From the beginning of our entrance into the school of Sufism, we have been taught about the seven levels of being. These seven levels are like grades in any educational system which one must pass through in order to graduate. In our system, however, evaluations are made by a Higher Authority than the teacher.
Passing and failing grades are made known through real dreams, through the interpretation of which the teacher gives new responsibilities and duties to the seeker. But what is most important is that the seeker himself should be able to realize his own states so that he can live up to the next level to which he aspires. Obviously, first it is necessary that he be conscious, aware of his character and actions, and be sincere in looking at himself. But it is also necessary to thoroughly know the characteristics of each level, especially the level in which he is presumed to be, and the next level, in which he hopes to be.
Therefore, once again we should study the characteristics of the seven levels of being and try to see where we are. Hopefully this attempt will increase our efforts to reach the next highest level, and will make us careful not to revert to a lower level.
There is no question that complete potential for perfection is contained within every human being, because Allah Most High has placed His own Divine Secrets in the essence of man, in order to bring from unknown realms into evidence His Beautiful Names and Attributes. But we have forgotten the perfection placed in us before we arrived in the world clad in flesh and bone. Our physical being and its attachment to the world in which it lives, covers and leaves in darkness the beauty and wisdom hidden within us, has made us forget our origin, and left us in a state of ignorance.
Allah in His Mercy has revealed instructions in His Divine Books, and has sent His prophets and saints as guides and examples to teach and to lead us back to heedfulness, to light from the darkness with which we have covered ourselves. Those of us who are able to wake up, who rediscover that which is holy in ourselves, and who wish and will to come close to our Creator and to our origin, which is perfection, are promised that if “We take a step towards Allah, He will come running to meet us.”
Man has two souls. One is called Ruhu Hayvani, the animal soul, and the other is Ruhu Insani, the human soul. The animal soul is a created, refined substance which controls life, mind, senses, feelings, emotions, will, and movement of the physical body. And our being, which relates to this animal soul, is called the “animal self,” the self ruled by the desires of our flesh or Nafsi Ammara, the evil commanding self which is the first and lowest of the seven levels of being.
Nafsi Ammara is a manifestation of the animal soul in man, while the six steps above the evil commanding ego are the development of the human soul, which is also called the Nafsi Natiqa, the being who can communicate with speech, or the Rational Being.
The next six levels are: Nafsi Lawwama, when man hears the voice of his conscience and tries to resist his carnal desires; Nafsi Mulhima, when man receives direct instructions through inspirations from his Lord; Nafsi Mutmainna, when man is freed of self-indulgence and finds peace and tranquility in his state of piety and obedience to his Lord; Nafsi Radiyya, when man accepts all that happens to him without any resentment or pain, and when good and bad become equal to him, and he is pleased with his lot; Nafsi Mardiyya when man assumes the Divine Attributes, leaving his materiality, and Nafsi Safiyya, when man reaches the purity of perfect harmony.
In this first level of the development of man, the rational self and human conscience have been defeated by lust and carnal desires. At this stage, our self does not recognize any rational or moral barriers to get what it wants. It expresses itself in selfishness, arrogance, ambition, stinginess, envy, anger, cynicism, laziness and stupidity. Originally, nafs, ones self, identity, ones own personality and reality, is one of the Creator’s gifts to man. But because we allow it to lean towards material values, to take pleasure only in worldly life, and because we succumb to fleshly lusts, it has turned ugly and become almost animal-like, while its shape remains that of a human being. It is a fauve camouflaged in the appearance of man, a mad wild animal which bites and claws itself as well as others. This ego is our private devil, our worst enemy, who is living inside us, dominating and tyrannizing us and keeping our human soul imprisoned and forgotten in the depths of our subconscious. If we are fortunate enough to be led by a guide to seek a better state, then the devil whispers in our ear: “What business do you have to be on this path? Don’t you see that everyone who was on this Path sooner or later died? All that remains of them is a few words. I know that you want the Truth, but where are the wise ones who would be able to teach you anything? Show me a single saintly man who receives revelations, who can show miracles! They belonged to another time. Now is the time of facts, of science, of prosperity, and the good life. If you want to be religious – all right! Go to the mosque, pray, fast, and pray that the spirits of these holy men of the past help you, for there is no teacher alive worth your while!”
