Self- purification & The Youth
Have you ever contemplated on the "self" - and the purification of the self? Where does one begin in the process of self-purification and development? Is it possible to easily go through this process and to attain to perfection or what in Islamic terminology is referred to as the "Nafs al-Mutma"inna" (the Serene Soul)? What are the factors that can contribute towards making this aim achievable? Have you ever thought, seriously, about your own purification? Have you actually taken any steps towards this goal?
Have you heard that the young human heart is like a fertile land that can blossom into a garden with lovely flowers? And that if it is left to itself and is not taken care of, this same fertile heart can turn into a coarse, barren land, unsuitable for gardening or nurturing anything worthwhile except weeds and wild shrubs!
Man is a strange and intricate being; and despite his outstanding achievements in the fields of science and technology, he has not been able to really know and understand his own invaluable identity and has thus done but a little, in order to protect it from being lost or tarnished. More importantly, man has not truly reached certainty on the fact that he is worthy of nothing short of Paradise and that he only stands to lose, in case he endeavors for anything less than the very best that Allah has offered him. (1) Anyway, self-purification is considered as inevitable for man"s salvation and neglecting it is equal to gaining the torments of hell (refer to the Glorious Qur"an, 82:13,14). In short, ultimate ignorance is confronting ultimate perfection!
All wise and just human beings have realized the importance of self-purification and its immense material and spiritual rewards. They spend their lives in sincere commitment to this divine purpose and are careful not to spend a neglectful moment on idle fancies.
It is important to know that one can know Allah only when he knows and understands himself and it is only after "knowing" Allah that he can be hopeful of drawing close to Him and to attaining to degrees of Divine "Qorb" (nearness).
Most mystics have strongly criticized the mere acquisition of theoretical philosophies of "self-knowledge" and "gnosticism" and have instead, stressed on the need for practical self-purification and the attainment of illumination and intimacy with Allah. The fundamental philosophy of the lives of all genuine Gnostics has centered on the attainment of "Fana" (Self-Effacement in Divine Love) and "Baqa"" (Eternal life by Divine Grace). (2)
This sheds light on the importance of self-purification and the dangers of the carnal self (Nafs al -ammarah).
There are certain points that need to be kept in mind regarding self-purification, which can make the process more smooth and effective. They are:
1. Self-purification is not a small or simple affair and should not be taken lightly.
2. Purifying one"s self from carnal vices and evils is the most vital pre-requisite for attaining divine light and intimacy.
3. In the process of self-purification and training, a concerted ongoing effort is required for a minimum of forty days, only at the end of which one can expect positive and lasting results.
4. The process of self-purification is like working on an exciting "puzzle" and each person must endeavor towards working on his own "puzzle" and solving it, in order to reap its benefits.
When the great Iranian mystic-saint of the 4th century A.H., Bayazid Bastami, was asked to give a brief account of his efforts and endeavors towards self-purification, he had explained his experiences in the following words:
"It may be difficult for you to bear to hear of all the great efforts that I have undergone on my path of self-purification, but I will relate the least important of them. Once, I ordered my nafs (self) to perform a particular act of worship (ebadat), but it did not respond to my command and disobeyed me. For one full year, I did not quench its thirst and did not make it drink water, telling it: Either die of thirst or perform acts of worship joyously." (3)
Gnostics like Bayazid have recommended one full year of hard work and strife, for effective self-purification. We should constantly remind ourselves that if a great Gnostic like Bayazid felt the need and importance of controlling the nafs in the way of self-purification, we need to consciously work much more on ourselves, in order to realize the true potential of being human. The Glorious Qur"an says the following, in this regard:
"...And the soul and Him Who made it perfect. Then He inspired it to understand what is right and wrong for it; He will indeed be successful who purifies it, and he will indeed fail who corrupts it." (The Glorious Qur"an, 91:7-10)
Ironically, the process of purification is both complicated and simple, depending on the way one relates to it. It is complicated because of the fact that if one is caught in the grips of sin and/or is negligent and unaware of the truth, he will then lose his divine essence and divine light and become like a corpse that is apparently living, but in deep torment and confusion.
