THE SELF (NAFS) AND ITS PURIFICATION (TAZKIYA)

Man gives directions to his life depending on the exact nature of the battle taking place in his inner dimension between the animal and lordly souls. When the lordly soul wins the battle, man becomes inclined towards good deeds and morality. But when the animal soul takes the control, man becomes inclined towards all kinds of sin and immorality. Man’s responsibility for his actions is based on his preferences and decisions between good and evil deeds. Since man is given a capacity to perform his actions in accordance with his free will, and thereby take his animal soul under control to a certain extent, he is liable for what he does and eligible for both reward and punishment.

1. THE REALITY OF THE NAFS

The Almighty created Adam -upon him blessings and peace-, the father of all human kind, in Paradise and through him, made man the most honored created being. As a result of this heavenly privilege, however, the Almighty willed that mankind toil to deserve an eternal and blissful life in Paradise. As desired by the Almighty’s design in past eternity, Adam -upon him blessings and peace- committed that well-known blunder in paradise, as a result of which he was sent out from Paradise to this world; though paradise remained his original homeland, while this world a land of exile and trial. Man’s subsequent return to Paradise has thus become a matter of reward and merit, for which he has to successfully undergo a variety of tests.

For such reasons, among all creation, the Almighty has given human beings unique characteristics. The Almighty willed to design mankind in accordance with the quality of their praiseworthy and blameworthy deeds, ranging from “the lowest of the low (asfal al-safilin)” to “the highest of the high (a‘la al-‘illiyin).” In other words, being the pearl of all creation, man possesses an inborn capacity towards good and evil; and thus his high or low position among creation depends on the way he uses his will. The success of man in this undertaking is proportional to his personal success in enhancing his good qualities and, at the same time, curbing his evil aspects. The merit of a human being becomes evident in this battle ground where the good and evil features stake conflicting claims over the control of the person.

According to Sufis, the negative and positive inclinations that exist in man have two locale or focal points in “the animal soul” and “the lordly soul”.

The animal soul is a subtle faculty that enables man to stay alive in this world and to keep his biological existence under control. It is also called “life” or “self”.  Since the animal soul keeps running its basic operations in the human body even while a person is asleep, most of the biological functions in the body are involuntarily carried on during sleep. But the lordly soul leaves the body during sleep, to return to it once again the moment a person wakes up. The animal soul sets the body in motion, makes it speak, and enables it to operate all the other basic bodily functions. The animal soul leaves the body by death. Its location is between the brain and the heart, from where it spreads out to the whole body and undertakes its main operations through the circulating blood. This soul is related to “the temporal and created world (alamu’l-khalq)”[1] and constitutes the starting point of human actions. If untrained, this soul may exercise negative influences over a human being.

The lordly soul refers to the human soul which the Almighty had breathed of His spirit. It is this quality that differentiates a human being from the rest of creation. The lordly soul belongs to “the world of unconditioned existence (alamu’l-amr)”[2] and accompanies the human body so that man may perform good deeds. By way of, and thanks to, this soul which the human body dresses, man leads a decent and observant lifestyle in servanthood and obedience. The lordly soul does not perish or disappear with the death of the body; though by death the effect of the lordly soul over the body comes to an end.

Man gives directions to his life depending on the exact nature of the battle taking place in his inner dimension between the animal and lordly souls. When the lordly soul wins the battle, man becomes inclined towards good deeds and morality. But when the animal soul takes the control, man becomes inclined towards all kinds of sin and immorality. Man’s responsibility for his actions is based on his preferences and decisions between good and evil deeds. Since man is given a capacity to perform his actions in accordance with his free will, and thereby take his animal soul under control to a certain extent, he is liable for what he does and eligible for both reward and punishment.

The human ego constitutes one of the biggest obstacles that stand in front of man in this world of tests and trial.  For this reason, in general, we think of the human self, or nafs, as a negative concept. In reality, however, the  self has positive qualities embedded in its essence. To make this essence appear in all its glory, man must instead polish the nafs from all kinds of dirt through spiritual purification.  Man should continually keep himself busy with striving for good causes in this world so that he could reach a blissful life in the world to come, as every man shapes his own eternal life in this world and reaps whatever he sows. Depending on the quality of his deeds, each person will attain a pleasant or an unpleasant life in the Hereafter. In one respect, we might even say that it is man himself who writes his own destiny in this life.

One of the essential conditions of eternal happiness and salvation for man is to mature the lower self or the ego to a proper degree of ripeness, so as to accustom it to offering good deeds. A self that lacks this ripeness is similar to an aggressive and untamed horse, which takes its rider to destruction, rather than to his intended destination. A saddled horse, on the other hand, properly trained and bridled, takes its rider peacefully to the destination, however dangerous the road might be. Likewise, an untamed and uncontrolled self cannot take its possessor to the sublime and celestial aims of life.

