Chapter 57 The inner knowledge dealing with thoughts (impulses), their classification and their differences
1. Our shaykh Abu’n Najib as-Suhrawardi [he is the uncle of the author] has informed us: [the isnad connecting him with the prophet has been given, but it has been omitted by me] “The messenger of God said: ‘The devil has the habit of whispering [in the hearts of people and the angels do the same. The whisper of the devils points to evil purposes and declares the truth to be a lie, the whisper of the angel points to good purposes and declares the truth to be true. Whosoever experiences the last type should know that it comes from God and who experiences the first type should take his refuge in God for the devil’. Then he recited: ‘The devil threatens you with poverty and orders you to shameful acts’ [Qur’an 2:268].
2. Now you should strive to get knowledge about both types of whispers and the differences between the impulses just like a seeker, a mureed who longs for this knowledge like a thirsty person longs for water as he knows how important and meaningful this affair is and that it brings well-being, profit and loss. Now we are speaking about a human being who has been gifted with a certainty which is pure and who has received the gifts of the people of inner certainty. Those who strive the most in this respect are those who are close to God and those who have made it part of their way of life. Whosoever has taken an interest in the way of life of the pure, longs for these things with a certain degree of longing, because his strivings, his seeking and his inclinations are directed towards the mercy of God, the Generous. The one who occupies the station of the ordinary believer and Muslim does not strive for knowledge of these two types of whispers and is not interested in the differences between the thoughts and impulses.
3. Among the impulses there are such which are messages of God to man. One person has said: “I have got a heart; when I resist my heart, then I resist God”. That is the situation of a man whose heart has become sound. The soundness of the heart is based upon the having become calm of the soul, and the calmness of the soul creates a hopeless situation for the devil. As often as the soul stirs itself, it affects the purity of the heart and when the heart is affected then the devil becomes eager and gets closer to it. The purity of the heart is surrounded by the remembrance of God and watchfulness. The remembrance of God has its own light and the devil is afraid thereof, just like one of us is afraid of fire. In a hadith (tradition) is said: “The devil stays near the heart of a man. When someone remembers God, the devil turns away and withdraws himself, but when this very person does not care at all, then the devil conquers his heart and speaks to him and gives him hope”. God has said: “We shall attach to him who goes blind to the remembrance of the All-compassionate a devil as companion” [Qur’an 43:36]. And God has said: “Indeed, those who fear God, when a visitation from the devil afflicts them, will remember (God)” [Qur’an 7:201].
4. Because of the fear of God one arrives at the remembrance of God. The servant of God perseveres therein and is at a certain point in time able to protect his members against wrong behaviour and later on against unnecessary actions and things that do not concern him, so that he only says and does those things, which cannot be avoided. Then this external protective attitude affects his inner being and purifies it and keep it back from that which is wrong and later on from that which is unnecessary until his carefulness affects that what his soul is saying. Sahl bin ‘Abdallah has said: “The worst transgression is to do what the soul inspires you to do”. He considers it to be a sin to listen to what the soul tells to you and that is why he protects himself against it. Because of his watchfulness, his heart starts to glow due to the remembrance of God like the stars in the zenith of the heaven. His heart becomes like a heaven, which is protected by the beautiful stars of the remembrance of God.
5. When this is the case the devil moves to a distance. With such a person the impulses of the devil and his whispers become rare. But the impulses of the soul remain. You have to be watchful in regard to them. By means of religious knowledge you can differentiate them. Among these impulses there are those you can turn into deeds, without any resulting harm, like the claims of the soul in regard to its needs. These needs, however, can be divided into rights and desires (animal lusts). You have to make a difference between these two and have to take care in case the soul claims anything in regard to lusts. God has said: “O, believers, if a dissolute person brings you some news, verify it first…” (Qur’an 49:6) [The author then describes the historical reason why this verse has been revealed: in the days of the prophet a liar made false claims against a certain tribe…] The outward reason for the revelation of this verse from the Qur’an is clear. It became an advice from God to his servant to verify all things carefully. Sahl said about this verse: “A dissolute person means a liar. Lying is however a habit of the soul, because it suggests certain things and tries to make you believe certain things which are different from reality”. When receiving such an impulse it is obligatory to you to verify it carefully. The servant of God takes such an impulse as a message which needs to be verified carefully and his nature neither creates an agitated fervour nor does his desire create premature acts. Someone has said: “The lowest degree of good manners is that you restrain yourself, when you have too little knowledge; the lowest degree of good manners is that you restrain yourself, when you are in doubt”.
