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What is sufism?
Sufism and Psychoanalysis. Part I.

Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh

Next text is the first part of an article from doctor Javad Nurbakhsh called Sufism and Psychoanalysis, published in The International Journal of Social Psychiatry, Vol. 24, Nº 3. First part of the article: What is Sufism?, gives us a general view about what Sufism is, specially persian Sufism; and the second one makes a comparaison between Sufism and psychoanalysis.

Sufism is the school of inward illumination and not of discussion. It is 'to become' and not to learn second hand. Now, what concerns inward illumination cannot be expressed in words. Thus, according to the great Sufis, "What can be said is not Sufism". Or, in the words of all-ol Din Rumi,

Whatsoever I say in exposition and explanation of Love,
when I come to Love itself I am ashamed of that explanation.
(Rumi 1926, p.10).

Hence, everything that has been said by eminent Sufis concerning Sufism is only an attempt to express in words their own inward states. It can serve to give a sample of Sufism's nature and characteristics, but it cannot be a general and complete definition of Sufism. In trying to formulate such a complete definition we might say the following: "Sufism is a way towards the absolutely Real, the motive force of wich is love and the means of which is single-minded concentration and living in a state of stability whatever the situation; the goal of this way is God." In other words, at the end of the Sufi's Path nothing remains but God.

The goal of Sufism

The goal of Sufism is knowledge of Absolute Reality, not as learned men explain it to us through logic and demonstration but as it is in itself. This knowledge can be attained only by the 'eye of the heart', that is, by means of illumination and contemplation.

The Definition of the Sufi

The Sufi is he who traverses the path of love and devotion towards the Absolutely Real. He believes that knowledge of the Real is accessible only to the Perfect Man and that the imperfect man is blind to this knowledge by reason of his very imperfection. The Sufi considers 'normal' man in his imperfection to be suffering from an illness which causes his perception and discernment to be constantly in error. Thus, ordinary men distort their conception of Reality by their very imperfection and unconsciously go astray.

Modern psychology has demonstrated that most of man's actions and behavior are determined unconsciously. Sufism for its part holds that the nafs-e ammra (the 'carnal' or 'demanding soul') [ Note 1 ] possesses a tyrannical control over human thought and behavior. Consequently, the discernment of the individual who is under its control cannot be pure, sane and disinterested, and, thus, cannot in any respect be correct and just.

Those Who Claim a Knowledge of Sufism

Those men of learning who by their knowledge of the sociological situation or the doctrines of Sufism claim to understand Sufism do not, of course, possess the characteristics of Sufis, or rather, there is no reason whatsoever that they should possess the true qualities and attributes of the followers of Sufism. One cannot say that they have in any way really known or understood what the Sufis see with the eye of the heart. Thus, for the Sufis themselves the utterances of such people are of no value, although they may, of course, be of interest to non-Sufis who are interested in studying Sufism from the outside.

The Perfect Man

From a theoretical point of view and in his spiritual and inward significance the Perfect Man is that person who has escaped from the domination of the nafs-e ammra. Both his outward and his inward reality have been determined by qualities of a sublime nature from which there results a deliverance from the individual ego and unification with God. In a word he has become a mirror reflecting in every aspect the Absolutely Real. Gazing upon him one sees nothing but the Truth.

According to Sufism the sole means open to man to become the perfect Man is to become the disciple of a Perfect Spiritual Master (Qo.tb), in order to be able to purify himself and to attain Perfection. This period of training under the guidance of such a master is known as the Tariqa or Way. The Shari'a, or the ensemble of duties which are included under the Islamic religious law, is considered to be like a primary school for the Sufi. The more advanced stage of training, which is followed alongside the Shari'a, is called the Tariqa and in the final stage one is led to reach the Haqiqa ('the Truth or Absolute Reality').

The Sufis take the following saying of the Prophet Mohammad as the basis for the division of the spiritual path into three stages: "The Shari'a is my words, the Tariqa my acts and the Haqiqa my inward states." The person who enters the Tariqa is called a morid or disciple, while his master is called the mod or Qotb.

