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.
The Root of All Diseases of the Heart
POEM VERSES 189–196 The root cause of all of these diseases is love of the temporal world. This is the opinion of both al-Hilālī and Ibn ʿĀshir. Ibn ʿAṭā’allāh, on the other hand, considered the root cause of every disease to be man’s self-satisfaction. Likewise, the root cause of all good qualities is the lack of self-satisfaction. And this conclusion is obvious Because being [dissatisfied with oneself] prompts you to seek virtuous character and to vigilantly avoid what is inappropriate. The origin of either of these states relates to the company one keeps [from either camp], for a man’s character is that of the company he keeps. Thus, if a man achieves any state, inevitably his companions will be affected by it. For this reason, Luqmān, the full moon of wisdom, advised his son to keep close company with the people of knowledge. He compared the effect of the reviving light of wisdom upon the heart to that of a lush downpour upon the barren earth.
The comprehensive root of the heart’s diseases, according to Imam Mawlūd, is love of the temporal world, which he cites as the opinion of Imam al-Hilālī and Imam Ibn ʿĀshir. Ibn ʿAbbās said that it was covetousness (ṭamaʿ). There are differences of opinion regarding the mother cause of diseases of the heart, but their differences are shades of understanding rather than alternate paradigms. When Imam Ibn ʿĀshir says that it is the love of power and authority, it comes down to love of the world. What is power and authority other than branches of the world?
Imam Ibn ʿAṭā’allāh, who is often quoted in this book and mentioned by name in this passage of Imam Mawlūd’s poem, was a master of the science of the heart. His book of aphorisms is one of the most highly regarded masterpieces in Islamic spiritual tradition. His 35th aphorism in that collection reads,
The source of every disobedience, indifference, and passion is self-satisfaction. The source of every obedience, vigilance, and virtue is dissatisfaction with one’s self. It is better for you to keep company with an ignorant man dissatisfied with himself than to keep company with a learned man satisfied with himself. For what knowledge is there in a self-satisfied scholar? And what ignorance is there in an unlearned man dissatisfied with himself?
Nowadays, there is an urgency to root out the feeling of shame. There are self-help books to show how to excise this out of the soul. However, dissatisfaction with oneself is the very thing that causes people to reflect and reevaluate, which is requisite for spiritual success. Shame and dissatisfaction can be moral lifesavers. (Shame is different from low self-esteem, in which one feels contempt for himself.)
Sīdī Aḥmad Zarrūq said that there are three signs of being overly content with the soul. First is being sensitive to one’s own rights and indifferent to the rights of others. In Islam, one’s responsibilities preponderate over one’s rights. The second sign is ignoring one’s own faults, as if one has none, while being preoccupied with the faults of others. A poet once said, “A contented eye does not see faults.” The third sign is giving oneself too much leniency.
Sīdī Aḥmad Zarrūq then said that there are three signs that someone is not content with himself. First is when a person checks himself, is self-accusing, and wary of his intentions. Joseph , who was known for his exceptional purity, said, “I do not declare myself innocent, but the soul often commands evil, except upon one whom my Lord has mercy” (QUR’AN, 12:53). One should ask oneself, “Am I doing this for show or for the sake of God?”
Second is being careful of the blemishes of the soul. The Prophet supplicated, “O God, do not leave me to the soul even for a blink of an eye.”
Third is forcing the self to do difficult things, such as eating less and spending money in charity. Abū ʿUthmān said, “Whoever sees anything good about himself has not seen the faults of his soul.” ʿĀ’ishah was honored in being the wife of the Prophet . She was beautiful and one of the most brilliant women in history. She was from an excellent family. With all these assets, she said, “I deem myself so insignificant that I would never think Qur’an would be revealed about me.” (This is in regard to the episode in which the hypocrites accused her of a sin. God, the Exalted, revealed her innocence in the Qur’an.) She was humble, but she wasn’t a woman with low self-esteem. She obviously had striking self-confidence. She was regularly asked questions because of her knowledge of the Qur’an.
Being vigilant about one’s own faults does not amount to self- loathing or depletion of confidence. In fact, confidence gives one the courage to find fault in oneself.
