All believers are certainly familiar with the meaning of Taqwa (God-consciousness or piety) in our lives. As well, we are probably familiar with the advantages and benefits of developing Taqwa. However, many of us really struggle when it comes to practically implementing this state of hyper-vigilance and God-consciousness in our lives. We sincerely desire to abandon prohibited acts and perform all our obligations but often find ourselves unable to build the strength and self-confidence to do so.
The immaculate School of Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them) has not only enjoined God-consciousness upon us; our Infallibles (peace be upon them) and great scholars have also recommended practical steps that can be undertaken by the believer in the journey of self-purification to rid oneself of sinful behavior and inculcate Taqwa. The following are only a few of many such suggestions:
Asking Allah for Help
Nothing in life can be accomplished without help from the Almighty, and this is certainly true when it comes to becoming pious as well. At least ten times a day, we are told to repeat, "Guide us on the Straight Path." (1:6) Commenting on the meaning behind this verse, Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) states, "Guide us to the Path whose result is Your love and which reaches to Your (complete code and way of life) and which would prevent us from following our lower desires or which we would take views and opinions (over Yours) which would result in our destruction." (Masnad al-Rida)
Similarly, in the famous Allahumma Arzuqna supplication taught to us by Our Imam (may Allah hasten his reappearance), we recite, "O Allah, bless me with the desire and willingness to obey You!" Indeed, obedience to Allah and desisting from that which He has forbidden is not possible without His help. Particularly for believers struggling in the end times, Shaikh Saduq has narrated from Imam Sadiq the famous Du'a Ghareeq (Supplication of the Drowning Man), which we are constantly encouraged to recite in order to keep us firm on the path of Islam.
Knowing That We Are Capable
As the Qur'an states, Allah does not burden a soul with more than what it can bear. If Allah has given us a difficult test in life, surely He considers us capable of handling that situation and coming out of it successful. This self-confidence and faith in oneself is especially relevant for us followers of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (peace be upon him). At the Battle of Khandaq, when Amr ibn Abduwad crossed over the trench and challenged any Muslim to come out and face him, certain so-called "companions" went around spreading fear among the Muslim camp, intimidating the Muslims with tales of Amr's bravery and strength. As Imam Ali went forth to meet Amr, the Prophet echoed the warning of these hypocrites in an attempt to test Imam Ali, "Oh Ali, this is Amr ibn Abduwad!" When he heard this, the Imam exclaimed back, "This is Amr ibn Abduwad? I am Ali ibn Abu Talib!" Indeed, unlike those who fled the battlefield at the slightest chance of danger, facing any and all difficulties and challenges in life with a positive attitude and confidence in oneself is the example of our beloved Imam Ali!
When we constantly remember our return to Allah, the temporal nature of this life will be evident. With the afterlife and the reality of heaven and hell in mind, we will be less tempted by the attractions of this world. This can be done by reciting Sura Fatiha for our departed ones every day, purchasing a Kafan and hanging it in our closet where it is always visible, and visiting the graveyard at least once a week (recommended on Thursday nights). Similarly, when asked to explain the concept of prostrating on earth and why we do two prostrations, the Imams of the Ahlul Bayt have explained that it signifies how we came out of this earth, how short our stay in this world is, and how we will go back into the earth.
It is said that as he grew older, one of the four special deputies of the Twelfth Imam would sit in a grave and recite one-thirtieth of the Holy Qur'an every single day! One activity which can be organized for teenagers (and even elders) in a community is to visit a graveyard and arrange for an open grave. Each participant can then go and lie in the grave for a few minutes. There can be no better experience in helping one realize the eventual return to Allah! (For those strong of heart, you can even try closing the grave for a minute or two, or do this at night!)
Abandon Haram Step-by-Step
It is not possible to go from smoking two packs of cigarettes a day to running a marathon. Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini states in his book Self-Building that if we are afraid of overburdening ourselves, it is better to give up one sin at a time. This can be as simple as taking a pen and paper and making a list of things in our lives which are prohibited by Allah and the obligations which we neglect. We can go through the list one by one and slowly eliminate everything. This may take longer for some than it will for other, but it must be kept in mind that for as long as we are committing a prohibited deed or neglecting an obligatory one, we will be incurring the punishment of Allah.
The Night Prayer
According to many narrations, the Prophet's (peace be upon him and his progeny) last will to Imam Ali was, "(I enjoin) upon you the Night Prayer, upon you the Night Prayer, upon you the Night Prayer." The benefits of this most spiritually elevating act of worship are many, among which is that it gives the believer great strength to resist sin. Standing in the middle of the night with our hands raised high, admitting "Here stands one who seeks refuge from the fire", praying for forty other believers, and beseeching "Forgiveness!" three hundred times has an effect on one's soul that is only known to those who experience it. Especially when it comes to curtailing one's sexual desires and sins, Salat al-Layl is known to be extremely beneficial in helping the believer lower his/her gaze, avoid inappropriate behavior in regards to the opposite gender, and keep one's carnal desires in check.
