process of self-development has different stages. In what follows, I will try to study briefly the whole
process and refer to its major stages.
1. Wakefulness or attention to one s self:
The very first stage is
wakefulness, that is, to awaken from the preoccupation of worldly engagements
and to remove negligence.
To awaken is to remember to look after one s piety, life and
spirituality. Many scholars such as Imam Khomeini in his book: Jihad-e Akhbar
the Major Jihad , which is a compilation of lectures given by him to Hawzah
students, state that the first stage of self-purification is wakefulness.
Indeed some mystics believe
that this is only a preliminary stage and that the first stage comes
after wakefulness. However, there is no doubt that this is the beginning. The
departure point is to become awake. We may say that we are all awake , but
this is a different kind of wakefulness.
According to a hadith, the Prophet Muhammad said:
“The people are asleep and only wake when theydie”.1 When they
die, they wake and never go to sleep again. But then it is too late. Then they
are like someone who wakes up when the train has gone, when the airplane has
flown. At that time, there is no use or benefit in going to the airport
because, although you are now awake, you have already missed the flight. All
you can do is to blame yourself and be regretful. You might say that you will
catch the next flight but unfortunately there are no more flights. It is the
end of the world, that was the last flight and we missed it because we were
So, let us be awake. If we become conscious only when we die, we cannot
do anything, as there is no opportunity to come back.
Allah SWT talks of the people who ask to be returned, so that they can
do something good. He replies “this is just some words that this person
says” 23:100 . If he is given a chance, he will not change, and even
then, there is no opportunity; they just wait for the day of resurrection. Unfortunately,
death has become so familiar or naturalized that we do not think we are going
to die, and it will always happen to someone else. According to an Iranian
“we are like a group of sheep, taken one by one to the
slaughter house; each is enjoying, not thinking that they will be next”.
According to a halith. the Taivrah of Moses says:
“I am astonished that someone who is certain that he is
going to die, can ever be happy”.2
So we need to become alert and wake up before we die. Sometimes this
happens through a significant event such as the loss of a relative, severe
illness, or in meeting a pious person. However we should not wait for something
to happen before changing; we can just change, as there is no guarantee that
something will happen to us.
It is very easy to become awake: it just needs determination and for us
to think about how important and significant this life, this journey to get
closer to Allah SWT , is to us. This is the only chance that we have to obtain
provisions for our eternal journey. According to a hadith, Imam Ali A.S.
“Day and night are constantly affecting you so you should also try
to affect them.”3
This means that your
life is passing by quickly. Every day and every night is making you older. In
other words every day and every night is bringing you nearer to your end of
life in this world , so try to do something. There is a beautiful analogy
regarding our situation. Life in this world is compared to a rope for a person
who has gone into a deep well and is only holding onto that rope.
If he loses this rope he will be
finished. There are two mice, one white and one black, at the top
of the well, gnawing on the rope. The time will come when the
rope will definitely break. The mice are very determined
and will not go away. This is our situation. The rope
our life. The white mouse represents day and the black mouse represents night. Day and night are constantly
at our life and sooner or later we will fall and
So we must
be awake and be very careful with this life, with this golden
opportunity that has been given to us.
2. Knowing one s self:
becoming awake, we should
try to find
out what resources, opportunities and options are available to us.
Now that we are awake, we want to do something. It is like someone
who has no work or business and so has no source of income. Everyone tells him to be responsible and do
that he should do something but does not know what to do. He cannot start from nothing. First of all he should
kind of abilities and skills he has. He should know what options
are available. For example, he should try to learn about the
state of the business market. He should find out who has been successful
so that he can take them as role models. He should also see who has become bankrupt so that he can learn
their situation and avoid becoming like them. This is what is called self-knowledge mainfat al-nafs and is considered to be “the
most beneficial knowledge”. Why do we always tend to
about ourselves and know about other things instead? For example, there are some people who may spend
all their life studying a rare
species of insects but will not spend even one hour sitting down, trying to find out what God has placed inside them.
mystics say that there are two worlds: an external one consisting of the beautiful natural world of humans,
and non-living beings created by God and also an internal world
inside our very selves. And they say that this world inside us
is the greater world. What God has placed inside us is far greater
than the whole physical world outside ourselves. This is why
we read in a beautiful divine saying hadith-e
my heaven nor my earth could contain Me,
it is only the heart of a believing person
that has contained Me.”4
this hadith, we can understand that our heart must be even greater than all these stars and planets,
than this whole creation that we can see.
need to know ourselves properly. We often underestimate the potential that we have for perfection.
