In order to learn how to see God in oneself and things, one has to learn how to be aware of God constantly. One has to see the shining light of the risen sun in a landscape that others perceive as shrouded in midnight. All the practices of Islam and Sufism are focused on one goal – allowing people to open up their eyes and see. Numerous Koranic verses and prophetic sayings speak of this goal with a great variety of images and expressions. One of the most succinct of these and one that has often been taken by Sufi teachers as the definition of the path to God is tazkiyat an-nafs, a phrase that is usually translated as “purification of the soul.”
The phrase is derived from a Koranic verse that I would translate, with some hesitation, as follows: “By the soul and That which shaped it, and inspired it to its depravity and its godwariness. Prosperous is he who purifies it, and failed has he who buries it” (91:7–10). According to this verse, only those who purify their souls achieve “prosperity.” The Koranic context makes clear that this prosperity pertains to the next world and that the prosperity of this world is irrelevant, if not positively dangerous. Those who fail to purify their souls and instead “bury” their souls – as if they were hiding their souls under the ground – will not be prosperous. Instead, they will be miserable when they move on to their final home, whether or not they consider themselves prosperous here.
Like all translations of Koranic passages, this translation is problematic and tentative. To begin with, “purify” is definitely a misleading translation for tazkiya. All the dictionaries tell us that tazkiya has two senses, though the lexicographers disagree as to which sense is more basic.
One meaning of the verb is to purify and cleanse, the other to augment and increase. Hence tazkiyat an-nafs, as the Koran commentators recognize, can be understood to mean both “purification” of the nafs and “augmentation” of the nafs. Most commentators stress the first meaning, apparently for theological reasons. After all, the primary task of Muslims is to submit themselves to God, and this cannot happen until they rid themselves of things that God does not like. This can be called “purification.” However, it is obvious that the soul also needs to grow and to increase in stature with God’s help. Bringing about this growth can also be called tazkiya.
Thus, two things need to take place, and both are implied in the word tazkiya – purification and augmentation. We can also consider purification as occurring simultaneously with the soul’s growth and increase, and thus the two senses of the word coalesce. The complementarity of these two meanings can be seen in some of the ways in which the word tazkiya is used. The dictionaries tell us that it can be employed for planting seeds or raising cattle, in which cases it means neither to purify nor to augment, but something that combines these two senses. When seeds are planted in the ground, they are purified of everything alien to them and exposed to God’s bounties – earth, water, and sunlight.
This prepares the way for the seeds to increase and grow. Those who plant the seeds neither “purify” them nor “augment” them. Rather, they put them into a situation where they can thrive, prosper, and bring out their own potentiality. Hence tazkiyat annafs means not only “to purify the soul,” but also to allow the soul to grow and thrive by opening it up to the bounty of God. A better translation might be “cultivation of the soul.”