Essential Disciplines for Spiritual Maturity
Brokenness and Breakthrough
Once upon a time, the different kinds of birds gathered to select a king to rule over them. They agreed that the phoenix that lived far away was the bird that genuinely deserved to be the king. Their deep yearnings motivated them to start a long journey to reach the king and have the pleasure of placing themselves in its service. Some other birds warned the passionate birds from the high mountains, extensive desert, torrid and frigid zones they would necessarily face and thereby lose their life. Yet the longing of the vibrant birds increased, and their joy drowned all thoughts of hesitation. As expected, many of the birds were struck by the thunderbolts and lashed by storms. Finally, a small group of passionate birds reached the island of the kind safely. Upon hearing of their presence, the king ordered one of the royal attendants to inquire about the birds’ mission. “We want the king to rule over us,” said the birds. Upon this, the king commented: “You just troubled yourselves in vain since I am your king whether you like it or not and whether you come or go!” The birds felt embarrassed and helpless, and a sense of awe terrified them. At this moment, when the birds recognized who they were and who the king was, the king said:
“إن كان كمال الرضا يوجب التعزز و الرد فإن جمال الكرم يوجب المسامحة و القبول. فبعد أن عرفتم قدرنا فحقيق بنا إيواؤكم فهو دار الكرم و منزل النعم”
“If my absolute sovereignty demands self-sufficiency, the beauty of my generosity demands acceptance and benevolence. Since you understand our status, it behooves us to shelter you since this [place] is the abode of generosity and blessings.” As the passionate birds felt more relieved and joyous of their closeness to the king, they wondered whether the other birds that died in the way lost their lives in vain. To remove all doubts, the kings affirmed that those birds who died in their way to him willfully receive their reward and mercy from him.
These are excerpts from Imam al-Ghazali’s the Treatise of the Birds, which seeks to illustrate one of the most important spiritual disciplines that Ibn al-Qayyim, in his Madarij, would later describe as “the soul, secret, essence, and goal of all stations in the path to Allah.” This essential discipline is ifiqar or the ability to develop, demonstrate, and maintain a constant and robust sense of brokenness and surrender to God. The Quran reads: “O people, you are those who stand in need of Allah, and Allah is the Self-sufficient and Praiseworthy” (Quran 35:15). The phrase “those who stand in need of” is al-fuqara’ (the poor) in Arabic. The word does not originally mean a lack of money or material assets; however, it refers to ‘broken bones,’ which eventually cause inability and need.
When it comes to our relationship with God, faqr (need or poverty) is essential to our human nature, no matter how much wealth and health we have. If you need to breathe, allow yourself to feel your iftiqar to Allah. If you need to sleep, allow yourself to feel your iftiqar to Allah. If you need to eat, allow yourself to feel your iftiqar to Allah. If you need what you have (health, wealth, or the like), allow yourself to feel your iftiqar to Allah.
Do not let your talents, skills, possessions, achievements, or reputation make you forget your unavoidable characteristic of essential need. In his Tariq al-Hijratayn, Imam Ibn al-Qayyim invites us to contemplate on our condition as we were babies. We were very weak and naïve, having no power to help ourselves. As we get our physical and intellectual faculties and powers developed, we forgot who we were, experienced pride, and thought we became so ‘self-sufficient and self-independent’ that we did not need God! Ibn al-Qayyim writes: “As God perfects our hearing, sight, and reason, and as He makes the universe subservient to us, we poor humans start to think that we have a share in this kingdom and look at ourselves with different lenses. We even forget our early state of helplessness, poverty, and need as if we never experienced these features and as if we are different creatures!” Look at a baby and observe its need and helplessness. Now, recognize you were one before, and do not be distracted by your apparent talents. The Quran beautifully depicts this moment of nonsensical human arrogance, which results from lack of our self-knowledge: “He [God] created man from a sperm-drop; yet suddenly he openly challenges Him!” (Quran 16:4). The Arabic word for “yet suddenly” is fa’idha, which grammatically indicates that what comes after it does not follow logically from what comes before it.
Ibn’ Ata’illah expresses our Iftiqar very powerfully in his aphorisms:
There are two graces that no being can do without and necessary for every creature: the magnificence of existence and the grace of sustenance.
He bestowed His grace upon you, first, through giving you existence, and, second, through uninterrupted sustenance.
