Excellence (Ihsān) and Vigilance (Murāqabah)

Tasawwuf, or Islamic mysticism, means the full awareness of one’s being in the presence of Allah at all times. Only those servants of Allah who have this sense of awareness can observe their duties towards both the Creator and His creatures. Every soul lives in the shadow of the reality that Allah is as near as stated in the Qur’an: “We are closer to him than his jugular vein.” (Qāf, 50:16).

This state of awareness is called ihsān. One needs to be in a state of vigilance to protect this awareness. One who is in this position never forgets that they are being observed by Allah and that all their acts or thoughts are known to Him. To be in this position is like having a strong shield against sins; one cannot commit sins while his heart invokes “O my Lord!”

A person usually keeps away from sins in daily life if he knows that he is being watched by other persons, even if they are not able to punish him. Can such a person, who duly cherishes this feeling of ihsān and duly realises the vigilance of the Creator, act against the will of the Omnipotent? Not at all! Here is an excellent example in this regard from the time of the Companions of the Prophet:

One night, Caliph ‘Umar was wandering around the streets of Makkah as usual. He suddenly stopped when he heard a discussion between a girl and her mother. The mother was telling her daughter:

“O daughter! Dilute the milk we are going to sell tomorrow.”

The girl replied to her mother:

“O mother! Has not the Caliph prohibited diluting milk?”

The mother shouted at her daughter:

“O daughter! How can the Caliph see that we dilute milk?”

But the girl, who feared Allah, did not agree to her mother’s demand, and said:

“O Mother! Let us think for a moment that the Caliph does not see us. What about Allah? Do you think He does not see us? It is easy to hide this fraud from people but it is not possible to hide it from the Omnipresent Allah, Who is the Creator and the Sustainer of all being.”

‘Umar was moved by the words of this chaste girl, who feared Allah with a sincere heart. He was so deeply touched by her that he took her as a bride for his son, also a chaste person. ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Azīz, who is considered the fifth rightly-guided caliph in Islamic history, was the son of these two chaste parents.

The main point here is that one should live in vigilance, being aware of Allah’s presence everywhere. It is said in the Qur’an: “And He is with you wheresoever you may be. And Allah sees well all that you do.” (Hadīd, 57:4).

Allah the Almighty is always with every creature at all times, He knows all the actions of His creation. He watches over them. To think that He is unaware of His creation presumes weakness in Allah, Who is beyond any kind of weakness. If man knew this reality as he ought to, he could easily travel on the spiritual path. He would forget the concerns of this passing life and be interested only in the concerns of the spiritual life. The feeling of togetherness with Allah would keep man at all times in an awareness in which he can easily purify himself from worldly dross.

A friend of Allah says: “No traveller goes to sleep in the train station lest he miss the train. This world is like a train station to the next world. One needs to be awake to catch the right train.”

To feel togetherness with God inspires one with awe from closeness to Him. It also comforts the believer to feel near Him. The following verse of the Holy Quran explains this closeness:

Do you not see that Allah knows whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth? Nowhere is there a secret counsel between three persons but He is the fourth of them, nor (between) five but He is the sixth of them, nor less than that nor more but He is with them wheresoever they are; then He will inform them of what they did on the Day of Resurrection: surely Allah is cognizant of all things. (Mujadilah, 58:7)

Again, ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) during his caliphate, sent Mu‘ādh on a mission to the tribe of the Banū Kilāb. The purpose of the mission was to pay the necessary payments, deliver goods, and distribute alms which had been collected from the rich to be distributed among the poor.

Mu‘ādh used to fulfill every mission with great care and come back with pleasant stories telling how he managed to win people’s hearts. When he returned, he had only a piece of cloth to protect his neck from the sun and dust.

One day his wife asked him:

“Such people as you who undertake such missions are supposed to be paid and also get some presents for their households. Where are your presents for us?”

Mu‘ādh answered her: “There was an inspector accompanying me all the time in order to calculate what I take and what I give.”

His wife became angry with him and said:

“The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) trusted you, and so did Abū Bakr. Now, it is ‘Umar’s time, and he sends an inspector with you. Does he not trust you?”

Her words were heard first by ‘Umar’s wife, then by ‘Umar himself. ‘Umar called Mu‘ādh to ask him, reproachfully:

“What is this all about? Why do you say that I send an inspector with you? Do you not think I trust you?”

Mu‘ādh’s answer was an exemplary one:

“O Commander of Faithful! This was only a story to tell my wife. In fact, the inspector that I was talking about was not you. It was Allah. Thus, I would not like to take something for myself in return for any service I did…”

‘Umar understood what Mu‘ādh was saying, seeing that he was not interested in possessions. And he awarded him with a gift from his own possessions and said:

“Take this to your wife and appease her with this!”

