Friday, May 27, 2016

A Worthy Adversar, Part 8 The Heart is a Battlefield

The title of my khutbah today is “The Heart is a Battlefield”, it is part 8 in the Worthy Adversary series on Iblis.

In the previous khutbah, I spoke on how Sufis believe that while God is closer to us than our jugular vein (Qur’an  50:16), Iblis runs through our veins, as described in the hadith “Inna ‘sh-Shayṭān yajrī min al-insān majrā ‘d-dam.”

Furthermore, based on hadith references, every human is assigned their own personal shaytan. Even the Prophet Muhammad had a shaytan, but his shaytan converted to Islam and only urged the prophet to do good deeds. While we may not be able to get our personal shaytan to convert to Islam like the Prophet, the Sufis believed that these shaytans could be tamed, trained or at least given a wide berth. An essential part of the Sufi education program was to find methods whereby the personal shaytan would have limited or restricted influence over the seeker of truth.

For the Sufis, the arena in which a battle of good versus evil occurs is man’s heart (qalb). The two warring armies consist of God, typically represented by his angel (malak), and Iblis, represented as the enemy (‘adu). Each side tries to win over the individual through reasoned argument, cajoling, desire, perception, and so on. Al-Ghazali stated that neither faction (good vs. evil) has an advantage at the beginning. However, if an individual leans towards the temptations of the enemy, his heart becomes a breeding ground for Iblis. If the individual adheres to the good, the angels will polish his heart. If all of this sounds a bit like a Donald Duck cartoon with a mini good angel on one of Donald’s right shoulders and a little devil on the left shoulder, that is actually a pretty useful mental model. Donald Duck, with his willful behavior and his short fuse when he doesn’t get things to go exactly his way, also points to a reality that extends beyond the realm of waterfowl.

In the Sufi literature, the heart is a malleable instrument, easily disturbed and transformed. In Sufi writings, you will often see the imagery of a fluttering bird, a boiling pot, or a feather lying on the desert floor and tossed about aimlessly by the winds—all of which signify the condition of the human heart. Al-Ghazali lumped hearts into four categories: 1) a heart with a lamp shining brightly within it- the heart of a true believer, 2) a black, inverted heart- that of the unbeliever, 3) an uncircumcised heart attached to its covering- the heart of the hypocrite, and 4) the heart containing many layers of both faith and hypocrisy. Reminds me of an onion, but Al-Ghazali had a different take on it. He believed the layers of faith are like green herbs that would be nourished and made to grow and multiply, whereas the layers of hypocrisy are infected with sores that fester and spread via pus.

When a person sins, according to the Sufis the sin leaves a scar, or black mark, on the surface of heart. Only repentance can polish the heart, remove the sin, and return the heart to its original luster. In this case, it might be helpful to think of the heart as an old fashioned kerosene lamp protected by a big glass chimney or globe. If the glass becomes smudged, less light is available. Al-Ghazali wrote, “These sinful vestiges rise like black smoke to the mirror of the heart, continually accumulating there, time and time again, until the heart is blackened, obscured, and completely veiled from God Most High…” In our current age of electricity, this metaphor of the dirtiness of smoke may lose its power because most of us do not clean smoky glass chimneys or soot stained walls. But try to imagine the air pollution that results from the burning of coal and you may get close to what Al-Ghazali was talking about.

In the Sufi architecture of the heart, there is an outer cover, which is sensitive to sin, and within the heart there is a satanic force which the Sufis closely link to the nafs, or the lower soul as they refer to it. The term nafs is a rather ambiguous term, subject to many interpretations within the greater Muslim tradition and I have spoken about this in a previous sermon (Methodical Soul Imaging).  Even within the mystical Islamic tradition, Sufi writers were not consistent in their definition of nafs. Some ascribed total identity to the nafs with Iblis (ex. Rumi, “The nafs and Satan have been one from the very beginning, and have been envious and hostile to Adam.”).  Others declared the nafs to be Satan’s instrument. Al-Muhasibi wrote, “…for it (the nafs) is a greater enemy to you than Iblis himself, and Iblis gains power over you only by means of it and your consent to it.” The Sufis never offer a precise, universally accepted definition of nafs but that is ok and may not matter too much for their training purposes. Both positions reflect the characteristics of immanence (permeating through the heart) and independence as manifested by Iblis.

The overwhelming Sufi approach to the nafs is to see nafs as the origin of all blameworthy impulses. However, some Quranic scholars have placed the nafs into three different categories:
1. An-nafs al ammara (12:53) “And I declare my soul not innocent. Truly the soul is that which incites to evil except when my Lord has mercy.”
2. Nafs al-lawwama (75:2) “And I swear an oath by the reproachful soul”
3. An-nafs al-mutma’inna (89:27-28) “O soul, one that is at peace! Return to your Lord,…”

The Sufis see nafs in a predominately negative light, an-nafs al-ammara. Al-Ghazali posits the lower soul has four dominant characteristics: 1) propensity to arrogant self-inflation / megalomania 2) a leaning towards deception, ruse, envy, and suspicion 3) gratification of bestial instincts (i.e. food, drink, and sex),  3) claims to being a devoted servant of God.

Rumi compares the Iblis-nafs to an innocent hedgehog who rarely sticks his head out of the burrow for fear of predators. But, when the right opportunity presents itself, the hedgehog rushes out of his burrow, spines erect, and not even the snake can stop him.

