Our mother Aisha, may Allah be pleased with her, was asked, “When does a man become villainous?” Aisha (ra) said, “When he thinks of himself as virtuous.”1
Matters of the body are relatively straightforward: if an organ or limb or tissue is afflicted, medical expertise is sought, and then one hopes for an effective treatment, perhaps in the form of a pill or medical procedure. Humans understand the consequences and pain of neglecting a physical ailment. We intuitively recognize the necessity of preserving physical health to better experience life (and worship Allah), pouring millions of dollars into understanding the mechanisms underlying diseases. The acute awareness of our fleeting mortality only fuels fastidious research. But in matters of the soul and their ailments, popular prescriptions seem to float in the realm of self-care books and gimmicks or models of mental health care that reject the role of spirituality altogether, unable to combat increasing spiritual deterioration.
From the Stoic philosopher Epictetus’ directive, “If you wish to be good, first believe that you are bad,” to New Age spirituality mindfulness practices, religions and cultures throughout history developed ways to cleanse the spiritual heart of its ills. However, despite the abundance of self-help books, therapy sessions, and wellness practices available in our modern world, many people still struggle with the afflictions of their souls. While modern ideologies and worldviews may offer some temporary solutions, they often fall short in truly healing the deepest wounds of our hearts. The forces of materialism, hedonism, and secularism have starved us of spirituality, drip-feeding us superficial balms that only offer a fleeting sense of relief. The limitations of secularism are particularly evident in its rejection of the role of spirituality in mental health care. While modern psychology and psychiatry have made significant strides in treating mental illness, alone they are often unable to address spiritual ailments — or mistake them for something else altogether.
In contrast, religious traditions throughout history have developed sophisticated ways of cleansing the spiritual heart of its ills. In Islam, the pursuit of spiritual excellence is referred to as tazkiya or tasawwuf, and it outlines the best approach to purifying the heart, mind and soul. The millennium-old manual Infamies of the Soul and Their Treatments by Imam Abu Abd al-Raḥmān al-Sulamī is just one well of wisdom that can be found in this genre of literature.
The manual’s short length, just about 120 pages, belies its depth in content. The booklet contains an introduction to 69 faults (infamies) that plague the human soul. As an aside, the mind and heart are not considered as separate and discrete in our spiritual tradition as commonly thought. Multiple narrations speak of the heart carrying a black mark when sinning, and becoming polished upon repentance. The state of the metaphysical heart manifests physically, and a healthy metaphysical heart nourishes the soul.
Al-Sulami starts by delineating the types of souls:
“Know the soul is of three types: the one that incites evil [ammarah], the reproachful soul [lawwamah], and the one that is serene [muta’mainnah]. The serene soul is certain that Allah is its Lord, has found serenity in what Allah has promised, deemed true what Allah Most High has said, and is patient with his command.”
Muta’mainnah is mentioned in the Qur’an. In Surah Fajr, Allah ﷻ says,
˹Allah will say to the righteous,˺ “O tranquil soul! Return to your Lord, well pleased ˹with Him˺ and well pleasing ˹to Him˺. So join My servants, and enter My Paradise.”Qur’an 89:27-30
That type of tranquility is the ideal level2 where not just actions, but one’s thoughts and internal state, are truly aligned with what Allah ﷻ finds pleasing and there remains no desire for disobedience. To do so in a single lifetime is a challenge, but it is enough time to perfect what is in one’s capacity — without excuse. With this charge, Al-Sulami then dives into the qualities that darken a soul.
Al-Sulami methodically discusses the infamies, some spanning multiple pages while others just a few lines, but each with a treatment. He cites Qur’anic ayat, hadith and wisdoms of the companions, early scholars and righteous people to further the reader’s understanding of the infamy. Some of the infamies listed are expected, especially to those familiar with Imam Muhammad Mawlud’s poem Matharat Al-Qulub (and commentary by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s well-known book, Purification of the Heart). For example, whether called an infamy, disease, or vice, envy is widely condemned as an odious trait. Al-Sulami writes that the treatment of envy lies in knowing that the “envier is an enemy of the blessing of Allah.”
Other infamies are not immediately obvious. Take for example the chapter, “idleness while feigning reliance on Allah,” which refers to the type of person who forsakes their livelihood and gives up material goods to show others their reliance is on Allah alone, but becomes angry when sustenance does not come to them. The infamy here lies in both boasting about one’s piety and engaging in a transactional relationship3 with Allah because His favor guarantees no material reward. The prescribed treatment to this infamy is pursuing a halal means of livelihood while inwardly relying upon Allah. This solves both problems, it appears to others that the person is working hard, addressing the issue of ostentation, while they inwardly rely on Allah for sustenance. This concept is closely related to tawakkul: doing what one can and ultimately leaving the rest to Allah and His plan.
Although not every reader will struggle with each infamy listed, they should ponder on an applicable one daily and plan ways to address it through the treatment. As Shaykh Musa warns the reader, “Be prepared to spend more time working with what you read than you spend reading.”4 To borrow from the Shafi’i tradition (as al-Sulami was a Shafi’i legist), one maxim in an English translation of The Reliance of the Traveler reads,
Recite the Koran and contemplate its meanings. Reflect while reading it on the qualities Allah has praised, with which He describes the people He loves. Acquire these qualities yourself and shun those Allah has condemned. Do your utmost to memorize the Holy Koran by acts as you do bywords.
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- al-Ri’āyah li-Ḥuqūq Allāh 337
- For further discussion see An Introduction to the Three Types of Nafs by Shaykh Kamaluddin Ahmed, https://www.ilmgate.org/an-introduction-to-the-three-types-of-nafs/
- See God is not a Bank by Wassim Hassan illustrating the harms that can come about by viewing God this way, https://traversingtradition.com/2019/05/13/god-is-not-a-bank/
- Advice for Benefiting from Infamies of the Soul, Shaykh Musa Furber, https://musafurber.com/2019/12/19/advice-for-benefiting-from-infamies-of-the-soul/#more-2060
Hashmi is best known for her project, Muslims Condemn. She is a law student based in the US with a background in Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology and Linguistics. Her interests include the Islamic sciences, cognitive linguistics, and bioethics.