A poet once said, “I never saw a fault from among the faults of humanity like the sloth of people capable of human perfection.” One reason talented people become underachievers is that they are too satisfied with themselves. A master of any craft is not one who achieves a certain level of proficiency and stops, but one who is committed to constant improvement.
Imam Mawlūd says that dissatisfaction is a motivator to seek out better character. A human being is spiritually stalled as long as he is content and smug with his state. The basis of achieving good is knowing oneself. When this happens, a person becomes aware of his imperfections, minor and major, and is ashamed of them to the point he strives to replace them with generosity, agreeableness, honesty, reliability, dignity, and other noble traits.
When the mind is given the responsibility to decide upon right and wrong, it usually bases its judgment subjectively: what advances or thwarts one’s whims? Our understanding of right and wrong, licit and illicit, needs a judge higher than ourselves and our whims. We are beings who have been created and, therefore, have a Creator who brought us into existence for a reason. It is His purpose and guidance that informs our sensitivity and response to right and wrong.
Imam Mawlūd states that diseases and blessings are related to the company one keeps. The Prophet said, “A man takes on the religion of his companion.” The company of a person who delays or neglects prayer, or a person who abandons paying zakat, or a person who is promiscuous drags others into his way of life. Conversely, the company of a righteous person will pull one upward. As it is said, “If you sit at the door of a tavern, you will either walk in and partake or merely smell the stench of alcohol and drunkards. But if you sit at the door of a perfumer, you will either walk in and wear the scent or at least enjoy the fragrance.” The learned are like rain that quickens a lifeless land. Sitting with esteemed company enlivens the heart and makes it more fertile for the growth of faith (imān). It will take one from six detrimental things to six beneficial things: doubt to certainty; ostentation in acts to sincerity; heedlessness to remembrance; desire for this world to desire for the Hereafter; arrogance to humbleness; and a bad internal nature to an excellent one. Imam Ibn ʿAṭā’allāh advised the same: “Do not take as a companion someone whose state will not elevate you and whose speech does not direct you to God.”
POEM VERSES 197–204 Remember God much, and know that the Qur’an is the best of it. This rule excludes those times when other types [of remembrance] have been prescribed. Begin by asking for forgiveness and benedictions upon [Prophet Muḥammad ], our guide to all good things. Have the same reverence [during remembrance] as you would during prayer and guard yourself from any mispronunciations, for that is among the prohibitions. Whoever adds a long vowel, for instance, after the ha’ in ilāha when he is saying lā ilāha illā l-lāh, or adds a vowel to the hamzah at the onset of the word Has committed a wrong deed, according to the consensus of the righteous people. Furthermore, he has worshipped God but did so disobediently [by his neglect of tajwīd*]. This is what has been clearly stated in [the book] al-Khazīnah by one whose speech has been illuminated by serenity. It is necessary when engaged in remembrance that every letter be pronounced with precision in terms of its origin and linguistic attributes. The most virtuous form of devotion is contemplative reflection and the best of that is annihilation of the self, which is the supreme station.
* Qur’anic recitation and prayers can only be done according to the rules of orthophonics (tajwīd). To do so, neglecting the rules, is sinful. Imam al-Jazarī says in his famous didactic poem, “The rules of tajwīd are necessary – whoever recites without them is sinful.”
Imam Mawlūd speaks next of the importance of dhikr, the remembrance of God, which is vital to the cure of each disease of the heart (and society). He mentions the exceptional excellence of reciting the Qur’an. For example, reciting Sura al-Ikhlāṣ (the 112th sura of the Qur’an), along with the closing suras of the Qur’an (together known as al-muʿawwadhatān, the “two suras of refuge”), three times each, is highly recommended. When one recites while reflecting deeply on the meaning of the words, doors of insight open and one’s faith (imān) grows stronger.
