The following article develops a favourite and important theme found in the work of Dr Zahurul Hasan Sharib.
The Cultivation of Positive Thinking
The nature of positive and negative thought
Dr Zahurul Hassan Sharib (1914-1996) gave great importance in his writings to the power of
positive thinking - but positive thinking can be easily misunderstood. It is not enough to be
optimistic and focused on our goal, if our goal is not itself worthy.
Tyrannical dictators can be 'positive thinkers' in the sense of being single minded in their
pursuit of power, but evidently this does not have good results - in fact for many, including the
person themselves, it can lead to destruction. The war, rape, pillage and murder that it brings
in its wake invoke negative thoughts of revenge, hatred, malice etc. There are many instances
in old and recent history to provide more than ample evidence of this.
For Dr Sharib real positive thinking was inextricably intertwined with that unfashionable thing
- a moral frame of mind. The development of a positive mental attitude means that the
individual must not only have qualities such as determination, patience, and firm resolve, but
must focus these qualities on, and integrate them fully with, noble aspirations for the benefit of
mankind. Further they must realise them in actions in daily life. The holy Qur'an reminds us
again and again of the need to believe in the oneness of God and to do good.
Entertaining negative thoughts, without any doubt, tends to bring on the person concerned the
very things they fear or dread, or on which they have focused their attention. Negative thoughts
often arise from fear, or from insecurity, or as the result of some bad experiences, they bring
gloom and a loss of quality of life. The individual in this situation ceases to live, he or she
becomes content with merely existing, with seeking his or her own animal comfort, which is
really to wallow in self-pity. Life becomes an intolerable burden for the individual, and that
person makes life intolerable for others. In severe depression even the body itself becomes
unbearable. The environment seems grey and without colour and it seems to be something seen
at great distance, having no contact with the individual and bringing no surge of joy at its
Rembrandt, the great painter, had the ability to invest even a lump of meat with a sense of life
and beauty, the depressed person sees even the most beautiful forms and shapes of nature as if
they were lumps of old meat.
Sometimes people ask can God have really made hell for us if we do not heed Him, can it
really exist? But the person who is really depressed and distressed does not have to ask this
question, he or she has a taste of the reality. The fact is that thoughts and actions have
consequences in this life and beyond the grave.
Now the question is can positive thinking really help us to avoid our life becoming a
wasteland of depressive thoughts and destructive impulses? Can it help us out of such a bad
If by positive thinking we mean just, so to say, 'bucking up', this is hardly enough. No! Positive
thinking means to build for ourselves a beautiful inner life, to landscape an inner garden,
complete with pavilions and cool places, replete with gentle sunshine and cooling showers,
and good company, and with birds singing, and bees collecting honey. Surrounded by strong
and secure walls within which we feel safe, happy and content.
The next question is how can we build such a beautiful inner place? Positive thinking is one of
the tools to help us in this, along with prayer, good reading, good company, a simple outer life,
meditation, charity, high standards of integrity, modest expectations, honest labour, the
remembrance of and gratitude to our Creator, and above all love.
We need to have a planned and systematic approach. 'Rome was not built in a day'. We have to
be prepared for a long haul, tackling one task at a time but having an overall plan. It is real
work pure and simple, and it is the work of a lifetime, and it is work worthy of man. Kipling
reminds us that 'Adam was a gardener'.
Laying the foundations
Work of this kind means to begin by reviewing our situation. We must take some time out to
look honestly at our own condition, at our would be 'inner garden'. What are the most pressing
needs? What can wait till later? We need to be brutally honest with ourselves and see what
our real state is without self deception. If we later want roses we must begin by taking off the
rose-coloured spectacles. We must see clearly how things really are now, and then start to
think how we want them to be eventually. But to dream is not enough, we must also act.
Maybe we want to start with small things, or maybe it is better to be more drastic and dig out
the big weeds right away.
Either way delay is not an option. By themselves the weeds will grow and the would-be
garden deteriorate. We must move forward or go backwards - remaining as we are cannot be
an option. There is a passage in the Masnevi of Hazrat Jalaluddin Rumi where he tells the
story of a strong young man who decides to delay pulling out some small weeds, day-by-day
he puts it off, always saying he will do it tomorrow. Eventually he reaches an old age and
finally he tries to pull out the weeds, but the weeds have grown strong and virulent, and he has
grown weak and aged. What would have been a simple task has become a Herculean labour of
After this stage of self evaluation and the resolution being made to do something, we now have
to construct a firm moral framework that will provide the protective walls and the base on
which to build our inner garden.
