Purifying the Soul: The Quranic Approach
Mufti Abu Salih Muhammad Qasim Attari
قَدۡ اَفۡلَحَ مَنۡ تَزَکّٰی (ۙ۱۴) وَ ذَکَرَ اسۡمَ رَبِّہٖ فَصَلّٰی (ؕ۱۵)بَلۡ تُؤۡثِرُوۡنَ الۡحَیٰوۃَ الدُّنۡیَا (ۖ۱۶)وَ الۡاٰخِرَۃُ خَیۡرٌ وَّ اَبۡقٰی (ؕ۱۷) اِنَّ ہٰذَا لَفِی الصُّحُفِ الۡاُوۡلٰی (ۙ۱۸) صُحُفِ اِبۡرٰہِیۡمَ وَ مُوۡسٰی (۱۹)
“Indeed, successful is the one who became pure (tazkiya). And offered salah, having mentioned the Name of his Lord (dhikr). Rather, you prefer the life of this world. And the Hereafter is better and everlasting. Indeed, this is ˹mentioned˺ in the former scriptures ˹as well˺. In the scriptures of Ibrahim and Musa.”
In these verses, “became pure” “dhikr” and “salah” have been interpreted in a number of ways by the ulema. Three interpretations are prominent:
1. To “become pure” is a reference to ritual purification through wudu and ghusl; “dhikr” refers to the opening proclamation (takbīr) of salah, and “salah” means prayer. Collectively, this means the successful person is he who purified himself, called the opening proclamation and offered the five daily prayers all his life.
2. To “become pure” refers to ṣadaqat al-fiṭr, “dhikr” is the recital of special proclamation on the way to Eid salah, and “salah” refers specifically to the Eid prayer. Therefore, the successful person is he who gives ṣadaqat al-fiṭr, arrives at the place of Eid prayer having recited the respective proclamations on the way there, and then offers the Eid prayer.
3. To “become pure” means to be free from associating partners with Allah and to purge the heart of disbelief. It also can mean to purify the heart of vices and the limbs of sins. Dhikr can mean the regular remembrance of Allah, whilst salah can mean prayer in general. This would make a successful person he who purified himself; he did not associate partners with Allah, and he kept himself clean from disbelief, misguidance and disobedience. He also rectified his heart, saved himself from spiritual maladies and distanced himself from loving both the world and wealth.
Such a person kept his heart alive with love and fear of Allah and kept his tongue moist with dhikr. Material concerns did not make him heedless of Allah’s remembrance. This is echoed by the words of my spiritual guide, Mawlana Ilyas Attar al-Qadiri دَامَـتْ بَـرَكَـاتُـهُـمُ الْـعَـالِـيَـهْ: “May the tongue remain busy invoking peace and blessings on the Prophet صَلَّى الـلّٰـهُ عَلَيْهِ وَاٰلِهٖ وَسَلَّم and lauding him.” This successful person also made salah his habit, which itself is an act of worshipping Allah He loves most. Such a person’s feet were unshakeably rooted as he stood for salah, and his forehead remained acquainted with the joys of prostrating before his Lord.
Purification of the soul
Purification of the soul is a foundational teaching of Islam, a central theme of the Quran, and an important duty of the Prophet صَلَّى الـلّٰـهُ عَلَيْهِ وَاٰلِهٖ وَسَلَّم. In the Quran, Allah mentioned eleven oaths and declared them the criterion of success and failure. He who purified the heart and soul is successful, whilst he whose carnal self (nafs) remained contaminated with sins and deprived of self-purification is unsuccessful.
In the Quran, these various oaths were mentioned thus:
By the oath of the sun and its light. And by the moon, when it follows it (i.e. follows the sun). And by the day, when it brightens it. And by the night when it hides it (i.e. hides the sun). And by the oath of the sky and by Him Who made it. And by the oath of the earth and by Him Who spread it. And by the soul and by Him Who made it proper. And instilled in it (i.e. in the human soul, the understanding of) its sins and its piety.
