By Abigail Maryam
The word tazkiyah carries the meaning of purification, chastening, or facilitation of growth. In Islam, it refers to self-development. Tazkiyah lies at the heart of our beautiful faith. I love it for its uniqueness and tremendous benefits. I intend to provide a brief synopsis of what I’ve learned, as well as advice from personal experience, in shaa Allah.
Many self-help books make personal growth, the pursuit of happiness, and self-actualization goals in themselves. While Islam certainly encourages them, they are seen as a means to achieve a greater goal: eternal life in Paradise. Unlike other self-development programs, tazkiyah is inextricably linked to both faith and action.
“He has succeeded who purifies himself and mentions the name of His Lord and prays.” (87:14-5).
Since our purpose in life is the worship of the one true God, our fate on the Day of Judgement rests on the state of our spiritual hearts.
“A day when neither wealth nor children will benefit [anybody], except one who comes to Allah with a sound heart.” (26:88-9).
The world’s religions universally emphasize spiritual growth and have different objectives. What I love about tazkiyah, is that it has freed me from concepts I experienced as burdensome. Islam does not preach original sin, entrapment in a karmic wheel, or “divine union.” Neither is it entirely a deeds-based faith. The Qur’an tells us we are born free and created in the best mould, but because we have been sent to this low, worldly life, we need to return to our original nature (fitrah).
It’s a relief that Islam demands excellence (“ihsaan”), not perfection. Our “enlightenment” is believing, following the commands, and developing taqwa (consciousness of Allah) in everyday life.
Tazkiyah is also unique in that it does not isolate one’s spiritual growth from collective life. I love that Islam is a religion of community, family, and togetherness! Research does prove that our relationships are the most influential factor leading to our happiness, mental wellbeing, and growth. They have a tendency to bring out the best and the worst in us, and have a bearing on our character. That is why our beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) advises us to choose our surroundings wisely. We are the average of the 5 people we spend the most time with.
Our faith is very much a heart-centered one. Another thing I love about tazkiyah is its emphasis on purifying the heart. Islam tells us that it is the seat of human consciousness, conscience, and intellect. The Prophet (PBUH) spoke of the heart as a repository of knowledge and wisdom, in addition to being a sensitive organ that perceives wrongdoing. Research is now beginning to back him. The physical heart develops and functions independently of the brain. With its own network of tens of thousands of nerve cells, it has memory, makes decisions, feels, and senses. The heart sends more information to the brain than vice versa, significantly impacting our motivation, and behavior, and perception of the world.1
Long before any neurocardiological research, however, the Prophets of Allah (peace be upon them all) already knew the heart well. A Biblical saying attributed to Prophet Solomon says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” (Proverbs 4:23), and another attributed to Prophet Jesus reads, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8). Centuries later, our Prophet ( sallAllaahu alayhi wa sallam) taught,
“Surely in the breasts of humanity is a lump of flesh. If sound, then the whole body is sound. If corrupt, then the whole body is corrupt. Is it not the heart?” (Sahih Bukhari and Muslim).
When not properly cared for, the heart becomes diseased. According to many scholars, there are two categories of spiritual illnesses in Islam: shubuhat (caused by an incorrect concept of Allah) and shahawat (abuse of our base desires). The heart is designed to be in a state of calm, trust, and knowledge. To nourish it, we need to worship.
Sheikh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah wrote, “Remembrance of Allah is to the heart what water is to the fish. What happens to a fish when it is taken out of water?”
Daily Qur’an recitation, dhikr, salah, istighfar, dua, and salawat ‘ala an-Nabi (peace and blessings be upon him) are fundamental to our growth. Without the basics, one’s life has a frail foundation and is like a house built of straw. Our spiritual hearts die like a fish out of water.
On the other hand, we also need to abstain from what is prohibited. If not for fear of punishment, then at least for knowing that what Allah forbids is harmful to our hearts in some way.
Classical scholars advised us to pay attention to 4 particular things: watching our tongue, not talking too much, eating moderately, and lowering our gaze. Our tongue can land us straight into Hell or Paradise. The Prophet (PBUH) said that the shortness of our speech and the length of our salah demonstrate our understanding of the religion. Full stomachs lead to laziness in our worship. And finally, what we see tends to enter and stay in the heart, and that is why we can’t look at forbidden things.
