Lesson Zero: “The Forty Grand”
If one plants an orchard on a chemical dump without first digging it out and replacing it with good soil, it will produce poisonous fruit. Similarly, the spiritual traveller who harbors vile character in his heart cannot go very far in the path until he addresses it. This lesson works on two key fundamentals of akhlaq or “good character”: establishing the prayer and holding one’s temper. It consists in forty days in a row of doing these two things.
I. During this lesson (and each of the subsequent muraqaba lessons), if one delays any of the five obligatory prayers (including witr, if one is Hanafi) past its valid time by, for example, sleeping through the dawn prayer until sunrise—unless there is a valid excuse such as one’s monthly period or joining two prayers for travel or rain—it immediately vitiates the forty days and one must return to begin them again from day one, and then finish from there. Its ongoing relation to subsequent lessons is explained in the last section of this lesson.
II. The same is true of showing anger towards others for the sake of one’s nafs or “ego,” which also vitiates the forty days, and necessitates they be begun again and finished out in a row. Now, anger is part of the human soul which Allah has created with a divine wisdom, and this lesson is not vitiated by using it in its proper place, such as in jihad against the enemies of Allah to render His Word paramount; or jihad against one’s spiritual enemies: the ego (nafs), caprice (hawa), this world (dunya), the Devil; or jihad against the bad and false (batil) when one’s intention is purely for Allah. This lesson is only vitiated by anger that is unacceptable by the standards of Sacred Law and hence the spiritual path.
From ancient times, sages have observed that “anger buys what it wants at the price of soul,” and tantrums have always been regarded as the opposite of spirituality. In an earlier day, what was termed “rage” in men was called “hysteria” in women, while in modern times some manifestations of it have been dignified with names like “road-rage.” When the smoke clears however, the problem is much the same: people who think it is acceptable to act like spoiled brats.
Islam does not accept this. Imam Ibn Hajar al-Haytami has listed “anger for the sake of one’s ego” as an enormity in al-Zawajir, his work on major sins. A man came to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and said, “Advise me.” He replied, “Don’t get angry.” The man repeated himself several times, but the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) only said: “Don’t get angry” (Bukhari, 8.35: 6116. S).
The ulema of Sacred Law interpret this hadith figuratively, as meaning to refrain from the bad consequences of anger; namely, saying or doing what comes to mind when angry. This is the work of this lesson. The sheikhs of the path however, interpret the hadith literally, saying that the cause of anger for the sake of the ego is arrogance (kibr), which is itself unlawful, and one of the most imperative of things to get rid of in the spiritual path.
To do this, one must be able to discern whether one’s anger is for oneself and one’s ego, as is common, or is for the sake of Allah or one’s fellow man, as is rare. Only anger for the sake of Allah or one’s fellow man is acceptable during this lesson, while anger for oneself and one’s ego, if one exceeds the bounds, interrupts the lesson and necessitates beginning again. The outward signs of anger for the ego that breaks the continuity of this lesson may be summarized in the following guidelines and examples, from which similar cases may be judged.
Things that Break the Forty Grand if Done Three Times
(1) The Forty Grand is broken by three separate occurrences of verbal anger within forty days, “verbal anger” for the purposes of this lesson meaning raising one’s voice more than four sentences. As soon as one begins a fifth sentence with a raised voice, flushed face, or threatening or indignant manner, it is an instance of verbal anger. Its first occurrence in forty days is a warning from Allah to control oneself. The second is one’s last chance. The third vitiates the lesson.
* Nagging or scolding also constitutes a single occurrence of “verbal anger” if accompanied by a raised voice, vehemence, or angry recriminations—but not if it is mere low-key whining, though the latter is effeminate and unbecoming from men, useless and annoying from women, and almost always detrimental to the affection and respect that should exist between two people, whether husband and wife, or parent and child.
* When one is debating or contesting a point with someone at work, home, or other venue in which an occasional debate is customary and serves a genuine purpose, some excitedness is normal, and does not amount to an instance of “verbal anger” in such circumstances unless it results in impugning the other’s person, as opposed to his mistaken words or beliefs or actions. Impugning the reason why someone is saying something does not vitiate the lesson if it is significant to the discussion and done without vehemence or rancor.
* If one has been wronged by someone and is angrily “getting it off one’s chest” to a third party, then if there is no palpable benefit or improvement that the listener is capable of rendering besides listening, it is slander (ghiba), and as such is unlawful (haram) and necessitates repentance, though it does not break the forty days unless the person being badly talked about is actually present.
(2) The lesson is broken by three occurrences of anger that results in insult, ridicule, shouting, vituperation, cutting remarks, taunts, gibes, quarrelling, lying accusations, unfair exaggerations, angrily honking one’s horn, or slamming doors,.
