Revelation of Mystery (Kashf al Mahjub)

Mortification of the nafs نفس (Lower Soul)

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Chapter XIV (l)

Mortification of the nafs  نفس (Lower Soul)


Allah hath said:

وَالَّذِينَ جَاهَدُوا فِينَا لَنَهْدِيَنَّهُمْ سُبُلَنَا

“And those who strive in Our (cause) – We will certainly guide them to Our path:” (Q 29:69).

And the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

المجاهد من جاهد نفسه في الله

“The Mujahid (striver) is he who diligently struggles against his nafs (lower soul) for the sake of Allah.”

And he also said:

رجعنا من الجهاد الاصغر الي الجهاد الاكبر

“We have returned from smaller holy war to the greater holy war.”

On being asked that what the greater holy war was, he replied,

الا وهي مجاهدة النفس

listen carefully! it is the struggle against one's nafs (lower soul).”

The Prophet (peace be upon him) pronounced that the mortification of nafs (lower soul) was superior to the holy war because there is more affliction and distress in struggle against nafs than holy war. It is a great accomplishment to go up against desires and crush the ills of nafs (lower soul).

The purgation of nafs (lower soul) and its methods are plain and manifest and have been laudable in all the religions and nations, and this subject is particularly observed and practiced by the Sufis.  Although both nobles and common people have spoken about it but signs and sayings of the Sufi Sheikhs are too many. Sahl b. Abdullah Tustari was too exaggerated about mortification and he has very sound sayings and hints on the subject. He had made a habit to have food after fifteen days and with that little feed he lived long life.

All mystics have affirmed the need of mortification, and have declared it to be mean of attaining contemplation. Sahl emphasizes mortification as cause of the contemplation and believe it to be a powerful tool in attaining the objective. He even regarded the present life, spent in mortification and search, as superior to that life of next world which one strive to attain through arduous efforts in this world. He says fruitation lies in mortification, one who would serve divinity in this world would be rewarded with the proximity in the next world. Since proximity is not attainable without devotion, therefore, it becomes incumbent on man to follow the root, path and cause which leads him to the nearness of the Truth and that is the mortification as much as he can endure. He said,

المشاهدات مواريث المجاهدات

“the contemplation is the result and fruitation of mortification.”

Some others have the view that mortification can not be the cause and means of attainment of the Truth. Whosoever has found access to the Truth, it is only through grace and kindness of the Divine which is independent of human actions. The object of mortification is for the refinement of the nafs (lower soul), and not to attain real proximity. To turn towards mortification is the act of man, while contemplation is referred to Allah, therefore, it is impossible that mortification be cause of contemplation or contemplation be result of mortification. Sahl strengthen his argument by the words of Quran:

وَالَّذِينَ جَاهَدُوا فِينَا لَنَهْدِيَنَّهُمْ سُبُلَنَا

“And those who strive in Our (cause) – We will certainly guide them to Our path:” (Q 29:69),

i.e. Whoever mortifies himself, attains contemplation.

Furthermore, he contends that the enforcement of Shariat (religious laws), Commandments of Allah in the shape of books revealed to the Prophets, and all religious ordinances imposed on mankind invoke mortification. Those all must be false and vain if mortification were not the cause of contemplation. Again, both in this and the next world, everything is connected with commandments and causes. One who makes excuses in complying to commandments and denies the causes thereof, he does away with Shariat (religious law) and customs which leads to end of all law and order and under such condition neither can religious obligations be justified nor will food be the cause of repletion and clothes the cause of warmth and everything will become useless and get to standstill.

Thus, to look causes in acts is tawhid (unification) and its repulsion is cessation. Its proofs are manifest and their denial is denying the existence of contemplation and absurd reasoning.

Are you not aware that how the qualities of a wild horse are altered by taming and replaced with human qualities so that it picks up a whip from the ground and gives it to his master, or roll a ball with its feet? In the same way, a child of foreign race can learn to speak Arabic by training and take a new language in exchange for his mother tongue. Similarly savage beast is trained to such an extant that they work according to the command given to them. They go away when leave is given and come back when they are called, thus preferring captivity to freedom. By imparting training to impure dogs, it gains such perfection where its hunted game becomes legal but if an ignorant man slaughter an animal without fulfilling the Shariat requirements it becomes illegal. This indicates that Shariat (religious law) and habit depend on devotion and mortification.

