One of the first steps in gaining good character, which makes up one’s Islamic personality, is to refine one’s nafs and purify one’s heart. This purification and refinement is also the most definitive factor in determining whether one’s end affair will be misfortune or happiness.
In order to refine one’s nafs and purify one’s heart, one must first of all submit oneself to the divine will and struggle to resist the greed of the appetites and other ugly behaviour. Every believer must be able to perceive their own defects, flaws, weakness and nothingness and ignorance in the face of their Lord’s greatness, power and perfection. They should give direction to their actions as a result of this perception. In the instance that this can be done successfully, the nafs can arrive to an acceptable state, being rid of its blameworthy traits which in the Qur’an is mentioned as being the ‘the self that commands to evil acts’.
To struggle to refine one’s nafs and to embark on this path with sincere effort is considered the ‘greatest jihad’, due to its importance and degree of its difficulty. This is the expression that the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) used when they returned from the difficult Battle of Tabuk. In this battle, the Companions had travelled one thousands kilometres before returning back home. They endured hunger and thirst amongst other difficulties. Their hair and beards became unkempt, and their skin stuck to their bones due to their hunger. It was whilst they were in this state that the Prophet said to his Companions:
“Now we are returning from the little jihad to the greatest jihad; we are returning to do battle with the desires and caprices of our nafs”.
In various other hadiths, the Messenger of Allah said:
“The true mujahid or struggler in the way of Allah, is the one who struggles against his own nafs” (Tirmidhi, Fadailu al-Jihad, 2/1621; Ahmad, VI, 20).
“The intelligent one is the one who controls his nafs taking it to account, and striving for what is to come after death. The fool is the one who follows the desires of his nafs but yet continues to desire good from Allah” (Tirmidhi, Qiyamah, 25/2459; Ibn Maja, Zuhd, 31).
“The thing I fear most for my community is that they will follow the desires of their nafs” (Suyuti, I, 12).
The prophetic training of the Prophet took place as a result of the endless struggle against the nafs. As a result of this refinement of the nafs and purification of the heart, the Companions, reared on this prophetic training became perfect people purified of all immature qualities and became a model generation.
Under the instruction and guidance of the Prophet was Ibn Mas’ud , who experienced the state of praise, gratitude, and remembrance of Allah. Despite the deep knowledge that he had of hadith as a result of his closeness to the Messenger of Allah (pbuh), he only narrated 848 hadith because he was so particular and meticulous about narrating anything said by the Prophet. Ibn Mas’ud expressed his state of mind under the spiritual guidance of the Prophet of Allah as follows:
“We were so affected by the spiritual state of the Messenger of Allah, that we could hear the food that we ate doing zikr of Allah” (See Bukhari, Manakib, 25)
In his past, Ibn Mas’ud was a camel shepherd. However after being guided to Islam and passing through the spiritual training of the Messenger of Allah, his heart became like an ocean, deeper, finer and more subtle and a mirror of divine manifestations. The famous school of Kufa is a product of this famous Companion. The greatest legal mind in the world, Abu Hanifa, was trained at this academy. Solon and Hammurabi, who are considered the greatest legal minds in the world, could not hold a candle to the great Abu Hanifa. As the Hanafi school of thought established by Abu Hanifa continued, the reward of ongoing charity would go to Abu Hanifa. Thus Ibn Mas’ud and other similar Companions continue to be remembered even though their bodies may have become buried under earth. Their reign will be remembered in the hearts of the community of Muhammad until the Day of Judgement.
The most important means of the Prophet and friends of Allah for influencing the heart and soul in the spiritual training of human being is the ‘suhbah’. The words of a person who has refined their nafs and purified their heart are filled with emotion. These feelings and their words which are spoken in sincerity find a way to the heart of whom they are addressed to and result in a positive influence and become the means for the spread of success and spirituality.
The scholars and Gnostics, who are the heirs of the prophets, first prepare the heart by softening it and making it ready to be reformed, before they attempt to mend a person’s negative traits. They prepare the background for the sweet winds of regret to blow and still the anger and storms of rage of the nafs.
The prosperity that flows from the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) to the hearts of those perfect guides who have followed on down from Him, makes its way to the believers through a type of bonding and discourse. In this way the model personality of the Prophet is reflected onto the hearts of the believers according to the capacity of their hearts.
