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What is Spiritual Development?

From the time we are born our body grows and matures, but we also have a soul that needs to grow and reach its perfection which is attaining the absolute tranquility i.e. Allah’s proximity.

Allah (swt) has blessed us with countless potentials, assets and facilities such as the power to reflect, intellect, free will, conscience and the ability to differentiate between truth and falsehood, natural instincts, and body parts. As human beings possessing both body and soul, we have countless needs to fulfill considering that we have an eternal life ahead of us. To fulfill these needs, we must use our potential in the right way, for if we use it in the wrong way or just use it to attain worldly pleasures then we will have wasted our potential.

Allah (swt) speaks to us and says, “Most surely man is in loss.”  (Qurʾān, Sūrah al-ʿAṣr (103), Verse 2)

“Except those who have faith and do righteous deeds, and enjoin one another to [follow] the truth, and enjoin one another to patience.” (Qurʾān, Sūrah al-ʿAṣr (103), Verse 3)

Spiritual development is not increasing our potentials or faculties such as increasing our wealth, intellect, degrees, IQ, rather it is the process of flourishing our soul by directing our potential towards the truth. 

This journey demands significant effort and endeavor. However, there are special times such as the holy month of Ramaḍān which are conducive to accelerated progress due to the abundance of exclusive mercy, blessings and forgiveness showered on us by our Creator. 

Prophet Muḥammad (ṣ) has said, 

“O’ people! When the crescent of the month of Ramaḍān is sighted, the devils are shackled, the gates of Heaven and mercy are opened, the gates of Hell are closed, and prayers are answered.”

(Al-Kāfī, Vol. 4, P. 67)

Starting this journey during this Holy month, provides a supportive and nurturing environment for our spiritual development. During the month of Ramaḍān, we have a unique opportunity to gauge ourselves, enabling us to evaluate our shortcomings and gain insight of our spiritual state.

There are a few important key points that all of us should inculcate in ourselves to be able to attain Allah’s proximity:

1- Remembrance (Dhikr) of Allah:

To nurture and direct the potential within us and remain steadfast on this journey, we require a very strong support and sanctuary.

Dhikr is not merely remembering Allah with our tongues; rather, our entire lives and actions should orbit around pleasing Allah (swt). Our professed faith and remembrance of Allah (swt) must manifest in our daily lives.

For instance, suppose, I as a parent, am deeply engrossed in reciting the Noble Qurʾān or a duʿāʾ(supplication) and my child interrupts me to seek attention or play.  How do I respond? Do I ignore them, reprimand them for disrupting my concentration or do I close my duʿāʾ book and attend to my child?

Our reaction sends a very clear message to our children. Ignoring them may cause them to drift away from ṣalāh (prayer) and remembrance of Allah, while giving them attention fosters a deeper love for Allah (swt) within them. 

Indeed, Ḥaḍrat Āsiyah, the wife of Firʿawn (Pharaoh), serves as a beautiful example of someone whose life was centered around her devotion to the Lord. Despite being surrounded by worldly luxuries, she remained steadfast in her faith and did not succumb to the allure of materialism.

“And Allah sets forth an example to those who believe, when she said, ‘My Lord! Build me a home near You in Paradise, and deliver me from Pharaoh and his conduct, and deliver me from the wrongdoing lot.”

(Qurʾān, Sūrah at-Taḥrīm (66), Verse 11)

Her steadfastness not only saved her from Firʿawn’s tyranny, but she was also elevated as an example not only for women but for all believers and she earned a place near her Lord in Paradise.

2- Shukr (Gratitude):

When our hearts are filled with īmān (faith) and love for Allah, we come to realize: 

  • Allah (swt) gives existence to everything.  
  • Everything and everyone is mortal, and only Allah (swt) is eternal.
  • He created and guided us with a purpose, not in vain.
  • He blesses us with countless blessings.
  • Whatever we have is from our Lord and we possess nothing of our own.

As a result, we neither succumb to pride upon witnessing the blessings in our lives, nor do we allow ourselves to be enslaved by them. Instead, they become a means for us to traverse this journey, ultimately leading us to the pinnacle of shukr (gratitude)

Meaning of shukr

“Thanking Allah (swt) for His blessings, potentials and assets by utilizing them in His way, in a manner that aligns with His pleasure.”

