except from the Guardian, possessor of the greatest power. He is the One who responds to the call of the distressed.
Imam Mawlūd’s approach in offering the cures for these diseases is like the story of the Gordian Knot of the kingdom of Phrygia, whose king offered his dominion to whoever was able to unravel the knot. Many tried and failed. When Alexander the Great was shown the knot, he pulled out his sword and cut through it. Diseases of the heart are like the Gordian Knot, and the best way to treat them is to cut through them. Imam Mawlūd completes his discussion on the various diseases and turns his attention to a comprehensive treatment plan for the heart, which focuses on curbing the soul from its own excessive desires. To accomplish this, he states that one must engage in hunger, vigilance during the nights, silence, and meditation in private. The Prophet said, “None of you [fully] believes until his desires are in accordance with what I have brought.” Hence, one’s faith is not complete until his desires do not conflict with the message the Prophet was given. The way to achieve this alignment is to prohibit the soul of all things that are not in accordance with Islam, whether its law or its spirit. One should persist in this until the desire is tamed and compliant with divine dictates: “As for he who transgresses and prefers the life of this world, Hell is [his] abode. And as for he who fears standing before his Lord and refrains his soul from passions, Paradise is [his] abode” (QUR’AN , 79:37–41). Severing the bonds of slavery to the whims of the soul leads to happiness.
A typical bookstore usually carries several books that deal with people’s addictions and their inability to control themselves. This publishing phenomenon is a response to social realities. For Muslims, it is prayer that teaches one how to become disciplined with one’s hours and days. Islam offers cleanliness through ablution and a consciousness of the passing of hours. Fasting is a universe in itself, a realm in which one learns about discipline in the most direct way with regard to the tongue, stomach, genitals, and eyes. Islam places great emphasis on discipline because there is so much at stake. Without discipline, religion is impossible.
According to Christian tradition, the seven deadly sins comprise arrogance, anger, envy, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust. The last two relate to one’s base desires, and they are the chief desires of the soul. Gluttony and lust are founded upon natural inclinations of hunger and sexual attraction. The pathology related to them, however, pertains to excessiveness therein and satisfying one’s urges in a forbidden manner. Imam al-Ghazālī dealt with these impulses at great length in a section of his Iḥyā’ ʿUlūm al-Dīn, which has been translated masterfully by T. J. Winter: Breaking the Two Desires (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1995).
The stomach is the source of one’s primary impulse. If one can learn to control the desire for food, other issues of disciplines begin to fall into place as well, for gluttony is the fuel for lust, and fasting breaks gluttony. The Prophet advised that unmarried people fast frequently in order to keep their sexual desires in check. Imam al- Qushayrī said, “For me to raise my hand from my plate while I am still hungry is better than the whole night in prayer.”
Spiritual masters traditionally have focused on hunger. The goal is not to create a nation of anorexics but to cut the knot that binds self-discipline. We do things often out of blind conditioning. When it comes to food, many have been drilled into believing that three meals are not only normal, but necessary for proper nutritional fulfillment. However, this is not true. The caloric intake of an average American far exceeds what is needed for physiological wellbeing. As a result, America is now recognized as the most obese nation on earth, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Once the Prophet served a bowl of milk to a guest from Yemen who was not Muslim. When the man finished drinking, the Prophet asked if he wanted more, and the man said he would. This continued until the guest drank seven bowls of milk, which was far more than what he needed. However, this man later became Muslim, and the Companions noticed that thereafter he drank only one bowl of milk. The Prophet told them, “The disbeliever eats with seven intestines, while the believer eats with one.”
People nowadays consume much more food than ever before, and this is especially the case with meat. In the past, meat was eaten infrequently even by the affluent, who had it once or twice a week. The poor ate meat once or twice a year, mainly around the time of Eid. Furthermore, snacking has become so common now that many do not go for more than a few hours without consuming something. Convenience stores and vending machines are found everywhere. This abundance was unheard of not long ago. All of this has virtually turned people into grazing animals, which is an anathema to spiritual wellness.
In their study of eating habits, sociologists have found that the average American has twenty food contacts a day. In most traditional cultures, meals were set for specific times, and eating between meals was not acceptable. Nowadays, for many, having a meal has been dispossessed of formality. Within the family, it no longer serves a social purpose for many. Family members can reside in the same home yet live virtually apart from one another so that there is barely any interaction between parents and children and among siblings and any other relatives. There is now a much more callous relationship between human beings and their meals, a disconnection from the source of their nutrition and insensitivity to the flesh they eat.
The combination of overeating and breakdown of table manners impairs one’s ability to build fortitude. A Muslim should begin each meal, saying, “In the name of God.” The purpose of this, besides sanctifying a mundane act, is to consciously remember the source of the provision, one’s Lord. Instead of eating alone, one should attempt to find company to share the meal with. When the meal is complete, one should praise God. If one is hosted, one should thank the hosts and pray for them.
Ramadan is a time to experience hunger with good cheer and renewed gratitude, a time to divorce oneself from the world and be reminded of one’s spiritual soul. However, one can rob Ramadan of an important benefit by overeating at night in order to make up for what was missed during the day. The nights can become lengthy buffets and worship vigils become secondary (or ignored).
