The limits of correcting bad moral values

The bad moral values that exist in a person’s inner-self are called Akhlaq-e-Razilah (اخلاقِ رذیلہ). Hazrat Thanvi (may Allah Ta’ala have mercy on him) has said;

“Salik (a mentee or pupil in Tasawuf) should get his bad moral values rectified one by one by the Shaykh. When one bad moral value becomes attenuated and comes under his full control, then he should start getting the next one rectified. He should not wait for the first one to go away or be eradicated completely as it is impossible. There are many benefits behind the existence of these bad moral values.”

The word ‘Salik’ literally means a ‘traveler’. In the terminology of Tasawwuf, a person who goes to a Shaykh for the purification of his inner-self is known as Salik, meaning he is traveling on the path of self-improvement. And the Shaykh is like a mentor who guides him like, go this way, don’t go that way. Hazrat Thanvi RE has recommended that the Salik should get his bad moral values rectified and treated by the Shaykh one by one. For example, a person is prone to outbursts of uncontrolled and explosive anger, which lead to him losing control of his temper, and then screaming and yelling at people, and hitting them unjustly. This is a bad moral value and it needs to be treated. Now his responsibility is to inform his Shaykh that he suffers from excessive and uncontrollable anger, and he commits a number of transgressions under the influence of that anger. The Shaykh will then guide him towards bringing that anger under control. It does not mean that as a result of that treatment he will stop getting feelings of anger altogether. Anger is a natural drive which is experienced by all human beings. He will still feel anger after undergoing this treatment, but as a result of this treatment his anger will become subservient to the limits imposed by Shariah on how much anger a person is allowed to express, and under what circumstances.

It is important to understand that all the moral values we have which are generally considered bad, are all natural. Allah Ta’ala has put these traits in us so that we use them at appropriate times. For example, if a person has no anger, then how would he defend his life, his property, his family? Not having any anger would mean that if someone attacks him, or his family, he will not feel any anger, and there will be no drive in him to protect himself or his family.

Using anger appropriately

Allah Ta’ala has given us this emotion of anger so that if another person attacks your life, your property, your family, your relatives, then you use this emotion of anger to defend them. But if a person starts acting angrily in situations where it is not justified to do so, and in situations in which Shariah has prohibited us to express anger in, and starts shouting and screaming at other people, or hitting them in anger, then it is inappropriate use of this emotion. Becoming angry in such situations is Haraam (unlawful). So, there are some situations in which it is appropriate to use anger, and there are some situations in which it is inappropriate to use anger. For example, if a person’s son does something wrong, then it is appropriate for the father to discipline him, or a teacher chastising a student, or a Shaykh a Mureed. It is appropriate to use anger in such situations. In fact, it may be wrong not to use anger at all in such circumstances. On the other hand, using anger in inappropriate situations and excessively is a spiritual ill. For example, a guest comes to visit you, and you start scolding him and telling him off. This is inappropriate use of anger, as we should be honouring our guests. Such behaviour is condemnable and should be rectified.

Bringing one’s anger under control, so that it is only expressed in situations in which it is permitted to do so by the Shariah, and not expressing it in situations where it is impermissible to express it, is what one needs to learn from one’s Shaykh. If you get angry from time to time, but you do not know whether you express your anger appropriately or inappropriately, just tell your Shaykh about the situations in which you feel anger, how angry you get, and what do you do under the influence of your anger. He will guide you about whether you are expressing your anger appropriately or not. And if you already know that you get angry unduly and excessively, then tell your Shaykh about your excessive anger, and the situations you express that anger in. The Shaykh will guide you about how to gradually bring that anger under control, and how to use your anger in appropriate situations only. Then follow his advice.

