In the Early Hours (Reflections on Spiritual and Self-Development)

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  • In the Early Hours (Reflections on Spiritual and Self-Development)

  • CHAPTER ONE: The Process of Self Development

    THE path to God is only illuminated when a person recognises the central place of God in his life and strives to develop his self accordingly. The Messenger of God said:

    If someone wants to know what position he enjoys in the eyes of God, he has only to look at what place he gives to God (in his heart and life. (Hakim)

    The term nearest in meaning to self development in the Quranic vocabulary is tazkiyaTazkiya means purification and refers to the cleansing of the human self from all that is unwholesome, undesirable and unwelcome. It also refers to the nurturing and strengthening of all the qualities within the human self that are essential for growth and development, for blossoming and flowering.


    Success and happiness in this world and the Hereafter depend on tazkiya, the purification and nurturing of our personality. The Quran states that true success is only reserved for those who seek to purify themselves:

    Successful indeed is the one who purifies his whole self [ash-Shams 91:9]

    Our personality comprises not only the physical body but also the mind and the heart, feelings and attitudes, character and behaviour. Proper nurturing and development of these elements of the personality will achieve desirable goals. When goals are desirable, the process of aspiring to, working towards and achieving them also become desirable. This is part of human nature. It is critical, therefore, that we recognise and understand the true nature of our ultimate goal in life.

    For the Believer, the most coveted goal in life is to seek the good pleasure of Allah and Janna or Paradise. Our Creator has set this goal for us: And surely Paradise - it is the goal [an-Naziat 79: 41]Indeed the Next abode - it is truly the life! [al-Ankabut 29: 64]The companions of Paradise - they are the triumphant ones [al-Hashr 59: 20].

    Know, however, that attaining the pleasure of Allah takes precedence over seeking Janna but the two are closely connected. Paradise can only be attained through seeking Allah's pleasure, and when Allah's pleasure is gained, we will indeed be granted Paradise. Reflect upon the following two verses in the Quran:

    And there is a kind of person who would willingly give up personal interests, seeking Allah's pleasure; and God is Most Compassionate towards His servants.[al-Baqara 2: 207.]

    Indeed Allah has purchased from the Believers their lives and their possessions, promising them Paradise, in return. [at-Tawba 9: 111.]

    The alternative to attaining Paradise in the Hereafter is to be placed in Jahannam or Hellfire and to receive its punishments. The Quran states: But in the life to come: [it is either] severe suffering, or God's forgiveness and His goodly acceptance. [al-Hadid 57: 20.] What is it that makes a person deserving of such a suffering? The answer is to be found in the second part of the same verse: for the life of this world is nothing but an enjoyment of self-delusion [al-Hadid 57: 20.] Jahannam therefore, is for those who seek as their ultimate goal in life, not the pleasure of Allah or Paradise, but the enjoyment of worldly gains.

    The pursuit of worldly gain is but a mirage. All worldly gains are left behind when you die. All that is on earth is bound to perish while Allah and His good favour will remain forever. It is for this reason that the Queen advises:

    Vie with one another in seeking to attain to your Sustainer's forgiveness; and to a Paradise as vast as the heavens and the earth, which has been readied for those who have attained to faith in God and His messengers: such is the bounty of Allah which He grants unto whomever He wills -for Allah is limitless in His great bounty. [al-Hadid 57: 21.]

    All your efforts in this world should therefore be focused only on seeking Paradise. It is the Promise of the Almighty that:

    You will only be rewarded fully for all your good deeds on the Day of Resurrection, and [on that Day] whoever will be drawn away from Hellfire, and admitted into Paradise, will indeed have triumphed [Ali Imran 3:185.]


    The first step in self development, then, is to concentrate single-mindedly on Paradise. Indeed, the one who is unsure of his destiny in life, torn between this world and the Next, like one standing with his feet in two separate boats - will be thrown off balance. Many of the difficulties that we face are due to this lack of commitment and inability to focus on the real and ultimate goal. If you can keep your focus on Janna, then everything else will be possible.

    The selection of the ultimate goal of Paradise must be made consciously and may involve an absolute break with the past. To choose this new goal as the ultimate goal in one's life is in fact to choose a new life, to begin a new journey. Embark on this new journey by refreshing your wudu (ablution) and offering two rakas (units) of Salat or Prayer reminding yourself of all the punishment of Hellfire you have just resolved to avoid at all costs and all the rewards of Paradise that you will strive to achieve. Remind yourself also of the important stations and landmarks on the journey; imagine death as near; imagine the moment when the Angel of Death will declare, `your time is over, now you must follow me'; imagine that moment when you will be made to stand in the presence of Allah, Most High, so that the final judgment of life may be passed on you and imagine the consequences of that judgment. When you have completed the two rakas then resolve once more that all efforts will be directed towards achieving Paradise, beseech Allah and pray with humility:

    O Allah, I ask for Your mercy and whatever brings me closer to it, in word and deed.