There is an endless possibility for perfection before us. Even the most holy people can
still advance. There is always further for them to go because the
distance between man and God is infinite and so there is
always a possibility to go still higher. This is why we
pray after tashahhud, “0 God! Please accept the
intercession of the Holy Prophet for us and also elevate his
level”. This means that the Prophet can go higher.
Many of us are too easily satisfied with our
achievements. We need to be more
determined and have greater expectations. If we are
satisfied with small things, then we will lose out and maybe we
will not even achieve those small things. It is said that once there was a religious scholar Colin° whose
son had become a student of religion. The father asked his
son what he wanted to become in the future. The son answered that
he wanted to become like his father. The father replied that he
felt very sorry for his son because he himself had wanted to become
as much as possible
like Imam Ja far Sadiq, who was his role model, and yet his
present situation was all that he had achieved. He told his son that
if he only wanted to become like his father then he would not achieve
anything. So, we should always have great ambitions and indeed
God has created us with such a potentiality inside us. So, we
need to know ourselves, we should believe in our potential and be aware of the different things that can
benefit or harm us.
3. Taking care of one s
wakefulness and self-knowledge,
we need self-care. It is not enough simply to know things; knowledge should serve us by being
put into practice. For example, if you know that smoking kills but
have no concern for your health and so
continue to smoke, there is no benefit in that knowledge.
In fact it just makes you more responsible and accountable
because you know. Of course, this does not mean
2010, Vol. 10, No. 4
that we should avoid learning. To say we did
not know is not a good enough excuse; we
must learn and then put what we learn into practice. So we need to have self-care.
The Qur an states:
believers, look after yourselves, if you are on the right path, you will not be harmed”. 5:105
after oneself implies practicing one s social responsibilities as well, since Islam is a religion that
asks us to be actively
engaged in social life: all with the spirit of wakefulness and consciousness, and knowing what can
benefit and harm us.
there is something that often happens to people in this state. When they become conscious and
sensitive to spiritual issues, then unfortunately instead of being
concerned with their own piety, instead of being mostly busy with
their own problems, they become judgmental about other people. For
example, they start
thinking that this person is useless, that one is careless and another one is not really a believer. This is
very dangerous. First of all
and most of all a true believer should be busy with his own problems.
We understand from hadiths that it is much better for us if we
are busy sorting out our own problems and illnesses rather
than thinking about others and being judgmental. For example,
the Prophet Mohammad is quoted as saying:
is the one who is so busy thinking about his own deficiencies that he has no
time to think about the deficiencies of others.5
must start with criticizing and assessing ourselves before looking at others. Sometimes we have an enormous problem
within ourselves but we are not aware of it and yet we notice a tiny
amount of that same problem when it is in someone else. For
example, we may have eaten something like garlic and do not realize
that our mouth smells and yet when we meet someone
who smells in some way, we are so quick to think or say something about them.
There is a
story in Mathnawi by Rumi that four
people had an appointment with a king immediately after
midday prayers. They were very concerned not to lose this
opportunity to meet the king and did not want to be late. So they decided
to say their prayers quickly and then go to meet the king. They
started praying as soon as they reached the mosque. However
while they were saying their prayers, the one who calls for
prayer mu adhdhin came
into the mosque to climb the minaret. They were now unsure
and began to wonder whether they had started their prayers
too early or whether that day the mu adhdhin had arrived late.
So, whilst praying, one of them asked the mu adhdhin whether
the time for prayers had already arrived or not. The second
person asked the first why he had spoken whilst praying because
whether the time had arrived or not he had now made his prayers
void by speaking. The third person pointed out that the second
person had now also spoken by asking the first one why he had
spoken. However the fourth person considered himself to be “very clever”. He said: Thanks to God that I
did not speak!
this story we see that four people shared the same problem but each could only see it in the other
people and not in themselves. In fact they repeated the very
same mistake for which they were criticizing the others. Therefore it
is so much better to be very concerned about ourselves rather than
about other people.
people think that this means they should be indifferent to what is happening around them, in their
in society. This is not the case. But if we want to be more useful
to our community and to society then we should first start with
ourselves and then we can help others. For example, we see
when giving instructions on a plane regarding the use of emergency oxygen
masks, they always advise us to attend to ourselves first and then help those next to us.
Otherwise, whilst we are trying to help the other person with
their mask, we ourselves may collapse. So,
we should have self-care. But how should we care for ourselves?
