Calling the ‘Self’ to Account

ON THE DAY of Judgment, people will divide into two groups: Those who undergo an easy reckoning (^isâban yasîran) and those subjected to a harsh one (^isâban ¢asîran). The destiny of the former is all pleasure and bliss, that of the latter woe and misery.

Of the first group, Allah says:

So as to the one who is given his book [of deeds] in his right hand, he shall then undergo an easy reckoning; and he shall return to his people rejoicing. (Sûrat Al-Inshiqâq, 84:7-9)

Of the second, He says:

Yet as to the one who is given his book [of deeds from] behind his back, he shall cry out: “Ruination!” then roast in Hell’s flaming Fire. Joyful, indeed, was he [in the world] among his family [pursuing whim]. (Surat Al-Inshiqaq, 84:10-13)

“Hisâban Yasîran” and “Hisâban ‘Asîran”

The Prophet œ explained the meanings of ‘hisaban yasiran’ and ‘hisaban ¢asiran’ (that is, ‘easy’ and ‘hash reckoning,’ or ‘interrogation’) as terms of Revelation.

¢Aishah, the Mother of the Faithful, narrated:

I asked the Messenger of Allah œ about the meaning of the term ‘hisaban yasiran,’ and he said: “One’s sins will be disclosed before one on the Day of Judgment, but thereafter such a one will be forgiven. If, however, a person is subjected to a harsh interrogation (‘hisabân ¢asîran’), he is doomed. Yet no calamity, even so much as the prick of a thorn, befalls a servant of Allah in this world, save that Allah makes the pain coming from it an expiation of a sin of his.” (A^mad and Ibn ±ibbân)

The things that render the servant’s reckoning easy on the Day of Judgment are many and varied. The greatest of these, however, is calling oneself to account (mu^âsabât al-nafs) in this world.

Imam Al-±asan Al-Ba|rî said:

The believer continuously appraises his soul (nafs), calling it to account for the sake of Allah. It is by virtue of their practice of self-criticism in worldly life that some face an easy interrogation on the Day of Judgment. Alternatively, on account of their neglect of the principle of mu^âsabât al-nafs (calling one’s ‘self’ to account) in the world, others experience a harsh interrogation on the Day of Judgment (Ibn Abî Shaybah’s Al-Musannaf; Ibn Al-Mubârak’s Al-Zuhd).

The Religious Duty of “Muhâsabât Al-Nafs”

The practice of mu^âsabât al-nafs, calling the ‘self’ to account, is a firmly established religious duty. Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim says of it:

Mu^âsabât al-nafs is a religious obligation. The proof for this is the statement of Allah: O you who believe! Be ever God-fearing! And let every soul look to what it has forwarded for tomorrow. Thus be ever God-fearing. Indeed, Allah is all-aware of all that you do (Surat Al-Hashr, 59:18). In this sign-verse, or ayah, Allah is telling us: Each of you are to think about the [moral quality] of the works you are putting forth for the Day of Judgment. Are these works righteous, so as to win you salvation [by Allah’s grace] on that Day, or are they evil, so as, then and there, to utterly ruin you? Qatadah [the Companion of the Prophet œ] said: “Allah reminds us of the imminence of Al-Sa¢ah (the Hour of Judgment) by speaking of it as though it shall come tomorrow.” The point of the ayah is that the reform of the spiritual heart (al-qalb) is contingent upon the practice of mu^âsabât al-nafs, and that neglecting the self and succumbing to its evil promptings and impulses corrupts the spiritual heart (Ighâthat Al-La^fân, Ibn Al-Qaiyym, 1:84).

So, slave of Allah, call yourself to account in your lonely moments. Think about the brevity of your sojourn in this fleeting nether-world of dunyâ. Fill your hours, your minutes, your seconds with obedience to Allah. Before you utter that word, step toward that act, or stretch out your hand to do that action, think! Think hard about where it will end up—in your good book of ^asanât or in your evil scroll of sayyi’ât?

