Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Focusing on God, not the Ego

The Sufi masters of Gnosis believe that if a man were to focus too much on destroying their ego, always thinking about it, then it will only get bigger and bigger, while they suspect not. That is why they recommend instead that one acquire proper knowledge and focus on God instead. I also dont believe the ego could be killed, but that it could be subdued and momentarily extinguished. And that he who believes his ego has been killed for good has been tricked by it, but who am I to say, and God knows best.

AbulMalih reported on the authority of a man: I was riding on a mount behind the Prophet (peace be upon him). It stumbled. Thereupon I said: "May the devil perish!" He said: "Do not say: May the devil perish! for if you say that , he will swell so much so that he will be like a house and say, 'By my power'; But say: 'In the name of Allah' for when you say that, he will diminish so much that he will be like a fly".

- Sunan Abu Dawud, Kitab al-Adab, Number 4946

"[Hakim al-Tirmidhi's] letter to Abû 'Uthmân al-Hîrî, as well as the other two letters mentioned above revolve around the important issue of how best to deal with the ego (nafs) which undermines all spiritual attainments. Touching on this question, Hakîm al-Tirmidhî writes to Abû 'Uthmân:

I have received your letter, my brother, one letter after another. You confirm repeatedly [how] the blemishes of the lower self (nafs) [are an obstacle] in the [attainment] of [spiritual] knowledge. My brother, if you can refrain from being occupied by this obstacle, since this is other than Allâh, do so. For Allâh has servants who indeed have knowledge of Him, and they ignore all things but Him. They are wary of being occupied with the lower self and instead they fear Him. Whenever anyone of them is afflicted by its memory, his stomach turns as if he were about to vomit. How can one who strolls through gardens of roses, jasmine and wild lilies graze in valleys of thorns? How can one who is nourished by the remembrance of the Majestic be aware of anything but Him? (72)

Tirmidhî's objections to an exaggerated preoccupation with the nafs in the mystical quest is expressed here as well as in other letters and in many passages throughout his writings. In his letter to Abû 'Uthmân he presents the nucleus of his own understanding and approach in which the nafs is conceived as the centre of negative qualities: lust, desire, fear, anger, doubt, idolatry and forgetfulness. A transformation (tabdîl) of these negative qualities into positive ones is possible. This transformation is possible, however, only by means of the heart, that is, by the capacity of the heart to "see things in their essence" (haqâ'iq al-umûr). The heart's vision is obscured by the negative qualities of the lower self which cause a veil (ghitâ') to fall between it and the Truth. This vicious circle can be broken by faith (îmân) which resides in the heart. Faith is reinforced by the grace of God, and its light intensifies gradually. As the light of faith intensifies in the heart, the impact of the 'veil' becomes weaker. As it weakens, 'the essence of things' becomes clearer and more visible to the heart. When the heart 'sees' the 'essence of things', its faith is transformed and becomes 'certitude' (yaqin). At this stage, when the heart has attained 'certitude', the full transformation occurs: the desire of the nafs becomes desire for God, fear becomes fear of God, anger becomes anger for the sake of God, lust becomes longing for God, doubt becomes certitude, idolatry becomes pure unity and forgetfulness becomes determination.

Evidently Hakîm aI-Tirmidhî's teaching, although revolving around the same psychological issues and obstacles which occupied the Malâmatiyya, advocates an utterly different approach. Excessive concern with the nafs regardless of its prominence in counteracting the sincere spiritual and devotional quest, will lead nowhere as long as the seeker's attention remains focused on it alone. Tirmidhî's method, as he reiterates in his letter, is based on "the science of God" (al-'ilm bi'llâh), whereas the method of Abû 'Uthmân and the Nîshâpûrî school - who are not mentioned by name but are undoubtedly implied - is based on "the science of the self" (al-'ilm bi'l-nafs). If one focuses one's attention on the science of the self - says al-Tirmidhî - one will never be released from the self. "If one occupies oneself with the knowledge of the self's blemishes, one will spend all one's life in the attempt to be released from it (fa-'in ishtaghala al-'abd bi ma 'rfat al- 'uyûb baqiya 'umrahu fîhâ wa fi 'l-takhallus minhâ)," he comments. On the other hand, if one focuses one's attention on the science of God, the heart becomes stronger and its vision of Divine revelations clearer. These revelations revive the heart, and its antithesis, the self, withers away. "When the self gives up because of the impact of the Divine revelations, the heart is revived by the Lord; what blemish remains then?" (73) "

"In loving God, I have no time left in which to hate the Devil" - Rabi'a al-Adawiyya

"The Venerable Master, the Saint Ibn Ata-Illah says in his Hikam: "Since you know that the Devil will never forget you, it is your business not to forget [God]." And our Master used to say: "The true way to hurt the enemy is to be occupied with the love of the Friend; on the other hand, if you engage in war with the enemy, he will have obtained what he wanted from you and at the same time you will have lost the opportunity of loving the Friend." " - Shaykh ad-Darqawi[1]

"Nothing can burn this Satan- only the fire of the love of the man of God. All the other ascetic disciplines that people perform do not hold him back. Rather, he gets stronger. He was created from the fire of the appetites, and light alone puts out fire.

Your light extinguishes my fire." - Shams Tabrizi[2]

72: B. Radtke, op. cit., p. 191 (Arabic section).
73: Ibid., pp.191-2 (Arabic)
(72+73 Taken from "Hakim Tirmidhi and the Malamati Movement in Early Sufism" by Sara Sviri.

1. Letters of a Sufi Master, Pg 29

2. Me & Rumi, pg 226.