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Sufi Fable on the Cities of the Soul

.. a Sufi fable in which a mysterious city becomes a metaphor for the layers of the human soul and for the created world, simultaneously.

... a Wayfarer journeys inward to the castle at the Center and encounters the Principles, Virtues, and Vices clothed as administrators and members of the population. After passing through the outer domains of the nafs, Ammara, the Imperious City of Freedom and Pleasure, and Lawwama, the City of Self Reproach, he at last reaches Mulhima, the four districts of the inner City of Love and Inspiration. Here a guide appears who will lead him on to Self-Annihilation: "Be nought, be nought, be nought, so that you will be forever." Like one of the birds who traveled with the Hoopoe toward God in The Conference of the Birds, he reaches faqr, the total emptiness required for the soul's Return. (

As I was wandering in this temporal world, Allah led me to a straight path. Walking on it in a state between sleep and awakening, as if in a dream, I reached a city which was enveloped in darkness. It was so vast, I could neither see nor conceive of its limits. This city contained everything which was created. There were people from all nations and races. So crowded were the streets that one could hardly walk, so noisy was it that one could hardly hear oneself or others. All the ugly actions of all the creatures, all the sins known and unknown to me, surrounded me. In awe and amazement I watched the strange scene.

Far in the distance, in the apparent center of this city, there was yet another city, with high walls, huge in size. What I observed all around me led me to think that never since the beginning of time, had a ray of light from the sun of truth fallen upon this city. Not only were the sky and the roads and houses of this city in total darkness, but its citizens, who were like bats, had minds and hearts as dark as night. Their nature and their behavior were like those of wild dogs growling and fighting with each other for a mouthful of food, obsessed by lust and anger, they killed and tore each other apart. Their only pleasure was in drinking and in shameless sex, without discrimination of male and female, wives and husbands or others. Lying, cheating, gossiping, slander, stealing was their custom, with total absence of concern for others, conscience or fear of Allah. Many among them called themselves Muslims. In fact, some were considered by them to be wise men - shaykhs, teachers, men of knowledge, and preachers.

Some among them who became aware of Allah’s commandments, of that which is right and lawful in the eyes of Allah and men, and of that which Allah forbids, tried to act upon these and found satisfaction in it and could no longer associate with the people of the city. Neither could the people of the city tolerate them. I heard they took refuge in the walled city I had seen in the center of this realm.

I stayed in this outer city for a while. At length I found someone who could hear me and understand what I said. I asked him the name of the place. He told me that it was Ammara, the imperious city, the city of freedom where everyone did what he pleased. I inquired about their state. He said that it was the city of joy, which derived from carelessness and heedlessness. In the beautiful darkness that surrounded it, each one thought that he was the only one. I asked him the name of their ruler. He informed me that he was called ‘Aql al-Ma’ash, His Highness Cleverness, and that he was an astrologer, a sorcerer, an engineer who engineered things, a doctor who gave life to the ones who otherwise would die, an intelligent learned king who had no equal in this world. His advisers and ministers were called Logic, his judges depended on the ancient Law of Common Sense, his stewards were called Imagination and Daydreaming. He said that all the citizens were totally loyal to their ruler, not only respecting and appreciating him and his government but loving him, for they all felt an affinity to him in their nature, in their customs, in their behavior.

I, possessing the same intelligence, and with it knowing that indeed the king of this city was the perfect master of all the sciences of this world, wished to learn these sciences in order to be rich and famous. I stayed for a while in the king’s service and learned from him many clever things. I learned commerce, politics, military sciences, manufacturing arms, the law of man, and arts to glorify man. I became world-renowned. As men pointed me out with their fingers and talked about me, my ego rejoiced. Since all the parts of my being were totally under the influence of my worldly intelligence, they all found energy in the rejoicing of my ego and rushed to spend that energy in worldly delights and the pleasures of the flesh, without any consideration of whether all this hurt others, or even myself.

Something inside of me at times saw that all this was wrong, but I had no strength nor ability to prevent it. That part of me which saw was pained, and wished to get out of the darkness of this city. One such day, when the pain was most acute, I went to my master the king, His Highness Cleverness, and daringly asked, “How is it that the men of knowledge of your realm never act upon their knowledge and fear Allah? How is it that none in this city fear the punishment of Allah, while they fear your punishment? How is it that there is no light here, nor outside, nor in your people’s hearts? How is that your subjects appear as human beings, yet their nature is like that of wild animals and worse still?”