Should we only pray and recite the Qur an? Should we just
serve society by doing community work?
3.a. Acquiring appropriate beliefs and faith:
The very first thing that we need to do is to acquire proper
beliefs and a proper
of the world. If you want to be a good businessman you must know the market and the people who are in the
You need to know the present situation, future possibilities
and the factors that work in that particular business.
want to be successful in this world we must know Who is the One who has control
here. If we need to get permission to start a business we should know where to
go to get that permission. In the same way, if we want to start a spiritual
`business we should know from where to get permission. We should know what
laws and regulations apply and should be observed. We should know what
provisions are provided and what kind of loans and grants might be given to us.
famous Iranian poet who wrote Golestan and Bustan, tells a beautiful story. He
says that once a person went to do some business in another country. He
realized that in that country the bell which they used to hang in the public
bath-houses was very cheap to buy. For example, if the bell would have cost
$100 in his country then in that country it cost only $1. So he sold all his
goods and with whatever money he had, he purchased maybe a thousand bells. Then
he expected to return to his country and generate $99 profit on each bell. So
he transported all these bells back to his home town. However the problem was
that there were only two or three bath-houses in his town and so no-one wanted
to buy the bells. No-one was interested, even when he offered them at half
price. So he lost all his capital and became bankrupt because he did not know
which were the right kind of goods that would be purchased in his country.
people are like this and invest in things in this world which will be of no
value in the hereafter. We invest our life, which is the most valuable
capital that we have been given, in things which, when we arrive in the
hereafter, we will be told were pointless and thus we had wasted this
capital . Hence we need to have faith and to know the way in which our life in
this world can secure our happiness in the next world. We must have correct
beliefs and we should be especially careful to understand the connection
between our life in this world and our life in the hereafter. About one third
of the Glorious Qur an talks about the hereafter. There is so much emphasis on
it to teach us that the eternal life is the thing for which we must really
useful parable can be found in hadiths. There is an example in the story of the
person who worshipped day and night: one day an angel passed by, thinking that
with such dedication, this person must have a very high status. When the angel
went close to him, he realized that the person did not have proper
understanding of God, as he said “I wish you had a donkey so I could feed
him in my field, as I have lots of grass here”. This person saw God like a
human being, who has a donkey. This kind of faith is not rewarding, and so
aqidah is the first certainty that needs to be secured. We must make efforts to
gain proper understanding of God the Creator, His position in this world, the
belief in Unity, Prophethood, and Resurrection.
first we should have correct beliefs, but not the kind of beliefs that we
normally learn and can only repeat in a parrot-like fashion. It must be the
kind of belief that we have completely absorbed into our very being so that if
we say that there is only One God, then our whole body and soul would declare
that we are monotheist.6
Performing acts of piety and refraining from sins and evil deeds:
try to perform our obligations and observe all the requirements of our faith.
Even if we have proper beliefs and perform all our obligations but do not stop
committing sins, we will not succeed. If someone washes his hands ten times a
day but continues to touch things which are dirty and polluted, he will become
dirty again. It is no use saying that he washed his hands ten times that day.
Daily prayer is like a spiritual bath which makes us clean but if we do the
same things again afterwards then we are just making ourselves dirty again.
a beautiful example of someone who has a carrier bag into which he puts some
purchases in order to take them home. But there is a big hole in the bottom of
the carrier bag and so whatever he puts into the bag falls out through the
hole. He is surprised and wonders how it could be possible that he has filled
the bag with at least ten times its capacity but it still remains empty. He
wonders where everything is going. In a similar way, depending on our age, we
have worshipped God for 10, 20, 30 or 40 years. But where is the result of this
worship? Why are we still the same kind of people? Why are we the same after
the month of Ramadan as we were before it? It is because we do good things but
in addition to this we also do bad things.