However much this discourse is conducted with the ardour of worship, that much manifestation will arise. One’s discourse is adapted according to the heart of the one being addressed. Discourse with a person is like writing a spiritual prescription for the one whom one is conversing with. The discourse which is performed and listened to with a pure and sincere heart is a deep state of discovery; its revelations emerge according to the state of the heart of the one who is listening.
The most influential method that Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) used in training and guiding his Companions was discourse. Almighty Allah revealed the following to the Prophet:
‘And remind them, for truly the believers benefit from being reminded’(Zariyat, 51:55)
‘…So remind them!You are only a reminder’ (Ghasiya, 88:21)
It is noteworthy that the words ‘sahabi’ (Companion) and ‘suhba’ (discourse) derive from the same root. Amongst their feelings of love, respect and courtesy felt by the Companions for the Prophet, they are the most embodied and perfect example of the benefit to be obtained from spiritual converse and guidance. As if in explanation of the condition for benefiting from the discourse and conversation of the Prophet and in descriibng their resulting peaceful state and etiquette, they have said:
“(We used to listen to the Prophet with our heads so still) as if there was a bird perched upon them and we were afraid to move for fear it would fly away” (See Abu Dawud, Sunnah, 23-24/4753; Ibn Majah, Janaiz, 37; Ibn Sa’d, I, 424).
Thus the circles of conversation of the Messenger of Allah were conducted with such ardour. As he spoke, those around him listened with such longing and attentiveness, that their state of peace and ecstasy could be witnessed by others. The manners and courtesy which transferred from him to his Companions was such that they considered it impudence to ask him a question. This is why they would wait for the Bedouins to come from the desert and ask the Prophet a question so that it could lead to some words from the Prophet from which they too could benefit.
The Blessed Companions, whose pasts were full of ignorance, reached such a state after being guided to Islam and being subject to the prosperous conversation and spiritual training and guidance of the Prophet and after refining their souls and purifying their hearts, that they became the most perfect people in the world. Their tales of virtue which have travelled from mouth to mouth and made their place in people’s hearts have surpassed all ages and lands.
Thus the acts of refining the soul and purifying the heart have a very important place in establishing the Islamic personality. Firstly one has to cleanse oneself of unbelief, ignorance, ill feeling, incorrect creed and evil traits. That is, one must purify oneself from all manner of errors pertaining to belief, character and action and which are averse to this most clearest of religions. After cleansing the heart and protecting it from all evil, one must then train and adorn it with characteristics of piety such as faith, knowledge, wisdom, positive feelings and traits, thus filling it with spirituality.
Because mankind has been brought to this world in order to be tried and tested, he will be subject to a chronic affliction called the ‘nafs’ until his death. This affliction is full of a thousand ills. Even if he reaches the highest degree of sainthood he is in constant danger of being subject to the wiles, whisperings and traps of the threesome of worldly inclinations, the nafs and Satan. The worth of the servant begins when he eliminates these dangers and rids himself of the enticing lures of this mortal world and envelops himself in piety and eventually turns back to Allah.
Jalaluddin Rumi expresses the inner ups and downs of the human being as follows:
“The one who possesses a nafs is like the prophet Mûsa (upon whom be peace). His body however, is like the Pharaoh. The one who possesses a nafs forgets that very nafs within him and searches for enemies outside.
O traveller on the path of truth! If you want to know the truth, neither Mûsa nor Pharaoh have died; they are living within you. They have concealed themselves within your existence and they continue their struggle in your heart. This is why you should look for these two individuals, enemies to each other, within your own self”
Again Rumi says:
“Do not look to fully nourishing and developing your body. Because it is a victim that is headed for the grave. What you should in fact do is nourish your heart. It is destined for greatness and is the thing that will be honoured.
“Give your body only a little amount of fat and sugar. Because the one who overfeeds it will fall prey to its desires and whims and will end up disgraced.
Give your soul spiritual nourishment. Present it with mature thought, subtle understanding, and spiritual nourishment so that it can go to its destination sound and strengthened”.
In truth the nafs has a dual aspect whereby when it is refined and trained the human being can rise to the most honoured of ranks amongst all other creatures. In contrast when this does not occur, it can fall to the lowest of the low. It is virtually like a double-edged sword.
Every nafs that is deprived of spiritual guidance and control is like a painful veil of deprivation that covers the truth with ignorance. Only when the human being can rid itself of these blameworthy traits in spite of the hindrance of his nafs, and to the degree that he can refine and purify his heart and soul can he then turn towards Allah and towards goodness and surpass even the angels who do not possess a nafs. The honour of such a victory is in accordance with the struggles that one had to eliminate to achieve it.
