“We’re all experts at finding fault in others, so we see quite clearly the parts of their lives that need serious improvement. In this way, it’s relatively easy to recognize someone else’s moments of truth. But are you self-aware enough to recognize your own?”
—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah
Years ago, when I was living as an American expat in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I met another African-American woman who, like myself, had made hijrah there with her family. She had such a beautiful, calm spirit; and noor (a spiritual light of emaan) illuminated her face. As I got to know her, I learned that she and several of her children were huffaadh, memorizers and preservers of Qur’an. (May Allah bless and preserve them upon the Qur’an and right guidance until they meet Him.)
One day the woman (whom I’ll call Noor) was telling me the story of how she’d grown up Christian and accepted Islam as a teenager. Throughout her childhood and youth, Noor had a close friend (whom I’ll call Tina) who’d also been raised in the church. Shortly after Noor accepted Islam, Tina visited her and couldn’t contain her confusion as to what inspired her best friend to change religions.
“Why did you become Muslim?” Tina asked.
Noor began to explain to Tina the parts of Islam that had intrigued her and pulled at her heart, inspiring her to finally convert. In the middle of one explanation, Tina began screaming at the top of her lungs and covered her ears. “Stop! Stop!” she yelled. “I don’t want to hear anymore! I don’t want to be held accountable!”
As Noor shared this part of her story with me, my eyes widened in shock. “Are you serious?” I asked. “She actually screamed and covered her ears?”
“Yes,” Noor said, shaking her head in disbelief. I could tell by Noor’s sad, reflective expression that the incident still troubled her till today. “It was like seeing in front of your eyes what Allah talks about in Sooratu Nooh,” she said.
In this, Noor was referencing the ayah where Allah describes a supplication made by Prophet Noah (peace be upon him), which has been translated to mean, “And verily, every time I called unto them that You might forgive them [O Allah], they thrust their fingers into their ears, covered themselves up with their garments, and persisted [in their refusal], and magnified themselves in pride” (Nooh, 71:7).
“But that’s not how being excused for ignorance works,” I said, still in shock. “You can’t just cover your ears and think you’re from the people who didn’t hear the Truth.”
“I know,” Noor said, the exhausted disbelief in her tone suggesting that she herself was still in shock. “I guess Tina figured that if she could just block out what I was saying, then she wouldn’t be held accountable on the Day of Judgment for never becoming Muslim.”
“SubhaanAllah,” I said, at a loss for words.
At the time that Noor had left the United States to move to Saudi Arabia with her husband and children, Tina was still a professed Christian.
Five (5) Crucial Moments of Truth for Us All
Till today, I often think of the story of Noor and Tina. Yet with each year that passes, Tina’s life path fills me with a bit less shock and a bit more sadness. Since that day I sat in Noor’s home and listened to the story of her best friend, I’ve gone through many life challenges of my own. I’ve struggled through divorce, fought for my life, and nearly lost my emaan (faith in Islam) itself.
I think every soul is seeking something between complete freedom and total surrender, I wrote in my journal the other day. In this reflection, I was referring to how within each of us is the desire to live the life we want, guilt-free. Yet there is also deep within us the desire to surrender to a Power greater than ourselves who can carry us through the difficult tides of life.
And somewhere in the midst of this internal pull in opposite directions are our personal truths—which are entangled with so many of the lies we tell ourselves. Throughout my life, I’ve sometimes wondered if one of my lies was the claim that I sincerely believed in Allah. This is a personal question I felt most deeply when I feared I could no longer be Muslim.
Due to my now better understanding of how uncannily common ghuroor (spiritual self-deception) is—even amongst Muslims—I examine the spiritual honesty of my heart often. When I find a disconnect between what I claim to believe and how I’m actually living out my life, I ardently pray to Allah to guide me, protect me from myself, and keep me firm upon His deen (spiritual way of life).
In the Qur’an, Allah says what has been translated to mean,
“Do people think that they will be left alone to say, ‘We believe’ and will not be tested? And We indeed tested those who were before them. And Allah will certainly make known those who are true, and will certainly make known those who are liars” (Al-‘Ankaboot, 29:2-3).
