Islam is more than just Muslims

One of the most important things I learned throughout my studies is that religion as a concept and discipline is much greater and more expansive than what practitioners make it out to be. This is certainly true for Islam and Muslims. From the perspective of a believer, the origin of religion is the Absolute and the Limitless. What we come to call religion is nothing more than our own human (i.e. limited) interpretation of this Absolute and Divine phenomena. Our understanding will always be, therefore, partial and of the current moment.

As I reflect on this concept as it relates to Islam and Muslims specifically, a few things come to mind that I think help instill a little humility in all of us who claim to follow it:

  1. In the Islamic tradition, all acts of worship are concluded with some sort of prayer that asks for the act to be accepted. One would think that the mere act of worship itself is a good sign. You did it and therefore should be rewarded! However, if we focus on our own humanity for a moment, we see that our efforts are always fallible and therefore open to deficiency. As we engage in devotional acts, therefore, we conclude with a hope and prayer that they are pure and worthy of reward. This serves as a reminder that we should rely ultimately on the Almighty, not our human efforts.
  2. The entire edifice of Islamic law (Sharia) is essentially man-made. The Sharia is nothing more than the jurists’ best guess of what is being asked of us by God. This is why every legal opinion that is offered (typically referred to as a fatwa) ends with the statement, “and God knows best.” This is a very humbling notion. One can study their entire life, use all the intellectual and scholarly tools they can muster, and still there is the possibility that their deductions could be wrong. Humility aside, this is also an important reminder that our deductions are just that, ours, and in no way speak to the entire potentiality embedded in the Divine texts.
  3. Islam is a religion of initiation, not ordination. There is no ecclesiastic class that serves as the official interpreter of things religious. Rather, easy access to the club of Islam is offered by way of participation in the various chains of transmission (sanad/asānīd), which connect one to the past in an unbroken, direct chain. Everyone is invited to be initiated and everyone, therefore, has the same potential to gain from Islam as much as they want. Therefore, we cannot negate another person’s experience with their faith nor their personal relationship with God. This is ultimately the reason why coercion of faith is an anathema to Islam (eg. Quran 2:256 & 18:29). So while there is an established level of normative orthodoxy (which regulates outward action), the potential of internal experience and faith are limitless.

I find these three points humbling and liberating at the same time. While I take great joy in the scholarly and academic pursuit of the sciences of Islam (I have dedicated twenty years of my life so far to it!), I am humbled to know that this represents a minority of what Islam actually offers. While my launching point within Islam is normative Sunni orthodoxy, I am liberated by the notion that the experience of Islam can present itself in ways unknown to me and open to anyone and everyone.

The threat of extremism of any kind is that it mistakes human interpretation for absolute truth and by so doing pushes people away from religion and divides communities. In other words, it makes people arrogant and restricted, not humble and liberated. Which would you rather be?


Islam & Coexistence

Plurality is a fact of life. We are different in our makeup, different in our experiences. It is impossible to conceive of a world in which we are all alike. For a person of faith, this plurality is deliberate and not simply an accident. It is part of the Divine plan and its purpose is to get humanity together to collaborate and to live together; not to drive us apart and create divisions. It is an opportunity, not a threat; a  potential, not an impasse. The point is not, however, to force others to believe in what you believe for the very reason that this violates the essence of coexistence.

I believe wholeheartedly that this sentiment is self-evident from Islam’s primary sources (ex. Qur’an 18:29, 6:109, and 2:256), and one of the best summaries of this I found to be the statement of Imām ‘Alī (God give him peace) to his governor of Egypt Malik al-Ashtar, “People are two kinds: your coreligionists, or partners in humanity.” In other words, people are either like you (limited numbers), or partners to solve problems (the majority), not antagonists.

            For effective coexistence to take place along these lines, three components are needed:
    1. Knowledge. We must know a little bit more about one another. We need to know what binds us, but more importantly what separates us as well. An old Arab proverb says “when one is ignorant of something they fight it.” In a world that is ever more connected, it is not acceptable that we claim ignorance of those we live with. This may be easier for minority communities who constantly have to deal with people not like themselves, but it is equally necessary for majority groups as well that need to acknowledge that not everyone is like them.
    2. Relationship. There needs to be some bond between people. Neighbors, co-workers, classmates, teammates, etc. For coexistence to really work at a grassroots level knowledge of others needs to be practical, and not an exercise in reading National Geographic.
    3. Common Action. Both knowledge and relationship should culminate in some sort of action, a team approach that addresses a shared problem. It is not enough that we settle for an occasional meeting or photo-op. Both knowledge and relationship must lead to a common action that all sides take. Only then will real social cohesion take root.
Our existence is flawed and as a result, our world faces many challenges. But these challenges face us all together and, in many cases, equally. Coexistence as defined above is, I believe, the only overarching system that can bind us together as partners in humanity to tackle these issues. There will be detractors to this notion for sure. There are people who want to offer another reality, one filled with anxiety, threat, and conflict. Unfortunately, this is also true within the broader Muslim community. There are those who offer the same false reality and obfuscate the self-evident fact that Islam in its most basic principles advocates coexistence and tolerance. We should, therefore, begin here and address this problem by taking a brave step forward towards an acceptance of plurality.

Three Questions that Helped me Focus and Get More Done

When I was at Princeton, one of my advisors warned me, “earning a Ph.D. is a solitary process.” While writing my thesis indeed was solitary, nothing has been as solitary as starting a business (or two!). While at times it can be therapeutic, at other times it can drive you down a lonely hole of despair. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have it any other way! However, the lows don’t have to be despair-give-up lows. One way I found to aid me through the more challenging times was asking the right kinds of questions. Here, I want to share three that I not only use to help make business decisions, but also use in my personal life.

Question 1: If I were successful right now, what would I do next? What’s stopping me from doing it, or a version of it right now?

