Overcoming Self-Centeredness and Developing Love: Islam

Introduction

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama emphasizes that religious harmony must be based on education, knowing about each other’s traditions. With thorough knowledge, we can acknowledge the common goals we share, while respecting the differences. In fact, from learning about these differences, we may discover a few aspects that can enrich one’s own traditions. Therefore, although it is very nice to demonstrate the similarities of various religions and to pray together, we need also to explore the differences among them so that we can develop deeper understanding and respect. Deeper understanding and respect provide the stable basis for a lasting harmony and cooperation among the world religions.

All religions teach that a self-centered attitude, with which one thinks only of oneself, is the source of all negative emotions, such as anger, jealousy, suspicion, greed, arrogance and so on. A self-centered attitude also leads to the destructive behavior of killing, stealing, bullying, cheating, lying, corruption, and exploitation – all in order to get one’s way. In short, extreme selfish feelings are the source of all problems. To counter this, every religion teaches methods to lessen self-centeredness and to enhance positive qualities such as love, compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness.

Let us look at what Islam and Buddhism teach about these issues. Both Islam and Buddhism have many different schools and traditions, each with its own specific interpretations. Here, however, we shall look primarily at the most widely held assertions found in Islam and in the Indo-Tibetan traditions of Buddhism. Since the aim of this essay is to educate Buddhists about the basic tenets and beliefs in Islam, and to educate Muslims likewise about the same in Buddhism, the presentations will, by necessity, contain simplifications and generalizations. Any misrepresentation is unintended. Only God knows the full meaning of the Quran and only a Buddha knows the full meaning of the Dharma teachings.

General Assertions Concerning the Spiritual Path

In general, within Islam, self-centeredness refers to following one’s own self-will (Arabic: al- iradat al-zat), dominated by self-importance, selfishness and negative emotions, as opposed to following God’s will (Arabic: iradat Allah). The way to overcome self-centeredness is through sincere worship of God (Arabic: al-ibadah). Worship entails perfecting the three dimensions of the Islamic religion (Arabic: al-din). It encompasses everything that God loves and is pleased with:

  • Submission or surrender to God (Arabic: al-islam)
  • Faith (Arabic: al-iman)
  • Excellence (Arabic: al-ihsan), both in character and in acts of service to God’s creations.

Various Islamic traditions teach different approaches for reaching a state of total submission, faith and excellence. These approaches fall into two main categories:

  • Methods revealed historically by the Prophet Muhammad, as taught in orthodox Sunni and Shia traditions
  • Methods that rely on personal, inner experience of God, as taught primarily in Sufi orders.

Both approaches follow from the Muslim assertion of creation and the soul. 

Creation and Spirit

God created Adam by breathing Spirit (Arabic: al-ruh) into some clay. God repeats this act of creation with each man and woman conceived thereafter, by sending an angel to breathe His Spirit into each child’s body in its mother’s womb. God alone has full knowledge of Spirit; mankind was given only a little knowledge of it.

Angels were created by God from light. Some of them serve God personally, for instance those that carry God’s throne. Others act as intermediaries with the world and carry out God’s will, such as the angel Jibril, who brought the revelation of the Quran (Arabic: al-Qu’ran) from God to the prophet Muhammad. God also created invisible genies (Arabic: al-jinn) from smokeless fire, as well as animals. Although the Quran does not mention that God created any of these non-human beings by breathing Spirit into them, this does not discount the assertion that all of God’s creations are created with Spirit.

The Soul, the Intellect, the Heart and Humanity’s Innate Innermost Nature

When embodied in humans, Spirit is referred to as a soul (Arabic: al-nafs). Many Sufi masters, however, such as al-Ghazali, assert Spirit and soul as separate entities that are both present in each person. We shall discuss the Sufi assertions later in this essay. In this general presentation we shall follow the main-stream use of Spirit and soul as synonyms when embodied in humans.

The souls of humans and invisible genies can exercise free will (Arabic: al-iradat al-hurah). Free will, in other words free choice, is a characteristic of the intellect (Arabic: al-‘aql), which God also created in men. The intellect is the faculty for thought, especially rational thought and logic.

