The Literal Meaning of Tazkîyah: Its Aim and Scope

Tazkîyah in the Arabic language means purification of something (from adulterants), its growth and development and to bring it to the height of its perfection.

The action of tazkîyah on different things will appear in different forms on the surface. On material objects it will take one form and on abstract objects quite another. But this apparent difference will not change the reality. The spirit of purification, growth and development and its final perfection will be visible in its actions everywhere.

For instance the action of tazkîyah may be performed on a tract of land and also on the inner self of a person. Although due to variations in the fields of action, there will be a difference in the form, yet in reality and in its object there will be no difference between the two. The tazkîyah of the tract of land will comprise clearing it of the weeds, brushwood and brambles, levelling it, ploughing it to make it soft and porous, then watering it so that it may become capable of developing the healthy seeds of some sort in keeping with its natural capacity, and take it to the final stage of blossoming and fruition.

The tazkîyah of the inner self of a person involves eradication of erroneous thought and false assumptions, the correction and levelling of the perversions and angularities created by the corrupt morality and bad habits; removal of the ills produced by the blind emulations and ritualism; treatment and cure of the evil of drooping spirits and cowardice created by craving for ephemeral carnal pleasures so that his eyes may be opened and his mind may become capable of thinking freely, his drooping spirits may be raised, his habits may be reformed and through development of his mental, moral and spiritual powers according to his natural capabilities, may attain the heights God endowed him with to reach.


The technical sense of Tazkîyah

More or less the same or some such sense is conveyed by the word tazkîyah used as a technical term. Literally it means as already stated above, purification and development to the stage of its perfection. Technically it conveys the sense of checking ourselves from erroneous tendencies and learnings and turning them to the path of virtue and piety (fear of God’s displeasure) and developing it to attain the stage of perfection. This sense of tazkîyah is borne out by the following verse of the Qur’ân:

“By the soul and the proportion and order given to it; and its enlightenment as to its wrong and its right; - truly he succeeds that purifies it and he fails that corrupts it!” (Al-Qur’ân – 91:7-10)

The above verse clarifies the issue. God has so ordered the soul that it has both the inclinations – good and evil, and man has been endowed with the power of distinction between the two; and the path of prosperity for man lies in choosing the side of the good in the struggle between it and the evil, and striving to make it prevail over the evil.

With rightly guided consciousness the extreme struggle to help the good prevail and to vanquish the evil is tazkîyah in the Qur’ânic sense of the term.


The scope of the knowledge of tazkîyah

With the sense of tazkîyah in view if we were to contemplate over it we must come to the conclusion that all of the arts and sciences dealing directly with our inner selves, medical science is the only one resembling the knowledge of tazkîyah. Medical science deals with the ailment of our physique and the treatment and cure thereof, whereas tazkîyah treats the subject of the ailments of the spirit and their eradication. But in spite of this resemblance there is also a great difference between the two. The ambit of the discussions of the medical science is very limited, dealing with only one aspect of our selves, the body and its ailments. On the contrary tazkîyah deals with all the apparent and hidden aspects of our selves. It critically judges all the powers and the capabilities of which we are constituted, discusses all our emotions and feelings and corrects and reforms them; it takes stock of all the variegated and multifaceted ties that we are bound with, and creates an order in and regulates them all under a particular principle and regulation. Our thoughts, our apprehensions, our inclinations, our movements, our eating and drinking, our engagements, entertainments, and interests, the daily routines of our lives, in short, no department and nothing that touches our lives is outside the pale oftazkîyah.


The real task of tazkîyah

And it is only that tazkîyah deals with all the aspects of ourselves or removing their evils presents the right sort of replacements, but the real job of tazkîyah lies beyond this discussion, critical study and correction. It also enters our souls from every angle in such a way that they become tranquillised and peaceful.