It is better to recite from the copy of the Qur’an itself than from memorization, since it involves the eyes, hands, and ears. (When driving a car, recitation by memorization is obviously the choice.) It is said that Imam Aḥmad ibn Hanbal had 99 dreams about God, the Exalted. In one of them, he asked the Almighty about all the things that draw a worshipper near to Him: Which of them was the greatest? He was told it was the recitation of Qur’an. “With or without comprehension?” he asked. The reply was, “With or without comprehension.” Not understanding the language of the Qur’an should not bar one from receiving the blessings in this exalted practice. The authority of this position is not borrowed from the dream of a great man, but it is corroborated by proofs offered by many scholars throughout the ages. The only time when the Qur’an is not the preferred dhikr is when other obligations are immediately pressing.
Imam Mawlūd states that the remembrance of God is essential in taking the spiritual path. The Messenger of God said, “The likeness of the one who remembers his Lord and one who does not remember his Lord is like the living and the dead.” Someone who remembers God has a heart that is alive and busy with the best of deeds. A hadith states, “Make remembrance of God until they say, ‘He is a mad man.’” If people come across a Muslim who moves his lips in God’s remembrance, the first thing that may come to their minds is that he is not altogether sane. The Prophet said to his Companions, “Shall I not inform you of the best of your deeds and the purest of them in the sight of your Lord and the most exalted of them in rank, and what is better for you than spending gold and silver and better for you than encountering your enemy in battle, where you strike them and they strike you?” His Companions answered, “Yes, of course!” He told them, “It is the remembrance of God.” Scholars have explained how the remembrance of God exceeds in merit even jihad explaining that dhikr is an end, while jihad is a means to removing aggression. It is generally known that the ends are higher than the means, for we were created to remember God, and all else that we do is in order to establish the conditions that permit this remembrance.
God has said, “Remember Me; I will remember you” (QUR’AN , 2:152). There is also a hadith that states that whoever remembers his Lord, God remembers him, and whomever God remembers, he is enriched in this world and in the Hereafter and is in need of nothing. One of the great things about dhikr is that it is different from other acts of worship, like Pilgrimage and prayer. Remembrance is not time restricted; it is associated with all aspects of life, such as meals, getting dressed, traveling, retiring for sleep, even sexual intimacy (for which there is a known supplication), and the like. It is said that when one is in the state of remembrance, any affliction that comes to him or her raises that person’s rank, and if one dies in the state of remembrance, he or she dies as a martyr. Also, if one’s last words are, “There is no deity but God,” he or she enters Heaven.
Imam Mawlūd says that in making remembrance, one should start with seeking God’s forgiveness (istighfār) for his or her neglect and misdeeds, past or immediate. Istighfār is the process of asking God to remit our sins and cleanse us of their ill effects. One should say, for example, at least 100 times in a day “astaghfiru l-lāh,” which means, “I seek forgiveness from God.” One should also begin with benedictions on the Prophet , that is, asking God to bless him and grant him peace. Many scholars have specified benediction of the Prophet as particularly effective because it is a prayer that is guaranteed to be answered by God. In fact, the Qur’an states, “Indeed, God and His angels bless the Prophet. O you who believe, bless him and salute him with a worthy salutation” (QUR’AN. 33:56). What is meant by the angels blessing the Prophet is their constant supplication to God to send His peace and blessings upon His beloved Messenger . Moreover, the command to believers also references their supplication to God that He send blessings to the Prophet .
Whoever prays for the Prophet one time, God prays on that person ten times. The Prophet said, “Prayer on the Messenger of God is light in this world, light in the grave, and light on the Traverse [in the Hereafter].” The Prophet was aware of his station as the Seal of the Prophets, and he believed in what God has revealed to him, as the Qur’an states (QUR’AN, 2:285). He was unabashed in relating to his Companions (and all the generations after them) what will be of benefit to them in this life and the next, including invoking prayers of blessing upon him. Such prayers, as he has said, shall be a light when we need light the most, in the dark grave and on the Traverse, the bridge that crosses over Hellfire, over which everyone must cross. It is also light in the heart.