God also created mankind with a heart (Arabic: al-qalb). Several synonyms for heart also appear in the Quran, such as al-fu’ad. Although some Sufi masters differentiate these terms as referring to different levels or aspects of the heart, here in this general presentation we shall just speak of the heart in general.

The heart is the faculty for feeling emotion (Arabic: al-‘atifah), both positive and negative, as well as for feeling happiness and sadness. It can be filled with doubt about God and thus be blind, or it can be strengthened and filled with faith. It can be closed to the Truth (Arabic: al-Haqq), which is God and His Messenger Muhammad, or it can be made open.

All men are born, however, with an innate, innermost nature that is pure. This innate pure nature is an unchanging, innate predisposition (Arabic: al-fitrah) – more specifically, an innate inclination to believe in and submit to God and to follow God’s will. It is like an inborn faculty that enables mankind to have faith in the formula of testimony (Arabic: al-shahada): “There is no god, but God; and Muhammad is God’s messenger.”

Thus, the Oneness of God (Arabic: al-tawhid) is integral in the original pure nature of all men. However, it needs to be deeply understood and confirmed in one’s innermost core (Arabic: al-lubb). Muhammad is God’s messenger to remind us of this nature. The Quran speaks of those who are deeply aware of their pure natures as “men of innermost core” (Arabic: ulul-albab).

If, based on the free will of the intellect, one’s heart later in life becomes moved by negative emotions deriving from disobedience of God’s will, the soul becomes subject to these emotions as well. Under their influence, the soul then leads one to engage in forbidden behavior – behavior forbidden by God. As a result, black stains accrue around the heart. One’s innate predisposition toward God becomes covered in darkness. There is a veil between one’s heart and the message of Muhammad and one’s heart becomes closed off from the Truth of God.

Since it is the soul that acts with self-will, it is the soul that needs to exercise the free will of the intellect to remove the stains from the heart. This effort to open the heart is described as a struggle (Arabic: jihad). Muhammad, in fact, called the struggle against the soul (Arabic: jihad al-nafs) the major jihad. It is the struggle against disobedience to God, lack of faith, and lust and anger.

In the course of this struggle, the soul may vacillate between three states:

[1] The inciting soul (Arabic: al-nafs al-’ammarah) is the soul in the state in which it incites one to lust, anger and disobedience of God’s will and laws.

[2] The self-reproaching soul (Arabic: al-nafs al-luwwamah) is the soul that examines and accuses itself of listening to the inciting self. Repenting this behavior, it seeks forgiveness from God. The self-reproaching soul then makes use of the faculty of self-restraint, which is a further quality of the intellect.

The Arabic term for self-restraint, “al-taqwa,” connotes both strengthening oneself to avoid being harmed, as well as being pious. In the Arabic phrase “fear God”, “ittaqullah”, the verb “ittaqu” (fear) is morphologically related to al-taqwa. Thus, self-restraint is a form of fear of God, which puts up a barrier to protect oneself from doing that which would incur God’s wrath.

  • Note that in Buddhism, the Sanksrit term “dharma” means a preventive measure, something one does to hold one back from causing harm to oneself.

[3] The soul at peace (Arabic: al-nafs al-mutma’inna) is the soul that is firm in its obedience to God’s will and thus totally at peace.

Love

Several different Arabic words for love appear in the Quran from two groups of morphologically related terms. One group derives from the three-letter root hbb, for example al-hubb, and connotes a feeling of closeness to excellence. The other group derives from the three-letter root wdd, for example al-wadud, and connotes a feeling of closeness expressed in one’s conduct and actions toward others. Although each term in each of these two groups has a slightly different connotation, it is hard to distinguish them based solely on the Quran. Therefore, here we shall speak of only the most general features of love as exemplified by these terms as used in the Quran.

In the case of God, God is the creator of the entire universe and all beings in it. He creates them with excellence (Arabic: al-ihsan) and His love is a feeling of closeness toward all the excellence that he has created. God, however, favored mankind over other forms of life that he created, even the angels. Thus, God created mankind with His Spirit, in the best of forms, in a primordial state of purity, and with His trust to be His vice-regents on earth. As a boon, God also graces or endows individual persons with their various good qualities, such as love.  