The tranquillisation of the soul means that our knowledge may be founded on such a firm belief that no vicissitudes of distress and comfort or pain and pleasure may be able to shake and alter our trust in God and our expecting only good from Him, but that we may remain pleased with God and satisfied with His decrees. Similarly, the foundations of our deeds may be laid in such a firm character that no temptations, in adversity or prosperity and fear and hope, may take our feet off where the divine Sharî‘ah has planted, so that we may fulfil our mission of the demands made on us by God, and thus become His desirable servants. Such a tranquillised soul is the aim of tazkîyah. The Qur’ân addresses the tranquillised or peaceful soul in the following words:

“O, [you] soul, in complete rest and satisfaction! Come back you to your Lord; - well-pleased [yourself] and well-pleasing unto Him! Enter you, then, among My devotees! Yes, enter you My Heaven.” (Al-Qur’ân – 89:27-30)



The above discussion has also revealed that tazkîyah has an air of art too about it, since it does not rest contented with somehow bringing the soul to the right path, but over and above that, it strives to take it to ever-increasing heights of superiority. Tazkîyahdoes not stop at the stage where we learn a little about God and the Sharî‘ah conferred by Him on man, but it is its endeavour that we may attain a true and firm knowledge of God and His attributes. Tazkîyah does not keep before it as its goal that our habits be reformed to a certain degree but strives after the goal of making ourselves the embodiment of all the beautiful traits of man’s character. Tazkîyah is not satisfied with the creation of a sort of harmony and accord in our notions, but in addition to that it aims at producing a sort of pathos, refinement and the power to effect passions or their expression. Tazkîyah does not demand only that our soul may somehow be subordinated to the Commandments of the Sharî‘ah, but its real demand lies in breaking this unruly steed of our soul in such a way that it carries out the orders of God and His apostle in the best possible manner. It does not only demand from us the service where the slave comes to imagine that he is beholding his Lord with his eyes (physical vision). In short, it means that tazkîyah places before us the demand of îmân or belief, îslâm or submission and ihsân or utmost sincerity, at the same time. It demands that we believe in God with all His attributes, also that we obey His Commandments in every sphere of our lives and above all that this belief and obedience may not be formal and superficial but fully conscious and deeply sincere in which our hearts must coordinate with our bodies.

This nature of tazkîyah makes it a perpetual striving and a continuous struggle without any break or a period of rest. In this journey there is no turn or stage which may be mistaken for the last lap of the journey – the destination where one may sojourn a while or become permanently at ease. At every stage in this striving one goes on looking for greater excellence and higher standards and nowhere his eyes can come to rest on any degree of excellence. With the greater polish of the deeds, the morals and the exterior and the inner self, the fineness of morals and the exterior and the inner self, the fineness of tastes, the degree of sensibility and keenness of eye-sight also progresses by leaps and bounds, with the result that no sooner has one washed the old stains off his raiment some more stains come in sight to be cleansed.

Because of this, tazkîyah is a very difficult task indeed. Even if a person is not bewildered by its vast scope, its never-ending activity instills fear into him that he may not be able to sustain himself through its life-long occupation. But if this activity is taken up and performed in the natural course with the gradualness and the order prescribed for it by the prophets, it becomes for a lover of the Truth the most attractive occupation, its vast scope and perpetuity notwithstanding. Its limitless vastness is awe-inspiring indeed. But the inspirational guidance that one experiences on this path is so heartening and solacious that his courage never gives way and he is never disheartened:

“And those who strive in Our [cause], - We will certainly guide them to Our Paths.” (Al-Qur’ân – 29:69).

Thus the fatigue caused by the perpetuity of the striving is countered by the ever-fresh revelations of realities and subtleties which in turn confer a refreshed life continually on man.

If with the perpetuity of striving fresh gains in the form of inspirations come his way and every fresh success surpasses al the past achievements, continuous labour and its monotony do not make him tire of it, but create in him fresh courage and resolve to begin every new stage with fresh interest and zeal.


The real theme of tazkîyah

The above details give an idea of the nature of tazkîyah, its scope and its difficulties to a certain extent. But to bring into view all its aspects, the suitable method will be to focus on the real them of tazkîyah and then try to encompass all the aspects of this theme, since it must have as many facets as are to be found in the theme itself. The garments are fitted to the stature, and if we can take measurements of the stature, the measurements of the dresses are automatically determined.