In fact, the self, or nafs, functions as a two dimensional vehicle. While it has a potential to elevate man’s value to the peaks of maturity and make him the pearl of all creation, it might also degrade his value to the lowest of the low. The  self, therefore, has a potential to head towards both directions, like a two-edged knife. When properly trained it heads towards the good; though if not, it recklessly heads towards evil.

Every human soul that remains deprived of spiritual guidance and control, functions like a dark curtain of ignorance that covers the surface of realities. But as mentioned above, despite the obstacle of the ego, if a person purifies himself by salvaging his soul from the hands of immoral characteristics, he can reach advanced points even higher than that of angels. For the merit of every end is proportionate to the level of difficulty experienced and of the obstacles overcome for the sake of reaching this end.

Immoral characteristics in the soul interfere with the communication between the Almighty and the servant. Only through the practice of the required spiritual methods can one remain firm against these relentless interferences; and this means an equally relentless struggle against the ego’s lowly temptations and desires. Such a course of action requires a persistent and determinate toil. In this context, the Blessed Prophet –upon him blessings and peace- says,

اَلْمُجَاهِدُمَنْجَاهَدَ نَفْسَهُ

“[The real] struggler (mujahid) is the one who struggles against his own self.” (Tirmidhi, Fadailu’l-Jihad, 2; Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Musnad, VI, 20)

Although the struggle against the lower self, or the ego, does not kill it, it nonetheless takes it under control. In fact, Sufism does not so much aim at utterly destroying the self, as withholding it from transgressing and immunizing it against lowly desires and inclinations. The Sufi way undertakes this operation in accordance with Divine instructions. In this regard, Ghazzali compares man’s position with a rider and says, “The nafs is the spirit’s saddled beast. If a person lets go of the bridles of the nafs and follows its direction, his destruction becomes unavoidable. If he tries to destroy the self (as it is in the case of certain Hindu religions and mystical philosophies), then he is bound to remain behind on the path of reality, without any saddled beast. Better you hold on tight to the bridles of the beast and make use of it.”

Following this course of action in dealing with the self is a requirement, and moreover, an essential part of the prophetic method in human education. The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- did not approve of the attitude of refraining totally from eating, drinking and living a family life for the sake of devoting the entire energy to worship. He repeatedly underlined the fact that such a monastic practice of complete self-isolation was not a part of Islam. The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- hence showed the possibility and methods of accomplishing spiritual progress whilst leading a life in society.

On the other hand, during the course of this education, which is a difficult struggle indeed, a wayfarer encounters certain states and stations of the nafs. One of the most dangerous afflictions the nafs encounters whilst advancing on the spiritual path is the risk of ascribing an existence to itself and dragging itself thereby into self-conceit.  Detrimentally, this is where the hidden arrogance and pride takes control. In the course of struggling against the lower self, even small mistakes are inexcusable, as they allow the lower self to return to its original starting point.

Since the lower self is always on alert and waiting in ambush, one should never feel safe from its deception and harm. For this reason, a believer should constantly be aware of the possible dangers and tricks that come from his own nafs. He should meet them with a sound judgment and rein them in with a determination inspired by Divine revelation.

How can we purify the  self, man’s saddled beast, when it has innate evil temptations? Furthermore, what kind of spiritual levels are waiting to be reached in the course of this training of purification?  Now, it is time for us to focus on these two questions.

The question is whether or not you will be able to acquire a rose-like nature. What this means is that even though you see all kinds of thorns in the garden of this world, you are not to act as a thorn yourself; however severely injured you might be by them. You should instead try to be like a rose, which, despite the chill of winter, blossoms all the same…

 

2. THE PURIFICATION OF THE LOWER SELF, OR NAFS

The word tazkiyah means to cleanse and purify. It also denotes increasing, improving, and a blessing. From this semantic perspective, tazkiyah comprises the entire process of spiritual education.

Purifying the nafs means is to cleanse it primarily from unbelief, ignorance, evil thoughts, false convictions and immorality. In other words, the purification of the  self is an act of cleansing aimed at eliminating all kinds of theoretical and practical impurities. This process ends in filling the nafs with good religious and moral qualities, such as sound belief, knowledge, gnosis, wisdom and spirituality.

The Sufi purification concentrates on lessening the lowly desires of the nafs, breaking its authority over the body and establishing the spirit’s authority instead. This occurs only through practices of abstinence that strengthen the will-power against the lower self; and this involves a strict self-discipline with regards to food, sleep and speech. Sufism thus outlines the methods of disciplining the soul through three interconnected concepts: little of food (qillatu’t-taam), little of sleep (qillatu’l-manam), and little of speech (qillatu’l-kalam). In establishing a spiritual authority over the nafs, these rules constitute the earliest steps. It should also be borne in mind that a wayfarer should not exaggerate the practice of these rules. Since our body has been entrusted to us by the Almighty, we have to keep in mind the need to deal with it in moderation.