God created mankind and the invisible genies so that they may love and worship Him. But He also gave them free will, so that they could choose whether or not to love and worship Him. God offered everyone guidance in the form of their innate predisposition to come close to God, but some prefer to follow their own blind self-will. Thus, because of free will, men can direct their love, namely their feeling of closeness, either toward what is actually excellent and accords with God’s will or they can direct it toward that which they mistakenly consider as excellence, but which goes against God’s will and contradicts what is actually excellent. Human love can also be directed at others, as well as to all of God’s creations.

God’s love of mankind, then, is His feeling of closeness with excellence, both in character and in acts of service. Excellence in character and acts of service are expressions of one’s selfless submission and faith. In other words, they are expressions of one’s worship of God. The Quran elaborates God’s love of excellence in its mention, in various verses, of those whom God loves. The list indicates how those who love God rightly worship Him:

  • Those who do what is virtuous and good (Arabic: al-muhasnin)
  • Those who keep themselves pure and clean (Arabic: al-mutatahharin)
  • Those who are God-fearing and so act correctly, for instance by keeping their word and acting according to the law and their commitments (Arabic: al-mutaqin)
  • Those who are fair and just (Arabic: al-muqasitin)
  • Those who rely on God and trust Him (Arabic: al-mutawakilin)
  • Those who are firm, steadfast and patient in carrying out God’s will (Arabic: al-sabrin)
  • Those who love God, the Prophet Muhammad and the People of the House
  • Those who fight in God’s cause
  • Those who repent (Arabic: al-tawwabin).

There are varying interpretations as to whom the People of the House (Arabic: ahl al-bayt), namely the House of the Prophet, include. All Muslims include Muhammad’s immediate household, consisting of his daughter Fatima, her husband Ali, who was also Muhammad’s cousin, and their two sons Hasan and Husayn. The Shia (Arabic: Shi’ah) denomination of Islam includes, as well, the line of Imams, the divinely appointed descendants of Muhammad who, like Muhammad’s immediate household, are without sin and infallible.

The Quran also enumerates in various verses those whom God does not love, such as those who reject Him. It is not that God does not love disbelievers, but rather that those who oppose God and God’s will freely refuse to be loved by God and thus reject God’s mercy. Thus, although God loves all His creation, that does not mean that God is equally gentle with all His creation, such as:

  • Those who transgress beyond limits set by divine law (Arabic: al-mua’tadin)
  • Those who are the corrupt (Arabic: al-mufasidin)
  • Disbelievers (Arabic: al-kafirin), who reject the truth
  • Wrongdoers and oppressors (Arabic: al-zalimin)
  • Those who waste by excess (Arabic: al-musarifin)
  • Braggarts, those who boast about the good they have done (Arabic: kul mukhtal fkhur)
  • Those who are arrogant (Arabic: al-mustakibirin), pretending to have good qualities and hiding bad ones
  • Those who are wealthy and look down on others (Arabic: al-frahin)
  • Those who are treacherous (Arabic: al-kha’inin)
  • Those who betray (Arabic: khawwanan) and are immoral (Arabic athiman).

Human love is directed toward what one considers to be excellent, which one lacks oneself and which one yearns for. Thus, man’s love toward God is a yearning for the attainment of the perfection that he lacks and needs. On the other hand, God’s love toward His creations does not connote any imperfection or yearning. God does not lack anything and so does not need humanity’s love and worship. Nevertheless, God’s love of mankind manifests in his drawing mankind nearer to him. Thus love, implanted in the hearts of man, is like a seed that grows and multiplies in those for whom God wills it, drawing them ever closer to God.

When men develop love for the universe and for humanity in the purest way, their love is not for the universe or humanity in and of themselves but is love for God who created the excellence in them. Nevertheless, human love toward each other entails performing excellent acts of service for those with shared belief and practice of Islam, taking care of them as a form of worship of God their Creator.

Sincerity of Worship

One develops love of God through deep gratitude for His mercy to create oneself, His mercy of forgiveness when one repents, His answering of one’s prayers and needs, His closeness and favor, and His perceptiveness and kindness toward His slaves (Arabic: al-‘abd).