Evidently enough the theme of tazkîyah is human soul. But what is soul is an important question stressed in the Islâmic philosophy and in that of Jâhilîyah too, well enough. The arch of the doorway to the temple in ancient Athens bore the inscription of the sayings of Socrates: “May know thyself!” This is a pointer to the fact that in Greek philosophy knowledge and cognizance of the soul was considered of fundamental importance. In our society too an old saying is well-known:

“One who knows himself comes to know God (as well).”[1]

That makes it incumbent on us to analyse this issue of the soul as to which attributes and demands go into its composition, so that we may be able to find out what will be required of us in its analysis.

By the analysis of the soul we do not mean here the process adopted by the philosophers in finding the real nature of any object. To us soul defies such analysis and enquiries to find its true nature. And it is not necessary for our purpose to find its true nature. We shall endeavour here to find our its attributes and demands and deal only with such of its mental and moral aspects which come or should come into question in the knowledge and exercise of tazkîyah.


The various aspects of man’s ego

Let us now contemplate the various aspects of our ego which can be brought under the action of tazkîyah, and without that much tazkîyah of those aspects, man’s perfect development according to his natural capacities is not possible.

When we contemplate our ego, the first to come are the following two aspects that are directly acted upon by the process of tazkîyah:

1) That our ego has undertaking and perception.
2) That it acts.

Perception is the essence of ego without which man is no more important than inanimate objects. Then, apparently enough, this perception is not limited to the minor details but includes that of generalities and broad facts as well. And it is this quality of our ego which distinguishes it from animals, and without which man would not have deserved any higher status than that of beasts. This perception of generalities opens up for him vast avenues of thought and reasoning, and all his arts and sciences and thought and creed and assumption come into existence with it. And it is with its help that he goes from the created to the Creator and from the handiwork to the Artisan. In its light he gets an idea of the attributes and he likes and dislikes of the Designer from the designed. And thus guided he decides the right course from himself, and also what obligations and responsibilities devolve on him as a man, and with what degree of consciousness and sense of responsibility, promptitude and wholehearted activity he should discharge his duties.

Just think over how important this aspect of our ego is! It is apparent that all other aspects of our ego are subordinate to it. If it is corrected and reformed, the ego as a whole can be reformed. And any evil of slightest degree persisting therein, will not allow it (the ego) to right itself. It is man’s thought that makes him rightly guided or sends him astray. One false step and the whole philosophy (of life) is erased, and an ordinary slip in the deduction will bring the whole building of our knowledge toppling down. And as a result of this crookedness the whole life with its various aspects becomes rife with corruption.



Due to the importance of knowledge and perception their tazkîyah carries great weight in our programme of tazkîyah. In this, priority goes to the settlement of the questions that are essential for keeping our thoughts and intentions firmly focussed on the right path. For instance, what we are? Whence we came and wither-bound? Whether we are the creators or the created and also whether we are the masters with a free will or in a state of non-volition? Whether we are free from liability or answerable to any one? If responsible to anyone what are His attributes? How is He related to our lives? What He likes and what He does not like? In case of somebody indulging in something that He does not like, how is He going to deal with him? Definite and decisive answers to these questions are inevitable for saving our ego from the crookedness of knowledge and mental straying. It is also imperative that the dust of blind following, inertia and stagnancy, negligence and forgetfulness should not collect on the correct answers provided to these questions. And, God forbid, if any aspect of it is getting rusty, it must be rubbed constantly and kept clean.


Tazkîyah of action

Action, like knowledge it is also vast enough. Not a moment of man’s life passes without action, which does not leave a good or bad impression on his ego.

It is not only the question of prohibition or approbation that arises about these actions, but more important than this aspect is that of the motives behind them. There is no single motivation for man’s actions, but so many motives of different natures incite him to action, so that the same action under two different motives may become an act of virtue or that of an evil.

Then a question also arises about all the motives of our actions as to which of them is trustworthy and which otherwise. Which are those whose persuasion and incitement is acceptable and which those whose blindness is fraught with dangers?

At times, we resort to a certain act compelled by necessity or want. We are compelled to eat when hungry, slake our thirst when thirsty and rest when we feel fatigued.

