Before you can fill any vessel, you must first empty it. The heart is a vessel. And like any vessel, the heart too must be emptied—before it can be filled.
One can never hope to fill the heart with God, so long as that vessel is full of other than Him.
To empty the heart does not mean to not love. On the contrary, true love, as God intended it, is purest when it is not based on a false attachment.
The process of first emptying the heart can be found in the beginning half of the shahadah (declaration of faith). Notice that the declaration of faith begins with a critical negation, a crucial emptying.
Before we hope to reach true monotheism, before we can assert our belief in the one Lord, we first assert: “la ilaha” (there is no God). God is an object of worship.
But it is imperative to understand that God is not just something we pray to. God is what we revolve our life around, what we obey and what is of utmost importance to us above all else.
It is something that we live for and cannot live without.
So every person either atheist, agnostic, Muslim, Christian, Jew… has a God. Everyone worships something. For most people, that object of worship is something from this life.
Some people worship wealth, some worship status. Or some worship fame, some worship their own intellect. Some people worship other people. And many, as the Quran describes, worship their own selves, their own desires and whims. God says:
Have you then seen him who has taken as his god his [own] desire, and whom God has led astray knowingly, and set a seal upon his hearing and his heart, and laid a covering over his sight? So who will guide him after God? Will you not then remember? (45: 23)
These objects of worship are things to which we become attached. But an object of attachment is not just something that we love. It is something that we need, in the deepest sense of the word.
It is something that if lost, causes absolute devastation. If there is anything—or anyone—other than God, that we could never give up then we have a false attachment.
Why was Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him) told to sacrifice his son? It was to free him. It was to free him from a false attachment. Once he was free, his object of love (not attachment) was given back to him.
If there is anything—or anyone—that losing would absolutely break us, we have a false attachment. False attachments are things that we fear losing almost to a pathological extent. It is something that if we even sense is drifting away, we will desperately pursue.
We chase it because losing an object of attachment causes complete devastation, and the degree of attachment is proportional to the severity of that devastation.
These attachments can be to money, our belongings, other people, an idea, physical pleasure, a drug, status symbols, our careers, our image, how others view us, our physical appearance or beauty, the way we dress or appear to others, our degrees, our job titles, our sense of control, or our own intelligence and rationality.
But until we can break these false attachments, we cannot empty the vessel of our heart. And if we do not empty that vessel, we cannot truly fill it with God.
This struggle to free one’s heart from all false attachments, the struggle to empty the vessel of the heart, is the greatest struggle of earthly life.
That struggle is the essence of the true monotheism. And so you will see that, if examined deeply, all five pillars of Islam are essentially about and enable detachment:
Shahadah (Declaration of faith)
The declaration of faith is the verbal profession of the very detachment we seek to achieve: that the only object of our worship, ultimate devotion, love, fear and hope is God and God alone.
To succeed at freeing oneself from all other attachments, except the attachment to the Creator, is the truest manifestation of monotheism.
Five times a day we must pull away from this world to focus on our Creator and ultimate purpose. Five times a day, we detach ourselves from whatever we are doing of worldly life, and turn to God.
Prayer could have been prescribed only once a day or week or all five prayers could have been done at one time each day. But it is not. The prayers are spread throughout the day. If one keeps to their prayers at their specified times, there is no opportunity to get attached.
As soon as we begin to become engrossed in whatever life matter we are involved in (the job we’re doing, the show we’re watching, the test we’re studying for, the person we can’t get off our mind), we are forced to detach from it and turn our focus to the only true object of attachment.
Fasting is all about detachment. It is the detachment from food, drink, sexual intimacy, vain speech.
By restraining our physical self, we ennoble, purify and exalt our spiritual self. Through fasting we are forced to detach ourselves from our physical needs, desires, and pleasures.
Alms giving or Zakat is about detaching ourselves from our money and giving it for the sake of God. By giving it away, we are forced to break our attachment to wealth.
Hajj is one of the most comprehensive and profound acts of detachment.
A pilgrim leaves behind everything in his life. He gives up his family, his home, his six figure salary, his warm bed, his comfortable shoes and brand name clothes, all in exchange for sleeping on the ground or in a crowded tent and wearing only two simple pieces of cloth.
There are no status symbols at Hajj. No Tommy Hilfiger Ihram, no five star tents. (Hajj packages that advertise 5 star hotels, are talking about before or after the Hajj. During Hajj you sleep in a tent in Mena, and on the ground, under only sky, in Muzdalifah).
Realize that God, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, does not just ask us to be detached from this life—He tells us exactly how to do so.
Beyond the five pillars, even our dress breeds detachment. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) tells us to distinguish ourselves to be different from the crowd, even in how we appear. By wearing your hijab, kufi or beard, you can’t just blend in—even if you wanted to.
The Prophet said:
Islam began as something strange, and it shall return to being something strange as it began, so give glad tidings to the strangers. (Muslim)
By being “strange” to this life, we can live in it, without being of it. And it is through that detachment that we can empty the vessel of our heart in preparation for that which nourishes it and gives it life. By emptying our heart, we prepare it for its true nourishment: God.