How to go from the bitterness of sabr to the sweetness of Allah’s love
Ascending levels of spirituality: Sabr – khawf – mahabbah
Al-Imam Al-Muhasibi’s* book “Ādāb An Nufus” has very deep reflections on how to discipline yourself, and how to increase your closeness to Allah Almighty by moving higher step by step, which is unique.
Level 1 – Sabr (Patience)
He defined sabr as going against what you like, Mukhalafatul mahabbah.
If your patience is strong, there is no form of worship which is difficult for you. Ibadah becomes easy for you, and you are able to do a lot.
To progress spiritually, you have to move up different levels; from sabr (patience) to khawf (fear) to mahabbah (love).
Level 2 – Khawf (Fear)
When you move up from the level of sabr, you attain the level of khawf (fear). The definition of khawf is not fear alone, but more than fear. It is state of fear in awe of Allah’s majesty. A reverential fear.
Level 3 – Mahabbah (Love)
Following fear, one attains the level of mahabbah, which is love. Love is a feeling in the heart which is reflected in words and action which pleases the beloved.
You won’t enjoy the blessing of Allah in dunya until you have contentment in your life.
If you have no contentment (qana’a), you won’t feel satisfaction in anything, you will be flitting from one thing to another without feeling contentment, peace or happiness. You will be experiencing a void that cannot be filled.
Contentment leads to enjoyment
Contrastingly, when you have contentment, you feel rich even if you have little. It is more valuable than any wealth.
You only taste the sweetness and enjoyment in dunya when you have contentment.
Just look around, people are posting one experience after another on social media, but is there any contentment or is the only desire to move on to the next?
Fake happiness and superficial living is very different from real happiness and real living. If you want to enjoy the dunya, then you need contentment.
Turning sabr from bitter to sweet
Now, if you want to enjoy the Akhirah, you need khawf and mahabba in your life. They are the two wings which make you fly to the akhirah.
When you fear Allah out of His majesty and you love for Allah deeply for Himself, then your actions will be the actions of the akhirah.
Imam Muhasibi is telling us the story from the inside. Not like traders in the city, for whom insider dealing is illegal.
If you attain this level, you will not feel the burden of sabr anymore. Sabr becomes history. It sounds sweet but the practice is the difficult bit.
Then you will enjoy khawf and shawq (longing); you will long to be with Allah. Then you will enjoy the sweetness of your actions or ibadah for the akhirah. This is very heavy weight.
How do we get from the bitter level of sabr (patience) to sweet level of na’em (bliss)
It requires Husnul Ma’rifah (deep knowledge). Not just the theory, but the practical understanding.
It is when your heart feels deep, deep need of Allah (Iftiqarul qalbi illallah). This is the core. Everything else is complimentary to it. If you can grasp this, you have grasped much.
The heart in need of Allah
To achieve the realisation that we are utterly dependant on Allah is the crux of the matter. We are always in need of Allah, regardless if we are rich or poor, healthy or sick, we are fakir (desperately poor) and in absolute need of Allah.
It is a reflection of the ayah in Surah Fatir when Allah Almighty says:
O mankind, all of you are in need of Allah , while Allah is the Free of need, the Praiseworthy. (35:15)
Without this realisation, all our actions are autopilot and robotic. We need to feel closeness to Allah Almighty and the akhirah. As if the akhirah is right before your eyes.
The whole affair is related to the heart. It is the heart that feels the need, it is the heart that feels khawf, it is the heart that feels mahabbah.
Imam Muhasibbi gives u four exercises to attain states of khawf and mahabbah:
1. Feeling connected
We feel the sweetness in our action when we feel connected to Allah Almighty.
With this connection comes closeness to Allah Almighty and closeness to akhirah.
You feel that akhirah is literally round the corner, as if you can see Allah and the akhirah with your own eyes.
This is the reflection of the hadith:
Worship Allah as if you can see him. (Bukhari)
2. Visualising your sins in your mind
Visualise your station before your Lord, standing before Allah Almighty with all your previous sins between you and Allah Almighty.
This is not sins between you and other people, because you will not make spiritual progress until you have sorted these sins out.
Being aware of your sins is not to wallow in them, but to increase your humility. To remind you that no matter how many positives you have, you have plenty of deficits too. Otherwise you will feel self-satisfied, and shaytan will kill your progress. But Imam Muhasibi is telling us how to kill the shaytan.
Remember, no one can benefit Allah Almighty or harm Him, whatever you do it is for or against your own self. So take yourself to account and ask Allah Almighty for forgiveness and to increase your good deeds.
Also, visualise what will happen on the Day of Judgement. Where would you be in the crowd on that Day? What will happen to you in the grave? Would you be able to answer the Angel’s questions? What will happen to you at the time of death? Will you die with faith or not?
3. Reminding yourself of Allah’s favours
Look at the favours Allah Almighty has given you, the inward and the outward.
Do you not see how God placed at your service everything in the heavens and the earth? How He showered you with His blessings, both outward and inward? (31:20)
The favours of Allah are countless, even then, we should recall them and show our gratitude with what we know.
And He has given you something of all what you asked. And if you were to count God’s blessings, you would not be able to enumerate them. The human being is unfair and ungrateful. (14:34)
This means we can never have enough gratitude (shukr) towards Allah as He deserves because we don’t know the entirety of His favours upon us.
