The Higher Reaches of Sufi Realization: Ma’rifa of the Nafs

Pray to Allah as if you saw Him—because even if you don’t see Him, He sees you.

This essay was written in response to the apparent use, by certain contemporary Sufis (false Sufis, that is) of the sophisticated concept of “mari’fa (gnosis) of the Nafs (the self)”— a doctrine that has always formed part of the tradition of tasawwuf—to justify vice and corruption. Unfortunately, when a true doctrine is presented in counterfeit guise or for a deceptive purpose, the doctrine in its original form often becomes suspect, and this can sometimes result in a heavier veiling of Reality than can be produced by any form of passive forgetfulness or active censorship. In attempting this exposition, however, I find myself in an ambiguous position. To begin with, most of the expressions of Sufi doctrine beyond the elementary level have been written by shaykhs, and I am not a shaykh, which means that these concepts do not carry the full authority of Sufi tradition, but remain nothing more than “informed opinion”. Furthermore, since I possess no true teaching authority in a Sufi context, even if these concepts were as perfectly expressed as possible in verbal terms, they would still not be backed up by the intrinsic power to realize them on a deeper-than-conceptual level, a power that only the arifun, the gnostics, can transmit. Nonetheless, sometimes even a rumor of the truth is better than complete forgetfulness of It. In any case, since this essay is not backed up by any true teaching mandate, but remains on the level of metaphysical speculation (a word derived from the Latin speculum, “mirror”), I invite my readers to offer any criticisms, admonitions or additions they feel might be appropriate and helpful.


In the Sufi science of spirituality, ma’rifa means “gnosis,” in the sense of the intimate knowledge of God; the Nafs, as the word is usually defined, is the lower soul, the more-or-less unconscious ego, or simply the self. The Nafs is usually seen as occupying one of three stages of development: the Nafs al-ammara b’l su or “self-commanding-to-evil” (the passions), the Nafs al-lawwama or “accusing self” (the unquiet conscience), and the Nafs al-mutma’inna or “self at peace” (the soul willingly submitted to Allah). In addition, many Sufis, including Shaykh Ahmed al-‘Alawi of the Shadhili-Darqawi lineage, assert that ma’rifa of the Nafs is greater than the ma’rifa of Allah, though the ma’rifa of Allah must come first. Why is this?

The answer is that the ma’rifa of the Nafs is higher because in the ma’rifa of Allah the knower is still the Nafs—primarily, the Nafs al-mutma’inna—while in the ma’rifa of the Nafs the Knower is Allah. The Nafs is you, and your knowledge of both yourself and Allah is always imperfect; His knowledge of you, on the other hand, is necessarily perfect and complete.

Shaykh al-‘Alawi has this to say in two of his hikam or “wisdoms” (quoted in A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century by Martin Lings) about the distinction between ma’rifa of Allah and ma’rifa of the Nafs:

The Gnostics (arifun) are ranged in hierarchy: the knower of his Lord and the knower of himself (his Nafs); the knower of himself (his Nafs) is stronger in Gnosis (ma’rifa) than the knower of his Lord.

The veiled are ranged in hierarchy: the veiled from his Lord and the veiled from himself (his Nafs). And the veiled from himself (his Nafs) is more heavily veiled than the veiled from his Lord.

In regard to this a contemporary Sufi comments:

In what sense is ma’rifa of the Nafs greater than ma’rifa of Allah? If you do not know your Nafs [in the sense of having insight into her tricks and manipulations], it will take you away from the knowledge of Allah, therefore knowledge of Allah is dependent on the knowledge of the Nafs, and in that sense lesser. This is also why Sidi A. [a modern Sufi murshid] says it is easier to get the ma’rifa than to keep it. Without the knowledge of the Nafs, you will lose the ma’rifa of Allah.

I entirely agree with this picture, which is the common doctrine of the ma’rifa of the Nafs held by most Sufis. The knower of his Lord must already have a degree of ma’rifa of the Nafs, even if he does not yet have full knowledge of himself, since no one who lacks insight into the deceptions and manipulations of the Nafs will be able to maintain the ma’rifa of Allah in any stable way. Yet if ma’rifa of the Nafs is a higher station than ma’rifa of Allah, then ma’rifa of Allah cannot be totally dependent upon ma’rifa of the Nafs; there must be a higher station of ma’rifa of the Nafs that could not exist without ma’rifa of Allah—the one alluded to, for example, by the doctrine that the Nafs becomes transformed at one point into the Ruh, the Soul or Spirit.

