riyada in arabic means "training" or "discipline". It was used by the arabs in relation to horse taming. Sufis refer to their discipline as "riyadat an-nafs": disciplining the soul / training the ego. Today, the word riyada has come to mean "sports". There is an Arabic proverb that says: "The purpose of sports (riyada) is not to win cups, but to discipline the soul". This blog is here to help me discipline my soul and train my body.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Work of Men

This is the work as I see it, the path...

The nafs can never be destroyed permantently, for it is what makes us human. It is impossible to exist without a nafs. It is, however, possible to control and discipline the nafs, for it is the beast that carries us as the Sufis say. Al-Ghazzali gives an example of the nafs as a horse, if we spend all our time looking after it and feeding it, we would never get anywhere. Instead we're supposed to give it just enough attention so that it can carry us were we want to go without hampering us.

I think this example is incomplete. The nafs starts out like an untamed horse. The purpose of the work is to tame it, hence the term riyadat an-nafs, for riyada was used by the arabs in refernce to horse taming. But once the nafs is obedient and under control, why keep it weak and pathetic? Instead, we must give it strength and power so that it can carry us faster to our destination, and jump on top of any obstacles we face. The matter is not that of 'having ego=bad", "no ego = good". It's a matter of being controlled by your nafs vs. controling your nafs. If you have tamed the horse, keep it well fed and powerful so that it may proudly carry you.

The Prophet and the Sahaba had their egos under control and completely subdued so that they were the very personification of humility. But they remained fearsome men who asserted themselves. Sayyidna Umar walked around with a whip and everyone was afraid of him.... That however did not mean that his ego was not subdued and that his heart was not one of the most tender hearts, for he used to cry much in the presence of the Prophet (pbuh).

There were two men, however, that no one ever dared go against, and Umar was not one of them... They were the great commander Khalid ibn al-Walid, and Sayyidna Ali ibn Abi Talib. But there was a huge difference between them: Khalid had a huge ego and did not act like a proper Muslim, for which reason the Prophet told him that he can never reach the level of one of his companions, even if he donated a mountain's worth of gold to charity. Umar also sought to remove him from command of the armies for the same reason. As for sayyidna Ali however, he did not have such a ego. But still, his nafs was great and elevated. The difference here is that Khalid ibn al-Walid, the greatest army commander in history, was not able to command his own ego. He was ruled by his nafs, so that he walked proudly on the earth. Sayyidna Ali, on the other hand, ruled over his ego and controlled it, but he still asserted his nafs and was proud of his individuality and his self. Thus was sayyidna Ali and most of the blessed sahaba, may God guide us to the path of the righteous.

Imagine the kafir warrior Marhab screaming at sayyidna Ali in verse:

Khaibar knows certainly that I am Marhab
A fully armed and well-tried valorous warrior
When war comes spreading its flames.

Now imagine sayyidna Ali's reply:


(Haidar is one of the arabic names for a lion).

THEY WERE MEN! That is the real work!

The problem is that most people have fallen into (complete) predestination. When the Mu'tazila philosophers argued that man created his own actions, the proto-sunnis worried that this would take from the power of God, the All-Powerful, so they shot back with an extreme opposite philosophy, in which God creates everything so that he was the primary cause of everything. According to their logic, God destroys the world every instant and brings it back slightly different. For example, a fire does not bring water to boil (for that would be taking the power from Allah who is supposed to be the sole Agent in the world). What really happens is that Allah destroys the world and brings it back into existence an instant later with the water being a little hotter, and then destroys it and brings it back a little hotter, and so on until it reaches boiling point. In the same way, God creates all our actions and gives them to us.. This is called the iktisaab of actions. Thus all action is really done by God, but we "earn it".

This extreme view (the Ashari doctrine), a reactionry philosophy created as a response to Mu'tazilism, has become official doctrine of the Ahlul Sunna, and by extension, Sufis. But it is all predestination, and it gives mankind absolutely no power whatsoever, reducing him to nothing but a shadow, or a puppet controlled by God.

This is not the work, this is not the path. This does not mean that Mu'tazilism is better than Asharism.

However, as Shams Tabrizi says, "The school of Sunnis is closer to the work than the school of the Mu'tazilites. The latter is near to philosophy". Thus the school of the Ashar'ites (for that is what Shams meant when he said the school of sunnis, as opposed to the rival Mu'tazilites) is still better than that of the Mu'tazila, but in many ways it is wrong.

"These great ones, they all fell into predestination - these gnostics. But the Path is something other than that. There is subtlety outside of predestination. God calls you "freely-choosing." Why do you call yourself predestined? He calls you "powerful" and He calls you "freely-choosing" because commandments and prohibitions, promises and threats, and sending messengers all demand free choice. There are a few verses on predestination, but not many."

