by Suhaib Webb
Training the Soul and Achieving Good Character
An Important Axiom Related to Reading Texts
In our last discussion we addressed the different definitions of good character. Some scholars saying it was generosity, others saying it was “struggling to do good,” and others saying it was to “avoid anger.”
Perhaps one may note that there seems to be a contradiction here. This can be addressed by noting that, in the case of these definitions, these are not absolute definitions, but fall under what was coined as a “description” (Ar. Rasim). With that in mind, it is important to note that these were, in most cases, addressing specific questions, events or contexts. Thus, there is no contradiction here, but a case of identifying something by its different parts that are applicable to certain contexts.
Implications of Good Character: Balance is the Key
Imam al-Maqdisi wrote,
“The goal here is not to destroy these qualities in their entirety. But to balance them between two extremes-obliterating them is not the goal. How could that be possible when desire was created for a necessary benefit (to procreate)? So, for example, if the desire for food was completely cut off, one would perish, if the desire for procreation was cut, then life would cease, and if oneʼs anger were to be completely removed, then a person would not seek to defend himself in front of those who wanted to harm him.”
What we gather from the words of the Imam, is that ideal character is one anchored in balance and moderation – it avoids falling into one of the two extremes.
Imam al-Maqdasi wrote,
“You should know that balanced character is a sign of a healthy soul, and imbalance is a sign of its illness and weaknesses.” And “Achieving balance in oneʼs spiritual life is a delicate process! Nay, it is finer than hair and stronger than the sword (meaning it is not an easy process and requires great effort and insight).” For that reason we are ordered to say, in every prayer, “It is You alone we worship and You, alone, we plead for help.”
Understanding the Soul
Imam al-Maqdasi wrote,
“You should know that the cure for the soul is similar to the cure for the body – just as the body requires training and nutrition to reach its potential, the soul does so with discipline and training.
The are two approaches to the body which apply to the soul:
- It is healthy, so its upkeep is sought
- It is ill, so its cure is sought
Signs of a Hearts Weakness:
It is well known that every organ in the body has a specific function, and depending on the degree of the illness, the organ will not function correctly or cease to function at all. The same applies to the heart, whose main job is to know Allah and recognize His signs, love what He loves; be humble and submissive to its Lord.
Its three main functions can be summarized as:
The signs of a healthy heart are the love of Allah. The love of Allah is indicated by oneʼs preferring Him over other things such as oneʼs desires etc. If one prefers something over Allah, then that is a sign that his heart is sick. An example of this with another organ is the stomach. If it chooses eating filth over food, we would say, the person is ill. Then what can we say about a person who chooses filth over God?
A Simple Test
Let us ask ourselves some serious questions. Being serious is something lost today and seriousness is required for the one who truly seeks Allah. What is more beloved to us: to bow in sujud or to race to the latest sales? What is more beloved to us: to give or receive? What is more beloved to us: to be humble or to be haughty?
An Important Point of Departure:
One should not tackle such illness all at once. The better way is to approach it like a child is weaned from his mother, step by step with time, patience, and commitment. Once the child is weaned successfully, he will never accept to drink his motherʼs milk, and once the heart has been weaned from vice, it would never accept to return to it.
The First Step Recognizing Oneʼs Shortcomings:
“If Allah intends good for a person, He grants him insight into his mistakes and errors. If a person perceives his weaknesses, then his no need to fear his shortcomings because, through his awareness, he will know their treatment.”
Four Ways to Address Oneʼs Shortcomings
1. To sit with a sheikh who can make him aware of his mistakes, advice him, guide him to their cure and walk him through the path of recovery. About this al-Maqdisi wrote, “It is difficult to find such people today.”
Ibn Ashir wrote about the one who seeks to purify his soul,
يصحب شيخا عارف المسالك يقيه في طريقه المهالك
يدكره الله إدا رآه و يوصل العبد إلى مولاه
“He accompanies a teacher who knows the way (to purification), saving him from the path of destruction. He reminds him of Allah when he seeks him. And he connects the servant to the way of his Lord.”
2. Having a sincere companion who will advice the person and remind him if he falters.
Umar (ra) used to say, “God have mercy upon the one who granted me the gift of my errors.” ʻUmar also used to ask Hudhayfa, “Am I a hypocrite?”
Al-Maqdisi said, “The salaf loved those who used to offer them advice, and today the most hated are those who tender it.”
3. Benefiting from the comments of his enemies since, some times, their words hold more true, than those who exaggerate in praise.
4. To mix with the people. Because when he sees something reprehensible from them, he will work to eradicate it from himself.
End of Part Two.