Purification of the Soul (P.T.S.)

وَنَفۡسٍ۬ وَمَا سَوَّٮٰهَا / فَأَلۡهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقۡوَٮٰهَا / قَدۡ أَفۡلَحَ مَن زَكَّٮٰهَا / وَقَدۡ خَابَ مَن دَسَّٮٰهَا

“And [by] the soul and He who proportioned it. And inspired it [with discernment of] its wickedness and its righteousness. He has succeeded who purifies it. And he has failed who instills it [with corruption].”
[Qur’an; 91:7-10]

Abu Hurayra reported that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “I was sent to perfect good character.” [Adab al-Mufrad]

With regard to the soul, there are two types of people. One type has subdued their nafs (desires of the self)  so that they are in command of it. The other type have been overcome by their nafs so that they are no longer in control of it and have to succumb to its will.

Scholars comment that the fundamental purpose of divine revelation is for “correcting” the soul and guiding it towards its purpose. It is apparent from the above verses and hadith that Islam places great emphasis on the state of the human soul and the importance of purifying it for success.

Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) commands us to have restraint over the nafs rather than giving in to every impulse. The nafs, on the other hand, is constantly urging one towards fulfilling various desires or engaging in vices.

Thus purification of the soul is a life-long processed tied to tarbiya. and is a vast topic to address. Much has been written and spoken about it. In learning about this process, there are some key terms to be familiar with.

Hawa: the inclination of one’s nature to what suits it. Hawa should not be criticized when what is sought after is lawful, unless one is excessive. Man is blessed with intellect to restrain himself and make beneficial choices. There will be times when one’s hawa must be contradicted and controlled as succumbing to hawa at all times can lead to harm and humiliation.

Ishq: this refers to passionate love that, if unbridled, can lead to harm and humiliation too. A reason for ishq turning harmful is failure to avert one’s gaze from what one has been commanded to be wary of. Once signs of ishq appear, it is important to weed it out as early as possible, as the further it takes root, the more difficult it becomes to eliminate. It can corrupt the soul and desensitize the heart to sin.

Sharah: in the general sense, this refers to appeasing one’s hawa for food, sexual pleasure, wealth, and extravagant living. Sharah is not only harmful to the body but also to one’s character, whereas restraining appetite helps one physically as well as spiritually.

All of the above are addressed through the Islamic prescription for fasting–the obligatory fasting during the month of Ramadan as well as the other fasts that are encouraged throughout the year.

The Qur’an mentions three types of souls–the self at peace, the reproachful self, and the self that commands evil, although there are different views among people about whether this refers to three separate selves or essentially one self with three qualities.

There are two types of impetus that drive the self. One is the active impulse of courage, and the other is the inhibiting force of restraint. Some people are able to channel their perseverance into regular night prayers or fasting, but are weak in controlling their gaze. On the contrary, there are those who have near-perfect restraint with avoiding vices, but lack the impetus to persevere in consistent good deeds.

Some Steps to Keep the Soul in Check

  • Avoiding positions of leadership and authority that can lead to a sense of superiority over others and a temptation to incline towards corruption and malpractice
  • Giving generously out of what one loves for himself, thus training the soul to avert stinginess and acknowledging that Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) is the Giver of all that one possesses
  • Avoiding wastefulness and extravagance
  • Avoiding prohibitions of the tongue, such as lying and backbiting
  • Avoiding prohibitions of the heart, such as envy, anger, and arrogance
  • Avoiding riya–the inclination to show off or attract attention of others in the hope of receiving praise, thereby corrupting the intention behind deeds which must be done purely for the sake of Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He)

The Etiquette of Disobedience

Disobedience is to be avoided, but in the event that one falls into it unwillingly, Islam still provides a code of conduct that one must adhere to.

  • Never take intentional steps to approach the sin, but when the sin occurs, do not blame anyone but yourself.
  • Do not consider any sin as a minor matter. Do not consider how small the sin is, but rather consider the greatness of The One you have sinned against. “The believer sees his sins as if he was at the base of a mountain, fearing that it was about to fall upon him. The wicked person sees his sins as if (they are) flies are hitting his nose…” [Tirmidhi]
  • Keep the sin private and do not commit it in public. Being lax about the sin and committing it in public indicates that one does not care about Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) and does not have shyness. This etiquette is also for preserving society by not promoting the sin or desensitizing people to it.
  • Do not feel safe from the punishment of Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He). Punishment may arrive in various forms of suffering even if one does not realize the connection of that suffering with the sin.
  • Do not publicize the sin. “All the people of my Ummah would get pardon for their sins except those who publicize them. And (it means) that a servant should do a deed during the night and tell the people in the morning that he has done so and so, whereas Allah has concealed it. And he does a deed during the day and when it is night he tells the people, whereas Allah has concealed it.” [Sahih Muslim]
  • Do not take pride in your disobedience.
  • Strive to desist from the disobedience and leave it completely. Do not allow it to become a habit or obsession.
  • Feel remorse for one’s disobedience and seek forgiveness.
  • Repent to Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) and make a firm decision not to engage in the sin again. If the sin is connected to the rights of others, then one has to restore those rights in addition to repentance.
  • Avoid being influenced into disobedience by avoiding its triggers (certain people, places, times, devices, etc.).
  • Perform a good deed to wipe out the evil deed.
  • Upon leaving the disobedience, strive to discourage others from that same disobedience.

Further Information

Book: Disciplining the Soul; Ibn Al-Jawzi

Book: Purification of the Soul