We should try to perform our obligations and observe all the requirements of our faith. Even if we have proper beliefs and perform all our obligations but do not stop committing sins, we will not succeed.
If someone washes his hands ten times a day but continues to touch things which are dirty and polluted, he will become dirty again. It is no use saying that he washed his hands ten times that day. Daily prayer is like a spiritual bath which makes us clean but if we do the same things again afterwards then we are just making ourselves dirty again.
There is a beautiful example of someone who has a carrier bag into which he puts some purchases in order to take them home. But there is a big hole in the bottom of the carrier bag and so whatever he puts into the bag falls out through the hole. He is surprised and wonders how it could be possible that he has filled the bag with at least ten times its capacity but it still remains empty. He wonders where everything is going. In a similar way, depending on our age, we have worshipped God for 10, 20, 30 or 40 years.
But where is the result of this worship? Why are we still the same kind of people? Why are we the same after the month of Ramadan as we were before it? It is because we do good things but in addition to this we also do bad things.
There is another useful example related by Rumi. There was a farmer who used to harvest his wheat and put it into his storeroom, hoping to fill it for the winter. But, to his astonishment, every time he went to the storeroom to fill it with more wheat he discovered that the level of the wheat would be lower than before and thus the storeroom was never filled. So he was surprised, especially as the storeroom was always locked so that no-one else had access to it to take anything out. He would always carefully lock the door.
So he decided that one night he would have to stay awake inside his storeroom so that he could find out what was happening. So one night he indeed remained awake inside the storeroom, silently watching. After midnight he realized that there were some huge rats coming and taking all the wheat out of the storeroom.
Thus he realized that they were the real cause of the problem. So Rumi tells us that we are like this. There are some rats in our hearts which take away the light of our good deeds. If there are no rats, then where is the light of forty years of praying, the light of forty years of fasting, of going for Hajj, etc.? So we should be very careful not to do any sinful actions. We should not commit even one single sin.
Of course we are human beings and we may make mistakes, but a real believer is the one who, if he makes a mistake, firstly always feels sad and bitter about it and secondly he quickly repents and sincerely decides not to repeat the same mistake again. So, if we commit a sin we must repent as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, amongst some people who are interested in spirituality there are those who think that the religious law (shari‘ah) is only needed at the beginning and that afterwards we should be concerned with the requirements of the spiritual journey (tariqah). Sometimes they say that this is like someone who has reached the core and so no longer needs the peel.
But this is a wrong idea because we always need to observe the shari‘ah. The Holy Prophet and Imams of the Household of the Prophet (Peace be upon them all) always followed the shari‘ah and there is no one who can claim to be more pious than them. There is no incident where the Holy Prophet (S) committed a sin and then said that it was alright for him to do so.
For example he never said that we should not tell lies but that it was allowed for him to do so. Or that we should not drink alcohol or gamble but that for him it was acceptable. Unfortunately nowadays we find that there are some so-called Muslims who follow people calling themselves masters or imams who do not themselves follow the requirements of piety and still their followers believe in them and think that they will never be affected by their unlawful deeds.
However, according to the school of Ahlul Bayt this matter is very clear. We should observe the shari‘ah but this is not enough. There are two different ways of looking at shari‘ah. One is to believe that the shari‘ah is only for the beginner and that after we reach the higher levels we no longer need it. This is what some Sufis do. The second way is to say that the shari’a is always needed but that by only following shari‘ah we will always remain at the lowest level.
If we want to go to the higher levels, in addition to the shari‘ah we should try to go beyond the performance of mere rituals to discover the spirit contained within them. An example which might help is that of a person who is at primary school. If someone is at primary school and they feel satisfied with that, then their education will always remain incomplete. They need to go on to secondary school, to high school and then to university. But we cannot say that we will go to secondary school and once there we will forget about everything learnt at primary school. Or that when we go to university we will forget about everything learnt at high school. This will not work.
It has to be noted that nothing can replace performance of the obligations and refraining from the sins. In Nahj al-Balaghah, Imam Ali says:
لا تكن ممن يرجو الآخرة بغير عمل ويؤخر التوبة بطول الأمل
“Do not be one of the people who have hope for the hereafter without having good practice and who
postpone repentance because he is too ambitious”.1
If we maintain proper practice, little by little, the light of our deeds will enlighten our hearts. Even if you do little good things, it can be built upon, as long as you do not commit sins. The Prophet Muhammad (S) told Abu Dharr:
يا أبا ذر يكفي من الدعاء مع البر ما يكفي الطعام من الملح يا أبا ذر مثل الذي يدعو بغير عمل كمثل الذي يرمي بغير وتر
“O Abu Dharr, with piety, you need to supplicate just the amount of salt you have on your food. O Abu Dharr, the example of the one who supplicates without practice is like the one who tries to shoot an arrow without rubber.”2
On the other hand, if someone commits sins the performance of lots of good deeds will not help. We cannot compensate for sins with good deeds. The Qur’an says:
وَاتْلُ عَلَيْهِمْ نَبَأَ ابْنَيْ آدَمَ بِالْحَقِّ إِذْ قَرَّبَا قُرْبَانًا فَتُقُبِّلَ مِنْ أَحَدِهِمَا وَلَمْ يُتَقَبَّلْ مِنَ الْآخَرِ قَالَ لَأَقْتُلَنَّكَ ۖ قَالَ إِنَّمَا يَتَقَبَّلُ اللَّهُ مِنَ الْمُتَّقِينَ
“God only accepts from the pious people”. (Surah Maida 5:27)
1 Nahj al-Balaghah, Wise Saying No. 146 (150).
2 Bihar al-Anwar, Vol. 74, p. 85.