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Speech by Hazrat Moulānā Safī‘ Alī Shāh II,

Pīr of the Ne‘matollahi Safialishahi Sufi Order


“In the name of the Creator of Beauty.

In the name of all Prophets and in the name of all Messengers of Beauty. And with the help of the inner being of the Pīr of all dervishes, Moulā ‘Alī [1], and of all other Pīrs and Sufi Masters, in particular our Pīr and Master, Hazrat Safī ‘Alī Shāh I [2].

Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon and welcome to this festive gathering on the occasion of the birthday of Moulā ‘Alī.

On this day, I want to extend my congratulations to everyone, and in particular to the dervishes of the Ne‘matollahi Safialishahi Sufi Order.

It is the ninth time that we celebrate this feast in the Netherlands. In the past two years we celebrated this beautiful day in the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam. This year however, that venue was already spoken for. But we were given the opportunity to celebrate this feast with our neighbours, in this magnificent Hindu temple.

There will be less problems with parking now, as there are plenty of parking spaces here for the convenience of our guests.

At the request of a number of my dervishes, I shall discuss the theme of ‘the human ego’ in today’s speech.

In Sufism, the ‘ego’ (the ‘self’ or the 'I')  is called nafs.

I shall try to be a brief as possible about the nafs, and explain why it is such an important subject in Sufism.

Today I shall mainly focus on the nafs al-ammāra. The word ‘ammāra’ means ‘orderering’, ‘commanding’. Therefore Nafs-e ammāra means: the ‘tyrannical self’ or the ‘compulsively obsessed ego’. First, I shall explain how she originates and which place she occupies in life. Then I shall tell you briefly how to recognise the nafs, how the nafs can be transformed and how she gradually can be refined.

Before I go into this, however, I want to begin my lecture with the words of Moulā ‘Alī  himself, as today is his birthday. He said:

“To know your self is to know your Lord (God).”

The traditional Sufi method to learn to know one’s self consists ofboth the investigation and the examination of the nafs. This mystical discipline teaches that the nafs is the greatest obstacle on the path towards purification and unification with Divine Reality (Haqīqat).

One could compare the nafs-e ammāra to a ‘fission fungus’, that plays reason and the self off against each other. Thus she is the source of all confusion, discord and conflicts within ourselves and between people.

One could also compare the nafs-e ammāra to a conjurer, who constantly conjures up new tricks from his inexhaustible trick-box.

The nafs has so many wily ruses at her disposal, that she constantly manipulates you and leads you to think that she only wants what is good for you. But in the meantime she makes you drift away further and further from your true, essential self, using sly motives and appearing in countless forms.

Therefore, in the Sufi tradition, the nafs is considered as the greatest enemy and strongest opposing force against the spiritual development of man.

At first, the nafs is not perceptible, but after a while she becomes audible, tangible and visible in the behaviour and in the actions of man.

There is no way of escaping this. But we can learn to develop consciousness of the fact that we carry the nafs within ourselves, we can learn to recognise her wide range of manifestations, and then we can learn how to restrain and control her.

The nafs tries to manifest herself all the time, in every conceivable circumstance. In an evil sense, but also in the form of ‘doing good’, and even in the form of prayer. In short, she has the power to constantly influence our mind and our emotions, and thus deceive and weaken us.

In order to be able to transform and refine the nafs, we must first learn to know her thoroughly, because without this knowledge of the nafs, we cannot advance on the mystical Path.

Surely you will have noticed that I use the female gender when speaking about the nafs. This has got nothing to do with the notion that woman or the feminine are no good. It is related to the four earthly elements which constitute material man.

Similarly, ‘the woman’ in quotations from the Masnawi of Moulānā Rūmī [3] is meant metaphorically, as it refers to the productive quality of the nafs. I shall elaborate all of this later on.

For today, I have selected some quotations of a number of wise men of great learning, who, even in their day, shedded their light upon today’s subject.

Thus, the Prophet Muhammad[4] (peace be upon him) has said:

“The ‘nafs’, which resides between your bellies

and your backs, is your greatest enemy.”

