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Tazkiyyah: Heart Purification Through the Story of Prophet Abraham

What is the definition of a successful person in your mind? It might be someone who has a lot of money, power, influence, and ability to shape the world according to their desires.

It could also be someone with a large amount of knowledge and has studied and read broadly enough to accurately analyze and find solutions to some of society’s most pressing problems.

Each of these definitions is correct from a worldly perspective. In God’s eyes, however, each of these successes is a test or opportunity.

People, endowed with free will, are held responsible for choosing whether to use their successes properly in the service of God and Islam or not. This applies equally to both material (money) and non-material (knowledge) wealth.

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I am sure that you have heard this point made before, and it is something that pretty much every religious leader has focused on in their Khutbas or lessons at least once in their career.

What I would like to focus on today, however, is the process through which you dedicate your wealth, knowledge, experience – and ultimately your life – to the service of God and Islam. This is what we call the concept of purification, or tazkiyyah.

Waking Up

Some of the most important elements of Tazkiyyah are found in a part of the broader story of the Prophet Abraham in the Chapter of the Poets (Surat al-Shua’ra’). When Abraham speaks to his father, he asks him why he and his people choose to follow idols. His father responds simply,

“We found our forefathers doing so.”

This is the response that so many of us have in our own lives. Why do you wear certain clothes, eat certain food, or even believe certain things? Because that is what you have been doing your whole life and have never questioned it.

Here is the first step of tazkiyyah: wake up. Your faith and actions are not simply the product of your ancestors, upbringing, education, or culture, no matter how much importance you give to any of these in your daily life. You are ultimately responsible for what you believe and do in this world.

Therefore, question everything, seek new knowledge, and never take things for granted. The more conscious you are of your own life and the things in it, the easier it will become to sort out those things that are blatantly inappropriate or against Islam.

Focusing on You

Let’s keep going through this story of Abraham. Once his father gives him that most flippant and unaware of responses, what was Abraham’s answer? Did he disown his father and shun him?

On the contrary, he looked inwards and prayed, stating:

My Lord, endow me with knowledge and wisdom and join me with the righteous; and grant me an honorable reputation among posterity, and make me of those who will inherit the Garden of Paradise; and forgive my father for he is among those who strayed, and disgrace me not on the Day when people will be raised to life. (26:83)

This is the core of the second lesson around tazkiyyah: That this process is about you and not others.

Sometimes, being a Muslim means that you feel a sense of entitlement. You have the Truth and are on the Right Path. Why then, shouldn’t you openly tell others what the right decision is?

That, of course, is because Islam tells us to work within the reality that we live in and to focus on the betterment of ourselves before stepping out and judging others.  

Purification as the Only Way

Finally, tazkiyyah is understandably a broad concept and can include purifying your actions, statements, and wealth to improve your practice of Islam.

At the heart of all of this, however, is coming to an understanding that only through purification can true salvation really be achieved and that it is the core intent of actions – and not their ultimate end – that brings the truest results.

This is in the last statement in our story of Abraham, after he ends his prayer. The Quran adds, “But only one who comes to Allah with a sound heart,” meaning that these are the only people who will receive true salvation.

Therefore, when you think about doing something good in the world, be it charity, volunteering, or maybe even setting up a business or studying a new subject, think about your intention.

Are you doing this because you want to show off to others or selfishly improve your career?

If so, take a step back and think about what your proper intention should be. Realize that this is a fantastic opportunity to get closer to God.

When it comes down to the end, none of your knowledge or wealth will ultimately help you in your judgement in front of God, unless you have used it to purify yourself and better your faith.

(From Discovering Islam archive)

About Brian Wright
Brian Wright is an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi. He holds a PhD from the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University. His dissertation was on Islamic criminal law in Egypt, India, and Ottoman Turkey during the 19th century. He has studied fiqh with a number of traditional scholars in Egypt and India.