He answered, “I – the one who can figure out how to derive personal benefit from this world, even if my benefit is their loss – am their ideal. I have an agent in each of them. They are my servants and the servants of my agents in them, but I also have a master who guides me, and that is the Devil. No one here is able to change his way, and all are content and think of themselves as better than others. None will to change, and therefore they will not change.” When I heard that, I wished to leave that city, and intended to escape. But knowing the king’s strength and control over everything, I asked his permission to leave. “O my absolute ruler,” I said, “You have done so much for this humble servant of yours and have given me all I have. What a joyful life I have led under your rule! You clothed me with rich furs, gave me companions for fun and games. Neither drunkenness nor gambling have you forbidden. I have tasted all the pleasures, and I feel I have had my share. Did you know that I came to this city as a traveler? Permit me now to go to that big castle that I see in the middle of your city.”

The king answered me, saying, “I rule over that castle also. That district is called Lawwama, Self-Reproach, but its people are not the same as we are here. In this imperious city of ours, our idol is the Devil. Neither he nor I blame anyone for what they do. Therefore, none regret what they have done for we live in imagination. In the city of Self-Reproach, imagination does not have total power. They also do what is called sin – they commit adultery, they satisfy their lust with men and women alike, they drink and gamble, steal and murder, gossip and slander as we do – but often they see what they have done, and, regret and repent.”

As soon as I finished talking with my master, Cleverness, I rushed to the gates of the City of Self-Reproach. Over the gates was written at ta’ibu min adh dhanbi ka-man la adhnaba, “The one who has repented is like the one who has never committed a sin.” I gave the password by repenting for my sins, and entered the city.

I saw that this city was considerably less crowded than the City of Darkness from which I had come. I would say that its population was half of the city I had left.

After I had stayed there for a while, I found out that there was a man of knowledge who knew the Holy Qur’an and expounded upon it. I went to him and saluted him. He returned my salutation and wished Allah’s peace and blessings upon me. Although I had been told by the ruler of the City of Darkness that he ruled here also, I checked with my teacher, asking him the same of their ruler. He confirmed that they were under the jurisdiction of His Highness Cleverness, but that they had their own administrators, whose name were Arrogance, Hypocrisy, Bigotry and Fanaticism.

Among the population were many men of knowledge, many men who appeared to be virtuous, devout, pious and righteous. I made friend with these men and found them to be afflicted with arrogance, egotism, envy, ambition, bigotry, and in their friendship, insincerity. They were hostile to each other setting traps for each other. What I can say for the best of them is that they prayed and tried to follow Allah’s commandments because they feared Allah’s punishment and Hell, and hoped for an eternal pleasurable life in Paradise.

I asked one of them about the City of Darkness outside the walls, and complained about the people there. He agreed with my complaints, and said that the population of that city consisted of corrupt, seditious, murderous nonbelievers. They had no faith, nor did they ever pray. He said they were totally unconscious and heedless. But from time to time, by some mysterious guidance, they were led to the City of Self-Reproach. Then they realize what they had done and regretted, repented, and asked for forgiveness. In their city, he said, they did not know what they were doing, so it never occurred to them to regret or to ask for forgiveness. Therefore, they did not help each other, and no one interceded for them.

When I had first come to the City of Self-Reproach, I had seen that in its center there was yet another castle. I asked the learned inhabitant about it. He said that it was called Mulhima, the City of Love and Inspiration. I asked about its ruler, and was told that he was called ‘Aql al Ma’ad, His Highness Wisdom, Knower of Allah. This king, said my informant, had a prime minister whose name was Love.

“If ever any one of us enters the City of Love and Inspiration,” he went on, “we don’t accept him back to our city. For anyone who goes there becomes like the rest of the city’s population – totally attached to that prime minister. He falls in love with him, and is ready to give up anything – all that he has, his possessions, his family and children even his life – for the sake of that prime minister called Love. Our sultan, His Highness Cleverness, finds this attributes absolutely unacceptable. He fears the influence of those who have this quality, for both their loyalty and actions seem to be illogical and are not understandable by common sense.

