Things which are Helpful for Self‑refinement
Negligence is one of the most important obstacles against achieving self‑refinement. If we are incessantly submerged in worldly affairs running away from the remembrance of death and not prepared for thinking about death even for a moment; and if incidentally this thought enters in our minds, we try to deviate from it immediately. If we are negligent about the dangerous consequences of moral vices, not concerned about the indictment for sins and eternal punishment and the belief in the Day of Resurrection has not penetrated the profundities of our soul beyond a superficial mental concept, then with such negligence, how can we take the decision for self‑cleansing and refinement and control and restrain against desires?
Negligence, in itself, is one of the most severe psychological diseases and the origin of many other diseases. The treatment of this disease is pondering, foresight and strengthening the forces of belief. It is necessary that a human being should continuously keep a strict vigil upon self, never forget death, ponder about serious consequences of self’s diseases, indictment for sins and horrible punishment of Hell and always keep in mind the accounting of his deeds on the Day of Judgment. In that case, he is ready for self‑refinement and should take a definite decision for purifying his heart from sins and other moral obscene deeds. Imam `Ali (a.s) said:
مَنْ عَمَّرَ قَلبَهُ بِدَوامِ الفِكرِ حَسُنَتْ أفعالُهُ في السِّرِّ وَالجَهْرِ.
“Whoever makes his heart’s kingdom inhabitated with continuous pondering will have his affairs become good in outward appearance as well as inwardly.” (Ghurar al‑Hikam, pp. 690)
Reward and Punishment
In order to be victorious in attaining self‑refinement and abstinence from sins, we may use the reward and punishment method. In the beginning, we must address to ourselves, “I have decided to abstain from sins, if you do not cooperate in this matter and commit sins, I am going to punish you with such and such punishment. That is, if you commit backbiting, I will take a fast for one day or will speak only the minimum required for one week, donate such amount for charity, not drink water for one day, deprive you of one diet and remain under the sun during summer so that you should not forget about the temperature of Hellfire.
After that, we must watch over the self strictly so that it does not commit backbiting, and in case it does, we must take a bold stand against it without being lenient and must execute the promised punishment against it. Once the imperious self realize that we are serious in refraining from sins and will strictly execute the punishment without least compassion, it will surrender before our genuine demands.
If we implement this program without any negligence, we may close the paths of Satan’s entries and achieve absolute domination over the self provided that we take a definite decision and punish the rebellious self without compassion. It is strange that regarding minor violations of civil laws, the violators are indicted and punished, but unfortunately for self-cleansing and refinement this method is not practiced despite the fact that our prosperity and eternal salvation depends upon it. Many of God’s deserving servants by utilization of the same method were able to attain self‑refinement, self‑cleaning and self‑domination. Amir al-Mu’minin, Imam `Ali (a.s) said:
نِعْمَ العَونُ عَلى أسْرِ النّفسِ وَكَسْرِ عادَتِها الجُوعُ.
“Hunger is the most effective tool for achieving self‑domination and breaking habits.” (Ghurar al‑Hikam, pp. 773)
مَن اسْتَدامَ رِياضَةَ النّفْسِ انتَفَعَ.
