Lexically, the Arabic word `tazkiyah’ means purification and development—of anything—to the level of perfection. As a Quranic term, it expresses a way of ridding ourselves of flawed tendencies and leanings as well as providing one with the means to attain piety and to help our souls develop to become as perfect as humanly possible. In other words, the ultimate goal of tazkiyah is for man to purify himself and prepare for his return back to his ‘original home’ and “final abode,” Paradise. Allah Almighty tells us in the Quran (what means): "By the soul and the proportion and order given to it; and its enlightenment as to its wrong and its right; truly he succeeds who purifies it and he fails who corrupts it!" [Quran 91:7-10].
These verses present a straightforward outline of Islam’s notion of tazkiyah. Allah Almighty has so created the soul that it has both inclinations—good and evil—and man has been endowed with the power to distinguish between the two. Therefore, the path of success for man, in this life and the one to come, involves choosing the side of good and striving to make it prevail—not just in the world and his surroundings, but first and as a pre-requisite for societal and environmental reform, within himself.
In this sense, the need for tazkiyah is part of’ our innate nature—it is hardwired into our consciousness. Hence, man has always known and attempted to fulfill this innate need by seeking out all ways of contemplation, meditation, and worship. Yet, only the ways provided to him by the Creator, through the various revelations, have worked for him, and these revealed ways of’ self-reflection and change are the only ways of self-purification that can work for him. Moreover, they have worked only so long as man managed to keep these ways themselves pure and clean—something man has not always had success at doing.
Muslims are not exempt from this failure to keep the means purified. Like others, we have suffered at times from maintaining authentic and unadulterated ways of tazkiyah. This is true for both Muslims of the past and Muslims today. Many of us have allowed ourselves to modify or deviate from the authentic modes of’ tazkiyah delivered to us through revelation—in the Qur’an and Sunnah. Part of the reason for this is definitely the increasing strain of outside influences, but this is not its main cause.
The primary source of our inconstancy is a basic and widespread lack of proper understanding of the Quran and the Sunnah.
This is unfortunate because Allah Almighty Says (what means): "We have sent you a Messenger, from yourselves (Muhammad), reciting to you Our verses and purifying you (through tazkiyah) and teaching you the Book (Quran) and wisdom (Sunnah) and teaching you that which you knew not" [Quran 2:151] and the Prophet himself said: "I have left you upon a clear proof" [Ahmad].
Let it be said at the outset here that Siyam or fasting is a primary means of tazkiyah in Ramadan, of course, but also during the weekly and monthly life of a Muslim for a very specific reason: It is most effective in helping one realize in totality the nature of his relationship with his Lord, Allah Almighty. Fasting also epitomizes the task of tazkiyah for the believer on both physical, spiritual, as well as metaphorical levels. My goal here, however, is straightforward and simple: to briefly cover some aspects of tazkiyah, help ensure we are constantly engaged in it, and to reinforce its basis, namely, that the ways we go about self-purifying are authentic and, therefore, effective.
The Essence of Tazkiyah
We need, first, to understanding the nature of what the Quran terms tazkiya before we are able to initiate its programs and practice tazkiyah successfully. It is not uncommon, for example, to find Muslims today who say tazkiyah is only for those who want to become Sufis, or those few who desire to increase their faith to the level of ihsan or perfection. Such people are ignorant of the fact that tazkiyah is an individual obligation upon every human being, every Muslim. Others teach one cannot achieve tazkiyah simply by being obedient to Allah and doing what is required of all Muslims, but only by having a guide (murshid) who can tailor for one a special program of tazkiyah rituals suitable for who one is. Indeed, some go so far as to say that our assuring our success in the Hereafter is totally dependent on following such guide, all other paths to success, they content, are blocked without him. This is dangerously false, as it appears to remove the burden of individual belief, performance, thought, repentance, correction, and knowledge acquisition from each person, which actually defines man. He is mukallif, one morally burdened to stand individually before Allah Almighty to account of his faith and life for final judgment.
What, then, do we mean by tazkiyah?
Ever since the trial of our father, Adam, may Allah exalt his mention, and his descent from Paradise, all of his children have had, still and will continue to have, to fight Satan, their most formidable enemy, till the Last Day on this Earth. Allah Almighty Says (what means): "We said, `Go down from it (Paradise) and when guidance comes to you from Me, whoever follows My guidance there will be no fear concerning them nor will they grieve. And those who disbelieve and deny Our signs – those will be companions of the Fire; they will abide therein eternally" [Quran 2:38-39].
Our ongoing battle with the forces of darkness began then. Satan, who is irrevocably condemned to Hellfire, is determined to take with him to it as many of the Children of Adam as he possibly can. But Allah Almighty has promised those who follow His guidance that they will be successful over Satan.
There are literally hundreds of verses in the Qur’an and similarly copious ahadeeth reports in the Sunnah of the Prophet that clearly explain this defining hostility and state of belligerence between man and Satan, detailing the story of human creation, elucidating the purpose of human life, and underscoring the inveterate danger to our everlasting wellbeing posed by Satan. The Quran tells us that the ultimate end of those who do not give heed to these warnings is damnation in the Hereafter. "Did I not enjoin upon you, O Children of Adam, that you not, follow Satan, for he is, indeed, a clear enemy of you. And that you worship only Me" [Quran 36:60-61]. It also mentions that Allah Almighty will send Messengers from time to time so that man will not be alone, without tactic nor intelligence, in this perilous fight. "And whosoever follows My guidance will neither go astray (in this life) nor suffer (in the Hereafter)" [Quran 20:123].
Man, in the viewpoint of Islam, is not born sinful. Rather, we start our lives fresh as good and wholesome spiritual material (people) who have the potential of achieving the best in this life. Man, Islam teaches, is eventually subjected to the whispers of Satan and to the effects of his own environment (family, culture, etc.) Yet man is in need of Divine teaching to maintain his goodness and orient him toward his felicitous purpose. This instruction is sent down to him by Allah Almighty through revelation via the various prophets. The struggle man must undertake in order to internalize these teachings and live in harmony with them is tazkiyah.
Furthermore, tazkiyah may be construed as a concept that underscores the basic principle of religion (or any ideology for that matter); namely, ensuring that man puts in enough effort, struggle and sacrifice to inculcate certain characters and induce certain behavioral changes in order to enable him to attain specific goals as set for him by religion (or the ideology).
Tazkiyah, therefore, is a systemic and systematic approach of bringing about a predetermined level of change in people, which requires knowledge, training, and mental as well as emotional preparation. Without such training, no serious effects or changes can be brought about or effectively maintained.
Some scholars refer to tazkiyah using plain terms like soul (or self) purification—tazkiatun nafs in Arabic—and this is probably the most common term for it. Another term is tarbiyah—literally, upbringing. Both of these terms describe a process by which one’s self is trans-formed from weak to strong or from had to good, and the like.
Regardless of how we choose to define it, the essence of tazkiyah entails a process that is continuous, involved and demanding—one that requires education and the development of’ not only a strong, but an effective and efficient will; yet, no matter how arduous of a process —and it is—it is one that nonetheless has an incomparably triumphant and sweet end.
to be continued