Thus the devil hides the truth. Kufr, infidelity, means covering, hiding in Arabic. Kafir, the infidel, means the one who hides something. The devil conceals the fact that at all times there are perfect men in the world and worthy teachers who can lead one to salvation.
Our Master, The Messenger of Allah (saws), has two aspects. One is his prophethood, hubuwwa; the other is his sainthood, his friendship, closeness to Allah, or walaya. He is Hatemul Enbiya: the last, the Seal of Prophethood, but his other aspect of sainthood has always been and will always be inherited by perfect men, who love and imitate him, and they will exist at all times, until the end of time.
But if the seeker pays any attention to the insinuations of the devil, he suffers doubt about his teacher, he is called away from the Path, his efforts are slowed down, and he will lend his ear to the whispers of the accursed devil again. This time he will say, “Allah is forgiving, count on His Mercy; He does not dislike people who do things which He permits. Be kind to yourself and don’t tyrannize yourself. If you are kind towards your ego and give it things it wants, then it will obey you!” If the seeker is fooled by these temptations, he will start having doubts; he will then be unclear as to whether things are lawful or unlawful, whether they are right or wrong. When that happens, he is more likely to opt for the unlawful, since it is usually more pleasing to the senses. And the more his senses are satisfied, the more his heart will be blinded and hardened, and the more he will be led towards evil.
On the level of the evil commanding ego, all these influences are very heavy. To get out from under them, someone strong has to hold you by your hand and extricate you. It is very difficult if not impossible to do it by yourself.
But through Allah’s help, you may hear the voice of reason which says, “To do what Allah permits one to do out of His Mercy, instead of doing that which He orders us to do, is the profession of creatures who are lazy.” For the true servants of Allah, it is an obligation to live according to the rules of Shariat and the ideals of the Tariqat.
And if we either follow this rational decision, which is an undeserved gift of Allah Most High, or we are rescued from our misery by a strong teacher, then we may rise to the second level of Nafsi Lawwama. Thus the soul is pulled out from the dark dungeon of the ego to the light of conscience, and we will see our arrogance being transformed into humility, vengefulness and hate into love, anger into kindness, lust into chastity. . . If Allah so wills.
This is the second step in the development of man, when man becomes aware of his actions, is able to differentiate right from wrong, and regrets his wrong doings. Yet he is not able to totally stop doing wrong because it is very difficult to break the habits of his previous state. He tries to follow the obligations of his religion and he prays, fasts, pays alms and tries to behave properly. But he wants to be known as a reformed person. He publicizes his piety, his good deeds, and expects appreciation from people. This makes his behavior hypocritical. Sometimes he realizes this, regrets it, and tries to change. Hypocrisy, a major sin, is the principal danger in this state.
There are two other grave dangers as well: arrogance and anger. Every little attempt to be good, compared to the previous state, seems like a major achievement. So we think we are the best, and get angry with others who do not seem to respect us. Arrogance, lying to ourselves, hypocrisy, anger, and intolerance are the soldiers of the devil. At the level of Nafsi Lawwama we are not safe from the devil, who injects his character of arrogance into our veins and whispers into our ear: “You are as good as your teachers now; not only do you know as much as they do, the way you behave is better. If they were able to apply what they teach in their own lives they wouldn’t be half what you are. You don’t need their preaching or their advice. Now let people see your wisdom and your deeds so that you will be an example to them.” Not only the whisperings of the devil, but all worldly life, is against the seeker at this stage. Certainly the world cannot lose its attractiveness for him; it calls to and tempts him.