When praying on the Prophet , one should have the same reverence and comportment that one has when performing other dhikr, like having ablution (wuḍū’) and facing toward the direction of Mecca (the qiblah) when possible. What is recommended for prayer (ṣalāh) is recommended for dhikr: cleanliness, perfume, and cleaning the teeth with a tooth-stick (siwāk). When one says “lā ilāha illā l-lāh” (there is no deity but God), he negates polytheism and idolatry. If one says “al-ḥamdu li l-lāh” (all praise is for God), he is reminded of the constant blessings that God has bestowed. When one says “lā ḥawla wa lā qūwata illā billāh” (there is no might or power except with God), he disengages himself of any illusion of having power, for all of it is with God. When one prays on the Prophet , it is appropriate to imagine the Prophet teaching us guidance and the proper way to worship—essential teachings that we never would have learned had he not taught us. We must also remember God’s love for him.
Imam Mawlūd states that when engaged in remembrance it is important to pronounce the words well and to avoid incorrect pronunciation to the best of one’s ability. Mispronunciation of some words can change their meaning. Sīdī ʿAbd Allāh Ould Ḥajj Ibrāhīm said in his book Khazīnah al-Asrār (Storehouse of Secrets) that when one engages in remembrance he should do so with every letter. One should not drag his tongue lazily, especially in reciting the Qur’an. Proper pronunciation lends itself to deeper comprehension of what one is saying. For those who have difficulty in pronouncing some of the letters, they, of course, can still engage in remembrance, doing their best with matters of pronunciation.
To reflect on God’s creation is known as a great act of worship, a practice that helps a person see the signs—those glimpses of the unseen purposely placed in the physical world so that we may be increased in faith and certitude. This meditative contemplation, as Imam Mawlūd states, is the most virtuous of devotions. Those inclined to reflection are known as people of understanding and are described as those who remember God while standing, sitting, or lying on their sides. As they reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth, they say, “Our Lord, You have not created this in vain. Glory be to You!” (QUR’AN , 3:191). This combines remembrance of God with a presence of heart and mind that augments the power of remembrance. There is a hadith that states, “To reflect for one hour is better than a year in worship.”
The objects of reflection (tafakkur) are many. One may reflect on the verses of the Qur’an. Another may reflect on the signs of God in creation or reflect on the promise of God, the reward that He guarantees believers who are patient and obedient. Such reflection creates ardent desire and hope for Paradise with its unfathomable bliss, peace, provision, landscapes, and excellent company. Likewise, one reflects on the punishment God has promised those who choose wickedness over purity, misguidance over guidance, and corruption over wholesomeness. Reflecting on the terrors of the grave and the horrors of Hell instills the kind of dread that strengthens a person’s resolve to never stray from the path of God. When we reflect on all that God has given us that infinitely exceeds the measure of what we deserve, and then reflect on what little is required from us, this extinguishes self-righteousness and arrogance and increases gratitude.
People ask about those who engage in a great deal of remembrance yet neglect or ignore the obligatory rites of worship as if they have transcended the need for these rites. This is unmitigated ignorance. The first and foremost obligation on every human being is to gain knowledge. A human being is nothing until he has learned what is obligatory on every individual (farḍ ʿayn). Without this, a person has no rank or standing with regard to God, and nothing is more consequential to a person other than his or her standing with God. When God created us, He gave us accountability and the means and ability to carry out our responsibilities. Anyone who does not care to learn the first order of knowledge is living the life of a farm animal, a creature that does nothing but graze in this life, which is entirely insufficient in God’s sight.
Shaykh Ould al-Khadīm has mentioned the names of many renowned scholars of the past who were learned in the outward and inner sciences, the latter being Sufism (taṣawwuf). These scholars say that before taṣawwuf, there must be sacred law. Taṣawwuf without law will lead one astray.
There is a confused sense of spirituality in which one feels he or she can attain to level of perceiving reality fully without tending to the responsibilities and obligations of the shariah. This is a misleading phenomenon that spreads because of its appeal: spiritual sensation without any moral obligation. A person on this path may do as he or she wills and take solace in pseudo-sensations. This virulent trend seizes people and whisks them away from the truth, although they feel quite content. Islam does not call people to unreasoned faith. It demands that a person learn authentic knowledge, which buttresses true spiritual growth. This real spirituality is protected by the shariah, just as a shell protects its fruit. If one removes the husk, the ear is exposed and it begins to rot. A person who tries to attain spirituality without the shariah will eventually destroy his soul and become, in essence, a false person. There are people who outwardly don the mantle and comportment of spiritual enlightenment, but who are filled with diseases of the heart.