“Whoever practices self‑asceticism is bound to earn benefits.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, pp. 647)
One of the Prophet’s companion said:
“One hot summer day, the Prophet Muhammad (a.s) was sitting under the shade of a tree; suddenly a man appeared and after taking off his clothes, laid down with bare back upon the hot sand and started rolling over it alternatively making his back and stomach to bear the hot sand occasionally covering his face with it and saying, “O my imperious self! You better taste the heat of this hot sand particles and know that the heat of Hellfire is more severe and painful than this.” The holy Prophet (a.s) witnessed the scene with interest. When the man wore his clothes and wanted to return, the Holy Prophet asked him to come near him, and said, “I saw you doing some thing strange which is not done by any other person. What was the motive behind this act?” The man replied, “O Prophet of God! God-fearing forced me to perform this act. By performing this act, I said to my self to taste the heat of this sand and know that the heat of Hellfire is much more severe and painful than the heat of this sand.” The Holy Prophet (a.s) said, “Yes! you feared Almighty God the way one should be really be fearful of Him, and He with this act has glorified you over the angels of His Thrown.” Then he said to his companions, “Come and stand closer to this man and ask him to pray for you.” The companions assembled around the man and requested him to pray for them. The man raised his hands for prayer and said, “O God! Guide our affairs, make piety provision of our journey and bestow upon us Paradise in the Hereafter.” (al-Mahajjat al-Bayda’, vol. 7, pp. 208)
Amir al-Mu’minin Imam `Ali (a.s) said:
تَوَلَّوا مِن أنفُسِكُم تأديبَها واعْدِلوا بِها عَن ضَراوَةِ عاداتِها.
“Arise against the self and by chastisement prevent it from being addicted to various habits.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, pp. 350)
Dignity of Human Essence and Strengthening Human Virtues
Earlier, it was pointed out that human self is a precious jewel that has come into existence from the world of life, knowledge, perfection, beauty, blessing and benevolence. Therefore, if man pays attention to his exalted position and virtues within his existence, he will realize that commitment of sins and other obscene deeds are below his dignity and will naturally abhor them. When he understands that he is a human being that descended from the Upper Heavens to be God’s Vicegerent upon earth, animalistic desires and passions will become worthless in his sight and the desire for achieving moral excellence shall be revived in his existence. Amir al-Mu’minin Imam `Ali (a.s) has said:
مَنْ كَرُمَتْ عَليهِ نفْسُه هانَتْ عَليه شَهَواتُه.
“Whoevr appreciate the greatness of his self will regard his passions as insignificant and worthless.” (Nahj al- Balaghah, 449)
Imam al-Sajjad was asked, “Who is the worthiest person?” He answered:
مَنْ لَمْ يَرَ الدُّنيا خَطَراً عَليه.
“It is he who does not consider this world worthy of his own existence.” (Tuhaf al-`Uqul, pp. 285)
Consequently, paying attention to the exaltedness of human soul and discovering the worth of his existence and his lofty position are helpful in attaining self‑refinement and abstinence from sins. We must say to ourselves, “You belong to the heavenly kingdom of knowledge, life, perfection, virtues, benevolence and blessings; you are the God’s Vicegerent upon the earth; you are human and have been created for eternal life of the Next World and God’s Nearness and you are superior than animals. To follow animalistic passions is not worthy of your existence.” In this manner attaining self‑refinement and abstinence of sins will become easier for us. Also, for self‑refinement, each vice must be uprooted gradually by strengthening opposite characteristics replacing vices with virtues, which turn into habits or second nature.
For example, if we are jealous with respect to a certain individual, we become sad and annoyed seeing his blessings and happiness and by means of slander, insult, annoyance, obstruction and indifference, we try to satisfy our own internal psychic disorder; therefore, we must try to show praise, respect, goodwill and cooperation with him. When we behave in this manner exactly opposite to the feelings of jealously, this vice will be weaker day by day and eventually is replaced by benevolence. If we are sick with the disease of stinginess, we must impose upon the self to bear the necessary expenditure for our essential requirements so that the undesirable habit of miserliness gradually becomes uprooted and eventually we become accustomed to spending money and beneficence. If we show miserliness regarding the payment of the religious dues, we must stand against the self and without paying least attention to its whims and passions and must remit our religious financial obligations. If we show hesitation in spending money for ourselves and our family, the essential expenditure will be imposed upon the self so that it becomes accustomed to it gradually. If, because of miserliness, we cannot participate into charitable affairs, we must take action by all possible means at our disposal; a portion of our financial users should be spent for God’s sake for supporting the destitute people so that gradually we become accustomed to it.