“We hear that the people of that city call upon Allah chanting and singing, even with the accompaniment of reed flute and tambourines and drums, and that doing so they lose their senses and go into ecstasy. Our religious leaders and theologians find this unacceptable according to our orthodox rules. Therefore, none of them even dreams of setting foot in the City of Love and Inspiration.”

When I heard that, I felt a terrible distaste for the City of Self-Reproach, and ran to the gates of the blessed City of Love and Inspiration. I read over the door bab ul-jannati maktub: la ilaha illa Llah. I recited aloud the sacred phrase: la ilaha illa Llah – ‘There is no god but Allah” – prostrated myself, and offered my sincere thankfulness. At this, the gates opened and I entered.

Soon I found a dervish lodge, where I saw the high and the lowly, the rich and the poor together, as if one single being. I saw them loving and respecting each other, serving each other with regard, reverence, and deference, in a continuous state of pure joy. They were talking, singing – their songs and their talk captivating, beautiful, always about Allah and the Hereafter, spiritual; removed from all anxiety and pain, as if living in Paradise. I did not hear or see anything that resembled dispute or quarrel, anything harmful or damaging. There was no intrigue or malice, envy or gossip. I felt immediately a peace, comfort, and joy among them.

I saw a beautiful old man, consciousness and wisdom shining through him. I was attracted to him and went over and addressed him: “O my dearest, I am a poor traveler and a sick one at that, seeking a remedy for my sickness of darkness and consciousness. Is there a doctor in this City of Love and Inspiration to cure me?”

He stayed silent for a while. I asked his name. He told me his name was Hidaya, Guidance. Then he said, “My nickname is Truthfulness. Since time immemorial not a single untruth passed from these lips. My duty and my charge are to show the way to the ones who sincerely seek union with the Beloved. And to you I say, And serve thy Lord until there comes to thee that which is certain. (Hijr, 99). And remember the name of thy Lord and devote thyself to Him with complete devotion. (Muzammil, 8).

“You are also a sincere lover: listen to me with the ear of your heart. There are four districts in this city of Love and Inspiration to which you have come. These four districts are one within the other.

“The outer one is called Muqallid, the district of the imitators. The skillful doctor you seek to cure your ills is not within that district. Neither is the pharmacy that has medicine for the sickness of heedlessness, darkness of the heart, and hidden polytheism. Although you will find many who advertise themselves as doctors of the heart – appearing as such, dressing in robes, and wearing great turbans; declaring themselves to be wise men while trying to hide their ignorance, their depravity, their lack of character; unable to prove what they claim to be; seeking fame and ambitious for the world – they themselves are sick with the sickness of themselves. They assign partners to Allah, and are masters of only of imitation.

“They hide their intrigue, duplicity, and malice well. They are intelligent, perceptive, jolly and humorous, bon vivant. Although their tongues appear to be pronouncing the prayers and the name of Allah and you find them often in the circles of dervishes, their minds, which guide them, do not lead them to see the influence and benefit of their prayers. Therefore you will not find with them the balm to soothe the pains of unconsciousness and forgetfulness. “You may as well leave this district of imitators and take refuge in the district of Mujahid, the district of warriors.”

I followed his advice and went on to the district of the warriors. The people I met there were weak and thin; gentle, thoughtful, thankful; devoted to praying, obeying, fasting, contemplating, and meditating. Their strength lay in living in accordance with that which they knew. I became close to them, and saw that they had left all the failures of character produced by egoism and egotism and the shadow of unconsciousness. They had formed a talent for being servants, pleased with their Lord and content with their state. I stayed in the district of the gentle warriors for many years. I acted as they acted and lived as they lived, seeing how I acted and how I lived, not letting a moment pass in heedlessness. I learned and showed patience and forbearance, and learned to be content and satisfied with my lot, and I was content and satisfied. I fought hard, day and night, with my ego but still I was left with the polytheism of many “me’s” and “I’s” fighting amongst themselves, even though they faced one Allah. This, my sickness of shirk khafi – setting up many “I’s” as partners to Allah – cast heavy shadows over my heart, hid the truth, and kept me in heedlessness.