Prophet (peace be upon him) who had attained his object, proximity of the Truth, peace for the next life and being free from evils, still mortified him through long hungriness, regular fasting and sleeplessness. So much so that Allah commanded,

مَا أَنزَلْنَا عَلَيْكَ الْقُرْآنَ لِتَشْقَى

We have not sent down the Quran to thee to be (An occasion) for thy distress, (Q 20:2).

Abu Huraira relates that during the construction of mosque I saw Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) transporting the bricks and observed that he was feeling some problem in carrying them. I suggested him that I might carry his bricks. He said O Abu Huraira!

خذ غيرها فانه لا عيش الا عيش الاخرة

you carry other bricks, this world is place of affliction, peace only rests in the next world.

Hayyan b. Kharja asked Abdullah b. Umar (may Allah be pleased with them) about his views on Jihad (holy war). Abdullah replied:

ابدا بنفسك  فجاهدها وابداء بنفسك  فاغزها

 فانك ان قتلت فارًا و بعثك الله فارًا وان قتلت مراءيًا بعثك الله مراءيًا' و ان قتلت صابرًا محتسبًا بعثك الله صابرًا محتسبًا

“Start your struggle against your nafs (lower soul), and from the same place start your war. If you are slain during the fight, Allah will raise you in the same condition and if you are killed in wickedness, on Resurrection day you will be raised as such and if you are slain in a state of patience and thankfulness, Allah will raise you as patient and thankful.”

Therefore, as diction and composition are necessary for the elucidation of ideas, similarly mechanism and compilation of mortification are must to elucidate its reality. As a statement does not make any sense without proper composition, similarly access to the object of Truth without mortification is not possible.  Who claims it to be such, is wrong because to accept universe as created is proof of Marifat (knowledge of Allah). The knowledge of lower soul and mortification of nafs are the signs of proximity to Allah.

Those who do not accept mortification as cause of the proximity refer their argument to the following verse of Quran:

وَالَّذِينَ جَاهَدُوا فِينَا لَنَهْدِيَنَّهُمْ سُبُلَنَا

“And those who strive in Our (cause) – We will certainly guide them to Our path:” (Q 29:69).

They maintain that the verse cited above and referred by Sahl is to be read from end to beginning

وَالَّذِينَ َهْدِيَنَّهُمْ سُبُلَنَا جَاهَدُوا فِينَا

and that the meaning of it is, “those whom we guide into Our way strive to the utmost for Our sake.”

And the Prophet (peace be upon him) said,

لن ينجواحد كم بعمله

“not one of you shall obtain deliverance by his deeds.”

The companions questioned: “O Prophet, not even you?”

He said:

 “Not even I obtain deliverance because of my deeds, unless Allah encompasses me with His mercy.”

So, mortification is man’s act, and his act cannot possibly become the cause of his salvation, which depends on the Divine Will, as Allah hath said:

فَمَن يُرِدِ اللّهُ أَن يَهْدِيَهُ يَشْرَحْ صَدْرَهُ لِلإِسْلاَمِ وَمَن يُرِدْ أَن يُضِلَّهُ يَجْعَلْ صَدْرَهُ ضَيِّقًا حَرَجًا

“Those whom Allah (in His Plan) willeth to guide – He openeth their breast to Islam; Those whom He willeth to leave straying – He maketh their breast close and constricted,” (Q 6:125),

تُؤْتِي الْمُلْكَ مَن تَشَاء وَتَنزِعُ الْمُلْكَ مِمَّن تَشَاء

“Thou givest power to whom Thou pleaset, and Thou strippest off power from whom Thou pleaset,” (Q 3:26).

By affirming His will, Allah denies the obligations of all in the universe. If mortification were the cause of union Iblis would not have been damned and if neglect of mortification were the cause of damnation Adam would never have been blessed. The result hangs on predestined grace, not on abundance of mortification and devotion. That’s why the one who exerts the most is also not free of fear but the one who has more blessings and grace is more near to Allah. A monk worshipping in cell of a cathedral may be far from Allah, and another in spite of committed to sinful life may be near to Him.

The noblest of all things is faith. A child who is not yet old enough to be entrusted with the religious command is considered amongst the faithful and a madman also falls in the same category. When the noblest of all gifts i.e. faith, is not dependent on any mortification and devotion then how things inferior to faith should be result of mortification.