Talab or Aspiration

In considering the significance of the following Koranic verse, "Thou art not responsible for guiding them, but God guides whomsoever He will" (2: 272), Sufism observes that any movement towards the spiritual Path or Tariqa is determined by the Will of God. The state which brings about this movement is known as talab and can be considered to be a sort of tension which attracts man towards his final goal: perfection. Again, basing themselves on the verse, "Surely thou shall guide unto a straight path" (Koran 42: 52), the Sufis consider the Qofb to possess the qualities of guide on the spiritual path.

The tension or aspiration in the Sufi is his constant motivating force on the Path towards perfection. One could say that it is an exquisite sadness which encourages and strengthens the disciple at each moment of the Path. It is a longing which continually provokes in the traveler on the Path dissatisfaction with the distance thus far traversed and a desire to approach ever more closely his ultimate Goal. His sadness and longing constantly bolster his aspiration to escape from his limited state and to attain a greater degree of calm and tranquillity where he can rejoice in a surer and more durable existence.

The love and aspiration of the Sufi direct him towards beauty, goodness and perfection and to seek to possess forever these qualities. The movement and the ardor of love results from the fact that love constantly tries to create eternal perfection, for it is only through continual creation and generation that perfection can be eternal.


In Sufism the longing of love is said to be born of faqr ('spiritual poverty'), and he who possesses it is called a faqir. Faqr is due to the non-possession of a thing and the desire to possess it. In other words, he who feels in himself a certain lack of the sublime human perfection and who sincerely desires to remedy this lack is a 'faqir'.

The Morid, or Disciple

In the 'secondary school' of spirituality, the Tariqa, there is a specific program to be followed by the disciple which is determined by the Qofb. The goal of the discipline and training included in this program is to transform the passional and diabolic tendencies (nafs-e ammra: 'the carnal soul') of the spiritual pilgrim or slek into modifiable tendencies (nafs-e lawwma).

The passional tendencies of man's soul drive him relentlessly to satisfy his every animal, sexual and aggressive instinct. The modifiable tendencies are those which reproach the soul for its passional and animal tendencies and which desire to attain perfection and remedy the soul's shortcomings. Finally, the state of the soul when it assumes the qualities of sublimity and serenity (nafs-e motma'enna) corresponds to the settling down of the passions and their transformation and sublimation into higher attributes. Having reached this station, the disciple has attained the end of the Tariqa. And, according to the verse, "0 soul at peace (nafs-e motma'enna) return unto thy Lord, well-pleased, well-pleasing!" (Koran, 89: 27-8); such a Perfect Man is deemed to have entered into the presence of God.

In fulfilling his duties towards the Tariqa, the disciple gradually escapes from the pressure of psychic conflicts. His animal and passional tendencies become transformed, and the energy which had served to feed the passions becomes the means of polishing the mirror of the heart and opening the way for the illumination of the spirit. Thus, in the final stage the disciple becomes purified of his own base qualities and adorned with Divine Attributes. In the words of the poet Hfez,

"First wash thyself, then wend thy way to the kharbt"
(Hfez 1983, Vol. 1, gazal 414, verse 3)

The words 'wash thyself' refer to purification of the heart by way of the Tariqa, while 'Kharbt is a common poetical image for annihilation of the ego, the last stage of the Sufi Path, which is equivalent to attainment of Absolute Reality.

The goal of the first stage of the Tariqa, or the period immediately preceding formal initiation into Sufism, is that the seeker after the Real finds firm faith in the spiritual master or Qotb. He must be certain that the master will guide him towards the final goal and the perfection which he desires. For his part the Qotb must see in the potential disciple the sincerity and devotion which would make him worthy to be guided. After the master and the potential disciple have accepted one another, the latter is first of all assured that all of his past sins and misdeeds will be forgiven, on the condition that he truly repent from the exercise of the passions and from prohibited acts.

In the vocabulary of Sufism the entry into the circle of initiates is considered a second birth, and the words of Jesus, "Unless one is born anew, one cannot see the Kingdom of God" (John 3: 3), are cited in testimony. In the view of Sufism, everyone must undergo two births. The first consists of being born into this world and the second, which is much more difficult, of leaving this world of materiality and multiplicity and entering the world of love, devotion and Unity.

