How Should People Avoid Sins, Distractions, and Temptations?

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The question refers to one of the greatest difficulties of modern life. Even the not-so-young, but of course especially the young live in a social environment that exaggerates the natural pressures of youth to an extreme; ever-present temptations and passing desires scatter one’s nobler sentiments and higher aspirations. It is difficult indeed in this environment to represent the sublime qualities of person and character that the Messenger of God exemplified and willed his followers to emulate; but, to live at such a time and to struggle against the desires and temptations has its own particular advantages. This is because the reward of all effort is proportionate to the hardship of the conditions endured.

Is it not the hardship of the struggle he endured which earned Hamza the titles”the master of the martyrs”and”the lion of God”? His battle-cry to his men—”The enemies are many, but we have faith,” and charging the enemy front-line with self-sacrificing disregard for death—these are the qualities that raised him to such a high rank.

When Islam was first preached, the women among the idolaters used to circumambulate the Ka’ba naked; adultery, fornication, usury, profiteering, exploitation, bribery, drinking and gambling were deeply embedded in the manners of the society. And yet, the Companions turned their backs on such practices and embraced Islam. They were all normal human beings with feelings and appetites like all others. But their giving up and leaving aside carnal desires and immoral practices in that environment, their preferring a pure and honest way of life, and their support of the revived, true religion and the Messenger who preached it—and their doing so, despite all dangers, threats and persecutions, made them nobler than the rest and greater than all the greats. By doing so, they gained such merits and virtues that they have become the light and, like the stars in the heavens, guide those who come after them.

The kinds of obstacles, disasters and destructions they faced exist also today. In a spiritual assembly, Bediüzzaman Said Nursi was named as the man of the age of disasters and destruction.[1] If the Prophet called the people who try to live and serve Islam sincerely in this age, he would definitely name them as the generation of the age of disasters and destruction. For, if the streets and market-places, city centers, social and commercial business, individual and family life, schools (which nurture the rest) and all other societal entities and institutions which together make up collective life and its norms—if these were assessed one by one, the verdict on each of them would be “bad, spoiled or ruined.”

Wherever you go, you cannot avoid some or other sort of foulness or sin staining your senses; the atmosphere is invasive, aggressive. To do or finish a job in the community, you cannot pass from one side to the other without your soul and heart being assaulted and your spiritual life shaken. To live Islam is as hard as walking on a road of fire or going across a river of foul blood. We are creatures of such a time of disasters and destruction. The sensuality, carnality, corporeality hidden in the self is like the tail of a scorpion lifted and ready to strike. Those appetites and lusts always feed upon and grow in the conditions prevalent (and systematically encouraged) in this modern society. It is possible to be poisoned at any instant by the scorpions within and around us. We must be aware of the conditions and evaluate them in the light of “the reward is proportionate to the hardship endured,” and so feel somewhat lightened and encouraged by the hope of a recompense whose magnitude will reflect the hardship and affliction we have overcome. The more successful we are in defeating the enemies, the more we will be rewarded. If the Companions acquired their high rank by overcoming the hardships and afflictions they faced, then people today could do and achieve almost as much in a similar way—which is what we expect from the Divine Mercy. Today, when the conditions for committing sins are so easy, of course there must have been some errors and sins of ours that we committed unintentionally; but it behooves us, and we need, not to leave the gate of Divine Mercy; rather, we must be persistent there. Let me tell you one of my childhood memories, which reflects how I think and feel. When I was a child we had a very faithful dog which guarded our flocks of sheep. I so admired its loyalty that I fed it frequently and even sometimes played with it. When I raised my little hands in prayer, I remembered the significance of its loyalty to us and put it next to my hopes and prayed to God: “O my Lord, just as I treated that dog as a friend on account of its loyalty to us, so forgive me, such a slave of Yours, who has never left You and the gates of Your Divine Mercy and who has never prayed and bowed before anyone else but You.”