Need for treating spiritual ills
Or, for example, if a person harbours the bad moral trait of Hasad (حسد, jealousy, envy). (Translator: In the terminology of Tasawuf Hasad means that a person feels so envious or jealous of something good befalling another person, for example, someone coming into wealth, or getting a good job, that he wishes and prays, and in extreme cases makes actual efforts, for that person to lose his good fortune, like his wealth or his job.) He must tell his Shaykh that he thinks he suffers from Hasad, for example, if in an exam his colleague gets more marks than him, then he feels really jealous and wants him to get less marks or fail next time. He should ask the Shaykh if this is Hasad, and if it is, how to get rid of it.
Similarly, for example, a person has excessive physical desires and he is worried that it will make him do things outside the bounds of Shariah. Then he should ask the Shaykh how to bring those desires under control. Or if he feels, or others tell him, that he is suffering from Takabbur (grandiosity, arrogance) (in terminology of Tasawwuf Takabbur means that a person believes that he is superior to others and others are inferior to him: Translator). This Takabbur is such an illness that most people who suffer from it have no insight that they are suffering from it. No Mutakabbir (a person who is suffering from Takabbur) ever calls himself Mutakabbir. If anyone else asks him, “Do you do Takabbur?” he will always reply, “No, I don’t”, (because he truly believes in his heart that other people are genuinely inferior to him, and it is not just his belief). However, other people can recognize the Takabbur in him. So, if other people tell someone that what he does or says is symptomatic of Takabbur, he should ask his Shaykh if it is truly Takabbur, and if it is, what to do about it.
So, the purpose of going to a Shaykh shouldn’t just be to ask how much Dhikr (remembrance) should he perform, how many Tasbeehat should he recite each day, or how many Nawafil should he pray each day. These Nawafil, Tasbeehat, Dhikr are all aides on the way to Tazkiyah (purification of one’s inner-self), but they are not the primary goal. The primary goal of Tasawwuf is that a person keeps critically evaluating every moment of his life and should keep reflecting on his behaviour; whether he performed any actions under the influence of Takabbur, whether he became unduly and excessively angry at some point, whether he did something under the influence of greed, or whether he is suffering from excessive love of this material world. He should keep evaluating all his behaviours, keep informing his Shaykh about his spiritual ills, keep asking him about how to treat them, and keep practicing the remedies his Shaykh tells him to perform. If he finds it difficult to follow any of the remedies for some reason, he should inform his Shaykh about those difficulties too. In essence, he should keep informing his Shaykh about every aspect of the purification of his inner-self.

Inform and follow
Hazrat Thanvi (may Allah Ta’ala have mercy on him) used to say that when a person develops a mentorship relationship with a Shaykh, then he needs to do two things, inform, and follow. ‘Inform’ in this context means that he should keep informing the Shaykh about how he is progressing with the purification of his inner-self, and what is still remaining. ‘Follow’ means that he should follow whatever advice the Shaykh gives him after hearing about his condition. This is how purification of inner-self happens.

The bad moral values are also natural
Hazrat Thanvi (may Allah Ta’ala have mercy on him) has further said;

“The evidence for the bad moral values being natural is that we see that children also get angry, and scholars have said that anger stems from Takabbur. This anger then leads to backbiting. If children get angry it means that they also have Takabbur, and if children have Takabbur, it means that these traits occur naturally.”

The reason for mentioning this here is to clarify that because these bad moral values are natural, a disciple should not hope in vein that one day his Nafs will be completely rid of these. They will never go away completely. Neither the anger will subside completely, nor the root of Takabbur will go away completely. The aim is to make these attributes weak, to attenuate them, so that they stop having an impact on a person’s thoughts, emotions and behaviour.

Aim of attenuating bad moral values
Explaining this, Hazrat Thanvi RE further said;

“The aim of attenuating bad moral values is to weaken them to an extent that they come under the person’s control. ‘Weakening’ means that after Mujahidah (sustained effort) it becomes easier to oppose those impulses.”

It means that these spiritual ills cannot be removed or extinguished completely from one’s inner-self. However, they can become a lot weaker so that it takes much less effort to oppose them and not act on what they are driving us to do. The same is true of everything we do in this world whether we do it for Dunya (material world) or Deen (religion). Sustained effort makes it easier for us to start doing something on a regular basis. For example, when a person previously was not in the habit of praying Salah regularly, it seemed very difficult to him to go to the Masjid five times a day and pray Salah there, and took a mammoth effort. However, if he keeps doing this for a period of time and develops a habit of praying Salah in Masjid five times a day, then it takes him much less effort to do the same. It is rare that he will get to a stage where it takes no effort at all, he will need to continue to make some effort, keep opposing his Nafs (inner-self) which will try to convince him from time to time to take it easy today and just pray at home, but because he has developed a habit the effort it will take to go to the Masjid will be much less than he needed to make when he started doing it. The reward we get for praying Salah is actually a reward for that effort, for opposing our Nafs, if we did not have to make any effort, what would we get the reward for? That is why we do need to continue to make some effort to pray Salah regularly throughout our life.