In his world-famous opus, the Masnawi[5] (part II), Moulānā Jalāluddīn Balkhī Rūmī says [6]:

2266: Do not listen to what thy fleshly soul says, that this place (of self-mortification) is bad, inasmuch as her doings are contrary (to thy spiritual advancement).

2267: Do thou oppose her, for such (is the) injunction (that) has come from the prophets in the world.

2268: It becomes necessary to take counsel concerning things to be done, so that there may not be repentance in the end.

2269: The community said, “With whom shall we take counsel?” The prophet answered, “With intellect, (which) is the Imám (leader).”

2270: He (the questioner) said, “(But) if a child should come in, or a woman who has no judgment or clear understanding.”

2271: “Take counsel with her,” said he (the prophet), “and do the contrary of what she bids (thee), and go thy way.”

2272: Know that your fleshly soul is woman and worse than woman, because woman [7] is a part (of evil), but your fleshly soul is evil entire.

2273: If you take counsel with your fleshly soul, oppose that vile one (in) whatsoever she may say.

2274: If she bid you pray and fast – the fleshly soul is a great plotter, she will bring some plot against you to birth.

2275: (When you take) counsel with your fleshly soul concerning (your) actions – whatsoever she tells (you to do), the reverse of that is perfectly right.

2276: (If) you cannot cope with her and her contumacy, go to a friend and mix with him.

2277: Mind gains strength from another mind [8] the sugar-cane is made perfect by the sugar-cane.

This is what Sa‘dī [9] says about the ‘nafs’:

“When you try to meet someone’s wishes or desires and you are able to fulfil them, he or she can become a good friend for you, who will be prepared to listen to you. But this does not apply to the nafs. If you meet her wishes, she will develop an unsatiable hunger and she will become a tyrant, who will snarl at you if you don’t give in to her demands.”

And in his book Mirsād-ul-‘Ibād [10], Sheikh Najmuddīn Rāzī says:

“The ‘nafs’ is the source of all evil and is present in the entire human body. Both men and animals have a ‘nafs’, but the difference between them is that man has the ability to transform the nafs, and animals don’t.”

The coming about of the nafs is similar to the way a child is born from the marriage of a man and a woman.

From the union of man and woman – the fusion of spirit (representing the male element) and body (representing the female element) – a child is born. As a consequence, this child possesses both female and male qualities. Therefore one can say that the birth of this child gives life to two children, i.e. ‘the material’ child, and the ‘spirit child.

Just now, I told you that the nafs is ‘female’, and that this is related to the four elements – water, fire, wind and earth – which constitute our bodies in this material world.

Just like the earth produces food, woman can give birth to children in this world, and likewise the nafs is able to produce a new nafs over and over. That is why linguistically, the gender of nafs is ‘female’, since it can generate new life over and over again.

Our material heart usually symbolises the spiritual heart (qalb or dil). That is why all over the world everybody knows what is meant when people speak, write or sing about the state of ‘the heart’.

The heart symbolises the abilities of the human spirit, and its level is situated in the space between the nafs (the self) and the Spirit (God).

Due to its nature and origin, the heart is drawn to spirtualisation and purification. And due to her composition and origin, the nafs is drawn to all material and sensory things.

Just as ‘wet’ is the essence of water – dirty or clean water – the immaterial soul (sirr) is the inner dimension or the essence of the heart. The soul is the essential part of man. The soul, the centre of the indiviualised spirit, has the ability to develop itself during its life on earth to highest spiritual level. This means that it is the development of the soul which determines the quality of the spiritual heart.

If after infancy the soul remains attracted to the nafs, the heart will have that quality.

If the soul develops, and is more and more spiritualized, the heart will adopt this spiritualized quality. Whereas the heart is the space between the self and the Spirit, the soul is the direct connection and gateway to God.

The spirit (rūh) (or the spiritual heart) represents the male aspect in every human being. The spirit is the essence of all that lives, and likewise also the essence of man: the spiritual self. The spirit’s origin is not in this material world – it comes from a higher, spiritualized and refined world. The human spirit is a divine spirit by origin. As God says in Genesis 1, verse 27, in the Bible: “I created you in My own image.”