(3) Disciplining or raising one’s voice at children or others under one’s authority only constitutes an instance of “anger” (of which three break the Forty Grand) when done out of anger for the sake of the ego; as for example, when purely out of indignation at an affront to one’s authority, or similar egotistical motive. It does not vitiate the forty days if done sincerely for their sake, or the general betterment of the state or situation. For example, if a mother is angry and yells at her son because he might hurt himself by doing the like of it, this would not break the lesson, because it is for the child’s sake, not her own. If her motive is mixed, but at least some of it is for the child’s welfare, it also does not break the lesson. It is only broken by purely self-centered anger.
(4) The same applies to standing up in anger, when necessary, to a bullying supervisor, husband, wife, or other: it must be intended, at least in part, for their good, or to improve the situation, not merely to vindicate oneself or put the other person in their place. To decide what one’s motive was, here or in (3) above, one must look carefully at what was in one’s heart at the moment the action came to mind.
(5) Whenever the unacceptable occurrences of anger mentioned in (1), (2), (3), or (4) add up together to three times during a forty-day period, they break the lesson.
Things That Break the Forty Grand Immediately
(6) The Forty Grand is also vitiated by a single occurrence of such things as angrily breaking or throwing or destroying things, blows, vulgarity, cursing, spitting, or other typical elements of tantrums. Or refusing to talk to someone out of anger and not making up and returning to civil words within twenty-four hours if they live in the same house, or three days if they live elsewhere. Or deliberately harming another’s person or property, whether outwardly angry or not. Or deliberately doing something that they take great offense at, such as walking out or hanging up on them.
Curing One’s Anger Problem
The following measures should be used to eliminate bad temper:
1. Feel disgust at the antics of the nafs for having committed an act of disobedience to Allah for the sake of nothing.
2. Sincerely ask Allah’s help in overcoming anger. The sunna is to say A‘udhu bi Llahi min ash-Shaytani r-Rajim (I take refuge in Allah from the accursed Devil). Abu Madyan has said, “Whoever does not seek Allah’s help against his ego will be thrown by it.” It is also of the sunna to make ablution (wudu) if angry; or if walking, to stand still; or if standing, to sit down; or sitting, to lie back.
3. Implacably persist in this lesson. Return to it again and again until you have the nafs in hand and can control it: eventually it will give up. If one pretends to be cool-headed and persists in pretending to be so, Allah eventually disposes the heart to be that way. For centuries, Sufis have used such takalluf or “pretending” to first imitate, then approximate, and then attain the qualities they have sought.
4. Put baraka in your life by eating halal food from the work of your own hands. The best food is that which you or your family prepare. Eat at least one meal daily together as a family at home. Eat the food of the righteous. Restaurants and fast food daub the heart with nafs and dunya, and should only be used as a last resort, such as when travelling and one cannot take food from home, or for business meetings, or when relatives are having a “function,” or one’s wife is exhausted or fed-up and needs a break from cooking, or guests arrive unexpectedly and no food has been prepared—or similar unpremeditated cases that are not for the food or mere socializing. When forced by such circumstances, it is sufficient that the food be halal, and that one say “Bismi Llah” over it.
Otherwise, when one sees tariqa members, even long-term, eating by preference at restaurants, one should pray for them, because they just don’t get it. Food prepared in forgetfulness of Allah causes forgetfulness of Allah. How many a murid has stumbled because of food, not knowing what hit him. How many a murid has stayed the same for years because he ignored the basics. There is such a thing as baraka in food. Everyone knows that unslaughtered meat is haram to eat, but one should realize how little baraka there is in even slaughtered meat when the animals have been raised in misery and suffering, or when it was cooked by those of low and vile character. One should be aware of what one is doing to oneself. At a merely physical level, fried foods and salty foods angry up the blood.
The Relation of the Forty Grand to Future Muraqaba Lessons
While engaged in any lesson from Lesson One through Lesson Six, if one vitiates the Forty Grand during the lesson, for example by missing any prayer that is fard or wajib (the latter meaning the witr of Hanafis) or exceeding the bounds of anger, this immediately vitiates the lesson that one is on. In such a case, one must return to repeat the Forty Grand—while at the same time praying salat al-tawba for any of the seven sins that happen during the Forty—after which one begins again the lesson that one was on when one vitiated the Forty Grand. If one were working on Lesson Three, for example, and one vitiated the Forty Grand, one would have to go back and repeat the Forty Grand and then start Lesson Three over again from the first day of Lesson Three. The reverse, however, is not true: vitiating the lesson that one is on, for example, by spoiling Lesson One with one of the seven things, does not vitiate the Forty Grand, but only necessitates going back to the first day of Lesson One. To say it again, vitiating the Forty Grand during any lesson necessitates repeating the Forty Grand and then starting that particular lesson over again, but vitiating a lesson does not necessitate repeating the Forty Grand.