6. When you are not certain, then it belongs to good manners to present this impulse (khaater) to the One Who moves the soul, Who has fashioned, created and formed it. Then you should be open about your poverty and your neediness in regard to Him, you should make it clear that you are uncertain and that you are in need of knowledge (ma’refat) and ask Him for it. When you act according to good manners as has been described, then it will become clear to you if the impulse has to do with the satisfaction of a desire or if it is a right. If it is a right, then you can fulfil it and if it is a desire [which is shown not to be good for you] then you should reject it. This restraint is a good thing when you can find no clarity about the impulse by means of outward religious knowledge. Then there is need for inner knowledge, because you can find no clues in outward knowledge. There are people, however, who – because of their having reached a spiritual station of integrity – only accept their rights and deny their desires. When such a person would satisfy that type of impulse, which is a desire, then it becomes a sin of his spiritual station. He has to ask for forgiveness just like he asks for forgiveness when sinning. There are again other people who satisfy their desires and accept and act upon such an impulse containing a desire, and this they do because of an exceptionally rich knowledge that they have received from God. This is a wide knowledge given to some people. To them this is allowed and they know it and that is why they satisfy their desires. If you are one of them, then this is good, but you should be exactly aware of your own situation. This implies that you should know what is with you that is too much and what is too little, you should know your spiritual station, you should be completely in control of this station and should be very much aware of the fact that God is watching [compare this with Qur’an 13:13]. Outsiders should not conclude anything in regard to this spiritual station, they are not allowed to imitate it blindly, because this is a special case for special people.
7. When someone has made such a progress, that he has reached a spiritual station wherein he is free from the whispers of the devil and is able to differentiate the two types of impulses of the soul, then he will receive more impulses from God and from the angels, and of the four types of impulses [1. of the devil, 2. of the soul, 3. of the angels and 4. of God] only three types remain for him. The impulses of the devil, with the exception of rare cases, stop because there is too little space for the devil in the soul. When the soul [nafs] expands, then the entry of the devil becomes easier. The soul expands when it follows its animal desires and lusts and inclines towards the earth. When someone is able to see the difference between rights and desires, then his soul [nafs] contracts and there is no longer any place for the devil, with some rare exceptions because of personal tests.
8. Among those to whom the spiritual station of the near ones [to God] has been given, are people whose heart has become their heaven as it has been adorned by the stars of the remembrance of God. Such a person is taken upwards in the higher realms of heaven together with his true, inner being and his reality. And the higher he is taken, the more his soul at peace becomes smaller. It keeps itself away from him and its impulses stay away. Finally the heavenly journey of his inner being reaches the point that has been reached by the messenger of Allah with his outer being and with his body. When this ascension has been completed then the impulses of the soul are no longer possible for him, because he has been covered by the lights of the nearness to God and the soul is far from him. At the same time the impulses coming from God also stop as an impulse is a messenger and messages are only of relevance to someone who is far. This person however is near.
9. What we have described is a change that comes to someone but is not lasting. Mostly after his ascension he returns to the point where the demands of the soul and its impulses are to be found and there also the impulses of God and the angels return to him. This can be thus explained: The impulses are coming when ‘you’ are there and what we have described, takes place during annihilation and then there are no impulses possible. The divine impulses stop because of the nearness [to God], the impulses of the soul are far away, because the soul is far away. The impulses of the angel stay behind, just like Gabriel had to stay behind in the heavenly journey of the messenger of God. Gabriel said: “If I would continue only one inch I would burn”. Muhammad bin ‘Ali at-Tirmidhi has said: “When the wali [the friend of God] who is addressed by God and the prophet who is addressed by God, reach this stage of realisation of the reality, then they are no longer afraid of the words of the soul. Just like prophecy is guarded against the impulses of the devil, likewise the place of the exchange of words is guarded – by them, by God and by the inner peace coming from God – against the impulses and inclinations of the soul. This inner peace protects the receiver of words against his soul.
