The importance of Tazkiyat al-nafs
One of the key areas which every Muslim must give particular attention to, particularly at a time when the distractions of life are at an all-time high and tribulations of all forms are unceasing, is the area of Tazkiyat al-nafs/purification of the soul. It is the conscious effort to pause and reflect; to interrogate oneself critically so as to remove some of the many layers of rust that build up on hearts, clouding our sense of direction, whilst at the same time adding layers of goodness missing in one’s life.
Much like clothes that wear out or water that becomes murky, īmān is just as prone to such wear and tear. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said,
إن الإيمان ليخلق في جوف أحدكم كما يخلق الثوب ، فاسألوا الله أن يجدد الإيمان في قلوبكم
“The faith which you have in your heart wears out the same way clothes wear out, so ask Allāh to renew the faith in your hearts.”
It is this depletion that causes the dip in motivation, an inability to shed tears in Allāh’s cause, and the cold relationship with one’s Lord. Giving attention to one’s soul, actively attending to its wounds, and seeking its purification from time to time is not merely admirable or a recommendation, but a commandment from Allāh. Any hopes of success are inseparably linked to it.
قَدْ أَفْلَحَ مَنْ زَكَّاهَا (9) وَقَدْ خَابَ مَنْ دَسَّاهَا (10
“He who purifies it has succeeded, and he who corrupts it has failed.” 
Allāh did not say, “succeeded is he who learns how to purify it”, but “succeeded is he who purifies it”. Studying the process of self-purification is worthless if it does not lead to the actual purification of the self. In fact, this reality was mentioned after 11 consecutive oaths that Allāh took to emphasise this point, namely the success of the one who purifies his soul and the loss of the one who corrupts it. Consider the following oaths:
وَالشَّمْسِ وَضُحَاهَا (1) وَالْقَمَرِ إِذَا تَلَاهَا (2) وَالنَّهَارِ إِذَا جَلَّاهَا (3) وَاللَّيْلِ إِذَا يَغْشَاهَا (4) وَالسَّمَاءِ وَمَا بَنَاهَا (5) وَالْأَرْضِ وَمَا طَحَاهَا (6) وَنَفْسٍ وَمَا سَوَّاهَا (7) فَأَلْهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقْوَاهَا (8) قَدْ أَفْلَحَ مَنْ زَكَّاهَا (9) وَقَدْ خَابَ مَنْ دَسَّاهَا (10)
“(1) By the sun and (2) its brightness. And (3) by the moon when it follows it. And (4) by the day when it displays it. And (5) by the night when it covers it. And (6) by the sky and (7) He who constructed it. And (8) by the earth and (9) He who spread it. And (10) by the soul and (11) He who proportioned it. And then showed it what is wrong for it and what is right for it. He has succeeded who purifies it. And he has failed who corrupts it.”
Furthermore, in his du’ā, the prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) would implore Allāh, saying:
“اللهم آت نفسي تقواها وزكها أنت خير من زكاها أنت وليها ومولاها”
“O Allāh, grant my soul taqwā and purify it, for you are the best who can purify it, you are the Guardian and protecting friend of it.”
He even taught the companion Hussayn ibn ‘Ubayd to say in his du’ā:
“اللهم ألهمني رشدي وقني شر نفسي“
“O Allāh, inspire in me guidance and protect me from the evil of my soul.”
What makes this topic that much more worthy of attention is the fact that the invitation for people to purify their souls was the summary of the call of the prophets and messengers, thus when Prophet Mūsā (ʿalayhi al-Salām) stood before the Pharaoh, offering him the invitation to Islām, he said to him:
هَلْ لَكَ إِلَى أَنْ تَزَكَّى
“Have you a desire to purify yourself?”
And when Allāh told the Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) that he should not have frowned at the blind man and that he may have been on his way to self-purification, he said to the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam):
وَمَا يُدْرِيكَ لَعَلَّهُ يَزَّكَّى
“But what would make you perceive, [O Muhammad], that perhaps he might be purified?”