In the arena of the heart, the combat between the Iblis-nafs-mini devil and God-malak-angel uses weapons called khawatir or khatarat. Khawatir or khatarat are impulses, ideas, or notions. These impulses do not arise out of any free choice on the part of the individual and are therefore not spiritually beneficial or blameworthy. What is blameworthy is one’s subsequent actions- how you act or do not act on these khawatir. If khawatir do not come from free choice, it sounds like the Sufis are describing, what we would call in the 21st century, the subconscious mind. Or maybe not. In any case, I get the visual image of little arrows- khawatir- that the angel and devil are firing out at each other across the heart battlefield.

Many Sufis believe it is possible to trace a khatir (singular of khatarat) back to a particular source based on the nature of the act suggested, but they concede that there are often situations so ambiguous that it is impossible to decide whether the khatir traces back to Iblis, the nafs, God, the malak or a combination of all four. Al-Kalabadhi offered an introduction to a systematic analysis:

“Some shaykhs claim that there are four types of impulses; an impulse from God, an impulse from the angel, an impulse from the lower soul, and an impulse from the enemy. The one from God is a warning, the one from the angel urges obedience, the one from the lower soul is the call to passion, and the one from the enemy is the embellishment of sin.”

The intensity of the khatir may differ depending on the good or evil source. Al-Junayd remarked
“the difference between it (i.e. the impulse arising from Satan) and the one arising from the lower soul is that the urging of the lower soul continues to plague the individual and does not go away, while the one from Satan goes for a while and then returns to attack…This satanic impulse takes the shape and descends unexpectedly upon a man’s intellect while the impulse of the lower soul is continuous, moving naturally towards passion or ease.”

Al-Junayd points out that one should not assume the impulses of the lower soul are more dangerous because of their chronic quality; it is the acute attack from Satan that man suffers the greatest spiritual harm. Al-Junayd does not distinguish between the spiritual forces of God and the angel, but instead states that there are two characteristics common to all desires which come from the good: they are always in accordance with the Law, and they are embraced with great reluctance.


The Sufis worked out a complete psychological process by which the initial khatir (impulse) is brought into an actualized concrete act. The khatir, arising from a good or evil source, induced the mayl = inclination to a particular act. The mayl culminates in the formation of an intention or action plan,  called al-hamm. Al-Ghazali embellished a bit using slightly different jargon: khatir (impulse), sets desire = raghba, desire prompts firm intention and resolve (‘azm), ‘azm steers the will (niya) towards the movement of the body (a’ḍa).

Although the Sufis developed this causal model of behavior, most shaykhs did not share these philosophical discussions with their followers, or murids. They thought it would distract their novices from the personal concerns that sparked the original inquiry. Instead, Sufi masters would link abstract terms with traditional, concrete concepts.  Al-Ghazali linked negative khawatir with the Quranic waswasa (Iblis’ whispered temptations):

“The messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace!- mentioned the meaning of waswasa. It comprises the notions (khawatir) that come to the mind of the struggling wayfarer…And every notion has a cause which requires a name. The name of the cause of this notion is Satan, and it is not conceivable that a man can be separated from him.”

The Sufi novice, or murid, must be able to recognize and identify the cacophony of confused desires, feelings and suggestions that are felt within oneself. The most important criteria is to be able distinguish the whisperings of the devil versus the impulses of the angel: higher spirit pitted against lower soul. Al-Makki offers a few guidelines: suggestions which urge one to do good are worthy of notice. Impulses that preoccupy and upset the heart, particularly on account of past deeds and future concerns- are most likely to be satanic waswasa, intended only to obscure one’s devotion and trust in God. The more subtle assaults of Iblis consist of worrying about the where, when, or why of beneficial spiritual states. Worrying just makes these spiritual states slip away. If one fights against the bad enemy, God will reward the seeker with intimacy and hostility to Iblis. Al-Ghazali offers a more direct approach to dealing with obsessive waswasa, namely by cultivating an ascetic attitude to subdue the desires and impulses from which the khawatir are derived. Al-Ghazali urges seekers to keep family, earthly goods, and intense fantasy life at an arm’s length and instead rely on God.

New tools to deal with discerning the inner workings on the heart battlefield continue through one’s spiritual journey. Al-Muhasibi described it this way:

“It is like someone who is in great darkness going along the road…His eye are of no use to him without a lamp, nor is the lamp of any use to him without healthy vision. Neither sight nor the lamp are of any use to him if he does not throw up his gaze to where he puts his foot, and proceed with caution. And if he looks up into the sky or turns around, even if his sight is sound and his lamp is shining brightly, he will be like someone with neither sight nor lamp. And if he casts a glance towards the ground without his lamp with him, he will be like someone without sight. Healthy vision is much like the intellect, and the lamp like knowledge. And looking with caution is much like careful procedure in the intellect, seeking to obtain insight through knowledge, and turning attention to what comes to mind in accord with the Qur’an and sunna.” Al-Muhasibi, Kitab ar-ri’aya

The Sufis felt the human heart was a battlefield arising from the mists of impulses and ideas, with constant skirmishes between the forces of good and evil to determine human behavior. It is a confusing place, best described by Shaykha Benetar,

“You're begging me to go
Then making me stay
Why do you hurt me so bad?
It would help me to know
Do I stand in your way
Or am I the best thing you've had?”

My closing du’a is from Quran 18:10 “Our Lord! Give us mercy from Your presence and shape for us right mindedness in our affair.” Ameen
Rabbana atina min ladunka rahmatan wa hayyi’ lana min amrina rashada.

The Sublime Quran, English translation by Laleh Bakhtiar
“Satan’s Tragedy and Redemption: Iblis in Sufi Psychology” by Peter Awn in Studies in the History of Religions (supplement to NUMEN) Vol XLIV, edited by M. Heerma van Voss, EJ Sharpe and RJZ Weblowsky, (Leiden: EJ Brill Publishers) 1983
“Love is a Battlefield”, song lyrics by Pat Benetar