In other words, during the process of purifying the lower self, a servant should keep himself away from excess in either direction. He should not overdo spiritual exercises in the name of taking the self under complete control; for Islam commands moderation in all states and actions, and warns people against all kinds of exaggerative behavior.  Furthermore, neither is it not possible to eliminate the self all together, nor is this required by religion. Instead, a believer is expected to purify his self in the sense of bridling and training it in accordance with Divine instructions.

The act of training and purifying the self is itself the most decisive factor in determining the nature of man’s ultimate end; whether it will be one of destruction or happiness. To fulfill this process of purification, a servant should readily submit himself to Divine will and resist against his lustful passions and indecent expectations. Every believer should be aware of his shortcomings, weaknesses and ignorance. At the same time, he should truly comprehend the absolute glory and power of Allah, glory unto Him, and regulate his actions accordingly. If the believer is successful in this undertaking, then his ‘evil commanding self’ (Yusuf, 53) becomes purified from immorality and thus turns into a praiseworthy self.

On account of the immense level of difficulty involved, man’s struggle for purifying his self is regarded as ‘the greater jihad’, in the sense of being a jihad against the lower self.  The term was in fact used by the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- on their return from the grueling Campaign of Tabuk, where he said to his marching Companions, “Now we are returning from the smaller jihad to the greaterjihad.”

Tabuk was indeed an overwhelming campaign. From beginning to end, Muslims found themselves in a highly difficult situation, fighting on two fronts against both the hypocrites and the whispers of Satan. It was a scorching hot summer wreaked by a severe drought. The destination moreover demanded a long march through an area unsuited for travelling on foot.  Making matters more difficult was the fact that it was the annual harvest season. When the Companions were informed that an incomparably huge Byzantine army was waiting for them near Tabuk, the battle suddenly looked more challenging than ever. The Muslim army of thirty-thousand men travelled approximately one-thousand kilometers and back. When they were finally returning to Medina, they were virtually reduced to skin and bones, with the campaign taking its toll on their exhausted bodies. It was in this backdrop that the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- was making a statement to the Companions by drawing their attention to the greater struggle that awaited them. Naturally, the Companions were left amazed and they asked the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, “What could be a greater jihad than this one?” To that the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- responded, “Yes, now we are returning from the smaller jihad to the greater jihad…the jihad against the lower self.”[3]

Renowned, on the other hand, is the story of the three Companions who failed to take part in the Tabuk campaign. Even though they had attended all the previous military campaigns, the three Companions failed in their duty to obey the Prophet Muhammad’s -upon him blessings and peace- command at this one instance, without any excuse. When the Muslim army came back from the campaign, the three Companions were spiritually excluded from the community; the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- and the other Companions severed all communications with them. The three Companions subsequently felt an indescribable remorse over their failure and weakness to join the campaign.[4]

Now we need to stop and consider that if such an overwhelming physical jihad was considered “the smaller jihad”, and the failure to attend nonetheless came at a great cost for the Companions mentioned, what about the cost of failing to attend “the greater jihad”? As mentioned above, the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, described man’s struggle for purifying his self as “the greater jihad”.  Abandoning this type of jihad would surely incur more tragic consequences for man in the presence of the Almighty. Considering the enormity of this responsibility, every believer of right mind must get his act together, and call himself to account before the Divine Judgment catches him. In this context, the Lord’s warning in the Quran is quite powerful: “What, did you think that We created you only for sport, and that you would not be returned to Us?” (al-Muminun, 115) Similarly, another Quranic verse says: “What, does man reckon he shall be left to roam at will?” (al-Qiyamah, 36) The Noble Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- also says, “A mindful person is he who takes his lower self under control, calls it to account, and performs good deeds for the world to come. A foolish person is the one who expects something good from the Almighty in vain, while following the desires of his lower self.” (Tirmidhi, Qiyamah, 25; Ibn Majah, Zuhd, 31)

Consequently, every believer should be mindful of the characteristics of his self and the responsibility he carries for its purification.  He should take great care and use the appropriate methods, in order not to fall victim to the nafs in the process. The Almighty warns us against the tricks of the lower self and says:

اَرَأَيْتَمَنِاتَّخَذَاِلٰهَهُهَوٰيهُاَفَأَنْتَ تَكُونُ عَلَيْهِ وَكِيلاً

“Have you seen the one who has taken his caprice as his god? Will you be a guardian over them?” (al-Furqan, 43) Prophet Muhammad -upon him blessings and peace- also underlines the importance of this fact and says: “Concerning my community, I fear most about the possibility that they will follow the desires of their lower selves.” (Suyuti, Jamiu‘s-Saghir, I, 12)  Purifying the self  is therefore of vital importance and a huge responsibility for every believer. The Almighty mentions this fact in the following verse of the Quran:

قَدْ اَفْلَحَ مَنْ زَكّٰيهَا وَ قَدْ خَابَ مَنْ دَسّٰيهَا

“Prosperous is he who purifies it (the nafs), and failed has he who seduces it.” (as-Shams, 9-10) In other words, he who corrects his self will reach his destination safe and sound, while he who leaves his self to wallow in its excess and arrogance will face utter disappointment. This means that the nafs includes two functions, working in the opposite poles. If one follows it unconditionally, he would end up in an eternal loss. But if one trains the self  and takes it under control, he could reach a spiritual level even higher than that of angels. The self is the unique means that can lead one to both directions.

