A Sufi Response to the Coronavirus

by Charles Upton

The coronavirus, whether the extreme global response to it is warranted or unwarranted, imposes a major contraction. But what is it that contracts? The great Sufi Abu Yazid al-Bistami said: “When the Heart contracts, the nafs (the ego) expands; when the nafs contracts the Heart expands.” If the Heart contracts we will seek forgetfulness in numbness or dissipation, so the idea is to use the virus and the virus-panic to help contract the ego instead, the nafs; from the Sufi point-of-view, this is why Allah has sent it. The thing in us that is always grasping, fleeing and making demands, the thing that tries to hide from fear either by sinking into oblivion or else by asserting itself and starting conflicts, THIS is the nafs. This is what must contract. If, in submission to Allah’s will, we form a clear intent to USE the coronavirus to contract this nafs, then the Heart will expand of its own accord—and along with this expansion will arrive a powerful sense of Allah’s Presence and Mercy; this is what some Sufis have called “expansion in the fist of contraction.” If “there is no might nor power except in Allah,” then we avail ourselves of this power not by seizing it or imitating it but by submitting to it. If we can do this with courage, clarity and sincerity, a great power will develop out of that submission, the power to follow Allah’s lead and rise to His commands, in the full knowledge that there is no refuge from Allah except in Him [Q. 9:118]. This is the unparalleled opportunity that is being presented to us by the coronavirus; let’s not waste it.