Sometimes it is easy to get blinded by the struggle, the day-to-day, product launch, and product manufacturing. You do all this hard work hoping for the great “outcome”. You need this idea of an “outcome” as fuel to keep you going. However, one of the drawbacks is that you often get lost in the trees and can’t see the forest. So, I found myself migrating to this question, “If I had the success I’m currently working towards, what would I do next?” After answering this, I follow up with a second corollary question, “what is stopping me from doing a version of this now?” Often times, I would say 80% of the time, I can easily implement a version of that next step without distracting me from my current task. This question alone has helped me open extra sales streams even though I was in the thick of major product-production problems. The “next thing” is usually just around the corner.

Question 2: What else might this mean?

I remember a few years ago I was pitching a product to a large distributor. At that time, my thinking (completely influenced by “convention” which later proved to be 100% wrong) was that if my product was not accepted by this distributor, I would not make it in the industry. The distributor declined the product, and I was devastated. I received this news late in the afternoon on a Friday. I licked my wounds over the weekend and asked myself, “why”?  I needed a reason so I could turn rejection into a learning point. Monday morning I got some specific reasons from the distributor regarding price point and packaging. This was a tremendous gift since this rejection informed how we sought to source our coffee (direct-trade, thus dramatically bringing down the price for us and ultimately the consumer) and the packaging (which I disliked, but went with what my design team told me was  the “right thing to do” which is code for conventional thinking and therefore usually wrong). I learned that with every apparent bad news/feedback, it is crucial to ask, “what else could this mean?” My product wasn’t rejected, nor was my brand, only certain price and design choices that I was able to remedy with ease. Never take the negative news at face value, and always ask what else this might mean?

Question 3: Is this truly essential, or not?

Part of running a startup is that people come and go, largely as a function of cash-flow. When I let one person go, in particular, I came to realize that there were a  lot of subscriptions and services we had signed up for. While the dollar amount now is not that much, at the time it represented a major part of our monthly expenses. I also realized that I never knew we had them (a failure of leadership on my part I confess), and therefore they were not an essential part of the business, but superfluous. Over the next month, I canceled these extra bells and whistles and not only did the business have more in the bank monthly, the work was actually streamlined since the core team members didn’t use these services, and since the superfluous person and services were gone we were lighter and more agile.

Now, whenever someone comes and says, “we have to get XYZ and this is the only way to increase sales, etc.” I pause and ask, “is this essential?” The clarity that comes is almost magical. If you scrutinize your major decisions based on what is essential, you will save much time and money and end up with a leaner operation.

My Framework for Living Happiness

Like anyone, I have had my share of dark days and low points. When I sit and reflect on when these were most pronounced, it seems my high school years pop up a lot: perhaps the challenges of fitting in, peer pressure, demanding school requirements, girls (of course!), etc. When I entered college and began a new chapter in my life, I started seeking out tools and keys to happiness, wanting to avoid the pain I experienced in high school. I learned quickly that while I could not wipe out pain forever, I could learn to minimize negative feelings and change the way I perceive them (i.e. my internal dialogue during troubling moments) and increase habits that create and foster happiness.

Happiness is a great thing, and the quest to find happiness has been, well, happy! Over the years as I came across tactics, skills, lessons, and insights, I developed my own personal set of rules and principles, my own framework. While I am no expert in the perfect formula for happiness, I keep coming back to the following three categories and therefore my research, focus, and experimentation has revolved around them.

Mental & Emotional Well-Being

One of the greatest gifts we have is consciousness and our rational faculty. Yet, sometimes our thoughts can get the better of us and run us into the ground. If we are willing to spend hours exercising our physical bodies, we need to spend even more time exercising our minds. We can train what we focus on and how we think about the world around us. Therefore, I have had a tremendous amount of success with meditation, prayer, priming exercises, the study of flow and peak states, and invocation. While some of these are specific to certain religious and spiritual practices I subscribe to, many of them are areligious and therefore usable by anyone. In recent years I have been most interested in the later.

Since many of my unhappy memories come from my adolescence years, I realized that emotional immaturity was a big part of how I found myself in those situations. Part of learning about mental well-being is also mastering behavior and emotions. In this regards, I found that it is possible to train your behavioral responses to triggers that usually cause unhappiness and stress. Mastering this skill (which I have not) is a fundamental tool to achieve happiness.

Peak Physical Health

I travel a lot and the experience of crossing over many time zones, sitting in a chair for extended hours, change in diet, etc., has been physically traumatic. One time in particular I was in the Vatican running a big project for an important client. There was a very tense negotiation I was leading and the two parties were in separate rooms and on different floors! I had to run back and forth and up and down several flights of stairs. After about ten minutes of this, I almost collapsed. I knew rationally I should have been able to handle more, but physically my body wasn’t there. The result? I was definitely not happy! I realized at that moment that my body needed to be in a peak physical state to carry out the level of work I demand from myself.

This specific incident was a catalyst to find the fastest, most effective way to get in shape, eat right, and maintain this despite the work schedule, the kids’ schedule, and the turbulence of day-to-day life. I am grateful that the organic and healthy food movement has taken off with such strength in recent years to provide more and more options. This has certainly made it easier. However, a deeper knowledge of how food is grown, how it has altered, and how it is produced is of vital importance. Especially if you travel to the places I travel to in which the healthy brands we are used to simply don’t exist.

A necessary correlation to this is the need take care of the body when it’s ill. To do this effectively, I have come to realize that the body works in conjunction with the soul, and not alone. (Just go with it, and we can explain later!) Therefore, I am interested in holistic and alternative forms of medicine, particularly homeopathy. This has been a wonderful journey in learning about the wisdom of ancient medicine, and modern efforts to practice them. I am also grateful that my wife is a trained homeopath and has not only helped educate me, but treat me as well!


The third pillar of my happiness framework is contribution. Whenever I review my happy moments, I found that they were linked to times of service to others: teaching (which I luckily do regularly), helping (mentoring high school entrepreneurship programs), or aiding in some capacity (like volunteering). Since much of my work is in the space of social entrepreneurship, I have found great joy in giving money and other resources to those in need and watching this act transform lives. The discipline of running a charity and a social business has taught me an important lesson: you only really own what you give away, constructively. Now, I’m not advocating giving everything away, because I believe true charity needs to be both blind (i.e. given to those most in need without concern for their religious, cultural, or political disposition) and sustainable. However, contribution in its many forms is a cornerstone of being happy. In my quest to find lasting happiness, I spend a great deal of time seeing how I can give back more and catalyze sustainable change.