I, Ali b. Uthman al-Jullabi, say that when this appear as words and expression is wrong but it is true in their meanings and sense, as some say,

من طلب وجد

“he who seeks shall find,”

and the other says,

من وجد طلب

he who finds shall seek.” 

For some seeking is the cause of finding, and for some finding is the cause of seeking. One practices mortification for the purpose of attaining contemplation, and the other practices contemplation for purpose of attaining mortification. The fact is that contemplation in mortification is due to the blessing of Divine in worshiping and this is a gift of Allah. As obedience is impossible without Divine blessing, so it is also impossible to seek Divine blessing without devotion, and as there can be no mortification without contemplation, so there can be no contemplation without mortification. Therefore, only one splendor of the Divine Beauty is needed to incite the man for devotion and mortification and when it will be the cause of contemplation, the Divine guidance will gain excellence over devotion and mortification.

In reply to the argument of Sahl and his followers that who denies mortification are also denying the Prophets, the Books revealed on them and the Divine Laws because struggle and efforts depend on mortification, it would have been better if they had depended on the guidance of the Truth for their efforts and struggle. The acts of mortification serve only to affirm the proofs of arguments, not to affect real union with Allah. 

Allah hath said:

وَلَوْ أَنَّنَا نَزَّلْنَا إِلَيْهِمُ الْمَلآئِكَةَ وَكَلَّمَهُمُ الْمَوْتَى وَحَشَرْنَا عَلَيْهِمْ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ قُبُلاً مَّا كَانُواْ لِيُؤْمِنُواْ إِلاَّ أَن يَشَاء اللّهُ

“Even if We did send unto them angels, and the dead did speak unto them, and We gathered together all things before their very eyes, they are not the ones to believe, unless it is in Allah’s Plan.” (Q 6:111),

for the cause of belief is My will, not the evidences or mortification and He further said:

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ سَوَاءٌ عَلَيْهِمْ أَأَنذَرْتَهُمْ أَمْ لَمْ تُنذِرْهُمْ لاَ يُؤْمِنُونَ

“And to those who reject Faith, it is same to them whether thou warn them or do not warn them: They will not believe.” (Q 2:6).

The revelations of the Prophets and the ordinances of religion are means but not causes of attaining the object. Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) as regards to being entrusted with Divine Commands was in the same position as Abu Jahl, but Abu Bakr, having justice attained grace, whereas Abu Jahl, having justice deprived of grace. Therefore the cause of attainment is attainment itself, not the act of seeking attainment, for if the seeker and the object were one, then the seeker is successful and when he has achieved his object, he is no more a seeker. He who has attained is at rest, whereas rest is not allowed to a seeker. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said,

من استوي يوما فهو مغيون

the one whose two days are similar is at loss,”


استقيموا و لن تحصوا

be steadfast but not in one state.”

Here mortification has been based on cause and to affirm the argument cause is affirmed and in attainment of the place of Divinity cause has been denied.

In reference to their argument that the qualities of a horse are altered by mortification and discipline, in this respect you must know that mortification is only a means of bringing out qualities that are already latent in the horse but do not appear until he has been put through mortification and discipline. Since donkey does not have such attributes, therefore, it can never be like a horse and neither horse can be a donkey with struggle and effort and nor a donkey be a horse with mortification because it is the reality of the soul. Therefore, that thing which cannot change the nature and reality how it can be affirmed being present with the Truth.

Sahl used to be prevailed so much with mortification that he would become independent of it and while in reality he was in that state, he was unable to express it in words. He was not like those who have made it their religion to talk about mortification without practicing it. It is not possible to interpret such matters in words.

In short, amongst Sufis both mortification and self-discipline exist but its interpretation while in that state and dependence on it is not free of tribulations. Hence, those who deny mortification do not mean to deny its reality, but only to deny its imagination and desire its contradiction, that is to say, not to get pleased with own actions in the place of Holiness. It is so because the mortification is the act of man, while contemplation is a state in which one is kept by Allah, and until and unless there are blessings of Allah, man’s action would remain unrealistic. 