Throughout our lives, each of us will come to a spiritual crossroad—repeatedly—and at each crossroad is a crucial moment of truth for our souls. These crossroads manifest in so many different ways that they’re impossible to count, but in this blog I discuss five common moments of truth that each of us face. These are challenging moments for our lives and souls, as they expose the truth (or falsehood) of our claim when we say, “I believe in Allah.”
(1) When Spiritual Truth Comes To You
So often when we think of the test of accepting or rejecting spiritual truth, we think of people like Tina, non-Muslims hearing of Islam for the first time. However, the reality is that this test reaches all of us, even when we already profess Islam.
It is well-known that not everyone who claims to be Muslim is actually Muslim in front of Allah. It is also well-known that even amongst actual Muslims, so many of us are living upon beliefs and lifestyles that contradict Islam. This misguided state places us under the threat of dying upon misguidance and sin, or one day falling outside the fold of Islam while we’re unaware. For this reason, I caution myself and my brothers and sisters in faith to stay vigilant regarding the safety of their souls, especially when we find ourselves comfortable in a certain religious group, or content with a specific spiritual teacher.
The necessity of this spiritual vigilance is as crucial for the student of knowledge and scholar, as it is for the simple worshipper. In my book, I Almost Left Islam: How I Reclaimed My Faith, I share this advice from my personal journal in this regard:
While this warning [to guard oneself from misguidance] is certainly relevant to laypeople who dismiss or trivialize the knowledge of scholars teaching authentic Islam, it is also very relevant to those who are scholars themselves but have fallen into error, whether due to natural human fallibility or to having studied in a system rooted in falsehood.
Undoubtedly, it is difficult to dedicate years of your life to something only to realize in a moment’s clarification that you were wrong and that, for the sake of your soul, you need to tread a different path. Many converts to Islam understand this feeling on a deeply personal level, especially those who had been religious preachers or ministers in their former faith tradition. However, this predicament is not unique to non-Muslims. It happens to Muslims too, even those who are imams, scholars, sheikhs, or Islamic preachers.
Though we often hear the stories of laypeople who move from sect to sect and sheikh to sheikh in search of spiritual truth, it is rare you hear the stories of scholars and sheikhs themselves openly admitting that they were wrong and in need of repentance for spreading false teachings.
Similarly, it is more common to hear stories of average people converting to Islam than of priests, ministers, or rabbis leaving their religions to become Muslim. However, following spiritual truth is no less obligatory upon religious scholars than it is upon common people. Why then is there such a wide discrepancy in who accepts truth?
The answer is so simple that it is chilling: The more we stand to lose in terms of our worldly status, earthly comforts, and pride, the less likely we are to follow the truth when it comes to us. However, given the nature of spiritual matters and the tests that Allah promises He will give us on earth, we can be almost one hundred percent certain that we will be asked to sacrifice one or all of these throughout our lives, sometimes repeatedly.
So how do we protect our souls? Here are five points to remember:
- Authentic Islam is based on the teachings of the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), as understood by the Companions and earliest Muslims, as there is no new Islam. Bear in mind that believing that it is allowed to introduce new interpretations of foundational principles, obligations, and clear matters of halaal and haraam is what laid the path for the People of the Book making entirely new religions with no connection to the teachings of the Prophets Moses and Jesus (peace be upon them).
- No human being other than the Prophet (peace be upon him) has authority to teach commandments or prohibitions in the religion or introduce concepts that promise specific reward or punishment in this world or the Hereafter—no matter how knowledgeable, righteous, or saintly we imagine them to be.
- The role of the Islamic scholar is to teach what was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) of the Book (Qur’an) and the Wisdom (the Sunnah), nothing more, nothing less.
- No Islamic teacher or believer (other than the Prophet himself) has perfect knowledge of Islam, even if his or her foundational understanding of the religion is correct. Thus, when we are studying our faith, we must constantly supplicate to Allah to allow us to benefit from what is truthful and to protect us from what is mistaken, no matter who our teacher is and no matter how much we love, trust, and respect him or her.
