One should specifically focus upon how chasing after worldly desires, or desires pertaining to the five senses, can only bring about temporary satisfaction. On the other hand, spiritual pleasures are such that they not only continue to last but they also increase, assuming that a worshipper (God forbid) does not perform any action which counters their positive effects with ill ones.
While it is indeed difficult to build one’s spirituality in this fast-paced and distraction-filled modern world, the task is far from impossible and should be looked upon by all worshippers of God as an attainable goal. As Allah is fully aware of our state and can do with His creation as He pleases, we should never lose hope in the possibility that He will assist us in our efforts to gain spiritual proximity to Him. Here we will focus on some basic steps that can be put into practice and will, if the intention of the worshipper is sincere, undoubtedly result in countless spiritual benefits.
We must first emphasize a point which is very important and, if ignored, could (God forbid) lead the worshipper to lose interest in spiritual practices and return once again to being drowned in materialism. Simply put, at the beginning (and at all times), a worshipper must only take on what he or she has the capacity to perform. That is, one who wishes to gain closeness to God should not think that he or she must immediately retire to a cave and live a life of complete asceticism. This approach is contrary to both human nature and teachings of the Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them). As Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) said, “Faith has ten degrees, like the steps of a ladder which are climbed one by one. If you find anyone below you by one step, pull him up to you gently, and do not burden him with what he cannot bear, or else you will break him.” (Al-Kafi)
Similarly, the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) has said, “Surely this religion is firm, so go deep in it with mildness, and do not cause Allah’s servants to hate worshipping Him; otherwise, you will be like the one whose mount was too tired to go on, so he neither finished the journey nor preserved the mount.” (Ibid.)
Therefore, a worshipper should choose only that which keeps his or her heart attentive and which attracts it to worship. Even if it is just one small dhikr or du’a every day, this will be enough, since Allah looks at the state of one’s heart rather than the amount of worship. The Prophet is reported to have said that “two units of prayer in contemplation are better than spending the whole night (in worship) with an inattentive heart.” (Bihar al-Anwar) Further, do we not refer to Allah in the famous Supplication of Rajab as “He who recompenses a small deed with a great reward”?
The second point which is absolutely crucial in spiritual development is that one must avoid all sins and fulfill all of one’s religious obligations. The late Ayatollah Behjat, who was known for his extremely lofty spiritual states, was once asked how one could reach a state like his. His reply was simply to stop sinning. He has also been quoting as saying, “There is no dhikr (remembrance of Allah) more exalted then the dhikr of action; and there is no dhikr of action higher than abandoning sin in [one’s] beliefs and acts of devotion.” Therefore, the key to achieving closeness to Allah is not extreme forms of asceticism and abandonment of the world. Closeness to God can be achieved simply through strict adherence to the laws of Shariah.
While (and after) the worshipper is working on perfecting the aforementioned practices, he or she should also focus on numerous other advices which are explained in the narrations of the Ahlul Bayt and the books of spiritual wayfaring. They are too many to name here, so we will postpone them for a later discussion and close with what is, in my opinion, one of the most important practices which has been realized by many thinkers in history, both Muslim and non-Muslim.
It is extremely important that we reflect upon the nature of our actions and what benefit, if any, they have produced in the past. For as we know history is prone to repeat itself, and if something did not satisfy us in the past, it will most likely not satisfy us in the future.
One should specifically focus upon how chasing after worldly desires, or desires pertaining to the five senses, can only bring about temporary satisfaction. On the other hand, spiritual pleasures are such that they not only continue to last but they also increase, assuming that a worshipper (God forbid) does not perform any action which counters their positive effects with ill ones. The narrations of the Ahlul Bayt not only point out that such desires are temporary, but also bring to our attention the fact that they do nothing but lead to more desires. Our Imams have presented this beautifully through the following metaphors:
“The parable of a man greedy of this world is the parable of the silkworm: the more it winds the thread round itself, the farther it becomes from salvation, until it dies of grief.” (Ibid.)
“This world is like seawater; the more a thirsty man drinks from it, the thirstier he gets, until it kills him.” (Ibid.)
Therefore, if we reflect upon these truths, it will undoubtedly incline our hearts more towards spiritual practices and gaining closeness to Allah. We must reflect upon the state of our souls and take lessons from the past in order to build for the future and not fall into the same errors.
In conclusion, these are a few simple yet essential steps which one must follow and adhere to in order to achieve closeness to God and build upon one’s spiritual state. Allah has allowed us to approach Him with ease and without placing a burden upon ourselves. We would be fools then not to take advantage of the unimaginable benefits which await us in such a simple and natural yet infinitely sublime path.
Caleb Carter received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Missouri. He is currently pursuing a master’s program in Arabic and Islamic studies.