another useful example related by Rumi. There was a farmer who used to harvest
his wheat and put it into his storeroom, hoping to fill it for the winter. But,
to his astonishment, every time he went to the storeroom to fill it with more
wheat he discovered that the level of the wheat would be lower than before and
thus the storeroom was never filled. So he was surprised, especially as the
storeroom was always locked so that no-one else had access to it to take
anything out. He would always carefully lock the door. So he decided that one
night he would have to stay awake inside his storeroom so that he could find
out what was happening. So one night he indeed remained awake inside the
storeroom, silently watching. After midnight he realized that there were some
huge rats coming and taking all the wheat out of the storeroom. Thus he
realized that they were the real cause of the problem. So Rumi tells us that we
are like this. There are some rats in our hearts which take away the light of
our good deeds. If there are no rats, then where is the light of forty years of
praying, the light of forty years of fasting, of going for Hajj, etc.? So we
should be very careful not to do any sinful actions. We should not commit even
one single sin. Of course we are human beings and we may make mistakes, but a
real believer is the one who, if he makes a mistake, firstly always feels sad
and bitter about it and secondly he quickly repents and sincerely decides not
to repeat the same mistake again. So, if we commit a sin we must repent as soon
amongst some people who are interested in spirituality there are those who
think that the religious law sharrah is only needed at the beginning and that
afterwards we should be concerned with the requirements of the spiritual
journey tariqah . Sometimes they say that this is like someone who has reached
the core and so no longer needs the peel. But this is a wrong idea because we
always need to observe the
The Holy Prophet and Imams of the Household of the Prophet Peace be upon them
all always followed the shari`ah and there is no one who can claim to be more
pious than them. There is no incident where the Holy Prophet committed a sin
and then said that it was alright for him to do so. For example he never said
that we should not tell lies but that it was allowed for him to do so. Or that
we should not drink alcohol or gamble but that for him it was acceptable.
Unfortunately nowadays we find that there are some so-called Muslims who follow
people calling themselves masters or imams who do not themselves follow the
requirements of piety and still their followers believe in them and think that
they will never be affected by their unlawful deeds.
according to the school of Ahlul Bayt this matter is very clear. We should
observe the shari`ah but this is not enough. There are two different ways of
looking at shari`ah. One is to believe that the shari `ah is only for the
beginner and that after we reach the higher levels we no longer need it. This
is what some Sufis do. The second way is to say that the shari a is always
needed but that by only following shari`ah we will always remain at the lowest
level. If we want to go to the higher levels, in addition to the shari`ah we
should try to go beyond the performance of mere rituals to discover the spirit
contained within them. An example which might help is that of a person who is
at primary school. If someone is at primary school and they feel satisfied with
that, then their education will always remain incomplete. They need to go on to
secondary school, to high school and then to university. But we cannot say that
we will go to secondary school and once there we will forget about everything
learnt at primary school. Or that when we go to university we will forget about
everything learnt at high school. This will not work.
It has to
be noted that nothing can replace performance of the obligations and refraining
from the sins. In Nahj al-Balc7ghah, Imam Ali says:
not be one of the people who have hope for the hereafter without having good
practice and who postpone repentance because he is too ambitious”.7
maintain proper practice, little by little, the light of our deeds will
enlighten our hearts. Even if you do little good things, it can be built upon,
as long as you do not commit sins. The Prophet Muhammad told Abu Dharr:
Abu Dharr, with piety, you need to supplicate just the amount of salt you have
on your food. 0 Abu Dharr, the example of the one who supplicates without
practice is like the one who tries to shoot an arrow without rubber.” 8
other hand, if someone commits sins the performance of lots of good deeds will
not help. We cannot compensate for sins with good deeds. The Qur an says:
only accepts from the pious people”. 5:27
Acquiring good characteristics and removing bad ones:
addition to having proper beliefs, performing our obligations and refraining
from sins, we need to look into the qualities of our heart or spirit and find
out what good qualities we lack so that we achieve them and what bad qualities
we have so that we can remove them. This is what we normally learn in the
science of Akhlaq morality and is much more difficult than having proper
beliefs or proper practice. We often have bad habits which are difficult to
change or even to notice, because they have almost become part of us. In this
situation we need to struggle and we need cure. For example a person may be
fearful. As soon as it gets dark, they become frightened. Sometimes the person
may be very determined to overcome this fear but it is still very difficult and
needs some kind of treatment. Somehow it is like a cancer which needs difficult
therapy. Firstly we must identify our bad habits and then we should try to
promise ourselves that we will not do anything according to that habit because
if we act according to a bad habit it becomes stronger and stronger. For
example we may have a bad habit which we cannot remove immediately, but if we
do not actually act according to that habit then gradually it becomes weaker
and weaker. There are also specific solutions for particular bad habits
depending on what kind of habits they are. So the general advice and solution
is not to act according to a bad habit but also to apply specific solutions for
the bad habits or qualities. For example if someone wants to stop smoking there
are certain techniques to help break this habit which would not work for
another habit. Sometimes after decades you can become sure that you are good,
and then you realize that you are bad. An example is someone who was always
attending in the first row in the jamaat prayer, and after many years he realized
it was not for the sake of Allah, since once when he came late and had to pray
in the last row, he felt ashamed that people would think that he was not in the
first row. He realized that it was for the praise of others that he was always
early and in the first row. On the contrary, one may refer to an incident about
Ayatollah Shaykh Mohammed Husayn Isfahani Qarawi, the teacher of the late
Ayatollah Khu i. Once some people on a street in Najaf, saw that he was smiling
and happy and someone asked him why he was happy. The Ayatollah replied that
his bag of vegetables had fallen down, and when he started collecting them he was
not concerned that people were looking at him. This made him happy, because he
remembered another incident that had taken place in the early years of his
study at the hawza. At that time he had an expensive tasbih as he was rich, and
when it broke, he did not collect the beads since didn t want people to look at
him. Now he felt content, that even though he was a great scholar, he did not
feel bad that people were looking at him while he was picking up vegetables. At
that point, he felt that there was no sense of pride in him.