    O Allah, I ask for a faith that will never vanish, a blessing that will never diminish, a pleasure that will never abate, and the most elevated position in Paradise distinguished by the companionship of Your Messenger, Muhammad.

    While improvement in your habits and actions is a life-long process, the desire to achieve it can thus be sparked in a moment. This desire will provide the momentum for attaining your goal - the good pleasure of Allah and Paradise.


    Having taken the fast step and resolved to attain Paradise, you may ask yourself, what does Allah require from me in order for me to succeed?

    What Allah requires of you, in Quranic vocabulary, is for you to be a mumin and mujahidA mumin is one who is true and firm in his faith in God. A mujahid is one who strives his utmost, with all the means at his disposal, to gain God's pleasure. If you are a mumin and a mujahid, Allah, the Most Exalted in Power and yet the Most Compassionate, will assist you to rise to higher stations both in this world and in the Hereafter. Allah has promised this to those who possess the qualities of iman or faith and the active resolve for jihad or struggle. The Quran states:

    Only those are Believers who have believed in Allah and His Messenger, and have never since doubted, but have striven with their belongings and their persons in the Cause of Allah: Such are the sincere ones. [al-Hujurat 49:15]

    You now have a mission: to become a mumin and mujahid. As you embark upon this mission you may come to feel that your knowledge of Islam is somewhat limited or perhaps that you are unable to attain those heights of submission and purification that you desire or others expect of you. This is only natural. You must not, however, allow these feelings of personal shortcomings to undermine your efforts to practise Islam. Remember that Islam is a state of becoming not a state of being. Each day you must strive to improve and better yourself - and you will improve.

    Tazkiya or this new programme for self-improvement that you now find yourself in, is a process that unfolds itself step by step. You cannot expect to change all at once. This is against the laws of nature. The Prophet was always aware of this when he was dealing with his Companions. Whenever someone embraced Islam, the Prophet would not ask that person to do everything immediately. Instead, he would teach and expect that person to start fulfilling his obligations only as much as he could bear at a time. This gradual process of change is also clearly reflected in the manner in which the Quran was revealed over a period of 23 years. In all your efforts towards becoming a better Believer, you must bear in mind this principle of gradualism, otherwise you may try to attain the impossible, and when you do not achieve it, you may become frustrated.

    At this stage, what matters most is that your bargain with Allah, iman, remains sound and firm. This definition of iman is perhaps a little different from the definition you usually hear. It is, however, a definition that we find in the Quran [at-Tawba 9: 111]. Furthermore, attainment of such iman, allows you to be counted among the true and sincere servants in the eyes of your Lord. The Quran states:

    Behold, God has bought of the Believers their lives and their possessions, promising them Paradise in return, they fight in God's cause, and slay, and are slain: a promise which in truth He has willed upon Himself in the Tawra, and the Injil, and the Quran. And who could be more faithful to his covenant than God? [at-Tawba 9: 111]

    Once you have committed yourself to Allah, all that you have must be spent in His way. This is the ideal. Ideals, however, are always difficult to achieve - and this you must understand and accept. Ideals are always to be pursued; if they are easily and always achievable, they can hardly remain as ideals. Keeping to your side of the bargain then, is an ideal that you must always seek to maintain. It is this seeking and this striving to spend all that we have in the way of Allah that is known as jihad and alternatively, in this instance, as tazkiya.


    As you proceed on your journey along the new path, in quest of the ultimate goal of Paradise, you will encounter difficulties and hardships. These may often seem insurmountable. Overcoming them may be made easier by a good early grasp of the prerequisites of tazkiya. These are as follows:

    1. Tazkiya -Your Personal Responsibility

    You must accept that tazkiya is a highly personal process and that it demands taking personal responsibility for carrying it forward. You can only see the results of tazkiya through your own realisation, your own personal efforts and your own exertions. No one else can perform tazkiya for you. No organisation, no leader and no teacher can replace your own responsibility. God says: And no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another's burden; and if one weighed down by his load calls upon [another] to help bear carry it nothing thereof may be carried [by that other], even if it be one's near of kin. [al-Fatir;5:18 ] This sense of personal responsibility is basic to the whole purpose and approach of Islam. Ultimately, we are judged individually for discharging our own responsibilities. If someone else fulfils your obligations, then it should be he that is rewarded, not you. To be rewarded you must do what is expected of you by Allah by yourself:

    Whoever strives hard in God's cause does so only for his own good: for, verily, God does not stand in need of anything in all the worlds! And as for those who attain to faith and do righteous deeds, We shall most certainly efface their bad deeds, and shall most certainly reward them in accordance with the best that they ever did. [al-Ankabut 29: 6-7.]