Designate a regular time wherein you call your self to the court of your reckoning. Look with piercing hard eyes into the different kinds of works it has done in your name—for such is the practice of the wise. On the authority of Wahb ibn Munabbih:

In a Book containing the wisdom of the House of David, it is written: A wise man should divide his time in the following manner: (1) A time for engaging in private communion with one’s Lord; (2) a time for critiquing oneself (mu^âsabât al-nafs); (3) a time spent in the company of one’s brothers in faith, who reveal to one, one’s failings, who tell one the truth about one’s spiritual standing; and (4) a time wherein one indulges oneself in lawful and befitting pleasures—and it is this last practice that serves as a refreshing and reinvigorating break from the other sobering ones (Al-Zuhd, Ibn Al-Mubârak).

The truth is, your own self can be either your loyal friend and supporter, or your bitter nemesis. Maymûn ibn Mahrân said:

None attains to taqwa till he is more given to calling himself to account than a merchant is with his business partner. It is for this reason that it is said: “The self is like a treacherous business partner, unless you observe him closely and call him to account, he will make off with your money” (Muhasabat Al-Nafs, Ibn Abî Al-Dunyâ).

A Muslim should call himself to account concerning his spiritual capital (ra’s mâluhu) as to how he accumulates it and what he does with it. Know that the religious duties incumbent upon the slave of God are his capital. The supererogatory religious obligations are his profit. One’s neglect of these duties and one’s transgressions of Allah’s prohibitions are the losses he incurs. And the night and the day are the two seasons in which one plies one’s spiritual trade.

Success in this spiritual commerce earns one happiness in this life and in the Afterlife. They gain one, moreover, the love of Allah. In a rightly celebrated Divine Pronouncement (±adîth Qudsî) Allah says:

My servant draws not near to Me with anything more loved by Me than the religious duties I have enjoined upon him, and My servant continues to draw near to Me with supererogatory works so that I shall love him. When I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes, and his foot with which he walks. Were he to ask [something] of Me, I would surely give it to him. And were he to ask Me for refuge, I would surely grant him it. I do not hesitate about anything as much as I hesitate about [taking] the soul of My faithful servant, for he hates death, and I hate hurting him. (Bukhârî)

The “Muhâsabât Al-Nafs” of the Pious Predecessors

Our pious predecessors from the early generations of Islam give us a remarkable treasure trove of how to accomplish mu^âsabât al-nafs, calling the self to account. Reports and anecdotes about their practice of this great religious virtue abound. Here are just a few examples.

On the authority of Anas ibn Malik: “I heard ¢Umar Ibn Al-Kha~~âb say one day, as he was standing inside an orchard with a wall separating us: ‘O ¢Umar, son of Al-Kha~~âb! Commander of the Faithful! Bakhin! Bakhin! Hurrah! Hurrah! By Allah! O Son of Al-Khattab! You will be God-fearing, have taqwa of Allah, or else He will surely punish you!’” (Al-Muwatta, Mâlik ibn Anas; Al-Zuhd, A^mad ibn ±anbal)

On the authority of Zâ’idah ibn Qudâmah: “If you saw Man|ûr ibn Al-Mu¢tamir, you would think a great affliction had befallen him. His mother once said to him: “What are you doing to yourself, son?! You weep ceaselessly the night long, son?! Have you slain the soul of an innocent without right?!’ He answered only: ‘O dear mother mine! I know well what I have done!’” (Shu’ab Al-Imân, Al-Bayhaqî)

On the authority of Mu^ammad ibn Al-Munqadir, he said: “I once heard Ziyâd ibn Abî Ziyâd arguing with himself in the mosque, saying aloud (to himself): ‘Sit down! Where are you going? Do you think you can find a place better than the mosque? Come! Look about the mosque! Or is it that you covet beholding the residence of so and so, the property of so and so, and the estate of so and so?!” (Shu’ab Al-Imân, Al-Bay^aqî)

The Measures of “Mu^âsabât Al-Nafs”

Among the foremost means to mu^âsabât al-nafs is to judge yourself by the Book of Allah, the Quran, to see whether you are of those who do good and are promised good on the Day of Judgment, or whether you are of those who perpetrate evil and are threatened with doom in the Life to come.

