In its general sense istiqama has the meanings of advancing towards one’s goal without straying and without hesitation in a continual path. Its meaning in tasawwuf is to preserve the innocence and purity of one’s creation without staining or tainting it.
Another meaning of istiqama is to obtain one’s share from the model personality of the Messenger of Allah by keeping one’s love for him fresh and to take on his character. In addition it is to pass one’s life in the spiritual atmosphere of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, to distance oneself from carnal and worldly pleasures and to remain aware of one’s worship, one’s servitude to Allah and to know the secrets of gnosis of Him.
Just as there is no path other than istiqama which leads to Allah so too there is no greater state than preserving one’s istiqama in all matters and no other command as difficult as being able to maintain it as required. This is why istiqama in the path of Allah is the greatest marvel.
Almighty Allah gives good tidings to the people of istiqama as follows:
‘The angels descend on those who say, ‘Our Lord is Allah,’ and then go straight: ‘Do not fear and do not grieve but rejoice. We are your protectors in the life of this world and the afterlife. You will have there all that your selves could wish for. You will have there everything you demand. Hospitality from One who is Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful’(Fussilat 41:30-32)
‘Those who say, ‘Our Lord is Allah,’ and then go straight will feel no fear and will know no sorrow. Such people are the Companions of the Garden, remaining in it timelessly, forever, as repayment for what they did’(Ahqaf, 46:13-14)
The path of the people of istiqama is the ‘sirat al-mustaqim’ or the straight path. The Qur’an has the following to say about those who travel this straight path as is its due:
‘Whoever obeys Allah and the Messenger will be with those whom Allah has blessed: the Prophets and the truthful ones, the martyrs and the righteous. What excellent company such people are!’ (Nisa, 4:69).
The straight path is the path of the chosen ones. The essence of istiqama is faith and piety. And the location of these two is the heart. In this respect istiqama is the harmony of the body as a result of this faith and piety found in the heart. The faith, sincerity and sobriety of the heart ensure that istiqama is constant and consistent. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has said:
“Faith cannot be upright if the tongue and the heart are not upright”(Ahmad, III, 198).
In this mortal world, it falls upon the believer to remain upright and never to stray from the path of truth. The poet has expressed it well:
Do not fear the enemy for even his fire cannot burn you
Be upright and Allah will not disgrace you
Scenes of Virtue
Almighty Allah has the following to say to His Prophet and on his behalf to his entire community:
‘Go straight as you have been commanded, and also those who turn with you to Allah, and do not exceed the bounds’ (Hud, 11:112)
Referring to this verse, the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) has said the following:
“The Chapter Hud has aged me…” (Tirmidhi, Tafsir, 56/3297; Qurtubi, IX, 107).
Abdullah ibn Abbas (r.a) has said the following about this verse:
“There has not been a more intense address to the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) in the Qur’an than this verse”
Even though this verse was initially addressed directly to the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) and it did weigh heavily upon him, it was not just his own personal uprightness that worried him, for he had been validated with a divine confirmation:
‘Truly you are one of the Messengers, on a Straight Path’ (Yasin, 36:4). What concerned him enough to age him was that this command included all of the believers.
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has said in a hadith:
“Be upright. You cannot appreciate nor comprehend (the reward in) this. And know that the best of your deeds is the (ritual) prayer…”(Muwatta, Taharah, 6)
Sufyan ibn Abdullah (r.a) narrates:
Once I said to the Messenger of Allah (pbuh):
“O Messenger of Allah! Tell me about Islam in such a way that I no longer feel the need to ask anybody else about it”
“Say “I believe in Allah” and then be upright”(Muslim, Iman, 62).
According to a narration by Anas (r.a) the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) once recited the following verse from the Qur’an:
‘The angels descend on those who say, ‘Our Lord is Allah,’ and then go straight: ‘Do not fear and do not grieve but rejoice in the Garden you have been promised’ (Fussilat, 41:30).
He then said:
“People have always uttered these words. However after that most of them rejected Allah. Whoever dies upon these words (that is, ‘our Lord is Allah’) has died in state of uprightness” (Tirmidhi, Tafsir, 41/3250)
One time a great man encountered an old man carrying a load of wood on his back and struggling to walk. He looked at him and said:
“O old man! Have you lost your trust in Allah as your Provider that you are suffering this hardship? Or have you no one to look after you?”
The old man looked up and raised his hands to the heavens in order to mend the spiritual deficiency of the one who was addressing him and said:
“O my Sustainer! Turn this wood into gold”
As soon as he had spoken thus, the pieces of wood became pieces of gold.
