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Sufi Psychology

Arvan Harvat


Anyone who has delved into the study of Sufi psychology knows how chaotic and susceptible to wildest interpretations this field lies helpless before New Age predators and dogmatic and ill-informed shaykhs alike. We will adumbrate central tenets and point to differences of opinion preventing the growth of a coherent doctrine.

Drawing from Qur'anic verses, virtually all Sufis distinguish between nafs, qalb and ruh, the preceding concepts having the meaning of various psychospiritual "organs", faculties of suprasensory perception or foci of contemplative experience.  Their number ( additional faculties will be listed below ), location, function, hierarchy, characteristics- all this is a matter of dispute.

1. Nafs is usually translated as soul or psyche. ( We won't elaborate on etymology because it would take us too far.).  Some Sufis consider under the term "nafs" the entirety of mental/emotional/volitional life; however, the majority are of the opinion that nafs is a "lower", egotistical and passionate human nature. Along with tab (literally, nature - a physical one ), it comprises vegetative and animal aspects of human life ( in the vocabulary of medieval Thomist psychology ). Synonyms for nafs are devil, passion, greed, avarice, ego-centredness etc. The central aim of the Sufi path is transformation of nafs from its deplorable ego-centered state through various psychospiritual stages ( hal- temporary, and maqam- permanent ) to either purity and submission to the will of God (orthodox Sufis) or annihilation and deification ( unorthodox Sufis who are frequently lost in a maze of questions which part of nafs is destroyed and which one is deified or fused with God ).

2. Qalb stands for heart. In Sufi terminology, this spiritual heart ( not a pump in the breast ) is again variously described.  For some, it is the seat of beatific vision. Others consider it the place of divine love/ishq. Yet, for the majority, it is the battlefield of two warring armies- those of nafs ( where nafs-i-natiqa/rational soul is equated with aql/intellect, the "better", rational part of the soul as opposed to animal/passionate ), and ruh/spirit, who will be the object of analysis in the next point. In short, cleansing of the qalb/heart is a necessary spiritual discipline for travellers on the Sufi path.

3. Ruh or spirit is the third "entity" and the second contender in the battle for human life. Again, opinions on ruh differ among Sufis. Some deem it coeternal with God; others consider it a created entity. Be as it may, ruh is the plateau of consensus for the majority of Sufis, especially early ones ( before 11/12 century C.E. ). After ruh, opinions diverge even more ( with the addition that probably the majority of Sufis even don't pay attention to the supposed "higher" spiritual faculties or subsume them under the variety of ruh/spirit- related experiences).

The three "highest" spiritual faculties are a matter of controversy.  Here, we will follow explications offered by spiritual giants Jurjani ( 14.century C.E. ) and Ruzbekhan Bakhli Shirazi ( 12/13 century C.E. ), both Iranian Sufis ( ref, ref ). While holding centrality of these doctrines indisputable, we shall also mention interpretation of these functions or faculties according to the Naqshbandi order of the Sufis.

Three "higher" organs of spiritual perception are sirr, khafi and akhfa.

4. Sirr or secret is the centre of inner consciousness where perceptual contact with the Divine is accomplished. Judging from Hallaj's words, this is a faculty whereby one attains union with his/her Higher/Spiritual Self."..It has been said that the inner consciousness/sirr is part of the ultimate inner consciousness that is God... It is recounted that Husayn ibn Mansur Hallaj said "My sirr is virgin, and cannot be revealed by imagination of anybody" (refFrom these passages one could deduce that sirr is the faculty of fusion with the Divine, but in its "particular" aspect of Spiritual Self. N.B. The Semnani attributions place the sirr below ruh/spirit.  For him, it is virtually equivalent to mind. We shall adress this, and similar issues, later.

5.Khafi or the arcane is, according to Jurjani, the seat of apperception of the Manifest Absolute/Lahut. ( Although the concept "seat" is a bit problematic. Maybe the term "faculty" would be more appropriate.)  "..In Sufi terminology, the arcane/khafi is a divine subtlety which lies in potential in the spirit/ruh....the arcane becomes the intermediary between the Divine presence and the spirit/ruh in receiving theophany of Divine Attributes and God's emanating grace to the spirit." (ref)

6.Akhfa or the most arcane/the innermost consciousness represents immersion in God's Essence of the Unmanifest Absolute. In Ruzbekhan Shirazi's words, "..The innermost consciousness/akhfa is equivalent to the Ultimate Unseen ( Ghayb-ul-Ghaib )(ref).

So, before briefly presenting the main historical currents and discussing the Lataif phenomenology, we shall draw, as it were, one-to-one parallel between seats/faculties of psychospiritual apperception and the dimensions of Kosmos and its origin.

Latifa Kosmos /Alam Sufi terminology Kosmos (general)
Akhfa/ the most arcane Hahut The Unmanifest Absolute
Khafi/arcane Lahut The Manifest Absolute
Sirr/secret Lahut( particularia) Higher Self
Ruh/spirit Jabarut/Arwah causal/noetic
Qalb/heart Malakut/Mithal subtle/imaginal
Nafs/soul  Tab/nature Nasut/Ajsam lower subtle and mundane physical

printed referenceReferences:

Javad Nurbaksh: The Psychology of Sufism

Henry Corbin: History of Islamic Philosophy

Introduction
Sufi cosmology
Sufi psychology
The Lataif



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page by Arvan Harvat
page uploaded 6 February 2000, last modified 6 September 2004