Who Should I Listen To?


I get asked a lot of questions on a weekly basis mostly about Islam’s expression and practice in the modern world. I have often sought to catalog all the questions I have received (an overview of these questions can be found here), but perhaps the number one most frequently asked question is: “what Muslim personality should I listen to and follow?” This question speaks a lot to our condition and comes largely from the great deal of confusion and contradiction that exists in the space of religious discourse amongst Muslims. The fact that we have great tools to leverage different types of communications means that one of the by-products of this technology is that various sects/opinions of Islam have equal communicating powers, theoretically, that is. From an internal point of view, Islam sees that without some sort of criteria, anyone could/would say whatever they want and everyone who speaks like this will no doubt find at least one person to listen to them.

However, while I can go on and on about the source of the problem, I am much more interested in solutions to the problem. I answered a version of this question before (here), but I want to come at it from another perspective in this post. Through my various years of study, travel, conversations, meetings, projects, etc., I was able to develop a set of criteria to help me vet who I was getting information from. Rather than tell you who to listen to, let me provide you with some guidelines and rules to apply to those you listen to already or are considering, including me!

I call these The Three Rules of Three.


There is a difference between:
  1. The texts of Islam: Quranic verse, Hadith, or statements of a particular scholar.
  2. The understanding and meaning of this particular text in its linguistic, historical context, etc.
  3. Applying this text to the here and now.

When we receive a piece of information regarding Islam, it is helpful to ask ourselves where in the above three it falls. Am I hearing the restatement of a text, or is it the application of the text that is being offered? Or, is the text being explained? If you think about it, these are not the same and can produce very different outcomes.

This first rule helps you as the consumer of this piece of information understand what exactly you are consuming. As it relates to the manufacturer of this product, they too need to be clear what they are making and selling. Too often this distinction is not made and if you encounter such a situation you should stay away completely because the above distinction is literally the difference between life and death.


As it relates to texts, particularly the primary texts of the Quran and Sunna, there is a difference between:
  1. Understanding the text (in the way outlined above), which comes from the realm of the Divine and therefore the Absolute. I mean, it’s revelation after all.
  2. Understanding the current contemporary moment, which is the exact opposite; very temporal, partial, and fleeting.
  3. The actual application of 1 to 2, which means that the process of application will never be the same because the temporal moment is constantly changing and the way Divine texts are applied will change likewise.

The message of Islam’s primary texts is meant to be received by us and implemented, yet every act that is implemented has its own conditions and rules. To do this, we need to understand the link between the message and reality. However, and as stated above, the message and reality come from two very different places. This means that a great deal of care needs to take place to implement the message of Islam in the here and now.

Again, if you think about it, this means that much of what we know about Islam is actually dynamic, not static. This is not because Islam necessarily changes, but rather we change and so does our day-to-day condition and reality.


There is a difference between the following “Muslim” personalities:
  1. Scholar – spends most of their time in an area of specialty and expertise.
  2. Preacher – motivates you, like a coach, and does not have necessarily deep insight or knowledge of particulars.
  3. Worshiper – the pious amongst us whose dominant feature is worship and acts of devotion.

The above three are not the same or equal. If you want guidance and insight on a particular issue, you need a scholar. If you’re feeling down and need motivation, listen to the preacher. And if you want a model of piety and practice, look at the worshiper. Often times these personalities are assumed to be the same, and indeed these qualities might be within the same person, but typically one of these traits is more dominant than the others. However, all of them need to be circulating within the first two rules to demonstrate a broad and thorough understanding of Islam.

There are a lot of voices out there speaking to Muslims and offering them interpretations of Islam for their implementation. The above three rules are not only highly important to help protect us from falling prey to false experts, they also teach us how to approach our own journey and relationship with Islam. It is very common to come across stories, Hadith, verses that we simply don’t understand and cause us great confusion and maybe even doubt. When this happens, go back to the 3 rules above and follow the criteria to establish what exactly it is you are reading. This will help about 80% of the time. When it doesn’t, seek help and use the same criteria to help you find the true expert from the pretender. A hint, there are a lot of pretenders, but they can easily be sniffed out!

A Framework for Understanding Violence and Extremism within the Family of Islam


Since I first confronted the subject of violence and extremism as a research topic about two years ago, I noticed that there was no coherent framework dealing with extremism arising from within the “family of Islam.” It has been difficult to wrap my head around this topic due to a lack of clear definition of terms, boundaries, etc. What follows is my own developing framework to this issue.

  1. To begin, it is important to define orthodoxy in Islam. Orthodoxy for me is another word for normative Sunni Islam and my operating definition of this term follows the outline of the recent Chechnya Conference held in 2016. This is an academic definition meaning that if one wanted to study Sunni Islam professionally at a licensed, credited seminary, the above would be the framework for such studies. This also means that most Sunni Muslims (i.e. those under the overarching umbrella of Sunnism, even if culturally) might be unaware of these distinctions, which in no way diminishes their Sunnism. To understand this better, I suggest reading “The Big Tent of Islam”, and an appendix of the book found here.
  2. The definition of orthodoxy is very different than the definition of “Islam”, which is a general and broad concept as defined by the Amman Message. In other words, the sphere of Sunni Islam is narrower than the sphere of Islam. I adhere to both definitions, but this framework is focused on defining the spectrum of extremism from the perspective of Sunni Islam specifically, not Islam generally.
  3. Based on the previous two points, I deem the extremists discussed below to be “Muslim”, albeit in grave moral error, and do not subscribe to the perspective that they are outside of the folds of Islam as argued here.
  4. This last point is in no ways an attempt to lessen the seriousness of extremism, but rather an opportunity to link extremist groups to the larger intra-Islamic phenomena of khārijism, which can provide Muslims with great insight and precedent in dealing with this specific problem.
  5. Given the last 4 points, I think of contemporary Islamic extremism as a spectrum beginning with Wahābism and culminating in the rise of ISIS. This does not mean that every step on this spectrum is itself violent, but every step is a march towards extremism and therefore away from orthodoxy.
  6. Overall, my interest in this subject matter is more practical than academic. This means that I am focused on prevention (i.e. soft power) and therefore training and education as tools for prevention. My goal is to help build more effective, measurable training programs for civil society and religious leaders to prevent further conflict. I believe countering violence and extremism is the role of law enforcement and not within my skill set.
  7. Part of my practical interest in this subject matter means that I am keen on identifying the following three points in each level of the spectrum:

a) Methodology – The way of thinking and the operating system extremist use to interpret religion and the world around them.