Consequently refinement of the nafs and purification of the heart are a must in order to train the inclinations to do evil that are a part of human nature and to plant the seeds of piety. Every human being is charged with the responsibility of knowing Allah and increasing in his knowledge of Him to the degree of gnosis, according to their potential and capacity. They are charging with carrying out good deeds and praising and honouring Allah Most High. This is true ‘servanthood’. For servanthood to reach this target is dependent on surpassing the obstacle of one’s nafs and equipping it with lofty feelings which is in effect what refinement of the soul and purification of the heart is.
Purification of the soul is a matter that is given so much importance that Almighty Allah swears by it many times. Allah says in the chapter Shams:
‘By the sun and its morning brightness, and the moon when it follows it, and the day when it displays it, and the night when it conceals it and the sky and what erected it and the earth and what extended it, and the self and what proportioned it and inspired it with depravity or piety, he who purifies it (the nafs) has succeeded, and he who covers it up has failed. (As Shams, 91:1-10)
When Allah Most High swears by something, this is an indication of the honour and worth of those things that are sworn by and are in fact to express the importance and greatness of the divine decree that follow the oath. The verses here are the same, with one exception:
Almighty Allah swears an oath exactly ten times in these verses, one after the after. Then after that, in order to strengthen the meaning, He uses the term ‘qad’ which indicates certainty, after which He informs us that:
‘…the one who purifies it (the nafs) has succeeded, and the one who covers it up has failed’
It is noteworthy that nowhere else in the Holy Qur’an and upon no other matter other than purification of the nafs does Almighty Allah swear an oath ten times, back to back. This truth is enough to demonstrate to the human being how important and necessary purification of the nafs is for the human being’s salvation.
In tasawwuf, purification implies reducing the wants of the nafs and breaking its reign over the body and thus allowing the spirit its dominion. This is only possible by strengthening the will against the nafs through the method of riyazat, which involves being moderate in the way one eats, drinks, sleeps and talks. It is because of this that in tasawwuf the method of reining in the nafs is by ‘killet-I taam’ (eating little), killet-I man’am (sleeping little) and killet-I kelam (speaking little). These are the first steps in controlling the nafs. However just as with every other matter, it is necessary not to abandon moderation when carrying out these methods. This is because the body is a trust endowed to the human being by Allah.
In any case in the struggle against the nafs, it will not be eliminated, but rather brought under control. What is desired is that one does not eliminate it entirely, but rather preserve it from extremes and limit and train it with desires and inclinations that are conformant with the divine will.
Another important matter in addition to refining the nafs is bringing the heart to a state of purity and cleanliness. In terms of its being a jewel in its essence, the heart is a place of divine observation. That is, it is an honoured place where the glance of Almighty Allah becomes manifest. However, just as it is not possible for anyone but the King to sit on the throne of a palace, so too the palace of the body which is the heart, needs to be rid and cleansed of everything other than Allah, of all carnal and worldly desires, or ugly inclinations and sin. In the opposite case, the heart will be closed to divine bounties. However this does not imply that one should not harbour feelings of love to any other than Allah. Those who have managed to refine their nafs and purify their heart and who have attained to a sound heart are in fact freed of the love of other than Allah. However other people are not able to wipe away completely love for property, children and other things. In truth this type of love is allowed as long as it does not overstep a particular limit.
In order to be able to comprehend the importance of purification of the heart it is enough to look at both its physical and spiritual position in life. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) indicated the importance of the heart as follows:
“There is a piece of flesh in the human body, where if it is sound, the whole body is sound, but if it is corrupt the whole body is corrupt. That piece of flesh is the heart”(Bukhari, Iman, 39)
Rumi says that it is a futile task to try to fill a sack which has a hole in it without first mending the hole. Likewise it is obvious that it is only when deeds are done with a purified heart can they be a means to the happiness and salvation of the individual. This is because deeds are judged according to their intention. And intention is one of the acts of the heart. In this regard then the rectification of one’s intention and embellishing it with sincerity is essential.
This quality is a condition that can come about only as a result of a master carrying out the training of the heart.
The aim of those friends of Allah who are trying to train their heart is for the heart to reach the state of ihsan or an awareness of always being together with Allah. In this way they will gain a heart that is alive. In order for the heart to reach this state, it must be purified of the love of and attachment to all other than Allah.
