The Stages of Self‑refinement

The Stages of Self‑refinement


Observance of psychological hygiene, prevention of sins and absence of moral deeds are the best and easiest stages of self-refinement. At these stages, self is not yet quite contaminated with sins, still possesses its natural purity and enlightenment and is better prepared for the performance of good deeds and acquiring of good morals. It has not yet blackened and darkened, Satan has not yet made its entry inside him and has not accustomed to evil deeds. Because of these factors, it is better prepared for quitting sinful deeds. Teenagers and young people, if decide for purifying their souls and quitting sinful and moral absence deeds, it will be relatively easier for them because they still are at the preventing stage which is easier than quitting a chronic habit. Therefore, the youth, teens and even childhood years are the best period for self‑refinement. Likewise, so long as a man has not tasted the pleasure of a particular sin, he is in a better position not to commit it. Children, youths and those who are not yet contaminated with certain sinful deeds must appreciate this stage as very important, guard themselves not to commit sin at all and maintain their state of purity and cleanness because prevention is always better than cure.

They should better understand this important point that if they sinned and acquired obscene moral characteristics within their existence they would have opened the gate for Satan’s entry within their hearts and, onward, quitting a sin for them would become extremely difficult as compared to earlier. Satan and the imperious self; therefore, always try to present sinning for once and twice, something as minor and insignificant so that by this mean they could increase their influence and make the self addicted to sinning. Therefore, a man who is seriously concerned about his salvation and welfare must seriously resist self’s whims and passions and should not allow self to commit a sin even for once. Amir al-Mu’minin, Imam `Ali (a.s) said:

لا تُرخّصْ لِنَفسكَ في شَيءٍ مِن سَيّء الأقْوالِ والأفْعالِ.

“Do not let your self make an evil commitment or indulgence into evil deeds.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, vol. 2, pp. 801)

غالِبْ الشَّهوَةَ قَبْلَ ضَراوتها، فإنهّا إنْ قَوِيَتْ مَلَكَتْكَ واسْتَقادَتْكَ وَلَمْ تَقْدِرْ عَلى مُقاوَمَتِها.

“Dominate the passions of your self, before it becomes stronger, because once it becomes stronger, it will take over your control pulling you in every direction as it pleases, and in that situation, you will not be able to offer resistance against it.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, pp. 511)

العَادَةُ عَدُوٌّ مُتَمَلِّكٌ.

“Habit is like an enemy who prefers his hegemony over you.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, pp. 33)

العَادَةُ طَبْعٌ ثانٍ.

“Addiction becomes a second nature for a man.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, pp. 26)

غَالِبِ الهَوى مُغالَبَةَ الخَصْمِ خَصْمَهُ وَحارِبْهُ مُحَارَبَةَ العَدُوِّ عَدُوَّهُ لَعلَّكَ تمْلِكُه.

“Dominate your self’s passions like an enemy dominating his enemy; wage war against them like an enemy attacking his enemy; maybe, through these means, you be able to dominate them.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, pp. 509)

تَرْكُ الخَطيئَةِ أيْسَرُ مِن طَلَبِ التّوبَةِ، وَكَمْ مِن شَهوَةِ ساعَةٍ أوْرَثَتْ حُزناً طَويلاً، والمَوتُ فَضَحَ الدُّنْيا فَلَمْ يَتْرُكْ لِذي لُبٍّ فَرَحاً.

“Not to commit sins is better than repentance, because many a times an hour of carnal pleasure results in perpetual anxiety and distress. Death is a mean for discovering the scandalous nature of this world, which does not leave any pleasure left for an intelligent and aware person.” (al-Kafi, vol. 2, pp. 451)

Imam al‑Sadiq (a.s) said:

أقْصِرْ نَفسَكَ عَمّا يَضُرُّها مِن قَبلِ أنْ تُفارِقَكَ، وَاسْعَ في فَكاكِها كَما تَسْعى في طَلبِ مَعيشَتِكَ فإنّ نَفْسَكَ رَهينَةٌ بِعَمَلِكَ.

