Principles of Tazkiyah
As shown earlier, tazkiyah is a fundamental part of Prophet Muhammad’s mission and his life constitutes a unique example of it. Together with his teaching, this example was responsible for altering the lives of his Companions to such an extent that they became the pinnacle and paradigm generation for all humanity, the best ever brought forth among people.
This change to excellence is the proof that tazkiyah can surely bring about the right change in individuals as well as communities. Imam Malik once said: "The latter part of this Ummah (nation) will not be rectified except by that which rectified its former part," his meaning being the Sunnah-based tazkiyah that transformed the Companions. All Muslim scholars share this view. The way to rectify this Ummah—individuals and communities—must always be rooted in the principles laid out for it in the Quran and the Sunnah. Knowledge, establishment, and maintenance of these principles must always receive priority in our lives.
Here are five foundational principles of tazkiyah upon which any character or community can be reformed. They are followed by 15 basic prayerful remembrances that one can institute as a wird of thikr into one’s daily life to assist in one’s self-transformation by way of divinely ordained purification.
1. Knowledge (‘Ilm) precedes action (‘Amal)
Acquire the knowledge necessary to carry out your tasks. This is always step one and none can do without it. Knowledge, therefore, must precede action. And since tazkiyah is fundamental to this religion, it is highly significant that its processes and methods be founded upon comprehensive and authentic knowledge.
Warning against inauthentic knowledge, Imam Ibn Shihab az-Zuhri (d. 124 AH) said: "Indeed, this ‘ilm (knowledge) is deen (religion). So look well at who you are taking your religion from." Not only is knowledge necessary, it must be the right kind of knowledge and it must come from the right source—the Quran, as expressed by the teachings and life-example of the Prophet, sallallaahu alayhe wa sallam, and scholars who sincerely and honestly follow his Sunnah. Stressing this important attribute in those from whom we learn tazkiyah, the revered Shaykh Abul Abbas Ahmad Muhammad Zarruq (d. 899 AH), who wrote an excellent treatise known in short as A1-Qawa’id (The Bases or The Foundations) in which he formulated 217 bases delineating many useful guidelines for tazkiyah, said in Base 22: "First must come knowledge. Then, action follows" (AI-Qawa’id, page 11). In Base 46, he notes that "Al-Junaid, may Allah have mercy on him, said: ‘Those who do not listen to (or read) the hadeeth, learn from the fuqaha (Islamic jurists), and take as a role model in morality those who are known for it, end up corrupting whoever follows them." (Al-Qawa’id, page 22).
Implicitly, this principle implies that knowledge that is not followed by action is fruitless. Explicitly, it states that when we do not have correct knowledge as bases for our behavior, our tazkiyah will necessarily suffer deviation or misguided innovation, and in neither case will it yield any benefit. Amr ibn Salamah related: "We used to sit in front of Abdullaah ibn Mas’ud’s house before the fajr prayer waiting to go with him to the Masjid. Abu Musa Al-Ash’ari came and asked us: "Did Abu Abdurrahman (i.e., Ibn Masoud) leave yet?" We answered: "No." So he sat with us waiting for him. When Ibn Masoud came out, we all stood up. Abu Musa told him: "Oh, Abu Abdurrahman! I recently saw something in the masjid of which I did not approve." Ibn Masoud then asked: "What was it?"
Abu Musa said: "You will see it if you stay alive. In the masjid, I saw a group of people sitting in circles waiting for the prayer. Each circle is led by a person. And every person in these circles carries small stones. The leader of a circle would say: `Say Allahu Akbar a hundred times.’ Then they (those in attendance) will say that. Then he says: `Say la ilaha Illa Allah a hundred times."Then they (those in attendance) will say that. Then he says: "Say subhanallah a hundred times." Then they (those in attendance) will say that.
"Ibn Masoud inquired: `What did you tell them?’ He said: `I did not. I wanted to wait for your opinion.’
"Then they left together to the masjid. As he approached one of the circles, Ibn Mas’oud asked them. ‘What you are doing?’ They said. `Oh Abu Abdurrahman! These are pebbles to count the number of times we say thikr.’ He said: `Count your own sins, and I assure you that you are not going to lose anything of your rewards. Woe unto you, people of Muhammad, how fast you will be doomed. Those are your Prophet’s Companions available. These are his clothes not worn out yet. And his pots are not broken yet. I swear by the One in whose Hands is my soul that you are either following a religion that is better than the Prophet’s religion or you are opening a door of aberration.’”