A heart that has reached this state will become well-acquainted with the most subtle and deep of truths. Such a heart will become a mirror of Divine Names and secrets according to the degree that it is freed of mire and becomes enveloped in fineness. In this way one can reach a state of marifetullah which is when the heart becomes truly aware of Allah. Such knowledge then becomes gnosis.
It is only those who arrive in the presence of Allah with a sound heart, who are purified of all spiritual illnesses and who have a pure heart full of divine love, who will eventually be saved. Almighty Allah says in the Qur’an:
‘… the Day when neither wealth nor sons will be of any use – except to those who come to Allah with sound and flawless hearts’(Shu’ara, 26:88-89)
There are certain conditions that must be conformed to if one wishes to obtain a sound heart and a nafs which has reached a state of contentment. They are:
Seeking forgiveness and supplication
Reciting the Qur’an and following its commands
Performing one’s worship with deep reverence
Bringing spiritual life to one’s nights
Zikrullah (remembrance of Allah) and awareness of Him
Continuing to send blessings and peace on the Messenger of Allah and loving him
Reflecting on death
Keeping company with the righteous and the truthful ones
Possessing good character
When one seriously conforms to these conditions and struggles to do so, the sound heart that results will be purified of all other than Allah and will be like a bright mirror that has become a place of manifestation of the beautiful attributes of Allah.
Our Lord is the Creator and Possessor of all things. This is why He is free and independent of all creation. There is no precious gift that can be presented to him that is not already to be found within his endless treasury. He is the absolute Good; and the source of all goodness and beauty. This is why the most beautiful and precious of things in all of creation is a pure and clean heart that reflects His Divine Names. Consequently the most worthy gift to be presented to our Lord is a sound heart, which is what He desires from us anyway.
Scenes of Virtue
When the Battle of Mûta was taking place, from the pulpit of his mosque, Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) was notifying his Companions of all that took place at each stage of the battle. The battlefield appeared right before his very eyes. Those martyrdoms that were taking place each second were being sadly and sorrowfully narrated to the Companions, speaking of the struggle made with the enemy on one hand, with Satan on the other and with their own selves:
“Zayd ibn Harith has taken the banner. Satan has immediately approached him. He is trying to show him how sweet life and this world is and how ugly and displeasing is death. Zayd however said to him and moved on:
“This moment is the moment to strengthen the faith in the hearts of the believers. Whereas you are trying to make me fall in love with the world”. He has entered the battle and has just been martyred. Ask for forgiveness for him from Allah”.
Then the Prophet continued:
“He is now in Paradise and is running and frolicking about there. Now Jafar has taken the banner. Satan has immediately run to his side. He is trying to show him how sweet this life and this world is and how ugly and displeasing is death. Ja’far however said to him:
““This moment is the moment to strengthen the faith in the hearts of the believers”, then he ran to attack the enemy army and has now been martyred. I bear witness that he is a true martyr”.
“Ask Allah to forgive your brother. He has entered Paradise as a martyr. Now he is in Paradise, flying wherever he wishes to go, with two wings made of rubies”
“Abdullah ibn Rawaha has now taken the banner”, said Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) and was then silent for a period. The faces of the Ansar were pale as they began to think that Abdullah ibn Rawaha might have done something unpleasing to Allah and His Messenger. However at that point, Abdullah had taken the banner and was running towards the enemy, and was at the same time struggling with his nafs:
“O my nafs. I swore that I would make you submit to me. Either you will do this willingly or I will make you do it. I see that you are not very fond of Paradise. What are you but a vessel filled with water? O my nafs. If you do not die now, do you think that you will never die? If you do as those two did before you and choose martyrdom you will have done the right thing. If you delay you will be of the unfortunate ones”.
At that point Abdullah’s finger was wounded. He descended from his horse and stepped on his wounded finger, reading a poem which had the meaning of:
“Are you not a mere bleeding finger? And you have found yourself in this state having struggling in the way of Allah” He then quickly tugged at his finger and pulled it off. Then he continued to fight. He was fighting the minor jihad against the enemy while at the same time fighting the major jihad against his nafs:
“O my nafs. If your worry is that you will be separated from your wife, then know that I have divorced her. If it is because you will be separated from your servants, then know that I have set them free. And if it is that you will lose your garden and trees then know that I have given them to Allah and His Messenger”.
The Prophet (pbuh) then continued to narrate the scenes taking place on the battlefield:
“Abdullah ibn Rawaha gathered his courage and then with banner in hand he fought the enemy until he was martyred. He entered Paradise after a hesitation. Ask Allah to forgive him”.
