purification of the soul
We regularly wash our hands before touching food because our hands come in contact with so many objects that may collect harmful germs from others touching the same objects. We wash our clothes when they collect sweat and dirt from our own body and our surroundings. We bathe and shower to keep our body clean. All these cleanliness chores are intended to keep us in good physical health. What about some chores to keep our minds clean and in good health? So many things that we come in contact with can corrupt our minds. We may see a person drawing satisfaction from hitting and humiliating another. It leaves an impression on our mind and may later make us do the same impulsively. We see people achieve success through lying and cheating, and our mind may perceive it as an acceptable behavior particularly if these cheaters and liars are being bandied around as role models. A child may go through abuse from parents considered respectable in society and on growing up may engage in the same dysfunctional behavior.
Both eyesight and hearing are indispensable for human learning and development. They can propel us to unimagined heights of human excellence. However, we must learn to use them properly. Otherwise what we see and hear can also corrupt our mind and degenerate us into the lowest abyss of human existence.
How do we purify ourselves from the corrupting influences around us? We need to reflect on what we see and hear and to separate them into experiences that are desirable form of behavior and those that are undesirable in the light of some guiding principles. We may call it the exercise of the mind, and similar to other forms of exercise, the exercise of the mind requires regime and regularity.
The process of purification of the mind, variously called purification of the heart and soul, is known in Islam as tazkiyyah. A pre-requisite of engaging in tazkiyyah is to know that the human mind is prone to becoming corrupted. The corruption may be attributed to acquired elements within oneself, or to external influences, or both. However, the responsibility for any undesirable behavior rests with the person who commits it and not the person or the environment that caused it. We all bear direct responsibility for our actions. The legal system will make us answerable if we break a law, and God will make us answerable if we defy divine guidance. One cannot use the excuse that the devil made me do it, or my boss made me do it, and so on. If we are caught speeding on a roadway, we cannot be absolved simply because others speeded and did not get caught. God sees and hears everything. There is no question of not getting caught. Just as the speeding regulations are meant to save us from hurting ourselves as well as others, the divine guidance is simply for our own benefit. The concept of answerability for one’s actions is called responsibility. Success in purification of the mind, soul, or psyche requires recognition that the world can pollute the mind, the soul can corrupt itself via instigation, and desires can conspire to overwhelm one’s mind, and drive us into capriciousness or eccentricity. Consider the following statement from the Qur’an: “Verily, the soul is inclined to evil.” ( 12:53 )
Everyone is born with a soul that is pure, free of corruption or impurity. The natural instinct or disposition of every human soul is to do what is right. As one grows, the harmful messages through the eyes, hearing, touch, smell and other senses affect the purity of the human soul. Therefore, every human experience must be scrutinized for its potential corrupting influences. Reforming these corrupting influences, within the human mind, is called the process of purification or tazkiyyah. The following statements in the Qur’an illuminate this concept:
“And a soul and Him Who perfected it. And inspired it (with conscience of) what is wrong for it and (what is) right for it. He is indeed successful who causeth it to grow. And he is indeed a failure who stunteth it.” (91: 7-10).
Also: “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).
Despite the best efforts that one may make at purification of the mind, aberrations are still possible. We may make mistakes or commit sins. What happens then? A properly trained human mind possesses what is called a self-reproaching soul (nafs-e-lawwama). It will react by an admission that something has gone wrong; it will accept the failing with humility, and it will engage the mind to reform itself accordingly. On the other hand, someone who has a headstrong soul (nafs-e-ammara) such admissions may be seen as undignified, thus becoming prone to more and bigger aberrations in future. A wrongful act if recognized with a thoughtful commitment to avoid repetition is an act of self-purification and proper human development. On the contrary, a reckless disregard of such actions leads to further corruption of the soul and self-degeneration.