(1) We are commencing a first lesson in the Sufi work of muraqaba or “conscious observation of the heart,” covering seven things, which (from the Reliance of the Traveller) are:
(2) All of us are responsible for learning the details of these, and what they are. Only deliberate actions (as opposed to unthinking slips made before one thinks of what one is saying or doing), and the haram of them (as opposed to when they are lawful in Sacred Law) count for the purposes of this lesson. For the next forty days, we will each observe our words during the day and night and note down (in writing, in quotation marks) the first word or so of every instance of any of the above thingsthat we commit (for example, “I forgot,” when this is not true). Our goal is to manage ten days in a row completely free of these seven things. We are to struggle to accomplish this within forty days, in sha’ Allah, though this is merely an expectation. One must accomplish it even if it takes forty years. The reason for this lesson is that we all tend to take one step forward by doing our dhikr, but then take two steps backward by routine affronts to Allah’s command in our day-to-day conversations that have become so habitual and normal that we scarcely notice them.
(3) When one commits any of the above, one asks Allah’s forgiveness immediately.
(4) At some point during the next twenty-four hours, one makes an ablution (wudu) and performs two rak‘as with the intention of salat al-tawba or “the prayer of repentance.” For the purposes of this lesson, the intention to perform salat al-tawba must be present in the heart before one finishes one’s ablution. The second hadith in the Musnad of Imam Ahmad relates with a rigorously authenticated (sahih) chain of transmission that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “There is no man who commits a sin, then makes ablution (wudu) and makes it well, then prays two rak‘as and asks forgiveness of Allah Mighty and Majestic, save that he is forgiven.”
(5) One weeps over one’s mistake for at least a moment during this prayer, or at least summons tears to one’s eyes. Tears are a liquefying of the heart, which enable something useful to be made from it. This is absolutely essential to the lesson.
(6) After closing the prayer with Salams (or finishing one’s tasbihs, as below), one asks Allah for forgiveness with the utmost of one’s sincerity.
(7) In this lesson, one takes these steps (3, 4, 5, and 6) if any of the above seven sins occurs in a twenty-four hour period. If there is more than one sin, one prays this salat al-tawba for the last one committed only. One should finish this prayer before one sleeps at night, but if not, then by the same time the next day. No exceptions are to be made to this. Put first things first, and save yourself from the hellfire. One performs these prayers even if making-up prayers (qada) from the past.
If not praying because of menstruation, then instead of ablution and prayer one says, Subhana Llah wa bi hamdih(i), Subhana Llahi l-‘Adhim, Astaghfiru Llah (“I glorify Allah’s absolute perfection and extol His praise, Exalted is Allah Most Great, I ask Allah’s forgiveness”) one hundred times for each contravention, with (5), (6), and (7) above.
After repenting from our sins and performing the prayer, we tear the list up and begin anew the next day.
Some people have had difficulty writing the utterances down, though doing so is essential to the work. One can stick a small-size yellow “Post-it” paper to the inside of one’s wallet, and note down only the first word or so of what was said as soon as possible, so it not be forgotten at night. It is absolutely imperative to use the hand, not just the mind, for this.
(8) During this lesson and all subsequent lessons (one through six), if one misses any prayer that is fard or wajib (i.e. witr for Hanafis), such as by sleeping through the dawn prayer until sunrise—unless one is in one’s monthly period, or joining two prayers in the time of one of them with a legal excuse—or if one throws a tantrum, this immediately vitiates the lesson that one is on. In such a case, one must return to repeat the Forty Grand or forty consecutive days of all prayers on time and of being free of tantrums, while at the same time praying salat al-tawba for any of the seven sins that happen during the Forty, after which one begins again the lesson that one was doing when one missed it. If one were currently on Lesson Three, for example, and one missed the prayer or threw a tantrum, one would repeat the Forty Grand then start Lesson Three over again from the beginning. And so on.
As you know, tasawwuf means change: Abu Sulayman al-Darani says, “When souls (nufus) grow accustomed to leaving sins, they freely travel through the spiritual world and return to their possessor with gifts of wisdom, without any scholar having delivered his knowledge to them.” In other words, since we ultimately hope to rise above the nafs, we first need to be aware of its machinations and how it is keeping us behind, by relentlessly reminding ourselves through a process of “keeping score.” To be a tariqa member is to aspire to be close to Allah. What claim can we have to this as long as our conduct is undistinguished from other peoples’ by anything besides long tasbihs and conversations?
It is time to roll up our sleeves about leaving what Allah detests. Each of us must begin with our selves in this work. It is our fervent hope that Allah may give us tawfiq in safely reaching the upper levels of this Shadhili path by a careful grounding in the high perfections of the Islamic shari‘a. And that our tariqa, in sha’ Allah, should ultimately be distinguished by freedom from disobedience to Allah in any form.
MMIII © N. Keller