The Ansar were hurt and offended to learn that Abdullah had entered Paradise after hesitation. They asked:
“O Messenger of Allah! What was his hesitation?”
The Prophet replied:
“When he was wounded he hesitated to continue fighting the enemy. Then he blamed his nafs, gathered his courage and became a martyr. He entered Paradise. They were shown to me in Paradise resting on golden thrones. Abdullah’s throne was a little lower than the throne of the other two. When I asked why I was told:
“Abdullah only began to fight after having certain doubts”.
The fact that Abdullah was martyred and eventually entered Paradise pleased the Ansar and comforted them.
The sorrow of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) increased as he continued to narrate these events and tears like pearls began to flow from his blessed eyes. He said:
“Now a sword from the swords of Allah has taken the banner. As a result Allah has made the conquest easy for the mujahids”. (See Bukhari, Maghazi, 44; Ahmad, V, 299, III, 113; Ibn Hisham, III, 433-436; Wakidi, II, 762; Ibn Sa’d, III, 46, 530; Ibn Asir, Usdu al-Gabe, III, 237).
As can be seen both the nafs and Satan do not leave a person’s side until they die. In that case we must be constantly awake and in a state of struggle and take refuge in the protection of our Lord. Allah says in the Holy Qur’an:
‘And worship your Lord until what is Certain (death) comes to you’(Al-Hijr, 15:99)
Abdulqadir Gaylani, one of the great saints, had reached a state of perfection in his knowledge of the outer sciences. However in order to attain to the state of ‘nothingness’, that is to preserve himself from the wiles of his ego and his nafs, he retreated to the ruins of Baghdad for a long period of time in order to protect his heart from everything that distanced him from Allah.
In his first years of becoming attached to his shaykh, in order to reach the state of ‘nothingness in the face of Allah’ which is the opposite of pride and arrogance, and to refine his nafs, Shaykh Nakshibend began to serve sick and distressed people and wounded animals without owners. He took care of them, in fact he swept the streets that people walked on for seven years, living a life of incredible service.
This is how difficult it is to purify one’s nafs and how great its reward is in response.
Even though Imam Ghazzali was at the peak of all of the sciences of his time, he lived as if he was nothing for a long time, and abandoned all of the desires of his nafs.
Imam Ghazzali explains the state of the peak of his knowledge as follows:
“I was occupied with the rational and legal sciences. I had many students. I began to ponder my state. I saw that I had been entangled with various passions. I thought about the intention of my knowledge. I found it devoid of sincerity and not to gain the pleasure of Allah, but rather mixed up with love for position and fame. I realised with certainty that I was in a dangerous whirlpool and on the edge of a precipice. I said to myself:
“Hurry and make haste, you only have a little time left from your life. If the knowledge that you have obtained does not become true and you do not begin to apply it then it will be nothing but mere deceit. If you do not sever your relationship with unnecessary things now, and do not remove all obstacles, then what will your end be?”
Then something happened. For six months, I found myself in a valley of wonder, torn between wanting to flee from the world and the worldly and desire for the world and the afterlife. For six months I wailed and wept. My heart was in a state of distress. I saw and understood my weakness. I watched my willpower completely slip through my hands. I was like somebody with an incurable disease, with an insoluble problem. I pleaded with Allah and weeping I sought refuge in Him and I supplicated in all humility. Eventually in accordance with the following verse, Allah accepted my prayers and kindled my heart:
‘…He Who responds to the oppressed when they call on Him and removes their distress…’(an Naml, 27:62)
The desire for wealth and position was removed from me. I averted my face from them all. I began to occupy myself with zikr, solitude and isolation, struggle, abstinence, purification of my soul and perfecting my character. I realised with certainty that those who reach Allah and who are travellers on the path of guidance are the greats of the people of tasawwuf. They have the best of character and personalities. This is because their inner and outer states have taken their light from the prophets. And there is no other light on the face of the earth that can surpass the light of the prophets” (See, Ghazzali, “al-Munkizu mina al-dalal,” Istanbul, 1994 p 35-39).
The story of how Ibrahim ibn Adham, the sultan of Balh, began to embark on refining his soul and purifying his heart is as follows:
One time Ibrahim ibn Adham fell asleep on his throne during the middle of the night. Suddenly a great clamour broke out on the roof of the palace. The shouting and hollering increased and eventually woke the sultan, who immediately gathered himself and called out in the direction of the roof:
“Who is there and what are you doing on the roof at this time of night?”
