Self Inventory- al-Muhasabah

I sat on a conference panel a few months back where we talked about the current state and future of the American Muslim community. As one of the speakers offered commentary focusing on institutions, my mind sparked. There was so much focus on institutions, but yet people weren’t instituting Islam. People were focused on edifices, but there was little edifying Islam in our daily lives. When my time came to speak, I focused on character building. Our communities seem to lack not only ethos, but ethics. There is too much dissension within our leadership, and many of them are not trained in basic leadership skills. Everybody wants to be a leader, but few people want to be good followers.  And people within the community don’t know how to work well with others to support our mutual goals.  This includes within our families, because our interpersonal skills are so lacking that we are destructive. Combined, the instability of our families and constant political fighting, have created an environment where Muslims are not getting the guidance and resources they need to be successful. Many Muslim leaders have good intentions and I have seen some great strides in institutional building,  but at the same time I see recurrent problems that are not adequately addressed.

As Muslims, we are taught to focus on two aspects of our devotional lives: 1. the laundry list approach to developing practices and habits or 2. increasing our intellectual knowledge through both exoteric and esoteric books, lectures, and articles. We assume that using both approaches we can better ourselves. Often, we are puzzled by why things go wrong.  How can we, as outwardly devout people, end up falling so short of our lofty goals? The truth is that we are missing pieces of the puzzle.  There is a strong disconnect between our own spiritual aspirations and  how we move about in the world for many of us. And that is what jams  up so many of us. Imam Ghazali writes:

O disciple, how many nights have you spent rehearsing your learning, reading books, and depriving yourself of sleep? I do not know what the motive was in this–if it was winning the goods of the world, the allure of its vanities, getting its honours, and vainglory to the debit of your associates and peers, woe to you and woe again! But if your objective in it was the revival of the Prophet’s Law (God bless him and give him peace), the cultivation of our character and breaking  the ‘soul that inciteth to evil,’ blessing upon  you and blessing again!”  (14) [1]

Because many of us are not self-aware, but reactionary, we don’t truly cultivate our character or battle our inner demons. Instead, we look to others for our affirmation, hence the cycle of expectations, entitlement, and ego.  Many of us do not reflect at the end of the day, thinking about why something made us angry or sad. Nor do we question why we do things that are hurtful to either ourselves or someone around us. Rarely do we look at our motivations for certain actions, therefore we hardly ever check our intentions. And that is a dangerous thing because actions are but by intention. This is why we need to constantly assess ourselves.

Ramadan is a perfect time for assessing our relationship with our Creator. In order to be truly honest with ourselves, we have to lift certain veils that block us from being able to look in the mirror. Unfortunately, many of us are busy blaming others, remaining trapped in resentment, or feeling entitled, which causes us not to take an unflinching look at ourselves. One of the first steps entails forgiving others, or at least not letting the pain rule us, and taking ownership for how we have wronged ourselves, others, and our Creator. We need to be able to honestly assess our strengths and weaknesses as individuals and develop real strategies  that draw on our strengths for overcoming our personal blockages. And since that is difficult, and many of us don’t have mentors, guides, and sheikhs who really know us, we have to sort of muddle through. Despite our lack of resources, I think that it is possible to draw on an Islamic tradition of al-Muhasabah or self-inventory, modern psychology, and a bit of self-help to begin that process. I will use self-inventory and self-assessment interchangeably.  First let us look at the definition of self-assessment

self-assessment n

1. an evaluation of one’s own abilities and failings

2. (Economics, Accounting & Finance / Banking & Finance) Finance a system to enable taxpayers to assess their own tax liabilities [3]

In an article, Al-Muhasabah on being honest with oneself, the author states:

Self-criticism seems like a fairly straightforward concept. The activity that makes it possible, however-namely, honesty with oneself-is exceedingly hard to come by, for it requires admission of our wrongdoings whenever such actions escape us.  It means acknowledgement within ourselves that we have committed a sin, whether against our own souls or others, be it our Creator or anyone or anything in creation. For most of us, such a confession is an incredibly tough thing to do. [2]

I think this is really helpful, but only focusing on our wrongs can be demoralizing. I have used self-assessments in the classroom and often they focus on finding strengths. In fact, there are many kinds of self assessments and personal inventories. The most common ones we will find are career and personal interest inventories and the second most common are those we find in motivation literature. There are two aspects of self-inventory, taking an assessment of our character flaws and acknowledging our wrongs and mistakes. A few readers might be familiar with the rigorous self inventory process of programs like Alcoholics Anonymous [4]. I do suggest looking at the moral inventory list because it is a useful tool. Only through acknowledgement of our wrongs, can we perform true tauba (repentance) and make changes. But, in many ways our sins are merely symptoms of an illness. And since most of us don’t have a guide, we have to do some serious self diagnosis. This is where we can use tools to do a real self inventory. The most powerful tool a believer has in the path to Ihsan (Perfecting Faith) is self inventory.  It is important to remember a few principles when it comes to self inventory:

1. Honesty- we must be fully honest and not delude ourselves when we are taking self inventory. We cannot make excuses for our actions or try to sugar coat things.

2. Faith- while acknowledging our flaws, we should have faith that our Lord will forgive our sins and shortcomings. .

3. Hope- We have to accept that we are human and these shortcomings are part of our nature, yet we can overcome them with help from God

One of the reasons why a personal inventory is important, even if you have a spiritual guide, is that only the individual has access to his or her own heart, memories, and thoughts. Confession is not part of Islam, as each person is accountable for his or her actions and no one else can expiate sins. In addition, exposing one’s sins can cause greater harm than good. Finally, the self reckoning is a personal journey and it is dangerous for our souls to take pride in the steps we are making towards improvement. Many people put on an act for others, especially if we admire them and want to impress them. Would I want to tell someone I admire that deep inside I am a fickle person, easily flattered and easily hurt by criticism? Imam Ghazali writes, “travel on this path should be by way of self-exertion, severing the ego’s appetite and killings its passions with the sword of discipline, and not by way of  and useless statements” (24) [1]While someone can observe from the outside and see certain character defects and strengths, they are unlikely to know the full contours. The guide can be just that, a guide on our journey. Each individual must exert themselves, with determination, to walk that path.

I believe that our development will become apparent to those around us, especially those we love. It will improve the quality of our lives, help us adjust to challenges, and allow us to come closer to our Creator. I do think it is worth it to look for means to honestly assess ourselves, come up with strategies to deal with our weaknesses, implement them, and assess our progress constantly. If we do that in a continual cycle, with honesty, faith, and hope, we can be more successful in both this life and the hereafter.

But don’t just take my word for it, I included a really nice video that deals with this subject below:


[1] Al-Ghazali Letter to a Disciple. Islamic TExts Society, Cambridge UK, 2005