When we speak about Self-Purification, the first thing that comes in mind is Self-Control. All religions and spiritual traditions have some kind of self-control. But what benefit is there to do this, especially if everything has been created for a reason? Why should I observe self-control if things were created for a reason? Do we have free will? Even though we have free will, we still need to exercise our free will in a responsible way.
As human beings, we have 2 sides that we tend to. The physical and material side and the second is the spiritual and mental side. You feed your body, you nurture it, and you keep it away from wrong things and sicknesses. If you feel sick, you go to a physician to cure your illness. If you’re weak, you seek assistance from a healthy strong body to fulfill your needs. With ourselves, as humans, we need to nurture our soul. If it gets sick we need to tend to it quickly and strengthen it. We need to safeguard our dignity and respect. We can’t go after our desires and do whatever we want. If so then we need to ask ourselves the question, what differentiates us from any other animal or creation?
Our spiritual side is made up of the soul. How do we nurture our soul? We nurture it with good morals in order to strengthen the human side and the spiritual aspect of the human being, which is called Tazkiyah al-Nafs. We need to have self-control, as stated in this Quranic verse:
وَ أَمَّا مَنْ خافَ مَقامَ رَبِّهِ وَ نَهَى النَّفْسَ عَنِ الْهَوى فَإِنَّ الْجَنَّةَ هِيَ الْمَأْوى
“And as for him who fears to stand in the presence of his Lord and forbids his own soul from its whims and caprices then surely Paradise is the abode.” (79:40 & 41).
We need to have self-discipline, and this leads to self-purification.
Why is it so important to study and focus on Self-Purification? If we purify our hearts we will no longer need to resist our temptations or control ourselves against lower desires and lusts, since a purified person desires nothing except what is good and moral for him and others. This can be better understood from the following saying:
كَانَ لِي فِيمَا مَضَى أَخٌ فِي اللَّهِ وَ كَانَ يُعْظِمُهُ فِي عَيْنِي صِغَرُ الدُّنْيَا فِي عَيْنِهِ … وَ كَانَ إِذَا بَدَهَهُ أَمْرَانِ يَنْظُرُ ]نَظَرَ[ أَيُّهُمَا أَقْرَبُ إِلَى الْهَوَى ]فَخَالَفَهُ[ فَيُخَالِفُهُ
“In the past I had a brother-in-faith, and he was prestigious in my view because the world was insignificant in his eyes… If two things confronted him he would see which was more akin to his whims and he would do the other.” (Wise Sayings, No. 289).
This means that when you face 2 options in life in different situations and times, which one are you going to choose? The one that would be in line with your desires and materialist world and would only benefit you in this world or the one that would benefit you spiritually and you hereafter? Many times in life due to the attachment to this world, we are more likely to choose the option which would satisfy our carnal desire and would meet the need of this world, rather than the one which would benefit our hereafter.
What is your understanding of life? Is it self-satisfying? Is it self gratifying? All you do is satisfy yourself. You are taught to think of yourself before you think of others. For example, we are told to put the life jacket on for yourself before you put it on for others. Save yourself first and then worry about others.
There is a beautiful story in the Mathnawi by Rumi which shows how the heart can be transformed in either a good way or a bad way. Rumi says that once there was a perfume market where every person who wanted to sell perfumes had a shop. As a result, whoever entered this bazaar would only sense the beautiful fragrance of perfumes. Everyone enjoyed it, especially the perfume sellers who of course are the best people to appreciate perfume due to their refined sense of smell, whereas we become confused after smelling too many different fragrances. But one day someone went to the bazaar with a horse and the horse dirtied the passageway of the bazaar. The people became very angry because they could not tolerate the bad smell but no-one had the strength to take the dirt outside. It was like torture for them. So someone suggested that they had better bring someone there whose job was to clean horses' stables. They went to ask a young man to help them. He said that of course he would be able to do this as this was his job and what he always did. But when he entered the bazaar, before even reaching the dirty place, as soon as he smelt the fragrance of perfume he became unconscious because he was used to bad smells and so could not tolerate good fragrances.
In a similar way, on one hand, we find people who enjoy praying, who enjoy having some private time with God. And, on the other hand, we find people who become angry when they see you praying and it causes them pain. And when they see you go to the mosque or the church, they feel troubled by this. There is a hadith which says that a believer in the mosque is like a fish in water but when a hypocrite is in the mosque he feels like he is in prison and always wants to escape. So these are the different states of the soul that we can reach through self-training and self-purification.
Nafs and Ruh are one meaning, but they have different dimensions:
1. The dimension of maturing and growing, along with the growing of the body.
2. The dimension of movement and desire and anger, like in animals, and this is the animal side of the human being.
3. The dimension of perfection, as it perceives, it thinks, and it rationalizes. This is the human side, which is the highest dimension and the most noble.
So the nafs in its different dunya forms has an animal side and thereby causing animalistic effects. This gives human beings the potential to lean towards animal behaviour.The highest level we can attain is the human side, a side that is angelic. But the human needs tarbiyah and tahdheeb to perfect this side. (Provide meanings to these words?)
In this dunya world, the human needs water, food, clothing, accommodation, marriage, oxygen, etc. We are animals by actuality. But the Nafs accepts progress and growth and discipline, to head towards kamal (perfection) and kamal attributes. These attributes include knowledge, goodness, sacrifice, justice, forgiving, courage, helping the needy, etc.