Then after these great oaths, the standard of success was explained as:
قَدۡ اَفۡلَحَ مَنۡ زَکّٰىہَا ۪ۙ(۹) وَ قَدۡ خَابَ مَنۡ دَسّٰىہَا (ؕ۱۰)
“Indeed, successful is the one who made it (i.e. his soul) pure. And unsuccessful is the one who covered it in sins.”
In the same manner, Allah explained the primary duties of the Messenger of Allah صَلَّى الـلّٰـهُ عَلَيْهِ وَاٰلِهٖ وَسَلَّم:
It is He Who has sent in the unlettered people a (great) Messenger from amongst themselves who recites His verses to them, purifies them, and gives them knowledge of the Book and wisdom.
In this verse, this role of purifying the souls of the Ummah has been mentioned with the words “and purifies them.”
Steps to purify the Soul
Constant dhikr and ongoing reflection about the Hereafter are the most effective tools for transforming the soul. These two powerful acts instil love and awe for Allah in the heart and remove its spiritual impurities.
These two matters are mentioned in numerous places within the Quran. In one instance, the words of Luqmān the Wise are related thus:
یٰبُنَیَّ اِنَّہَاۤ اِنۡ تَکُ مِثۡقَالَ حَبَّۃٍ مِّنۡ خَرۡدَلٍ فَتَکُنۡ فِیۡ صَخۡرَۃٍ اَوۡ فِی السَّمٰوٰتِ اَوۡ فِی الۡاَرۡضِ یَاۡتِ بِہَا اللّٰہُ ؕ اِنَّ اللّٰہَ لَطِیۡفٌ خَبِیۡرٌ (۱۶)
“O my son! If the evil deed is equal to the weight of a mustard seed, it is then in a rock, or in the heavens, or wherever in the earth, Allah will bring it forth; indeed, Allah is the Knower of every subtlety, the All-Aware.”
In another verse, Allah declares:
یٰۤاَیُّہَا الَّذِیۡنَ اٰمَنُوا اتَّقُوا اللّٰہَ وَ لۡتَنۡظُرۡ نَفۡسٌ مَّا قَدَّمَتۡ لِغَدٍ ۚ وَ اتَّقُوا اللّٰہَ ؕ اِنَّ اللّٰہَ خَبِیۡرٌۢ بِمَا تَعۡمَلُوۡنَ (۱۸)
“O believers! Fear Allah, and every soul must see what it has sent ahead for tomorrow (the Day of Judgment). And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is Aware of your deeds.”
Allah further mentions:
وَذَكَرَ اسْمَ رَبِّهٖ
“…having mentioned the name of his Lord.”
Abundant dhikr of Allah is at the heart of Islam. Dhikr purges the carnal self, ameliorates the soul, and embellishes the heart with lofty traits. The verse cited above mentions those who attain success and the role dhikr plays in its acquisition. Connecting this success with the dhikr of Allah, another verse explains:
وَ اذۡکُرُوا اللّٰہَ کَثِیۡرًا لَّعَلَّکُمۡ تُفۡلِحُوۡنَ (۱۰)
“Abundantly remember Allah in the hope of attaining success.”
Announcing glad tidings of forgiveness and great reward for the people of dhikr, Allah states:
وَ الذّٰکِرِیۡنَ اللّٰہَ کَثِیۡرًا وَّ الذّٰکِرٰتِ ۙ اَعَدَّ اللّٰہُ لَہُمۡ مَّغۡفِرَۃً وَّ اَجۡرًا عَظِیۡمًا (۳۵)
“The men who abundantly remember Allah and the women who abundantly remember Allah; for all of them, Allah has kept prepared forgiveness and an enormous reward.”
“…and offered salah.”
Salah in and of itself is of great importance. Amongst the qualities of perfect believers who love to worship Allah, their love for salah was especially highlighted.
وَ الَّذِیۡنَ یَبِیۡتُوۡنَ لِرَبِّہِمۡ سُجَّدًا وَّ قِیَامًا (۶۴)
“Those who spend the night prostrating and standing for their Lord.”
