Istiqāmah (standing firm) literally means “continuous, fearless and unwavering progression towards a target.” In Sufi terminology it corresponds to “the ability of preserving the innocence and purity of our nature (the state in which we are created) without damage and destruction.”
As a result of the protection of the spiritual life of the heart, the nafs (lower self) attains adab (good character) as the heart draws nearer to spirituality so as to achieve akhlāq Muhammadiyyah (the character of Muhammad, upon him blessings and peace). Secrets begin to become evident; Allah the Almighty becomes the very goal of goals; mā siwā or anything else besides Allah loses its significance, and the believer enters a state where he or she can reach the divine presence.
In order to emphasize how difficult it is to achieve this state, the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) – even though he is the sine qua non of creation, a mercy to all being, as well as the best example of perfection in morality – was addressed in a divine warning to “Therefore stand firm (in the straight path) as you are commanded.” (Hūd, 11:112)
Indeed the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) feeling the enormous burden in responsibility of his divine mission, said: “The chapter of Hūd made me older.” The Companions asked him: “O Messenger of Allah! Is it the stories of the prophets that made you old?” The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) replied: “It was the verse which states, “Therefore stand firm (in the straight path) as you are commanded” (Hūd, 11:112). After the revelation of this verse, there appeared some whiteness in the hair of Allah’s Messenger (upon him blessings and peace) which had previously been a pure jet black without any white at all. Commentators explain this verse in the following way:
O Prophet! You must be a model of uprightness by behaving in accordance with Qur’anic morals and principles so that there will not be any doubt about you! Do not mind the words of hypocrites and pagans, leave them to Allah! Be upright in your private and public duties as you have been commanded, and do not stray from the right path! However difficult it is to remain on the right path, do not be daunted by any hindrance in the way of carrying out and applying this command! Your Lord is your helper.
In this connection Abd Allāh b. ‘Abbās said, “No other commandment weighed more heavily upon the Prophet’s (upon him blessings and peace) shoulders than this verse in the Qur’an.”
On the other hand, this verse addresses all Muslims in the person of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace). So then, what made the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) older was his concern about his community (ummah) since this command addresses them all. For his own righteousness is confirmed by the following verse:
عَلَى صِرَاطٍ مُّسْتَقِيمٍإِنَّكَ لَمِنَ الْمُرْسَلِينَ
“You are indeed one of the messengers, on a straight way.” (Yāsīn, 36:3-4)
Therefore there is not any other way to reach Allah except to be on the straight path, and there is not any other command more difficult than to stay on the straight path. The highest station on the Sufi path is to ensure that one follows the straight path in every matter. It is because of this difficulty that this command has been presented in the oft-repeated Surah Fātihah in the form of a prayer. The repetition of the prayer “Show us the straight way” (Fātihah, 1:6) by Muslims dozens of times every day illustrates how difficult it is to stay on the straight path.
The straight path is referred to in the Qur’an as the path of Allah, the proper way, the book of Allah, faith and issues related to faith, Islam and Sharī‘ah, the path of the Prophet Muhammad (upon him blessings and peace) and his Companions, the path of the righteous and the martyrs, the road of happiness in this world and the hereafter, the path of Paradise, etc.
So the straight path is the path of the chosen people who have been blessed by Allah. These are first the prophets, then the most-truthful, the martyrs, and the righteous people. All that follow are also people of the straight path. The straight path is the way that takes the believer to Allah. Allah the Almighty says: “The path of Allah, to Whom belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on earth. Behold (how) all affairs tend towards Allah!” (Shūrā, 42: 53)
To be on the straight path is only possible through worshipping and serving Allah: “It is Allah Who is my Lord and your Lord; then worship Him. This is a way that is straight.” (Āl ‘Imrān, 3:51) “Whoever holds firmly to Allah will be shown a way that is straight.” (Āl ‘Imrān, 3:101).
The straight path is defined in Sūrah An‘ām in the following way:
Say: “Come, I will rehearse what Allah has (really) prohibited you from”: join not anything with Him: Be good to your parents; kill not your children on the pretext of poverty. We provide sustenance for you and for them. Come not near indecent deeds, whether open or secret; take not life, which Allah has made sacred, except by way of justice and law: Thus He commands you, that you may learn wisdom. And come not near to the orphan’s property, except to improve it, until he attain the age of full strength; give measure and weight with (full) justice; no burden do We place on any soul, but that which it can bear. Whenever you speak, speak justly, even if a near relative is concerned; and fulfil the covenant of Allah. Thus He commands you, that you may remember. Verily, this is My way leading straight. Follow it. Follow not (other) paths. They will scatter you about from His path. Thus He commands you, that you may be righteous. (An‘ām, 6:151-153)
Man cannot achieve the straight path properly unless he or she prefers the love of Allah (mahabbat Allāh) over the love of other beings. To reach this station, man needs to know Allah as He deserves to be known. Hence it can be said that the straight path is ma‘rifat Allāh (knowledge of Allah). Because whoever attains this knowledge and arranges his or her life in accordance with it, escapes from the evils of his or her nature and from the wiles of Satan. A person’s heart at this stage is rewarded with spiritual blessings. He or she opens a window to spiritual worlds; and the universe turns into a great book filled with wisdom.
Abū Sa‘īd al-Kharrāz, one of the people of ma’rifah, saw Satan in his dream and tried to hit him with his stick. Iblīs said, “O Abū Sa‘īd! I do not fear your stick; for this stick is visible. What I fear is the luminous lights of the sun of spiritual knowledge that rises from the skies of the ‘ārif’s (knower’s) heart and burns and destroys all of the mā siwā.”
