As servants of God, we are on a journey to grow closer to Him, but at times the road seems blocked. You may wonder, what is holding me back in my faith? Why don’t I feel anything when I worship? Why do good deeds seem so tedious while sinning is so easy? Has God turned away from me? These are the same questions asked by seekers of God throughout the centuries.
وَإِذَا سَأَلَكَ عِبَادِي عَنِّي فَإِنِّي قَرِيبٌۖ
[Prophet], if My servants ask you about Me, I am near. (2:186)
We know that God is near, but we may still feel a lack of spiritual connection. It can be hard to identify the cause, because we appear to be doing fine on the outside. We dash around on freeways and airplanes with things to do and places to go, carrying the latest gadgets in our pockets and accessing all of human knowledge with the click of a finger. We distract ourselves from the emptiness in our hearts with entertainment and indulgence. Although we are couched in luxury, we are spiritually starved and more anxious, alone, and depressed than ever before.
وَمَنۡ أَعۡرَضَ عَن ذِكۡرِي فَإِنَّ لَهُۥ مَعِيشَةٗ ضَنكٗا
But whoever turns away from My remembrance will certainly have a miserable life… (20:124)
How can we expect anything different? The One who created and designed our souls told us in His book that there is only one way for us to feel whole. There is only one formula for a good life:
مَنۡ عَمِلَ صَٰلِحٗا مِّن ذَكَرٍ أَوۡ أُنثَىٰ وَهُوَ مُؤۡمِنٞ فَلَنُحۡيِيَنَّهُۥ حَيَوٰةٗ طَيِّبَةٗۖ وَلَنَجۡزِيَنَّهُمۡ أَجۡرَهُم بِأَحۡسَنِ مَا كَانُواْ يَعۡمَلُونَ
Whoever does good, whether male or female, and is a believer, We will surely bless them with a good life…(19:97)
The need to be God-centered is written in our DNA. We are beings created for worship. We knew God in another dimension, before our existence on this earth, and so we yearn for Him from deep within our soul. Just like the one who is dehydrated may crave unhealthy food, we feed on distractions in order to forget the thirst of being disconnected from Him.
There is only one door out of this misery, and it is to awaken faith (iman). Faith comes first. It is our most precious resource and the starting point for everything truly good. As we awaken faith in our hearts, we become truly conscious of our surroundings, like someone waking up after a long sleep. We see this life as it truly is: a test, not an arena of entertainment. We understand the meaning of our existence and feel complete. Faith motivates us to pursue a closeness to God, and in that closeness, we find safety and peace.
ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ وَلَمۡ يَلۡبِسُوٓاْ إِيمَٰنَهُم بِظُلۡمٍ أُوْلَٰٓئِكَ لَهُمُ ٱلۡأَمۡنُ وَهُم مُّهۡتَدُونَ
Those who are faithful, and do not tarnish their faith with falsehood, will be secure, and it is they who are rightly guided. (6:82)
Every Muslim on earth has some trace of faith in their heart, which means we have all experienced its highs and lows. We have felt moments of remorse when we remember our shortcomings in fulfilling what He asked of us on earth. No matter how hardened our hearts have become, if there is even a trace of iman, we understand that we belong to Him. So every now and then, we make bold resolutions to become more God-centered, undergoing a surge of faith and worship. The journey to God is truly sweet, but this enthusiasm is usually a temporary phase. We get busy with family, work, school, and other pursuits. Our relationship with God is sidelined, and we become frustrated by this cycle. We might even wonder if it is possible to maintain a high level of faith while living in such a chaotic, anti-spiritual society.
Scholars and philosophers have asked this question many times over the centuries. As Muslims, we have a concrete example and practical methodology for living a faith-centered life in a material world. The Companions of the Prophet are timeless proofs of the power, adaptability, and possibility of strong faith. They were not superhuman--in fact, the more we learn about them, the more we appreciate how they wrestled with many of the same questions and challenges that we do. As narrations indicate, it was not the quantity of their deeds that led them to surpass every other generation, but something that rested within their hearts. The Prophet ﷺ taught them how to engage fully with their livelihoods, communities and families while seeking closeness to God, achieving and maintaining balance in all areas of life. We will take a closer look at the stories and examples of the Companions throughout the upcoming chapters.