I asked the doctors of the district, I begged them. I told them of my sickness, the hidden polytheism, the awful heedlessness, the darkness of the heart, and asked for help. They told me, “Even in this place of those who battle their egos there is no cure for your ills, for
He is with you wherever you are.” (Hadid, 4)

Then they advised me to travel in the direction of the castle of Mutma’ina, the City of Peace and Tranquility. Near that city lay a district called Munajat wa Muraqaba – supplication and meditation. Perchance there, they said, there would be a doctor to cure me.

When I came to the district of meditation I saw its inhabitants, quiet and peaceful, remembering Allah inwardly, reciting His Beautiful Names. To each and every one of them a son of the heart had been born. They stood, heads bowed in the presence of their Lord, silent, melancholic, sad, in deep humility and veneration. Although their exteriors seemed annihilated, ruinous, their hearts shone and flourished.

Their ways were gentle and courteous. They barely spoke with each other for fear of distracting each other’s attention from the One in Whose presence they felt themselves to be, preventing each other from deep meditation. Light as feathers they were, yet they feared most to be a burden and a load on others.

I spent many years in the district of meditation and contemplation. I did as they did, and indeed I thought I was finally cured of heedlessness, polytheism, and unconsciousness. But I was not cured of the hidden dualism of “I” and “He” that still cast heavy shadows upon my heart.

My tears ran in torrents. Wretched and in total awe I fell into a strange state where an ocean of sadness surrounded me. I wished to drown in that sea. I found no other solution but to die. But I could not do anything, I had no will, not even to die.

As I stood there helpless, sad, in ecstasy, there appeared the beautiful teacher whom I had first met in these strange lands, the one who was called Hidaya, the Guide. He looked upon me with compassionate eyes. “O poor slave of himself, in exile in this foreign land! O wanderer away from home! O poor wretched one, you cannot find your cure in this state of spirit. Leave this place. Go to that district yonder, just next to the gate of the castle of Mutma’ina. The name of that quarter is Fana – self annihilation. There you will find doctors who have annihilated their selves, who have no being, who know the secret of fa-afnu thumma afnu thumma afnu fa-abku thumma abku thumma abku – “Be nought, be nought, be nought, so that you will be, so that you will be, so that you will be forever.”

Without delay, I went to the district of annihilation. I saw its population mute, speechless, as if dead, with no strength in them to utter a word. They had left the hope of any benefit from talk and were ready to give up their souls to the angel of death. They were totally unconcerned whether I was there or not.

I saw no action among them except their performing their prayers five times a day. They had lost the concept of separation between this world and the Hereafter, forgotten it. Pain and joy were equal to them. They had no taste for either material or spiritual things. No thought preoccupied them. They did not remember anything, nor did they look forward to anything. All need and desire was strange to them. They had even stopped asking Allah for what they wanted. I stayed with them for many years. I did what they did. I did not appear other than they, but I did not know their inner state, so I could not do what they did inwardly.

Even in that place, among them, I felt great pain. Yet when I wished to describe the symptoms of my ill, I couldn’t find a body nor any existence, so as to say “This is my body”, or “This is me.” Then I knew that which was “me,” turned into the owner of me. Then I knew that to say “That being is mine” is a lie, and to lie is a sin for everyone. Then I knew that to ask the real owner for what was “mine” was the hidden polytheism of which I had wished to rid myself. What, then, was to be done?

In awe, I saw that I was free of all my wishes, I cried and cried. In my despair, if I were to call upon Him and say, “O Lord,” then there would be two – I and He, me and the One from Whom I seek help, the will and the Willed, the desire and the Desired, the lover and the Beloved, oh so many. I knew not the remedy.

The woeful wailing attracted the pity of the angel of inspiration whom His Lord had charged to teach the lovers. With the permission of his Lord, he read to me from the book of divine inspiration: “First, annihilate your actions.”

He gave that to me as gift. As I stretched my hand to receive it, I saw that there was no hand. It was a composition of water and earth and ether and fire. I had no hand to take with. I had no power to act.

There is only One Who has power, the All-Powerful. Whatever action occurs through me, it belongs to the Absolute Actor. All power, all acts, I referred to Him, and I left all that had happened to me and through me in this world. I knew, as I had been taught by the angel of inspiration, what the annihilation of one’s action is. And all praise is due to Allah.