On the Sufi path, the endeavors of a murīd (disciple) without uprightness (i.e. following the straight path) are in vain. His efforts give him no benefit at all. That is why standing firm in the path of Allah is accepted as the greatest miracle. According to another definition, the “straight path” means maintaining moderation in all actions without going to extremes (like spending too much or too little), and persevering on the right path, obeying the divine commands as they have been given.
The Messenger of Allah (upon him blessings and peace) commands the believers to act in moderation. It should be known that the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) lived all of his life in accordance with this rule, and within the limits of a human being in order to become an example for the others. His life is the best example of worshipping Allah, respecting the rights of the family members and all other social interactions. The messenger of Allah (upon him blessings and peace) has given all these acts their rightful place and presented their arrangements to his ummah. To depart from the teachings of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) and neglect some duties while following others in an extreme way is therefore not an acceptable manner. We must arrange our lives in accordance with the norms offered by the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) not in accordance with our subjective desires.
The great Sufi master ‘Abd al-Khāliq Ghujduwānī explained this point clearly. He was once asked, “Shall we do what our ego-nafs desires or shall we do what it does not like?” The Sheikh replied, “It is very difficult to distinguish between the two. Nafs usually deceives people whether the desires are divine or satanic. Because of this, it is enough to follow the commandments of Allah and refrain from His prohibitions. This is true servitude.”
Allah states: “Say: ‘This is my way; I do invite unto Allah, with a certain knowledge I and whoever follows me. Glory to Allah! and never will I join gods with Allah!’” (Yūsuf, 12:108).
In the various ages of ignorance humankind went through, when people were slaves to material power and the desires of the nafs, some exceptionally pious men were charged with the duty of prophecy. These distinguished people who were the model for their communities were charged with three duties: 1) To recite the verses of Allah and announce them, 2) To teach the book and wisdom, 3) To purify their nature i.e. to give people proper guidance (istiqāmah).
Starting from Adam (upon him blessings and peace) this holy chain of prophethood came to full maturity with Prophet Muhammad (upon him blessings and peace). The straight path or istiqāmah is a collection of ‘amal sālihor good deeds.
In order to consider an action ‘amal sālih, there are two conditions:
1. Ta‘zīm li-amr Allāh or to follow Allah’s commands properly and in humility
2. Shafaqat li-khalq Allāh or to love, show affection and be generous to creatures for the sake of their Creator.
In other words, uprightness is to love the Messenger of Allah and to receive a share of his model personality and exemplary morality, to live in accordance with the spiritual guidance of the Qur’an and Sunnah, to stay away from worldy pleasures, and to reach the secrets of worship, servitude and knowledge. It is necessary for a person to keep his or her internal world under control in order to recognize truth and uprightness. Deviation from performing actions for the sake of Allah means insincerity, which completely devalues those actions in the presence of Allah. That is why actions have to be performed just for the sake of Allah.
Even ‘Umar b. al-Khattāb (may Allah be pleased with him) worried about the preservation of sincerity and uprightness in his life. When he came to power he said:
“O People! If I deviated from the path of Allah or incline to wrongdoing what would you do?”
A Bedouin stood up and said:
“O Caliph! Do not worry, if you incline to wrongdoing we will straighten you with our swords!” The Caliph ‘Umar, pleased with this response, thanked Allah:
“All praises are to You my Lord! You have blessed me with a community who would bring me back to the straight path if I deviated!”
The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) informed only Hudhayfa of those who had the sign of hypocrisy in their hearts for the safety of the Muslim ummah. ‘Umar heard this, and one day asked Hudhayfa:
“O Hudhayfa! For the sake of Allah, tell me, is there any sign of hypocrisy in me?”
Hudhayfa replied saying:
“O Caliph! I can guarantee only to you that you do not have any signs of hypocrisy!”
Al-Hasan al-Basrī said to his disciple Tāwūs, who was a hadith teacher:
“O Tāwūs! If you take pride in teaching hadith, give up teaching this discipline!”
Al-Ghazālī, when teaching three hundred students, was worried about himself:
“Do I seek Allah’s favor when teaching these students, or am I in danger of being corrupted by love of fame?”
After that al-Ghazālī distributed his wealth, gave up teaching, and lived in seclusion. Consequently, the Prophet’s spirituality manifested itself to him and he attained ease of heart. Finally, he transformed into a completely different Ghazālī. Only then did he resume teaching.
Sultan Yavuz Selim on his way back from his campaign in Egypt learned that people in Istanbul were waiting for him with great excitement. Because of this, although he came very close to the city, he camped his army at the foot of Camlica hill and did not enter Istanbul. He was concerned that he would be defeated by his nafs, and said to his manservant Hasan Can:
“Let’s wait until getting dark when everybody goes home; then we will enter Istanbul. Do not let the compliments and applause of people, and the pride of victory knock us down!”
Finally he entered the city secretly, avoiding the applause and praise of the people. All of these examples teach us that we should stand firm on the straight path under all circumstances, and that we should cleanse our hearts from all kinds of impurities.
The heart is the locus in which the divine is manifested. The value of worship depends on the clarity of heart. The Qur’an says: “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). Likewise the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) says, “Truly Allah does not look at your appearance and your possessions; but He looks at your hearts and your deeds” (Sahih Muslim).
I pray to Allah that He gives us the power and will to stand firm on the straight path.