Muhasaba, Self Criticism Or Self Interrogation
Literally meaning reckoning, settling the accounts and self-interrogation, muhasaba (self-criticism) is that believer always reviews whatever he says and does every day or even every hour, good or bad, right or wrong. He also thanks God for the good he has done and tries to erase his sins and deviations by asking God to forgive him and he amends his errors and sins by repentance and remorse.
Muhasaba is the very important and serious attempt of a believer to assert himself in his loyalty to God. It is recorded by the writer of Futuhat al-Makkiya (‘Makkan Conquests’) – Muhy al-Din ibn al-‘Arabi – that the righteous people of the early centuries of Islam used to either write down or commit to their memories whatever they did or said every day. Then they criticized themselves for any evil or sin in their words and deeds in order to protect themselves from the storms of vanity and whirls of self-pride, and they also asked for God’s forgiveness for that evil sin.
They used to shelter in the quarantine of repentance against the viruses of errors and deviations, and prostrate in thankfulness to God for the meritorious deeds or words that the Almighty created through them. Self-criticism may also be described as seeking and discovering one’s inwardness and spiritual depth and exerting the necessary spiritual and intellectual efforts to acquire true human values and develop the sentiments that encourage them. It is by means of such efforts that a man distinguishes between what is good and bad and what is beneficial or harmful to him throughout his life and maintains the uprightness of his heart. It is through continuous self-criticism that a man is enabled to evaluate the present and prepare for the future.
Again, it is through self-criticism that he can make up for past mistakes and be absolved in the sight of God, constantly realizing self-renewal in his inner world in order to achieve a steady relation with God. This is so because it depends on whether a man can live a spiritual life and is aware of what takes place in his inner world that he can preserve his celestial nature as a true human being and keep his inner senses and feelings active.
With respect to both his spiritual life and his everyday practical life, a Muslim cannot be indifferent to self-criticism. On the one hand, he tries to revive his ruined past with the breezes of hope and mercy blown by Divine calls such as Repent to God (24.31) and Turn to Your Lord repentant (39.54) which come from the worlds beyond and echo in his conscience.
On the other, through the warnings, at once as frightening as thunderbolts and as exhilarating as mercy, contained in the verses such as O you who believe! Fear God and observe your duty to Him. And let every soul consider what it has prepared for the morrow (59.18), he comes to his senses and becomes alert (against committing new sins), being defended as if behind locked doors against all kinds of evils. Taking each moment of his life to be a time of germination in spring, he seeks ever greater depth in spirit and heart with insight and consciousness arising from belief.
Even if he is sometimes pulled down by the carnal dimension of his existence and falters, he is always on the alert, as is stated in the Divine declaration: Those who fear God and observe His commandments, when a passing stroke from Satan troubles them, they immediately remember (God), and lo! they are all aware (7.201).
Self-criticism is like a lamp in the heart of a believer and a warner and a well-wishing adviser in his conscience. Every believing man distinguishes through it between what is good and evil and what is beautiful and ugly and what is pleasing to God and what is displeasing to Him, and by the guidance of that well-wishing adviser, he surmounts all obstacles, however seemingly insurmountable, and reaches his destination. Self-criticism attracts Divine mercy and favor, enabling one to go deeper in belief and servanthood, to succeed in practicing Islam, and to gain nearness to God and eternal happiness. It also prevents a believer from falling into despair that will ultimately lead him to rely in vanity on his own acts of worship to be saved from Divine punishment in the Hereafter. [Note: If a man falls into despair (of Divine mercy) concerning his eternal life because of his sins, he tries to find a way to relief from Divine punishment. He then remembers his past good acts and relies on them. However, this is an utterly inadequate way, as it is purely through Divine mercy that a man can be saved from God’s punishment and enter Paradise. Tr.]
As self-criticism opens for man the door to spiritual peace and tranquility, it also causes him to fear God and His punishment in awe of Him. In the hearts of those who constantly criticize themselves and call themselves to account for their deeds is always echoed the Prophetic warning: If you knew what I know, you would laugh little but weep a lot.
Self-criticism which gives rise to both peacefulness and fear in a man’s heart, continuously inspires in him the anxiety of those who live doubled up with the heavy responsibility they feel – the anxiety voiced as: If only I had been a tree cut into pieces.
Self-criticism makes man always feel the distress and strain expressed in: The earth seemed constrained to them for all its vastness and their own souls strained to them (9.118). In every cell of their brains resounds: Whether you make known what is in your souls or hide it, God will bring you to account for it (2.284), and they groan in utterances like I wish my mother had not given birth to me! While it is difficult for everyone to achieve self-criticism of such a degree, it is also difficult for one who does not do so [to be sure that he will be able] to live today better than yesterday and tomorrow better than today.
Those who are crushed between the wheels of time, those whose every day is not better than the preceding one, cannot perform well their duties pertaining to the afterlife. It shows the perfection of one’s belief that one constantly criticizes and reprimands oneself. Every soul who has planned his life to reach the horizon of perfect, universal man is conscious of his life and spends every moment of his life struggling with himself.
He demands a password or visa from whatever occurs to his heart and mind. He controls himself against the temptations of Satan or the excitement of his temper and is extremely careful about whatever he will say or do. He frequently criticizes himself even for those of his acts seemingly most sensible and acceptable. When it is evening every day, he calls himself to account for what he has done through the day and when it is morning, he begins his day with a resolution not to commit a sin.
He knits the ‘lace of his life’ with the ‘threads’ of self-criticism and self-accusation. [Meaning, he spends every moment of his life in self-criticism and constant awareness of what he says and does.] So long as a man shows such a degree of loyalty and faithfulness to his Lord and spends his life in such a degree of humility, the doors of heaven are opened to him full-wide, and there comes to him the invitation: Come O faithful one, you have intimacy with Us. This is the station of intimacy, We have found you a faithful one. Every day he is honored with a new, heavenly journey in spirit.