4. Remembering the attributes of Allah
We need to remember His Majesty and His Might, His power and His punishment. His knowledge and His observation.
The penalties are there to stop us sinning.
Outcome of these exercises
All these exercises, if we do these on a continuous basis will bring the heart to life. And your heart will have light
Our heart will be enlightened like a deserted house which after being in a derelict condition becomes habitable. Now, there would be light where there used to be darkness.
Our joints will become loose, light and not having stiffness.
Our heart will make our body malleable and obedient. Our faculties will all be running to worship of Allah. Only then, will we no longer have the burden of sabr.
We would have attained khawf and mahabbah. And as a result, we will taste the sweetness in our worship and have deep knowledge (husnul mar’ifah).
How long can we expect to be at that level?
You stay in the level of khawf and mahabbah until the nafs and shaytan show up and you listen to them. The moment you listen to them, you go down to sabr level. It cuts you off from that sweetness, that intimacy and connection. We often experience this after Ramadan.
What should you do when you come down to the sabr level?
Pick yourself up and yearn to return back, because it is a special level.
An hour at the level of khawf and mahabbah is better than many days, months and years at the level of sabr.
Why is one hour of mahabbah worth more than weeks of sabr?
The reason is because an hour at that level contains fear, regret, love, awe, and penetrative vision, you see the dunya as something insignificant. And you have uns billah (intimacy with Allah).
When someone achieves that level, no one can reach him even if they have lots of siyyam (fasting), salah or hajj or even jihad. It is not a case of quantity of worship but the state of being with Allah.
هَلْ يَسْتَوِي الَّذِينَ يَعْلَمُونَ وَالَّذِينَ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ
Are those who know equal with those who know not? (39:9)
If this station is so important and special, then why don’t people go in search of it?
The simple answer is that they are not aware of it. This level in comparison to others level looks similar like how a jewel among other things, and a special pearl in the midst of pearls looks similar to the untrained eye. It is the experts who can tell the difference and it true value. And there are not many such people around.
The road less travelled
Some paths in life are hard going but if you keep making the effort, you attainh ease and uns (closeness to Allah).
However, if you pursue the easy path, you can’t get as far, and you find it difficult to get beyond a certain point.
The first path is difficult to travel but when you reach the destination, everything else is easy.
The second path is easy to travel but when you reach the destination is when the difficulty begins.
The general public are usually pursue the easy path, it appeals to our nature. When they reach bitterness, they struggle, and don’t know what to do. Before that they were fine and competing to reach it.
For example, in seeking knowledge, it’s easy to gain knowledge, and put letters after your name, but difficult to apply it. It is easy to know about jihad, butr to go for jihad is different. To know about a healthy diet is easy, but following it is difficult, to know about fitness and exercise is easy but to live a healthy and active lifestyle is difficult. But here is the interesting part, when you struggle in living healthy, you apply your knowledge and exercise will power, what you attain is sweetness in the end. You actually begin to enjoy the new lifestyle. This is why very few people tread the path. This is the level of sidq. Only those who are truthful and sincere can reach that level.
It’s one thing knowing about taqwa (mindfulness of Allah), sabr, wara’ (scrupulousness) and another to live by them.
Similarly, when you gain the knowledge and apply it, you live it everyday, you can feel the sweetness of the struggle. In Surah Ankabut, Allah Almighty says:
وَالَّذِينَ جَاهَدُوا فِينَا لَنَهْدِيَنَّهُمْ سُبُلَنَا وَإِنَّ اللَّهَ لَمَعَ الْمُحْسِنِينَ
And (as for) those who strive hard for Us, We will most certainly guide them in Our ways; and Allah is most surely with the doers of good. (29: 69)
Going back, this level is tough and it is not easy to access but when you attain it, its uns and delight being with Allah, and being with Allah has no comparison, you know it when you know it like you know the sweetness of honey by it’s taste.
Our path is a path of knowledge and dhawq (person taste). The proof is in the taste.
The path is difficult because it goes against our nafs, hawa and what we like. It requires us to be honest and truthful with ourselves and with Allah.
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اتَّقُوا اللَّهَ وَكُونُوا مَعَ الصَّادِقِينَ
O you believe, have taqwa and be with the people of sadiqeen (righteous). (9:119)
Sidq is the station between you and Allah Almighty.
So be truthful with Allah, it is just between you and Allah. It’s not about anyone else, nor what anyone else thinks or does; be with Allah alone and transparent, because He ‘SEES’ you as you are.
This path is the path of the truthful ones, and hence why it is deserted, it is difficult and so few seek it. Taking yourself to account, going against your desires and whims, this is tough and not many people are into this.
Remember, being satisfied with the station you are at is a sign of weakness on your part. You are never the same when you stay at the same levels. Stagnant water spoils over time.
But now that we know about the different levels; we should have high himmah (resolve and determination), high aspiration to want to attain the station of khawf and mahabbah.
May Allah make us people of the road less travelled in the footsteps of Messenger of Allah (upon him be peace), the righteous, the truthful ones and the awliyya of Allah.
Wa ma tawfiqi illa billah.
* This blog is a commentary based on Al-Muhasibi: (781–857BC)= (170-243H) book.
Delivered by Shaykh Haytham Tamim on 29th February 2020. Transcribed by Abu Shama
September 22, 2023
September 21, 2023