وَإِذْ تَأَذَّنَ رَبُّكُمْ لَئِن شَكَرْتُمْ لَأَزِيدَنَّكُمْ ۖ

“And when your Lord proclaimed, “If you are grateful, I will surely enhance you.”” (Qurʾān, Sūrah Ibrāhīm (14), Verse 7)

The verse does not say لاَزیدَنَّ نِعمتَکُم “I will surely increase your blessings”, rather it says, “We will enhance you”, indicating that shukr leads to spiritual development.

Sayyidah Fāṭimah (ʿa) in the beginning of the sermon of Fadakiyyah beautifully thanks her Lord:

“Praise be to Allah for that which He bestowed (upon us) and thanks be to Him for all that which He inspired; and commended is His name for all the bounties He created before our own creation, for all the abundant bounties that He bestowed (upon us) from His Own self without even (our) asking for it, and perfect grants which He presented; whose numbers cannot be computed.” (Balaghat al Nisa,P.12)

One of the effects of shukr on our hearts is humility and love. We can observe how humbly she expresses gratitude to her Creator, whose love fills her heart. 

 Despite all she had endured, she stands in the mosque and begins remarkably praising and thanking Allah (swt). He was her Lord, her Creator, whom she relied on every moment.

 In this context, it’s appropriate to reflect on how we respond to life’s challenges and hardships. Whether it’s the loss of a loved one, financial struggles, infertility, a child’s illness, or marital discord, do we walk on the footsteps of our Maʿṣūmīn, or do we succumb to constant lamentation and complaint?

Sayyidah Nusrat Baigham Amin, also known as Banu Amin, was a very pious and knowledgeable figure who attained the esteemed rank of ijtihād, the highest level of jurisprudential learning. Despite experiencing the loss of seven out of her eight children, she never uttered a complaint, wholeheartedly surrendering to her Creator. She attested that when one’s focus is solely on Allah (swt), everything else fades into insignificance, enabling patience and gratitude even in the face of adversity.

3- Ṣabr (Patience): serves as another pair of legs aiding our ascent.

Meaning of patience:

“Not turning towards the wrong path and clinging to other than Allah (swt) when faced with deprivation.”

One morning, Imām ʿAlī (ʿa) asked: “O Fāṭimah (ʿa), do you have any food to ease my hunger?” She responded: “No, by the God who chose my father for prophethood and you for Imāmate, we haven’t had enough food at home for two days, and during this time, I prioritized you and my children over myself in meals.” Imām (ʿa) inquired: “Sayyidah Fāṭimah , why didn’t you inform me so that I could go and procure food?” Sayyidah Fāṭimah (ʿa) explained: “O Abal-Ḥasan, I am embarrassed/ashamed before my Lord to ask for something beyond your power and ability to fulfill.”

(Al-Amali, P. 616)

Indeed, the patience exhibited by Sayyidah Fāṭimah (ʿa) was truly remarkable and exemplary. Her patience and resilience in times of difficulty demonstrates the depth of her faith and devotion and never once did she waver or complain.

The impact of Ḥaḍrat Zahrāʾ’s patience on her children is profound and evident as we see the outstanding patience displayed by ٍSayyidah Zaynab in Karbalāʾ, culminating in her famous statement: ما رأیتُ الّا جمیلاً  “I see nothing but beauty.”

I see nothing but beauty.”

Sayyidah Zaynab in Karbalāʾ

This highlights the powerful influence that parental actions can have on our children.

One significant aspect of practicing patience is restraining anger, especially when possessing the power and authority to react indignantly. As parents, it’s common to react swiftly with anger towards our children, perhaps due to a sense of ownership. Yet, we overlook the fact that we are all fallible human beings capable of errors. By cultivating patience in our interactions with our children, they witness resilience firsthand, leaving a profound imprint on their lives.

4- Duʿāʾ (Supplication):

The wheels of a car typically operate when the engine is running. If the engine fails, the wheels won’t move. However, there are occasions when it works the other way around: pushing the car can move the wheels to restart the engine. People push the car until the engine starts working again.

Duʿāʾ or supplication functions similarly for us. At times, we’ve committed numerous sins and drifted far from Allah (swt), causing our ‘car’ to stop working. Through duʿāʾ, we persistently push our ‘wheels’ until our soul awakens and returns on track.”