b) Issues – Based on this methodology one can generate the issues that such a way of thinking produces. While in theory this could be endless, I tend to focus on top-level issues that serve as the umbrella for the rest. I will often use analytical tools to help me articulate these top-level issues, especially when focused on the extremist conversation online.

c) Methods of Influence – Here I trace the actual ways and organizations used to perpetuate these themes throughout history and geography.

Spectrum of Extremism in the Family of Islam

What follows is a skeleton of my working framework to the spectrum of extremism within Islam (meaning that many of the points under methodology-major tenants-methods of influence are a work in progress):

  1. Wahabism


– Rejection of Ash‘arism (i.e. Sunni theology).

                        Major Tenants/Issues

-Popularizing the split in tawḥīd of Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328).

                        Methods of Influence

-Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab (d.1792) and followers.

  1. Salafism


-Rejection of the authority of the schools of law (i.e. madhāhib).

                        Major Tenants/Issues

-An attack on ḥadīth as the substrate for the rulings of the Sharī’a.

                        Methods of Influence

-Nasir al-Din al-Albani’s (d. 1999) ḥadīth project.

-Abd al-‘Azīz bin Bāz (d. 1999) and followers.

  1. Extreme Salafism


-Rejection of Sufism.

                        Major Tenants/Issues

-Suppression of spiritual practices in Islam.

                        Methods of Influence

-Misuse of the concept of bid‘a (innovation).

  1. Takfirism


-Claims of absolute ijtihād.

                        Major Tenants/Issues

Jāhiliyya of the Umma.

                        Methods of Influence

-Sayyid Qutub (d. 1966).

  1. Extremist Organizations


-The aforementioned become organized with claims of grandeur.

                        Major Tenants/Issues

-Top-down approach/ḥākimiyya as a method to use political tools for religious gains.

                        Methods of Influence

-The plight of the Muslim world, loss of political strength and unity.

  1. Terrorists


-Pure violence.

                        Major Tenants/Issues

-Using justifications that the previous chain of thinking provides, Muslims become fair game.

                        Methods of Influence

-Fear, killing, suicide bombings.


Top-Level Themes

These are themes that I have found to be most discussed and therefore require immediate attention. I am actively working with various teams to disseminate responses in different formats to these themes.

  1. Takfirism – labeling other Muslims as disbelievers.
  2. Jāhiliyya – claiming Muslim society has fallen into disbelief writ large.
  3. Ḥākimiyya – An argument against established political rule being un-Islamic and therefore in need of replacement.
  4. Jihād – Argued by extremist to be a perpetual struggle with no end.
  5. Dār Islām/Dār Ḥarb – medieval geo-political classifications misappropriated for the modern context.
  6. Tamkīn – top-down change, rather than grassroots change.
  7. The Saved Group (al-firqa al-nājiyya) – a specific Prophet text used to justify “their group” as the one, true group of Muslims.
  8. Split of Tawḥīd – a heretical argument by Ibn Taymiyya that makes monotheism a two-fold step, thus allowing one to slip into disbelief easily.



A Common Word: Catholic-Muslim Forum

I had the honor of attending the fourth Catholic-Muslim Forum in Berkley, CA hosted by Zaytuna College November 6-8, 2017. This forum is an outgrowth of the Common Word Initiative that launched in 2007. I had the privilege of helping to manage the international communications of the original initiative and watched it grow ever since into its own movement. A decade later and having completed both seminary and PhD studies, I was invited to give some comments on the Islamic perspective of integral human development at this most recent forum. My remarks at the forum can be found here. This was one of the most engaging and productive events I have attended in the space of interfaith and the final statement (found here) reflects the collaborative engagement of the exchange. Now it comes down to both sides to work tirelessly to use their networks and influence to translate these agreements into actual action and behavioral change.

Integral Human Development in Islam: Sufism and the Purification of the Self


Human development in the world of Islam is the development of what Islam defines as the human-self (nafs).[1] To understand this, however, it is necessary to know what exactly is the self (nafs) in relation to the body and the soul, the three main components to our existence according to Islamic teachings. While I don’t want to take away from the other papers that tackle the question of what it means to be human, it is important to highlight that Islam sees the human (both men and women) as being a combination of the physical body (jasad), soul (rūḥ), and self (nafs). The physical body is activated, or turned on as it were, by the insertion of the soul (an act that takes place in the womb).[2] This is a shared trait with animals and gives the physical body life. The self (nafs) is added to the mix of the body-soul, and this causes a higher level of rational consciousness and makes humans morally responsible for their actions, what Islam refers to as taklīf. If there were some sort of deficiency in the self (nafs) this would render moral reasonability void either permanently (in the case of a permanent mental illness, for example) or temporarily (in the case of an infant whose self/nafs is still growing). The creation of the self (nafs) is what separates the human being, as well as jinn, from other types of created beings and it is this self that receives the Divine revelation.

The Quran identifies different types of self, however, highlighting an important part of human creation; we are not all created to simply be the way we are, but rather are asked and tasked with becoming the best version of our selves. By identifying these various levels of the self, the Quran catalyzed the Muslim quest for how to tame the self, improve the self, and ultimately reach our highest spiritual potential.

