The Nature and Purpose of Self-Discipline (Riyazet)(7 Shawwal 1422)

We have just finished our fast during the blessed month of Ramadan. May Allah Most High accept your efforts, and may your experience with austerity leave some beneficial trace on your days after Ramadan.

The principle of Ramadan is to learn to discipline oneself for Allah’s sake. This is called riyazet.

Riyazet is the attempt to bring both the flesh and the ego into a state of obedience, a state of humbleness, in order to make it possible for us to live our lives as good servants to our Lord. Our ego loves its independence and loves even more to lead us to revolt against divine ordinances. Usually the discipline undertaken to educate the ego into obeying Allah involves denying it its wishes while subjecting it to hunger, unpleasant experiences, austerity, difficulties, and suffering, until it learns to face these difficulties and accept them easily. Only then are we able to free ourselves from lives consisting merely of habits. Only then can we wake up from the sleep of heedlessness, assume divine morals and character, and be in harmony with the divine harmony.

However, one of the principles of Sufism is to reform people painlessly, in such a way that they like what they are doing. Thus the best means of developing discipline in the ego is not to fight it. Instead, we can first try to understand it, enter into conversation with it so as to learn its wishes. Then we can let it have the harmless things it wants‑but less of them than it wants. And we can try to reason with it while we deny its unlawful demands. Meanwhile, we undertake to convince the ego that the pleasures of the spiritual life are better than the fun and games of the habitual worldly life. But to be able to feel the beauty of the spiritual life, our being has to be cleansed of habits. And the way to get rid of habits is to reduce the worldly involvement in our lives. Indeed it makes sense: we need to create a space in ourselves that belongs to what is spiritual, and to clear that space, we have to empty it of our everyday worldly desires.

Riyazet is not just thoughts, meditation, and intention. It is a matter of action, and actions are of two sorts. There are visible, exterior actions, physical and material, such as praying, fasting, paying alms, going to Pilgrimage, doing good deeds. There are also invisible, interior ones, such as endurance of pain and difficulties, patience, contentment with less of the pleasant things of life, satisfaction with what one has without wishing for more, cheerfulness in the face of the bitter complaints of the ego, and, to a certain extent, withdrawal from society at large.

The purpose of riyazet is not to obtain spiritual gifts, to open the gates of the angelic realms in order to receive revelations. Some people do hope for this, but they will not receive it unless Allah Most High so chooses, and He chooses whomever He wishes. Rather the purpose of this discipline is to improve one’s character, to adopt good morals, to be in harmony with the divine order, and to become a human being as Allah meant us to be. When people become what they are meant to be, their material life and physical being are clearly affected. They feel fresh, strong, vital, conscious, happy, and at peace. The spiritual sustenance one receives in this way is much more tasty and nourishing than ordinary food. In fact, the people blessed with this state are often neither hungry nor thirsty and despite that may even gain weight, as some of us do during Ramadan.

To reduce the satisfaction and pleasures of the flesh food, fun, and fashionable clothes, sex, seduction, and the sleep of heedlessness, depravity, violation, and imagination we have to fear Allah, rather than fearing our egos.

For fear is the principal thing that paralyzes us, that prevents us from attempting to escape from our miserable state of slavery to our egos. It is the strongest influence of our egos over us. They immobilize us with fear of failing, fear of poverty, fear of people; fear of being abandoned by society, by our wives or husbands, by our own children; fear of retribution, punishment, and loneliness; fear of being hurt, and the ultimate fear of death. The ego says, “Obey me! Be a hypocrite and a liar and a cheater, greedy and ambitious, and step on other people, so that you will be successful and respected. Be a miser: keep your money and your knowledge to yourself and don’t care if others die of need, for otherwise you may find yourself in need, like them. Beat people so that they know you are strong: then you will be safe. Eat well, dress well, live in big houses, be haughty and arrogant, so that you will be prominent. Advertise yourself in the papers and on TV so that you won’t be forgotten, but immortal.”

Is it not freedom from these fears that most of us live for? If only we would listen to the wishes of our Creator in the way that we listen to the wishes of our egos! If we spent the same effort and obedience upon doing what He guarantees will provide peace and felicity in this world and in the Hereafter, we would be saved. And we would not regret it afterwards, as we often do when we obey our egos.

Woe to the fool who is tricked by his private devil. Where are the Pharaohs, Nimrods, Hitlers? Where are the rich and famous who have killed themselves out of despair?

You ego is the most cursed of all temporal creations, but it is still God’s creation. Like all poisonous things, it has its function. Scorpions’ poison is also a medicine. If you oppose the Devil, he can lead you to salvation. The more you leave the falsehood of imagination, the closer you get to truth. The one who is far from truth is unloved by Allah. The one who is near to truth is loved by Allah. Whoever fears Allah is feared by all, and whoever is loved by Allah is loved by all.

May Allah save us all from the tyranny of our egos. Amin.

al-Hajj al-Imam ash-Shaykh Tosun Bayrak Efendi al-Jerrahi al-Halveti

7 Shawwal 1422 / 22 December 2001