- Know that Allah has made the truth of His faith so clear that every human being who hears the message of Islam, whether illiterate or scholarly, has the capacity to recognize it as true. Likewise, every human being who accepts Allah’s religion has the ability—and the obligation—to recognize and reject religious falsehood being taught as Islam, no matter whom or where it comes from. In this vein, know that we will all be held accountable on the Day of Judgment for our beliefs and actions, and we will not be able to blame our spiritual teachers or scholars for our own misguidance.
When in doubt, pray for guidance. Allah hears and answers all prayers.
(2) After You Sin
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “All of the children of Adam sin, and the best of those who sin are those who constantly repent” (Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2499, Sahih by Al-Suyuti).
While each of us knows that none of us is without sin and thus we all need repentance and forgiveness, how we handle that knowledge in our own personal experience often tells a different story. For this reason, what happens after we sin is a crucial moment of truth for our souls.
Some of us handle this moment of truth by merely admitting our sin mentally, but continuing in the sin without ever intending to repent—or by telling ourselves we’ll repent “one day.” Some of us handle this moment of truth by defending our sin, claiming it’s not a big deal, or by pointing out how others are doing worse sins.
One of the most common ways that we modern-day Muslims trivialize our sins is by pointing out the philosophical reality that someone guilty of our sin could be a better Muslim than a Muslim who is not. This is where statements like, “A man who doesn’t pray on time can be a better Muslim than a man who does!” or “A woman who doesn’t wear hijab can be a better Muslim than a woman who does!”
While these statements are “technically true,” none of these claims does a single thing for our own souls suffering the harm of sin. Thus, expressing these points while in the midst of unrepentant sin is just a path of ghuroor (spiritual self-deception) and merely compounds our current sin with the additional sin of kibr (destructive pride).
Yes, for the one who is not struggling with that sin, these points are definitely helpful in reminding ourselves that just because we are not struggling with this sin doesn’t mean that we are better than someone who is. However, when spoken from the vantage point of living in sin itself, these points are destructive to our souls—unless they are spoken as a form of self-encouragement while embarking upon sincere repentance.
This is where we remind ourselves that our sin can draw us closer to Allah, if we let it. Here is a note I wrote in my personal journal about this beautiful spiritual opportunity:
“How can sin draw you closer to Allah?”
During my studies, an Islamic teacher asked us this question. We had just learned that emaan increases with obedience to Allah and decreases with disobedience, so we found the question confusing.
Then she explained that a person may sin, but their subsequent regret and repentance thereafter can draw them so close to Allah that their emaan actually becomes stronger than before committing the sin.
This lesson stayed with me.
In the Qur’an, Allah says what has been translated to mean, “Say, O My slaves who have wronged their souls! Despair not of the mercy of Allah. Verily, Allah forgives all sins. Truly, He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful” (Az-Zumar, 39:53).
In taking to heart this compassionate encouragement to our imperfect souls, life after sin can become a moment of truth that testifies to the spiritual sincerity of our hearts—even as we continue to struggle to overcome our faults and sins.
(3) When Your Heart and Soul Contradict
In the Qur’an, Allah advises us with regards to whom we can choose for marriage, when He says what has been translated to mean,
“And do not marry the mushrikaat until they believe. And indeed a slave woman who believes is better than a mushrikah, even though she pleases you. And give not your [daughters] in marriage to the mushrikoon until they believe, and verily, a believing slave is better than a mushrik, even though he pleases you. Those [mushrikoon] invite you to the Fire, but Allah invites [you] to Paradise and forgiveness by His leave, and makes His ayaat (verses and signs) clear to mankind that they may remember” (Al-Baqarah, 2:221).
In this ayah, Allah is making it clear that it is not permissible for believing men or women to marry people of shirk (those who associate partners in worship with Allah, those who assign divine qualities to creation, or those who assign to Allah attributes of His creation). He also clarifies that He fully understands the love and affection we have in our hearts for these women and men of shirk, yet still, He lets us know that these “good people” are unhealthy for our souls.