“Before the soul departs from your body, do not allow your self to perform harmful deeds; endeavor for achieving self’s freedom the way you make efforts for earning your living. Because the same self will be mortgaged against the deeds (on the Day of Judgement).” (al-Kafi, vol. 2, pp. 455)

Almighty God has said in the Holy Qur’an:

وَأَمَّا مَنْ خَافَ مَقَامَ رَبِّهِ وَنَهَى النَّفْسَ عَنْ الْهَوَى. فَإِنَّ الْجَنَّةَ هِيَ الْمَأْوَى.

“But as for him who feared to stand before his Lord and restrained his soul from lust; Lo! the Garden will be his home. 79.40‑41”

Anyhow, the path of prevention is the best as well as the easiest; therefore, as much as man endeavors seriously in this path is worthy of merit. How blessed is a young who subdues his imperious self, does not allow it to indulge in sinful deeds and with a purified and refined self, follows the straight path of human exaltation ascending towards God’s Nearness until the very end of his life.

Sudden Renunciation


If one’s self has already crossed the preservation stage by becoming contaminated with sins and moral vices, the alternative is to resort to cleansing, which consists of several methods. One of the best methods of cleansing is the internal revolution and a complete sudden renunciation. A person who has become contaminated with sins and other moral vices may decide once to return towards Almighty God through repentance—washing and purifying the heart from all sorts of sins and vices. With a single bold definite decision, one forces out devils from the heart by shutting the doors for their entry forever making the heart’s dwelling readied for the descendance of God’s favorite angels and Divine illumination.

Having inflicted a devastating severe blow, the imperious self and Satan should be subdued thoroughly, and the power to rule over the self must be taken into hands firmly and forever. There were many such lucky individuals who were blessed with Divine Favor of attaining self-refinement by means of internal revolution within their inner selves and remained faithful to their commitment until the last breath of their lives.

This internal spiritual revolution or awakening (or being reborn) occurs in the lives of peoples sometimes hearing a short sentence of a preacher and scholar of moral ethics, hints given by a Divine Guide, happening of an unusual shattering tragedy, participation in a gathering of prayer and supplication, and listening to verses, traditions and pondering for a few minutes. Sometimes, a minor incident like a sparking illuminates the heart’s dwelling. There were individuals who were blessed to receive Divine Grace to attain self‑refinement through internal spiritual revolution in their lives, and thus joined the ranks of wayfarers journeying towards Almighty God. Following are few examples:

Bishr Al-Hafi (the barefooted) was one of the most famous pious and religious personalities. In his biography, it has been written the earlier, he was as aristocrat who was continuously busy in worldly amusements and sexual pleasures round the clock; his house was the center of carnal pleasures, drinking, dancing and loud music. Later on, he repented and joined the ranks of the most distinguished ascetic and pious persons. Following is the story of his repentance:

One day, a maid came out side the door of his house for emptying the garbage coincidentally at the same time Imam al‑Ka¨im (a.s) was passing by through the alley near his house and the sound of loud music reached his ears. He asked the maid, “Is the owner of this house free (master) or servant?” “Of course he is free man as well as master,” replied the maid. “You are right,” said the Imam, “had be been, he would have been afraid of his Master and should not have been so bold in committing sins.” When she returned, her master who was busy in drinking asked her why she was late. She thus narrated what had outside with an unidentified person and the details of questions and answers exchanged between them. “What he said ultimately?” asked he. She quoted the very words fo the Imam before her master. This short sentence of Imam al‑Ka¨im (a.s) acted as a sharp arrow pierced in Bishr’s heart and as a flash illuminated and metamorphosed his inner existence. He left his drinking and came out barefooted running fast in order to catch the unidentified person. Ultimately reaching near him, he said, “O my master! I beg God’s as well as your pardon. Yes! I was and still God’s servant but I had forgotten my servitude; therefore, I acted so boldly in committing sins, but right now I have discovered my servitude and want to repent for my past sins and omissions. Will Almighty God accept my repentance?” “Yes, of course! Almighty God will accept your repentance and forgive your past sins provided that you must quit sinning for ever,” replied the Imam. Bishr repented and became one of the most famous pious and saintly personalities of his time, and in order to show his thank for this blessing, he used to walk barefooted until the end of his life. (Muntaha al-Amal, vol. 2, pp. 126)