    Some people allow themselves to be dictated by others. The Quran states that the weak will say on the Day of judgment that they were coerced into following the dictates of others, but that Allah will reply that the excuse is not legitimate for the decision to deviate from the Straight Path was their own. [Qaf 50: 26-28]. Even Shaytan will stand up on the Day of Judgment saying: ‘I invited you and you responded to me, so don't blame me, blame yourselves.' [Ibrahim 14: 22] Ultimately, then, the blame and the reward will be yours, because the responsibility was yours:

    On that Day all people will come forward, cut off from one another, to be shown their deeds. And so, he who shall have done an atom's weight of good, shall behold it; and he who shall have done an atom's weight of evil, shall behold it. [az-Zalzala 99: 6-8.]

    Taking charge of your own affairs may certainly seem a daunting task, but one which you will accomplish with distinction if you appreciate and take advantage of the tremendous human potential that Allah has blessed you with. Allah says in the Quran:

    Verily, We created man in the best conformation, and thereafter We reduced him to the lowest of the low - excepting only such as attain to faith and do good works: and theirs shall be a reward unending! [at Tin 95: 4-6.]

    Tazkiya does not consist simply of ideas, but of life, behaviour and conduct. The key to success, according to the Quran, lies in having true faith. To inculcate true faith you must start by acquiring a sound knowledge of Islam through a dedicated study of the Quran and Sunna. You must then translate your knowledge into practice. For this to occur, you need to have firm resolve and determination. This, in turn, will produce amal salih or righteous conduct.

    To aid you in your task, you must seek the company of those who are also striving to please Allah. They will encourage you towards righteousness and correct you when you deviate from the true Path. Your company also includes your mental and psychological company- the ideas you entertain, the ambitions you nurture, the sensitivities and sensibilities you develop and the books you read. All of these represent a form of company because they are your companions in solitude.

    2. Genuine Effort

    In order to succeed, you must have a deep desire to make a genuine effort to fulfill your obligations as a Muslim:

    But as for those who strive hard in Our cause - We shall most certainly guide them onto paths that lead unto Us: for, behold God is indeed with the doers of good. [al-Ankabut 29: 69.]

    With desire, of course, come actions. But know that it is not solely the results of your endeavours that count; what matters most is that you made your best effort. This is a very important point to appreciate because without genuine effort nothing can happen. Those who think that Prayer alone can work miracles are not living in a realistic world. Prayers are part of the effort, but Prayers are not the whole answer. If you pray, `Allah! Guide me and make me good', it is not going to bring you any benefit unless you are also determined to become good and make an effort towards becoming good. Once you have done the latter two things, then, of course, Prayer will be a source of baraka or Divine grace that will further inspire and strengthen your efforts. The initial desire and the ensuing effort to do and become good, is part of the continuing process of self development, a process that may begin at any point in life that you choose and continue till your last breath:

    O you who have attained to faith! Be conscious of Allah with all the consciousness that is due to Him, and do not allow, death to overtake you until you have surrendered yourselves unto Him. [Ali Imran 3: 102.]

    There will never be a point when you will be able to say that you are now a perfect person or that you have achieved your full potential. If at any point you feel so, then be sure that is the starting point of your downfall, On the other hand, you may find that the greater your desire to fulfill your obligations as a Muslim, the more you feel beset or plagued by frustration, despondency and despair in your heart and mind. All of us, whether young or old, have experienced these diseases, and often just give up. What we should try to remember at such times is that it is the intention and effort that matters, not the result. This effort must be a continuing process:

    Be not, then, faint of heart, and grieve not: for you are bound to rise high if you are believers. [Ali Imran 3: 139]


    3. Sustaining Willpower

    To achieve the ultimate goal in life requires a sustained determination to do so, a willpower that is forever responsive and strong. In Quranic terminology this is called iradaIrada is basic to all our efforts. Without willing to do something you cannot do anything.

    Irada is very different from desire. You always hear people reflecting upon unfulfilled aspirations. One of the main reasons why aspirations and dreams remain unfulfilled is that they are no more than desires which faded to assume the status of irada.