Martin Lings, in his commentary on these two hikam of Shaykh al-‘Alawi, takes the second one as merely “the negative corollary of the first”. In other words, he sees “the veiled from himself is more heavily veiled than the veiled from his Lord” as simply indicating that ma’rifa of the Nafs is harder to attain, more esoteric, and consequently more heavily veiled than is ma’rifa of Allah, given that the pious contemplation of Allah “as if you saw Him” that makes knowledge of one’s Lord possible is more common and less demanding than the annihilation of all identification with oneself that leads to the ultimate self-realization. In saying this, however, he in fact unthinkingly compares “the veiled from himself” not with “the veiled from his Lord” of the second hikma but with the unveiled from his Lord, “the knower of his Lord” of the first hikma. Therefore it seems right to say that “the veiled from himself” is more heavily veiled than “the veiled from his Lord” because one of his veils is that which veils him from Allah, and because after this is removed, further veils still remain before full self-realization is attained. The only alternative to this explanation requires us to posit two completely different types of ma’rifa that have no relationship to each other: one in which the removal of the veils covering the ma’rifa of Allah brings the arif (the gnostic) no closer to ma’rifa of the Nafs, and another in which an increase in ma’rifa of the Nafs brings him no closer to the knowledge of Allah. However, to claim that ma’rifa of Allah can exist without any self-knowledge whatsoever and have no effect on the development of it (this being implied if not directly stated in Martin Lings’ commentary, which is undoubtedly based on his master Frithjof Schuon’s tendency to overemphasize spiritual typology and the distinction between bhakti [devotion] and jñana [ma’rifa] in the spiritual life) is to accept the absurd proposition that one can know Allah and still retain all his or her egotism, while to imply that self-knowledge can increase, even to the rank of full ma’rifa of the Nafs, without any reference to Allah, and that the knowledge of Allah is therefore unnecessary for the attainment of the ultimate spiritual realization, is virtually Luciferian, since it posits the perfectibility of man without God. This particular error, based as it is on the blasphemous proposition that Allah might be “left behind” at one point, is a clear invitation to self-worship and an open door to the tendency toward antinomianism that has sometimes plagued the Sufi enterprise; it is arises from the foolish attempt to claim Subsistence in Allah (baqa’) without first going through Annihilation in Allah (fana’), an Annihilation which must necessarily also include the annihilation of all claims. An imposture such as this can only lead to the deification of the ego rather than the realization of the self. It is true that such pre-eminent sages as Sri Ramana Maharshi and Meister Eckhart spoke of the station at which God as an Object disappears because the subjective self that could contemplate that Object has also disappeared; Eckhart was undoubtedly speaking out of this maqam when he said “I pray God that he quit me of God”, while the famous ana l’Haqq (“I am the Truth”) of Mansur al-Hallaj was likely spoken in the voice of al-Haqq Itself at a moment when no trace of Mansur Hallaj remained (and Allah knows best). In any case, while it is possible to aspire to Annihilation—though not to achieve it through one’s own actions, since in order to annihilate yourself you have to be there—one cannot aspire to Subsistence without attempting to deify the limited, self-identified self that so aspires. This is why it is necessary to understand and accept that only Allah truly possesses ma’rifa of the Nafs, and consequently that this ma’rifa goes far beyond subjective self-understanding, being nothing less than the full objectification of the self at the station of “He sees you”.