Apart from the grandeur of salah, its positive effect in purifying the carnal self is a universally accepted matter. Allah declares:
اِنَّ الصَّلٰوۃَ تَنۡہٰی عَنِ الۡفَحۡشَآءِ وَ الۡمُنۡکَرِ ؕ
“Indeed, salah stops indecency and evil.”
Do however bear in mind; the salah mentioned in this verse is described by the Prophet صَلَّى الـلّٰـهُ عَلَيْهِ وَاٰلِهٖ وَسَلَّم as, “To worship Allah as though you see Him. So if you cannot see Him, be certain He sees you.”
A barrier to inner purification and its cure
The fourth matter Allah mentioned in this verse is:
بَلْ تُؤْثِرُوْنَ الْحَیٰوةَ الدُّنْیَا
“Rather, you prefer the life of this world.”
The obstacles to the purification of the heart are the carnal self, Satan, the world and wealth. The central matter amongst these is the world, as wealth is sought in pursuit of it. The carnal self and Satan also attempt to preoccupy a person with it. This impediment and its treatment have been mentioned clearly:
بَلْ تُؤْثِرُوْنَ الْحَیٰوةَ الدُّنْیَا وَالْاٰخِرَةُ خَیْرٌ وَّاَبْقٰی
“Rather, you prefer the life of this world. And the Hereafter is better and everlasting.”
By extension, this verse distinguishes how this world is temporary and the Hereafter is perpetual. That which is everlasting surpasses that which is transient. Yet our state is such that we prefer the transitory life of this world over the eternal life of the Hereafter. For this reason, we do not perform actions which ameliorate and better our affairs in the latter.
The person who uproots the love of this world from his heart, the path of inner purification and spiritual growth becomes easy. To achieve this, reflect on the grandeur of the Hereafter, as life there, in the proximity of Allah, is immeasurably superior to this world. Compared to this world, the exquisite pleasures and joys of the Hereafter are ineffable and unfathomable. Allah declares regarding this world and the Hereafter:
وَ مَا الۡحَیٰوۃُ الدُّنۡیَاۤ اِلَّا لَعِبٌ وَّ لَہۡوٌ ؕ وَ لَلدَّارُ الۡاٰخِرَۃُ خَیۡرٌ لِّلَّذِیۡنَ یَتَّقُوۡنَ ؕ اَفَلَا تَعۡقِلُوۡنَ (۳۲)
“The life of ˹this˺ world is nothing but play and amusement, and the abode of the Hereafter is indeed better for those who fear ˹Allah˺; so, do you not have any sense?”
Allah then explained how these beautiful matters are also mentioned in the scriptures revealed to Prophet Ibrāhīm and Prophet Mūsā عَـلَيْـهِما الـسَّـلَام, prior to the Quran.
Our Lord! Protect us from becoming deceived by the ephemeral pleasures of this world! Grant us the ability to contemplate upon our Hereafter and work assiduously for its betterment.
اٰمِیْن بِجَاہِ خاتَمِ النَّبِیّیْن صلَّی اللہ علیہ واٰلہٖ وسلَّم
 Al-Quran, 87: 14 – 19, Translation from Kanz al-Īmān
 Al-Quran, 91: 1 – 8, Translation from Kanz al-Īmān
 Al-Quran, 91: 9 – 10, Translation from Kanz al-Īmān
 Al-Quran, 62 – 2, Translation from Kanz al-Īmān
 Al-Quran, 31:16, Translation from Kanz al-Īmān
 Al-Quran, 59:18, Translation from Kanz al-Īmān
 Al-Quran, 62:10, Translation from Kanz al-Īmān
 Al-Quran, 33:35, Translation from Kanz al-Īmān
 Al-Quran, 25:64, Translation from Kanz al-Īmān
 Al-Quran, 29:45, Translation from Kanz al-Īmān
 Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhāri: 50
 Al-Quran, 6:32, Translation from Kanz al-Īmān