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.

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