If the resolve of the seeker is weak, he will be afflicted with arrogance, not listen to good advice, and in fact, fight with the ones who wish for his well being, thinking they are belittling him and behaving in a superior manner. In anger, he may attempt to do much greater deeds than he is incapable of, and fail. Failure will further anger him. His mood will become dark, disappointed; he will think he took the wrong way, that he was better off before, and he may blame the ones who led him to this Path, falling back to his previous condition of being an animal in human shape.
If he is warned at the beginning of the second step of Nafsi Lawwama of these dangers, and if he is intelligent enough not to release the hand which leads him, and if he follows the advice on how to fight the three enemies of hypocrisy, anger, and arrogance, he will pass this stage quickly. The longer one lingers in this transitory stage, the worse will be the trials.
The cure for hypocrisy is to realize how the value of everything in the world, including the opinions of others, is temporal, inconstant and subjective, changing from minute to minute, from place to place, from person to person, and finally disappearing. Therefore, one should opt for that which is permanent, eternal, and powerful instead of something which may be here now and gone tomorrow. What fool lights a candle when the sun is out? Do not count on the respect and the praise of others, and do not fear them. For it is said, “Whoever praises you is your enemy because he is the ally of your enemy, and whoever points out what is wrong with you is the enemy of your enemy.”
The cure for arrogance is to remember that your beginning came from a drop of semen from your father and an ovum in your mother’s belly, and that your end will be as a rotten corpse in the ground. Beauty, strength, intelligence, will soon dwindle and disappear. All your fortune, properties, reputation, and friends will be excluded when you are lowered alone into your tomb. Your prayers, piety and good deeds, if performed to impress others, will evaporate, and worse still, may turn against you.
Realize that all you have, including your body and your very life, is not yours, but lent to you and entrusted to you by your Creator. Your actions are also His if they are good, and when they are bad, it is you who are tyrannizing yourself. Offer thanks for everything, and feel shame your wrongdoings; then you will be humble. The fall of the one who stands low is much less painful than the one who falls from high.
The cure for anger is basically accomplished if you can cure your arrogance. It is the arrogant one who becomes angered by adversity, or even by lack of sufficient rewards which he thinks he is owed. The negative emotion of anger, when it flares up, is faster than the rational effort to suppress it. Once anger has caught fire it is difficult to extinguish. Like fire, it burns all that is human in us; compassion, love, gentleness, generosity, the ability to communicate, to think of consequences, and intelligence are all reduced to ashes. All that remains is a dangerous wounded wild animal.
As a remedy to recall and remember our humanity, The Messenger of Allah (saws) suggests that when anger strikes, immediately you should change your posture. If you were standing, you should sit. If you were sitting you should fall to your knees. It is difficult to shout and curse in the most humble position of kneeling.
Or you should lie on your back and pray: “Oh Lord, enrich me with knowledge, beautify me with kindness, give me the gift of piety and the fear and love of You and sanity and health, Amin”
Or you should go and take ablution with cold water.
If we could avoid these dangers, with Allah’s will and the guidance of our religion, and the help of our teacher, and our wish to advance, we might rise to the third level of Nafsi Mulhime, the level where we receives the Lord’s inspirations.
This is a stage when the seeker is rewarded for his efforts, persistence, and obedience to his teacher. Now he occasionally receives messages from inside of him: soundless wordless inspirations which give him direction, encouragement, and the strength to continue in his advancement. Yet there are still grave dangers, the worst of which is that the devil is capable of imitating divine inspirations, and the seeker may not be able to differentiate between them. That is why at this stage the guidance of a master is so necessary, one who will be able to distinguish the true inspirations from the false imaginations inspired by the devil.