The proof of the necessity of disowning one’s actions in the path to truth is in the verse in the Holy Qur’an: Qul kullun min ‘indilla-hi, Say, all (action) is from Allah. (An-Nisaa, 78) I am unlettered and have not been taught, yet Allah Most High in His manifestation of the Ultimate Truth has graced me with the ability and power to teach. As what is related here are occurrences that happened to me, experiences that brought a state of mind and spirit, and as it is said, al halu la yu’rafu bil-qal – “the states cannot be told by words” – and it is not possible to express such states so that others can appreciate or even imagine them.

Then I wished, with the permission of Allah and with the help of the angel of inspiration, to leave my attributes – those qualities which makes one’s personality. When I looked, what I saw was not mine. Neither was the content mine. Totally helpless, I was cut off from all the attributes, visible and invisible, that distinguished me, from all qualities exterior and interior that had made me “me”.

With all my being and feeling and spirit, I supposed myself a pure essence. Then I sensed that even this was duality. What do I have to do, what relation do I have, with something that does not belong to me? I was helpless again.

Then even my essence was taken away from me. Still I wished and longed for Him. I felt the meaning of wa talibu ‘ayni ‘abdi - The one who longs for Me is My true servant.

Woe to this me in me, I know not what to do. Helpless, I hope for union.

Wa Llahu bi kulli shay’in muhit, Allah Who encompass all things, huwal-awwalu wal-akhiru waz-zahiru wal-batinu wa huwa bi kulli shay’in ‘alim, Who is before the before, and after the after, and all that is evident and all that is hidden, and He is the knower of all things - became manifest in the secret of my heart.

Even then I wished that the secret of mutu qabla an tamutu, “to die before dying” be actualized in me. O woe, again this hidden duality of I and the One I long for. This, too, cannot be the truth.

What ill is this that give pangs of pain when I move, when I wish, when I long, when I ask for help, when I pray and beg? What strange state have I fallen into, difficult to resolve? Helpless, I gave all these to their Owner and waited at the gate of acquiescence in agony of death, senseless, without thought or feeling, as if dead, expecting death to take me at every breath. I stayed in that state I know not how long.

Following the advice istafid qalbaka - “Ask your heart,” I told my heart to instruct me. It said, “As long as there is a trace of you in you, you cannot hear your Lord’s call: Irji’ – ‘Come to Me!’”

If a cat fell into a salt pit and drowned, and in time its body became salt, if a single hair were left, could that salt be used as food? How often and how long do theologians debate and discuss such matters! Some say that in spite of the single hair the salt is clean, that the corpse of the cat is now the salt; and some say that the single hair is as much as the cat as was the whole body. Thus the salt is dirty and unlawful to eat.

I felt the truth of it and wished that trace of me in me would die. I immersed that trace in divine beatitude. An ecstasy came, from me, to me, over which that was mine, covering it all, the taste of which is impossible to describe. Without ear, without words, without letters I heard the invitation: Irji’- “Come!”

I tried to think, “What is this state?” My thought could not think it. I was made to know that thought cannot think about the sacred secret. Even that knowledge was taken away from me as fast as it came to me.

O seeker, what has been said here is not intended to show that I know. Therefore it will only be made known to you after I am gone from among you. It is for the benefit of the seekers of truth, for the lovers who long for the Beloved, so that it may help them to know themselves, so that they may find in which of the cities I traveled through they themselves are, and which of its citizens they befriend. When and if in sincerity they know their place, they will act accordingly, and know the direction of the gate of Allah’s pleasure, and be thankful. Perchance they will remember this faqir, the writer of these words, with a little prayer.

. Allah’s peace and blessings be upon Shaykh Muhammad Sadiq Naqshabandi Erzinjani, the original writer of these words, and the ones who read them. Al-Fatihah.

Allah’s peace and blessings to the faqir, who shared this with us and may her striving to Perfected Light come true. Amen.

. photo credit. Designldg and Nkimadams via flickr



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Technology of the Heart: Sufi Fable on the Cities of the Soul
Sufi Fable on the Cities of the Soul
Technology of the Heart
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