    The Quran explains that one of the basic weaknesses in human nature which impedes self development is the weakness of will. While narrating the story of Adam, Allah informs:

    And, indeed, long ago We made Our covenant with Adam; but he forgot and We found no firmness of purpose in him. [Ta Ha 20:115]

    Irada requires strength and consistency and is indeed the antithesis of doubt, hesitation or lethargy. Once irada is firmly in place, then you must have no doubts and you must not hesitate.

    Now, what purpose should irada serve? The Quran makes it clear that this will power must be a firm resolve to seek the pleasure of Allah because this is the part of the bargain that you must deliver:

    And whoever desires [arada] the Life to Come, and strive for it as it ought to be striven for, and are [true] Believers withal-they are the ones whose striving finds favour [with God].[al-Isra 17: 19]

    4. Reliance on Allah

    Self-confidence is borne from the Believer's intimate knowledge and understanding that Allah is ever ready to assist those who strive and struggle in His way. Self-confidence comes from depending upon Allah and knowing that He is there to help you, protect you and shower His mercies upon you:

    So he who gives [in charity] and fears [Allah] and [in all sincerity] testifies to the best- We will indeed make smooth for him the path to Bliss. [al-Layl 92: 5-7.]

    Self-confidence also emanates from knowing that Allah in His infinite mercy has equipped you with all that you require to undertake the tasks set before you. It is not characteristic of the One that is Most Just and Most Merciful to prepare you for a duel without equipping you with the necessary tools.

    Self-confidence is thus borne of total reliance and trust in Allah. It is knowing that at every step of your journey Allah is there assisting you. If you constantly hold yourself back believing that you are weak and incapable and blame your incompetence on minor inadequacies, then you are bound to fail. You must never allow yourself to believe or feel that Allah has treated you unfairly or that He has placed upon you a burden you cannot shoulder for on no soul does Allah place a burden greater than it can bear[al-Baqara 2:286.]

    Likewise, hope is central to your efforts and your success. You must sincerely hope and believe that everything you do to earn the pleasure of Allah will lead you to fulfillment. A superiority complex negates the task of self development. An inferiority complex is derived from a lack of confidence in Allah and oneself. You should never allow yourself to believe that you cannot fulfill your obligations nor should you despair of the mercy of Allah. Confidence, hope and determination are all important ingredients for your success:

    Those unto whom men said: Lo! the people have gathered against you, therefore fear them. But it only increased them in faith and they cried.. Allah is sufficient for us! Most Excellent is He in Whom we trust! [Ali Imran 3: 173-174]

    You must be wary, however, of the kind of self-confidence that causes a person to proclaim himself self-sufficient. Modern concepts of self sufficiency are indeed an evil form of shirk or polytheism. To ascribe self-sufficiency to one's self is to assume for oneself an attribute reserved only for Allah. For the Muslim, self-confidence is wholly dependent upon the trust one places in Allah; it is not an arrogant proclamation of complete independence from Allah. Allah alone is self-Sufficient. All else is reliant upon Him for existence.


    5. The Best Use of Time

    Time is not money or gold; it is life and it is limited. You must begin to appreciate every moment of your life and always strive to make the best use of it. With all the demands of worldly life on your time, you will yet need to find time for self-development and maximise its potential. The better route towards self-development is, of course, to integrate all your efforts into a structured daily life. Imamal-Ghazali, may God have mercy on him, in his great work, Ihya Ulum ad Din, gives the following advice:

    You should structure your time, arrange your regular devotions and assign to each function a set period of time during which it is given first priority but which it does not overstep. For if you abandon yourself to neglect and purposelessness, as cattle do, and just do anything that may occur to you at any time it happens to occur to you, most of your time will be wasted. Your time is your life, and your life is your capital; it is the basis of your transactions [with God], and the means to attain to everlasting felicity, in the proximity of God the Exalted. Each of your breaths is a priceless jewel, and when it passes away it never returns.

    Remember also that `the deeds most loved by Allah [are those] done regularly, even if they are few.'(Bukhari, Muslim.) While you must always strive to make the best use of your time, you must always aim for excellence in everything you undertake, whether at school, at home, at work or at play. Indeed, the Prophet has said, `Verily Allah has prescribed ihsan (proficiency and excellence) in all things. (Muslim.)

    6. Tazkiya -All-embracing Process.

    Islam does not subscribe to the type of asceticism where we purify our hearts and yet remain immersed in political, economic or social corruption. Tazkiya must encompass our entire life - the privacy of our thoughts as well as their social manifestations in our daily life. Everything must be in conformity with Allah's will.

