The Ulema have told us that spiritual development, the aim of which is Taqwa, is the only real way to achieve the goal of salvation because it is the best defense from sins and the whispers of Shaytan and your Nafs.
As many Sunni theologians will say, increased Taqwa is like increased Iman if not actually being it.
They have told us that this is achieved through spiritual striving, through struggle (mujahadah). Against Shaytan and against your Nafs, the causes of what lead mankind to sin.
When elaborating on Sufism, they tell us that all of their spiritual prescriptions and 'strategies' in the form of Tasawwuf, acknowledged as its own subject due to its specialization, are necessary to compensate for the fact that we are not in the company of the Holy Prophet (saw) and the original Muslims. In fact, the Sahaba (ra) would achieve such high spiritual stations purely on account of performing Jihad with the Prophet (saw) alone that we could not achieve through any number of fasts, dhikr, etc. Things like that propelled them from non-Muslims to the best Muslims of all time within two decades. But since we are not in those circumstances, we keep to the company of the Ahlullah and Waliullah... those Muslims who have specialized and focused their entire lives on achieving the highest spiritual station possible through whatever means they could find (via the system of Shaykh and Murid, etc.). These are those known as 'Sufis'.
The rich tradition of Sufis that developed towards this goal is popularly known and described elsewhere.
Some begin to wrongly think of Tasawwuf as a seperate, optional entity. The truth is that Tasawwuf is just the name given to a specific phenomenon fundamentally important to Islam and the original Muslims who had it in such great quantity, and spread it around so freely everywhere they went, they rarely needed to ever sit down and talk about it.
The fundamental question is How Do We Improve Ourselves?
The answer is, obviously enough, by adhering to the guide Allah sent us in the form of the Qur'an vis a vis His Messenger, Rasulullah (saw). His Sunnah being the details and interpretations of the former. How to do what the Qur'an tells us to do.
And most people leave it at that. But then again, most people aren't good Muslims, or even Muslims, and most people, Muslims included, will go to Hell according to sound Hadith.
We ourselves know that it just isn't that simple. We consistently fail at following the Sunnah and abstaining from sin. We consistently leave Islamic values for man-made values. And worse, for those made by civilizations (West) which war with others and tout obviously anti-Islamic and anti-human doctrines (perversely calling itself humanist). It's not even like we've become Buddhist monks living up on some mountain somewhere when we abandon Islam. We get frustrated, maddened. We close our eyes and grit our teeth and feel like screaming at our own inexplicable helplessness. WHY do we just not... change? Why do we want to change but then lose control of ourselves to the parts of us that don't want to change? Is this frustration the best we can do? Can we ever have hope of achieving what we want? Of becoming the people we swear we really want to be?
This is the question posed by the first answer to 'How Do We Improve Ourselves?'. We know how to improve ourselves, but how do we actually DO it. How do we turn that knowledge into action?
We always tell ourselves that the answer is simple (it was, I mean, it took just a sentence or two). That the failure is in ourselves. That we have to roll up our sleeves and just get to it, there are no shortcuts or tricks. It's pure willpower.
It sounds honorable, and correct. But I think one of the first big shocks here is that it's WRONG. It's simplifying to the point of criminally misleading ourselves. And who would want to do such a thing? Shaytan. He employs one of our Nafs' traits in use against ourselves (we feel as if we're admitting some honorable truth to ourselves, thus appeasing our Nafs/ego/Self... but the Nafs is being blissfully tricked into going where Shaytan's whispers have a hard time reaching).
Tasawwuf is the answer to that question. The 'how' behind the 'How'. Muslims that came before us, all of them, have had to deal with these issues. Including the first few generations. They systemized their findings into what we now term 'Sufism' or 'Tasawwuf', but the original answer was IMAN and/or TAQWA (depending on which specific interpretation of Sunni 'Aqeedah or creed you ascribe to). And the purpose of Tasawwuf is to address that. Taqwa directly correlates with us changing, our actions changing. It's that magical silver bullet that answers all of our questions about Islam and Iman. If you have Taqwa, if you're conscious of Allah, then you will behave accordingly. You'll be able to ignore Shaytan better and keep your Nafs on a leash. Of course this is for Muslims who want it. Even Shaytan is conscious of Allah but look at what happened there.
So. Possessing Taqwa and increasing it will achieve the goal of changing us into who we want to be, the sort of people who do right and abstain from wrong. And Tasawwuf is the science of achieving that.
And back to what the Ulema have told us, the key to that is to be in the company of the pious. There is of course, dhikr, the mujahadah of abstaining from sin, fasts, rectifying the technical details. But Taqwa is a near-metaphysical thing, almost a substance. We want it in our souls. We want it from the fountain that is the Prophet (saw) and his Ruhaniyat (Spirituality), and the faucet that goes back to that source are the Saints and Shaykhs (the piping could be said to be the silsila, or chain of teachers going back to the Prophet (saw)). And this is achieved, like the Ulema have been saying, by sitting in the company of the Ahlullah, the Waliullah. The people of Allah, the friends of Allah.
But common sense dictates, especially in a world like today, finding a Shaykh and then literally sitting in his company is difficult.
Is it? We can fly across the world in a day, our economies are globalized so we can emigrate, work, and set up lives anywhere we desire. We, more than any Muslims before us, have greater accessibility to the pious. Even during the Khilafa Rashidun, you might live in Medina, a city full of the pious, and you'd only need to venture out a few hundred yards to meet some. You can achieve that today if you really wanted.
It gets better. Or worse for us, depending on your view. We have the Internet. The Ulema have told us that the next best thing to having your own Shaykh and being in his company as much as possible, is to at least visit their lectures/sermons, and read their writings, and keep in touch. We can now all do that, with many different Shaykhs, alive and dead (including some really ancient and revered ones, knowledge of whom might previously have been very hard to come by), from within our own homes.
And yet, when we see a title or URL that has 'islam', 'sunni', or some Arabic word in it... we ignore it. We don't move our fingers a millimeter to click or 'open that faucet'. We find our way onto YouTube several times daily looking at or listening to things that have no spiritual gain (likely detriment), and we rarely if ever click through to the lectures of our Shaykhs.
The argument is already in your head that the Internet simply just amplifies natural tendencies. Good people will do good things online, bad people will do bad things, and the mixed will be somewhere inbetween. Therefore, the Internet won't affect anything in the end. Yes, people will tend to do online what they do offline. But this, too, is a sort of trick or misleading of your reason. We will be held accountable for every technological progress we make that makes life easier. The comparison to worry about is not really with what everyone else is doing but with those many Muslims who undertook immense struggle to achieve what we can with just a click. It is, of course, a test. If a person is pursuing Haraam relationships with the opposite sex in real life, they'll likely be doing the same online. If they aren't lowering the gaze in real life, there's no way they avoid looking at forbidden things online. If they gamble in real life, it will be beyond tempting to continue online. But the punishment might be more severe in the latter case (for online), Allah knows best, because of how EASY it is to NOT do the sin and instead do good. And yet many Muslims fool themselves into thinking retreating to the Internet is saving them from sin. It might have pulled you away from literally touching a non-mahram for instance, but the blot on your heart is just as big, if not bigger, and will stifle any attempts for future self-reformation eventually leading back to those big sins, and this time, your mind will be in a Self-made coccoon of rationalizations that will prevent you from even being conscious of this.
As Hazrat Shaykh Hakeem Akhtar put it, wasps and bees eat the same nectar, but only one puts out honey.
And the results aren't going to be pretty. The Internet will likely not be something you'd want to run into on the Day of Judgement. The test we failed, that comes back to give us a kick into Jahannum. It might say "I brought you the knowledge of the akhira and you chose the dunya instead."
It goes beyond that. Simply having access to the Internet nullifies many excuses we have for not achieving our goals of becoming better Muslims (there's enough stuff from the Ulema, the Ahlullah on here that anyone who sits down and immerses themselves in it all will get up a changed person). And who has access to the Internet and other technological advancements that improve our 'quality of life'? People who are successful or well-off. We work tirelessly, especially those of us who have made it into the West or were born here, only to wind up with, not too unusually, the biggest test of all. Wealth itself becomes a test. And this is nothing new now, is it? Yet we've never thought of ourselves as 'wealthy', again through the tricking of our minds by our own Selves and by Shaytan. Especially those of us whose parents gave us everything... WE aren't wealthy, THEY are. This is ridiculous to the point of stupidity, no doubt from the spiritual IQ points killed by sinning.
The reality is the familiar one retold by the Qur'an countless times. Shaytan and our Nafs have worked together to keep it hidden from us. Without going off into a million other topics, how many ideas or words that we have today are actually kept intact from the 7th century? The culture and civilization we embrace has changed so many of them to make instilling its values in us easier. We can't even think away from what they want, we are becoming incapable of even understanding the most simplest things about Islam and life because our brains are locked in a language maze of dead ends.
We will have to answer for a lot more than we think. The past generations will look upon us and not think "the path to good was very easy for them, but so was sin, so it balances out". No. Because the path to good for them was hard, but the path to sin for them, for all mankind, has almost always been easy.
When the prophetic Hadiths talk about how hard it will be in the world near the Day of Judgement (our world), we take refuge in that. "See? We're expected to have difficulty!" But once again, our brains are wrong. If you can read that and connect it to yourself, you're not in the difficulty mentioned, not yet anyway. And if we fail before the real trials and tribulations overtake us, what will become of us?
It might be the least expected thing in the end, the Internet, which damns us.