Your need belongs to you essentially, for accidents do not abolish essential requirements. The trials that arrive in this world are but reminders to you of what you ignore of need.
Exercises for Willful Iftiqar:
It should be clear that the sense of brokenness we are addressing here is the heart’s attitude that naturally develops as we recognize who we are and who God is. It is supposed to be an ongoing attitude of the heart. It is essential to allow ourselves to experience that sense of iftiqar as a choice and willingly and continually yield to brokenness. Here are some exercises to feel our iftiqar to God and to be in total dependence on Him.
Set some private time of solitude. Inhale and exhale from your nose mindfully for a few minutes. Realize that, as a human being, you are several breaths, and that once you reach the predetermined number God decided for you, you become a resident of the afterlife. Now repeat calmly, slowly, and clearly: “la hawla wala quwwata illa billah” (There is no power or strength except that which comes through Allah). Have a pause after each time you say this dhikr till the meaning sinks in your heart. Reciting this dhikr could change the meaning or turn it into meaningless mumbled words. This Dhikr is unrestricted and unlimited; that is, it is not limited to specific situations or numbers.
It is easy to be deceived by the luxury we have, the technological advancement we enjoy, the military power we develop, or the medical services we are offered. Some may unconsciously feel that they do not need Allah, and others may act as gods! However, none of these material advancements will change our big human reality; that is, we have a built-in need for our Creator, who makes our very existence possible. To al-Ghazali, we receive an opportunity to develop more humility through mindful fasting and temporary hunger and keep our ego in check. We recognize how fragile and weak we become in the absence of some morsels and water.
Meditate on “We belong to God, and to Him we shall return” (Quran 2:156). Realize that when you say: “We belong to Him,” you should be aware that it means “Nothing belongs to us!” Nothing is deserved. Everything we have is a pure act of grace and fadl. Once this fact reaches your heart, you will be able to break free from arrogance, pride, and complaint.
Start enriching your Salah by expressing your Iftiqar in Munajah (intimate conversations) with Allah. If your Salah is void of this kind of Munajah, it might be reduced to mumbled words. To achieve this Munajah, nothing would be better than following the Prophet’s Sunnah. For instance, the Prophet used to add to the Ruku’ dhikr:
“O Allah, to You I have bowed, in You I believe, to You I have submitted and in You I put my trust. You are my Lord. My hearing, my sight, my blood, my flesh, my bones, and muscles are humbled before Allah, the Lord of the Worlds” (Muslim).
To the Sujud, the Prophet used to add:
“O Allah, to You I have prostrated, and in You, I have believed and to You, I have submitted, and You are my Lord. My face has prostrated to the One Who created it, formed it, and brought forth its hearing and sight. Blessed be Allah the best of Creators.” (Muslim).
Prayers of Praise
As hard times engulf him, the Prophet would sometimes raise his hands and pray solely for entrusting Allah with all of his worldly affairs or celebrating the praise of God without asking specifically for the removal of harm. In a famous du’aa called du’aa al-Karb (prayer for distress or depression), the Prophet used to say: “Lord, I seek Your mercy. Do not leave alone to myself even for a blink of an eye. Amend for me all my matters. There is no god but You” (Abu Dawud). In another Hadith, the Prophet says: “There is no god but Allah, the Great, the Tolerant, there is no god but Allah, the Lord of the Magnificent Throne. There is no god but Allah, the Lord of the Heaven and the earth, the Lord of the Honorable Throne” (Muslim).
Pilgrimage is a spiritual journey of iftiqar where one leaves behind his money, family, and position. It allows oneself to be less attached to this life and experience authentic moments of Zuhd or asceticism.
Brokenness and wholeness
In our materialistic world, words like brokenness and surrender conjure up images of sadness and emotional hurt; however, in our relation with God, these words reflect our real nature that, once acknowledged, we feel the divine closeness and mercy. Brokenness before and surrender to God makes us attached to Allah and determined to cling to Him, without reliance on our possessions, no matter what we have. This brokenness is the real riches as we attach our hearts to the Eternal, the Real, not the temporary or the transient.
This attitude of the heart is necessary for survival. Since life is a test, a mixture of good and evil, and things may not go the way we want all the time, our sense of willful iftiqar can help us survive any trial or tribulation. Ibn’ Ata’illah advises:
“So long as you are in this world, be not surprised at the existence of sorrows. For, truly, it manifests nothing but what is in keeping with its character or its inevitable nature.”