The same is true for Muslims (who have never left Him and the gates of His Divine Mercy and who have never prayed and bowed before anyone else but He). In spite of some slips, mistakes and sins, there are such Muslims who serve in the way of God so sincerely and faithfully that God, the Most Merciful, will not drive them from the gates of His Mercy. We accept and admit our faults. Such admissions, confessions, are a part of journeying through regrets, remorse and repentance. We ask Him again and again to forgive our wrong-doings out of His Mercy, in accordance with His Grace. And God accepts and answers such prayers done wholeheartedly, with faith and sincerity.

What we have said so far was by way of reporting the situation we are in. Let us now look briefly at some points about what to do and how to act.

– I –

On slippery, dangerous roads, one walks very carefully, as if through a mine field or dangerous enemy territory. A comparable caution and alertness are necessary while one goes out in the streets and market-places, because it is always possible that the forbidden things will present themselves to our eyes. One should avoid looking at and seeing the forbidden by casting down the eyes or turning the face away. One who shuts his eyes to the forbidden does not lose anything materially and spiritually, and he does not give any harm to anybody. One who works efficiently, honestly and sincerely and serves in the way of God, can never be a passive victim of evil and vice. On the other hand, those who stare at others or let others stare at them do not gain anything thereby except danger. Hospitals, courts, prisons and the reports in the dailies are clear testimony of what such persons themselves, who court danger, and their partners, families, societies and countries, have lost by doing so. You cannot expect much from those who paralyzed their hearts and wills by wandering glances.

In one hadith the Prophet said: “A time will come when to preserve faith will be like holding a red hot cinder in one’s palms. If you throw it away, you will lose your faith, if you keep it, you will get burnt.”[2]

In another hadith he said: “Nazar (glancing at the forbidden) is one of the poisonous arrows of Satan.”[3] When it hits the heart or penetrates it through the channel of the eyes, one perishes. And the Prophet expressed the Divine Will in his words and added that: “If anyone leaves it out of fear of Me, I will give his heart such an exhilaration of faith that he feels it thoroughly in the very depths of his heart.”[4]

The Prophet expressed his attitude toward the poisonous arrows of Satan in speech and also demonstrated it in his dealings with his close relatives. While they were descending from Mount Arafat during the pilgrimage, he let his cousin, Fadl, son of ‘Abbas, ride on his camel. In order to prevent his cousin’s gaze being caught by the women who were passing by them, the Prophet with his hand pushed his cousin’s head from one side to the other.[5] Recall that this happened during pilgrimage, when any intention to look at women for pleasure is impossible, and when, in the words of ‘Aisha, mother of believers, women used to cover even their faces, at a time when everyone felt the sublime atmosphere of the Archangel Gabriel’s Revelations, the nearness of the Hereafter, and the miracles, the Age of Happiness. Even as we seek to control our hearts in the mosques and in the company of other sincere Muslims, how should we evaluate the Prophet’s turning his cousin’s face from one side to another during a Hajj in that epoch? The Prophet did so because he did not want his cousin to be distracted, to be hit by a poisonous arrow which might sow the seeds of evil and vice in his heart and mind, even at a time when Fadl was far from dreaming of such a thing.

The meaning of this event is to cut off evil at its root. It is like not allowing a box of matches into the forest so as to protect it from being burnt down; or, even when there is no threat of war, to maintain the practice of guarding the frontiers and headquarters with many sentries; or to stuff all the holes and crevices so that snakes and scorpions have no dwelling-places in which to breed. That is, to set barriers before vice and evil so as to prevent many individuals from being led astray and families broken; to eliminate all the ways and means leading to rape, adultery, murder, all sorts of immorality, perversions and corruptions; and to deter all sins by prevention. That is the way defined by God.

The Prophet said to ‘Ali, who became a Muslim at the age of seven, who grew up within the atmosphere of the Prophet, was his cousin and was to be the father of the generations that would come from the Prophet’s lineage: “O ‘Ali, the first glance is in your favor, but the second is against you.” That is, when your eye lights on something forbidden, you will not be responsible for that glance because it is unintentional and accidental. Your will is not in that first look. But, if you do not turn your eyes from it and keep on looking, your carnal self and will are in it, and you will be questioned and punished for it; because this is the first ring of a chain that will drag you into deviation, into the forbidden. So the Prophet would have us close the gates to the forbidden, to prevent it in advance, before it can happen.