Rather, when summarising the entire mission of the Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) and the purpose behind his prophethood, purification of the self was listed as one of them as well as being one of the greatest of gifts from Allāh to humanity;
لَقَدْ مَنَّ اللَّهُ عَلَى الْمُؤْمِنِينَ إِذْ بَعَثَ فِيهِمْ رَسُولًا مِنْ أَنْفُسِهِمْ يَتْلُو عَلَيْهِمْ آَيَاتِهِ وَيُزَكِّيهِمْ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَإِنْ كَانُوا مِنْ قَبْلُ لَفِي ضَلَالٍ مُبِينٍ
“Certainly Allāh has shown a great favour upon the believers when He sent among them a Messenger from themselves, reciting to them His verses and purifying them and teaching them the Book and wisdom, although they had been before in manifest error.”
It is interesting to note how Allāh listed the favour of purification of the soul before that of knowledge, as the former cleanses the heart, preparing it to be in reception of the latter, so that when they make contact, it immediately appears in one’s worship and conduct.
Lastly, it is sufficient to say that the purification of the soul is the path to paradise. Allāh said:
وَأَمَّا مَنْ خَافَ مَقَامَ رَبِّهِ وَنَهَى النَّفْسَ عَنِ الْهَوَى (40) فَإِنَّ الْجَنَّةَ هِيَ الْمَأْوَى
“But as for him who feared standing before his Lord, and restrained himself from impure evil desires and lusts. Then surely the paradise – that will be the home.”
And Allāh said:
جَنَّاتُ عَدْنٍ تَجْرِي مِنْ تَحْتِهَا الْأَنْهَارُ خَالِدِينَ فِيهَا وَذَلِكَ جَزَاءُ مَنْ تَزَكَّى
“Gardens of perpetual residence beneath which rivers flow, wherein they abide eternally. And that is the reward of one who purifies himself.”
What is meant by purification of the soul?
The Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) answered this question in a single, yet incredibly comprehensive, sentence. He said:
ثَلَاثٌ مَنْ فَعَلَهُنَّ فَقَدْ طَعِمَ طَعْمَ الْإِيمَانِ: مَنْ عَبَدَ اللهَ وَحْدَهُ فَإِنَّهُ لَا إِلَهَ إِلَّا اللهُ , وَأَعْطَى زَكَاةَ مَالِهِ طَيِّبَةً بِهَا نَفْسُهُ رَافِدَةً عَلَيْهِ فِي كُلِّ عَامٍ , وَلَمْ يُعْطِ الْهَرِمَةَ وَلَا الدَّرِنَةَ وَلَا الشَّرَطَ اللَّائِمَةَ وَلَا الْمَرِيضَةَ وَلَكِنْ مِنَ أَوْسَطِ أَمْوَالِكُمْ , فَإِنَّ اللهَ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ لَمْ يَسْأَلْكُمْ خَيْرَهُ , وَلَمْ يَأْمُرْكُمْ بِشَرِّهِ , وَزَكَّى عَبْدٌ نَفْسَهُ ” فَقَالَ رَجُلٌ: مَا تَزْكِيَةُ الْمَرْءِ نَفْسَهُ يَا رَسُولَ اللهِ؟ قَالَ: ” يَعْلَمُ أَنَّ اللهَ مَعَهُ حَيْثُ مَا كَانَ
“He who performs three things will taste the flavour of īmān;
(1) One who worships Allāh alone, for there is no God but Allāh;
(2) and one who pays the zakāh on his property agreeably every year. One should not give an aged animal, nor one suffering from itch or ailing, and one most condemned, but one should give animals of medium quality, for Allāh did not demand from you the best of your animals, nor did He command you to give the animals of worst quality.
(3) And a person who purifies himself.
They asked, ‘What does it mean for a person to purify himself?’ He responded, ‘A person who realises that Allāh is with him wherever he may be.’”
With this profound narration, the link between the topic of Tazkiat al-Nafs and that of Allāh’s Names can be made, for how can one truly realise that Allāh is with him wherever he may be without first knowing who Allāh is by way of His Names?
What makes the study of Allāh’s Names so vital?
1: Its status
It is well known that the honour of a topic is directly linked to the honour of its subject, hence why societies generally attribute greater prestige to the medical profession, for example, over a car mechanic, despite both being necessary; the subject of the latter is cars, whilst the subject of the former is the honoured human body.