A slave of God (Arabic: ‘abdullah) is someone who is completely obedient of God’s will and who loves and worships God by performing excellent acts of service toward God’s creations. The sincerity of the love of God’s slaves toward God, however, depends on their development, in stages, of four attributes:

  • Being self-effacing (Arabic: ‘azilah) toward the noblest of the faithful. This means considering oneself lowly in the face of those who are faithful, favoring them above oneself, and being generous and kind toward them. It also entails being sympathetic and merciful toward fellow believers and joining them in worshipping God.
  • Being stern (Arabic: ‘ashida’) toward disbelievers. This implies being harsh toward those who oppose God or who are hypocrites in their belief in God, and fighting against their influence.
  • Struggling (Arabic: yujahiduna) for the sake of God. The highest struggle is a constant struggle against the negative dictates of the inciting heart. The lesser struggle is against those disbelievers who occasionally cause harm toward Muslims.
  • Being without fear (Arabic: la yahafuna) of the claims of disbelievers. This means being so sincere in one’s faith in God, one pays no attention to anything except God and God’s will.

Sincere worship of God is from primarily three motives:

  • Being terrified (Arabic: khaufan) of God’s punishment in the hereafter, which leads to awe and dread of God
  • Having ardent hope (Arabic: tama’an) for God’s mercy, which leads to the yearning of love for what one hopes for
  • Having full conviction or faith (Arabic: iman) in God’s existence, with firm knowledge (Arabic: al-ma’rifah) that God is God, in other words firm knowledge that God is the greatest of all and that, by comparison, mankind is small. Thus, faith arises from humility (Arabic: tadarru’an) in the face of all of God’s creation and from secrecy (Arabic: khufyatan) by keeping that faith hidden deep in one’s heart. Knowledge of God’s greatness thus must precede the first two motives: being terrified of God’s punishment and having hope for His mercy.

The Afterlife

During people’s lives, two angels, known as the honorable scribes (Arabic: kiraman katiban), record all their deeds in their individual “book of deeds,” with one angel recording the good deeds and the other the bad. When humans die, the angel of death takes their Spirit from their body and brings it before God in the highest heaven, where their book of deeds is read. The good deeds of those who will go to paradise are then registered in the Ledger of the Righteous and kept in the highest heaven; the bad deeds of those who will go to hell are registered in the Ledger of the Wicked and kept in the lowest hell.

Two angels then return the Spirits of the deceased to the bodies in the grave and, now as souls, question them about their beliefs in God, Islam, Muhammad and the Quran. Depending on the answers, a door to either paradise or hell is opened to the souls of the deceased. Throughout the rest of the intermediate state (Arabic: al-barzakh), literally the “barrier” between death and final judgment, the deceased experience a taste of the happiness of paradise or the tortures of hell through these doors. They experience these with immaterial facsimile bodies

On the Day of Judgment at the end of time, all humans are resurrected from the grave, their decayed bodies are restored, and they are gathered naked before God. Their deeds are read from either the Ledger of the Righteous or the Ledger of the Wicked and they receive God’s final judgment. Those who have submitted to God and overcome the self-centeredness of their self-will and have sincerely worshipped God with love will spend all eternity in paradise, enjoying happiness with a pure, clean body. Those who have disobeyed and turned away from God by indulging the self-centeredness of their self-will will spend all eternity tortured in hell.

On the Day of Judgment, the animals that have died are also gathered to God. But because they lacked free will, they were incapable of disobeying their natural instincts as given to them by God’s will and so cannot stand in judgment. The Quran does not mention what happens to them after being gathered to God. Some later commentators say they return to dust without entering either paradise or hell. Others say that magnificent horses and camels are found in paradise. Angels, as well, lack free will and are incapable of wrongdoing. As messengers and servants of God, they are immortal and continue to serve God after the Day of Judgment.

Thus, only humans and invisible genies face judgment at the end of time. Humans, however, have the possibility, while alive, to become mindful of their innate disposition toward God. Thus, humans have the possibility during their lifetime to develop their soul to be a soul at peace. One attains this state of peace through love of God and of God’s messenger Muhammad, and by following the excellent example (Arabic: al-uswah hasanah) of Muhammad’s character and actions in one’s life. This entails perfecting the three dimensions of the Islamic religion, as explained above: submission, faith, and excellent acts of service. Sincere practice of these three then lead on the Day of Judgment to an eternal afterlife in paradise.