Although all good deeds come with an outward aspect, they always have an essential, inner dimension to be discerned. Charity, for instance, outwardly appears as lending a helping hand to the needy; but actually and inwardly, it inspires the self towards the good and beautiful. In this way, good deeds feel at home in the self and the spirit becomes intimately acquainted with them. Likewise, reciting the Quran, which includes the most beautiful and truthful words, paying careful attention to its advices and putting its instructions into action represent some basic means to correct the self. A servant who organizes his whole life in accordance with the Quran becomes safe from the deceptive whispers of his self and thus pursues the main objective in life, which is none other than to attain to the pleasure of the Lord. His heart then becomes receptive to the Divine disclosures. When the servant attains this high level of spiritual perfection, the unseen realm becomes visible for him and the universe presents itself as it is; an open book of wisdom and wonder. Therefore, every believer should be mindful of the Quranic commands and prohibitions, so that he does not risk his eternal happiness and salvation both in this world and the world to come.

The Holy Quran offers many verses in relation to purification of the soul. The term ‘purification’ (tazkiyah)” in these verses comprises three main aspects:

1. The Almighty’s purification.

2. Prophet Muhammad’s -upon him blessings and peace- purification.

3. A person’s own purification of his nafs.

a. Purification by the Almighty

The Almighty says in the Quran,

فَلاَتُزَكُّوااَنْفُسَكُمْهُوَاَعْلَمُبِمَنِاتَّقٰى

“Hold not yourselves purified; The Almighty knows very well him who is the Almighty-fearing.” (an-Najm, 32) The late exegete Elmalılı Hamdi Effendi gives the following interpretation for this verse: “Do not be proud of yourselves and assume yourselves to be sinless, faultless and purified. For you might have many faults, but not be aware of them.” Regarding the same verse of the Quran, Alusi, another exegete, comments, “It is narrated that this verse was revealed concerning a group of people who would say, ‘We have our prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage to save us!’ It is more appropriate for a servant to keep his acts of worship and good deeds undisclosed, lest they become contaminated with self-conceit and lip-service. But without having such a negative intention, it is fine for the servant to talk about his good deeds to encourage others to do the same.”

In another Quranic verse, the Almighty says, “Have you not seen those who claim themselves to be pure? Nay; only The Almighty purifies whom He will.” (an-Nisa, 49) Here, it is a self-acclaimed pureness, stemming from pride. In reality, purification is dependent upon a person’s piety which itself is consequent upon practice. Piety, in turn, is an inner quality whose reality is known only by the Almighty. For this reason, a pureness declared only by the Almighty is admissible, and not any self-acclaimed assertion of purity. In this context, the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- would pray, “O Lord…grant to my soul the sense of Your fear and purify it; for You are its Best Purifier; its Protecting Friend and Guardian.” (Muslim, Dhikr, 73) Similarly, another Quranic verse underlines the importance of the Almighty’s own purification as follows: “If not for the favor of the Almighty upon you and His mercy, not one of you would have been pure, ever, but The Almighty purifies whom He wills, and The Almighty is All-hearing, All-knowing.” (an-Nur: 21)

All these reports clearly state that purification belongs in reality to the Almighty, Who, by way of His limitless favor and mercy, enables His servant to practice good deeds and guides him to the means of purification. The servant, therefore, should keep himself away from conceit and self-promotion, and instead hold the Almighty as the actual Purifier. The servant should be mindful of the fact that his entire personal efforts towards purification will be useless in the Hereafter, unless the Almighty purifies him. This mindset provides the ultimate means to reach eternal salvation. Even though purification might be attributable to the servant with respect to personal will and effort, and to prophets and spiritual masters with respect to providing guidance and teaching, in the final analysis, purification is attributable only to the Almighty, Who creates the means of purification for His servant and enables him to find these means.

b. Purification by the Messenger of Allah -upon him blessings and peace-

In its description of the Blessed Prophet’s -upon him blessings and peace- duties, the Quran mentions the following qualities:

كَمَا اَرْسَلْنَا فِيكُمْ رَسُولاً مِنْكُمْ يَتْلُوا عَلَيْكُمْ اٰيَاتِنَا وَ يُزَكِّيكُمْ