Similarly, since the subject of this study is none other than Allāh, The Majestic, one can comfortably conclude that this study is the most noble of all sciences in existence.
Ibn al-‘Arabī said:
“شرف العلم بشرف المعلوم،والباري أشرف المعلومات فالعلم بأسمائه أشرف العلوم”
“The honour of a science is linked to the honour of the subject of that science, and Allāh is the Most Honourable of all what is known, and thus the knowledge of His names is the most noble of all sciences.”
2: Allāh wants to be known
Allāh wants to humanity to recognise Him, and since Allāh cannot be known by comparing Him to others, as Allāh said:
لَيْسَ كَمِثْلِهِ شَيْءٌ
“There is nothing like Him.”
Nor can He be known today by observation, as Allāh said:
لَا تُدْرِكُهُ الْأَبْصَارُ وَهُوَ يُدْرِكُ الْأَبْصَارَ
“No vision can grasp Him, but He grasps all vision.”
Hence, man is left with no way of knowing Allāh other than by His Names and Attributes which He gave Himself, and He has gifted humanity with the knowledge of these names as He wants to be known.
In many passages in the Qur’ān, the instruction of i’lam/“know” is followed with an attribute of Allāh, as this is the way of realising Allāh.
وَاعْلَمُوا أَنَّ اللَّهَ غَنِيٌّ حَمِيدٌ
“And know that Allāh is Self-sufficient, Worthy of all Praise.”
وَاعْلَمُوا أَنَّ اللَّهَ سَمِيعٌ عَلِيمٌ
“And know that Allāh is Hearing and Knowing.”
وَاعْلَمُوا أَنَّ اللَّهَ غَفُورٌ حَلِيمٌ
“And know that Allāh is Forgiving and Forbearing”
3: Commitment can only come after knowledge
As mentioned above, how can one truly realise that Allāh is with him wherever he may be without first knowing who Allāh is by way of His Names?
Before accepting a course, job, or marriage proposal, a substantial amount of knowledge must be available so as to ensure that one’s commitment thereafter is serious and long-term. The Muslim, however, is offering Allāh something far greater than this; his life, death, dreams, ambitions, adoration, and worship, but all of these matters are doomed for deficiency so long as one’s knowledge of Allāh is deficient.
In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that the heavens and the earth were created so that man may come to realise Allāh’s Names and Majestic attributes. Allāh said:
اللَّهُ الَّذِي خَلَقَ سَبْعَ سَمَاوَاتٍ وَمِنَ الْأَرْضِ مِثْلَهُنَّ يَتَنَزَّلُ الْأَمْرُ بَيْنَهُنَّ لِتَعْلَمُوا أَنَّ اللَّهَ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ وَأَنَّ اللَّهَ قَدْ أَحَاطَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عِلْمًا
“It is Allāh who has created seven heavens and of the earth, the like of them. [His] command descends between them so you may know that Allāh is over all things competent and that Allāh has encompassed all things in knowledge.”
Qiwām al-Sunnah Al-Asbahānī said:
“…and thus Muslims must realise Allāh’s names and understand them, thus causing them to glorify Allāh as He deserves to be glorified. And if a person wants to accepts someone’s offer for marriage or offer himself for marriage, or wants to deal with a person (in any way) he would first request his name, nickname, family name, and would ask about the small and big matters. Allāh, who created us and provided for us, The One whom we hope for His mercy and fear His punishment, is worthier of us knowing His names and understanding them.”
Can we truly fear, desire, and adore Allāh without first knowing Him? This was the link that the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) was keen to emphasise when he said:
وَاللَّهِ لَأَنَا أَعْلَمُهُمْ بِاللَّهِ وَأَشَدُّهُمْ لَهُ خَشْيَةً
“By Allāh, I know Allāh more than anyone else, and I fear Him more than anyone else.” 
The drive to worship Allāh and live for Him can only be achieved by first knowing Him. Hence if this drive is otherwise, one is to interrogate oneself by asking:
How well do I know The One whom I prostrate to?