"They said: `By Allah, Oh Abu Abdurrahman! We had no intention other than doing good deeds.’ He said: `So what? How many people wanted to do good deeds but never got to do them? The Prophet of Allah has told us about people who recited the Qur’an with no effect on them other than the Qur’an passing through their throats. I swear by Allah, I am almost sure that most of you are from this type of people.’ He then left.
Amr ibn Salamah said: "We (later) saw most of those people fighting against us with the Kharijites in the battle of An-Nahrawan" (Ad-Darimi and Abu Nuaim).
2. Precedence of obligations over voluntary worship
Muslims believe that perfecting tazkiyah entails submitting to Allah’s Shari’ah completely, inside and outside, which can only be attained through giving full priority to that which He has made an obligation (wajib) upon us over that which is voluntary (nawafil). Then increase our share of voluntary deeds until we are guaranteed Allah’s love. The Prophet said that "Allah Almighty Says (what means): `My servant does not draw near to Me with anything more beloved to Me than that which I have made obligatory upon him. And My servant continues to draw nearer to Me through more voluntary deeds until I love him"’ [Al-Bukhari].
When we fulfill our obligations to Allah, we are recognizing Allah and submitting to His authority. Beyond this, we are not required to do anything else. But if we choose to add voluntary deeds, Allah’s love for us will increase and so shall our faith in Him, as well as the reward we get from Him. Eventually, voluntary worship leads us to receive the ultimate success: Allah’s love.
We need to keep this priority in focus. In every situation, we need to make a decision regarding what obligations there are for us to abide by—either orders to carry out or prohibitions to avoid—then do just that. If we are capable of doing more, we should add as many voluntary deeds as we can. Even though this principle is rational, it is amazing how often and easily it is violated. When it comes to matters of tazkiyah, for example, we find many Muslims who think the more thikr and salah they do, the better it is for them, regardless of their status in fulfilling obligations. What good shall any amount of voluntary salah and thikr do for those who are dealing in interest and usury or not taking care of other personal or communal obligations. Not giving obligations their due precedence over voluntary acts is ignorance, and ignorance leads to deterioration and chaos.
3. The heart is central
The physical heart not the brain is the central and most important element in the human body and the spiritual heart is at its center. The Prophet said: "Indeed, in the body there is a piece of flesh; if it is sound, the whole body is sound, and if it is corrupt, the whole body is corrupt, and behold, it is the heart" [Al-Bukhari and Muslim].
It is in the heart that faith resides: "Verily Allah does not look at your bodies or your forms. But He looks at your hearts." [Muslim]. And as faith diminishes, the heart gets sick and may become blind. Allah Almighty says (what means): "It is not the eyes that are blinded, but blinded are the hearts which are in the breasts" [Quran 22:46].
The heart, therefore, is the place where Satan focuses his efforts and directs his attacks. Huthaifah ibnul-Yaman learned this from the Prophet who said: "Trials and tribulations will be presented to the hearts, as a reed-mat is interwoven stick by stick. Any heart that absorbs these trials will have a black mark put in it, and that which rejects them will have a white mark put in it. The result is that hearts will be of two kinds: One white, which will not be harmed by trials as long as the heavens and earth endure; and the other dark and rusty, like an overturned mug; not able to recognize the good, nor reject evil, but rather being absorbed with its desires" [Muslim].
We are fortunate that Allah has given us clear directions and effective tools to help us in our struggle against Satan. There are hundreds of verses and ahadeeth that discuss the role of the heart and man’s responsibilities toward it. At the core of that responsibility is the fact that we must learn the methodology and principles detailed in the Quran and the Sunnah. As an example of this, we will briefly mention two aspects without which tazkiyah cannot be effective.
First, the trials to which the hearts are exposed and which are the cause of its sickness and lack of faith, are of two types, the trials relating to shahwat (false whims), which lead to corruption of the intentions and desires; and the trials relating to shubuhat (doubts), which corrupt beliefs and contaminate knowledge. As a result, we end up losing the ability to recognize good and to reject evil and become enslaved by our whims and desires, and plagued by our doubts. Recognizing these diseases can help us deal with them effectively.
Second, to focus on the heart is not to be construed as giving less attention is to be given to deeds by limbs. It actually emphasizes the need to focus even more on this kind of deeds. Our hearts are typically affected by every-thing we do or do not do. If we see something good, say good or even think of good things, our heart are affected in a good positive way. The same applies to all other senses. If we allow it, everything in our environment affects us one way or another. This is consistent with the way the Qur’an and the Sunnah view faith—it increases with good deeds and decreases with sins and bad deeds.
Focus on the heart, therefore, requires that we pay attention to everything we do, big or small. It does not mean—like many think—that we commit only to contemplation, thikr, and similar worships.
to be continued…