Shah Wali Ullah of Delhi, the great 18th Century Sufi saint, says there are four basic virtues
into which all other virtues fit. They are purity, humility, generosity, and (the highest of all)
justice. We must aim to foster a love of these within ourselves.
Purity of the body merely implies keeping it clean - a simple enough thing but a good place to
start and move on from. Inner purity implies the establishment of good mental habits of
watching our thoughts and noting when they become negative. When we find this to be the case
then we must replace such thoughts with their opposite. If they are focused on selfishness then
we must change them to thoughts of altruism. If they are cowardly thoughts then replacing them
with thoughts of courage and so on. This is what Dr Sharib called the law of substitution. Just
as with habits of bodily cleanliness the process of purification is frequently repeated. We do
not wash our body once and then assume it is done - we know we have to maintain our hygiene
daily and it is the same with our inner hygiene.
For the Sufis the inner purification is carried out by the grace of the spiritual guide who cleans
the mirror of the disciple's heart again and again from within. This cannot be understood by
everybody but is well known to disciples. In Sufism this relationship is the cornerstone.
Humility, it is said, attracts the favourable attention of the angels. By this you may understand
that a flow of goodly thoughts and energies occur where real and genuine humility shows itself.
We must empty ourselves of pride in our own achievements and understand that we can do
nothing, but that there is a continuous flow of mercy towards mankind from its Creator. We
must be empty of our self-importance to receive this flow. Our ego is a tiny insignificant
particle in a vast universe of particles - each absorbed by its own business and wondering
why it comes into conflict with other egos. When we realise this inwardly then we come to
know our soul as vast enough to contain what appears to be an infinity of such universes.
Generosity is ranked even higher in the good opinion of the souls that Almighty God has given
the administration of His creation to. To be generous with money or goods is a small though
beneficial thing, to be generous hearted is something much greater. When we give money or
goods we are advised to give the best, not merely to give away that which we do not want.
Generosity of heart and spirit implies we give the best of ourselves for the benefit of others -
for the benefit of all. Of course it implies forgiving and forgetting both real and imagined hurts,
and covering the faults of others. There is a story that Hadhrat Ali the foremost leader of all
the Sufis was given a robe by the holy Prophet Mohammed under instruction from God,
because when asked what he would do with it he said he would use it to cover the faults of the
True acts of generosity draw the attention of the saints of God.
Greatest of the four virtues is Justice. God is just, and when one acts with justice to others and
seeks justice for them one becomes identified with this quality of God. Sometimes justice must
be fought for on behalf of the poor and the oppressed and downtrodden, and no quarter given.
We should always begin by being sure our own behaviour to others is always just and fair.
All the aforesaid virtues must be entirely subsumed and absorbed by the individual. When
these become an integral part of a person then the foundations of the beautiful garden can be
said to have been well and truly laid.
Tending and nurturing
Now the flowers and trees we have planted begin to grow. We water them from the continuous
flow of Divine grace. We must tend them of course, remove the weeds, prune and so on but the
waste land has become fertile and our work has become that of tending and shaping, of
cultivating and enjoying. We now know we cannot make the things grow ourselves but we can
maintain and shape the garden so that its natural beauty becomes enhanced.
If we continue to be assiduous in our efforts we may for a while feel content and happy with
our garden. We walk in it at will enjoying the perfumes, admiring the colours, relishing the
change of seasons and the different states this produces in the garden.
Then something strange begins to happen - we begin to feel something is yet missing- we don't
know exactly what it is! Everything has been made in good proportion, and all the elements are
there, but still something remains and we don't know what it is! We are baffled, puzzled, and
disappointed. We feel frustrated that our work seemed to be for nothing after all.
Then one day when we have all but given up wondering what it is that is missing, our Friend
Is He attracted by the beautiful smells, colourful flowers, or the luscious fruits? Is it the tears
of anguish that our labours seemed for nothing that attracted Him? We may not know - but
when He comes it is as if we had never really seen the garden - every rose glows, every leaf
dances, every fruit ripens and the water gurgles with the contentment of a baby being fed at its
But the surprising thing is that we have eyes for none of it, for our eyes, and our ears, and our
being, are only for our Friend, our Beloved.
Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi says: 'There are flowers and pomegranates in the garden aplenty, but
when the Beloved is not there these do not matter, and when the Beloved comes these do not
Now, in the words of Khawaja Muinuddin Hasan Chishti, the turbulent river has reached the
ocean, mingled with it, and become calmed forever.
Jamiluddin Morris Zahuri (Southampton, July 2001)
Published by The Zahuri Sufi Web Site July 2002