This is because by the very nature of their beliefs and lifestyle, women and men of shirk are inviting us to the Fire, even when they themselves are not consciously intending to. So unless they accept Islam, they can never be permissible wives or husbands for believers—no matter how much our hearts desire their companionship.
Due to Allah permitting Muslim men to marry chaste, righteous women who are Jews or Christians, many believing men use this divine permission as an excuse to marry any non-Muslim woman they choose, whether atheist, Hindu, Buddhist, or any other. And even amongst the Muslim men who marry only professed Jews or Christians, many do not concern themselves with her chastity, righteousness, or even the modern-day shirk she delves into that directly contradicts the traditional teachings of her own faith.
When we are tested with falling in love with a person of shirk, this becomes a crucial moment of truth for our souls. Consequently, how we handle this difficult test becomes a testimony to the truth (or falsehood) of our claim, “I believe in Allah.” If we choose the desires of our heart over the needs of our souls, this is undoubtedly a testimony to either our deep ignorance of Islam or to our intentional disregard for divine teachings.
Naturally, this trial of choosing between the desires of one’s heart and the needs of one’s soul is not only in falling in love with a mushrik. It also applies to a Muslim woman choosing to remain with a husband who has left Islam, or who refuses to accept Islam after she herself converts. This further applies to having sinful desires toward someone who is not permissible for us to marry, whether due to same-sex attraction or something else. It also applies to being given a lucrative opportunity to earn money when the means of attaining it are haraam (divinely forbidden).
And it also applies to how we handle a loved one making a decision that is permissible for them, but that we ourselves dislike—hence the next crucial moment of truth for our souls: when they don’t choose you.
(4) When They Don’t Choose You
“I’ll kill him if he marries another woman,” a colleague of mine said after mentioning how some men were marrying other wives who had no need of financial provision.
I chuckled in response, imagining that she was speaking only in jest.
“I’m not joking,” she insisted. “I’ll kill him if he does something like that.”
I began to feel uncomfortable with the conversation, but I still imagined that she was not speaking seriously. “No you wouldn’t,” I said in lighthearted dismissiveness. “If he marries another woman, you could just get a divorce.”
“I won’t need a divorce if he’s dead.”
Her words unsettled me, but I still didn’t want to believe what I was hearing. I chuckled again and waved my hand at her. “I don’t think you’re willing to spend the rest of your life in prison over some man.”
“Prison?” she said as if I’d lost my senses. “I’m not stupid enough to leave any traces.” She then described step by step the sihr (dark magic that involves working with the jinn) she would use to ensure that her husband died without a single shred of evidence that the legal system could trace back to her.
Another woman spoke of how she would go to the American government and accuse her husband of abuse or terrorism if he would dare try to marry another wife. Another woman put a knife to her husband’s throat while he was sleeping and waited on top of him in this manner until he awoke, then said, “If you ever marry another woman, I’ll kill you.” Other women have taken their children away from their father and threatened to never allow him to be part of their lives again if he continued to seek or live in polygyny.
And the list goes on.
When we are faced with the difficult trial of a loved one doing something that hurts our hearts but is permissible for their souls, then we are being faced with a crucial moment of truth for our own souls. Some of us handle this test by turning to Allah in our time of emotional pain and having sabr (patience and perseverance upon soul nourishment) through the trial. In this way, we bear witness to the truthfulness of our claim, “I believe in Allah.”
However, others of us become so enraged at what our loved one is doing that we are willing to destroy our own souls in opposition to their decision. In these moments of spiritual self-harm, not even the merciful option of divorce satisfies our hearts, as we view even this divine permission as a form of dhulm (wrongdoing or oppression). “Why should I have to leave?” we exclaim if we are reminded of this permissible option in our faith.
In this space of choosing our wounded hearts over the needs of our souls, we reach for anything at all that will satisfy our hearts—except the spiritual prescription our Creator offers us. In the Qur’an, our Merciful Creator says what has been translated to mean, “Those who believe, and whose hearts find rest (and satisfaction) in the remembrance (dhikr) of Allah, for without doubt, in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest” (Ar-Ra’d, 13:28).