This task to improve the self, what the Quran refers to as tazkiyyat al-nafs or purification of the self, is a universal injunction on every person. He is indeed successful who has caused it to grow and he is indeed a failure who stunts it (91:9-10).[3] There are only two other forms of universal injunctions in the Quranic message that help Muslims answer the big question of why were we created. The second universal injunction is to worship God (‘ibāda): I created the jinn and humankind only that they might worship Me 51:56. As created beings of the Divine we are tasked with giving thanks to God for this life and for acknowledging that all that we have is from Him. The third universal injunction is development (‘imāra), He brought you forth from the earth and has asked of you that you develop it (11:61),[4] which means to build the world and society in a way that acknowledges the nature of the Divine. Without understanding these two other injunctions, self-purification can become a vacuum of self-abasement or self -aggrandizement and ultimately miss the point altogether.

The Role of the Self in Human Existence

As stated above, the self (nafs) is the object of the Divine message, what is referred to as maḥal al-taklīf. The reason behind this principle is that from a cosmological perspective all human selves that ever were and ever will be stood before the Almighty and testified to His Oneness in a time before time and a day before days, what Muslim sources refer to as yawm lā yawm (a day that wasn’t a day). This episode in our shared existence is enshrined in the following verse:

            And remember when your Lord brought forth from the Children of Adam from their reins their seed, and made them testify of the themselves, saying: Am I not  your Lord? They said: yes, verily we testify. (That was lest you should say at the Day of Resurrection of this we were unaware (7:172).

Therefore, since the self (nafs) has imprinted on it the knowledge of the Oneness of God, (the entity being addressed by the Divine through revelation), and morally responsible since it has the ability to understand right from wrong, it is extremely vital that its protection and improvement be optimized. Yet, the self (nafs) is not created independently and is in need of body and soul to exist. This co-dependency creates a degree of complexity in that the self (nafs) is held down and clouded from a direct link to the Divine. This phenomenon is often described by Islamic sources as veils (hijābs) between creation and God. One of the goals, therefore, of our existence is to find our way back to God, more on this below.

Levels of the Self

It should be clear from our discussion thus far that this is not necessarily an exact science as everyone’s level of self-complexity will be different given each person’s personal situation, environment, upbringing, social-economic background, etc. In addition, since there is such a great deal of veiling between creation and Creator, and since the self is perhaps the biggest veil of all (particularly if it is the lower level self), Islam’s program of human development is focused on mapping out the self in order that it be conquered, improved, and optimized. This mapping exercise provides a basic framework that Muslim scholars offer to help us gauge where we are and where we need to go. While much has been written in Islamic literature about this topic, in fact the entire discipline of Sufism is established to address this, I will discuss seven basic levels of the self that are: one, useful from a teaching perspective (it’s easier to teach about seven levels than 10,000!) and two, these levels are familiar to me as they are the ones I was taught at al-Azhar and through the Sufi Order I belong to. So my experience is both academic and personal. To facilitate further conversations and research, I will use Mostafa Badawi’s excellent translation of ‘Abd al-Khāliq al-Shabrāwī’s (d. 1947)[5] work on this subject.[6] These seven levels of the self (nafs) are:


The point of this paper is not to delve into the specifics of each level, al-Shabrāwī’s book is an excellent source in English that provides an outline of this, but rather the point is to give the reader a sense of how these levels are thought of in general and acted upon. The descriptions of these levels focus on the various characteristics that can be manifest in a specific level. Therefore, rather than focus on the definition of each level of self, Sufis focus on the characteristics and experience of each level. So it is common to describe feelings, emotions, colors, signs, qualities, etc., as expressed in each level. Furthermore, more focus is placed on remedies for each level to get to the next one, and so forth, rather than submit to a particular level. The key to unlocking each level of the self is to have a steady regiment of invocation (dhikr) of specific Divine Names that best match each level of self and allow the traveler to traverse one level of self to the next self. For example, one formula goes as follows:

A certain amount of invocation of the above names helps the person journey from one level of the self to the next. This journey takes place via five main internal, physical stations known as the “5 Subtle Ones” (al-laṭā’f al-khamsa): the heart (qalb), the soul (rūḥ), the secret (sirr), the hidden (al-khafiy), the more-hidden (al-akhfa). These serve as the physical stations through which one level of the self is passed to the next, and they are physically located around a person’s heart. So there is extensive literature about where in the body these subtle five can be felt, how they move from one level of the self to the next, etc. These five stations are also reflective of the same five stations that exist in the non-earthly realm known as the malakūt, and there are seven levels of heaven in Islamic cosmology, all linking the observable universe, what is referred to by the term mulk, to the Throne of God (‘arsh Allah), which resides above the seven levels of the heavens. The journey of self-purification, then, is both a journey within through these levels, but also a journey through the celestial realms to the Throne of God. At the completion of this journey, one’s heart becomes a manifestation of the Divine Throne upon which descends Divine Mercy and Love. And this is the meaning of the famous prayer on the Prophet ﷺ as a manifestation of Divine Mercy:


Again, it must be remembered that Islam sees the development of the self as a universal human obligation and climbing this inner ladder is a struggle that is called for constantly. It is this exact sentiment that the Prophet of Islam ﷺ referred to as the greater jihād.[7] Greater since one cannot seize being one’s self and the battle within will take place as long as there is body-soul-self. Furthermore, since the struggle is constant, the focus of Sufism and therefore Islam’s program of human development is on the process of moving from level to level, rather than a full explanation of these levels. In other words, the Sufi guide is much more interested in describing the program of development and self-improvement rather than focus on why and how a person has found themselves in a particular situation. This is not to say that such descriptions do not exist, they do and abundantly, but the discipline of Sufism is meant to be practical, not necessarily theoretical, even though the theoretical and philosophical side of Sufism is well-known and well-studied in Islamic circles around the world.[8]

The Path to Self-Purification

It is well known that all things “Islamic” are based on interpretations of the religion’s primary sources (the Quran and Sunna).[9] The discipline of Sufism is no different and is the spiritual-operating manifestation of the message of the Quran and teachings of Islam’s Prophet ﷺ. However, since disciplining and purifying the self relates to each person individually, one would be correct to assume that there are a lot of nuances and trial and error. Accordingly, in addition to being based on interpretations of the primary sources, Sufism is also based on human experiences of the generations before us who sought to take the universal injunction of self-purification and implement it in the most effective way possible. And since each person’s experience is different, it is no wonder that there have been many paths to the Divine throughout the history of Islam.