The methodology used in developing the Companions emphasized iman (faith) before everything else. It wasn’t until the Madinah period, more than 13 years after the first revelation, that fasting was mandated, alcohol was outlawed, and other rulings regarding dress and social conduct were revealed. Even the five daily prayers were not prescribed until the Isra’ and Mi’raj, roughly ten years after the beginning of Prophethood. But consider this interesting fact: the night prayer (qiyam) was prescribed at the very beginning for the early Muslims!
It’s a fascinating point and reveals a lot about how to awaken and grow faith. Qiyam, staying up some of the night in prayer, is difficult enough once or twice a week. The early Muslims were commanded to spend the greater part of every night in prayer.
قُمِ ٱلَّيۡلَ إِلَّا قَلِيلٗا
نِّصۡفَهُۥٓ أَوِ ٱنقُصۡ مِنۡهُ قَلِيلًا
أَوۡ زِدۡ عَلَيۡهِ وَرَتِّلِ ٱلۡقُرۡءَانَ تَرۡتِيلًا
You, enfolded in your cloak!
Stand all night ˹in prayer˺ except a little—
half, or a little less,
or a little more; recite the Quran slowly and distinctly. (73:1-4)
Sa’d ibn Hisham asked Aishah, the Prophet’s wife, Mother of the Believers: “Tell me about the night prayers of the Prophet ﷺ.” She said, “Haven’t you read Surah Al-Muzzammil? Allah Exalted prescribed night prayers at the beginning of the surah. So Allah’s Prophet ﷺ and his Companions prayed that way for a year, and Allah held back the revelation of the end of the surah for twelve months. Then Allah revealed the end of the surah which lightened the burden, and so night prayer became voluntary after it had been obligatory.” 
Ibn Abbas said that in that first year, they used to pray every night in the same way that they would later pray during the nights of Ramadan. Why do you think night prayer was the very first religious prescription? The Quran points to the reason:
إِنَّ نَاشِئَةَ ٱلَّيۡلِ هِيَ أَشَدُّ وَطۡـٔٗا وَأَقۡوَمُ قِيلًا
Indeed, the hours of the night are more impactful and sharpen words. (73:6)
Praying, reciting the Quran, and calling upon God in the dark and stillness of the night was a stark departure from the typical rhythm of human life. Worshipping in the night softens and opens the heart to the Quran, and forgoing sleep is a sacrifice worthy of the weight of the message. This earliest group of the Companions were being prepared for a difficult mission, and their hearts had to be primed first. They would require a deep reserve of faith to sustain them through their sacrifice and the long road ahead.
When the heart fills up with faith, sacrifice and fulfilling religious obligations become easier. Because the hearts of the Companions had been nurtured with faith over the years, it was easier for them to implement religious prescriptions later on. The verse containing the order to give up alcohol and gambling concluded with the question,
فَهَلۡ أَنتُم مُّنتَهُونَ
Will you not give them up? (5:91)
The Companions had no hesitation in answering. Streams of alcohol flowed in the streets of Madinah as they emptied whatever containers were left in their homes. “We have given it up, our Lord!” they cried. It was an easy choice for hearts that had been nurtured in faith from the very beginning.
The first step in reforming ourselves and others is to awaken faith and reestablish the connection with God. This faith then becomes the driving force behind all good actions. Iman is not something that is inspired once, rather it must continuously be strengthened and renewed. As the heart beats with a strong pulse of faith, then the limbs and actions will follow.
Developing faith is the most important form of tarbiyah--training and development--and takes precedence over other forms of development, as is discussed in the chapter Tarbiyah and Good Company. However, our literature is lacking a practical guide on how to develop our own faith and the faith of others. There are many books that explore faith and its levels; one of the most notable is Madarij as-Salikeen (Steps of the Seekers) by Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyyah. In his book, Ibn al-Qayyim describes the many stations traversed by those seeking Allah, beginning with the station of awakening and continuing with repentance, sincerity, patience, gratitude, and so on. While the book does contain practical recommendations, they are not necessarily organized and presented as a how-to guide.
This is a crucial point in developing faith and where many of us get stuck. We understand the importance of faith but are not clear on the first steps. In order to progress in our faith and our journey to God, who is already closer to us than we can imagine, we must address what is blocking our hearts. We must revive the heart first before we can expect it to perform correctly.
