…The one who knows his nafs (soul or self), knows his Lord…
In order not to complicate things, I’ll mention only the nafs, which can be translated as soul or self, and not deal with the other faculties like ruh (spirit), qalb (heart), etc. Some Sufis say that the distinction between nafs and ruh is one of degree, implying that the ruh (spirit) is of a higher degree than the nafs (soul or self). It is a wrong habit in fact to translate nafs as “ego”, as in the stages of development of the nafs this refers to the beginning of this development only.
There is a saying attributed to the Prophet (but not found in the “Sahih Sitta”, the six ‘canonical’ sources of the ahadith), which is often repeated by the Sufis. It is: “Man ‘arafa nafsahu fa-qad ‘arafa rabbahu”, i.e. ” the one who knows his nafs (soul or self), knows his Lord”. Knowledge of the self, knowledge of your own soul thus leads to knowledge of the Lord. In the next depiction of this growing awareness, there is one faculty according to me, the nafs, which shows different inclinations during its growth towards deeper and deeper awareness.
I’m using a Dutch translation of a Qadiri manual (al-Foyudaat ar-Rabbaniyya as mentioned in “The Rose of Baghdad” by Zahurul Hassan Sharib) to describe 7 stages of development of the nafs (soul or self) together with some teachings attributed to Khwaja Mo’inuddin Chishti (as given in “Mo’in ul-Arwah” by Nawab Gudri Shah Baba:
1. The nafs in its lowest stage of development is called an-nafs al-ammara. This nafs (which in this case might be translated by “ego”) incites you towards evil. This nafs already mentioned in Qur’an 12:53 is the starting point of the journey towards inner purification. Characteristics of an-nafs al-ammara are amongst others: greed, frivolity, pride, the wish to be famous, jealousy and the lack of any higher consciousness. Khwaja Mo’inuddin Chishti is said to have taught about it this nafs comes from fire.
2. The nafs in the second stage of development is an-nafs al-lawwama. This nafs manifest the voice of consciousness and blames itself. See Qur’an 75:2. Its characteristics are amongst others: disapproval, reflection, contraction and self- appraisal.
3. The nafs in its third stage of development is called an-nafs al-molhama (the inspired soul or self). See Qur’an 91:7. Characteristics of this inspired soul or self are detachment, satisfaction (qana’at), knowledge, humility, repentance, patience and perseverance. This nafs comes from water according to Khwaja Mo’inuddin Chishti.
4. The nafs in its fourth stage of development is called an-nafs al-motma’inna (the quiescent soul or self). See Qur’an 89:27. Its characteristics are amongst others: generosity, trust in God, wisdom, devotion, gratitude and contentment (rida). According to Khwaja Mo’inuddin Chishti this nafs comes from earth.
5. The nafs in its fifth stage of development is called an-nafs ar-radiyya (the contented soul or self). See Qur’an 89:28. Its characteristics are amongst others: asceticism, sincerity, scrupulousness, the letting go of everything which is not of your concern and loyalty.
6. The nafs in its sixth stage of development is called an-nafs al-mardiyya (the soul or self experiencing the pleasure of God). See Qur’an 89:22. Its characteristics are a noble character, the letting go of everything but God, subtlety and service towards other creatures, to be in the nearness of God, meditation upon the divine power and the acceptation of everything as decided by God.
7. The nafs in its seventh stage of development is called an-nafs al-kamila (the perfect soul or self). This soul/self which has realized perfection manifests all the positive qualities as mentioned above. And more than that.
So it is quite clear that the translation of nafs by ego is a wrong translation as there are seven stages of development wherein one faculty manifests different inclinations, several of which are beyond the ego. The above also makes it clear that the guidance offered by a murshid has to be different for disciples in different stages of inner growth.
The issue is even more complicated as the Sufis have also described the purification of the other faculties like intellect, heart, spirit, innermost consciousness and the (deeply) hidden. Shah Wali Allah deals with this sacred knowledge of the (higher) faculties in fascinating details. There is work to be done as is said by the Chishi sufi shaykh Hamiduddin Nagawri:
Kaarist waraai ‘elm raw aanraa baash
Dar bande gohar mabaash raw kaan raa baash
Del hast maqaame gaah begozaar o biaa
Jaan manzele aakherast raw jaan raa baash.
There is a work beyond knowledge, realise that, go!
Do not work to get jewels, be the mine, go!
The heart is a temporary abode, leave it and come!
The soul is the final abode, realise that, go!