such as Alerdj al-Sa adah we learn different faculties of our soul and the
corresponding virtues and vices of each. We also learn the methods for
obtaining the virtues and removing the vices.
Continuing the process of self-development until one becomes a true servant who
meets his Lord: We should continue
this process. It is a lifelong challenge which cannot be given a time limit of
one month or one year or ten years after which time we could feel that we have
completed it and allow ourselves to relax. On the contrary, as long as we
remain in this world, up to the very last moment of our life, we must be
careful. And we must not waste any opportunity. There is no age of retirement
or graduation, because however much we manage to acquire, firstly it is not
guaranteed that we will preserve them and secondly, even if we manage to
maintain them, they will not constitute sufficient provision for our eternal
journey. The Qur an states, “And worship your Lord till certainty comes to
you” 15:99 . Before we meet Him, there is no sense of relaxation,
retirement, graduation or rest. Insha Allah when we meet Him, then we can rest.
So we must continue this process until we meet Him and He is happy with us.
an interesting story illustrating our situation. There was a group of people
who were going to be sent to a dark tunnel. They were told that when they
entered the corridor it would be very dark and they would not be able to see
anything They were told that they must go from one end of this tunnel to the
other end and that on the floor there would be some stones which they could
pick up and bring out. They were told that if they took the stones they would
regret it, but that they would also regret it if they did not take the stones!
Then they were sent into the corridor. Some people thought that it was not
worth collecting the stones because they would regret doing so. Some others
thought, out of curiosity, that they might as well take some stones to see what
they were, even if they might regret it later. Thus some collected stones
whilst others did not and then they all came out of the corridor. When they
were outside again, in daylight, those people who had collected stones realized
that they were actually very expensive jewels. Those people who had not taken
any stones saw this and became very angry. They started to protest, asking why
they had been told that they would regret collecting the stones. Then they were
told that although those people who do not collect any stones regretted this,
even those who did take some regretted that they had not taken more and wished
that they had collected more by filling their pockets as well.
is what we should do. We should make sure that our hands and pockets are
overflowing with good characteristics and good deeds, get the benefit of them
in this world and then take them to the hereafter.
various stages one must go through on the path of self building. We must first
awaken from our slumber of negligence and realize the reality of our existence:
only then will we know ourselves and take care of our actions. This must be
coupled with true beliefs and faith in the One God. Faith is not complete
without good actions and so we must also refrain from forbidden acts. Lastly,
we must rid our soul of bad qualities and habits. Although the path is
difficult to embark upon, Insha Allah with Allah SWT s grace we shall gain
the tawfeeq to complete these stages and achieve proximity to Him with ease.
I Bihar al-Anwar, Vol. 50, p. 134.
al-Qulub, Vol. 1, p. 74.
3 Ghurar al-Hikarn, No. 120.
al-Anwar, Vol. 55, p. 39.
5 For example, see Bihar al-Anwar, Vol. 1, p. 205.
6 Being a good, kind and caring person is
necessary but not sufficient to attain
in heaven: we must also have faith. If people are good in their dealing
others, and have no faith, there is no chance to go to heaven: maybe they
not be sent to Hell, or their punishment will be reduced, but there is no
attaining heaven. To believe in God, as the One and only Creator is a
and fundamental belief.
7 Nahj al-Balaghah, Wise Saying No. 146 150 .
Bihar al-Anwar, Vol. 74, p. 85.