Of course, this task in the beginning appears difficult but with perseverance and resistance, it will become easier. In order to achieve self‑refinement and refrain from immoral deeds, the following two tasks should be performed:
First: we should not offer positive response to the demands of immoral and obscene deeds so that their roots will gradually be dried off completely.
Second: the virtuous characteristic opposite to that particular vice should be strengthened; and in accordance with this virtuous characteristic, task must be imposed upon the self so that gradually it will gradually become used to it acquiring them as its habit and temperament and cutting the roots of wicked deeds forever. Amir al-Mu’minin Imam `Ali (a.s) said:
أكْرِه نَفسَكَ عَلى الفَضائِل، فإنَّ الرَّذائِلَ أنتَ مَطبوعٌ عَلَيها.
“Force your self to perform good moral deeds, because the wickedness has been incorporated in your inner essence.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, vol. 1, pp. 130)
عَوِّدْ نَفسَكَ فعْلَ المَكارِمِ وتَحَمَّلْ أعْباءَ المَغارِم تَشْرُفْ نَفْسُكَ وَتَعْمُر آخِرَتُكَ ويَكْثُرْ حامِدوكَ.
“Wake yourself used to performance of good deeds and for tolerance of payment of severe reparation, so that he becomes noble, your Hereafter becomes fruitful, and your admirers become more.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, pp. 492)
الشَّهَواتُ أغْلالٌ قاتِلاتٌ، وأفْضَلُ دَوائِها اقتِناءُ الصَّبْرِ عَلَيها.
“Sefish passions and desires are fatal diseases; and the best medicines are the selection of patience and abstinence from them.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, pp. 72)
Renunciation of Bad Company
Human beings are susceptible to being influenced by many of the characteristics, etiquette and behavlors of other people with whom they have social association and in reality become like them especially their best friends and close social associates who play an influential role in their lives. Friendship with corrupt and wicked individuals forces a person towards corruption and evil deeds, while association with righteous people of good morals achieves salvation and goodness. One of the characteristics of a human being is that he makes himself like others. If he mixes socially with corrupt and sinful people, he will become familiar with sinning and other immoral deeds. Moreover, not only does he not see the ugliness of his actions, but also he regards these acts as manifestation of acts of goodness. If his social circle consists of righteous people of good morals, he becomes thoroughly familiar with good morals and characters and desires to become like them. Therefore, a good friend is one of the greatest blessings of Almighty God and is considered as an important factor responsible for progress and prosperity of a human being. On the other hand, a bad friend is one of the greatest problems and an important factor responsible for his adversity and deviation. Therefore, the selection of a friend should not be regarded as insignificant and unimportant; rather it should be treated with utmost importance because it determines our ultimate destiny. Amir al-Mu’minin Imam `Ali (a.s) said:
لا يَنبَغِي لِلمَرْءِ المُسْلِم أنْ يُؤاخِيَ الفاجِرَ فإنَّهُ يُزَيِّنُ لهُ فِعلَهُ وَيُحِبُّ أنْ يَكونَ مِثْلَهُ وَلا يُعينُهُ عَلى أمْرِ دُنْياهُ وَلا أمْرِ مَعادِهِ، وَمَدْخَلُه وَمَخْرَجُه مِن عِندِهِ شَينٌ عَلَيه.
“A Muslim should never take sinful and corrupt persons friends, because a sinful friend presents vices as virtues and desires that his friend would behave exactly like he does. A bad friend neither helps a person in worldly affairs nor in the affairs belonging to the Next World; and socialization with him makes a person disgraced.” (al-Kafi, vol. 2, pp. 640)
Imam al‑Sadiq (a.s) said:
لا يَنبَغِي لِلمَرْءِ المُسْلِم أنْ يُؤاخِيَ الفاجِرَ وَلا الأحْمَقَ وَلا الكَذّابَ.