Performing Recommended Deeds and Avoiding Discouraged Ones
Carrying out the Mustahibaat (recommended deeds) and desisting from the Makruhaat (detestable deeds) serves as a fortress around the Wajibaat (obligatory deeds) and Muharrimaat (prohibited deeds). For example, if we make it a habit to not even look at a non-Mahram, we will be far less likely to gaze at one lustfully. If we make it a habit to avoid food which is even doubtful, we will be far less likely to succumb to the temptation to eat Haram. In other words, the recommended deeds serve as a "buffer zone", and when we are tempted to disobey Allah, we will be more likely to sacrifice them, hence not incurring a sin and protecting our Wajibaat in the process. However, if we are in a situation where we find ourselves omitting our Mustahibaat one by one, and slowly increasing in the Makruh deeds, that is a sure sign that we might be teetering close to neglecting an obligatory deed or doing something prohibited, and this is where a critical examination of our spiritual state becomes extremely necessary.
Being Careful About What We Consume
The phrase "you are what you eat" rings particularly true in discourses on Islamic spirituality. The food that we eat has a very significant impact on our spirituality and greatly affects our actions. Ayatollah Dastghaib Shirazi states in his book Greater Sins, "Whatever man eats is like a seed sown in the earth. If the seed is good, it will bear sweet fruits. If the seed is bitter and poisonous, so is the fruit that grows from it. If the food is good and lawful, it has beneficial effects on the heart. It is purified from every blemish and impurity. The organs of this person perform good deeds, but if one consumes food obtained through unlawful means, it causes the heart to harden."
Narrations tell us that individuals like Shimr and Umar ibn Sa'ad were once extremely pious and God-fearing men. So how did they become among the worst of Allah's creation? On the day of Ashura, Imam Hussain (peace be upon him) repeatedly told the army of Yazid that the reason they had become thirsty for his blood was because of all the Haram they had consumed. (Nafasul Mahmoom)
Besides following the laws of jurisprudence in regards to what we are permitted to eat, it is highly recommended by scholars to exercise great precaution and care regarding what we put into our bodies. In practical terms, this means we should always double-check the ingredients on packaged food, avoid eating at restaurants where both Haram and Halal food is served, and refrain from eating something if we are have doubts about its permissibility. Indeed, in the Du'a of the Twelfth Imam mentioned above, we say, "[O Allah] purify our bodies from that which is prohibited and that which is doubtful!"
Most importantly, this concept extends to making sure that our income is obtained through lawful means, and that we have paid all the appropriate religious dues before consuming from it, especially the rights of Lady Fatima and her children (peace be upon them).
Loving and Associating with the Prophet and His Ahlul Bayt
Last but certainly not least in helping one cultivate piety and abandon evil deeds is developing the true and sincere love for the Prophet and His Ahlul Bayt in our lives. Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (peace be upon him) has said, "Whoever has been bestowed with the love of Ali in his heart by Allah is not prone to wavering (from His Path), but he becomes steadfast (on the path of Allah) and also towards other (matters)." (Bihar al-Anwar)
Martyr Dastghaib further explains this phenomenon, "Love protects one from being a slave of one's desires and Shaitan. This is because the love of an exalted personality entails that we also love his friends and hate his enemies…. Insha'Allah the followers of Ali, by the blessing of his love, will remain away from the path of Shaitan. Thus, love (for Ahlul Bayt) protects one from evil rather than make him susceptible to sins." (Greater Sins)
Such a love and close relationship with the Prophet and Ahlul Bayt can be achieved by holding gatherings in their remembrance, recounting their virtues in the form of poetry, mourning their tragedies, asking for Allah's blessings upon them in the form of Salawaat, learning about their lives, performing their Ziyarats (especially the Ziyarats for Infallibles recommended for particular days of the week, Ziyarat Ashura every morning, as well as others like Ziyarat Jami'a, Ziyarat Ameen'Allah, and Ziyarat Aal-e-Yasin on a regular basis), visiting their shrines, dedicating recitations of the Holy Qur'an to them, reciting supplications associated with them (such as Du'a Tawassul, Du'a Ahad, etc.), and asking for their help in our daily affairs.
In conclusion, not only has Islam enjoined upon us Taqwa and the abandonment of prohibited deeds, we have been given practical tips and suggestions from the Prophet, the Ahlul Bayt, and our great scholars on how to best implement this state of hyper-vigilance in our lives. In this era, it may seem difficult, almost impossible to live a Halal life, but being the followers of Ahlul Bayt, we must always keep in mind our higher aim in life. In the words of Imam Khomeini, "Live life in such a way that when you arrive at the Almighty's Threshold, you can hold your head up high with pride."
Suggested Further Readings:
Greater Sins by Ayatollah Dastghaib Shirazi
Light Within Me by Imam Khomeini, Allama Tabatabai, and Ayatollah Mutahhari
Self-Building by Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini