Al-Ghawth Abu Madyan: By accounting oneself, the status of awareness is reached.
Sheikh al-‘Alawi’s commentary:
To account oneself (muhāsaba) is the first stage of the Way, and by passing though it the servant reaches the station of those who are near to God. It means to not allow the soul to wander free in the fields of sin. By accounting oneself, the soul is restrained and kept from total abandon. If the servant excels in this level, and does so with consistency, he will arrive to the level of awareness. This is because accounting oneself implies that one still falls into sin through heedlessness; but when the stage of awareness (murāqaba) is reached – which means to behold the Real from behind a veil without fully being immersed in His presence, or to be aware that God knows the condition of His servants, and to be conscious of the fact that He sees all – the one who reaches this stage is always in a state of awe and good behaviour before God, and therefore has left the stage of self-accounting. This is because self-accounting comes after sin, whereas awareness of God prevents one from falling into sin to begin with, because of one’s awareness that God sees one always. If the servant remains predominantly in this state, it will lead to the stage of witnessing (mushāhada).
And whosoever is conscious of God, He will make for them a way out. (Qur’an 65:2)
That is, whoever is conscious of God from behind a veil, fearing Him whilst not seeing Him, He will make for them a way out of the prison of creation, so that they see the Creator, because they have shown themselves to be ready for such a state. So first comes self-accounting, then awareness, then witnessing: Muhāsaba, Murāqaba, Mushāhada; and this is the sum of all religion: Islām, Īmān, and Ihsān (Law, Faith, and Way.)
One of them was asked the meaning of Islām, Īmān, and Ihsān. He replied, ‘Islām means to worship God, and Īmān means to be aware of God and fear Him, and Ihsān means to behold Him and see Him.' The people of witnessing cannot commit sin as long as they are in the presence of their Lord. One of them said:
When I intend an action and find You are watching me,
I leave off what I intended, and rise to see You.
To behold the Real keeps the servant pure;
Were it not for awareness, there would be no penalty.
And so the goal cannot be reached unless the beginning is sound, which means there must first be self-accounting, as we said. One of the saints (God have mercy on him) would account himself for everything that he said; if he found a good word, he would give thanks to God, and if he found other than that he would reproach himself, and vow to God not to return to the like of it.