To make things very simple in an already complicated subject matter, I will consider the path to self-purification in Islam to have two main tracks that are not necessarily exclusive: one is the slower, but safer path of systematic self-improvement, which entails three steps: removing bad traits (takhliyya), substituting these for good traits (taḥliyya), in order to facilitate illumination (tajallī). More will be said about these steps below. The second path, while quicker, requires a guide, as the risk is higher as is the reward. This is the path of love: to take the plunge in the sea of Divine Love, while maintaining one’s outward sobriety and Sharī‘a obligations. Now, to repeat, these are not mutually exclusive, nor is this simple outline meant to make one think that a particular spiritual path is devoid of both techniques. However, it is typical that one technique is emphasized over others, and the substance of both ways must exist for one’s development program to be complete and successful.

To make this last point clear, the tools used for both tracks are the same: remembrance (dhikr) and contemplation and reflection (fikr). As for remembrance (dhikr), it stems from the fact that our selves were with God originally and have been veiled subsequently by the body and soul. Invocation helps us “remember” this truth and this is why invocation in Arabic is from the same root as the word for remembering. The Quran speaks to this and says

Those who remember Allah, standing, sitting, and reclining, and contemplate the creation of the heavens and the earth, (and say): Our Lord! You did not create this in vain. Glory be to You! Preserve us from the doom of Fire. 3:191

Invocation/remembrance is so powerful that there is no act of worship that Islam puts no limits on except remembrance (dhikr), O you who believe! Remember Allah with much remembrance 33:41. As for contemplation, the Quran says, Will they then not ponder the Qur’an, or are there locks on the hearts? 47:24. And as referenced in the aforementioned verse (3:191), it is in regards to everything, not just the Divine text, meaning that everything has a sign leading back to the Divine. As the Arab poet wrote:

In everything there is a sign                Indicating that He is One

Therefore, one is meant to contemplate upon the observable universe as a way back to the Divine and is termed the “observable book of God” (kitāb Allah al-manẓūr). This contemplation could be simply thinking about it, exploring it, testing it, learning more about it, etc. This is equally important to the actual Divine revelation (kitāb Allah al-masṭūr) as well as the book within each of us (kitāb Allah al-maqdūr).[10] The Quran speaks to this by saying:

We shall show them Our signs in the horizons and within themselves until it will be manifest to them that it is the Truth (41:53).

Principles of the Path

From what has been written one could conclude that while there is a framework of self-development, the speed and style of progress for everyone will be varied. People will experience things differently and take different amounts of time to advance. Therefore, the path to the Divine wouldn’t be complete without principles that help those on the path find guidance amidst the turbulence of life and self. The following are some of the more popular, high-level principles that Sufism offers the novice and experienced alike on their path of self-purification.

(1) God is the goal.

The goal of the self-purification is to reach a complete awareness of God as manifested in the famous hadith, “Spiritual excellence (iḥsān) is that you worship God as if you see Him, and if you can’t, know that He sees you.”[11] The goal is not to attain some sort of worldly station, or spiritual-high, but rather utter and pure awareness of God despite all other benefits that may or may not come along the path. It is helpful to remember that the inner journey is referred to as the “Path to God” reminding one always of this goal.

One manifestation of this awareness is to embody the Prophetic statement, there is no power or ability except by God (lā ḥawla wala quwwata illa bi’l Allah). The path helps one not only know this rationally, but to embody its meaning and to live it practically.

(2) The one who gazes will not arrive.

The path is full of wonders: shiny things that easily distract. If you spent half an hour reading some of the books of the Sufis, particularly the ones that tell stories, you will find yourself saying, “cool, I want that!” This principle serves as a reminder to essentially “refer to rule number one.” Shiny things are not the goal, and in the case of Sufism the goal is not to achieve some sort of worldly station or spiritual benefit, but to bear complete witness to God. If you don’t heed this advice, as the principle states, you will not arrive at your destination.

Imam al-Shāfi‘ī (d. 204/820) said that he learned from the Sufis that time is “like a sword, and if you don’t cut it, it will cut you.”[12] Time is all we have to achieve all the things we want to achieve in this world. If we waste time gazing at everything around us and touching every shiny thing we see, chances are we will not advance much. This is exactly what this principle seeks to embody. To excel on the path is to be in the moment, every moment. Not to be concerned with past or future, but simply the now.

(3) Things become easy, but moral obligation always remains.

If one were to delve into the descriptions and nuances of the levels of the self, one thing that becomes clear over time is that inwardly one becomes calmer, more settled, and able to deal with things better. As matters become easier from one perspective, this principle reminds the traveler that moral obligation (taklīf) is always present and that the Sharī‘a, the manifestation of moral obligation in Islam, always remains intact. Things becoming easier does not merit an excuse to stop practicing outward obligations under the assumption that a higher spiritual level has obviated legal obligations.

(4) It is about who his sincere, not who has arrived first.

Even though the references to “journey” and “path” and “levels” are plentiful, this principle cautions against thinking this is a race or competition. As demonstrated in the first two principles, one’s inner disposition is what matters in this journey, not the timetable. Another way of stating this is that perhaps one’s delay in advancement is due to the Almighty seeking to increase your struggle and therefore level in the long run. To this sentiment, Muslims are reminded that Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was the final Prophet sent by God to humanity, even though his rank is first in the prophetic hierarchy of Islam.

This principle also reminds the traveler that wanting to arrive is itself a hidden desire and one is reminded by the first principle that wanting should only be directed to one thing.

(5) Removing bad traits (takhliyya) and adopting good traits (taḥliyya) leading to illumination (tajjalī).