People who have a problem with excessive eating should start at least by lessening the portion of what they normally eat, which is the beginning of discipline. It is also advised to eat with other people, for eating with guests would make a person more conscious of being a glutton. Also, the more people who sit around a table, the greater the blessings (barakah). Finally, one should decrease the number of meals in a day.
It is not surprising that Imam Mawlūd mentions hunger first among the comprehensive treatments for the heart. Eating is one of the most abused behaviors. We are conditioned to think that hunger is sated only when we feel full. One typical meal served in an average American restaurant can feed a family in West Africa.
Imam Mawlūd mentions next the night prayer vigil. If one wishes to enliven the heart, then one should give it time with its Lord in the stillness of the dark, even if it is only two rakʿahs. Imam Mālik says to never leave the night prayer vigil even for a little time. Being consistent with the night prayer (and all other meritorious things) is important. It is better to rise at night for just ten minutes on a regular basis than to stay up for hours one night and then sleep the next night. The performance of this prayer on a patchwork basis results in little benefit. Sīdī Aḥmad Zarrūq said it is like “drilling here and there, never finding water anywhere.”
The Prophet said, “Spread peace, feed needy people, and pray at night when others are asleep, and you will enter Paradise with ease.” In the Qur’an, the Prophet’s Night Prayer is associated with the elevated rank he shall be granted by God: “And in a portion of the night, rise therein for Night Prayer—an extra act of devotion for you. It may be that your Lord shall raise you to a praiseworthy station” (QUR’AN , 17:79). God, the Exalted, commends those who deprive their sides from their beds, resist sleep (which the body loves), and rise for prayer (QUR’AN, 32:16).
It is not our tradition for one to be excessive in spiritual practices, such that one is deprived of sleep to the point of becoming psychotic or deprived of food to the point that one’s health is damaged. On the contrary, one should learn to control the soul’s desires and not be controlled by them. The Prophet said that our bodies have rights over us: they are food, drink, and companionship.
Not all of the Companions performed the night prayer, but many did. For us, what is rational and reasonable is to have some steady practice. It is good to start with short suras of the Qur’an during the prayer. If one makes a habit of spending a portion of the night in prayer and happens to oversleep until the time of dawn prayer, then it is permissible to perform the night prayer vigil before the dawn prayer, as long as one has enough time to pray the dawn prayer comfortably. This is a valid opinion.
There is a hadith in which the Prophet said about ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿUmar that he was an excellent man, “but if only he were to spend time in night prayer.” Scholars take from this hadith that a person can be excellent even if he does not practice the night prayer, but that an excellent person would be exceptional if he or she prayed it. When ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿUmar heard the Prophet’s statement, he never once deserted the night prayer (qiyām). Also there is the famous hadith of ʿĀ’ishah who said that the Prophet used to stand in prayer for so long that his feet would swell. She said to him, “O Messenger of God, why pray so long when God has forgiven everything you have done in the past and the future?” The Prophet said, “Should I not be a grateful servant?”
Scholars say that anytime after evening prayers (ʿishā’) is considered time for the night prayer vigil (qiyām). Some say, however, that one should actually sleep then get up, while others say that sleep is not a requirement. People differ in what they are capable of doing. For physiological reasons, some have an especially difficult time waking up for qiyām. For them, perhaps, it is better to pray qiyām before they sleep. For other people, it is easy to rise an hour or two before dawn. Right before dawn, sleep is the heaviest. Imam Ibn ʿAṭā’allāh said there is great wisdom that God, the Exalted, obliges us to rouse ourselves from sleep when it is most difficult: mind over matter. The self-discipline gained from this practice is very important to us.
In an attempt to keep a worshipper in slumber, Satan ties three heavy knots on one’s head. The Prophet said that when one wakes up and says the supplication for awakening, “Praise be to God who has restored life to me after He has taken my soul, and to Him is the resurrection,” one knot is undone. When one makes ablution, the second knot is undone. And when one performs the prayer, the third knot is undone.
The Prophet often recited the closing verses of the third sura of the Qur’an (Āl ʿImrān) and was very moved by them. The Prophet’s Companion, Bilāl, came to the Prophet’s home to announce the coming of prayer. Bilāl saw that the Prophet had been weeping and asked him, “You weep while God has forgiven you for all of your past and your future?” The Prophet said to him, “O Bilāl! Shall I not be a grateful servant while God has revealed to me this night verses [of the Qur’an],” that is, the closing verses of Āl ʿImrān (3:190–200). “Woe to him who reads these verses and does not ponder them!”
The night prayer vigil, like other acts of worship, is a gift that can be taken away when, for example, the worshipper starts to backbite, gossip, slander, consume unlawful food, earn illicit wealth, and so on. One who has established an excellent regimen of worship may suddenly find oneself unable to continue. It may be that the blessing of being able to perform this righteous practice is removed because of something bad one had done. When this occurs, one should repent and strive to restore the practice. A scholar said, “I once said something about someone I should not have said, and I was deprived of the night prayer for forty days.” A man said that at the end of his life he went bankrupt because decades before he called out to a man, “Yā muflis” or “O bankrupt one!”