We return to the birth of the child.

Together with a baby, the nafs-e ammāra is born. The initial manifestations of the nafs are desire and anger. By using the word ‘anger’, I don’t mean to say that a baby is born angry. No, I mean that particular innate part of the instinct, which from ebullition or impulse directly proceeds to action. One could also call it ‘impetus’.

Desire consists of two earthly elements, i.e. water and earth. And anger consists of the two other elements, i.e. air and fire.

So from the very first phase of its existence, the new-born child is very much dominated by desire and anger.

When a baby doesn’t get milk, it starts to cry.

Let me put it like this: both the desire for milk, which originates from the urge to live and to survive, and the crying that originates from anger when this demand is not fulfilled, are perfectly normal and indeed necessary. In this respect, man is equal to an animal. And yet, even in this natural, still animal-like phase, the compulsively obsessed self (nafs-e ammāra), which is commanded by the nafs, is already present and active.

But when these two animal-like qualities, desire and anger, continue to dominate us at a later age, the nafs will gradually develop disastrous qualities, that have little or nothing to do anymore with what we need to be able to live or to survive. This animal-like nafs then surreptitiously assumes unnecessary and sometimes addictive qualities, which manifest themselves as greed, malice, arrogance, aggression, envy, cruelty, prejudice, selfishness, lechery, rancour et cetera. They are all qualities that tyrannise and cast dark shadows over the heart, and that enslave man to himself.

In the 8th verse of his Mukhammas [11] Hazrat Safī ‘Alī Shāh I says:

“When you reached perfection in planthood,

I gave you a bestial body in animality as a similitude.

Thus you possess ties to this lower, animal self!

Should you lay claim to reason and perfection,

To your utter bewilderment, I shall overturn you

into a creature of perfidity!”

For a harmonious life it therefore is necessary to find and maintain a sound and healthy balance between desire and anger, the two basic qualities of the nafs-e -ammāra. But we can’t do without the nafs either. We very much need the nafs in order to survive and develop ourselves, so that in the end we may achieve our goals.

In his Masnawi (vol. IV), Moulānā Rūmī says on this subject:

“428: Without food and sleep it would not live half a moment; nor even with food and sleep does it live either.”

Only in the advanced stages of spiritual development can we abandon the nafs any further. This is a gradual process of development, which ultimately leads to total detachment. This total detachment is necessary in order to finally achieve complete union with the Eternally Living One.

The different stages of the development of the nafs

The great Sufi Masters hold different views regarding this matter. Some assert that there are three different levels of the nafs, i.e.:

1- Nafs-e ammāra (the commanding, or compulsively obsessed self)

2- Nafs-e lawwāma (the accusatory, blaming or admonishing self))

3- Nafs-e mutma’inna (the appeased self, the self that has found tranquility)

Others opine that there are four different levels, i.e.:

1- Nafs-e ammāra

2- Nafs-e lawwāma (the admonishing self)

3- Nafs-e mulhama (the balanced or inspired self)

4- Nafs-e mutma’inna (the appeased self, the self that has found tranquility)

Certain Sufi Masters are convinced that the fourth stage, the nafs-e mutma’inna, is followed by yet two or three stages more, i.e.:

5- Nafs-e rādiyya (the contented self)

6- Nafs-e mardiyya (the self of total surrender or the approved self)

7- Nafs-e qudsiyya (the perfect self)

Now you may wonder: “Can anyone who has reached a high level fall back down to a lower level?”. The answer is: “Yes, that is possible”.

The reason for this is that the pulling power of the nafs is just as strong as the pulling power of the spirit or the heart. But when someone has attained to the stage of the nafs-e mutma’inna, falling back to preceding levels is no longer possible.

In the penultimate level, the nafs-e mardiyya, the self has reached a stage in which the sālik[12] is contented with God’s will, and God is contented with him or her.