– II –

One should not go out simply when one is bored. Going out just out of boredom is a weakness and error of attitude. For, one exposes oneself thereby to more negatives, a sort of “falling out of the frying pan into the fire.”

Boredom arises from the dissatisfaction of the heart, lack of closeness and relation to the Prophet and God, being unable to do the religious duties and prayers properly or adequately, being free or idle due to not reading and contemplating enough, having few good friends and having no duty or responsibility on one’s shoulders to fulfill or not serving in the way of God as one is supposed to. In such a person, there are many openings for Satan to get into. This is like walking again through the trenches where one was wounded by Satan, or like drinking sea-water to quench a thirst aroused by drinking sea-water.

There is another way to look at this situation. God, in virtue of His name Qabdh, grips man’s heart and puts him into a state of qabdh (literally, “contraction,” “gripping”); a state of spiritual desolation, which is a test for man to see his level of determination and loyalty. That is, the man is tested to see whether he will turn to God and do prayers and supplications—or turn away. Let me point out here that prayers, supplications, duties and services done in such a state are far more rewarding than those done at bast (literally, “expansion,” “extension”), in a joyful and happy state, or than those done with ease, amid other Muslims at normal times of congregation. And later on, as the sun shines after a short burst of cloudy weather, God, in virtue of His name Basit, expands the man’s heart and returns him to comfort and eagerness. Thus, God gives man the reward proportionately to the hardship he endures.

In sum, one should not go out unnecessarily and, when he does so, he should try to accomplish not a single but a couple of tasks on one occasion. He should keep away from the places and districts where sins are committed and where there is no service in the way of God.

When one goes out, one should give the time and place the attention that is their due. The Companions of the Prophet, like Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and Abu Dhar, often went out to teach the truths of Islam. Those who go out onto the public streets with such aims in mind give the streets their due right and thus are protected from committing sins. When the Prophet forbade his Companions to sit alongside the roadway, they said they had some business or good reason for doing so. Then the Prophet said: “Then give the roadway its due,” that is, clean it of all stones, thorns or obstacles, receive and respond to the greetings of passers-by, enjoin the good and forbid the bad and tell them the truths. Only with this pure intention, one’s sins and wrong-doings can be replaced and turn to good deeds.

– III –

One should refer to, read, listen to, or have to do with works that encourage knowledge, awe and fearful reverence (makhafa), purify the senses and feelings, direct one’s attention to the higher purpose of living in this world, and keep one’s thoughts and feelings under the influence of that purpose while one is going out to school, or work, or is engaged in service. One should review one’s purpose before going out, take a deep look at the self’s accounts and balance-sheet, do self-supervision, and be equipped with some spiritual tension so that it may serve as a cover, or shield, between oneself and vice. In that way one may be protected by God from Satan and sins.

– IV –

One should not go out, as it were, unattended. One should have the company of one or more good friends who can always help guide one’s attention and who are accessible for consultation and who can keep one’s spiritual resources alert through guidance and counseling. For, often one’s inner control may not suffice to brake and hold oneself safe against temptations. One’s level of faith may not be of the strength and quality to feel that one is always under the watchful supervision of God. One may sometimes suffer such weak moments that self-control fails, one’s gaze slips to the forbidden, and thus one receives a wound in the soul, the seed of bad ideas may spread in the mind and a sin begin to ferment in the soul. However, when one has good friends around, each watching out for the others, conversation can always turn to good things and one can be more careful about what enters the eyes and ears. There are moments when one will forget that the watchful supervision of God is constant; in such moments, the desire and need not to embarrass and disgrace one’s friends may serve to prevent acts or manners that constitute or lead to wrong-doing. This may be considered a lack of sincerity, to some extent even a sort of hypocrisy, a mere pretending to be good; but, whereas hypocrisy ruins the essence of the positive deeds, like salat (prescribed daily prayers), it does not ruin the negative deeds, the not-doing of what is bad. For example, if a man does not commit adultery while only pretending to be good, still he did not commit that sin, or if he does not steal something only because people are watching him, even so he did not steal. When the adultery of the hand or foot, eye or ear, or mind, or whatever else will draw man’s imagination toward sin is renounced, even to seem good to others, one is considered to be safe from that sin unless and until it takes control of the soul and one commits the sin, as it were, in the heart though not daring to do it in fact. Furthermore, there is some reward in not committing and renouncing the forbidden. For instance, each closing of the eyes to the forbidden earns man the reward of a wajib (necessary) act.