وَ يُعَلِّمُكُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَ الْحِكْمَةَ وَ يُعَلِّمُكُمْ مَالَمْ تَكُونُوا تَعْلَمُونَ

“Just as We have sent among you, of yourselves, a Messenger, to recite Our signs to you and to purify you, and to teach you the Book and the Wisdom, and to teach you that you knew not.” (al-Baqarah, 151) “Truly the Almighty was gracious to the believers when He raised up among them a Messenger from themselves, to recite to them His signs and to purify them, and to teach them the Book and the Wisdom, though before they were in manifest error.” (Al-i Imran, 164)

These Quranic verses clarify the three principal duties the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- was entrusted with:

a. Conveying the Almighty’s Signs to Human Beings

Conveying the Divine revelation prophets receive marks the beginning of their prophethood. Yet, this is also the first step and the basic and broadest ground to enable human beings to reach the desired destination.

b. The Act of Purification

The gist of the belief in the oneness of Allah, glory unto Him, (tawhid) can be realized only through cleansing the human lower self from inner filths like unbelief, polytheism, and sin. Furthermore, this Divine message may feel at home only in peaceful and tranquil souls. The best example of this fact can be observed in the lives of the Companions of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-. In spite of having committed the gravest of sins during their pre-Islamic lives, when they found the right guide in the Prophet’s -upon him blessings and peace- teaching and spiritual training, they ended up purifying their nafs to become the most distinguished people on earth. Maturing and perfecting themselves, they left a lasting legacy for the Muslim generations to follow; a legacy set to last until the Final Hour.

c. Teaching the Book and Wisdom

At this stage comes the Book, which explains the rules and regulations that mankind ought to follow. This Book is the Holy Quran. A person’s spiritual qualities determine his comprehension of the spirit of the Quran. In reality, the Quran is to be read and comprehended by the heart. And as for the eyes, they are simply means for the heart.

Since the Quran, human being, and universe all come into existence through manifestations and disclosures of Divine Names, they represent a limitless treasure of secrets. These secrets and wisdoms open themselves to a person in proportion to his level of spiritual purification and maturity. The teaching of wisdom comes at the end of all these stages; for the Almighty allows only those who have purified their nafs to comprehend the wisdoms and secrets of the Quran. The Quran itself represents the disclosures of Divine Names in the format of “Speech” so that the human mind might have access to them.

The verses of the Quran mention purification together with the teaching of the Book and Wisdom. This fact indicates that those who possess unpurified nafs  cannot attain to the true knowledge of things, and most importantly, of the Quran. Their knowledge will not benefit them, even if they might possess some bits of it. Since knowledge and wisdom are of invaluable importance, they do not dwell in ordinary places. A heart set to become a dwelling place for knowledge and wisdom, is to be freed of all kinds of useless and dangerous grimes. For this reason, prophets first convey the Divine signs, and then embark upon purifying the hearts of those to whom they have conveyed the signs.  It is only at the end of this process that prophets teach the Book and Wisdom to persons who have thus become spiritually purified. The secrets embedded in this universe open themselves gradually only to those who possess a heart purified in the manner mentioned. Those who possess such hearts may even become springs of wisdom in their own right.

The exoteric dimensions of Prophet Muhammad’s -upon him blessings and peace- duties and instructions will be maintained until the end of the world, through the attentive efforts of Muslim scholars who recite the Quran and teach others its commands and prohibitions. As for the esoteric dimensions of his activities, they will also be perpetuated until the Last Day, by virtue of the industrious efforts of spiritual masters who undertake the mission of purifying hearts and souls.

c. A Person’s Own Purification of His Self

Regarding a person’s purification of his own self, the Holy Quran reads, “By the nafs and He Who shaped it and inspired it to wickedness and righteousness! Prosperous is he who purifies it, and failed has he who seduces it [by way of ignorance and sins].” (as-Shams, 7-10) According to the requirements of this Quranic statement, the prosperous and saved ones will only be those whom the Almighty has purified by freeing them of sins and equipping them with His blessings and fear. Another Quranic verse describes the distinguished position of such people in the world to come as follows, “Enter you among My servants! Enter you My Paradise!” (al-Fajr, 29-30) Still another verse says,

قَدْاَفْلَحَمَنْتَزَكّٰىوَذَكَرَ اسْمَ رَبِّهِ فَصَلّٰى

“Prosperous is he who has purified himself and mentions the name of his Lord, and prays.” (al-Ala, 14-15) The command to purify mentioned in the last verse is quite significant. The servant is expected to: 1) First cleanse his heart, body and possessions from all negativity and immorality; which 2) results in the unveiling the curtains of ignorance that stand between the servant and the Almighty; 3) after which, with a body nurtured by lawful food and a heart mindful of the Almighty, the servant enters into the realm of mature servanthood and spiritual enjoyment.

