Why am I here? Where am I going? What is my purpose in life?
At certain stages in your life, these questions may have occupied your thoughts. Allah (subḥānahū wa taʿālā) says, “I did not create jinn and men except so that they worship Me” (51:56). Thus, if there is one word that would capture the purpose of our life, it is ʿibādah.
ʿIbādah, often translated as ‘worship’, is a comprehensive term for every action and utterance that Allah (subḥānahū wa taʿālā) loves and is pleased with.
ʿIbādah consists of:
- Actions of the limbs, or physical acts of worship.
- Actions of the heart, or inner acts of worship. These include: firm belief (īmān), knowledge of Allah (maʿrifah), sincerity (ikhlāṣ), piety and mindfulness (taqwā), trust in Allah (tawakkul), hope (rajā’), fear (khawf), gratitude (shukr), patience (ṣabr), love (ḥubb), yearning for Allah (shawq) and certainty (yaqīn).
The Inner Reality
Every act of worship in Islam consists of both an outer manifestation (‘action of the limb’) and an inner reality (‘action of the heart’), which is its essence and core.
The outer manifestation of ṣalāh consists of rukūʿ and sujūd, whilst its essence is khushūʿ.
The outer manifestation of fasting is to stay away from anything that invalidates the fast, whilst its essence is taqwā.
The outer manifestation of ḥajj consists of ṭawāf, standing in ʿArafah and the pelting, whilst its essence is to honour the symbols of Allah (subḥānahū wa taʿālā).
The outer manifestation of duʿā’ is to raise the hands and utter words, whilst its essence is humility and an utmost need for Allah (subḥānahū wa taʿālā).
The outer manifestation of dhikr is to utter Subḥānallāh, Alḥamdulillāh, Allāhu Akbar etc. whilst its essence is loving, fearing and having hope in Allah (subḥānahū wa taʿālā); and contemplation upon His creation and blessings.
The Centrality of The Heart
Whilst we often focus on the outer and physical acts of worship, we often neglect the inner dimensions and spiritual elements of these same acts. In other words, we do not pay enough attention to our hearts.
Imām al-Ghazālī (raḥimahullāh) explains the inner reality of worship and the centrality of the heart: “The honour and excellence of the human being, by which he surpasses all other creatures, is his ability for knowing Allah (subḥānahū wa taʿālā). Knowing Allah is the human’s beauty, perfection and glory in this world; and his provision for the hereafter.
He is prepared for such knowledge only through his heart, and not through any other organ. For it is the heart that knows Allah, works for Allah, strives towards Allah, and draws near to Him.
In contrast, all the other organs are mere subordinates and instruments that are employed by the heart … For it is the heart that is accepted by Allah when it is free from everything except Him. And it is veiled from Him when it becomes immersed in other than Him … Thus, knowledge of the heart and the reality of its qualities is the root of religion and the foundation of the path of the seekers.”
The Best of The Best
A person’s superiority to another is determined by the actions of his heart. Allah said, “The noblest amongst you in Allah´s sight is the one with the most taqwā” (49:13).
Taqwā is to protect yourself from Allah’s wrath and punishment by avoiding His prohibitions and implementing His commands. Taqwā is not restricted to the physical acts. Allah (ʿazza wa jall) says, “Whoever honours the symbols of Allah – indeed, it is from the taqwā of hearts” (22:32). Similarly, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “Taqwā is here, taqwā is here, taqwā is here,” whilst pointing to his chest (Muslim). The believer therefore journeys to Allah through his heart, and not just his body.
ʿAbdullāh b. Masʿūd (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) described the Companions (radiy Allāhu ʿanhum) as the best of this ummah with the ‘most virtuous hearts.’ Bakr al-Muzanī (raḥimahullāh) said, “Abū Bakr (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) did not surpass others because of an abundance of fasting and ṣalāh. Rather, he surpassed them because of something that settled in his heart.”
Ibn Taymiyyah (raḥimahullāh) said, “Actions surpass each other in proportion to the īmān and ikhlāṣ (sincerity) of the hearts. There may be two men in the same row of prayer, yet the difference between their prayers is like the distance between the heavens and the earth.”
Similarly, two individuals may give in charity; one giving £1,000, while the other only gives £10. However, the reward of the second individual may be far greater due to his sincerity.
It is for this reason that ʿAbdullāh b. al-Mubārak (raḥimahullāh) said, “How many a small act is elevated by an intention, and how many a great act is diminished by an intention.”
The Prophet ﷺ said: “Indeed Allah loves that when one of you does something, he perfects it” (Ṭabarānī).
Submitting fully to Allah
An important caveat that we should always keep in mind is that the importance assigned to the actions of the heart does not in any way negate the significance of the external physical actions. Rather, when we internalise the actions of the heart, we will come to realise that they always go hand in hand with the external acts of worship. One without the other will always be defective.
One of Shayṭān’s tricks, particularly in this modern age, is to undermine the outer acts of obedience in Islam by convincing us that ‘what really matters is my heart and inner state’. For instance, we may convince ourselves that so long as we have a clean heart and pure intentions, ḥijāb is not necessary. In reality, however, if our hearts are truly pure, we would fully submit and humble to the outer commandments of Allah (subḥānahū wa taʿālā), and not to our own desires.