Similarly so many of our actions are motivated by desires. For example, for the sake of fame we indulge in acts of valour; for popularity’s sake we engage ourselves in social service and to accumulate wealth we expand our businesses of industries and commerce.

Likewise, so many of our acts are motivated by passions. We love someone, hate someone else; are jealous of somebody and favourably disposed to another; we oblige one person and revenge ourselves on another.

Moreover, through a careful stock-taking of our ego we also come to realise that there are so many actions of ours whose motives are far above those mentioned earlier. Under this category come all those actions of judgment, thought and sacrifice and selflessness in which we cannot find a trace of selfishness even on very critical analysis. This motive we can term the angelic spirit or reason.

All the four motives mentioned at times act separately and at others are at work jointly. They are also guilty of excesses and shortcomings in their actions. That is why taking stock of them in every action and examining them and judging them in their excesses and training them to be bound by the limits prescribed for them by the Sharî‘ah, is a mighty long chain, arrangement and regulation of which are also the duties of tazkîyah.


Tazkîyah of relations and dealings

After knowledge and action and passions and motives, to other aspects of our ego that comes before us is that of the relations and dealings no less in its scope, rather greater in its vastness.

Among the relations of ego the most important are those with God and with self. If we take ourselves, not as the creator but the created, a very pertinent question must arise regarding the nature of our relations with the Creator, and the way they can be established on proper bases.

Next crops up the problem of our own ego or self which apparently has so many things in its charge or holds sway over them. It has a hold over the body, the brain, various faculties and capabilities, feelings and passions. How should it deal with all of them? Is he the owner and master of these things and is entitled to use them as he is pleased to do? Or is it only this that it holds them in his charge as a trust within the limits prescribed by the Creator? If the second is the case the question arises as to the limits which must be kept in view in this connection. And along with that it will also be inevitable to know all those apparent and hidden qualities that are essential for the proper discharge of this duty of trusteeship.

Next come the relations of the ego or self with its surroundings. That man is a social entity needs no proof. Whenever and wherever he is, it is in the capacity of the member of a family, the individual belonging to a society or the citizen of some state. Just as a creeper needs some trusses and supports to climb up, prosper and blossom, man too must have some supports for his development, progress and attainment of the zenith of his career. In the absence of these supports his existence is not possible. And if it is rarely met with anywhere it is in a very stunted state of growth and development of his faculties. This is why tazkîyah takes stock of all these relations and firmly establishes them on the right bases, so that it may attain the zenith of its development and perfection in keeping with its natural endowments.

This detail brings to light the fact that tazkîyah is not a simple and limited process. Rather, its multiple facets extend far and wide. Every aspect of our life, apparent or hidden, theoretical or practical, moral or social and political is encompassed by it. The tazkîyahof our ego does not simply mean that a certain aspect of it is lighted up but brightening and spreading light to every nook and corner of it – our knowledge becoming dazzling, our actions pure and clean and our relations and dealings established on just and proper lines…


Maintainer’s Note:

[1] This a mawdû (fabricated) hadîth as is well-known among the scholars of hadîth:

As-Sakhâwî said, “Abû al-Mudhaffar as-Sama’ânî said, ‘This is not known as a hadîth of the Messenger, rather it is only related as a saying of Yahya bin Mu‘âdh ar-Râzî. And likewise an-Nawawî said, ‘it is not established’ ” [‘al-Maqâsid al-Hasanah’ (pg. 491 no.1149)]

As-Suyûtî said, “This hadîth is not authentic.” [‘Hâwî lil Fatâwî’ (2/351)]

Alî al-Qârî quoted from Ibn Taymiyyah saying, “fabricated.” [‘al-Asrâr al-Marfû‘ah’ (pg. 83)]

Al-Allâmah Fairozabâdî said, “This is not from the Prophetic ahâdîth, despite the fact that the majority of people make it so, and it is not authentic at all. It is only related from the Jewish traditions as ‘O mankind! Know yourself and you will know your Lord.’ ” [‘ar-Radd alâ al-Mu’taridîn’ (2/37)]

Al-Albânî says, “It has no basis.” [‘Silsilah ad-Da‘îfah’ (1/165 no.66)]

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