Same is true of bad moral values. For example, previously a person used to get angry excessively and on trivial matters. He would start screaming and yelling, and abusing and hitting people if anyone said anything that displeased him in the slightest. Then when he started undergoing self-improvement as he started travelling on the path of Tasawwuf, he learnt that becoming angry excessively and in inappropriate situations is a sin. Then the next time he comes across a situation he would have become angry in previously, he suppresses his anger and stops himself from exploding. Even if he feels strongly like screaming at or slapping the other person, he tries his best to stop that impulse and keep his temper under control. For a person who always used to explode in anger without restraint, it is initially extremely difficult and a herculean task to restrain his temper, but as he keeps practicing it, it becomes easier with repeated practice to the point that even though he may still feel anger, but finds it much easier to stop himself from expressing it.

Controlling physical desires
Or, for example, excessive desire for physical pleasures is also an undesirable mental attribute. If a person acts on this desire inappropriately, it is a grave danger and is lethal in this Tareeq (Tasawwuf). For example, a person was used to using his eyes in a way that is forbidden under Shariah. When he set out on the path of Tasawwuf, he learnt that it is a major sin and he needs to stop himself from committing that act. Once he started on that path, there were again occasions when he developed similar impulses and an intense desire to use his eyes the way he used to previously. But then he remembered that he has started on the path of self-improvement. Therefore, he would need to avert his eyes and stop himself from staring inappropriately. When he would do this for the first time, it would be extremely hard for him to do so against his previous nature. But if he wants to progress on the path to self-improvement, he would need to make a conscious decision that no matter how much difficult it seems, he would not commit that act again.
When he then stops staring at what he has been forbidden to stare at by Allah Ta’ala, it will be a little bit easier to move his eyes away the second time, and the third time will be a little bit easier than the second time, and so on. With repeated practice over a period of time, even though he will still have some degree of desire to stare at what he has been forbidden to stare at, but it will be much easier for him to stop himself from doing so compared to the very first time. It is because by repeatedly averting his eyes, his desire to stare has become weakened. That is what Hazrat Thanvi RE means by saying that the primary aim of combating bad moral values is to weaken them, and ‘weakening’ in this context means that after repeated practice it becomes much easier to refrain from committing those sins, though a person still needs to make some effort to do so. No matter how much Mujahidah (sustained effort) a person performs, the internal desires to commit sins, of libido, of anger, never go away completely. A person still gets impulses and desires to engage in those acts. The difference that Mujahidah makes is that initially he had to make a supreme effort to combat that desire, but after Mujahidah it takes much less effort to do so.

Explaining this further Hazrat Thanvi RE said;

“Otherwise, with Mujahidah (sustained effort), neither a greedy person’s greed goes away completely, nor a miser’s miserliness, or Mutakabbir’s (person who has Takabbur in his heart) Takabbur (arrogance, grandiosity). However, they do get weakened.”

It means if someone has greed, miserliness or Takabbur in his heart, then it does not subside completely with effort though it does get weaker. ‘Weakening’ means the person still has those drives and desires inside him, but with repeated and sustained effort those drives have become so weak that they do not compel the person to commit a sin, and even if they do he can resist them easily.

The spiritual ill of greed
For example, the spiritual ill of greed is naturally present in the hearts of many people. Allah Ta’ala has said in the Noble Qur’an;

“It has been made attractive for people to love the desired things; that is, women, children, hoarded heaps of gold and silver, branded horses, cattle and tillage…” (3:14)

This tells us that such desires are part of human nature. If this greed is used appropriately, it is not a flaw in itself. For example, love of this material world to a degree which a person requires to earn his living, and to look after his family and fulfil their rights, is appropriate and permissible. However, there is another level of greed about which the Holy Prophet ﷺ has said;

“If a human being gets one valley of gold, he will lust to get another one. And when he gets the second valley, he will want a third one. Nothing can fill the tummy of the son of Adam beside dirt.”