This book focuses on these first steps of opening the heart and awakening iman. Faith First guides readers to understand how faith works and then offers eleven methods to awaken faith in the heart. The methods laid out in these pages are not new, but grounded in the Quran and teachings of the Prophet ﷺ_. With a multitude of verses, hadiths, and examples supporting each proven method, readers will understand in a new light the process of awakening faith in themselves and others. Most importantly, we hope readers put into practice the methods presented here, using them to renovate their hearts, awaken their iman, _and guide others in their journey to God.
This book is derived from the original Arabic volume Al-Iman Awwalan by Magdy Al-Hilali. Adapted and translated by the Muslim American Society (MAS), this book is a much-needed resource for Muslims struggling with the practical steps of increasing faith. Our MAS team of translators and editors strived to make this work user-friendly and relatable to contemporary readers, young and old.
An Assessment for the Heart ¶
We begin our quest to awaken faith with a question and an assessment. If God is close, as the verse in the beginning of this chapter indicated, then why do we feel far away sometimes? Why do we experience a perceived distance from God? Have we been abandoned? The Quran has a straightforward answer to this:
كَلَّاۖ بَلۡۜ رَانَ عَلَىٰ قُلُوبِهِم مَّا كَانُواْ يَكۡسِبُونَ
No, verily their hearts are encrusted with what they have done. (43:14)
Our sins and ignorance create a physical crust on our heart, and so we feel detached and numb. The encased heart becomes harder than usual and does not easily respond to reminders and invitations to do good. The effort it takes to break through the crust and to open the connection to the heart is different for every person.
For some, there is a living, beating heart just under a thin layer of crust. Others will only find their true, living heart through some effort, chipping away at the accumulated layers of dirt and neglect. It is not always a matter of time --if God wills, His guidance can free a trapped heart in an instant. No one can tell you exactly where your living, spiritual heart is hidden or how deep you will have to dig. One thing is certain: a vibrant faith-centered heart is always within reach. Anyone sincerely searching and willing to do some effort will reach their treasure.
Does your heart feel open and light?
Do you feel shivers down your spine sometimes when you read QURAN?
Do you feel a sense of awe when you think of God?
How sensitive are you to spiritual reminders?
Do you taste sweetness during prayer and while reading the Quran?
Do you sense a closeness God?
How will I know when I’ve arrived? How do I know when the connection to God is open? You can assess the state of your heart by looking for these signs. They are described in the Quran as symptoms of a living heart, one that is free of distortion and tuned to guidance.
Expansiveness and Light
1. The sensation of expansiveness and light ¶
A healthy heart is light and expansive. It will feel alive when it is doing good. Sin and wasting time will feel like deadweight to a heart that is doing well spiritually.
أَوَمَن كَانَ مَيۡتٗا فَأَحۡيَيۡنَٰهُ وَجَعَلۡنَا لَهُۥ نُورٗا يَمۡشِي بِهِۦ فِي ٱلنَّاسِ كَمَن مَّثَلُهُۥ فِي ٱلظُّلُمَٰتِ لَيۡسَ بِخَارِجٖ مِّنۡهَاۚ كَذَٰلِكَ زُيِّنَ لِلۡكَٰفِرِينَ مَا كَانُواْ يَعۡمَلُونَ
Is a dead person brought back to life by Us, and given light with which to walk among people, comparable to someone trapped in deep darkness who cannot escape? (6:122)
Ibn Mas’ud and some others of companions asked the Prophet ﷺ about this verse:
أَفَمَن شَرَحَ ٱللَّهُ صَدۡرَهُۥ لِلۡإِسۡلَٰمِ فَهُوَ عَلَىٰ نُورٖ مِّن رَّبِّهِۦ
What about the one whose chest God has opened in devotion to Him, so that he walks in light from his Lord? (39:22)
“What is this opening, Messenger of Allah?” The Prophet ﷺ answered, “It is a light that is cast into the heart, and so it expands.” The companions asked, “Messenger of Allah, are there signs of that happening?” He ﷺ replied, “Yes… a yearning for the space of eternal life, shunning the world of desires, and preparation for death before it is met.”