We must remember that if a person has done wrong, the spiritual path is not severed. There is the recourse of seeking repentance from God. One should not confess or broadcast what he or she has done. If God has veiled one’s wrongdoing, do not tear the veil down. There is a hadith in which a man came to the Prophet and said, “I committed a sin,” and he meant adultery. “So punish me.” But the Prophet turned and walked away. The man pursued the Prophet and told him again that he wanted to be punished for his sin. The Prophet finally looked at him and asked him if he made ablution and prayed. He was telling him that Islam purifies. The Prophet said, “Whoever does indecency, let him veil his acts with the veiling of God and let him make repentance.” He also said, “Whoever comes to our faces and admits them, then we will punish them.”
Therefore, there is no better treatment for the diseases of the heart than remembrance. Most of the other recommended cures either touch upon or include the remembrance of God as essential. It has been said, “When we are ill, we treat ourselves with Your remembrance. And when we abandon Your remembrance, we relapse into illness.”
The consultative body of ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb included a man whose cousin insisted on meeting with ‘Umar. When he was given the opportunity, he demanded from ʿUmar, “Give me something from what God gave you [meaning money] because you’re someone who hasn’t given out much, and you do not judge with justice.” When ʿUmar heard this, he grew angry. But the man’s cousin intervened and cited a verse to ʿUmar, “Turn away from the ignorant” (QUR’AN, 7:199). ‘Umar’s anger immediately subsided, even though the man had insulted him, lied, and disrespected Islamic authority. Citing the verse was the remembrance of God, which calmed ʿUmar down.
Many passages of the Qur’an encourage or command humanity to remember God as often as possible. The Qur’an says that in the Messenger of God we have an excellent model (QUR’AN, 33:21).
The people who benefit most from this model are those who engage in remembrance frequently, which was the way of the Prophet . The Arabic word tazkiyyah means to purify oneself, but it also means to grow. God, the Exalted, says that had it not been for His favor upon us, not one of us would have become purified or would have enjoyed growth (QUR’AN , 24:21). Thus, purification comes about as the result of the spiritual work that God, the Exalted, has graciously blessed humanity with, and dhikr plays a major role in that.
ʿUmar once wrote to his governors: “I consider prayer to be the most important deed in your life. So whoever guards and is vigilant in his prayer, he has guarded his religion. And whoever is negligent about his prayer, he will neglect matters of lesser importance.” What is great about this counsel is that it offers clarity about priorities. Remembrance (dhikr) is a practice that is validated only by the performance of the obligatory rites of worship, including ritual prayer (ṣalāh). If a person stays up all night thumbing his beads but sleeps past dawn prayer, he has done no service to himself. Hence, the foremost thing a person needs to guard is the prayer and its requirements, like ablution (wuḍū’).
A Muslim tradition reports that Prophet David saw a group of men remembering God and was impressed with them, but it was revealed to him that these men were of no worth in the sight of God because if a woman had come along and offered herself to any of them, they would have accepted her offer.
The best of worship occurs with the combination of speech and reflection. When practiced for a long time regularly, one achieves what is called fanā’ in Sufi terminology. Imam al-Junayd is said to have coined the term, which literally means extinction. When it comes to the world of remembrance, it includes achieving supreme realizations about God, the Exalted, and His acts. When one reflects deeply, he separates himself from others and even from his own limitations.
Imam al-Junayd says that in deep spiritual practice there can be profound experiences. An example of one is a ḥāl, which is an overwhelming spiritual state that is uncontrollable. The scholars of this science differentiate between ḥāl and maqām. Maqām is more or less a fixed condition or station, whereas a ḥāl is a temporary state, a momentary burst of spiritual epiphany. For example, the station of repentance (maqām al-tawbah) is one in which one cannot willingly be disobedient to God. But the ḥāl of repentance is when someone becomes so overwhelmed with remorse over what he had done wrong in the past, he rushes to God, the Exalted, and profoundly seeks His forgiveness with a powerful sense of God’s presence. It is an inrush that comes into the heart, filling it with light and spiritual expansion. It is highest when one is not aware of himself, only of God and His attributes. This kind of extinction of the soul is caused by one’s focus and heightened spiritual experience.