This preliminary stage of the Tariqa is considered to last, at most, seven to twelve years. It is in reference to this stage that the poet says:

"Moses, the shepherd of the valley of faith, will reach his spiritual goal only
after serving Sho'ayb, the spiritual master, devotedly for a few years"
(Hfez, op. cit., gazal 449, verse 6).

After having repented and accepted the authority of the spiritual master, the disciple gains the honor of being formally initiated, after which the spiritual techniques of the Tariqa are revealed to him.

Mord: the Spiritual Master or Qotb

The spiritual master is a Perfect Man who at the very least has traversed the stages of the spiritual path. But, of course, the mere claim to be a Qotb is not sufficient to demonstrate that he has, in fact, traversed these stages. He must rather be designated as master by the Qotb under whom he himself had undergone his period of discipleship. It is for this reason that the qotb-s and shaikhs of Sufism must plainly indicate the chain of initiation by which they themselves became Sufis -or, in Sufi terminology-, the Qotb must display the kherqa or cloak of initiation.

There are basically two ways in which the spiritual Path may be traversed. In the first. God in His grace and benevolence takes one of His creatures into His presence at a single stroke, depriving him of his individual ego. Such a person is called majdhub ('attracted') and his case is rare. The second way is the Tariqa. Contrary to the case of the majdhub, the Tariqah requires the effort and will of the disciple. Thus, God says, "But those who struggle in Our cause, surely We shall guide them in Our ways" (Koran 29: 69). The traversing of the spiritual Path is known in Arabic and Persian as sayr wa soluk It can be undertaken only under the direction and guidance of a Qotb

Here it should be mentioned that neither the majdhub nor the person who has only traversed the spiritual Path is suited to become a Qotb. This is because the Qotb must have traversed both ways. He must either have completed the stages of the Tariqa after having first been a majdhub, or he must have become 'attracted' in the course of the Path. Thus, both he who has been only a majdhub and he who has only traversed the Tariqa are incomplete. In brief, the Perfect Man or Qotb must have had a vision of the Path, traveled upon it from end to end, and must know it well, so that he may guide others upon it.

The Discipline and Etiquette of the Path

The devoted disciple must perceive in the mirror of his heart the spiritual archetype of his master and become inflamed with love for it, a love which will henceforth be the source of all his joys. As long as the disciple does not have this love for his spiritual master, he will not be able to accept readily and with open arms any order the master may give him; for, in fact, the disciple executes the will of the master; he does not follow his own whims. Thus, the poet has said, "0 heart, if thou wantest the Beloved to be happy with thee, thou must do and say what He commands. If He says, 'Weep blood!', do not ask, 'Why?'; and if He says 'Die!', do not say, 'How is that fitting?' "

As is clear from the above, the first and foremost duty of the disciple is to accept unquestioningly the master's every instruction. Again, Hfez has said on this subject,

"On the path to the house of Layli (the Beloved) there are many mortal dangers;
the first condition for treading this is to be without reason(majnun))" (ibid.,ghazal 449, verse 3),
that is, not to think first and then act. The disciple must perform any task the master orders him to, even if it be in his own mind unjustified. Thus, Hfez has said, "If the master directs you to do so, color your prayer-rug with wine" (ibid., ghazal 1, verse 3). [ Note 2 ]

In the Koranic story of Moses and Khedhr (Koran 18: 61-83) Moses asks to become Khedhr's disciple and the latter answers as follows: "Then, if thou followest me, question me not on anything until I myself introduce the mention of it to thee" (Koran 18:69). Not only must the disciple not question the master; he must also perform his every act under the Qotb's observation and instruction. He may never act without his approval, and he may never reveal any of the secrets which exist between him and the Qotb. Moreover, it is his duty to tell the master of anything out of the ordinary which he sees while asleep or awake.

The disciple must never seek to precede the Qotb in speech or in act. According to the verse, "0 believers, advance not before God and His messenger" (Koran 49: 1), the disciple has the duty to remain always humble in the presence of the master to avoid any sort of forwardness, to say nothing unless authorized, and to do nothing unless instructed. It is in this sense that it is said in Sufism, "Love is refinement and good manners." The Tariqa itself is the observation of ceremony and correct means of behavior. The disciple does not even have the right to raise his voice in the presence of the master: "0 believers, raise not your voices above the Prophet's voice" (Koran, 49: 2). For the Sufis believe that the spiritual master among his disciples is like the Prophet among the members of his community.

