Bismillaah ir Rahmaan ir Rahiim
In the name of Allah, The Merciful, The Compassionate
THE ISOLATION AND
OF THE NAFS
By Charles Upton
To set out on the Sufi path, two things are required. First, you must become a Muslim, and obey the universal norms of Islam. Secondly, you must find (God willing) a shaykh who is part of a valid silsila, a line-of-transmission stretching back to the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and place yourself under his authority. Then you can begin.
Sufism, in practice, is the constant attention to God - the awareness that He is, and that He is here, "nearer to you than your jugular vein".
In the simplest terms, the Heart (al-Qalb) is that in us which attends to God, while the nafs is that which blocks or interrupts this attention. So it behooves us to know what the nafs is, to be able to identify it when it appears, to tell the difference between the nafs and the Heart. How can we do this?
The first thing we need is a set of moral and ritual standards, such as is provided by the shari'ah. It's not that obedience to these standards by itself will necessarily advance us on the Sufi path - but without standards like this we will not be able to catch the nafs in action. The shari'ah is God's command that we do this and avoid that - and whatever wants to make us do what we should avoid or neglect what we should do is the nafs. The shari'ah is the line; the nafs is whatever crosses the line. Without the line we will not be able to pinpoint the nafs, to recognize its own particular quality.
It's also important that the rules we follow come from an objective source outside us. We might be able to invent ethical rules for ourselves that, from one point of view, are very wise and very practical. But if we are the authority that enforces them, then - for all their wisdom and practicality - they are at least partially an expression of the nafs, which means that they can't be reliably used to discover and isolate the nafs.
The nafs is that which tempts us, through threats or enticements or distractions, to violate the shari'ah. But it also tempts us to betray the tariqa. Certainly it pressures us to transgress moral rules. But once we have begun the practice of dhikr or constant attention to the presence of God, it also influences us to let our attention wander away from God through every sort of obsession and distraction, every imaginable negative emotion or self-indulgent mental pleasure, including false fantasies of so-called "heavenly" realities. We begin the work of isolating the nafs through watching for whatever tempts us to disobey moral rules, but we develop and refine our understanding of it by watching for whatever distracts us from the constant remembrance of God. And dhikr not only provides a more sensitive gauge for the activities of the nafs than moral standards do; it also begins to establish a more objective standpoint in us from which we can spy on the nafs' antics without being observed. God is Objective Reality; the more real God is to us, the more objective we ourselves become.
To begin with, the nafs blocks the influx of the Spirit into the Heart. Later, it falsifies this influx, diverting it from its true goal. It either makes us obsessed with moral purity or spiritual practice, or leads us to indulge in emotional states and imaginary experiences we falsely believe to be angelic or Divine. And when it finds that it can no longer block the Spirit from entering the Heart, or divert it in various false and useless directions, it learns how to abduct the Spirit, to claim It for its own.
You can't fight the nafs hand-to-hand; it's too strong, too cunning. The nafs that influences us, or all but forces us, to do evil is called the nafs al-ammara, the "commanding self"; the nafs that struggles against itself is the nafs al-lawwama, "the accusing self". It does little good to say, "I WILL be good, I WILL defeat the nafs" - and then when you fail, to cry "Damn me, I did it again! Why can't I control myself? I'm corrupt! I'm an evil man! (or woman)". You can't fight the nafs through self-will, because self-will is the nafs. And if you claim that you are corrupt, then you will be corrupt. The real use of the accusing nafs is not to fight commanding nafs, but to establish the mark by which the action of the commanding nafs - and later, the accusing nafs itself - can be detected. You still might have to kick yourself from time to time, force yourself to do what so much of you doesn't want to do and refuses to do - but this kind of struggle ultimately cannot be won, because it is a struggle against yourself. Will-power must ultimately give way to submission; forcing yourself to do something or avoid something must develop into islam, surrender to God: and there can be no surrender without love (mahabbah). Instead of standing behind yourself and whipping yourself forward, you must learn (God willing) to look ahead, to Him - to al-Hadi, the Guide - and joyfully follow His lead.
So if you can't oppose the nafs directly and expect to win the battle, what can you do? What you can do is to watch it, discern it, understand it. (The one who watches, discerns and understands is essentially the Heart.) The time will come when the action of the nafs will appear to you in its true guise - and when it does, when you can confidently say, whenever it rears its head: "There! That's the nafs again, I'd know it anywhere" - whether or not you can always overcome it - then the battle is already half won. And perfect awareness of the nafs does in fact overcome it, because the nafs can only overpower you when you identify with it, and when you identify with it, it disappears as a separate entity: you start to think it's you. The veil of the nafs falls over the Heart.
But perfect awareness of the nafs cannot come until it is pacified, and the best way to pacify her is to make a bargain with her. Don't fight the nafs - just temporarily set her aside, and let the influx of the Spirit enter the Heart. And when the nafs protests, simply explain to her: "What you really want is the Spirit, but you can't have that just yet. If you try to grab for the Spirit on your own, you will drive It away. And if the Spirit enters the Heart, and then you show up at the Heart's table uninvited and ready for a hearty meal, you will eat up all the Spirit in one gulp, go into an imbalanced ecstasy, and wake up the next day with a bad headache and no memory of what happened the night before. If you want your share of the Spirit, you need to hold back until it fully enters the Heart and becomes established there. Then (and only then) can you have your share of it. Certainly you want to be satisfied and spiritualized and pacified; God wants that too.
But you can't be pacified if you want to grab the Spirit and possess it. First you'll need to stand back, take a breather, and let the Heart do its work. Rest assured that when the Spirit is fully established there, you will receive your invitation." The nafs that is willing to accept this bargain has begun to be transformed into the nafs al-mutma'- inna, the "self at peace".
And once the Spirit is fully established in the Heart, the nafs WILL catch its overflow. From the veil that hides the Spirit it will be transformed into the mirror that reveals it, until it is ultimately indistinguishable from the Heart itself. Every one of its impulses will become a virtue; every one of its attacks, a protection; every one of its wiles, a wisdom; every one of its twists and contortions, a reflection of one of the Names of God in the mirror of the human form. The end of the first phase of the Sufi path is the gnosis or ma'rifa of God, which lies under the sign of tanzih, the divine Transcendence. The second phase culminates in the ma'rifa of the nafs, which is the site of tashbih, the divine Immanence.
Perhaps you've noticed that I have said next to nothing about the spiritual states that Sufism is famous for, the ahwal. That's because those states are none of our business. We cannot produce them and we should train ourselves not even to ask for them. They are God's business, not ours; they are gifts, not acquisitions. Our job is to do our job. God's job - is to do what He will.
Charles Upton is an American poet and author who has published numerous books on Sufism, Metaphysics, and other topics.