In the Qur’ān, Sūra 89, [Al-Fajr; “The Break of Day”] is written:

“(27) O soul who has found tranquility, (28) return unto your Lord, contented and well-approved by Him. (29) and take your place among My servants (30) and enter My Garden [13].”

Some are convinced that it is possible to destroy the nafs completely. Moulana Rumi denies this possibility, as the nafs is an inseparable part of us, and moreover, a part that we really need.

In volume III of his Masnawi, he writes the following words:

“1053: The dragon is thy sensual soul: how is it dead? It is (only) frozen by grief and lack of means.”

The power of the nafs is so formidable that she, as though she were a weed, overgrows and suffocates the flower that was sowed in the garden – i.e. man – and takes away all the light that the flower needs to come to full ripeness and bloom.

This image may make it clear to you that the nafs-e ammāra can be quite a hindrance to inner spiritual development, and that it can have utterly devastating and disastrous effects on a human life.

The question then arises whether, and if so, how, we can transform the animal-like qualities of our nafs to a subtler and more spiritual level. How can we learn to restrain her?

Is this truly possible, and do we possess the strength and ability to achieve this on our own? Or could science be of use to us, as we engage this inner battle with ourselves? And can we come out of it without sustaining too many injuries, can we ourselves triumph over our ‘self’ (nafs)?

According to the Sufi tradition, man cannot travel on this mystical Path of inner spiritual (self)development on his own, because the Path is full of pitfalls and snags; it is strewn with mantraps, and therefore it most certainly is not without danger.

Time after time deceptions will appear, in an almost endless host of guises. If you are unaware that they are deceptions (nafs), they will mostly bring about the exact opposite of what you had intended in the first place. And that’s not all, because once you’ve been lead astray, the number of deceptions will only increase, removing you ever further from your goal.

That’s why in this tradition, you need a Pīr or Sheikh. Like a child that is taken by its father’s protecting hand, the dervish walks at the hand of a Pīr.

However learned someone may be, no matter if someone has devoured entire libraries of books, followed spiritual workshops and courses for years on end: on the Sufi Path walking at the hand of the Master is indispensable.

He knows all the pitfalls and snares. He knows how to guide his dervish safely past and beyond them. In other words: he knows all the dangers, and recognises all forms of manifestations of the nafs. He is conscious of his own nafs and has learned how to restrain her. This enables him to serve as an example to others. He knows how to lovingly tame the ‘inner animal’ in us.

Hāfez[14], the great mystic, says:

“Do not enter the Path without Khizr’s [15] guidance,

for darkness reigns there. Beware of going astray.”

But prior to embarking on this spiritual journey, one must be assured of the readiness of the heart, the seat of emotional life, to be given out of hands with full confidence, and to be handed over to someone who knows how to take good care of it – someone with whom your heart is in good hands. In Sufism such a person is a Pīr or Walī Allāh – a Friend of God.

With the permission of his silsila[16],which is traced back to Moulā ‘Alī, he watches over and protects the hearts of his dervishes in a loving, safe and reliable way.

Now I would like to read a number of verses to you written by Hazrat Safī ‘Ali Shāh I. In these verses, he tells about Moula ‘Alī and the function of a Pīr. He tells us how the inner ‘Alī is born in the heart of a traveller (sālik) on the mystical Path:

“For there exists another Ka‘ba, in the body of the microcosm – man.

There, the spiritual ‘Alī is born from the mother, the ‘nafs’,

and from the father, the Divine Spirit.

By his holy and pure breath, the Pīr unites them.

When these two [17] are melted together,

a light is born in the garden of the heart.

His name is peace and physically he resembles Adam[18].”

I hope that we can empty our hearts of the inner enemy, so we may find this heart prepared for this spiritual journey. A journey that can lead to full inner freedom only with the safe, protecting help and guidance of a Master. Thus do I express my wish that you may all grow into a blooming and fragrant rose, bathing in full light.