“It is not appropriate for a Muslim to make friendship with lewd, stupid and mendacious persons.” (al-Kafi, vol. 2, pp. 640)
The Holy Prophet (a.s) said:
المَرْءُ عَلى دينِ خَليلِهِ وَقَرينِهِ.
“A person is bound to follow the religion of his friend and social companion.” (al-Kafi, vol. 2, pp. 642)
Amir al-Mu’minin Imam `Ali (a.s) said:
إيّاكَ وَمُعاشَرةَ الأشْرارِ، فإنَّهُم كالنّارِ مُباشَرَتُها تُحرِقُ.
“Association with evil persons should be avoided strictly because an evil is like a burning fire and whoever nears him will be burnt.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, pp. 147)
إيّاكَ وَمُعاشَرةَ الفُسّاقِ فإنَّ الشَّرَّ بِالشَّرِّ يَلحَقُ.
“Association with wicked persons should be strictly avoided because evil will be associated with evil.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, pp. 147)
إحْذَرْ مُجالَسَةَ قَرينِ السُّوءِ فإنّهُ يُهلِكُ مُقارِنَهُ وَيُردِي صاحِبَهُ.
“Strictly avoid companionship with an evil friend because he will lead his fellow companion towards destruction and will damage his reputation.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, pp. 142)
If one is really striving to attain self‑refinement, though having bad friends and evil companions, he should quite their company at once, because with their company, refraining from sins is almost impossible. Bad friends slow down one’s determination for self‑refinement by encouraging him to indulge into sins and other immoral deeds. To commit a sin is like a habit, and its quitting shall be possible only if the socialization with other addicted persons should be avoided.
Avoiding Potential Blunders
Self‑refinement and refraining from sins forever is not easy. Man is always susceptible to stumble by sinning because the imperious self naturally invites him towards vices. Heart, which is the command center for the rest of the body is in a state of continuous charge or metamorphism and is influenced by external events. It issues orders in accordance with the situation it encounters, the things it sees and the words it hears. At the centers of worships and religious spiritual assemblies, heart naturally shows inclination towards performance of virtuous deeds and, opposite to that, at the centers of corruption and vices, it pulls towards evil deeds. Seeing scenes of spirituality motivates heart towards spiritual matter while seeing erotic scene of carnal acts makes him seduced. In a corrupted assembly, heart become inclined to perform similar vices while in a spiritual gathering, it gets motivated towards Almighty God. If it gets associated with worldly people infatuated with accumulation of wealth and properly, heart becomes inclined towards animalistic desires and if it associates with God’s pious servants, it becomes motivated towards virtuous deeds. Thus, those who are sincerely interested in self‑refinement and abstinence from sins must close their eyes and ears from seeing erotic scenes of carnal desires. They should also neither participate in such parties nor mix socially with such corrupted individuals otherwise they themselves are most likely to stumble. It is because of these considerations that Islam forbids from participating in religiously prohibited (haram) parties such as gambling, drinking and other sinful assemblies. Also, looking at women lustfully, private meetings, hand shake, joking and laughing with women other than those who are forbidden by marriage (such as mother, sister and the like relatives) have been forbidden. One of the great advantages of the Islamic veil (Hijab) is related to the same matter. Islam requires an ideal social environment where self‑refinement and abstinence from sins are possible, otherwise controlling the imperious self will be impossible because the corrupt environment naturally pushes man towards corruption; even thinking about sin invites a man to commit that sin ultimately. Amir al-Mu’minin Imam `Ali (a.s) said:
إذا أبْصَرَتِ العَينُ الشَّهْوَةَ عَمِيَ القَلبُ عَن العاقِبَةِ.
“When an eye sees an erotic scene, heart becomes blind to see its conseqence.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, pp. 315)
فِكْرُكَ في المَعْصِيَةِ يحْدوكَ عَلى الوُقوعِ فِيها.
“Simply thinking about sinful carnal deeds encourages you to commit them eventually.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, pp. 5l8)