Abu-Ba¥ir narrated: One of the agents of a tyrant king used to live in my neighborhood. He used to acquire his living through illegal means and had turned his home into a center of carnal pleasures, dancing, drinking and music. Naturally, living next door to him was annoying and painflu for me, but there was no alternative except to stand it because my repeated advises had not produced any improvement in his behavior. Finally, one day, when I pressed him hard to change his life style, he replied, “I am a prisoner of Satan because of my addiction to eating, drinking and sinning and I cannot quite them. I am sick but can do nothing for treatment. You are a good neighbor for me, but I am a bad neighbor for you. I am helpless and have become a prisoner of self’s whims and passions not knowing how to get myself out of this situation. When you visit Imam al‑Sadiq (a.s) in the near future, please plead my case with him hoping he will suggest a solution for my rescue.”

I was deeply influenced by his words. I waited for a while until an opportunity arised for me to go to Al-Madinah for seeing Imam al‑Sadiq (a.s). When I saw the Imam, I narrated the story of my neighbor. The Imam replied, “When you return back, your neighbor will come to see you; hence, you must tell him that Ja`far bin Muhammad says, “Do not commit sins and I guarantee Paradise for you.”

When I returned back to Kufah after completing the pilgrimage, people came to see me including my neighbor. After greetings and inquiring about my trip, he intended to leave. I gave him a hint that I have to discuss something in private. When other people left my house, I said to him that I narrated his story to the Imam (a.s) who replied, “Upon your return to Kufah, that man will come to see you. Tell him that Ja`far bin Muhammad say to you, “Quit sinning and I guarantee Paradise for you.” This short message of the Imam (a.s) so much touched his heart that he started crying and said to me, “Do you swear by God that the Imam said these words to me?” I swore by God and assured him that these were the exact words of the Imam. He replied, “These words are enough for me.” He then left my house. For several days, I did not hear any news about him. One day, he sent a message for me to visit him at home. I accepted his invitation and went to his house. He opened the door and hiding behind the door said, “Abu-Ba¥ir! Every thing which I acquired through forbidden means have returned to their owners. I now possess absolutely nothing even a pair of clothing to cover myself and that is why I am standing behind the door. I have quitted all sins and have truly implemented the Imam’s message in my life.

I was indeed happy to hear about his repentance and changed condition and wondered about the impact of the Imam’s short message upon him. I returned back to my home and arranged some clothing and some quantity of food and brought it for him. After a while, he again called me and when I went to see him, I found him sick. He remained in this condition for quite some time and during this period I frequently visited him to take care of his needs, but unfortunately treatment did not produce any improvement and his condition continued to deteriorate day by day until one day I found him in precarious condition hovering between life and death. While I was sitting on his side, and he was taking his last breaths, he suddenly opened his eyes and said, “Abu-Ba¥ir! Imam al‑Sadiq (a.s) had fulfilled his promise. He said these words and left his eternal abode.”

Afterwards, I had the opportuffity to go for Hajj Pilgrimage and also to see Imam al‑Sadiq (a.s). When I was about to enter in his presence and my one foot was inside the hall while the other still in the yard, the Imam said, “Abu-Ba¥ir! I have fullfiled the promise for your neighbor and Paradise which I had guaranteed for him was bestowed upon him.” (Muntaha al-Amal, vol. 2, pp. 86)

There are always such individuals who with single definite bold decision and act of bravery subdue the imperious self and take over the command of their affairs in their own hands and with the occurrence of a spiritual internal revolution polish and refine their hearts from all sorts of impurities and vices. Therefore, the above stories indicate that following the above path is possible for all of us.