On the authority of Ibn Na|r Al-Marwazî who said: “Sitting by himself one day, Al-A^nâf ibn Qays thought of Allah’s Words: Truly, We have sent down to you a Book that bears in it your mention (Surat Al-Anbiyâ’, 21:10). So he called out to his wife, saying: ‘Get me the mu|^af (codex, or copy, of the Quran) to check my “mention” in it, so as to see to which of its categories of people I belong.’”

Opening the mu|^af, Al-A^nâf began reading and came upon Allah’s statement:

Little of the night did they lie down. For at night’s end they were seeking Allah’s forgiveness. Moreover, in their wealth was a rightful share, for the beggar and the destitute. (Surat Al-Dhariyat, 51:17-19)

And also Allah’s statement:

The ones who spend in charity in prosperity and adversity, and who suppress their rage, and who pardon people—for Allah loves those who surpass in the doing of good. (Surat Al Imran, 3:134)

And also Allah’s statement:

Rather, they give them preference over their own selves—even when they themselves are in pressing privation. For whoever is safeguarded from the avarice of this own soul—then it is these who are the truly successful. (Surat Al-Hashr, 59:9)

Then when he read Allah’s statement:

…those, moreover, who keep away from the great sins and indecencies—and forgive for the sake of Allah when they become angry; those who furthermore answer the call of their their Lord to faith and duly establish the Prayer—and conduct their affairs by consultation among themselves and spend charitably out of what We have provided them…. (Surat Al-Shura’, 42: 37-38)

Al-A^nâf cried out: ‘O Allah! To this group [that is, the one that had the attributes of all of character qualities mentioned in the verses above] I belong not!’

Ibn Na|r continues: After a pause, Al-A^nâf went on reciting, until he came upon Allah’s words:

For whenever it was said to them: There is no God but the One God, they would grow so very arrogant and say: Are we to forsake our gods for a possessed poet? (Surat Al-Saffat, 37:35-36)

And also Allah’s statement:

Now, whenever the name Allah is mentioned as the One true God, the hearts of those who do not believe in the Hereafter shudder in aversion. Yet whenever those false deities apart from Him are mentioned, they rejoice. (Surat Al-Zumar, 39:45)

And also Allah’s statement:

What thrust you into the deep of Saqar [in the depths of Hellfire]? They will answer: We were not of those who prayed. Nor did we feed the indigent. Rather, we indujlged in falsehood along with all the indulgent. Moreover, we used to belie the Day of Judgment—until the certainty of death came to us. (Surat Al-Muddaththir, 74: 42-47)

Thereupon he cried out: “O Allah! I hereby declare myself quit of all these people” [i.e., the wretched ones mentioned in the foregoing ayahs]!

Ibn Na|r goes on: “Then resuming his recitation, Al-A^nâf ibn Qays came upon the statement of Allah:

Moreover, there are others who have admitted their own sins. They have mingled their righteous deeds with evildoing. Allah may grant them repentance. Indeed, Allah is all-forgiving, mercy-giving (Surat Al-Tawbah, 9:102).

Thereupon, Al-A^nâf cried out: “O Allah! To this group I belong!”

Slave of Allah! If truly you wish to know the worth of this worldly life, imagine yourself in the Garden of Paradise, partaking of its fruits, drinking from its rivers, and enjoying the companionship of its Houris.

Then imagine yourself burning in the Fire, stuffing your stomach from its horrible Zaqqûm Tree, drinking from its detestable (boiling fluid) hamîm, and hopelessly manacled by its treacherous fetters and skewered upon its gibbets.

Now, ask your soul! “Which do you wish for, my soul?” Most surely it shall answer: “Nay, but I long to be returned to the life of the world so that I may act righteously!”

Then, glad tidings for you, O my soul! For, indeed, you are in the very midst of your deepest wish. So beware now, and act righteously!

And all praise is for Allah alone!

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