Historically Revealed Methods for Overcoming Self-Centeredness and Developing Love

Submission

The “five pillars of Islam” outline the path of submission to take in order to enter paradise:

  • Submission itself is through bearing witness and accepting as absolute truth the meaning of what one recites with the formula of testimony, namely that there is no God other than God and Muhammad is God’s messenger.

The next four pillars indicate what the state of submission entails:

  • Praying five times a day by facing Mecca, washing first, bowing, and reciting the formula of testimony
  • Paying a tax (Arabic: al-zakah) for the relief of the poor and needy, as an act of forgoing one’s wealth by obeying God’s will
  • Fasting during the month of Ramadan, the month when Muhammad received revelation of the first of the 114 chapters (Arabic: al-surah) of the Quran. By forgoing the pleasures of food and entertainment during this month of fasting, one also demonstrates one’s obedience and submission to God.
  • Making a pilgrimage to the Kaabah (Arabic: Ka’bah) in Mecca, during which all must wear just two unsewn pieces of white cloth and sandals, representing the equality of all humanity.

Submission also means knowing and following God’s laws, the Shariah (Arabic: Shari’ah). The Shariah is based on the Quran, revealed by Muhammad, and on the Sunnah, records of the religious practices that Muhammad established among his companions. Shariah, meaning literally “The Way,” provides for every aspect of life. It is divided into actions that are

  • Obligatory, such as praying five times each day
  • Recommended, such as giving charity
  • Neutral, such as which vegetables to eat
  • Discouraged, such as divorce
  • Forbidden, such as murder, stealing, eating pork, drinking alcohol, and so on).

If one learns, submits to and obeys the laws of Shariah, one overcomes the self-will exercised by the inciting soul, which had led one to be self-centered and to disobey God’s will.

Faith

Further, when submitting to God through bearing witness, one accepts the six articles of faith:

  • The Oneness of God,
  • Muhammad as the final, definitive prophet of God; and the infallibility of all prophets
  • Belief in angels
  • The infallibility of the Quran and other prophetic books, such as parts of the Bible
  • Belief in the Day of Judgment
  • Acceptance of predestination (Arabic: al-qadar) of worldly affairs by God, based on God’s omniscience of all that has and will happen, including the choices that everyone will make with free will.

Excellent Acts of Service to God’s Creations

Love of God through submission to God’s will and through faith leads to helping others as a sign of that love and submission, for instance by paying a tax for the relief of the poor and needy. This excellent act of service to God’s creations is not considered an act of charity. Rather, it is the voluntary duty of all Muslims to pay a wealth tax on their savings and property, since that is the rightful claim of the poor and needy from the rich. Paying this tax, then, is an act of submission to God by forgoing one’s self-centered claim to one’s wealth. Since wealth is considered unclean, paying the poor tax is a way to purify oneself of its stains, and attests to the equality of all mankind. Each member of humanity is equally the creation of God, imbued with Spirit and possessing a heart engraved with the seal of an innate disposition that can draw him or her toward God.

Although God judges everyone with equity, God loves only those who submit to God’s will and who thus lead an ethical life in accord with Shariah. For the sake of the welfare of society as a whole, God hates and punishes those who disobey and cause harm. Therefore, as a service to God and as a sign of love, mankind needs to enforce the laws of Shariah. Thus, law and justice (Arabic: al-‘adl) to maintain societal harmony play a crucial role in Muslim society. Many of the differences among the Islamic traditions stem from slightly different systems of interpretation of the Shariah laws.

Forgiveness

Although there is punishment for wrongdoing, forgiveness (Arabic: al-qhufran) for those who have submitted to God but who, out of the dictates of self-will and negative emotions, have violated some of the Shariah laws, also plays a large role in Islam. God is always forgiving, so long as one sincerely repents and turns to God. There is no forgiveness, however, for those who reject or give up Islam or who blaspheme against God, Muhammad or the Quran.