The exegete Bursawi interprets this Quranic verse in the following: “This verse indicates that a servant is expected to cleanse his soul from all kinds of things declared by Islam as unlawful, to purify his heart from the love of the world, to direct his attention only to Lord as much as his capacities allow and to even withhold his mind from remembering anything other than the Almighty.” Underlining the same quality are the words Abu Bakr Kattani uttered in his deathbed: “I would never talk about my deeds out of the fear of allowing the intrusion of hypocrisy; but since my death is just around the corner, I feel I should say a few things for your sake. I have been a watchful doorkeeper at the gate of my heart and have done my best to keep it closed to anything other than the Lord…and in the end my heart acquired such a quality that I became a stranger to everything but the Lord.”

According to Ibn Abbas’ interpretation, the word tazakka (as-Shams, 14-15) means “a person’s declaration of the statement there is no god but Allah(la ilaha illa Allah).” (Qurtubi, Jami, XX, 22) The logic behind this interpretation lays the fact that cleansing the heart from unbelief and polytheism marks the first step of the process of purification. The first part of the declaration of the Almighty’s oneness (kalimatu’t-tawhid) begins with a negation (la); namely ‘there is no god’ (la ilaha). This indicates that a believer is expected to empty his heart and whole existence of all kinds of negative moral characteristics, which resemble minor deities. Then comes the confirmation ‘but Allah’ (illa Allah), which is when the heart becomes ready to receive and to be filled with the Divine light of tawhid. An anonymous poet voices this quite beautifully when he says:

Empty your heart of everything other than the Lord
For He does not visit a place with no proper host

Regarding this act of purification, Ibrahim Dasuqi -may Allah sanctify his secret-remarks, “Son…Do not ever fall prey to conceit, even if you be spending your days fasting and nights praying; and even if you have a clean spirit that enjoys a close relationship to the Lord. Do not ever be defeated by pride and let your ego get the better of you; for many a dervish who has, has ended up in destruction.”

Another saint Hatam Asamm -may Allah sanctify his secret- says, “Do not ever be deceived by luxurious palaces, fruitful gardens and green pastures; for there is no garden more beautiful than Paradise. Still, remember what happened to Adam –upon him peace- right in the middle of Paradise? With a desire to stay there forever more, he stretched his hand out to the ‘the forbidden fruit’, only to be punished and expelled to the world by the Divine Will. Do not ever be deceived by the abundance of your deeds of worship and personal qualities. For despite his unique many personal qualities, Balaam the son of Boer ended up in destruction, even though one time the Almighty had taught him His Greatest Name. (ismu’l-azam).[5] There is an enormous lesson to be taken in that incident alone.   

Come to your senses and do not ever be deceived by the abundance of your knowledge and deeds. Have you not heard of what happened to Satan, who had erstwhile been endowed with a great amount of knowledge and had performed many acts of worship to go with it? Therefore, beware of the tricks of Satan and the ego, against which Our Compassionate Lord warns us:  ‘[Satan] said, “Now, for Your perverting me, I shall surely sit in ambush for them on Your straight path.”’ (al-Araf: 16) And again, ‘[Satan] said, “My Lord, for Your perverting me I shall deck all fair to them in the earth, and I shall pervert them all together.”’ (al-Hijr, 39)

Do not fool yourself by feeling secure on the basis of sitting in the company of worshippers and ascetics; for a merely outward accompaniment is useless. Have you not heard of the story of Thaalaba,[6] who used to attend the gatherings of the Prophet Muhammad -upon him blessings and peace-? But he would sit just there emotionlessly, for which he met a terrible destruction.

Even though he was the son of a prophet, Nuh’s -upon him blessings and peace- son arrogantly played deaf to his father’s message and thought he was self-sufficient. And when destruction came his way, his mere blood relation to his father did not save him. 

And Lut’s –upon him blessings and peace- wife…She was on friendly terms with unbelievers and sinners, though she had not the least understanding of what was going on in her own house. Blinded in the darkness of unbelief, she could not see the light of guidance.

So rely only on the Almighty and no-one else; since apart from Him, no knowledge, deed, wealth, offspring or friend can guarantee your eternal happiness.”

The Quranic verses aforementioned (al-Ala, 14-15) state that only those who have purified themselves and overcome the negative desires of their lower selves will be the ones to prosper. This means that those who have not completed their act of purification will not be able to reach real happiness and salvation. Further testifying to this fact are other Quranic verses, one of which declares,

اِنَّمَاتُنْذِرُالَّذِينَيَخْشَوْنَرَبَّهُمْبِالْغَيْبِوَاَقَامُواالصَّلٰوةَ

وَ مَنْ تَزَكّٰى فَاِنَّمَا يَتَزَكّٰى لِنَفْسِهِ وَ اِلَى اللّٰهِ الْمَصِير

“You can only warn those who fear their Lord in the Unseen and perform the prayer; and whosoever purifies himself, purifies himself only for his own soul’s good. To The Almighty is the homecoming.” (al-Fatir, 18) From this, we can draw the conclusion that prophetic instructions and warnings help only those whose hearts are filled with sincerity for and fear of the Almighty; and who offer their daily prayers, as well as other deeds of worship, in this mindset.