4: This study is one of the primary ways of restoring īmān and thus experiencing the sweetness of worship
Since it has been established that knowing Allāh through His names will naturally give rise to His worship, it can also be said that it actively increases the yearning to worship Him, thus becoming a part of one’s life that cannot be given up.
Shaykh Al-Sa’dī said,
وبحسب معرفته بربه يكون إيمانه، فكلما ازداد معرفة بربه ازداد إيمانه، وكلما نقص نقص. وأقرب طريق إلى ذلك: تدبر صفاته وأسمائه من القرآن
“One’s īmān is directly linked to one’s knowledge of Allāh, and so the greater a person’s knowledge with regards to His Lord, the greater his īmān will become, and vice versa. And the closest way to attain this is through the contemplation of Allāh names and attributes from the Qur’ān.”
This is because love has causes, two of the primary ones being:
Beautiful matters, by virtue of their splendour, are loved. The heart has a natural affinity towards all that which is pleasing to the eye, and hence one may ask: who is more perfect in beauty than Allāh? This will be realised on the day when the veil between Allāh and His righteous servants is finally removed, when their eyes will gape and their minds will wonder in awe.
2) Ijmāl/Good Treatment
Those who reciprocate favours to others and treat them well are loved. As for Allāh’s favours, they predate man’s existence; Allāh provided for him all what he needed from within the womb of his mother. He then released him to a world that had already been fully furnished with all what he requires.
الَّذِي خَلَقَنِي فَهُوَ يَهْدِينِ (78) وَالَّذِي هُوَ يُطْعِمُنِي وَيَسْقِينِ (79) وَإِذَا مَرِضْتُ فَهُوَ يَشْفِينِ
“Who created me, and He [it is who] guides me. And it is He who feeds me and gives me drink. And when I am ill, it is He who cures me.”
Then, throughout His life, Allāh saves him from calamities which could never have been alleviated by anyone but Him.
In fact, Allāh’s good treatment of His creation is such that man’s involvement in acquiring his provisions is only a minute one at the middle phase. As for the levels before and after it, they were taken care of entirely by Allāh. For example, when one makes his way to buy bread, he is to realise that he was not the one who brought down its rain and allowed it to seep into the soil, nor was he the causer of wheat to grow, nor was he the planter of those seeds nor their harvester, nor was he the supplier of the grain to companies, nor was he the grinder of those grains nor the mixer of ingredients nor the kneader of the dough, nor was he the baker of that bread, nor its packager or seller. Man’s involvement was simply to pull it off the shelf in its ready format.
After swallowing the food, he – again – played no role in the phases which followed; he did not inspire the oesophagus to push the food down to his stomach nor in the mechanism of preventing it from returning upwards, nor was he involved in the process of enzyme release for digestion, nor in the churning of the stomach to break down the food, nor in the complex and harmonious processes which involve the liver, gall bladder, pancreas, and other organs, nor was he involved in the eventual transfer of the molecules into the blood stream, and then the proportional distribution of energy to every part of the body; a portion for the nails, a portion for hair, face, tears, veins, blood, white of the eye, sweat, flesh, nerves, muscles, tendons, bones, nor did he play any role in the excretion of what the body does not require from that bread.
Hence, man’s involvement is purely a transient middle phased one, whilst all of the processes before and after do not involve him in the least. This is one example pertaining to bread, what then about the rest of Allāh’s favours, both the apparent and hidden? Is this not a Lord of indescribable favours? Is He not a Lord to be adored?
Both these two reasons for love – beauty and favours – are captured perfectly by His Names and Attributes; the deeper one’s exploration is of them, the deeper the realisation of just how perfectly beautiful and infinitely kind Allāh has always been. This in turn leads to the immediate restoration of īmān and the experience of the sweetness of worship.