Two of God’s most excellent names (Arabic: al-‘asma’ al-husna) – the Entirely Merciful (Arabic: al-rahman) and the Especially Merciful (Arabic: al-rahim) – indicate this aspect of divine forgiveness as part of God’s love toward mankind. There are three main interpretations of the difference between these two aspects:

  • God is Entirely Merciful at all times by His very nature and does not require an object; while God is Especially Merciful toward those who repent.
  • God is Entirely Merciful; while God’s actions are Especially Merciful.
  • Only God is Entirely Merciful by nature; whereas God and others, such as Muhammad, are Especially Merciful toward those who repent.

Entering the heart of those wrongdoers who have the inclination to repent, God helps them first to repent and then forgives them. Repentance (Arabic: al-tawba) entails:

  • Feeling remorse
  • Repenting by asking God to forgive one
  • Making restitution for the wrongdoing by some virtuous act
  • Resolving never to repeat the wrong deed again.

If one dies unrepentant, however, one faces eternal damnation and punishment in hell on the Day of Judgment.

The practice of jurisprudence in Islamic courts can also involve forgiveness. The victim of a crime or the victim’s family has the choice of demanding strict punishment, monetary compensation, or a pardon. The practice of forgiveness in this legal context is also an excellent act of service to God.

Methods that Rely on Personal, Inner Experience of God for Overcoming Self-Centeredness and Developing Love

Beauty and Love of God

Some Sufi masters explain that although God creates all men with their heart’s innermost core sealed with a pure, unchanging, innate predisposition toward God, negligence (Arabic: al-qhaflah) has clouded awareness of it. It is as if mankind has forgotten about God. As a result, people become self-centered and follow the selfish dictates of self-will. Consequently, they act with greed and anger.

Sufism teaches a path of love of God as the way to overcome this negligence and thus as the way to overcome self-centeredness and come as close to God as possible. Love, as used in the Quran, is a feeling of closeness toward excellence. The Quran delineates those things that are excellent with a number of morphologically related words deriving from the three- syllable root hsn. In some verses, excellence is in reference to God, His names or paradise. In others, it is in reference to excellence in man’s character and man’s acts of service to God’s creations as a form of worship of God. Further, the Quran states that God loves those who do what is excellent.

Another variant of this same three-letter root, however, hasna’, which does not appear in the Quran, means “beauty.” Because of this linguistic relation, Sufis emphasize love as meaning a feeling of closeness to beauty and to what is beautiful. Thus, they interpret excellence of character and excellent acts of service to God’s creations as “beauty of character” and “beautiful acts of service.” They confirm this with a hadith quote found in both Sunni and Shia compendiums: “God is beautiful; He loves beauty.”

  • Hadith are narrations of sayings or stories about Muhammad, as passed down over successive generations from the Prophet’s companions. Collections of different hadith are preserved in various compendiums. The Sunni and Shia traditions accept different compendiums and sometimes dispute the authenticity of specific hadith in each other’s collection.

The Arabic term for “beautiful,” jamil, in this quotation appears in the Quran as an adjective modifying patience and forgiveness, with the implication of being kind and fair. Moreover, the Quran applies the term “beauty,” al-jamal, only in reference to livestock, in keeping with the word al-jamal also being the Arabic word for “camel.” Sufis, however, interpret the two terms in a much broader sense to connote beauty in every aspect of excellence.

Love of God, as taught in Sufism, then, is an inner, personal experience of what is excellent and beautiful, and can be expressed in many ways. For example, conceiving of God as an exquisitely beautiful, yet formless beloved, Sufi practitioners often express the yearning of love for God in poetry and music. Poetry and music are vehicles for prayer and worship that awaken and nurture the heart’s innate disposition toward God.

The Arabic word ‘ashq is often used in Sufi poetry for this type of love, especially in Persian and Urdu compositions. It connotes an impassioned, fervent, non-sexual love. Although the term does not appear in the Quran, Sufis use it in expressions such as “true love” (Persian: ‘ishq-e haqiqi), “love of the Messenger” (Persian: ‘ishq-e rasul), and “love of Muhammad” (Persian: ‘ishq-e muhammadi). “True” love refers to love of the Truth (Arabic: al-haqq), which is one of the names of God.

The Persian term ‘ishq also appears in the expression “metaphorical love” (Persian: ‘ishq-i majazi), which refers to the impassioned feeling of a lover toward his beloved as a metaphor or analogy for love of God. Some Persian masters teach that metaphorical love can lead to true love of God; others say that it cannot.