- Shams Tabrizi [1].

Thus, the work is not that of predestination, for predestination takes all power out of our hands and leaves us weak and helpless. The work is other than that, for it requires WORK. It requires man to become a wali (sovereign, ruler) over his nafs, and his attributes, so that he may become a wali (a friend of God). He must be a powerful ruler. Not a helpless one who says that he has no power, like Abu Yazid when he said Glory be to me. That is predestination, because it means that by ridding oneself of his soul, all that remains is God's controlling of his servant, and so it is God who is speaking and saying "Glory be to me"!

"Glory be to me" is predestination. They all sank down in predestination." - Shams Tabrizi

"What is the meaning of walayat [sovereignty, sanctity]? Is it that someone should have armies and cities and fortresses? No! Rather, walayat is that someone should have walayat over his own soul, his own states, his own attributes, his own speech, and his own silence. Severity should be in the place of severity, and gentleness in the place of gentleness.

He must not start being a predestinarian like the gnostics: "I am helpless, and He is powerful." No, you must have power over all your own attributes, over silence in the place of silence, over response in the place of response, over severity in the place of severity, and over gentleness in the place of gentleness. Otherwise, a person's attributes will be his affliction and chastisement, because he does not rule over them. Rather, they rule over him."

- Shams Tabrizi [2]

This was exactly Allama Muhammad Iqbal's criticism of (most) sufis. Iqbal himself was very influenced by sufism, if not a sufi. His spiritual path began with a dream in which he saw Jalaluddin Rumi, and he considered Rumi to be his teacher. In his greatest work, Javed Nama, it is Rumi who takes him into the seven heavens and guides him in his miraj. But he criticized popular poets like Hafiz because of his insitence on the annihilation of the nafs and that brings weakness and helplessnes.

When asked about his idea of the nafs, Iqbal pointed to the Qur'an which said

“And do not become like the ones who forget Allah, for Allah makes them forget their own Nafs (soul). They are the ones who have wronged.” (Quran 59:19)

Iqbal’s individual khudi (nafs) runs contrary to the traditional theologian’s or devotional sufi’s view. Iqbal’s self is like a drop of water. Hallaj’s voice “I am the creative Truth”, in Iqbal’s eye, would not be a drop drowning in the limitless ocean; rather it would be a drop that remains outside the ocean and yet, claims to be a part of the ocean. Devotional Sufism encourages the drop to lose its individuality, but for Iqbal the ego or the Khudi of the individual drop is more sacred. It retains its independence with respect to the ocean, while confessing its atomistic essence to the be the same as that of the ocean. [3]

The nafs is too sacred to be destroyed. We must not lose our individuality and claim to be helpless. Instead, according to Iqbal, we must ASSERT our individuality and we must use our nafs as the animal with which we will do our work, travel the path, CHANGE THE WORLD. And Iqbal did change the world. Without him, there would be no country called Pakistan. It was due to his writings, his wisdom, his determination that this country was created, because he believe every individual had the POWER to change the world, that we were not helpless puppets on strings, controlled by God, "earning" our actions from the heavens. Iqbal travelled on the path and has many mystical experiences, including the dream in which he saw Rumi and a dream in which he saw sayyidna Abu Bakr as-Siddiq (r.a).

Instead of negating the self, like most Sufis, he believed in asserting one's sacred Selfhood, and believed that this Selfhood held unlimited potential.... Iqbal argues that the ultimate purpose for man is not to have one's ego absorbed by God and negated so that one loses his identity, but instead that man absorbs within his self as many of God's qualities as possible. That is the highest rank, the rank of God's Viceregency. We are to "capture" the attributes of the angels, of the prophets, of God Himself. In the words of Rumi:

Under the empyrean’s fortresses are men who can
Seize angels, capture prophets, and get God Himself [4]

Thus Iqbal calls to men:

"O man of courage! Cast thy net for God Himself." [4]

What is life but the revealing of Selfhood’s essence?
Assert thyself- thy essence has remained unknown.[4]

Get out of the whirlpool of Being and Not Being;
Transcend this world that gains and losses counts:
Build up the spirit of Selfhood in thy soul;
Build a Kaaba within thyself, like Abraham.