Meaning of Duʿāʾ:

Duʿāʾ, in essence, entails directing our complete attention towards someone.”

When we feel cut off from everyone and everything, overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness, reaching a dead end, we feel the urge and need to turn towards Allah (swt). It is during these moments of desperation that Allah, in His infinite mercy, turns towards us by drawing us closer to Him.

The sacred month of Ramaḍān offers an opportune time for the practice of duʿāʾ, as the gates of divine mercy are perpetually open for us. 

Allah (swt) says in Ḥadīth Qudsī:

“If those who turn away from me knew my longing and eagerness towards them, they would die from the intensity of my longing.” (Al-Maḥajjah al-Bayḍāʾ:Vol.8, P.63)

Regrettably, within our culture, there exists a common misconception regarding the nature of duʿāʾ. It is often viewed merely as the recitation of prescribed prayers from start to finish, with a sense of incompleteness if the entire supplication is not recited. Duʿāʾ or the act of supplication involves turning our soul, not just our body, towards Allah (swt), recognizing our sins and spiritual destitution—acknowledging our distance from our Lord.

Imām Zaynul ʿĀbidīn in Ṣaḥīfah as-Sajjādiyyah says “My heart has become numb because of the dreadful sins that I have committed. So bring it to life by accepting my repentance to You! O’ You, Who are my hope and aim! O’ you, (whose closeness) is what I wish and what I desire!”

(The Whispered Prayer of the Repenters)

This is how Imām as-Sajjād (ʿa) would supplicate to his Lord. He recognized his complete dependence on Allah’s aid, acknowledging his own utter destitution. 

Hardships in life can indeed evoke a deep sense of neediness within us. We normally tend to seek solace from those around us first but we should cultivate the habit of turning solely to Allah (swt). 

This continuous turning fosters spiritual development and elevates the soul transcending it from multiplicity to oneness.

5- Infāq (Spending):

Allah says, “O you who have faith! Spend out of what We have provided you before there comes a day on which there will be no bargaining, neither friendship, nor intercession.” (Qurʾān, Sūrah al-Baqarah (2), Verse 254)

One of the most important things that elevates our soul towards Allah (swt) is the act of giving from the provisions bestowed by Him, while constantly bearing in mind that He is the ultimate provider.

These provisions, commonly referred to as “rizq,” encompass not only material wealth such as sustenance, possessions, body parts, food, and fruits, but also spiritual endowments such as having faith in Allah, the prophets (ʿa) and the Imāms (ʿa), our love for them, knowledge, the tawfīq (grace) of thanking Allah and being blessed with rizq presents us with the opportunity to share it with others, an opportunity we should seize before the coming of the Day of Judgement.

The concept of infāq extends beyond financial contributions; it encompasses the sharing of any goodness that has come our way. 

Infāq begins within the confines of our homes. Acts such as spending quality time with elderly parents, spouses, or children, offering a warm smile, a comforting embrace, presenting gifts, or simply sharing a meal together, exemplify its essence.

 An anecdote highlighting this principle is found in the behavior of Imām Khomeini, who, despite his prominent leadership role in Islamic society, would refrain from commencing a meal until every member of his family was present. His actions underscore the importance of allocating time and attention to familial relationships, demonstrating that true infāq extends beyond material wealth.

“God loves the believer and their family and children. The most beloved thing to God is to see a man with his wife and children around a table, eating from it. So when they gather around the table, He looks at them affectionately and forgives them before they disperse from their places.” (Tanbīh al-Ghāfilīn, P. 343, Ḥadīth #498)

As our soul grows and our faith and love for Allah (swt) deepens, we naturally become more empathetic towards those around us and assume responsibility for their well-being, starting within our own homes and extending to our immediate community. At times, faith reaches a level where individuals not only share a portion of what they possess (infāq), but willingly give away what they themselves require, driven by a sense of obligation and care towards others.

An exemplary illustration of this is found in the actions of the family of Amīrul Muʾminīn (ʿa), who, including his young children, donated all their food during the ifṭār meal. Instead of retaining a portion for themselves, they offered everything, exemplifying their level of faith and their profound sense of duty towards others.
We beseech Allah (swt) to bestow upon us the tawfīq (grace) required to attain His proximity and to play a role in expediting the reappearance of the Imām of our time (ʿaj). May we not be counted among those whose actions contribute to his delay.

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