If we turn away from this path of dhikr (seeking the guidance and remembrance of Allah) to get us through our trial, we might find our hearts discontent with Allah’s revelation itself, as we see it as the source of our troubles. As a result, we might begin to use the tongues that Allah has given us to disagree with the divine permissions of this faith. For so many Muslims—women and men—this often results in seeking to change the rules of Islam itself to fit into what our hearts desire.
Naturally, this crucial moment of truth regarding “when they don’t choose you” is not exclusive to women dealing with the emotional trial of polygyny. It also applies to Muslim men whose wife has chosen divorce but the men refuse to accept her decision and thus resort to mistreatment or abuse to force her to remain married to them. Additionally, this trial applies to fathers and mothers being faced with their child choosing a life path they disagree with but is allowed in Islam, or with their child choosing a permissible marriage companion that they dislike. And the list goes on.
(5) How You Treat Others
In our brief time on earth, it is not only the choices of our loved ones that present a moment of truth for our souls. It is also the choices of others, even when their lives are not meaningfully connected to ours in any way. When our faith is not rooted in a mindset of dhikr (the remembrance and guidance of Allah), we rely heavily on emotionalism more than spirituality in our treatment of others.
In a space of emotionalism, our hearts are filled with love of people we like or agree with, while our hearts are filled with resentment and animosity toward people we dislike or disagree with—even when they are doing nothing sinful. However, most of us are unaware of this unhealthy state of our hearts until it is exposed to us through a crucial moment of truth in our lives.
In this moment of truth, our hearts are exposed to us—and to the world—with how we speak about and treat others, specifically our brothers and sisters in faith who are enjoying the mercies of Allah in a way that we would not choose for ourselves. If this moment of truth exposes the truthfulness of our claim, “I believe in Allah,” we will immediately turn to istighfaar (seeking forgiveness) and dhikr of Allah—the remembrance and guidance of our Creator—when we find ourselves struggling to accept someone’s life path that is permissible for them but emotionally triggering or upsetting for us.
When we turn to Allah in these difficult moments, we will find that this path of dhikr is the antidote to our hurting hearts. Additionally, we will find that our unhealthy inclination to speak negatively about a servant of Allah is replaced with a sense of calm and rest, as we fully trust the wisdom of Allah’s guidance and qadar. “…For without doubt, in the dhikr of Allah do hearts find rest” (13:28).
However, if we turn away from this dhikr and instead persist in expressing disagreement with a servant of Allah obeying Him in a way we dislike, then this moment of truth exposes the falsehood of our claim, “I believe in Allah.” Consequently, we become amongst those whom Allah describes in the Qur’an when He says what has been translated to mean, “And whoever turns away (or blinds himself) from the remembrance (dhikr) of the Most Merciful, We appoint for him a devil to be an intimate companion” (Az-Zukhruf, 43:36).
As a result, we spend an inordinate amount of time, whether in our personal lives or on social media, mistreating and speaking ill of fellow believers who trigger our unhealthy emotionalism. Whether it’s due to their decision to enter an intercultural marriage, to marry the former spouse of a friend or family member, or to enjoy the merciful option of plural marriage in their lives; if we are not relying on the dhikr (guidance and remembrance of Allah) to understand our emotions, then we are relying on our unhealed wounds and the companionship of Shaytaan, even if we are unaware of this corrupt presence.
As I discuss in my blog, “Teaching Your Heart Love for Allah’s Sake”: When this happens, we genuinely imagine that our feelings, complaints, and convictions are based on what we’ve seen from these people in real life or what we’ve experienced and observed in our own lives in general. But in reality, it is all coming from our nafs welcoming into our most intimate space (i.e. our hearts) a devil to urge us toward this thinking.
May Allah protect us from ghuroor—spiritual self-deception.
Final Notes: Ensuring Your Claim of Emaan Is True
If we are honest with ourselves, none of us can claim to have hearts full of spiritual purity. This is because each and every one of us is tested with battling unhealthy emotions and desires of the heart.
