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The first practical step to gaining taqwa is accountability, known as muhasabah in Arabic; taking account of your actions. We see this concept from the beginning of Islamic history.:

In the Qur’an

In Surah Al-Hashr, Allah says:

يا ايها الذين امنوا اتقوا الله ولتنظر نفس ما قدمت لغد واتقوا الله ان الله خبير بما تعملون

Translation: O you who have believed, fear Allah . And let every soul look to what it has put forth for tomorrow – and fear Allah . Indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what you do. (Surah Hashr, verse 18)

This ayah unequivocally states that we need to take ourselves to account before the Day of Repayment. It mentions taqwa, then mentions we need to take ourselves to account, then mentions taqwa again.

From the Sahaba

From the generation of the sahaba, we find a saying of ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab (radiallahu ‘anhu):

Bring yourself to account before you are taken to account. Weigh your deeds before your deeds are weighed. (One source)

Applying Muhasabah In Your Life

‘Umar (radiallhu anhu) also praised a man who kept a bag of stones with him; in the bag, the man placed one white stone for each good deed he did, and one black stone for each bad did he did. At the end of the day,

he would recount and account how beneficially his day passed.

Other scholars performed other, similar acts of accounting. Some modern day shuyookh advocate keeping a journal and noting down your deeds appropriately.

From this, we find the two key points to take away:

  • Keep track of your deeds in some way that works for you — whether in your memory, or in a book, online document, etc.
  • Recount and review your deeds consistently at a time that works for you.

The key is to consistently review your deeds. If you can, perform a daily review. If not, use whatever schedule works for you — perhaps every two or three days, or once a week.

Also, find a time that works for you. For some, this may be in the shower, or while commuting, or while standing in line for something.

From the Qur’an and Sunnah, we find a suggested order of accountability:

#1: Prohibitions

In order to progress, you need to take one step forward, and not slide two steps backward. Scholars use this hadith:

مَا نَهَيْتُكُمْ عَنْهُ فَاجْتَنِبُوهُ، وَمَا أَمَرْتُكُمْ بِهِ فَأْتُوا مِنْهُ مَا اسْتَطَعْتُمْ، فَإِنَّمَا أَهْلَكَ الَّذِينَ مِنْ قَبْلِكُمْ كَثْرَةُ مَسَائِلِهِمْ وَاخْتِلَافُهُمْ عَلَى أَنْبِيَائِهِمْ

Translation: What I have forbidden for you, avoid. What I have ordered you [to do], do as much of it as you can. For verily, it was only the excessive questioning and their disagreeing with their Prophets that destroyed [the nations] who were before you. (Bukhari, Muslim, and Imam Nawawi’s 40 ahadith, #9)

Note the order and wording of this hadith:

  • First, stay away from whatever rasulullah (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) forbade us from. I.e., prohibitions first.
  • Then, do what rasulullah (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) commanded us to do, as much as we are able (whatever is within our ability).

If you make a mistake or slip up, if you violate a prohibition, what then? Make tawbah. This means three things:

  • Regret the action you performed
  • Stop doing it.
  • Replace the bad deed with something better.

Action: These are all critical steps to integrate in your early muhasabah process: focus on proihibitons (things you need to stop doing).

#2: Obligations

After prohibitions, we focus next on obligations. Another interesting, supporting hadith:

إِنَّ أَوَّلَ مَا يُحَاسَبُ بِهِ الْعَبْدُ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ مِنْ عَمَلِهِ صَلاَتُهُ فَإِنْ صَلُحَتْ فَقَدْ أَفْلَحَ وَأَنْجَحَ وَإِنْ فَسَدَتْ فَقَدْ خَابَ وَخَسِرَ فَإِنِ انْتَقَصَ مِنْ فَرِيضَتِهِ شَيْءٌ قَالَ الرَّبُّ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ انْظُرُوا هَلْ لِعَبْدِي مِنْ تَطَوُّعٍ فَيُكَمَّلَ بِهَا مَا انْتَقَصَ مِنَ الْفَرِيضَةِ ثُمَّ يَكُونُ سَائِرُ عَمَلِهِ عَلَى ذَلِكَ

Translation: Indeed the first deed by which a servant will be called to account on the Day of Resurrection is his Salat. If it is complete, he is successful and saved, but if it is defective, he has failed and lost. So if something is deficient in his obligatory (prayers) then the Lord, Mighty and Sublime says: ‘Look! Are there any voluntary (prayers) for my worshipper?’ So with them, what was deficient in his obligatory (prayers) will be completed. Then the rest of his deeds will be treated like that.” (Jami’ At-Tirmidhi)

This hadith indicates that we will be asked about our obligations first, and if those contain any issues, they will be fixed based on our extra (nafl/sunnah) deeds.

Action: In your muhasabah, ask yourself about your obligations. Did you meet all of them? Did you fall short any where? Can you fix those with extra (non-obligatory) actions?

#3: The Tongues, Hands, and Feet

Out of these three, the tongue overshadows the other two by far. Rasulullah (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) said:

مَنْ يَضْمَنْ لِي مَا بَيْنَ لَحْيَيْهِ وَمَا بَيْنَ رِجْلَيْهِ أَضْمَنْ لَهُ الْجَنَّةَ

Translation: Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said, “Whoever can guarantee (the chastity of) what is between his two jaw-bones and what is between his two legs (i.e. his tongue and his private parts), I guarantee Paradise for him.” (Saheeh Bukhari)

In your muhasabah, ask yourself: Did I lie? Did I cheat? Did I steal? Do I frequently backbite? You may find that certain circumstances (eg. places you go, or people you spend time with) lead you into sins of the tongue.

Action: Make a “tongue” calendar. Count how many days your tongue is sin-free. Whenever you fall into a sin of the tongue, mark down the day, and start counting from zero. If you can survive 30-40 days without mistakes, you’ve mastered your tongue.

#4: Moments of Distraction

If you ever feel that you’re too busy, or that you consume entertainment too much (eg. music, television, videos, perhaps non-beneficial books), make a note of it. That’s a candidate to replace with dhikr.

Action: There is (literally) a dhikr for every occasion. Grab a copy (digital/app or physical) of Hisnul Muslim and other books of adhkar, and memorize appropriate du’as for your situation.

In Conclusion

If you can master muhasabah, you can consciously and continuously work towards a stronger hereafter. Every day that passes sees a better you (either a day with more good than bad, or a day with enough lessons learned to make you stronger).

For additional reading material, consider reading “Agenda to Change our Condition.” Ibn Tammiyah, Ibn Al-Qayyim, Imam Ghazali, and others also wrote extensively about taqwa and muhasabah.

Source: Four Steps to Taqwa. Presented by Arssal Shahabuddin on February 22, 2016.