It is during this period that the relation between the seeker and his master has to be the closest. The seeker should not hide anything from his teacher: he should reveal all his hopes, his fears, his faults; even if he feels resentment or opposition to his teacher, he has to confess these to him. They are like the symptoms of a disease which a sick person must reveal to the doctor in whom he has confidence. Just as he heeds the advice given or the diet prescribed, or diligently takes the medicine given, if he obeys the counsel of his master, he will be able to advance.
The voice of the ego could easily be mistaken for inspiration, especially when the ego changes its vocabulary from material to spiritual. Its aim is to isolate the seeker from his fellow seekers and from their teacher. His brothers on the Path may appear to him as obsequious slaves of the master, and the master as a self-centered tyrant taking advantage of his followers; actually, his brothers and his masters are the mirrors in whom he sees his own ugliness.
When this happens, the accursed devil speaks to him, pretending to be an inspiration, and says; “Now you have seen and understood everything. Now you know it all. You are a wise man, a teacher yourself. Why do you have to obey, and do all these unnecessary things which your teacher imposes on you. He is trying to pretend that he is still above you. Let him and his followers who have not penetrated to the inner meaning of things keep doing the exterior work of praying and serving. You are now at a level where your Lord talks to you directly. So do the inner work: meditate, try to listen to the secret messages coming to you...”
In this storm, the only life preserver which will save him from drowning will be the rules of his religion. He should pray, fast, and give alms with more fervor and attention than he ever did. Above all he should try to revive the feelings of love in him which he once felt for the shaikh and his brothers on the Path. For love cures all ills and the lover is able to follow all the wishes of the beloved.
Another affliction during this period is a change in understanding and sensibility. It is as if he forgets all that he knew, even his idea of himself. New impressions do not correspond to the old ones. He is apt to see things differently, to misunderstand them, to make mistakes. He feels as if he does not exist. He may imagine that he has reached the final level of Fana Fillah - to lose oneself in Allah. But this feeling has nothing to do with that high state. He should realize that it is a state of helplessness, of emptiness, a state of desperate need, the state of Fakr, the state which is praised by our Prophet (saws), who said, “I am proud of my fakr.”
But, if the seeker has tired of waging battle against his ego and has become reluctant in the performance of his religious duties, then he hears the voice of the devil again, “Your Lord is your secret and you are the secret of your Lord. You have reached the final goal of losing yourself in God, the Eternal One. All that was forbidden or were obligations for his other servants do not apply to you. Whatever comes to your mind, do, for all you do is from Him and is right. You have no accountability.”
May Allah protect us from such an eventuality, for failing in this state is like falling down from a high roof top. It is deadly. It kills the heart. The one without a heart has no conscience or fear of God; he becomes a toy of the devil. He steals, kills, drinks, debauches; there is no limit to the sins he commits. He is also blinded when he is about to fall into the pit of hell; when his shaikh and his brothers on the Path try to hold him, he kicks and tears at them, and there is danger that he may pull them down to hell with him.
But Allah, the All-Powerful, will save the ones who are heedful to the warnings, and who hold on to their religion and to the hand of their teacher, and who nourish the love which they feel for their shaikh and their brothers on the Path for Allah’s sake. And surely he will be pulled to the level of peace and harmony in the realms of Nafsi Mutmainna.
This stage is the safe place reached by the seeker after a long and difficult struggle with his private devil, his ego, and the army of devils tempting him in his worldly life. To be able to reach this level, he must have subdued both of them. Thus he is comparatively free of dangers. Now he is under the command of his human soul, which takes pleasure in following the rules of the religion and the example of the Prophet (saws). He possesses the qualities which Allah praises: he is kind, generous, patient, forgiving, sincere, thankful, content, and at peace. He has heard Allah say:
“O the one who has found peace
Return to your Lord, pleased with Him
and He with you.
And become amongst my good servants
And enter my Paradise.”
He finds his peace, his happiness, his delight, in his Lord. He has been given heaven on earth. He enters Paradise in this very life.