The Program to Be Followed in theTariqat

From what has been said it is clear that the program of the spiritual Path begins with the liquidating of the psychic 'knots', complexes and passional tendencies of the disciple, so that he attains after a certain period psychic equilibrium and moral health. The second stage of the Tariqa is the disciple's assumption of the spiritual virtues or becoming embellished with the Divine Qualities and Attributes.

In order to direct the disciple's spiritual development, the master controls all of his behavior down to the slightest detail. A question here which draws a good deal of the attention of the Qotb and which today from another point of view attracts the interest of psychoanalysts, without their realizing its spiritual significance, is that of dream. The master cures the disciple of psychic and spiritual difficulties by analyzing his dreams, which are told exclusively to the master himself.

Thus, the first phase of the Tariqa is a period of "spiritual psychotherapy" which varies from disciple to disciple. And let us note in passing that the work of psychoanalysts today is an imperfect imitation of what is accomplished by the Qotb, lacking completely the link with God.

By exercising his curative methods the master 'washes' d purifies the disciple of passional and diabolic tendencies by means of 'the water of Devotion and Love'. He replaces the disciple's bad qualities with Divine Attributes.

In order to begin the spiritual discipline of the Tariqa, the disciple must fulfill certain indispensable conditions: He must (a) be a Moslem; (b) be charitable towards others; (c) keep the secrets of the Tariqa; and (d) obey the instructions of the master until the end of the Path. It is only when the master sees these conditions in the disciple and knows him to be worthy of the Tariqa that he honors him by giving him permission to employ the dhekr, the permanent remembrance of Divine Names.


Dhekr consists in the methodical repetition of certain names of God which are given to the disciple by the master. In accordance with the meaning of the poet's verse,

"He sat face to face with my willing heart so long
that my heart assumed completely His habits, character and temperament"
(Magrebi 1990, gazal 156).

The Sufis believe that if a disciple thinks constantly of God, gradually his soul will become impregnated with Divine Qualities and its passional tendencies will disappear.

The goal of this constant invocation of God is, first of all, to create in the disciple single-minded concentration. The disciple who until this time has been plagued by scattered thoughts and a myriad of interests and desires gradually comes to concentrate all of his mental power upon a single point, which is God. Thanks to the dhekr, he no longer exhausts his energy in mental agitation but concentrates completely on the remembrance of God. He is, thus, delivered from psychic conflicts and endowed with equilibrium, calm and security.

During the practice of dhekr the Sufis repeat various Names of God, focusing their attention not only on the pronunciation of the Names but also on their meaning. Because mankind is in the habit of reaching meaning through words, the goal of pronouncing a word constantly is to ultimately realize its meaning. The Sufis believe that if in the invocation one regards only the pronunciation of a Name, this would be equivalent to idolatry. The word in itself has no efficacy. Of course, it goes without saying that at the beginning of the Path the disciple cannot avoid paying attention to the pronunciation itself. It is only after a certain period that he becomes familiar with the spiritual and non-formal world and detached from the Name as verbal articulation. On this subject Rumi says the following:

"I will throw word and sound and speech into confusion,
that without these three I may converse with Thee"
(Rumi 1926, Vol. 1, line 1730).

In the dhekr, the disciple must forget not only all that attaches him to this world and the next, but he must forget himself as well. The disciple who is conscious that he himself is invoking has in fact fallen into dualism, and thus he has profaned the cardinal Islamic doctrine of Divine Unity, tawhid.It is for this reason that the vocative particle is eliminated during the dhekr, where, for example, instead of '0 God' (y All) the name of God alone is said. For if the particle "O" (y) is used, it is clear that there is someone addressing God, while the doctrine of Divine Unity means, at base, that all existence is illusory except God Himself. In reality the dhekr is considered to be like a torrent which in addition to eliminating the undesirable qualities of the disciple and substituting Divine Attributes for them, in the final analysis effaces the individual ego in such a way that not a trace of the I remains. This is the end of the Tariqa and the beginning of the sea of annihilation or fan'.