Sinners will pay the price of their own wrong-doings and face punishment. Nobody shall be able to offer any help in having their punishments reduced. Likewise good deeds will be of benefit only to those who have offered them. Thus, those who purify their nafs are effectively doing it for their own good.

Quite meaningful in this regard is the following verse of the Quran: “Only those of His servants who have knowledge fear the Almighty.” (al-Fatir, 28) The verse indicates that the more knowledgeable a servant becomes, the more he becomes conscious of the Lord in the depths of his heart. The hearts of those ingrained with heedlessness towards their Lord are, in effect, dead. Warning or counseling them is seldom of any use. The Quran (Yasin, 70) underlines this and states that the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- and the message of the Quran are of help only to those who are alive. To become spiritually alive, a person must nurture an inward fear of Allah, glory unto Him, and complement this outwardly by offering his daily ritual prayers diligently.

The reward of becoming purified of sins are the highest ranks of Paradise, as testified by the Quran refers in the following verse: “And whoever comes unto Him a believer having done deeds of righteousness, those, for them await the most sublime degrees; Gardens of Eden, underneath which rivers flow, therein dwelling forever.” (Taha, 75-76)

When a servant sets his heart only upon the Almighty, his reward becomes even greater; he becomes eligible, in the Hereafter, to witness the manifestations of Divine beauty and perfection (jamalullah), which are beyond the limits of linguistic description in this world. Whoever willingly directs his attention to the Lord alone and takes his Lord to be his sole concern, becomes freed of all kinds of petty, temporal concerns. As for acquiring the knowledge of the Divine (marifatullah), it begins with purifying the self, which then leads to a real understanding of its nature. The well-known Sufi phrase, “Whoever knows his nafs, knows his Lord” refers to this delicate relationship between the human nafs and the knowledge of the Divine.

In this day and age where human beings live under the yokes of materialism and self-centeredness that darken their soul, there are innumerable obstacles that hinder one from the all-important task of directing his focus on the reality of the human soul and other spiritual matters. There is therefore a greater need today for spiritual masters to correct our misplaced direction.

Muslim history is replete with exemplary personalities to take lessons from. One such figure is the Ottoman Sultan Selim I. On his returning from the campaign of Egypt, he heard that the people of Istanbul had flocked to the streets for a huge ceremony to welcome the victorious Sultan. But feeling uncomfortable with the idea, Selim instead delayed his entrance to Istanbul, over the concern that his ego would actually enjoy the pompous reception awaiting him. Summoning his confidante Hasan Can, he told him that they shall enter the city “only after sunset when everybody has returned home to avoid their cheerful applauses and greetings, lest they flatter our egos let it have the upper hand over us.” In line with the edict, the Muslim army entered Istanbul quietly after sunset without the least sign of ostentation. Selim was mindful of the dangerous aspects of the human ego and acted with due discretion. Thus, in effect, he was a ‘sultan’ in this regard as well.

A believer is expected to call his self to account and interrogate it on a frequent basis. He must always keep a watchful eye on his spiritual condition and progress. In Sufi terminology, this conduct is referred to as an ‘inward investigation’ (at-tafahhusu’l-batini). This cross-examination of the self, where all actions are reevaluated, should take place at least once a day. When one becomes accustomed to it, he becomes less insistent on his habitual wrongdoings. We shall now turn our attention to what Ghazzali says in this context:

“With the dawning of each day, a believer should sit together with his “self” right after his dawn prayer and reach certain agreements on the basis of certain conditions. This act is similar to a merchant’s agreement with his partner regarding their share-holdings, right before him submitting his capital to the partner. Meantime, the merchant does not neglect to give certain warnings to the partner. Likewise, a person should give the following warnings and instructions to his self. ‘My whole capital is my lifetime. When I lose my life, my capital also comes to an end, and profit and loss do not mean anything to me anymore. But now a new day begins. The Almighty has given me this day as a great opportunity. If he had made me dead, I would give anything just to return to this life again, even for a single day, to perform only good deeds.’  Now imagine that you were dead and you were revived to come back to this life again. This is that day; do not sully it with sins and disobedience. Do not waste any second of it, because every single breath is an invaluable gift from the Almighty.