– V –

While coming, going or staying somewhere else one should, to the extent practicable, carry with him the works and materials related to our world of faith and religion. These will serve to protect him, like guarding angels. These materials, which act as a shield against sins, will be the means for inward contemplation, for watchful supervision. A person who is accompanied or surrounded by such materials can commit sins only with difficulty.

– VI –

As soon as one has done something wrong, one should repent and turn to the Divine forgiveness. Sin is going out of the atmosphere of God’s favor, Grace, and denial of His security. In each sin, there is always a way leading to new sins. One who has committed a sin already becomes an easier target for Satan, more likely to be targeted again and commit that sin again. As one’s sins increase, God’s security and protection against them decrease.

The place where a sin is least able to dwell is the believer’s heart. The wrongs should be transient there, like passing clouds on a sunny day, and should fade quickly. Sin is foulness, a stain, rust. As it is expressed in a hadith, when foulness and rust pile up because not cleaned off immediately, they come in between the heart and God, cut off the manifestations coming from Him, hinder the winds of His Mercy and deprive one of His Grace. Could there be an easier target for Satan to hit than such a heart?

No matter what the nature of the sin, one should never permit such a negative effect to build up in the heart and soul. Therefore, turn to God, express remorse, repent, ask for His forgiveness, take refuge in His infinite Grace and Mercy. One of the Companions came to the Prophet very upset, and said that he was utterly perished. He explained that on the way he had looked at a woman or touched her. He was so remorseful, indeed devastated, on account of his sin that God sent Gabriel with the following verse:

And establish regular prayers at the two ends of the day [fajr, zuhr, ‘asr] and at the approaches of the night [magrib, isha]. For those things that are good remove those that are evil. That is a reminder for the mindful. (Hud 11:114)

It is by the prayers that we keep away from evil, and God forgives the sins and replaces them with good. In particular, waking up for the tahajjud (a very rewarding supererogatory prayer observed in the night), which is the light of the intermediate world, leaving the comfort of bed and sleep during the latter hours of the night, and turning to God in prayer—is a sure means of undoing mistakes and cleansing the stain of sins quickly.[6]

Prayers and supplications in the late hours of the night done by a heart full of fear and hope will certainly be accepted by God, provided that they are from the heart with sincerity. To do the five daily prayers at the appointed times of worship, each of which signifies the milestones of a day in humanity’s life, are a means for any wrong-doings and sins committed between two times of prayer to be forgiven.[7] More than that, we should also try to earn God’s pleasure by supererogatory prayers, especially the tahajjud.[8]

A separate but important issue is that one who has committed a crime that embarrasses him will not want anyone to become aware of it. However, he is totally aware that God and His Angels saw and know what he did. Satan lies in wait for just such an eventuality and will seek to make the sinner say: “I wish there were none who saw and knew about my sin,” or even “I wish it were not a sin”—Remember that not accepting as a sin what God has forbidden leads to unbelief.

Insistence on committing a sin and considering it trivial may also lead one to unbelief. Some people may be so habituated to sins they cannot extricate themselves. It can happen that we unintentionally push such people into far worse situations in an effort to rescue them. For example, if we say to a weak Muslim, “Don’t drink. It is forbidden,” he may respond: “A little or a cupful cannot be forbidden,” or “I find the rule too strict.” Likewise, in response to insistent words calling to salat, a weak individual may respond with: “I’m not coming.” Such responses belong to unbelief, so the individual may be led astray.