It must be noted that the dhekr can be effective only under the strict guidance of the master. It is the disciple's devotion to his master which can cause the tree of the dhekr to reach maturity and to produce the fruit of annihilation.

A Few Words Concerning the Names and Attributes of God

Sufis believe that God has an unlimited number of Names, each of which describes one of His Attributes. "To God belong the Names Most Beautiful" (Koran 7: 179). Every Name possesses a corresponding Attribute and every Attribute implies a particular mode of knowledge. In turn, each of these modes manifests a particular aspect of the Divinity which dThe image which a Divine Attribute assumes in the mold of a Name is further dependent upon the capacity and aptitude of the human receptacle. The Attribute is reflected each moment in the heart of the Sufi in the theophanic forms of the imaginal world, thus, giving him repose and consolation. At every moment the Sufi experiences indescribable ecstasies and ineffable illuminations, revealing to him ever and anew the manifold aspects of the Divine Names.luminations, revealing to him ever and anew the manifold aspects of the Divine Names.


In principle, Sufism does not even take karmt, the 'graces' or miracles often attributed to saints, into consideration. Sufis do not claim to be able to perform extraordinary feats or to be able to accomplish acts outside normal human experience. A true Sufi negates all that is other than God, even himself; so how can he pretend to be able to perform miracles, thereby asserting his individual ego, when in fact he himself does not exist. His archetypal principle is negation of the personal self. Thus, the great Sufis have considered the claim to perform miracles a fault which deprives man from nearness to God.

Nevertheless, it should be added that it sometimes happens that a given disciple in his intense devotion for his master sees in him, because of the spiritual influence which he has upon the disciple, the manifestation of 'karmaf. In such a case it is incumbent upon the master to instruct the disciple when he has reached a certain stage of the Path to ignore such phenomena lest they lead him into dualism.

Free-will and Determinism

As was said above, Sufism has faith in the will-power of the disciple. At the beginning of the spiritual Path the mystic pilgrim or slek is assailed by various pressures resulting from his lack of psychic equilibrium and weakness in the face of his passions. At this stage the traveler on the Path must believe in free-will, according to the verse: "A man shall have to his account only as he has laboured" (Koran 53: 40). For it is only by exercising his will that he can eliminate from himself passional and diabolic tendencies and prepare himself to be adorned with Divine Attributes. His sublime goal can be attained only through the Divine Attraction coupled with individual effort. In this regard, Hfez has said,

"Although Union with Him is not reached through effort,
strive, 0 heart, to the extent that thou canst"
(op. cit., gazal 279, verse 5).

But it must be noted that in the very advanced stages of the Path, when the Sufi has become adorned with the Divine Attributes, he now believes in determinism, albeit in the context of absolute freedom. For here the individual ego no longer remains, and all that the Sufi does is by the Divine command.

Intimacy with God in the Midst of Society

For the Sufi, laziness and idleness are ugly qualities. He therefore tries as much as possible to serve the society within which he lives. In any case he has no choice but to assume some outward vocation and, thus, in appearance be occupied with his fellow members of society; inwardly, however, he is occupied with God. Thus, Sa'di says,

"Hast thou ever heard of a creature at once present and absent?
I am in the midst of society but my heart is elsewhere"
(Sa'di s.f. , p. 554).

The most painful form of ascetism and mortification in the eyes of the Sufi is to live in harmony with society. Sufism considers this harmony, moreover, to be the symbol of human perfection and believes that the person who is unable to live on good terms with his fellows is in fact ill. Therefore, it views those who have retired from society and adopted solitude in an attempt to further their spiritual lives to be imperfect and ailing individuals.