Ibn al-Qayyim said,
وَحَدَّثَنِي بَعْضُ أَقَارِبِ شَيْخِ الْإِسْلَامِ ابْنِ تَيْمِيَةَ – رَحِمَهُ اللَّهُ – قَالَ: كَانَ فِي بِدَايَةِ أَمْرِهِ يَخْرُجُ أَحْيَانًا إِلَى الصَّحْرَاءِ يَخْلُو عَنِ النَّاسِ، لِقُوَّةِ مَا يَرِدُ عَلَيْهِ. فَتَبِعْتُهُ يَوْمًا فَلَمَّا أَصْحَرَ تَنَفَّسَ الصُّعَدَاءَ. ثُمَّ جَعَلَ يَتَمَثَّلُ بِقَوْلِ الشَّاعِرِ – وَهُوَ لِمَجْنُونِ لَيْلَى مِنْ قَصِيدَتِهِ الطَّوِيلَةِ -: وَأَخْرُجُ مِنْ بَيْنِ الْبُيُوتِ لَعَلَّنِي … أُحَدِّثُ عَنْكَ النَّفْسَ بِالسِّرِّ خَالِيًا وَصَاحِبُ هَذِهِ الْحَالِ: إِنْ لَمْ يَرُدَّهُ اللَّهُ سُبْحَانَهُ إِلَى الْخَلْقِ بِتَثْبِيتٍ وَقُوَّةٍ، وَإِلَّا فَإِنَّهُ لَا صَبْرَ لَهُ عَلَى مُخَالَطَتِهِمْ.
“I was informed by some of Shaykh al-Islām Ibn Taymiyya’s relatives that in his early years, he would at times go out to the desert and distance himself from people due to the strength of what he would feel. I once followed him, and when he reached the desert, he took a deep inhalation of the desert air and recited the following couplets of poetry, ‘I withdraw myself from amongst the homes of people so that I may think about you secretly whilst I am all alone’. [As for] a person who reaches this level, if Allāh does not help him to find the strength to return back to the people, he would simply not bear being ever being around them again.” 
As as Al-Qurashī recalls, he was so involved in Allāh’s adoration that he would at times:
“Raise his gaze towards the heavens till he becomes entirely withdrawn. He was one of the wonders of the era.” 
This is an example of someone who could not approach worship as a tick box exercise or as a chore. Because of his knowledge of Allāh, worship becomes an indispensible joy in his life. This is one of the reasons which make this study so vital.
5: The tremendous influence this study has on one’s ability to drop sins
Not only does the knowledge of Allāh’s names push a person closer to the doorstep of worship, but also pushes a person further away from sins. A man once found himself alone with an Arab Bedouin woman and tried seducing her. She refused his invitation and said to him:
ثكلتك أمك أمالك زاجر من كرم؟ أمالك ناه من دين؟
“What is wrong with you? Where is your honour? Where is your dīn?”
He responded to her jokingly, “No one can see us but the planets.”
She responded, “So where is the One who put them there?”
This is precisely the objective behind the choosing of this topic: the next time a sin presents itself, saying: “Here I am, no one is looking”, one is able to respond with the greatest of courage, “What about Allāh? What about Al-Samī’; Al-Basīr; Al-Raqīb; Al-Hasīb; Al-’Alīm?”
This study is indeed a major push forward in one’s battle against sins, for Paradise is only for those who meet Allāh with unblemished tawhīd, and man must realise that insisting upon sins is in fact damaging to his Tawhīd.
In the famous Hadīth, Allāh said:
يَا ابْنَ آدَمَ، إِنَّكَ لَوْ أَتَيْتَنِي بِقُرَابِ الأَرْضِ خَطَايَا، ثُمَّ لَقَيْتَنِي لاَ تُشْرِكُ بِي شَيْئًا، لأَتَيْتُكَ بقُرَابِها مَغْفِرَةً
“O Son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the Earth, and then you meet Me having not associated any partners with me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it too.”
One may wonder at how such colossal sins can be erased by simply meeting Allāh without associating partners with him, but Imam Ibn al-Qayyim explains the matter at hand in the most beautiful of ways. He argues that this description of “not associating any partners with Allāh” can never be in description of a person who had insisted upon sins, as a person who adamantly perpetrates the minor or major sins has definitely damaged his tawhīd.
He argues that the insistence upon sins brings about all types of fear from other than Allāh, as well as hope in other than Allāh, love of other than Allāh, humility to other than Allāh, and reliance upon other than Allāh, causing such a person to plunge into the oceans of shirk.