Amir al-Mu’minin Imam `Ali (a.s) said

غالِبوا أنفُسَكُم عَلى تَركِ العاداتِ وجَاهِدوا أهْوائَكُم تمْلِكوها.

“For quitting habits, subdue the self by struggling against whims and passions so that you may succeed in making them your prisoners. (Ghurar al-Hikam, pp. 508)

أفْضَلُ العِبادَةِ تَرْكُ العادَةِ.

“The best of worship is achieving domination over habits.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, pp. 176)

Imam al‑Baqir (a.s) said:

كلُّ عينٍ باكيةٌ يومَ القيامة غير ثلاثٍ: عينٌ سَهَرتْ في سبيل الله، وعينٌ بَكَتْ مِن خَشية الله، وعينٌ غَضَّتْ عن مَحارم الله.

“All eyes will be crying on the Resurrection Day except for the eyes that remain open at night for the sake of God, and eyes which cry for the fear of God, and the eyes that are closed not to see what God has forbidden to see.” (al-Kafi, vol. 2, pp. 80)

Imam al‑Sadiq (a.s) said:

فيما ناجَى اللهُ تَبارَك وَتَعالى به مُوسى صَلواتُ الله عليه: يا مُوسى، ما تقرّبَ إليَّ المُتَقرّبونَ بمِثْلِ الوَرعِ عَن مَحارِمِي، فإنّي أمْنَحُهُم جِنانَ عَدْني، لا أُشرِكُ مَعَهُم أحداً.

In reply to the supplications of Moses, God replied: “O Moses! Nothing is more effective than piety in making My servants closer to Me. I bestowed Heaven on them and will not let anyone else share it with them.” (al-Kafi, vol. 2, pp. 80)

It must be admitted that self‑domination and total avoidance of sins is not an easy task, but still with foresight, self-awareness, decisiveness and pondering, it might not be so difficult considering the fact that one will be supported and strengthened with Divine Assistance as promised in the Holy Qur’an:

وَالَّذِينَ جَاهَدُوا فِينَا لَنَهْدِيَنَّهُمْ سُبُلَنَا وَإِنَّ اللَّهَ لَمَعَ الْمُحْسِنِينَ.

“As for those who strive in Us, We surely guide them to Our paths, and lo! Allah is with the good. 29:69”

Gradual Renunciation

If we discover that our inner existence does not have the courage and boldness required for quitting all sins at once, we may decide for gradual renunciation in stages. This procedure consists of beginning with quitting few sins at a time as a test of our willpower, and the struggle should be continued until we become victorious over the self cutting the roots of those sins forever. Later on, the same procedure should be repeated regarding some other sins and should be continued until the final victory is achieved.

Care should be taken that sins quitted earlier should not be repeated at all. Obviously, renunciation of each sin makes the imperious self and Satan weaker in the same proportion; the place of each devil forced out shall be immediately replaced by the entry of God’s angels and similarly the mount of darkness removed from the heart’s surface shall be replaced with whiteness and illumination in the same proportion.

The abstinence from sins should be continued, in this manner, until self‑perfection and final victory in controlling the self’s desires is achieved. It is possible that while practicing abstinence of few sins at a time, we might reach to the limit where we feel to have the necessary willpower and determination to quit all sins at a time like sudden at once renunciation in which case this golden opportunity should be utilized taking the decision to refrain from all sins.

By forcing out Satan, the imperious self should be subdued by allocating the heart’s dwelling for Almighty God and his favorite angels. If we struggle and endeavor to achieve the above cherished goal, we will certainly be victorious. Self‑struggle is exactly like waging war against an enemy. A worrier must continuously watch over his enemy’s movement, evaluate his own strength compared with enemy’s resources, strive for strengthening his forces and by utilization of suitable opportunities attack his enemy inflicting devastating blows annihilating his soldiers completely or forcing them out of the self’s kingdom.