The Passing Away of Ego-Self in Islam

In Sufism, which is the mystical approach to God within Islam, an “inward dimension of Islam,” there are many teachings about the path of sacrificing and transcending the “self.”

(This is the continuation of a series exploring the nature of the human ego in the world’s religions and science, beginning with this post.)

In Sufism, which is the mystical approach to God within Islam, an “inward dimension of Islam,” there are many teachings about the path of sacrificing and transcending the “self.” There is a purification of the “inner self” that must occur in order to enter into Divinity, into unity with Allah. Sufis believe that they can enter into this “divine presence” during this life. This is done through a combination of repentance of sins, removing evil traits from one’s character, and developing virtues.

Sufis use the term nafs to refer to the ego in its unrefined state, “which they consider to be the lowest dimension of a person’s inward existence – his animal and satanic nature.” The nafs “incites us to commit evil,” and is the “worst enemy” we have. It is said that Muhammad once stated that the struggle against the nafs is a “big struggle,” even greater than war, which recalls the wrestle that Jacob had with an “angel.” The nafs “runs after material possession, sensual desires and animalistic pleasures.” It replaces God with a love of itself (compare 2 Thessalonians 2:4). It is often hypocritical. The purification process involves seeing this ego for what it is, and overcoming its primitive and animalistic nature.

There is an emphasis on direct personal experience of the Divine. This can happen through something Sufis call fanaa, which means “passing away” or “annihilation.” What is “passing away” or being “annihilated”? It is the ego-self, while remaining alive. Wikipedia notes:

Fana represents a breaking down of the individual ego and a recognition of the fundamental unity of God, creation, and the individual self. Persons having entered this enlightened state obtain awareness of the intrinsic unity (Tawhid) between Allah and all that exists, including the individual’s mind. It is coupled conceptually with baqaa, subsistence, which is the state of pure consciousness of and abidance in God.

You might notice here some striking similarities with the prior discussions of the other major religions. The ego breaks down, and in that breakdown one realizes the unity of one’s Self in God, the unity between what One really is and Allah, the All. It is a state of pure consciousness and true identity.

There is an insightful quote by Rumi, a significant Sufi mystic:

When the Shaykh (Halláj) said ‘I am God’ and carried it through (to the end), he throttled (vanquished) all the blind (sceptics).

When a man’s ‘I’ is negated (and eliminated) from existence, then what remains? Consider, O denier.

The following short story is attributed to another Sufi mystic, Abu Yazid al-Bistami:

Abu Yazid al Bistami approached the Divine Presence and knocked on the gate.

He was asked, “Who is there?”

“I have come, oh my Lord,” replied Abu Yazid.

He was told, “There isn’t any place here for two. Leave your ego behind and come.”

When Abu Yazid once again approached the Divine Presence and was asked who it was, he said, “You, oh Lord.”

Fanaa is regarded as the highest level of spirituality, when one’s “self” is annihilated and what is left is realized as One in Allah. One becomes the “Universal Man,” the al-Insān al-Kāmil, a “complete person,” a “perfect person,” or “Perfect Human.” It was a title that was given to Muhammad as one such person, the prototype of such Perfection. It is said that this Perfection is one’s original state of being, and resides deeply within the human being, and that realizing it is a reversion back or return back to one’s original pure state. It is a return to a state of Oneness with Reality, being reunited with God. It is a self-realization that manifests the Divine. God is described as Tawhid, which is the indivisible “Oneness of God.”

In the next post I’ll begin discussing how ego dissolution is being recognized by scientists as a state of consciousness.

(Next post in series: Ego Transcendence in Secular Science)


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