10. I heard shaykh Abu Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Basri say in Basra: “There are four impulses: ‘An impulse from the soul, an impulse from God, an impulse from the devil and an impulse from an angel. The impulse coming from the soul can be noticed at the bottom of the soul, the one from God at the upper part of the heart, the one from the angel at the right part of the heart and the one of the devil at the left part of the heart’. What he has said, is true for that person who has polished (= purified) his soul by the fear of God and asceticism, whose being is pure, and whose inner and outer being are straight. His heart looks like a polished mirror: it is impossible for the devil to approach it from any side without being seen. If however one’s heart is black and when rust is covering it, then the devil cannot be seen. Abu Hurayra has reported from the messenger of Allah: “When a person sins then a black spot appears on his heart. When he wants to leave all that behind and asks for forgiveness and turns around then it gets polished. In case he returns to his former behaviour, then more is added to his heart until it is completely covered. God has said: ‘Not at all! In fact what they have been doing has rusted their hearts’ (Qur’an 83:14).”
11. I heard a gnostic saying something of great subtlety, based on something that has been revealed to him. He said: “The inner conversation and the representation thereof that takes a place between the heart and the pure remembrance of God, comes from the heart and not the soul”. This goes against the usual opinion. That is why I asked for an explanation and he then remarked: “Between the heart and the soul there is whispering and quite some conversation, these two are each other intimates and they are inclined toward each other. Each time when the soul releases something of its desires in the shape of words or acts the soul gets influenced and soiled by it, and when this person returns from the place of the demands of the soul and directs himself to the place of the remembrance of God, the intimate conversation with God and his service of God, then the heart reproaches the soul and reminds it one by one what it has done and said like somebody who reprimands the soul and points it in the right direction.
12. As the impulse is the beginning and the opening of an act, knowledge thereof is one of the most important affairs for people; that is because acts are the results of impulses. A religious scholar has even said that the search for this knowledge is obligatory, based on the words of the messenger of God: “The search for knowledge is a duty for every Muslim”. This scholar is of the opinion that the knowledge referred to is the knowledge of the impulses. He said: “It is because they are the originators of acts and when they are bad, the acts will be bad”. I however think – by my life! – that this is not true as these words of the messenger of God are incumbent for every Muslim, but not every Muslim has the talent and the knowledge to be able to do it. The seeker, however, knows that the impulses are similar to seeds and among the seeds there are seeds of salvation and seeds of damnation.
13. The reason why people have weak knowledge about the impulses is one of four and no more than four:
(1) a certainty that is too weak
(2) an insufficient knowledge about the moral qualities of the soul
(3) the satisfaction of one’s desires and the weakening of the foundations of one’s fear of God (taqwa)
(4) the love of this world and worldly renown, worldly goods, the striving for position and importance with the people.
The one who is protected against these four, is able to differentiate between the impulses of the angels and the ones of the devil. If that is not the case, then one is not aware of these impulses and one is not investigating this subject. Many impulses may be discerned, others may however remain hidden because of the being present of one or more of the four reasons given above, while the other reasons are not. The one who has the greatest knowledge of his soul (nafs) is the most capable person in differentiating the impulses. This knowledge is hard to acquire and is only possible by preparing oneself thoroughly by asceticism and fear of God (taqwa).
14. The shaykhs agree that if you eat something that is forbidden, then you can no longer distinguish between the impulses of the angel and the whispers of the devil. Abu ‘Ali ad-Daqqaq has said: “The one whose food is certain, cannot distinguish between an impulse and a whisper”. This is only true under certain conditions. One can also be certain of food because God has allotted it to a certain person, and He has given the permission in advance to take it in order to use it for food. When you are certain of food in such a way, then this does not create a veil that disturbs your discernment. This is only the case if it is your own will and your own choice that you keep yourself occupied with sustenance that is certain, because then you are veiled in your perceptions. Everyone in our community has left his own choices behind him, so that is why that when he is certain of his food it is no veil for him.
15. The difference between the impulses of the soul (nafs) and the whispers of the devil have been described thus: The soul persists in its demands and it never stops till it has achieved what it wants. If the devil tries to tempt you to do something wrong and if you do not follow his lead, then he whispers something else. He has nothing special in mind, he only want to tempt you some way or another.
The shaykhs have also explained which of the two impulses (is stronger and) needs to be followed when both of them come from God. Junayd has said: “The first one (is stronger), because when it continues (that is, receives a follow-up with a second impulse) then one stops with checking as is required by religious knowledge”. Ibn ‘Ata has said: “The second one is stronger, because it is strengthened by the first one”. Abu ‘Abdallah Ibn Khafif has said: “Both are equal, as both are coming from God, so that is why none of the two can be preferred over the other”.