Every word which comes from his lips is either from the Holy Qur’an, or from the tradition of the Prophet (saws), or from the teaching of the saints. His worship and devotions are nourishment for the growth of his soul. He is a teacher not only through words, but by example. Miracles which transpire through him, he attributes to other causes, never claiming them, disowning them to the point of denying them. His every action corresponds to the rules of the religion. He has regained his name of Insan, a true human being; the name is derived from the word uns, being close, intimate with ones Lord. Thus his Lord will take him by the hand, and lead him forward without much difficulty from now on.
Alas! Very few men can aspire to reach this high state. Up to and including this level, the seeker is taught by words and/or examples of others than himself, through Ilm al Yaqin, acquired knowledge. Now he has approached the level of knowledge through personal experience and revelations: Ayn al Yaqin, Certitude. Up until now, everything was relative. Now he is offered the Truth. The manifestation of this state is love, all-enveloping love. He sees all and everything as Allah’s perfect acts, thus loving them as the actions, fil, of the Beloved. He achieves perfect submission to everything which happens. That is the “Truth of Islam”. There is perfect harmony, of which he is aware. There are no possibilities of error as he is the master of his ego, and the ego itself has become a Muslim, submitting to its Lord. He does not want anything other that what he has. Therefore he does not ask for anything for himself from Allah. But when he prays for someone else, his prayers are immediately gratified. He is seated on the throne in the spiritual realm, while the exterior world is in attendance to serve. His acceptance, submission, pleasure, thankfulness, and love of his Lord are so perfect that the Lord responds with His pleasure for His servant in return.
At this level is manifested the bond between the Creator and the created, with a love common to both. The Creator finds in the perfect man the qualities which He has bestowed on him when He created him, as He says,
“Certainly we created man in the best form. . .”
His own Beautiful Names, His Attributes which He taught to our father Adam, become manifest in the seeker. Thus the perfect man who has attained the level where he deserves Allah’s pleasure has lost all of his physical animal characteristics as well as his imperfect human aspects under the command of his ego. Now Allah’s Divine Attributes are manifest in him, and he sees the Real Reality, the Truth, because he is blessed with Ayn al Yaqin, Certitude. He sees beauty in everything, loves everyone, forgives the faults of those who do not know, he is compassionate, generous, giving, never asking, serving with all he has to bring others to the light of the soul, and to protect them from the dangers of their egos and the darkness of their worldliness. All this he does for Allah’s sake and in His name.
It is difficult to recognize these beings. Their state cannot be described in words. They cannot be compared to concepts one ordinarily knows. One identifiable characteristic particular to them is that they are always in a state of perfect balance, like the center of a circle, like the fulcrum of a balance: right in the middle, neither more nor less, the medium. Allah asks usto, the Prophet (saws) advises us to, everyone wishes to, but no one succeeds in achieving this goal of balance except these perfect ones.
In the middle of everything, having found the center, the soul finds its proper place. It is a point, without length or width, not covering any area or space. Thus it is pure. There is no wish, no claim. It is the beginning and the end. As it is with the dot under the Ba and the dot over the Nun, all knowledge is contained within it. When the being who possess this pure soul moves, his movement is beneficent power; when he talks it is wisdom, and music to the ears; when he appears it is beauty and joy to the beholder. His whole being is worship; every cell in his body is in continuous praise of his Lord. He is humble. Although he is sinless, he sheds tears of repentance. His joy is to see man reach for his Lord; his pain is to see him go astray. He loves the ones who serve Allah more than anything. He is angered at the ones who revolt. All he wants for mankind is what Allah wants, and he fears for the fate of the faithless. He is just, more than just! He is the one who will intercede for the sinners.
Allah knows best. May He guide us to the Straight Path and lead us to levels which meet His approval and give us patience, perseverance, strength and wisdom to succeed in the Path. Amin.
adapted from the
Marifetname of Hd. Ibrahim Hakki Erzurumi (1703-1780)
by Shaikh Tosun Bayrak al-Jerrahi