With these words I have come to the end of my lecture, and I wish to thank you all most heartily for your attention,

Yā ‘Alī Madad [19]

Rotterdam, 20th August 2005

[1]Moulā ‘Alī (often the honorific Moulā is also transliterated as Mawlā) = ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib. He was the Prophet Muhammad’s nephew and son-in-law. He was born on Friday the 13th of the month Rajab (according to the Islamic lunar calendar) in 600 CE  in the Ka‘ba in Mecca (in present-day Saudi Arabia) and died at the age of 63 in the city of Kufa (in present-day Iraq), after having been mortally wounded by the sword of a fanatic while performing his morning prayers in the Mosque of Kufa. His tomb is in Najaf, near the city of Kufa, in Iraq.

[2]Safī ‘Alī Shāh, Hājj Mīrzā Hasan Bāqer Isfahānī (or Yazdī), Iran. Founder of the Ne‘matollahi Safialishahi Sufi Order, born in 1834 CE in Isfahan, died in 1899 CE in Tehran, where his tomb is to be found.

[3]Born in 1207 CE in Balkh, a city in the Khorasan region. Khorasan now is a province in the East of Iran, but during the Middle Ages, when it was known as “the Greater Khorasan”, it covered parts of today’s Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Balkh now lies in the North of Afghanistan. He passed away on 17th December 1273 CE in Konya, Turkey.

[4]The Prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca, probably  in 570 CE. He died in 632 CE in the city of Medina, in present-day Saudi Arabia.

[5]TheMasnawi is a poetic work that deals with life in general, self-examination and mysticism. It comprises six volumes and the original version in Farsi contains 25,623 verses.

[6]Taken from Reynold A. Nicholson’s translation of the Masnawi.

[7]The evil qualities of woman originate from the nafs, but the nafs itself is the source of all evil in the world. (From: Masnawi VII, Commentary by Reynold A. Nicholson).

[8]When a number of sugar-cane stems grow closely together, it keeps the soil moist, and thus their ability to grow is increased (Source: Masnawi VII, Commentary by Reynold A. Nicholson).

[9]Sa‘dī, Muslihuddīn (born in 1184 CE in Shiraz, died in the same city somewhere between 1283/91(?) CE, a world-famous Persian poet, who has become known in the West primarily through his works ‘The Orchard’ (Bustan), written in 1257 CE and ‘The Rose Garden’ (Gulistan), written in 1258 CE. The quotation above comes from the latter work. One of his poems adorns the entrance to the Hall of Nations of the UN-building in New York.

[10]Rāzī, Najmuddīn Dāya (born in Rey – a city in former Khorasan, very close to present-day Tehran – died in 1221 in Bagdad, Iraq; Mirsād-ul-‘Ibād can be obtained in the English translation by Hamid Algar, ‘The Path of God’s Bondsman from Origin to Return’, published by: Delmar, New York: Caravan Books, 1982. ISBN: 088206052X. In Konya, Rāzī met Moulana Rumi and the renowned Sufi Master Sadruddīn Qūnyawī (d. 1274 CE).

[11]Mukhammas is the name of a Persian form of poetry in five-line verses. Amongst other writings, Hazrat Safī ‘Alī Shāh Ihas written a Mukhammas, consisting of fifty-four verses. This poem deals with the way a Pīr guides his disciple to God on the Sufi Path.

[12]Traveller on the mystical Path.

[13]“Garden” means “Heavenly Garden” or “Paradise”.

[14]Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muhammad Hāfez-e Shīrāzī: born in Shiraz (Persia) between 1320 and 1326 CE. He died in Shiraz at the age of 69. Hafez’s mystical poetry has made him world-famous. His numerous writings have been translated into many languages.

[15]Khizr, also called the immortal ‘green man’, appears to those in need of guidance. See also Qur’ān, Sūra (18) – “The Cave”, 65:82.

[16]I.e.the chain of succession. In the Ne‘matollahi Safialishahi Sufi Order this line of succession goes back to Shāh Ne‘matollāh Walī Kermānī ( 3rd January 1331, Aleppo, Syria – 14th April 1431 CE, Kerman, Persia).

[17]i.e.‘the nafs and the (spiritual) heart’.


[19]i.e. “O ‘Alī, help”, meaning: “I call upon Love to help you” (a traditional greeting among Persian Sufis).


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