This level of greed is Haraam (unlawful) as it forces a person to gather more and more wealth, whether through fair or unfair means.

The degrees of greed (حرص)
Then there are different degrees of greed. The first and highest degree is that a person tries to obtain wealth through means which are clearly Haraam (unlawful) and impermissible. For example, that greed makes him try to acquire wealth through stealing it from other people, or by committing robberies, or by deceiving other people. May Allah Ta’ala save us from it. Aameen. This is the most severe degree of greed.

The second degree of greed
The second degree of greed is that the greed does not influence the person to the degree that he resorts to overtly Haraam ways of acquiring wealth, like robbery or theft, rather it makes him acquire wealth through false justifications and excuses. This sort of greed is found more amongst religious scholars. Hazrat Mufti Muhammad Shafi (may Allah Ta’ala have mercy on him) used to say that a Maulvis’ (religious scholar) Satan is also a Maulvi. If a Maulvi’s Nafs (inner-self) tells him to steal, commit robbery, or obtain someone else’s property by deception, he would reply that it is not permissible, and won’t listen to his Nafs. But Maulvi’s Satan is also a Maulvi, it suggests different excuses and interpretations to him to convince him to take that property. Even though by Shariah he was not allowed to take that money, but his greed persuades him to use those excuses to obtain that unlawful money. This degree of greed is also Haraam.

The third degree of greed is that a person does like money, and does want to accrue more and more wealth. However, as a result of this wish to get more money, he neither commits any Haraam acts to get money, nor does he adopt the way of using excuses and justifications to claim what isn’t rightfully his. All he does is that he happily takes whatever Allah Ta’ala has given him through Halal (permissible) means, and tries to get more through Halal means. This degree of greed is not condemnable as it neither led him to committing any sins, nor did he stray from the right path as a result of it.

Bukhl (miserliness, stinginess) (بخل) is an illness of the soul

Similarly, Bukhl is also an illness of the soul. In the Noble Qur’an, Allah Ta’ala says;

“Avarice (materialism) is made to be present in human souls.” (4:128)

It means that Allah Ta’ala has put love of material world in people’s souls. That is why most human beings have some degree of love for wealth. As long as this Bukhl does not interfere with that person carrying out his obligations under Shariah, and it does not lead to him engaging in acts which are Haraam, undesirable, or against consideration of other people’s feelings, then it is not deplorable. On the other hand, if a person does not pay Zakat, or does not give his wife and children reasonable living expenses, or does not give Sadaqah in Allah Ta’ala’s way, then this degree of Bukhl is in some circumstances Haraam, and in some instances not Haraam but certainly not desirable.

In a Hadith, the Holy Prophet ﷺ said that Allah Ta’ala likes that the impact of what He has blessed someone with shows upon his person. It means that how we live and dress should be reflective of the blessings Allah Ta’ala has showered upon us. This is also Bukhl if Allah Ta’ala has blessed someone with millions and he keeps himself covered in torn, shabby clothes. This is also in a way being ungrateful to Allah Ta’ala.

Another form of Bukhl (miserliness)
Another form of Bukhl is that a person does meet the absolutely essential expenses of his wife and children, but is really stingy when it comes to providing them with any degree of comfort. For example, he is well off and can afford to provide them with good food, but gets only the most basic of foods for them. This is also included in the wider meaning of Bukhl.

On the other hand, if a person is not leaving any Wajib (necessary) commandments unfulfilled, rather he is providing for his wife and children so that they can live with a degree of comfort that he can afford, in those circumstances even if he feels a bit uncomfortable spending money because of his love for money, there is no harm in it. Even though it is also a form of Bukhl but as this degree of Bukhl did not lead him to commit a sin, therefore, this Bukhl did not cause him any harm. So, the point is that as a result of Mujahidah (sustained effort) neither the Bukhl subsides completely, nor the love of this material world, but it does stop influencing a person’s behaviour. May Allah Ta’ala grant us all the motivation to save ourselves from these spiritual ills. Aameen

وآخر دعوا ان الحمد ﷲ رب العالمين