2. Shivering ¶
إِنَّمَا ٱلۡمُؤۡمِنُونَ ٱلَّذِينَ إِذَا ذُكِرَ ٱللَّهُ وَجِلَتۡ قُلُوبُهُمۡ وَإِذَا تُلِيَتۡ عَلَيۡهِمۡ ءَايَٰتُهُۥ زَادَتۡهُمۡ إِيمَٰنٗا وَعَلَىٰ رَبِّهِمۡ يَتَوَكَّلُونَ
True believers are those whose hearts tremble with awe when God is mentioned... [8:2]
The shivering or trembling when you think of Allah is a sign that life is returning to your heart. Shivers run down your spine when you reflect upon God and His words. Um ad-Dardaa said, “The shivering of the heart is like the burning of a palm leaf.” One can imagine the image she was evoking, similar to a piece of paper quivering, trembling and twisting in a flame.
3. Awe and Humility ¶
أَلَمۡ يَأۡنِ لِلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوٓاْ أَن تَخۡشَعَ قُلُوبُهُمۡ لِذِكۡرِ ٱللَّهِ وَمَا نَزَلَ مِنَ ٱلۡحَقِّ وَلَا يَكُونُواْ كَٱلَّذِينَ أُوتُواْ ٱلۡكِتَٰبَ مِن قَبۡلُ فَطَالَ عَلَيۡهِم ٱلۡأَمَدُ فَقَسَتۡ قُلُوبُهُمۡۖ وَكَثِيرٞ مِّنۡهُمۡ فَٰسِقُونَ
Is it not time for believers to humble [_takhsha’]_ their hearts to the remembrance of God and the Truth that has been revealed, and not to be like those who received the Scripture before them, whose time was extended but whose hearts hardened and many of whom were law-breakers? (57:16)
Khushu’ is usually translated as humility, but the meaning is actually a blend of emotions and physical sensations. Khushu’ encompasses meanings of awe, fear, reverence, and a hushed sensitivity, in addition to humility. It is the surrendering and deference of the heart, acknowledging our powerlessness and need for God. Ibn Al-Qayyim explains that the linguistic roots of khushu communicate a physical softening, hushing, and stillness. On the Day of Judgment, voices will be hushed in awe and surrender. God says in the Quran,
وَخَشَعَتِ ٱلۡأَصۡوَاتُ لِلرَّحۡمَٰنِ فَلَا تَسۡمَعُ إِلَّا هَمۡسٗا
Every voice will be hushed [khasha’at] for the Lord of Mercy; only whispers will be heard. (20:108)
Khushu’ is also used to describe the earth in the Quran; it is submissive, flattened, and still.
وَمِنۡ ءَايَٰتِهِۦٓ أَنَّكَ تَرَى ٱلۡأَرۡضَ خَٰشِعَةٗ فَإِذَآ أَنزَلۡنَا عَلَيۡهَا ٱلۡمَآءَ ٱهۡتَزَّتۡ وَرَبَت
Another of His signs is this: you see the earth lying desolate [khaashi’ah], but when We send water down on to it, it stirs and grows. (41:39)
4. A sensitive heart ¶
A clear, open heart is highly sensitive. The heart should not be a bystander in worship. A healthy, living heart engages fully with worship, and there is a harmony of heart, tongue and limbs, each communicating and interacting with the other while performing worship or remembering God.
Willing to be summoned at any time, a healthy heart is response-ready. It is alive, sensitive and softened, summoning tears and emotions during prayer, recitation of Quran, remembrance (dhikr), and supplication (dua). In fact, the heart is present not only at those times, but also in daily life situations that call for a sensitive, empathetic response.
A variation of this sign is an increase in khushu’ and sensitivity after, not just during, worship. Following acts of worship, we should check our heart for increased humility, sensitivity and connectedness with Allah:
وَيَخِرُّونَ لِلۡأَذۡقَانِ يَبۡكُونَ وَيَزِيدُهُمۡ خُشُوعٗا
They fall down on their faces, weeping, and it increases their humility. [17:109]
6. Tasting the sweetness of faith. ¶
It is a sweetness like no other. The Prophet ﷺ said, “THERE ARE three states in which you can find the sweetness of faith: when Allah and His messenger are more beloved than anything else, to love someone only for the sake of Allah, and to hate to return to disbelief just as one would hate to be thrown into the fire.”
Al-Hasan Al-Basri said, “Look for the sweetness of faith amidst three things: during prayer, in the remembrance of God, and during the recitation of Quran. If you cannot find it there, you should know that your door is blocked.”