Sufism says "As our fate has been pre-determined in our absence, if it is not to your satisfaction, do not complain". Or, "If the world does not agree with you or suit you, you should agree with the world". But Iqbal, the mystic, says "If the world does not agree with you, arise against it!". "The world" means the destiny and life of human beings. The human being is a wave, not a static shoreline. His or her being and becoming is in motion. What do I mean? It is to be in motion. In the mysticism of Iqbal, which is neither Hindu mysticism nor religious fanaticism, but Quranic mysticism, the human being must change the world. Quranic Islam has substituted "heavenly fate" in which the human being is nothing, with "human fate" in which the human being plays an important role. This is the greatest revolutionary, as well as progressive and constructive principle which Islam has created by its world view, philosophy of life, and ethics. [5]

There is no "heavenly fate". There is "human fate", where the divine determination of the universe depends on the deeds of man. Like the Qur'an says, "Allah does not change a people until they change what is in themselves". In other words, "destiny is the wrong term for divine dispensation which is conditioned by the deeds, even by the will of the individual self. "[4]

And so Iqbal says,

Raise thy Selfhood so high, that before each dispensation,
God Himself may ask thee what thy wishes are.

Whether or not you agree with everything Iqbal says, he is right in his critique of predetermination as causing helplessness and weakness in the umma. We must believe and know that we have the power to change the world, not to ride the currents of destiny, as some might say. The problem with most gnostics, says Shams Tabrizi, is that "they all sank down in predestination."

But there is "a subtlety outside of predestination" as Shams says. We are powerful. We can change the world. We are not puppets, or shadows. We are real. Our selves are real. Our selves are sacred. We must assert ourselves, like sayyidna Ali when he shouted,


Like our Prophet, when the Muslim army was scattered at the battle of Hunayn and he roared out loud so that he would draw them back to his voice, in verse:

ana annabiyy, bilaa khadhib!
ana'bnu abdul muttalib!!

"I am the Prophet, no lie!
The son (i.e grandson) of Abdul Muttalib!!"

Like Shams Tabrizi when he said,

"What then do you know of me? I went into that thicket where lions wouldn't dare to go ... and awesomeness settled into me."

Assert yourselves oh Muslims, go into the thicket were lions wouldn't dare to go.. Become the lions of Islam like Hamza, become the lions of Allah like Ali... Tame your souls and then ride them to the heavens, and cast your nets... Perhaps you'll catch something big ;) That is the real work, the work of men.

"'When the dust settles you will see
if you're riding a horse or a jackass.'

Several times the dust has cleared, and I saw that I'm riding an Arabian stallion." - Shams Tabrizi [6]


1. Me & Rumi pg 86.
2. Ibid.
3. Highlights of Iqbal’s Thought (pdf)
4. Intro to Iqbal's Poetry
5. A Manifestation of Self-reconstruction and Reformation
6. Me & Rumi pg 129.


Blogger Steve said...

but if there is no predestination, then can Surah 2, verse 115 (one of many verses) which states that God is all knowing, be true?

And if God does know what will occur in the future, then how do we as individuals have any agency to change the path that lies before us (as the outcome of our dilemmas are already known to God)?

Moreover, one might even ask if predestination exists, how can people be judged by God for acting the way they were predestined to?

An all-knowing God, predestination, and a concept of morality leaves much to be desired.

May 4, 2006 at 10:40 AM

Blogger Steve said...

ALSO your points about the consequences of predestination being negative in the agency of the umma are well taken, but again, does this prove that there is/is not predestination merely by virtue of the fact that were it to be true, it would be ideologically inconvenient?

May 4, 2006 at 10:43 AM

Blogger Silencer said...


first of all yes God is all-knowing but I don't think that necessarily means there has to be predestination..

now just because our human brains cant figure out how that's possible doesnt mean its impossible.

Iqbal for example says we only think it's impossible because we are the victims of a "durational, linear concept of time, not being able to see another world, a timeless world..

O prisoner of days and nights, look into thyself!
And behold another world in the recesses of thy heart.
Thou hast sown the seeds of darkness in thy soil,
And hast imagined time as a linear measure.

another possibility:

if God is looking at us from a higher dimension, then God can see our future without controlling it. For example, us 3D people looking at a two dimensional comic strip world, we know the future of what will happen to the cartoon character without controlling his future. Maybe even though our future has not played itself out for us yet, it can be seen from a higher dimension as all one big comic strip...

i dont know..

you should read the post i made called In Herod's Keep. Or at least read this.

it probably doesnt have all the answers but should be quite interesting! i haven't finished it yet.

May 4, 2006 at 7:12 PM

Blogger Silencer said...

p.s. i dont believe the possibility of God seeing our future without controlling it like a comic strip to be true, but it was just an example.

anyway i dont think an answer could ever be presented for this question, and so think it wise not to waste time on it.

May 5, 2006 at 12:50 AM


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