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Back in the day if I picked up a book, I will only put it down once I was done reading. I read the fourth Harry Potter book before I did the first three. When I turned 13, I asked my aunts for the three books. I stayed up all night and only slept the next afternoon when I had finished all three and the fourth again for good measure. Anything and everything I got my hands on I would read.

Then I grew up and became an adult and I would rarely read and when I did I would take weeks to finally finish. On the Metro, it was easier to read a glossy magazine than a pick up a fat political thriller.

Okay I am ranting again. Anyways so a few days ago, in order to re-ignite my love of the books, I decided to go on a reading challenge – where I read 50 books in 3 months. Tall order, but I am feeling pretty confident.

The reading challenge I opted for has different categories and one was ‘A book a friend recommended’. I borrowed ‘The Forty Rules of Love’ by Elif Shafak from a friend a few months ago and finally read it as part of my challenge.

And boy, am I glad I did.

The book flits between a dichotomy – the new world of Ella – the perfect housewife with  a philandering husband, three kids and a perfectly laid out table. The yesteryear friendship of the Sufi poet Rumi and the wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz forms the contrasting aspect of the dichotomy. Ella reads a manuscript set on this beautiful friendship as part of her new job only to have her world literally turned on its axis.

Ramadan is upon us and for me personally it is a time of personal reflection and discovery. The last Ramadan passed by with me going through periods of intense submission to Allah and the next minute missing my prayers. This year I decided to approach it by discovering my faith through the discovery of myself.

The Forty Rules of Love struck a chord with me especially since it examined the Sufi take on submission or attaining the highest level of faith or iman. Shams of Tabriz in one chapter of the book discusses the seven stages it takes to overpower one’s nafs in order ot attain the Path to Truth. Nafs to translate lightly means self or soul.

Nafs is an integral part of Islam. The human soul is in constant battle with the Divine Powers of God that attracts him towards good and then the Powers of the Devil which attracts him towards the bad and evil. When one overcomes the Satanic powers or the evil forces, one is victorious and is in the company of the pious or the steadfast.

“… By the soul and (by) Him who made it perfect, and then inspired it to understand what is wrong and what is right for it. Truly is successful the one who purifies (his soul).” (Holy Qur’an, 91: 7-9)

Everyone I am sure has heard the term jihad – simply because the media does not let you forget how the ‘Islamic or Muslim’ terrorists are waging a holy war or jihad on the infidels. Jihad, for me and most Muslims I am sure, transcends the bloodshed and is something way bigger. For me, jihad is a personal battle against one’s nafs, it is that fight against the evils that plague us be it jealousy or anger or resentment.

Coming back to Shafak’s book and the seven stages to overcome nafs, Shams of Tabriz says the first nafs is the Depraved Nafs or the most primitive battle where we are in constant loggerheads with worldly needs and wants, where we blame everyone but ourselves for what goes wrong in our life, where our worldly pursuits leave us unhappy. Next is Accusing Nafs – where we finally begin to self-loathe and see ourselves as the problem. For Shams of Tabriz, this is the first step towards reaching that inner peace. The stage in this personal battle is the Inspired Nafs where one finally learns the meaning of surrender. Patience, wisdom and the seeking of knowledge are what categorizes this stage. The next stage is that of Serene Nafs where a person reaches a higher level of consciousness  and finally a sense of happiness and peace within. People in seek of the highest level of contentment next experience the Pleased Nafs where whatever test God puts them through they deal with it serenely and with a sense of calm. The sixth stage the Pleasing Nafs sees an individual radiate positive energy sharing their knowledge and wisdom with all – the teachers, the Masters. The final stage or the Purified Nafs sees the individual become Insan-i Kâmil, a perfect human being according to the Shams of Tabriz.

While I do not believe there’s such a thing as a perfect human being, the book made me think of what it means to go on a personal discovery and examining my faith – believing in Islam is more than just seeing things at face value. It is very easy to take an ayah from the Qur’an and say that ‘Islam allows wife beating’ without examining the context and understanding the background to the verse.

And this is exactly what I intend to do this Holy Month – understand what it means to surrender to the Oneness of Allah, understand what it means to attain that complete faith through the inner battle with my Nafs.


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