I was driving home from an appointment yesterday and something happened.
It’s not the first time it has happened, and it probably won’t be the last.
There was much on my mind, and even though I knew exactly what route I needed to take, I looked up and realized I had driven far past the place where I was supposed to turn.
Coupled with that realization was the question: Where was I?
Many of us have experienced such instances—we are driving or walking somewhere, and then our minds start to wander and we suddenly realize we have no idea where we are. These moments can be startling, and one might wonder, “What on earth could have distracted me so much?”
When we find ourselves in unfamiliar physical surroundings we follow relatively simple, logical steps to get ourselves back on track. After recognizing that we’re lost, we use whatever resources are available to us (people, maps, GPS enabled devices) to figure out where we need to go. Then we physically start moving in the right direction.
Similarly on the journey to Allah, there are times when we simply have no idea where we are. Allah has shown us the route we are supposed to take, but sometimes it is our hearts, rather than our minds, that get distracted. We miss a “spiritual” turn and as a result, our hearts get thrown off their route. We feel lost, our path blurred and our destination unclear.
When we find ourselves lost on the journey to Allah we need to know how to help get our hearts back on track. The heart is a subtle, amazing creation of Allah, and therefore, helping it get back on the right path may not be as simple as following a few logical steps. Those who have journeyed on the path to Allah before us tell us that it requires determination and persistence, but the end result is well worth the effort.
Where, then, should we begin?
Begin with Allah Almighty
When we find ourselves distant from Allah, we wonder how we ever got there. We could ask probably to spend a lot of time figuring this out, understanding what it is that distracted us from our path. But this information, albeit useful, will not really help us at the beginning.
Paradoxically, the most important place to begin when we feel distant from Allah is with Allah. This seeming paradox is part of the profound nature of the relationship Allah has with His slaves. We should turn to Allah, sincerely and humbly, and ask for His help and forgiveness. Allah promises He will guide us, but we have to begin with Him. This turning or returning to Allah is achieved through the process of tawbah (repentance).
Often times we think of tawbah as something we should do only after we have committed some huge sin. But tawbah is much more than that. It can simply mean redirecting our hearts towards Allah after they have been directed elsewhere, redirecting our energies to His worship or purifying our intentions for Him more frequently.
Why is this necessary?
Because this tawbah, this return, is the essence of the struggle and of the journey itself. This tawbah is what gives us the energy to start moving and the momentum to keep doing so. Allah tells us in numerous places that He will guide those who seek Him.
And, “Indeed, Allah leaves astray whom He wills and guides to Himself whoever turns back [to Him]. (Quran 13:27)
Look for Landmarks
Allah Almighty tells us that there are signs for us everywhere as we journey through life.
There are many Signs on earth for those of sure faith, and also in your own selves. Do you not see? (Quran 51:20-1)
It is extremely useful to step back from our busy lives and look for “landmarks” that tell us about where our hearts have strayed. What people, places or things have affected our path? Did a new relationship, responsibility, or job cause us to lose sight of our journey to Allah? Did some sort of wealth, power, or status take pull too strongly on our hearts and cause them to deviate?
The answers to such questions can often help us create a map for our hearts—an outline of what we should keep doing and what we should avoid.
Start Moving in the Right Direction
In the physical world, a map does little to help us if we just sit and blankly stare at it. We have to process what the map tells us and start moving in the direction it tells us to.
As we journey with our hearts to Allah, we need to follow the guidance He has laid out for us. When we get lost or distracted, sometimes we can figure out what we need to do to get back on track; but rather than do it, we just sit. Our nafs (inner self) feel heavy and our hearts get restless because they are unable to move in the right direction.
So we should immediately turn to Allah and start back on the journey to Him.
We all have spots on our hearts that need to be polished before we present them to Allah.
So why are we waiting until it’s too late?
Once we’ve become consistent in one area, we should begin doing more. As we strive to improve, we should remember to often ask Allah for help and not get deterred if we slip. We should surround ourselves with people who remind us of Allah, and when we do make a mistake, which undoubtedly we will, follow it with an act of goodness and repent to Allah sincerely.
Amazingly, one of the hadiths that remind us of how happy Allah is when we return to Him, evokes the same feelings and emotions that one of us would have when we are lost and then find our way. The Prophet Muhammad tells us:
Allah is happier about the repentance of one His slaves, than one of you would be about finding your camel which had strayed away from you in the middle of the desert. (Al-Bukhari and Muslim, 15)
Undoubtedly, we would feel lost in the middle of the desert without a mount—it’s the same sort of feeling we have now when we find we’ve missed our turn because we got distracted on our way. And as happy as we might feel when we figure out how to find our way, Allah is happier than that when we return to Him and repent.
May Allah grant us all the resolve to reroute our hearts towards Him and the patience and persistence on our journey that will allow us to arrive at jannah in both this world and the next.