By my life! Your soul is not free from your ownself, that’s why you are engaged in self adornments. You do not look towards the grace of Lord rather seek pleasure by booting your own actions.  The mortification of the lovers of Allah is the work of Allah in them without any choice on their part. Their mortification is overwhelming love of Allah and melting away with its burning which is gift of the Divine. The mortification of ignorant is their own work by their own choice and such people do not gain anything from mortification except anxiety and distress. Therefore, restrain yourself the maximum to disclose your actions and deeds and under no circumstances follow your nafs (lower soul), for it is your phenomenal being that veils you from the Truth. It is possible that one action may become cause of veil which may be unveiled by another action but since your whole being is a veil, how can you become worthy of subsistence until you are wholly annihilated.

As it is said that:

لان النفس كلب باغ وجلد الكلب لا يطهر الا بالدباغ

“The nafs (lower soul) is a wild dog, and its leather does not get purity without tanning.”

It is related that Hussein b. Mansur was staying in the house of Muhammad b. al-Hussein at Kufa. Incidentally Ibrahim Khawwas also came to Kufa at that time and having heard of Mansur, went to see him. Mansur asked him, “O Ibrahim, during your forty years affiliation with Sufism, in which area of it have you excelled?”

Ibrahim answered: “I have struggled a lot in tawakul (trust in Allah).” Mansur said:

ضيعت عمرك في عمران باطنك فاين انفاء في التوحيد

“You have wasted your life in cultivating your spiritual nature: what has become of annihilation in Unification?”

i.e. tawakul (trust in Allah) is a term denoting your conduct towards Allah and spiritual purification is denoted in relying on Him. If a man spends his whole life in remedying his spiritual nature, he will need another life for remedying his outward nature, and his life will be lost before he has found a trace of the Truth.

Sheikh Abu Ali Siyah narrated that once he happened to see his nafs (lower soul) in a form resembling to his own. Some one who had seized it by its hair handed him over to him. He tied it to a tree and was about to destroy it, when it cried out, “O Abu Ali, do not be harsh. I am from the army of Allah; you cannot reduce me to naught.”

Muhammad b. Ulyan Nasvi, an eminent companion of Junaid, related that at the early stage of his novitiate, when he had become aware of the evils of the nafs (lower soul) and acquainted with its places of ambush, he developed hatredness for it in his heart. One day something like a young fox came forth from his throat, and Allah caused him to know that it was his nafs. He immediately started casting it under his feet, and at every kick which he gave, it grew bigger in size. He questioned it that how comes other things were destroyed by pain and blows but you instead had enlarged in size. It replied, “because I was created perverse, what causes pain to other things is pleasure to me, and their pleasure is my pain.”

Sheikh Abu al-Abbas Ashqani, Imam of his time, narrated that one day when he entered into his house he found a dog asleep there. He thought it had come from neighborhood and when he was about to turn him out, the dog crept under his garments and vanished.

Sheikh Abu al-Qasim Gurgani, who is the Qutb of time, related that he during his novitiate saw his nafs (lower soul) in the shape of a snake.

A Dervish related that he saw his nafs in the shape of a mouse and on his quest it replied:

“I am the cause of destruction for the heedless; for I urge them to wickedness and evil, and the salvation of the lovers of Allah, for if I were not in their company with my wickedness they would be arrogant by their acts and proud by their purity. When they see their steadfastness in their acts e.g. purity of hearts, inward spirituality, and devotion, they are engulfed with self-conceit and when they realize me among them, they feel free from such thoughts. ”

All these stories prove that the nafs (lower soul) is real in subsistence and not a mere attribute and that it has attributes which we clearly perceive.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said,

اعدي عدوك نفسك التي بين جانبيك

your worst enemy is your nafs (lower soul), which is between your two sides.”

When you have obtained the knowledge of nafs (lower soul), you appreciate that it can be controlled by discipline, but its essence and subsistence can not be annihilated. If the seeker rightly perceives it, he would rule over it and would feel no fear in its existence as it is said,

ان النفس كلب نباح وامساك الكلب بعد الرياضة مباح

nafs (lower soul) is a barking dog, and it is legal to keep a dog which has been trained and tamed.”

Hence, the attributes of nafs (lower soul) can be destroyed by mortification, but its reality cannot be annihilated.

Sheikhs of Sufism have talked in length about it but I content without further prolonging it. Now I will discuss the true nature of passion and renunciation of lusts.



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