While this has been mentioned above as one of the two main techniques of self-purification in Islam, it is worth digging a little deeper. Much of the Sufi path is about rectifying and improving human character. Indeed the Prophet ﷺ stated that his entire prophetic mission was just that, I was sent only to rectify human character.[13] In order to do this, one not only needs to tame the self, but also to know what are bad traits and good ones. It is common to find in the books of Sufism, particularly introductory level books, a list of good and bad traits with evidence for each in Islam’s primary sources. Here one commonly finds discussions of hatred, lust, arrogance, anger, envy, stinginess, showing off in good works, leaning towards worldly things, love of money and station, wasting time, relying on God, love, devotion, filial piety, purity of intention, etc. These and so many others have been thoroughly examined such that one can focus on one trait at a time in order to remove them, adopt good ones, and slowly achieve spiritual illumination. Two famous books of this kind are Imam Ghazālī’s (d. 505/1111) Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn and Imam Abū Ṭālib al-Makkī’s (d. 996/386) Qūt al-Qulūb.

Another related and similar approach to this is to outline a step-by-step program for starting at the beginning of the path. This is best summarized in Imām al-Harawī’s (d. 481/1089) Manāzil al-Sā’irīn, which has received no shortage of commentaries throughout Islamic history. Beginning with the necessity of awakening (yaqaẓa) and repentance (tawba), and culminating with the inability to see a distinction between one’s own action and the actions of God (jam‘) and a witnessing of the complete Oneness of God (tawḥīd), al-Harawī takes the aspirant through a step-by-step approach on how to remove bad traits, adopt good ones, and most importantly how to facilitate spiritual illumination.

(6) Dealing with the physical world (mulk), spiritual realms (malkūt), Divine lights (anwār), and spiritual secrets (asrār).

While the goal of the spiritual path is otherworldly in a sense, one’s journey is completely within this world. Therefore, this principle is a reminder that one has to manage dealing with both sides at the same time. From one sense, a person has a door open to the Divine, and hence exposure to spiritual realms (malakūt), Divine lights (anwār), and spiritual secrets (asrār). On the other hand, one has a door open to this world (mulk) and the experience of day-to-day life. Again, one is typically referred to principle one to keep this experience in balance. If one’s overall decorum with God (what Muslims refer to as adab) and hence any of His creations is not appropriate, then one has veered off the path. If however, one keeps the balance of these things and acknowledges that exposure to both vertical and horizontal realms is a natural byproduct of self-purification then one will be able to appreciate the experience, but not be deterred from the goal.

I provided six of the most common and most easily digested principles the Sufis use to help guide the person on the path of self-purification. This in itself is a sub-field within Sufism and there are hundreds of such principles that translate real-life experiences in the science of Islamic self-purification.

Finding a Path

The last thing that is left to discuss is how one actually takes the path of self-purification. The components of any path are the guide (usually referred to as the shaykh), the aspirant (the murīd), and the specific path itself (al-ṭarīq). Like everything discussed above, a lot has been written about all of this and enough is translated into English that one can easily pick up this topic from those sources. Suffice it to say here that the concern of Sufism has been the etiquette and conditions necessary for all three to be optimized and therefore highly effective. What follows is a high-level summary of what one is to look for in their quest of self-purification within the Islamic framework:

(1) Closest to the Sunna.

One needs to find a Path that is closest to the Prophetic model laid out in the Sunna, and therefore orthodoxy. Some Sufi practices, while valid from a Sharī’a perspective, have developed non-Sunna practices. However, the optimal form of practice is to be as closely aligned with Prophetic norms. There is no Sufism without orthodoxy and no orthodoxy without Sufism. The following image is typically used to express this point:

(2) An unbroken chain.

The shaykh must have an unbroken chain (sanad) back to the Prophet of Islam ﷺ. There is no Sufism without an unbroken chain and there can be no spiritual advancement without it.  In fact, direct, unbroken chains of transmission are one of the hallmarks of all Islamic disciplines. While the early generations of Muslims used these chains of transmission largely to verify hadith, they became norms in every science and discipline to establish veracity and human-human interaction. Imam Muslim (d. 261/875) records in the introduction of his Ṣaḥīḥ collection of ḥadīth that ‘Abdullah Ibn Mubārak (d. 181/797) said, “chains of transmission are part of this religion (dīn), and were it not for the chains of transmission, anyone could say anything they wanted.”[14] Whether in hadith sciences, Quranic recitation, Islamic law, or the spiritual science, chains of transmission demonstrate the inherited nature of Islam’s tradition as well as the importance of taking knowledge from living, qualified scholars.

(3) A path that’s easy.

One should look for a path that is easy to follow and implement. Some paths are difficult, requiring copious amounts of devotional works, and in the cacophony of today’s dominant culture, one needs to find a way of ease in order to advance. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ always chose the easiest option when presented with a choice, given that there was no sin involved.[15] It should be noted that this is in regards to ease of extra devotional works required of the aspirant. When it comes to obligatory acts and cessation of impermissible acts (as outlined above), this is a universal obligation for all Muslims despite their affiliation to a particular Sufi order.

(4) A path that’s accessible.

One needs to find an order that has accessible publications, writings, and teachings. Emersion is the best way to learn and the spiritual path is no different. This also means that a particular path’s methodology should be accessible to anyone so if there are any issues, problems, or questions they can be discussed publically in appropriate venues.

(5) The aspirant and the shaykh.

One needs to have a certain amount of compatibility with their shaykh. When there is no compatibility, one should not assume that a particular shaykh is deficient, but rather spiritual sustenance is not meant to be from that shaykh. In this instant, one should remain respectful and keep searching.

One can often times find sentiments in the Muslim world that it is impossible to find the above and no such systems exist, etc. These are similar to the statements that the role of independent legal reasoning ijtihād is no longer possible, the doors have been closed, Muslims are antiquated in their thinking, etc. Now, I don’t subscribe to any of these sentiments and find them to be extremely dangerous and counterproductive. I also admit that here is not the place to address them. However, if one finds that they are in a situation where they cannot find a path or a guide, this does present a real, practical problem. What should one do? If indeed one or more of the above five conditions cannot be found, and a living teacher cannot be accessed, the general advice given throughout the literature of the Sufis is to go back to the basics and focus one’s devotional acts on the Prophet ﷺ. The devotional focus on the Prophet ﷺ takes the place of a living teacher until one can be found. If this is the case, one is typically advised to take a daily regimen of 300-500 prayers on the Prophet ﷺ.