Hence, the spiritual Path alone is not sufficient for the traveler ('slek'). In order to reach perfection, he must also be able to adapt himself to the community and live in harmony with it. He must not only serve others but also never feel troubled or annoyed when in contact with his fellows. In fact, contact with society is for him the test of his desire to progress towards perfection, for it is in society that he has to demonstrate that he is free of passional tendencies and has left behind his ego. At this advanced stage the Sufi is never troubled by evil inflicted upon him by others. The disciple who does become troubled and annoyed is considered to be still an unbeliever. Thus, H<>wA()fez has said,

"Let us be straightforward, accept reproach and be happy with it, for in our Tariqa
it is unbelief to become annoyed"
(Hfez, op. cit., gazal 385, verse 3)

The disciple who becomes troubled is, in fact, seeing double; he still considers himself to be real and, thus, has not ceased to 'associate' others with God.

The fact that Sufism is commonly considered to consist of retirement from the world and asceticism does not mean that solitude, mortification and deprivation of food are elements in the Path towards perfection. However, it may be that in a given case the spiritual master sees in the disciple a certain psychic disequilibrium and orders him to retire temporarily from the world and abstain from eating animal products until he has gained equilibrium and is ready once again to serve society. Thus, 'solitude' and 'mortification' for the Sufis correspond to a kind of remedy for psychic disorder and are not a prescription for spiritual perfection. On the contrary, the Sufis have always been well aware of the necessity of correct nourishment to provide the energy for effort on the spiritual Path and in service toward society. According to Rumi:

"This one eats, [and of him] is born nothing but avarice and envy;
that one eats, [and of him] is born nothing but love of the One [God],"
(Rumi 1926, Vol. 1, line 273)

The Sufi profits from his nourishment to enable him to perform tasks of a spiritual nature, while ordinary men place all their energy at the disposal of their passions and whims.

The School of the Absolutely Real (Haqiqa)

This 'school' has two phases, fan'('annihilation') and baq' ('subsistence'), the reaching of fan' being equivalent to entering the kharbt. We have already seen that when the disciple reaches the end of the Tariqa, he arrives first at the contemplation of Divinity. This is the stage of fan', or death to self, of which there are two kinds, outward and inward.

Outward fan' is the annihilation of the acts of the disciple by the manifestation of the Divine Will. The disciple reaches a stage in which he is drowned in the sea of the Divine Acts, to the extent that he sees the Divine Will in everything that happens and not his own will or that of others. At this stage he is deprived completedly of free-will.

Inward fan' is the annihilation of the attributes and the being of the Sufi. At this stage at times he contemplates the Divine Attributes, in which his own attributes have become annihilated, and at times he contemplates the Being of the Divinity, thus annihilating his own being. At the beginning of inward fan', the disciple is deprived of all sensation; but gradually, according to his capacities, he becomes aware of the outer world, even though his being has ceased to exist. His inward state is annihilation in God, while outwardly he is present in the external environment and completely aware of what is happening around him.

Baq' consists of subsistence in God and is realized when God gives a new will to the disciple directly from himself, in order to replace that which had become annihilated in the course of the path. This subsistence, or 'permanence', is obtained in exchange for inward annihilation, which consists of the disappearance of the being and the mortal attributes of the disciple, which are like a veil separating him from the Real. At this very advanced stage God does not veil the world from the Sufi nor does the world veil God; no sort of separation exists any longer and duality is transformed into Unity.

Reprinted by the kind permission of the author from The International Journal of Social Psychiatry, Vol. 24, No. 3.
The author wishes to thank William Chittick for his help in the translation of this article into English.


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    [1] The word nafs in sufi terminology has an ample meaning as, for instance : the soul, the I, the ego, etc,. for more information aboutnafs and its different levels consult the book "The Sufi Psychology" by Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh. [ Back ]

    [2] Laila and Majnún: the characters in one of the most beautiful love stories in persian literature, by Nezami Ganyawi (XIII century). This work is important for sufis because of its internal content. The meaning of the word Majnún is "the mad". [ Back ]

    About the author

    Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh was born in Kerman, Iran. Prior to his retierement he was professor and head of the Departement of Psychiatry at the University of Theran. He has written numerous books on psychiatry and written and published extensively on the subject of Sufism. Dr. Nurbakhs, currently residing in London, is the Master of the Nematollahi Order of Sufis, a position that he has held since he was twenty-six years old.

    About the document

    This article was published in the Sufí magazine: Sufi, a journal of Sufism. Issue 5 / Spring 1990

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