Be mindful of the fact that a day is twenty-four hours. On the Day of Judgment, twenty-four closed boxes will be brought in front of man, for each day. When he opens a box and sees the rewards of good deeds performed within that hour, he shall realize that the box is filled with light, whereupon he will feel an inexpressible joy. Then thinking of the other rewards he might receive, he becomes absorbed by an inexpressible joy; so great that if the dwellers of Hell were to partake in a single share of this joy, they would have no longer feel any pain. When he opens the second box, he smells the terrible odor of the hour he had spent in disobedience. He is the overcome by regret so deep, that if the people of Paradise were to be given a share of his regret, they would completely forget the pleasures of Paradise. When he opens the third box, he sees that it is empty; the hour he spent sleeping or doing licit activities. Still, he feels a great regret over not putting that hour to good use, which would have helped him out on this day. His regret is comparable to that of a merchant when he fails to capitalize on a huge investment. Therefore, fill your box before it is too late; do not leave it empty. Being lazy will only compound the enormity of your loss.

Bodily organs function in support of the soul. We should keep a watchful eye on them and instruct our egos on the right way of using bodily organs. We must protect our eyes from looking at unlawful and useless things so that they do not keep our hearts busy in vain. We should protect our tongues from gossip, backbiting, slander, lie, self-promotion, criticizing others and fawning; instead, we must keep them busy with the remembrance of the Lord and make sure that they utter only good things. We should protect our stomachs from unlawful and doubtful food, and even decrease the consumption of the lawful. The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- instructs us in this regard, saying, “Refraining from useless things is the sign of a good Muslim.” (Tirmidhi, Zuhd, 11; Ibn Majah, Fitan, 12)  This means that a believer’s speech and silence should be of Divine remembrance and contemplation.

A believer must also be careful to fasten his acts of worship upon their proper destination. When he calls his self to account, he needs to make it sure that all of his deeds are performed uniquely for the sake of the Almighty, not for the sake of any other authority including his own self.

As a result of the purification of the nafs, the heart acquires the quality of ‘soundness’ (salim). A believer with a sound heart embodies three characteristics:

1. He does not hurt anybody. This comes from a fear of the Almighty. The heart is protected from the evils of the ego, which brings exemplary character traits to the surface.

2. He is never hurt of offended by anybody. This comes from a profound feeling of love. He never pays attention to the praises or censures of ordinary people. A poet summarizes these two characteristics and versifies, “The purpose of man and jinn on the garden of Earth…is to not hurt, devotee, and not be hurt”.

3. He always prioritizes the pleasure of the Lord at all costs. On being compelled to make a choice between the worldly and the Hereafter, they never hesitate in choosing the latter.

In short, the Almighty has made this life a platform of trials and has assigned man to the task of returning to Him by overcoming the obstacle that is the soul; to transform its evil to good, the reward of which is incomparable to anything in this world.

May our Lord allow us all to overcome their lower selves!

Amin!

[1]        Alamu’l-khalq: This world is bound by time and space and constituted by created beings. Alamu’l-khalq is also called “the temporal or visible world”. Things that we perceive through our five senses come from this world.

[2]        Alamu’l-amr: This world is free of the concepts of time and matter and has come into existence merely by the Divine command “Be!”.  It is also designated by the terms “the spiritual or unseen world”. Subtle realities such as the intellect, soul, spirit, heart, and secret belong to this world.

[3]        Suyuti, Jamiu’s-Saghir, II, 73

[4]        The names of these three Companions were Murarah ibn Rab al-Amri, Hilal ibn Umayyah al-Waqifi and Kaab ibn Malik, the poet. The three Companions had taken part in all the previous battles; except for Kaab -Allah be well-pleased with him-, who was absent only at Badr. The world had suddenly narrowed in their eyes, constricting their hearts, now that they were ignored by the entire Muslim society because of their misjudgment in remaining behind from Tabuk. Worst of all was the fact that the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- had shunned them to a point where he did not even respond to their greetings. The entire earth had become estranged; even their wives were like strangers. There was nothing they could do about it, except for weep, day and night. They were like melted candles from their incessant crying. They had done a mistake but that did not distance them from being sincere, upright; neither did it shake their trust in Allah, glory unto Him, nor did it divert them away from remorse and repentance. Fifty days had gone by when they were finally rewarded for their honesty and genuine repentance in the form of the Quranic verse: “And to the three who were left behind, until, when the earth became strait for them, for all its breadth, and their souls became strait for them, and they thought that there was no shelter from God except in Him, then He turned towards them, that they might also turn; surely God turns, and is All-compassionate.” (at-Tawbah,118-119) For a more detailed analysis of this subject-matter see Osman Nuri Topbaş, The Chain of Prophets, IV, 289-294.

[5]        See, al-Araf, 175-176.

[6]        At the beginning, Thaalaba used to spend his whole time in the Prophet’s -upon him blessings and peace- mosque and listen to his teachings. But in time he started accumulating some wealth and became possessed by the love of the world. Gradually, he started missing daily prayers in the mosque and finally left the Muslim community altogether. He went so far that he even rejected to pay his required alms-giving to the community. But at the end he faced a terrible destruction. Tabari, Tafsir, XIV, 370-372; Ibn Kathir,Tafsir, II, 388.

 

Osman Nuri Topbaş

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