Tarek Elgawhary, PhD

Potomac, MD

Safar 13, 1439 AH

November 02, 2017 CE

[1] In the interest of consistency, Arabic words and Muslim names follow the convention used for Arabic consonants by the International Journal of Middle East Studies. The plural forms of Arabic words are usually indicated by adding an “s” to the word in the singular, as in fatwas, not fatāwa, rather than transliterating their Arabic plural. Also, Arabic words are italicized at their first occurrence. I have mostly retained the definite article al- for names, but have dispensed with it in certain circumstances for the ease of reading.

[2] The majority of jurists (meaning there is a minority differing opinion) agree that the soul is placed in body after 4 months (120 days), basing their opinion on the hadith of Ibn Mas‘ūd narrated by both Bukhārī and Muslim. Other than the significance of this issue in our current discussion, this hadith is important to understand contemporary Sharia perspectives towards abortion. See Bukhārī: the Book of the Beginning of Creation for the full hadith text.

[3] While I have provided my own translation of the verses, I based my translation on Marmaduke Pickthall as found on

[4] In preparing this paper I discovered that not one English translation of the Quran I consulted rendered the Arabic, wast‘amarakum fīha correctly. The form of the verb used, ‘istaf‘ala, means that the action has been asked of the object of the verb. In this case God is asking us to develop. It would be interesting to see the impact this mistranslation has had on English language commentaries on the Quran.

[5] A dual system of dating is used throughout this paper (e.g., 911/1505). When both dates appear together, the first is the Hijrī date and the second is the Gregorian date. When a single date appears, unless otherwise specified, it will be the Gregorian date.

[6] There is an apparent inconsistency amongst Muslim writers in describing body-soul-self. This has its origins not on translated works, but original Arabic writings in which the soul and the self are often spoke of as one and the same thing. Technically speaking they are separate, as I have attempted to demonstrate in the introduction, yet Sufi writers typically inter-change the words. Therefore, I do not fault Mostafa Badawi in his translating the nafs as soul, but am attempting to develop a tripartite distinction in this paper for ease of understanding and to facilitate further research.

[7] The full hadith is, “We returned from the smaller jihād to the greater jihād…the jihād of the person against his own self” (Bayḥaqī).

[8] One can think of Sufism in Islam having three main expressions: Salafi Sufism – practiced by the likes of Imam Malik (d.179/795) and Imam al-Shāfi‘ī (d. 204/820). The period of the Salaf is thought to end at the close of the 5th Islamic century ending with the likes of Imam al-Bayhaqi (d. 458/1066). The second expression of Sufism is that of Imam al-Ghazali (d. 111/505) and from whence comes the hundreds of Sufi Orders still around today. The third expression is that by the likes of Muḥyi al-Dīn Ibn ‘Arabī (d.638/1240) and is more philosophical in nature, although also expressed in Sufi Orders.

[9] For Sunni Muslims, the Quran is the eternal, uncreated word of God. (kalām Allah al-qadīm). The Sunna encompasses all the recorded actions and speech of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.

[10] The point being that each of this three, if examined, will draw one back to the Divine for the many signs they contain of His existence.

[11] Known as the “hadith of Gabriel”, this text is narrated in the collection of Muslim. An excellent English language reflection on its vast meanings is: William Chittick & Sachiko Murata The Vision of Islam (New York: Paragon House, 1994).

[12] ‘Abd al-Fattāḥ Abu al-Ghudda, Qīmat al-Zaman ‘Ind al-‘Ulamā’ (al-Maktaba al-Maṭbū‘āt al-Islāmiyya, n.d.), 25.

[13] This is a sound hadith (ṣaḥīḥ) narrate by al-Bayhaqī.

[14] Muḥyi al-Dīn al-Nawwawī, Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, 18 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-M‘arifa, 2006), 1:47.

[15] Narrated by Abu Dawūd.

Egypt’s International Fatwa Conference October 2017

I was honored to attend Dar al-Ifta’s International Conference this past week in Cairo, Egypt. Established three years ago, this annual conference has been a powerful force to mobilize leading Muslim thinkers, scholars, and Muftis from around the world to discuss pressing legal issues facing various Muslim communities. This year’s focus was on the role normative fatwas can have in addressing the problems of extremism, confusion, and the rapid proliferation of these two through traditional media, online media, and social media. I was fortunate to share some of my own personal thoughts based on my experience dealing with similar issues over the past five years. While I will wait to link the final conference statement that summarizes the main findings and recommendations, I wanted to highlight two points that were very timely:


There has been a lot of talk over the past several years to criminalize the issuing of fatwas by non-licensed Muftis. This, of course, is specific to Muslim majority countries, and large Muslim minority communities that have a working relationship with their government, like the Muslim population in India, etc. While this proposed law has largely remained a discussion point, there is a clear message from the conference and therefore a top priority recommendation to policymakers that this law needs to be enacted as soon as possible to give legitimate, normative institutions a fighting chance in leading Islam and Muslims away from the threat of extremism.


Unfortunately, the gap between media, both traditional and online, and Islam’s religious establishments has only grown over the past 5-10 years. The unbelievable use of media by organizations like ISIS (see a new study with shocking new stats) has presented a moral burden on the press’s obligation to report or not report on certain aspects of extremism, which terrorist organizations use to their advantage. In any case, the near lack of cooperation between Muslim institutions and the press is not helping either. While many leading media personalities were present at the conference, there is still a long way to go in helping both the press and traditional Muslim scholars understand one another.


The challenges are great, but the conference was encouraging and hopeful. Most of all, I know for a fact that these institutions are completely underfunded and yet they manage to find nuanced ways to work through the challenges. These Muftis and scholars are committed for the long-haul and that is where I’m placing my bet!