A voice from the depths called out:
“We are looking for our lost camel my sultan”.
Ibrahim ibn Adham angrily shouted to them:
“O ignorant fools! Who looks for a camel on a roof?”
This time however the reply that came back was a very meaningful form of guidance and warning:
“O Ibrahim! You know that you do not look for a camel on a roof but don’t
you know that you cannot find Allah while you sit on your throne with silk robes on your back, a crown on your head, and with a whip in your hand?”
This event made more frequent the spiritual ebbs and surges that had began to arise in the spirit of Ibrahim ibn Adham for quite a long time. It left him in an amazed and uncertain state. However the sultan was still not able to entirely abandon his former lifestyle.
Ibrahim ibn Adham was addicted to hunting and he had made this a habit. During one of these hunting trips he experienced a second spiritual warning which finally made him a true traveller on the path of truth:
One day as he had set out hunting on his horse he began to pursue a gazelle. He galloped behind it and had gone so far that he had moved far away from his soldiers. His horse was left sweating and out of breath. However Ibrahim ibn Adham was so determined to hunt the gazelle that he did not abandon his pursuit. He had just cornered the gazelle when that fine and beautiful animal turned to him and said:
“O Ibrahim! Is this what you were created for? Did Allah create you from nothing just so that you could hunt me? And what will you gain if you catch me? What will you have gained other than having taken a life?”
When Ibrahim ibn Adham heard these words such a burning sensation enveloped his heart that he threw himself to the ground. He began to ran towards the desert. A little while later he looked around him and saw that there was nobody else in that great desert other than a shepherd. He immediately ran to him and pleaded with him:
“Please take these jewels, this sultan’s gown, these weapons and this horse from me and let me wear that robe that you are wearing. And do not tell a soul”.
In front of the shepherd’s astonished looks he put on the shepherd’s robe and disappeared. The shepherd looked after him and thought to himself: “The sultan has gone mad”. But in fact, Ibrahim ibn Adham had not gone mad but had rather come to his senses. He had gone on a gazelle hunt but instead Allah Most High had hunted him with a gazelle.
It is not possible to rein in and purify one’s nafs without putting up a struggle and by doing everything one desires. A serious effort is needed in order to bring it to the mould desired by our Lord and to safely take it to the hereafter in peace. And one must embark on this struggle and effort immediately without wasting any time, for death may catch up with a person at any moment…
One time one of the friends of Allah, Najmaddin-i Kubra, attended the funeral of a righteous man with some of his students. As the imam began to prepare the deceased for the questioning that would take place in the grave, Najmaddin smiled. His students were surprised that he would smile at such a moment and they asked him the wisdom behind it. However Najmaddin wished to remain silent. When they insisted however, he responded:
“The heart of the one preparing the deceased is ignorant, yet the heart of the deceased in the grave is alive and well. I was amazed at how an ignorant person can prepare someone whose heart is very much alive and well”.
A believer who has refined his nafs and purified his heart continues to live even after death. Those who have not managed to do so however are no different from the dead even though they may still be living.
Mawlana Khalid-i Baghdadi once set off with some of his friends to visit Shaykh Abdullah-i Dahlawi. After a journey that took months –it is said that the journey in fact took an entire year- they eventually reached their destination of Dahli (Jihanabad). Mawlana Khalid was impatient to enter the presence of his shaykh and went to his dervish lodge with his friends. Those with him said to the dervish who opened the door for them:
“Al-Hajj Mawlana Khalid Ziyauddin and his friends, scholars from Sulaymaniye, Damascus and Baghdad have come to visit the shaykh”.
Abdullah-i Dahlawi who was already aware of their arrival sent the following message:
“Let Khalid stay! Let the others return to their land after a short visit”
This command was obeyed and then another command followed:
“Let Khalid immediately begin cleaning the ablution hall”.
Knowing that this was the only way of being accepted as a student and without even seeing his shaykh, Mawlana Khalid did not object in the slightest even though he was famous throughout the Islamic world and had deep knowledge. He took a bucket and broom in hand and immediately began his duty.
He began to gather the water needed for the chore of cleaning from a well that was quite a distance from the dervish lodge. He would fill his bucket with water and carry it on a thick stick on his shoulders. He would travel from the dervish lodge to the well many times a day in order to carry out this task of cleaning. In this way he showed great effort and determination to train his nafs. If his nafs happened to show any sign of hesitance or reproachfulness he would immediately repent and ask for forgiveness. Months passed in this way.