In fact, the battle against our own nafs (inner self) is the most difficult battle in this world—literally. Therefore, not a single one of us should feel safe from failing the emotional trials of life and thus exposing, in a crucial moment of truth, that our claim of emaan (having true faith) is untrue.
In facing our moments of truth, so many of us are similar to Noor’s friend, Tina, who screamed and covered her ears rather than let the merciful guidance of her Lord enter her heart. Like so many of us, Tina’s emotions were so entangled in her vision of how her life should be, that she didn’t even want to hear about a path that challenged her to become a better person.
It is beyond heartbreaking that, as Muslims, so many of us are rushing to follow this path. Nevertheless, by Allah’s mercy, there are many other Muslims who recognize the unhealthy state of their hearts. As a result, they sincerely wish to become better versions of themselves—the version that reflects the beautiful fitrah (spiritual purity) in which Allah created them.
How To Purify Your Heart for Allah’s Sake
In the blog “Teaching Your Heart Love for Allah’s Sake” I share tips on how we can purify our hearts from feelings and life paths that can destroy the spiritual health of our souls. Here are two that can, bi’idhnillaah, help purify our hearts and ensure that our claim of emaan remains true until we are lowered beneath the ground:
- Build your day and life around Sabr and Salaah. In practical spiritual application, Sabr is two things: (1) displaying patience in consistently doing and saying those things that will nourish your soul in this world and in the Hereafter, and (2) displaying patience in staying away from doing and saying those things that will harm your soul in this world and in the Hereafter.
Allah says what has been translated to mean: “And seek help in Sabr and Salaah, and truly it is extremely heavy and hard except for Al-Khaashi’oon (the humbly submissive)” (Al-Baqarah, 2:45).
In seeking help through Salaah (formal prayer), you can build your entire day around the Salaah. This means that your schedule is based on the daily prayer times (i.e. you plan what you’ll do before and after prayer vs. at a specific time on the clock). And you can pray Qiyaam (the night prayer) regularly, even if for only one night each week.
Naturally, in order to benefit most from any Salaah (whether obligatory or Sunnah), you must strive for khushoo’ (sincere humility, reflection and concentration). You do this by asking Allah to make you amongst the khaashi’oon, and by spending extra time in rukoo’ and sujood, while making extra du’aa to Allah while in sujood particularly.
- Attach your heart to the Hereafter. One way to attach our hearts to the Hereafter is by reading Qur’an every day, even if only one ayah or for a few minutes. This helps soften our hard hearts, bi’idhnillaah, and put our life (and the lives of others) into proper perspective.
Allah says what has been translated to mean: “Do they not then think deeply on the Qur’an, or are their hearts locked up?” (Muhammad, 47:24). Naturally, it is impossible to think deeply on the Qur’an (and thus avoid a heart that is “locked up”) if we are not reading Allah’s Book regularly.
Here are some tips for benefiting the most from Qur’an during our daily reading:
If you come across an ayah discussing those with whom Allah is pleased, supplicate to Him and ask to be amongst them. If you come across an ayah discussing right guidance, ask to be amongst the rightly guided. If you come across an ayah discussing those who are disobedient or oppressive, ask for protection from being amongst them (as the oppressor or the oppressed). If you come across an ayah discussing Allah’s forgiveness and mercy, ask Allah for forgiveness and mercy for yourself.
If you come across an ayah discussing Paradise, ask to be admitted amongst the companions of Paradise. If you come across an ayah discussing Hellfire, ask for Allah’s protection from it. If you come across an ayah that you do not understand or incites confusion, ask Allah to increase you in beneficial knowledge and understanding.
O Allah! We beg you to increase us in beneficial knowledge and understanding of Your deen! And O Allah, Al-Quddoos, As-Salaam, Al-Haadee! We beg You to purify our hearts from spiritual diseases, from unhealthy emotions, and from anything that would cause us to say or do anything that would make our claim of emaan untrue, while in the midst of a crucial moment of truth in our life!
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. In 2019, she launched UZ Soul Gear, a passion project fueled by her love of both art and inspirational reflections. UZSoulGear.com offers apparel, wall décor, and more, aimed at supporting and inspiring the soul-centered lifestyle.
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