The lesson to be taken from this story is that we should live in vigilance. We have to be aware all the time that our Lord is watching us. It is quite natural for one who works for charity organisations to be paid for the work they do. Yet, the attitude of Mu‘ādh is of great virtue. Those who work for charitable organizations may do extra work out of hours, as Mu‘ādh did. Such people are therefore supposed to watch themselves from time to time to check their nafs; they should remember the following warning of ‘Umar (Allah be pleased with him): “Take account of yourself before you have to account for yourself in the Divine Judgment.”

The following saying of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) reminds us of the importance of remembering Allah and constant vigilance: “Do not waste your time with idle talk, forgetting Allah; because such talk that forgets Allah deadens one’s heart. And it is such a person who is farthest from Allah.” (Tirmidhī).

Therefore, we are supposed to be vigilant all day, whether it be before dawn (sahar), or when we awake for the early morning (fajr) prayer or during the daytime. The time must be a model for us to keep vigilance all day. Such a person who makes use of the pre-dawn time and daytime in order to win the happiness of his Lord is believed to be in the position of divine pleasure (mardāt al-Rabb). One who reaches this position eliminates all of the ill nature in their heart. It is as if the sunlight has been focussed through a lens to burn them; in the place of this ill nature, good nature arises through the divine attributes. This happens to such an extent that one is able to enjoy the expression of love, bounty, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness to all creation, with all due deference to the Creator. Such a person supervises their lower self in the best way. They observe the reason for their existence in this world with every breath, and take measures not to fall into the traps of Satan; their heart is always with their Lord. It is said in the Qur’an: “Know that Allah comes in between a man and his heart.” (Anfāl, 8:24).

A servant of Allah who falls into this category enjoys the real taste of their trust in Allah. Their Lord has endowed them with direct knowledge; there is no middle man. Through this knowledge they begin to be able to read the pages of the universe. They grasp the wisdom and mysteries of existence. The Qur’an says: “So fear Allah – and it is Allah that teaches you.” (Baqarah, 2:282).

It is this feeling of vigilance that saved the prophet Joseph from falling into the trap of a beautiful woman who tried to seduce him. He was saved from this trap through ihsān and vigilance. Therefore, the feeling of benevolence should be fixed in one’s heart and should direct one’s acts, enabling one to reach the position of being in union with one’s Lord. Otherwise, merely uttering the words “benevolence” and “vigilance” will be of no use to the heart. The feeling of love has to be turned away from transitory beings to the Eternal Being. Once this feeling of love has been directed only towards Allah, the servant is able to take up the position of pious asceticism. When in this position, one undervalues worldly goods; their value comes through giving them away (infāq). The heart feeds its love of Allah with a pool of good deeds. Such acts give one’s Lover (the Lord) pleasure.

A river that flows into the sea no longer keeps its own current or hue; it becomes, instead, under the control of the sea; it is no more a river. The same is true for ihsān: it is the person’s annihilation in Allah, the manifestation of the Lord’s attributes in the self.

Thus, we may say that benevolence is the core of faith. The results of this, such as sincerity, piety, and reverence in all prayers, rituals, and invocations, can be gained only through benevolence. For every act of worship sends up shoots through the branches of sincerity, blossoms through piety, and finally bears fruit through reverence. To be on the right path means that one is aware of the Lord’s omnipresence and acts accordingly, not only when in the company of people, but also when alone, feeling that the Lord is watching all the time. So, tasawwuf, with all its practices and forms, aims at empowering the heart to reach this position. Friends of Allah are students of this process throughout their lives.

One day Uways al-Qarānī was asked by his mother:

“O son! How can you manage to worship all night?”

Qarānī answered:

“O my dear mother! I worship Allah with great care. My heart broadens in piety so much that neither do I feel tired nor do I have any awareness of my bodily senses. I do not feel that the night is so long.”

His mother asked:

“What is that thing called khushū‘ (pious reverence) in worship?”

He answered:

“It is to not feel the pain of the spear stabbed into one’s body.”

Again, here is another famous story from the history of Islam. During a battle, ‘Alī was stabbed in the foot by a spear. The people around him tried to take it out, but they could not manage to do so because it was so painful. Then ‘Alī said:

“Let me start praying and then you take it out!”

They did as he said and they were able to remove the spear easily. When he had finished his prayer, he asked them:

“What have you done?”

They answered:

“We have taken it out!”

As this case indicates, ‘Alī’s body felt nothing of this world; rather he was focussed on his spiritual joy because of the pious reverence during prayer. This is a clear and vivid example of benevolence and vigilance.

Taking pleasure in prayer and not being tired of praying can be possible only with a feeling of benevolence. One who has no feeling of benevolence in the heart feels tired when they pray. If such a person is rich, they will avoid giving alms because such a person cannot enjoy the pleasure of faith. Thus, we may conclude that prayers made in sincerity, alms given wholeheartedly, fasting performed joyfully, and pilgrimage performed lovingly are all outcomes of ihsān.