It is recommended that the last prayer be the witr prayer (the final prayer of the evening). It is also preferred that the witr prayer be performed immediately before dawn breaks. This requires that a person get up for night prayer. But if a person does not have a night prayer regimen, then it is acceptable to pray the witr before sleeping.
Shaykh al-Ḥabīb said, “Take the path of ease with yourself in order for you to progress in your yearnings.” One should not push oneself to the point that supererogatory vigils are a chore instead of a delight. He then said, “A prayer performed with love is better than a thousand devoid of it.” Moderation ensures consistency and, as a result, the reaching of one’s destination.
Imam Mawlūd mentions next the importance of silence. The Prophet said, “If a person is given silence, he is given wisdom.” The tongue is a great temptation. It is easy to say something that brings ruin upon its speaker. Learning how to control the tongue is an enormous discipline. Imam al-Shāfiʿī said that whenever he was in a gathering and wanted to say something, he would check his soul and be sure that his intentions were pure and were not to prove himself or flaunt his knowledge. Imam al-Shāfiʿī was a man of great intelligence and encyclopedic knowledge, yet he often enjoined silence upon himself. He once said, “I never had a debate with anyone except that I prayed to God that He make the truth appear on the tongue of my opponent so I could submit to it.”
When the Prophet spoke, he always said the truth, even in levity. He disliked verbosity and cautioned his Companions about the tongue and what it earns. If it is words for the sake of words, it is a waste of time and a sign of bad character. Imam Mālik said about one of his students, “He is a good man except he speaks a month’s worth of words in a day.”
Imam Mawlūd mentions spiritual isolation for the purpose of reflection. Some remember death through visualization, using the puissance of imagination for visualizing their bodies washed, wrapped, and lowered in the grave. Others reflect on the attributes of God, the Exalted, by methodically pondering the meanings of each of His divine names that speak of God’s awesome power, knowledge, clemency, mercy, creative powers, and more.
Next in the overall treatment of the heart, Imam Mawlūd speaks of the importance of keeping the company of good people, which is God’s command: “O you who believe, fear God and be among the truthful ones” (QUR’AN , 9:119). It is astonishing how people can influence others simply by being in each other’s company. Imam al- Ḥaddād said, “The company one keeps has major effects. It may lead to either benefit and improvement or harm and corruption, depending on whether the company is that of pure and eminent people or those who are immoral and evil. This effect does not appear suddenly but is a gradual process that unfolds with time.”
Imam Ibn ʿAṭā’allāh said, “Do not take as a companion someone whose state will not elevate you and whose speech does not direct you to God.” In the same vein, Sīdī Aḥmad Zarrūq said that one should befriend people who elevate one’s station. Good company includes those who are in the state of gratitude; they are thankful for what they have and do not waste time complaining. One takes on their excellent characteristics. Sīdī Abū al-Ḥasan said, “Anyone who tells you to indulge in the world is defrauding you.” Shaykh Ould al-Khadīm says that when it comes to worldly possessions, it is good to associate with people who have lesser means. The company of wealthy people opens a person up to coveting what they have. When it comes to the Hereafter, it is better to associate with people who are superior to you in their desire for and understanding of it.
Companionship yields two kinds of impact: one that drags a person down to the compost of the world and the other that points toward God, the Exalted, and an existence that lasts forever. A companion who tries to sell the ephemeral stuff of this life and makes it the substance of conversation and pursuit is dragging the soul earthward. It is better, beyond compare, to seek out the company of those who help one achieve contentment with God. When one is content, little will suffice. But without contentment, nothing suffices.
Imam Mawlūd says that seeking refuge with God is the most efficacious treatment for all diseases of the heart. Sīdī Ibn ʿĀshir says, “The only real cure for all these diseases is to go to God with complete unconditional imploring.” What is meant here is urgently seeking refuge in God’s protection and guidance, to seek this as if one were holding onto a thread over a canyon. It is begging, which before God is honorable. Most converts to Islam have said that before they became Muslims, they reached a point in their lives in which they petitioned with all their heart and emotion that God guide them. In the haze of confusion and spiritual morass, they literally begged for it: “Just show me what to do!” Afterwards, it became easy and the path very clear. This is what Imam Mawlūd is suggesting. There is nothing nonchalant in this act.
Imam Mawlūd says that one should be like a person drowning in the sea or stranded in a desert without any provision. A moment of desperation can often be the best thing that ever happens to a person. Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), the philanthropist, musician, and educator, says that he once was drowning in the Pacific Ocean near Malibu, California. In desperation, he called out to God to save him, and said that if He would do so, he would seek out His guidance. The very waves and undercurrents of the ocean that nearly killed him were transformed into a force that propelled him back to shore. True to his word and promise, Yusuf indeed sought God’s religion and embraced Islam. Also Ibn Abī Jahl was on a boat with Abyssinian Christians. He fell into the water and was about to drown when he called upon the idol Hubal. The Christians on the boat said, “Are you calling on an idol in Mecca to help you?” Right then he realized how foolish it was. The truth about the oneness of God entered his heart.