Returning to the second hikma, since “the one veiled from his Lord” is contrasted with “the one veiled from himself” by being designated as less heavily veiled, “the one veiled from his Lord” must not be totally veiled from himself. He must have some degree of insight into his own strengths, weakness, motivations and tendencies, the beginnings of the level of ma’rifa of the Nafs described by the contemporary Sufi quoted above, without which any ma’rifa of Allah will be impossible to maintain. As for “the one veiled from himself,” since he is the most heavily veiled of all he must be veiled from Allah as well, which implies that, as we have already observed above, the removal of the veil concealing Allah is the first step toward the full unveiling of the Nafs. What we have here, then, are two different levels of ma’rifa of the Nafs: the preliminary but necessary insight into the deceptions and manipulations of the Nafs al-ammara, the factors that veil your ability “pray to Allah as if you saw Him,” and the ultimate ma’rifa of the Nafs which is higher even than the ma’rifa of Allah, the degree of ma’rifa indicated by “He sees you”. Your knowledge of yourself is always imperfect and conjectural, whereas Allah’s knowledge of you is you. To the degree that, by Allah’s generosity, you participate in His perfect knowledge of you, you may be said to possess the higher ma’rifa of the Nafs. Yet even the preliminary levels of such ma’rifa must reflect Allah’s knowledge of you, since every step you take towards objectivity with regard to yourself and your motives can only be taken by the power, and within the context, of the Absolute Objectivity of Allah. Without “He sees you,” there is no way you can see yourself.

So our awareness of the tricks and manipulations of the self-commanding-to-evil is certainly one degree of ma’rifa of the Nafs. But the Sufis also talk about the sacrifice of the Nafs, its annihilation in Allah, the transformation of the Nafs into the Ruh (Soul or Spirit) as a lump of coal is transformed, through pressure, into a diamond—and here is where a degree of the ma’rifa of the Nafs that is higher even than the ma’rifa of Allah comes into play: not higher because it is the necessary pre-requisite for the ma’rifa of Allah, but because it represents a more complete realization than the ma’rifa of Allah. In this higher rank of knowledge of the Nafs, the Knower is no longer me—i.e., another aspect of the same Nafs—but Allah Himself. I can aspire to Knowledge of Allah (even though all my knowledge of Him is only by His grace and mercy), but I can’t aspire to be known by Allah; He knows what He knows, and I can neither increase His knowledge nor limit it by anything I do. Nonetheless, the deeper my knowledge of Allah becomes, the more deeply I can participate in His knowledge of me.

The shift from me-knowing-Allah (imperfectly) to Allah-knowing-me (perfectly) comes only by fana’, by “dying before you are made to die”, by allowing your identification with yourself to be broken by Allah’s power. Obviously you yourself can never really intend to break your identification with yourself and then carry out that intent; only Allah can do this. This is why the only door to ma’rifa of the Nafs is ma’rifa of Allah. In the words of the hadith qudsi: “Who seeks Me, finds Me; who finds Me, knows Me; who knows Me, loves Me; who loves Me, I love him; whomever I love, I kill; whomever I kill, I Myself am his blood price.”

As we have already alluded to, the teaching of mari’fa of Allah and ma’rifa of the Nafs is summarized in the hadith where Jibra’il appears to Muhammad and his companions in the form of a young man and tests the Prophet on his knowledge of the religion. When he asks Muhammad what ihsan is—spiritual excellence, beauty or perfection—the Prophet answers: “Ihsan is to pray to Allah as if you saw Him, because even if you don’t see Him, He sees you.” “Pray to Allah as if you saw Him” is ma’rifa of Allah, which is necessarily imperfect because you still take your limited subjective self to be the knower. “Because even if you don’t see Him” is  fana’, the annihilation of all sense of selfhood in Allah, because where there is no consciousness of servanthood neither is there any consciousness of Lordship. Lastly, “He sees you” is baqa’, subsistence-in-Allah, complete freedom from self-identification, the station at which you are entirely content to be not who you think we are but only who Allah knows you to be. This is the higher rank of ma’rifa of the Nafs—that ma’rifa in which the only Knower is Allah, and in which, though the form conventionally designated by my name still subsists, that form is no longer “me”. In the words of Ibn al-‘Arabi:

The recipient sees nothing other than his own form in the mirror of the Reality. He does not see the Reality Itself, which is not possible, although he knows that he may see only his [true] form in it….If you have experienced this you have experienced as much as is possible for created being, so do not seek to weary yourself in any attempts to proceed higher than this, for there is nothing higher….He is your mirror and you are His mirror in which He sees His Names and their determinations, which are nothing other than Himself. [from the Futuhat al-Makiyya]

The central point here is that there is only one Mirror. Your witnessing of yourself within Allah is the same thing as His witnessing of Himself within you—and this being-witnessed-by-Allah is a knowledge that, if He so wills, you can directly participate in. This, in my estimation, is the highest station, the finished form, of ma’rifa of the Nafs (and Allah knows best).