Serri Soghti was a great Gnostic from Baghdad who had a shop in the Baghdad Bazaar. One day he was informed that there was a fire in the bazaar that had set many shops ablaze. The Sheikh promptly inquired about his own shop and on hearing that it was safe, raised his hands in thanks to Allah, saying: "Alhamdulillah"! (Praise belongs to Allah). Years later, in his memoirs, he had written: "For thirty years after this incident, I have worked on discovering why I had used the expression Alhamdulillah, so callously, and have not yet found an answer for the same." (4)
This story goes on to highlight the importance of self-enquiry and the need to be constantly aware of the deceit of the individualized lower self, which if left uncontrolled and unharnessed, goes on to eclipse the pure, divine spirit of man. Why did the Sheikh say "Alhamdulillah"? What did it imply? What were the connotations behind this stray utterance? The ugly truth is that it, somewhere, meant thanks to Allah that "my" shop did not burn! And that it does not quite matter that the "other" people"s shops burnt down! This is what is related in religious terminology as "worshipping the self" or egotism, which is a very insidious form of "shirk" or polytheism.
Thus, it can be inferred that:
1. We should not look at the reality of things superficially.
2. The subtle points of self-purification should not be ignored and neglected.
3. Self-purification requires constant and tireless attention.
4. We should work on realizing our pure essence, which is nothing but divine light.
5. It is not possible to attain self-purification on your own, without the help of a purified guide. Rather, it is most important to have a positive role model in vision.
6. In the process of self-purification, we should consciously abandon all forms of egotism, selfishness, love of the world, etc.
It is not important as to where one lives or what qualifications or social status one possesses. What is important is one"s level of awareness and understanding of the inner realities of life. Have we prepared ourselves to enter the divine Paradise? Are we aware of subtle realities and can we communicate with higher beings? Have we experienced the subtleties of "Shariat" (Divine Laws), "Tariqat" (the Divine Path) and "Haqiqat" (the Ultimate Reality)? Or on the contrary, have we been slaves to the transient, material world, with no clue of the real purpose of creation? (5) Paying mere lip-service to certain philosophical discussions, unconsciously performing hollow, ritualistic acts of worship and pretending to be what one is not, does not take us a long way - instead, it only pulls us down and prevents us from reaching our divine destination.
1. One should not neglect the truth and the process of self-purification.
2. It is important to endeavor to find one"s real self and the correct path.
3. It is a grave mistake to think that man is free and that one"s words and deeds do not affect the process of self-purification.
4. We should train ourselves to contemplate into the inner realities of life and should not limit ourselves to superficial affairs.
5. If one is persistent and determined, one can attain to higher states of being human and can discover the divine purpose of one"s creation.
In the process of attaining to perfection, one needs to stay in constant awareness of the "self", which, if put to its divinely intended use, is the greatest gift of Allah. It is very important to train the carnal self, which needs to be harnessed with great care and attention, in order for it to serve our best interests. All great Gnostics and spiritual teachers have recommended this as the most fundamental principle of self-development and awareness. (6) Although Islam has provided mankind with the most complete and comprehensive system for achieving salvation; and happiness and success in both the worlds, even many great philosophers and mystics from the East and the West, who lived centuries before the formal advent of Islam, have stressed on the need and importance of self-purification and awareness. In the famous words of Socrates:
"O Man! Know yourself and realize your true potential. You will know your Lord to the extent that you know yourself"!
A famous Islamic Tradition too, says:
"The one who knows his "self" (nafs), knows his Lord".
Thus, it is very important to restrain the seeds of ignorance, selfishness, sin, greed, oppression and victimization from taking deep roots in our "selves". Let us not forget that the Qur"an, which is the most complete book of divine Guidance and Knowledge, has given priority to self-purification over education - mainly because it is only through the process of self-purification that one"s education and formal knowledge can be put to use to bear fruit. Mere information and bookish knowledge, on their own, have no practical value and without commensurate levels of ethical and moral training, they can in fact create major blocks on one"s path to perfection.
Most certainly, if we purge ourselves from the evil grips of the carnal self and its "whisperings", we will discover that the doors of divine Mercy and Grace are open for us - welcoming us to enter into the unimaginable pleasures of Eternal Life and Divine Intimacy.7
A Prophetic Tradition (Hadith) related through Imam Ali (AS).
Bayazid Bastami was one of the first mystics to use the terms "Fana" and "Baqa".
Neishaburi, Attar, "Tadkiratul Awliya" (The of the Saints).
Martyr Ayatollah Mutahhari, Morteza, "An Introduction to Islamic Sciences", vol. II.
A Prophetic Tradition related through Imam Hussain (AS).
Naraqi, Mulla Ahmad, "Me"raj al-Sa"adat", Chapter 1.
7. Based on a Tradition related by noble Prophet (SAW) that says: "Anyone who purifies himself in the way of Allah, for a period of forty days, springs of wisdom and knowledge will flow his heart and tongue."