TO TAKE ACCOUNT of oneself, that is, to undergo honest self-criticism, is part of the Muslim practice of muhasaba, or self-inventory. According to ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, to engage in muhasaba is to “assess and adjudge yourselves before you are assessed and adjudged on the Day of Judgment, and to weigh out your deeds, before they are weighed out for you.” ‘Umar, a man of his word, reportedly used to whip his right foot at night and say to it “What have you done today?”
Another Companion, Maymun ibn Mahran, said: “A pious person cautiously examines and adjudges himself more than he would a tyrant ruler or a tight-fisted partner!”
The notable first Islamic century sage, Al-Hasan Al-Basri, offers a more detailed explanation of muhasaba. “A believer polices himself [or one might say, his own soul]. He assesses and adjudges [himself] for the sake of Allah. The Final Judgment [of God] may end up mild for some simply because they were quick to adjudge themselves in this life. Or the Final Judgment on the Day of Resurrection may end up a tough ordeal for some who were unconcerned about what they did in this life, thinking they would not be called to account.”
What we see from these sterling predecessors of ours is that honest self-criticism is an important way to purify our souls and to light the path of blissful success. Allah states in His Book: “Truly he has succeeded who purifies it. And truly, he has failed who defiles it” [Surat Al-Shams, 91:9-10].
Self-criticism seems like a fairly straightforward concept. The activity that makes it possible, however—namely, honesty with oneself—is exceedingly hard to come by, for it requires admission of our wrongdoings whenever such actions escape us. It means acknowledgement within ourselves that we have committed a sin, whether against our own souls or others, be it our Creator or anyone or anything in creation. For most of us, such a confession is an incredibly tough thing to do. Pride prevents some of us from owning our faults, especially before people when that is necessary. The souls of others grow facile at justifying any indecent behavior or false belief. Another problem, particularly for those of us still surging with youth, is the misconception that honest self-criticism prevents us from that ultimate youthful quest, “having fun.”
It behooves us to recall that being honest with ourselves is actually a way to enjoy life, rather than make it tougher. It is a fact (scary for many) that the very best way to prevent ourselves from committing haram acts is to really investigate whether or not such activities are permissible in Islam. For one, many of the things people classify as socially forbidden are actually very much halal, which we deny ourselves to escape the judgment of people, not Allah.
More deeply, haram acts, knowingly committed or not, for a fact necessarily result in making life truly less pleasurable, if not immediately for us then for many others, for their nature is to damage the human spirit, the condition of individuals and societies, and the balance of the world. The Quran states this beautifully about those who reject its revealed truth on pretext:
Who is further astray than one who is in uttermost schism [with its truth]? [Surat Fussilat, 41:52]
It is a superficial reading to look at this as merely rejecting Islam. Rather, it is about denying within ourselves what our souls know to be truth—like denying we’ve done wrong even though we know we did. The Quran says such people live a life of misery, full of contradiction, which is a great source of mental pain.
So carefully questioning our actions—past and present— makes life easier because it makes the path to God, the path to peace, much smoother. It is redundant to say all human beings err, but not admitting our specific mistakes, now that is playing with fire. An honest approach to our behavior is to willingly acknowledge the shortcomings in our actions and, at least to ourselves, the flaws in our character. This is the first step to disburdening ourselves of guilt, which has its function, but which left to fester can quickly and lethally metastasize.
The Quran tells us clearly and often that our books of deeds are like meticulously preserved records, precise chronicles of all that we ever said and did, righteous or not. Except for a rare few, everyone will stand witness in the Divine Judgment of their own earthly deeds. Hence, in this life, it makes profound sense to take note of our own deeds, with most of our focus on the actions we need to improve or eliminate, seeking forgiveness for all our substandard performance. Remembering what may be less than perfect about us is a prime way to prepare for the Day of Judgment. Indeed, confessing our faults, to ourselves and God, and then doing our best to eliminate them from our behavior is an act of high eman, one we shall see again on the positive side of our records.
Sins are a legitimate source of worry, no doubt. To reflect on them is necessary, for coming to terms with our sins, that is, acknowledging them—that we are at fault for our offenses against God or His creation—is to affirm our proper belief and faith.
The pathway to this proper faith is to assess our own actions with total honesty, which requires of us genuine (and frequent) meditations in self-criticism. That is muhasaba. I have found that verbalizing these unpleasant realities about my deeds and myself is invaluable in my muhasaba sessions. Statements like: “I tend to berate others when I don’t get my way,” or, “I have been yelling at my parents for far too long now.”