One day he was extremely tired from cleaning the tiles of the lavatory. At that moment his nafs found him in a weakened state and began to whisper to him:
“O you unique ocean of knowledge of the lands of Baghdad and Damascus. O you great man from the greatest of men, Mawlana Khalid! You journeyed for so long to come all the way here upon the words of someone who you don’t know whether he is a saint or just crazy. And have you found what you were searching for? Look around you, there is no shaykh and no spiritual journey. What have they made you do except clean the lavatory for months on end? Is this the exalted inner knowledge that you were searching for…?”
Khalid-i Baghdadi was terribly startled in the face of this dangerous wile of his nafs and he immediately made the following warning to it in order to immediately lift the veil of heedlessness with the incentive of sincerity:
“O my nafs. If you do not accept this honourable task that my teacher has given to me with gratitude and you try to abstain from it for even an instant then I will make you sweep the floors not with a broom but with my own beard…”
Abdullah-i Dahlawi was observing this state of his from a distance and smiling. With this last manoeuvre Mawlana Khalid managed to eliminate his nafs and he then began to observe the angels carrying his bucket and broom. In addition a light began to shine from his shoulders, which had become sore and wounded from carrying so much water, the light of which radiated up towards the heavens. Being extremely pleased at this, Abdullah Dahlawi called this peerless student of his to his side and said to him:
“My son Khalid! You had reached an unparalleled degree of knowledge. However you needed to embellish it will spirituality. And for this you needed to train your nafs and purify your heart. Otherwise your nafs would have dragged you to the pits of arrogance and pride and destroyed you in the process. Praise be to Allah that you have managed to sweep your nafs under your feet and you have ascended the peaks of perfection. Now the angels carry out your chores for you”.
“My son. Our masters to whom we have devoted ourselves are those individuals who have achieved the reality of the shariah, the way, the truth and knowledge of Allah. Now you have joined them and entered their circle as a renewer of this religion. Now the guidance of other spiritual circles awaits you. May Allah Most High give you high aspiration”.
In the absence of a raw nafs that has not been purified and a cloudy heart that has not been cleansed, all of the knowledge in the world is yet insufficient to guide a person. It is only after these two vital conditions have been met that a person can benefit and be benefitted from spiritually.
Aziz Mahmud used to be a grand qadi (judge) before he entered under the spiritual teaching of Muhammad Muhyiddin Uftada. For this reason Muhammad Muhyiddin Uftada had him sell liver in the markets of Bursa and also clean the lavatories of the dervish lodge in order to first make him feel his nothingness. As a result of this training of his nafs Qadi Mahmud became subject to a perfection that would guide sultans and he was given the name ‘Hudayi’ (meaning the one who guides) by his teachers.
One time a man who heard that Aziz Mahmud Hudayi was competent in the knowledge of alchemy came to him and asked:
“Master I heard that you know the science of alchemy, what do you say about this?”
Without saying a word, Aziz Mahmud Hudayi reached towards the grape vine that was near him and pulled off three grape leaves. By the permission of Allah those three leaves became leaves of gold.
The poor man who watched this phenomenon in amazement tried to do the same thing but was unsuccessful. Aziz Mahmud Hudayi said to him:
“My son! Know that learning the science of alchemy is all about learning the alchemy of the nafs”.
The aim and purpose of life and servanthood is not to master wonders and miracles but to refine one’s nafs, purify one’s heart and be free of immature characteristics thus becoming a perfect believer.
The great poet and thinker Muhammad Iqbal explains in a poem of his the importance of training one’s nafs and filling the heart with love:
One night whilst in my library, I heard one moth say to another moth:
“I settled myself in the books of Ibn Sina. I saw the works of Farabi. (I flew amongst their unending dry sentences and the pale letters of their words and I ate away at them. I travelled the streets and avenues of Farabi’s ‘City of Virtues’. However I never understood its philosophy. I became a traveller in their nightmare dead end streets. I have no sun to illuminate my day…”
In response to this lament of the first moth, the other moth showed it its burnt wings:
“Look”, it said. “Look I have burnt my wings for the sake of love”. Then it continued:
“What makes life more alive is struggle and love; and what gives life its wings is ardour and devotion”.