    This will of God also requires you to seek and maintain a delicate balance between the various obligations that demand your attention; between your obligations to Allah, your obligations towards others and your obligations towards yourself The Prophet advised us against extremism of any kind. It is reported that he said to Abdullah ibn Amr:

    `Have I heard right that you fast everyday and stand in prayer all night?' Abdullah replied, `Yes, O Messenger of God.' The Prophet said, `Do not do that. Fast, as well as eat and drink. Stand in prayer, as well as sleep. For your body has a right upon you, your eyes have a right upon you, your wife has a right upon you, and your guest has a right upon you.' (Bukhari, Muslim.)

    Unless you approach tazkiya as an all-embracing process, you will find that your life is compartmentalized, certain parts impeding the development of others. This can only result in a life of disharmony and unhappiness. Approached as a comprehensive and all-embracing process, however, you will find that each part of your life will complement some other part. This should, God willing, make your struggle on the path to God and Janna, easier and full of grace.

    As you struggle to make headway on the path to God, always remember that you have an excellent example before you. This is the example of the Prophet Muhammad, may God bless him and grant him peace. Often we would like to emulate our sports heroes, our parents, our teachers, our friends or others who attract our attention. For your spiritual development, however, the most beautiful example is that of the Prophet. Allah says in the Quran:

    You have, indeed, in the Messenger of God an excellent exemplar, whoever places his hopes in God and the Final Days and who remembers Allah much. [al-Ahzab 33: 21]


    The decision to purify and develop yourself requires that you clearly define the path and consider the ways and means to achieve Paradise. This whole process will not only purify your heart, but also affect your entire life and the will of Allah will become so much easier for you to follow. Following the Divine Will is, of course, tazkiya itself, Soon, all your efforts will be directed towards the ultimate goal - the pleasure of Allah and Paradise.

    Know that every sin can be effaced through forgiveness, and forgiveness is a sure way to Paradise. As you strive to better yourself, then, simultaneously and continuously pray for forgiveness for all your shortcomings. God says: And whoever repents and believes and works righteous deeds, God changes evil deeds into good ones, and God is Ever-Forgiving, Merciful. [al-Furqan 25:70]

    It is a misconception to believe that simply by setting up Paradise as the ultimate goal, one can get there without any further effort. It is also a misconception that Paradise can solely be achieved by concentrating only on certain aspects of life, the `religious and the spiritual'. The very fact that Paradise is the ultimate objective means that tazkiya must be pursued in all aspects of life, and in life as a whole. Consider, for example, the following:

    - Is not honesty a means to enter Paradise?
    - Will not a sense of responsibility enable me to enter Paradise?
    - Will not striving to fulfill the needs of fellow human beings make me deserve Paradise?
    - Will not abstaining from vain talk and aimless actions, bring me closer to Paradise?
    - Is not consciousness of the best use of my time a key to Paradise?
    - Will not keeping promises and offering Salat on time, which are distinguishing traits of the righteous, put me on the highway to Paradise?
    - Must not all of the above be sought to attain Paradise?

    Every effort that is legitimate and is aimed at attaining Paradise is also an integral part of the process of tazkiya

    Insha Allah (God-willing), if you take heed of all the prerequisites, blessings and benefits of tazkiya, you will surely find the right environment, the true companionship and brotherhood and the most appropriate training programmes to make the task of self development easier and more rewarding.

    So give the good news to My servants who listen to the word [of God], then follow the beauty in it. Such are they whom God has guided And such are they who are endowed with understanding. [az-Zumar 39: 17-18.]


    The most comprehensive goal for a Muslim is the single-minded desire to attain Paradise. This desire to seek Paradise is a life-long process which can be sparked in a moment- and this desire will provide the means and the momentum to reach the goal.

    Your model for self-development is that of the Prophet Muhammad. In your quest for Paradise, you must personally take charge of your responsibilities, develop the willpower to perform and make a genuine effort to fulfill your obligations, ensure that you make the best use of your time and adopt a balanced approach to life.

    Remember that every effort that is legitimate and is aimed at attaining Paradise is also an integral part of the process of tazkiya and that every sin can be effaced through forgiveness - and that forgiveness is the sure way to Paradise. And as for the one who fears to stand before his Lord and who restrains himself from base desires, the Garden is surely the abode. [an-Naziat 79: 40-41]

    May Allah enable us to be among those who purify themselves for it is God Who causes whomever He wills to grow in purity; and none shall be wronged by as much as a hair's breath [an-Nisa 4: 49]Were it not for God's favour upon you and His grace, not one of you would ever have remained pure. For it is God who causes whomever He wills to grow in purity: for God is all-Hearing all-Knowing [an-Nur 24: 21.]

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