Unlike rebellion and denial of our fragile nature that could lead to unhealed damages, willful iftiqar makes us more corrosion-resistant and malleable as we face the difficulties of life. Our willful constant Iftiqar would help us put down our self-rebellion and yield easily to the trials that are beyond our control. People with iftiqar can be ‘reshaped’ without being ‘destroyed’. The Prophet illustrates: “The example of a believer is that of a fresh and standing plant. The wind sometimes bends it and sometimes straightens it up, and then it comes to its destined end. And the example of a hypocrite is that of a hard tree which is not affected by anything but is uprooted once for all” (Reported by Muslim).
As the rain comes when the clouds break, the Divine mercy descends when our hearts break. Given that Iftiqar is “the soul, secret, essence, and goal of all stations in the path to Allah,” acknowledging and embracing our brokenness before God is a short-cut way of receiving His mercy. The Quran reads: “Those who say, when afflicted with a calamity, ‘We belong to God and to Him we shall return. These will be given blessings and mercy from their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided” (Quran 2:156-157).
Instead of rebelling due to some trials or disappointments, approach Allah with that broken heart, that pain, and turmoil, and become one of his closest servants who choose willingly to surrender and acknowledge the reality of who they are and what life is. Having trials does not mean that Allah abandoned us. Imam Muslim reported that: “Allah will say on the Day of Resurrection: O child of Adam, I fell ill and you did not visit Me. The servant will say: O Lord, and how could I visit You, whereas You are the Lord of the worlds? God will say: Did you not know that My servant so-and-so had fallen ill, and you did not visit him? Did you not know that had you visited him, you would have found Me with him? …”
It should be noted that Iftiqar could emerge from an overwhelming feeling of guilt due to some sins committed. If that sin broke your heart, and you felt guilty, never let the Devil lead you into despair or hopelessness. Instead, approach God with that contrite heart, be sincere in your repentance, and Allah will indeed accept since He does not break His promise. This is one of the ways when sin leads one to God! Ibn’ Ata’illah beautifully captures this idea in his aphorisms:
“A sin that leads to humility and surrender is better than an act of worship that leads to pride and arrogance.”
Finally, as al-Ghazali illustrated in Treatise of the Birds, scholars affirmed that feeling the sense of surrender and brokenness before God is a short-cut way to God. Al-Jilani, one of the early spiritual leaders of Islam and a Hanbali jurist, noted: “I tried to reach God through all doors, yet I found them all crowded. It was until I found the door of surrender and brokenness empty that I entered and called out: come!” Similarly, Ibn al-Qayyim reaches the same conclusion: “The closest door one would go through to reach God is that of impoverishment where one sees that one has no spiritual accomplishment to cling to or a righteous deed to give as an offering to God. Rather one enters through the door of absolute brokenness and utter impoverishment that pierced the very center of one’s heart, causing it to be fully torn apart. Besides, one mindfully realizes one’s indispensability to and complete need of God and recognizes that in each atom of one’s outward and inward being, there is complete need and essentiality of his Lord. Were God to abandon one for a blinking of an eye, one would suffer massive loss unless God has mercy on them.”
May Allah fill all broken hearts with inner peace and bind up their wounds. Ameen.
By Sh. Ahmed Arafat
“وأقرب باب دخل منه العبد على الله تعالى هو الإفلاس، فلا يرى لنفسه حالاً ولا مقاماً ولا سبباً يتعلق به، ولا وسيلة منه يمن بها بل يدخل على الله تعالى من باب الافتقار الصرف والإفلاس المحض دخول من كسر الفقر والمسكنة قلبه حتى وصلت تلك الكسرة إلى سويدائه فانصدع وشملته الكسرة من كل جهاته وشهد ضرورته إلى ربه عز وجل وكمال فاقته وفقره إليه، وأن في كل ذرة من ذراته الظاهرة والباطنة فاقة تامة وضرورة كاملة إلى ربه تبارك وتعالى، وأنه إن تخلى عنه طرفة عين هلك وخسر خسارة لا تجبر، إلا أن يعود الله تعالى عليه و يتداركه برحمته.” ابن القيم