Being in the state of ihsān and vigilance is only possible through remembrance of Allah. It is this rememberance that makes the mind and heart connected with Allah, as well as fortifying one’s wisdom. It is because of this reality that Allah said to Moses and Aarun when they were sent on a mission to the Pharaoh: “Go, you and your brother, with my signs, and slacken not, either of you, in keeping Me in remembrance.” (Ta-Ha, 20: 42).

Many verses in the Qur’an enjoin remembrance of Allah. The following verse is enough to understand the importance of remembrance of Allah. Remembrance is the polish of the heart and it is the recipe for tranquility of mind, as the Qur’an states, “Lo! Without doubt in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find peace.” (Ra‘d, 13: 28).

A heart that has been set at peace by remembrance of Allah is in the place where the divine attributes dwell. Such a heart is conscious of the secret expressed in the following verse: “The day whereon neither wealth nor sons will avail, but only he (will prosper) that brings to Allah a sound heart.” (Shu‘arā’, 26: 88-89). To attain such a position, one must overcome the barrier of the nafs and become mature through remembrance of Allah, and through repentance, pious resignation, patience, and vigilance.

We can summarize religion as consisting in two main aspects: legal aspects which are like the columns of a building, and pious reverence which is like the ornaments on these columns. Tasawwuf, which makes these two aspects come together, explains existence with wisdom. It opens up the spiritual windows to the miraculous event of Mi‘raj (ascension to the heavens) of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace).

Tasawwuf means to live Islam in observation of the values of sincerity, piety, reverence, submission, and love. In other words, it is taking a share from the life of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) as the Messenger of Allah, a time that lasted 23 years. As stated before, tasawwuf means acting in accordance with the Allah’s commandment to the believers, made through the person of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) in the verse “Therefore stand firm (in the straight path) as you were commanded.” (Hūd 11: 112). As mentioned before, this verse made the hairs of the Prophet turn white.

It is worth noting that the Prophet, during the 23-year period after the Qur’an was first revealed, participated in many battles and went hungry for many days. He lost Khadhīja, his wife, and Hamza, his uncle who had protected him from the idol worshippers, and five of his six children died in his own lifetime. He accepted all this suffering in humble submission. However, the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) said that it was the chapter of the Qur’an, Hūd, which contains the verse “Continue then in the right way as you are commanded…” (Tirmidhī) that had aged him.

The path of reaching Allah is a long and narrow one with many difficult tests and distractions lying in wait, such as one’s passions. This path contains great responsibilities, which are so great that they even turned the hair of the Prophet white. The friends of Allah refer to their incapability of being perfect servants of Allah in the face of endless divine manifestations, as follows: “O Lord! We have been unable to know You as You deserve…”

In the light of this fact we should, in the matters of ihsān and vigilance, be aware of our Lord’s constant observance over us before directing our lives to the way of our Prophet who lived as the symbol of benevolence and vigilance. How patient was he, and how patient are we? How generous and loyal was he, and how generous and loyal are we? How devout was he in prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and the declaration of faith, and how devout are we? How committed was he in the service of the right path, and how committed are we? These are the questions that we should answer sincerely. In short, we should organize our life in the light of all these comparisons to the ways of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) who is the best model of righteousness for humanity until the Day of Judgment and thus our foremost witness and intercessor in both worlds.

In order to reach states of ihsān and murāqaba we should prepare our hearts by purifying our nafs, allowing it to submit to us with ease. We should be among those who are mentioned in the following verse: “Truly he succeeds that purifies it.” (Shams, 91:9)

The following are among the things that should be carefully observed:

To be careful about legitimate earnings.

To observe the rights of human beings and other creatures of Allah.

To spend the pre-dawn hours (sahar) worshipping Allah.

To do what is enjoined by Allah and refrain from what is forbidden.

To take on responsibilities in social service.

To give alms for the sake of Allah.

To be in the company of sincere and pious people.

To be touched by the words of the Qur’an and to serve the Qur’an.

To practice invocations from the bottom of our hearts.

To avoid immoral acts such as backbiting, egoism, selfishness, extravagance, lying, jealousy, ambition, hypocrisy, and other such acts.

To remember death and breathe in awareness of Allah until our last breath.

Without doubt the Prophet Muhammad (upon him blessings and peace) is the best model for us in setting an example of how one should live a life of ihsān and murāqaba. After him come the heirs of the Prophet – the friends of Allah – and they are to be followed in this regard as well. Mahmud Sami Ramazanoğlu, whom we lost just over twenty years ago, is one of the most memorable examples in this regard. He lived a life adorned with ihsān and murāqaba, and he enlightened his disciples in this way. We commemorate him and pray for Allah’s mercy and grace on him.

May Allah help us to conduct our lives in a benevolent and vigilant way.

Amin!