For the Sufi practitioner, the sounds of the poetry and music become the sounds of an inner voice, expressing the pain of separation from one’s beloved and calling one back to reunite with God. Thus, chanting poetry and playing music, or listening to either of them, is a deeply felt experience of impassioned, fervent love for God. When fully immersed in that love, one loses all sense of self and the self-centeredness that revolves around it. Such love must be experienced personally and cannot be fully expressed with the intellect.

The Seven Stages of Developing the Soul

On the inner level, renouncing all self-centered worldly concerns, the Sufi practitioner goes through a process of uncovering (Arabic: kashf), layer by layer, the veils – 70,000 of them according to a hadith – that hide God from one’s heart.  In doing so, one reveals one’s innermost core, one’s unchanging, innate predisposition toward God, and comes ever closer to God, the object of one’s love.

In the process or removing the veils, one’s soul evolves through seven stages, going from selfishness to selflessness. The seven stages are an elaboration of the three stages described in the presentation of the historically revealed approach to God. All seven, however, derive from the Quran.

  • The inciting soul (Arabic: al-nafs al-’ammarah) is the soul in the state in which it incites one to lust, anger and disobedience of God’s will and laws.
  • The self-reproaching soul (Arabic: al-nafs al-luwwamah) is the soul that examines and accuses itself of listening to the inciting self. Repenting this behavior, it seeks forgiveness from God.
  • The inspired soul (Arabic: al-nafs al-mulhamah) is the soul that, having repented, is inspired to engage, with contentment and humility, in beautiful acts of service to God’s creations.
  • The soul at peace (Arabic: al-mutma’inna) is the soul that is firm in its obedience to God’s will and thus totally at peace.
  • The pleased soul (Arabic: al-nafs al-radiyyah) is the soul that lets go of its self-centered concerns and, leading a simple, ascetic life, is pleased with whatever God wills.
  • The pleasing soul (al-nafs al-mardiyyah) is the soul that is pleasing to God – the soul that lets go of everything other than God and service to God’s creations.
  • The complete, perfect soul (al-nafs kamila) is the soul that is fully absorbed in God and becomes a selfless servant of God.

The Four Stages of Purification

The purification methods can also be presented in four stages:

  • Following the Shariah laws through self-discipline. Purifying one’s outer conduct in accord with God’s will is the indispensable basis for all further spiritual development. Thus, Sufis in general follow the historically revealed methods of submission, faith and “beautiful” service toward God’s creations. Beautiful service toward God’s creations is a form of metaphorical love. One sees the beauty that God has created in all His creations, and in loving and serving His beautiful creations, one is loving God.
  • Following the path of one of the Sufi orders (Arabic: tariqah). Living ascetically in a community of fellow adepts under the guidance of a spiritual master (Arabic: shaykh), one learns and practices remembrance of God (Arabic: zikr) and thoughts of God (Arabic: fikr). Remembrance or mindfulness of God is maintained by chanting over and again various phrases invoking God, or the ninety-nine names of God collected in hadith. Practitioners often recite these phrases and names while using prayer beads (Arabic: al-masbaha) of 33 or 99 beads. Thoughts of God concentrate upon certain aspects of God or of the Prophet Muhammad. Other practices may include, in some orders, whirling dance. Sufi communities are not isolated from society like a monastery; but rather they offer social services to the larger society – food, shelter, spiritual guidance, and education.
  • Personal experience of a vision of the true reality of God (Arabic: al-haqiqah). As a result of prolonged, deeply felt practice as taught in one of the Sufi orders, one gains the personal, inner experience of one’s soul passing away in God (Arabic: fana’ fillah). Going beyond that state of annihilation of the soul, one further experiences a passing away from passing away (Arabic: fana’ ‘an al-fana’) and gains a permanent abiding in God (Arabic: baqa’ billah). In this state, the true reality of God is revealed to one. The Truth (Arabic: al-Haqq) is one of the ninety-nine names of God.
  • Blissful experience of ecstatic knowledge of God (Arabic: al-ma’rifat). The knowledge of God gained in a state of rapture is beyond all rational, scientific knowledge (Arabic: al-‘ilm) gained through study and analysis, and beyond all revealed knowledge gained through a vision of the true reality of God.
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