Importance of Self-Improvement in Islam
The Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, once said, “Truly I was sent as a Prophet for the purpose of perfecting human character.” This hadith defines a very important aspect of Islam: self-improvement through the purification of one’s personal qualities. Islam is a way of life that teaches Muslims to focus on bettering themselves by following the Qur’an and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). There is an Arab proverb that states: “The one who lacks something cannot give it to others.” It applies that in order to influence others with respect to upright character and manners, goodness in word and action, one must first possess those qualities. One must primarily focus on improving oneself before attempting to influence others. And throughout the journey of self-improvement, Muslims must aim for a pure intention, and then seek to attain spiritual purification by tazkiya (the cleansing of the heart). A verse from the Holy Qur’an says: “Truly God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (Qur’an 13:11).
When a Muslim lives in dedicated pursuit of self-improvement in every aspect of his or her life, their good character will radiate to others and, therefore, serve to improve society as a whole. This dynamic change begins at the individual level by a defining and cleansing of one’s intention, or niyyah, as the Prophet (pbuh) said: “All actions are judged by their intentions, and each person will be rewarded according to his or her intention.” In the journey of self-purification, it is essential to have the correct intention and goal of seeking God’s pleasure. A Muslim may also be motivated by paradise and an eternal life of comfort and success in the Hereafter granted to those with whom Allah is pleased. On the other hand, having impure intentions such as seeking the admiration of other people is counterproductive to the pursuit of self-improvement. As Sheikh Hamza Yusuf has pointed out, having egotistic intentions increases the presence of several diseases of the heart such as envy, arrogance, and love of this material world.
When a Muslim lives in dedicated pursuit of self-improvement in every aspect of his or her life, their good character will radiate to others and, therefore, serve to improve society as a whole
Tazkiya, or the cleansing of the heart, is the path of spiritual purification, a sanctifying or making free from sin all that one says and does. God says in the Holy Qur’an: “God did confer a great favor on the believers when He sent among them an apostle from among themselves, rehearsing unto them the signs of God, sanctifying them, and instructing them in scripture and wisdom, while, before that they had been in manifest error” (Qur’an 3:164). Tazkiya requires the cultivating of discipline physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Eating what is wholesome and healthy, exercising the body, knowing and guiding one’s inner chatter, speaking only what is virtuous, acting with integrity — all of these, and more, are so important for a Muslim to attain to spiritual health. Purification of the soul in all its aspects brings a Muslim closer to Allah SWT.
There are several practical steps that a Muslim can take according to the Qur’an and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to seek purification of the self:
Focus on the cornerstone of purifying and improving the self through ibadah, worship of the one and only God, by deepening your basic understanding of the five pillars of Islam and how they are applied. Establish prayer as ordained by Allah SWT; practice the remembrance of Allah to increase awareness of Him throughout the day in order to come closer to Him and, in turn, decrease the likelihood of committing any act that He would be displeased with.
Improve your moral standards by cultivating integrity, conscientiousness, and right action.
Smile in the face of others and be kind and positive when interacting with them. Be merciful and forgiving when dealing with your fellow brothers and sisters.
Be disciplined and organized in the management of your time so that you are more productive throughout the day.
Lend a helping hand to those in need. The Prophet (pbuh) said: “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”
Strive to increase your knowledge whether it be religious or academic knowledge. Endeavor to be an informed and active citizen.
Maintain good company and friends who will influence you in a positive manner. The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said: “A person is likely to follow the faith of his friend, so look to whom you befriend.”
Perform sincere tawbah, or repentance, for your sins and seek the mercy and forgiveness of Allah SWT. Make use of the guilt you feel about transgressions as motivation to learn from your mistakes and never repeat them again.
In Islam, the heart is the center of spiritual growth. Incorporating the above measures into one’s daily life will improve the spiritual health of one’s heart over time. Some of the above guidelines involve social interaction. Keep in mind that seclusion, or withdrawing into solitude for the purpose of spiritual purification, must be moderate and intended as a means for self-examining and soul-searching. This in no way presupposes or condones isolating oneself in general, as that is an evading of worldly responsibilities. Central to the regimen of self-purification is treating others with compassion and respect, and helping the less fortunate. This is not possible if one leads the life of an austere recluse.
On the authority of Abu Dharr (may Allah be pleased with him) who said: “My beloved companion (Prophet Muhammad) has commanded me with seven: he commanded me to love the poor and become near to them; he commanded me to look at the one below me (in material wealth) and to not look at the one above me; he commanded me to maintain blood relations even if (those relatives) turn away; he commanded me to not ask anything from anyone (as a favor); he commanded me to tell the truth even if it is bitter; he commanded me to not fear in the path of Allah those who blame and vilify; he commanded me to increase in saying ‘there is no power and might except from Allah’ for they are the words from a treasure kept beneath the throne of The Beneficent.”
It is noteworthy that most of the seven injunctions refer to one’s active role in the world, reinforcing the idea that self-purification does not imply isolation from other people and the affairs of the world. Another important lesson is that the second command enjoins Muslims to compare themselves with those below them in terms of material possessions. By doing this, one will feel grateful for the blessings that Allah has bestowed upon him or her, and help curb the inclination to greed and envy. This allows one to remain focused on the quest of self-improvement and eternal success in the Hereafter rather than on the pursuit of material things in this transitory life.
It is important for every Muslim to focus on tazkiya through the methods described in the Qur’an and Sunnah. The result of this process will be pleasing to Allah SWT as well as a commitment to serving others in an altruistic manner. Goodness overflows from the heart of an individual who dedicates his or her life to the path of self-purification. This is the way of success in this life and in the Hereafter.
“By the soul, and the proportion and order given to it, and its inspiration as to its wrong and its right — truly he succeeds who purifies it; and he fails who corrupts it” (Qur’an 9-10).