فَيَكُونُ عَمَلُهُ لَا بِاللَّهِ وَلَا لِلَّهِ، وَهَذَا حَقِيقَةُ الشِّرْكِ
“…and so a person’s actions are not through Allāh, nor are they for Allāh, and this is the essence of shirk.”
Ibn al-Qayyim concludes by saying that although such a person may be a believer in Allāh, Abu Jahl and the idolaters of Mecca were too, and yet such belief failed to benefit them because they did not single Him out in worship. It is this element that differentiates Muslims from polytheists.
The point of mentioning this is that a person who meets Allāh with “an earth’s full of sins” having “not ascribed any partners with Him” is most definitely not a person who had died in a state of insistence upon these sins, having not repented from them. Rather, such a person passed away upon complete Tawhīd, where his hope, love, reliance, attention, and yearning were all for Allāh.
6: The entire world will be seen through the lens of Allāh’s Names
A group of professionals from different trades may enter a building, and each professional will explore that dimension of the building that resonates with his trade; the carpenter will explore the doors and windows; the structural engineer will explore the beams and pillars; whilst the electrician will explore the fixtures. Similarly, the greater one’s perception of Allāh’s names, the greater his alertness will be to the happenings of life and their links back to Allāh. Nothing will pass without thought and reflection.
When he sees a display of mercy, he is quick to reminisce over Allāh’s Names: “Al-Rahīm” (The Most Merciful), Al-Ra’ūf (The Pitying), Al-Wadūd (The Affectionate). When he sees a scene of might and awe, he is immediately overcome with remembrance of “Al-Jabbār” (The Compeller), “Al-Muntaqim” (The Avenger) or “Al-Qahhār” (The Subduer). Eventually, he reaches a station where every scene that unfolds before him, any sin which presents itself to him, or any opportunity that forsakes him, becomes a trigger for reflection and remembrance of Allāh.
7: The greatest ambition is Allāh’s pleasure and entry to Jannah, and this study is a means of attaining them both
In the famous Hadīth, the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said:
إن لِلَّهِ تِسْعَةً وَتِسْعِينَ اسْمًا مِائَةً إِلَّا وَاحِدًا، مَنْ أَحْصَاهَا دَخَلَ الجَنَّ
“Allāh has ninety nine names, one less than a hundred, whoever comprehends them will enter Jannah.”
How many names does Allah have?
In the next article in this series we will discuss the famous hadīth, “Allāh has 99 names, whoever ahsā hā enters paradise…” What does this mean? How will this series differ from the ‘traditional’ approach in approaching the Divine Names? Join us to discuss this and more, inshāAllāh.
 Al-Hākim, on the authority of ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibn ‘Ās
 Al-Qur’ān, 91:9-10
 Al-Qur’ān, 91:1-10
 Muslim, on the authority of Zayd ibn Arqam
 Al-Tirmidhi, on the authority of ‘Imrān ibn Hussayn
 Al-Qur’ān, 79:18
 Al-Qur’ān, 80:3
 Al-Qur’ān, 3:164
 Al-Qur’ān, 79:40-41
 Al-Qur’ān, 20:76
 Al-Bayhaqi’s Sunan al-Kubrā, on the authority of Abdullah ibn Mu’āwiya al-Ghādiri
 Ahkām al-Qur’ān
 Al-Qur’ān, 42:11
 Al-Qur’ān, 6:103
 Al-Qur’ān, 2:267
 Al-Qur’ān, 2:244
 Al-Qur’ān, 2:235
 Al-Qur’ān, 65:12
 Al-Hujja fī bayān al-Mahajja
 Muslim, on the authority of ‘Āisha
 Tafsīr Al-Sa’dī
 Al-Qur’ān, 26:78-80
 These couplets were authored in the context of romance.
 Madārij al-Sālikīn
 Tārīkh al-hawādith Al-Zamān
 Al-Bayhaqi, Shu’ab al-īmān
 Al-Tirmidhī, on the authority of Anas
 Bukhārī and Muslim, on the authority of Abū Huraira