7. Feeling close to God. ¶
When your heart is free and alive, you feel close to Allah. You can sense Him as you pray and supplicate. You know that He is listening when you call upon Him, so you call upon Him even more. Day by day you grow closer until you reach a level of intimate nearness, when you find delight in worshipping and being alone with Him. This joyous relationship has been described by a multitude of scholars of spirituality and self-development. Ibn Al-Qayyim says,
When the heart lets go of fretting over this life with its money, status and image, and instead clings to the hereafter, bracing itself to stand before Allah, this is the first of its triumphs. It is the beginning of an inner sunrise, in which the heart tries to discover what will please Allah in order to do more and increase in closeness to Him. Whatever displeases Him is avoided. This is the sign of a true desire for God.
When the heart is awakened and begins to move freely in this way, it learns to relish moments of loneliness and privacy with God. Never noticing them before, it now seeks out empty places, where voices and sounds are hushed. The heart feels alienated by the constant chatter of life. In the silence, it finds the necessary space to renew and rejuvenate while escaping the distractions and low morale.
As you continue on this road, you'll find a door open for your heart, and you'll feel yourself well up with love and sweetness. You'll feel that you can never get your fill of worship--you'll find comfort and joy beyond any mundane happiness. You might find yourself wishing prayer will never end, and you will long to hear more of the speech of Allah because your heart is put at ease--just as the heart of a child is at ease when it's surrounded by love.
These are some of the signs, mentioned by the Quran and Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, that we can use as benchmarks to measure how near or far we are from a healthy heart. Don’t be discouraged reading about them! If you do not feel any of these sensations, it does not mean that you aren’t a believer, nor does it mean your hearts is permanently sealed. It certainly does not mean there is no hope--only that there is work to do.
If you are like many people, you have occasional moments when you experience a closeness with God, but those moments fade quickly and do not last. The iman is still there in our hearts, by the grace of Allah, but we should take our weakening pulse as a warning sign. We must move forward to nurture ourselves on a program of awakening and developing our faith. As we work through the program, we just may find along the way that our heart achieves continuous consciousness of God and tastes the joy described earlier. God says in the Quran,
يَٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ ٱسۡتَجِيبُواْ لِلَّهِ وَلِلرَّسُولِ إِذَا دَعَاكُمۡ لِمَا يُحۡيِيكُمۡۖ وَٱعۡلَمُوٓاْ أَنَّ ٱللَّهَ يَحُولُ بَيۡنَ ٱلۡمَرۡءِ وَقَلۡبِهِۦ وَأَنَّهُۥٓ إِلَيۡهِ تُحۡشَرُونَ
Believers, respond to God and His Messenger when he calls you to that which gives you life. Know that God comes between a man and his heart, and that you will be gathered to Him. [8:24]
This task of awakening our own faith and the faith of others is a pressing matter, and it cannot be ignored. Even someone with a sick heart still can be moved during acts of worship and public reminders. They may still recognize the beauty of worship in collective environments and occasions, such as Ramadan, Hajj, conventions, and organized spiritual programs. For a short time, they may enjoy being in the company of God, but they are mistaken if they think those short moments are adequate.
The effect is temporary. Once we are submerged in the sludge of our day-to-day, the joy and memory of God-mindfulness disappear; just as someone asleep is startled into consciousness, looks around for a few seconds, then drifts off to sleep again. The one who possesses a pure, living heart is continuously awake and alert, and works hard to maintain this state amidst the fast currents of life. This is the goal we will try to reach together in this book, God willing.
(Muslim "1/512 #746")
Ibn Abi Shaibah (7/266 #35942) Abu Dawud (2/475 #1305) and Al-Hakim (2/548 #3864)
Ibn Abi Shaybah (7/77 no. 34315) and Al-Bayhaqi in Az-Zuhd (p. 356, no. 974)
Al-Bayhaqi in Shu’ab Al-Iman (2/382 no. 1098)
Tahtheeb Madarij As-Salikeen by Ibn Al-Qayyim, p. 275
Al-Bukhari (1/12 no. 16) and Muslim (1/22 no. 43)
Haliyat Al-Awliya’ by Abu Naim (6/171)
Tahtheeb Madarij As-Salikeen by Ibn Al-Qayyim, p. 631-632