The person who saw this miracle then asked in great wonder:
“Why does a person who has reached such a state continue to carry wood?”. The old man replied:
“My child! I do this so that my nafs knows that I am a slave and so that it does not exceed the bounds of servitude. For the acceptance of one’s servitude in the sight of Allah is to the degree of one’s uprightness…”
Bayazid-i Bistami has said:
“If you ever see a person floating in the air cross-legged, do not believe that this is a miracle until you see this person preserving the commands and prohibitions of Allah, following the Sunnah and acting in conformance with divine justice”
Bayazid-i Bistami has again said:
One day I crossed the Dijla river. When I approached it, the two banks of the river came together to allow me to pass over to the other side. I immediately gathered myself and said to the river:
“I swear that I will not be deceived by this. For boatmen take a man across for half a coin. But you are after 30 years of my deeds! In this case I will not waste my 30 years of good deeds which I have prepared for the Day of Judgement on half a coin. What I need most now is Allah the most Generous One, and not a miracle”
One day the students of Shaykh Nakshibend asked him to show them a miracle. He said to them:
“Our miracles are evident. Look at me; despite the heavy load of sin upon my shoulders I am still standing and walking the earth. Can there be a greater miracle than this?”
After that and in an attempt to remind them that the important matter in tasawwuf was not showing miracles but rather being upright, he said:
“If any of you ever enter a garden and you hear the leaves of the trees address you saying, “Greetings o friend of Allah”, do not be fooled and do not pay heed to this voice, either openly or in secret. On the contrary, the determination and efforts of the slave should increase in such circumstances”.
Some of his students then said:
“Master, however much you try to hide them, occasionally some of your miracles are obvious…”
That great model of humility then said:
“Those things that you witness are the miracles of my students”
This person was in a state of great humility, meaning that he wished to hide the state of his spiritual depth. This is why he did not allow one of his students, Husameddin Haja Yusuf to write down his miracles and words while he was still alive.
The great men of Islam were able to reach the elevated stations that they did, not through their miracles but by adopting the principles of uprightness.
They expressed that their miracles did not make them any more valuable than the birds that flew in the sky or the fish that swam in the water. Yet again they expressed that the only thing of any value was not trying to imitate birds or fish, but to live one’s life in submission to the will of Allah with great awareness of one’s servitude. They showed this too with their actions and their behaviour.
Because they are do not condescend to ostentation, the friends of Allah do not display their miracles unless they are compelled to for a particular reason. They present themselves as models of perfect character that people can follow.
The following advice of Hasan-i Basri to his students on the matter of miracles is noteworthy:
“Do not be fooled by high degrees of knowledge, state and wisdom. Remember what happened to Bel’am ibn Baura who reached such a state as to be able to read the Lawh-i Mahfuz of Allah”.
The story of his state is given in the Qur’an as follows:
‘Recite to them the tale of him to whom We gave Our Signs, but who then cast them to one side and Shaytan caught up with him. He was one of those lured into error. If We had wanted to, We would have raised him up by them. But he gravitated towards the earth and pursued his whims and base desires. His metaphor is that of a dog: if you chase it away, it lolls out its tongue and pants, and if you leave it alone, it lolls out its tongue and pants. That is the metaphor of those who deny Our Signs. So tell the story so that hopefully they will reflect’ (A’raf, 7:175-176)
Mawlana Khalid-i Baghdadi has said:
“Uprightness and struggling in the way of Allah is better than displaying endless miracles and uncovering the mysteries of the unseen. In addition it should be known that if these discoveries and miracles are not a means to increase the compliance with the commands of religion, then they are nothing other than trouble and mischief-making”.
Muhammad Asad (may Allah have mercy on him) has warned of the importance of uprightness especially for those who are in positions of superiority:
“Whether he be a scholar or a shaykh, whoever does not wear the turban of uprightness on his head will eventually end in ruin.
“If your back has not been burdened by the load of uprightness then can your arrow of desire ever reach its target of closeness to Allah?” (Divan, Istanbul, 1991, p 27)
If the matter of uprightness made the hearts of those friends of Allah, with all their miracles, tremble with anxiety, then let us faulty believers reflect on its importance…
In short, uprightness is a must for every believer. It is however very difficult to obtain as well as to maintain. The honour of reaching one’s aim is in degree to the difficulties one endures in the process, thus those people who are upright will be subject to elevated honour and endless reward in response to the great price they have paid.
. Nawawi, “Sharhu Sahih-i Muslim”, Egypt, 1981, II, 9
. The lawh’i mahfuz is a tablet on which all of the knowledge of Allah is written (translator’s note).