Essentially, sin is sin when it is insisted on, considered trivial, not feared for its harm, not repented, and for which forgiveness is not asked. Otherwise, if one is not persisting in a sin, knows the harm and damage of it, tries to shun it, repents the doing of it, and seeks forgiveness, by the grace of God, as the Qur’an states, one will be granted forgiveness and mercy. Though the sin be the size of a mountain, one should not despair, for there is no sin that God will not forgive, except the sin of shirk (associating partners with God)—and one who commits that will not turn to God for forgiveness; he will seek solace (if at all) at the court of some false or non-existent power.

– VII –

One should not be free or idle, and should take on some duties, responsibilities and services on him. Satan makes use of idleness and inactivity, and does not like one’s being enlightened intellectually and spiritually so as to live and serve in the way of God. If one is empty of responsibility, then Satan preoccupies the mind and heart with fantasies, sins, and forbidden things. One can block up all the holes through which Satan leaks into the mind and heart by energetic activity and tries to prevent serving in the way of God. One who runs to spread the message of God to others without stopping to rest and congratulate himself will feel energy, vitality, and joy in both body and soul. As is stated in a hadith, since one enjoins the good and forbids the wrong, he will feel the blessings and inspirations of the Divine Revelations in his life, his food and necessities of life will be blessed and abundant, and his home (family) will be one of the abodes of Paradise. As is further pointed out in the hadith, if such duty and service in the way of God, is forsaken, this blessings of the Revelations will be cut off, and those who are deprived of such blessings will be doomed and perish in darkness and afflictions.

– VIII –

God will help and protect those who dedicate themselves to God, Islam, the Prophet, the communicating the Truth and the awakening or the enlightenment of people. God Himself makes a covenant with such people:

O You who believe, if you help [the cause of] God, He will help you, and plant your feet firmly. (Muhammad 47:7)

So it is obvious that God will not let those people be deviated, corrupted and caused to perish by any sort of evil or vice, or Satanic selfhood. The Prophet said that if someone draws near to God, God will draw near to him tenfold, if someone walks to God, God will run to him. So if one acts upon Islam, performs the prayers and obligations, and helps the Cause of God, he will be rewarded manifold, and God will not let him be distracted, deceived, or led astray by desires and temptations, his sins will be replaced by good and righteous deeds, and he will be recompensed with unknown, unforeseen rewards and eternal bliss.

On the one hand, we are in a terrible situation, surrounded by sins. On the other, we are in a situation that offers advantages that make up for its terrible side. With this attitude, to some extent comparable to that of the Companions, we have the opportunity of getting closer to the Companions. They could feel the breath of the Revelation on their faces, whereas we live ages apart from them. Yet, if we are able to take our place behind them with a Muhammadi spirit, we will, in one respect have assured our salvation by the grace of God.

May God not disappoint us in that hope! Amin.


[1] Nursi, Bediüzzaman Said, Sunuhat-Tuluat, 36.

[2]    Tirmidhi, Fitan 73; Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 2/390.

[3] Tabarani, Mu’jam al-Kabir, 10/173; Hakim, Mustadrak, 4/349.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bukhari, Hajj, 1, Sayd 24; Muslim, Hajj, 407.

[6] For more about tahajjud see: Tirmidhi, Mawaqit al-Salat, 51; Abu Dawud, Salat, 49;  Ibn Maja, Masajid 14.

[7] For the hadiths stating that God forgives His servants’ sins through the five daily prayers see: Bukhari, Mawaqit, 6; Muslim, Masajid, 282; Tirmidhi, Amthal, 5; Nasai, Salat, 7; Imam Malik, Muwatta, safar, 91.

[8] For the hadith stating that a servant is made closer to God through supererogatory prayers, see: Bukhari, Riqaq, 38; Musnad, 6/256.