The first step to worship and self-purification is our intentions.
Our hearts influence our thoughts, which then become our words and behavior. Then, our habits become our values, which determine the direction we go in life. Our intentions can be within the conscious or not-so-obvious unconscious realm. We don’t have to go down the rabbit hole of self-analysis to grow; we simply need to connect with ourselves and be honest about what we feel, intend and need. Having pure and honorable intentions provides sincerity in our daily actions and worship.
Our Prophet (PBUH) reminds us that Allah does not look at our appearance or money, but at our hearts and deeds (Sahih Muslim).
One way I drop my awareness into my heart is through meditation. I do not mean a mystical activity, but a mental health habit with well-documented benefits. I meditate to manage stress, practice mindfulness, and attune to my intuition. The soul knows what to do because Allah instilled it with the conscience of what is right and wrong. Not because we are “divine.” Our Prophet (peace be upon him) counsels,
“Consult your soul, consult your heart. Righteousness is what reassures your soul and your heart, and sin is what wavers in your soul and puts tension in your chest, even if people approve it in their judgements again and again.” (Sunan al-Darimi).
Above all, seek help and counsel from Allah. That way we don’t end up worshipping ourselves, as so many “spiritual” teachings lead to nowadays.
Another practice to keep our hearts calm is detachment from the world. Asceticism (zuhd) is a virtue in Islam. It doesn’t mean selling all our possessions, leaving behind our responsibilities, and meandering about with a bowl, begging for food. Real asceticism is perfectly explained by ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (may Allah be pleased with him):
“Detachment is not that you should own nothing, but that nothing should own you.”
It’s about not immersing ourselves in the sea of worldly life. When we are attached to results, taking both praise and criticism to heart, and are too engrossed in our daily activities to worship Allah, we develop spiritual diseases. Zuhd is hard to practice and I can’t say I’ve mastered it, but with Allah’s help, we can do it. What needs to be overcome first is our ego.
Many spiritual paths criminalize the ego and encourage people to extirpate it. Even in the Muslim world, some teach that spiritual fulfilment can only be attained when we melt our own individuality to merge with the Godhead (or, as they claim, to realize that we are “one and the same”). The original, pristine Islam takes a different stance (and a healthier one, in my opinion). It does not view human nature as a block to our spiritual growth. Another thing I appreciate about tazkiyah is moderation- our task is not to kill our egos, but to transcend it.
The ego is a natural part of our psyche. It provides us our sense of identity and personality. The ego’s role in our lives is survival, self-preservation, and protection from pain via defense mechanisms. It sort of acts like a micro-manager of our lives. The downside is that the ego does not exactly like to be told who’s boss. Belief in and worship of Allah makes it afraid to lose itself; afraid to lose control over its identity and image; afraid to humble itself towards something larger and greater than itself. It fears that it might die and dissolve. We need to approach our ego lovingly and reassure it that Allah is greater, knows everything, already has a plan for us, and we can relax. He’s got everything under control. All we need to do is worship Him.
As the Prophet (sall Allaahu alayhi wa sallam) used to say after each salah:
“Ya muqallib al-quloob, thabbit qalbi ‘ala deenik.”
“Oh Turner of the hearts, keep our hearts steadfast upon your Religion”
Surely our hearts are in the Hands of Allaah, and our salvation and success lie in turning to Him, however incomplete or flawed we may be.
About the author:
Abigail Maryam, M.D., is a certified Love & Relationship Coach, entrepreneur, writer, and student of knowledge. She brings forth her gifts and experience to help sisters achieve greater levels of self-love, happiness, and wellbeing.
Tazkiyah: The Islamic Path of Self-Development, edited by Abdur Rashid Siddiqui (The Islamic Foundation)
Purification of the Heart: Signs, Symptoms, and Cures of the Spiritual Disease of the Heart. Translation and Commentary of Imam al-Mawlud’s Matharat al-Qulub, by Hamza Yusuf (Sandala, Inc)
The Purification of the Soul (Tazkiyat an-Nafs), compiled from the works of Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya, and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. Collected and arranged by Ahmad Farid (Al-Firdous Ltd, London)