That is by showing the first moth its burnt wings, the second moth was in effect saying:
“Save yourself from being destroyed in these dead end streets of philosophy. Take your share from the love, passion, ardour and prosperity of the Mathnawi, the ocean of meaning and open your wings onto reunion…”
Thus in order to refine one’s nafs and purify one’s heart one must attach oneself to a spiritual sun and flutter around it with deep love and devotion, showing a superior struggle and a life of service.
When Mahiz Iz Hodja (A Turkish sufi lived in the 20th century, teaching the subject of Sufism in religious schools) saw that the depths of his heart was deprived of true knowledge, he realised that spiritual guidance was the only cure in supplementing this deficiency and he spent the last years of his life travelling the path of spiritual training. He expressed his state as follows:
“Because it is not possible to gather all of what people have said about knowledge in one point, one must never leave the study and analysis of knowledge. However, I believe that it is only possible to truly know the truth as a result of the guidance of the experts. This is why, after being shown an indication in a state akin to unconsciousness I attached myself to the wisdom and knowledge of Master Ramazanoglu Mahmud Sami using my will to ascend to the heavens of knowledge.
In order to open one’s wings to the sky of knowledge one must rely upon a sun of knowledge to climb the stairs of will, love and service.
In conclusion, refining one’s soul and purifying one’s heart is a deed that must continue without pause for an entire lifetime. The believer must be in a constant state of awareness of his nafs, and never think that he has reached perfection and be defeated by the wiles and deceit of his nafs. Rumi warns of this matter as follows:
“This base and lowly nafs wishes to drive you to a fleeting gain. How long will you be distracted with this fleeing gain? Isn’t it enough that you have distracted yourself thus far?”
“Even though your nafs has made you promises of righteousness over and over, yet it has broken those promises a thousand times over and has ruined your repentance”
“Even if you were given a thousand years to live, your nafs would find a different excuse each day”
“If that despicable nafs of yours wants a spiritual gain for you, that is it wants you to perform righteous deeds, do not be deceived by it because behind that request is a trick of your enemy nafs”
“In the right hand of the nafs is a rosary bead and a Qur’an yet hidden in its sleeve is a sword and a dagger”
Tasawwuf, which views refinement of the nafs and purification of the heart as vital is an ocean that has no bottom. It is a divine knowledge that encompasses the entire universe. It cannot be described however everyone can talk about it according to their share, their understanding and their level.
The people of tasawwuf are people with good character, who are generous, merciful, courteous and humble. They get along with everybody and they see the future with their foresight and caution. All of their acts and behaviour is in accordance with the commandments of the holy Qur’an, and the character, manners and acts of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh). They love Allah Most High and His Beloved more than their own selves, their property, wealth and children.
May Almighty Allah allow us to live such a similar life of servanthood and let us spend the capital of our lives in the best way and in a way that pleases Him….
O our Lord. Adorn our hearts with the love of faith. Make us from those who are able to see the ugliness of unbelief and rebellion and distance ourselves from them as required. Allow us to take on the character of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and become living Qur’ans. Allow us all to live our lives in the state of ihsan and as models of virtue. Fill our hearts with your love. Make us worthy of your address to your noble and beloved ‘servants’ and worthy of being called ‘my brothers’ by your Beloved. Let us raise righteous generations who will be the apples of our eye in both worlds and who will pray for us after we leave this world.
O Lord! Protect our nation and our people from being deprived of the Qur’an and faith and protect us from bad character. Allow us to live a life of Paradise while still in this fleeting and mortal world and by enveloping ourselves in the true majesty of the Qur’an. Let us serve you in such a way that will allow the coming generations to prosper from the Qur’an…
. Muhammad ibn Abdullah al Hani, Adab, translation Ali Husrevoglu, Istanbul, 1995, p 107-108; Heyet, Islam Alimleri Ansikolopedisi, Istanbul ts. Trukiye Gazetesi Yay. XVIII, p 81-8
. The nafs is the soul of the human being that inclines towards evil. It is the carnal and animal nature of the human being. The word nafs will continue to be used in the text. (translator’s note).
. See chapter Yusuf, 12:53
. See Suyuti, Jamiu as-Sagir, II, 73
. Suhbah comes from a root word having the meanings of companionship, social intercourse and friendship. Henceforth the word will be translated as discourse (translator’s note).
. Ibn Umar narrates:”We searched for Ja’far and found him amongst the martyrs. He was in such a state that we counted over ninety arrow and spear wounds [on his chest]. None of these were on his back” (Bukhari, Maghazi, 44). Ja’far was thirty three years old when he was martyred (Ibn Hisham, III, 434)