Our objective is not merely to go through these spiritual experiences, but to be firmly grounded in a path that takes us to the pleasure of God and salvation in the Hereafter. If one performs remembrance properly and often, things will happen to the inner self. These things are studied by scholars of the inner sciences. But we’re also aware that Satan can play games with those who engage in certain practices blindly and without knowledge and prioritization. That’s the peril of New Age practices and philosophies that can lead to sensations and experiences in which the one having them cannot distinguish between satanic influences, psychological phenomena, and true spiritual encounters.
Fanā’ alludes to something altogether different. It is founded on the sources of Islam and the tutelage of learned people who have knowledge of both the shariah and spiritual matters. The person who is doing dhikr with reflection loses awareness of himself. There are authentic reports of the Companions of the Prophet and other righteous people of later generations who, as they stood in prayer, were completely unaware of their surroundings. If a person is sincere in remembering God, then God may bless him or her with an “opening,” that is, a deeper witnessing of God Himself.
There is a hadith in which God says,
My servant does not draw near to Me by anything more beloved to Me than what is obligatory upon him, and he will continue to draw near to Me with the supererogatory acts of worship until I love him. And when I love him I become the eye with which he sees, the ear with which he hears, the tongue with which he speaks, and the hand with which he grasps, and if he seeks refuge in Me I give him refuge with Me, and if he asks of Me, I give him.
This hadith does not mean that God, the Exalted, takes on human qualities. Muslims do not believe in divine incarnation or God becoming creation. However, we do believe that the human being can be in a profound state of awareness of God’s action in creation. The whole world is an act of God and people can go into a state of absolute witnessing where they see everything as being acts of God. They do not see otherness and thus they recognize the Reality behind it. For this reason, the believer sees good in all things, even in affliction and trial, in which there is wisdom: an opportunity to grow, purify oneself, learn patience, and draw near to God. “It may be that you dislike something, though it is good for you. And it may be that you love something, though it is bad for you” (QUR’AN, 2:216).
Understanding this is the idea in witnessing God’s wisdom in events of the world. Qadi Abū Bakr Ibn al-ʿArabī said that Satan’s foremost objective with the believer is to separate him from the remembrance of God, the Exalted. But if Satan finds believers doing much remembrance, then he will try to turn them away from the remembrance of God that is taken from the Qur’an and the supplications and formulas stated by the Prophet himself. Sīdī Aḥmad Zarrūq said that one should say the litanies that the Prophet used to say, especially those that he said often. One should do this before those supplications composed from other people. It is permissible to read supplication of others as long as they are knowledgeable and known for their piety. Even here, preference (after the words of the Qur’an and the Prophet ) should be given to the words of the Companions and the Successors (tābiʿūn).
Here we end the translation and commentary of the portion of Imam Mawlūd’s poem that deals with various diseases of the heart. The book includes further appendices that delve into issues previously mentioned but with greater detail and further explanation. These are available as a PDF here. If you've taken anything good from this series, please know that all benefit is from the Almighty - and not from the blog owner, or book authors or publisher.
As a reminder: this work is licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 unported licence. As such, the content may be shared only for non-commercial purposes.
Again, I extend my gratitude to Shaykh Hamza and his publishing house, Sandala Inc, for their generous efforts in making this material available freely. If you’d like to purchase the book, you can get it in physical form (from Sandala or Amazon or a local Islamic bookstore) or as an e-book (from Google Play or Kindle or Apple Books).
If you’d like to hear more from Shaykh Hamza, a simple Internet search will bring up millions of results – including audio and video. Among these, highly recommended is his “Sacred Text Messages” podcast, which has run for a few years:
In this age of material excess and spiritual privation, grounding ourselves in divine guidance has never been more critical. The Sacred Text Messages podcast with Hamza Yusuf provides an antidote to the modern madness by reconnecting us with God and His Messenger ﷺ. Listen to timeless wisdoms from sacred sources and rediscover Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.