[Mathnawi I, 3347-8]
The message and way of life brought by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, effected a transformation in the souls of men and women, a transformation which profoundly affected the societies in which they lived. In the first 150 years of Islam, Muslims were concerned with character, sincerity, and a lived experience of the Divine. In these first two centuries neither the formal schools of law nor the hadith collections existed. No doubt the noble character of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and his companions, were essential to providing the moral energy of transformation. Islam, from the beginning, has been a form of concentrated spiritual energy and an effective spiritual training system leading to the transformation of one’s very self. The effect of this transformation is that it diminishes egoism, arrogance, and aggression, and replaces these with self-witnessing, humility, empathy, and reconciliation. Egoism is the great corrupter of all human endeavors, including, and tragically, religion. Any true religion should methodically lead to the reduction of egoism and self-righteousness. Egoism is the ultimate idolatry, or shirk in Quranic terms, because it places the human nafs in the center instead of God. The out-of-control nafs, engorged on its own self-righteousness, justifies acts of extreme aggression and ugliness. Swelling with insane pride, exulting in finding an outlet for its rage, it spreads fitna, tribulation, and breaks the hearts of the true Muslims. Egoism’s ultimate manifestation is tyranny. Any person or group that is coercive, that interferes with human free will, except for the common sense restrictions put on criminal behavior, is usurping the place of God. Extremist political parties and organizations, theocracies, religious cults are manifestations of “collective egoism,” i.e. the nafs magnified on a social scale.
Transformation of The Nafs Is Through The Heart
Every human being is given a self, and this very self is our greatest problem and our greatest opportunity and blessing. The self is both the poison and the remedy. The Quran says: The only religion in the sight of God is self-surrender to Him [3:19], and: If one goes in search of a religion other than self-surrender to God, it will never be accepted from him [3:85]. Self-surrender (Islam) is the transformation of the self that leads to an increased capacity to love unselfishly, to consider the effects of one’s actions (taqwa), and to sustain an awareness of the divine (dhikr Allah)–all of these without a sense of pride, self-righteousness, or self-congratulation.
Surely, you shall travel from stage to stage.
This process of transformation cannot be accomplished merely by following outer behaviors and formalistic rituals. Transformation originates in the inner life, in the heart of the human being. Someone who is fastidious in the formal aspects of religion may do so with sincerity, but it is the heart’s sincerity and love of God that effects the transformation. The heart is our true center where we are closest to Allah, the potential integrative power at our core. If the body is like a country, the hands, feet, and various parts of the body are the workers and artisans. There are also elements within us – anger or rage — that act like the police or the army. We also have desires and passions; these are the merchants and tax collectors, extracting what they can. But the heart is King, and the intellect is the Prime Minister. The Heart must keep all of these elements in balance, keeping watch over anger and rage, the passions, and the lazy parts of ourselves that may need discipline. If Intellect becomes dominated by passion or anger, the whole country will come to ruin and the ruler will fall. The heart is the point at which the individual human being is closest to the Divine Reality, to Allah. Sufi tradition expresses it this way: The heart is the throne of the All-Merciful Spirit; when the heart is pure, it is guided directly by God. The heart is the center of our motivation and our knowing, possessing a depth and strength of will that the personality lacks. The heart may even know what the conscious mind denies. When we say that the heart has an integrative power, we are not talking in abstract, metaphorical, or merely intellectual terms. The realization and purification of the heart both opens a doorway to the Infinite, and also results in a restructuring of the nafs, allowing the ego to become a real Muslim, a compassionate servant of the Divine.
Some Threshold Friends at City Circle, Bloomsbury, London
The most effective vehicle for the transformation of hearts would be a community of people committed to this process, living and learning under the objective spiritual psychology of transformation, and ideally in association with people who have themselves been matured in this traditional knowledge and practice. Such circles of knowers of God were once more prevalent in Islamic civilization and need to be reestablished, though in new cultural forms. People who are now attracted to the radical messages offered by various extremist groups become servants of a collective egoism, contributing to the disunity of humanity and the corruption of Muslims, as well. Islam began as a moral force that quickly expanded over a huge geographical area not by spreading fear and terror, but by reconciling various communities, including non-Muslim communities, through the reconciling principle (Kalimah as Sawah): O people of the book, let us come to a reconciling principle among us: let us worship only God, let us not associate partners (other gods) equal with Him, and let us not raise up lords or intermediaries between us and God (3:64). When the people of Tayy stoned the Prophet Muhammad, some said he should call down God’s curse upon them and have them destroyed, but the Prophet knew that he did not come for destruction but to bring goodness even to those who bitterly opposed him. The Prophet Muhammad said. “My religion is morals, morals, morals. But what is the meaning of this? Even if a person has little education, if he tries to do good in society this person has morals and is of me. But if a person is highly educated, and contributes to divisiveness, quarreling, and confusion, he has no morals, and isn’t of me.” Much more radical than the false jihadism ravaging the world today is the principle of Divine unity, Tawhid, which recognizes that the diversity of religions and cultures is ordained by God for the benefit of humanity in order that we might learn from each other and grow in virtue. If this principle could be understood and supported, Islam could take its proper place as a kind of benevolent elder brother among the world’s religions, exemplifying dignity, tolerance, and justice as it often has in the past.