In the Name of Allah, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful.
"The origins of the lata'if reflect the origins
of the universe as a whole" . First there was the Spiritual World
('alam al-amr), otherwise known as the Universe of Command, then came
the Universe of creation ('alam al-khalq). Then Allah created the
human being and endowed this creation with ten lata'if capable of
apprehending both universes. Five of these lata'if are located below
the Divine Throne (al-'arsh) in the Universe of creation ('alam al-khalq)
, these being air, fire, water, earth, and the nafs . The other five
lata'if belong to Universe of Command ('alam al-amr), located above
the Divine Throne (al-'arsh) .
These lata'if (singular: latifa) belonging to the Universe of Command
('alam al-amr) are collectively known as the subtle centres of the
heart and are the focus of this work. They are the qalb, ruh, sirr,
khafi, and akhfa. Initially "the lata'if were luminous"
but when Allah connected them with the body "their light started
to be filtered through the influences of the physical world"
and as a result work must be done to activate them. Travelling along
the Sufi path consists of successive openings of each of the lata'if.
Besides being known as the subtle centres of the heart, the lata'if
are also referred to as the senses of spiritual perception. The physical
heart is the centre of the physical body; connecting to all areas
of the body through the blood. Similarly, the spiritual organ is the
centre of the human being. Thus, the heart can be understood as the
centre of our spiritual awareness. Just as the human has five physical
senses to access and understand the material world, so too does the
spiritual centre have five senses. This analogy is attested to in
the Holy Qur'an where Allah says, "Truly it is not their eyes
that are blind, but their hearts" (22: 46). These faculties "allow
us to know spiritual realities beyond what the senses or intellect
can offer" . This is confirmed by Allah saying "We show
them Our signs in the (furthest) regions (of the earth), and in their
own souls" (41: 53).
The lata'if are also known as subtle substances. That is, they are
"qualities that have subtlety, gentleness, and refinement"
. Jointly they comprise the subtle body (jism latifa or al-latifah
al-insaniyyah). Each latifa activates, or makes conscious, certain
spiritual faculties and simultaneously, corresponding sectors of the
personality, which "must be confronted and understood objectively"
for further travel to occur. Thus, the lata'if have also been referred
to as sheaths or fields . The image of the lata'if sheathed in one
another is utilised by 'Amr al-Makki, who likened the lata'if to "veils
wrapped in one another
which would be removed successively"
as one travelled to Allah .
Each latifa is intimately connected to each successive latifa. Our
Shaykh has told us that each latifa is progressively more subtle that
the one preceding it, i.e. the ruh is more refined than the qalb,
the sirr is more refined than the ruh, and so on. Stated another way
each of the lata'if are "refinements of one another: qalb contains
ruh, ruh has the inner dimension of sirr
and so on" .
For if this was not so, the cleansing of one latifa would not lead
to the opening of another. Furthermore, each subtle centre is aware
of the coarser lata'if, but not vice versa . The goal occurs "when
enough spiritual refinement is realised" and "is used to
transform the self (nafs)" , facilitating the murid's reception
of Divine grace.
We are reminded repeatedly of the virtues of dhikr, the remembrance
of Allah. It is through this practice that the lata'if are successively
opened. Succinctly stated "the aim of every Sufi is to awaken
these five lata'if into active remembrance of God, and through them
to receive tajalli, the Divine illumination" for "if these
subtle centres are developed by way of the accurate method and harmony,
awareness and love, they will integrate to the Unity of the One"
. We are told in the Qamus al Sufi that dhikr is "the fundamental
practice of the Sufi path" and is only perfect when "every
atom of the dhakir's being is absorbed and annihilated in the Remembrance
Dhikr has successive stages. Starting with dhikr al-lisan, remembrance
with the tongue, moving to dhikr al-qalb, remembrance with the heart,
to dhikr ar-ruh, remembrance of the spirit, and so on within each
successive latifa. However, it should be understood that "dhikr
is a medicine for the soul, and the physician must learn his art by
practice rather than from books" . Beyond this, there are particular
moral injunctions and spiritual practices corresponding to each latifa
designed "to 'brighten' it" .
Knowledge of, and working on the lata'if is essential for spiritual
development. We are told that "for those who are initiated into
the esoteric teaching, the importance of working on the lata'if (subtle
centres of the heart) is crucial [for] any spiritual development within
the Sufi teaching" . Shah Waliullah (may Allah be pleased with
him) informs us that, "the better one is acquainted with such
faculties, the better one is able to refine them" . It is for
this reason that this article has been written.
The lata'if have been collectively referred to as the lata'ifi sitta,
the six subtleties. The inclusion, beyond the above-mentioned five,
is the nafs . Etymologically nafs is rooted in "breath"
(nafas) as without the breath dhikr would not be possible. However,
the nafs is not technically a latifa. The nafs requires no activation;
in each and every one of us the nafs is active. While the nafs is
transformed through spiritual work, it is not, in the same sense,
opened as the lata'if are. The inclusion of the nafs in the category
of lata'if can signify outside influences or cross-cultural confusion,
most often with the Indian chakra system .
The gift of the nafs is evidence of Allah's Mercy, given to all indiscriminately.
It is the horse upon which one may travel to Allah, journeying through
the various stations of Spiritual Unveiling. If the aspirant is willing
to apply the necessary spiritual practices to train their vehicle
then, by the Grace of Allah, they may attain their goal.
It is interesting to note that the colour of the nafs is blue and
seen from space this world of ours is a blue dot, indicating the earth
as the abode of the nafs. Treated correctly the nafs can aid us in
achieving success, but left to its own devices it will guarantee our
Furthermore, blue is symbolic of the indefinite. Hence we have the
indefiniteness of the blue sky. The indefinite is an "outward
radiation" and thus an expression of "distance" which
"takes on the negative aspect of remoteness from God" .
Each latifa is distinguished by certain characteristics. These include
location, colour, and function. Some schools connect specific prophets
with each of the lata'if, whom they say "specialized in that
particular latifa" . It should be borne in mind that "the
lata'if cannot be adequately defined in words", as they, and
the perceptions they give rise to, are too subtle to be contained
within language, "but as a person brings them to light, he or
she comes to understand them" . We should be aware that "these
delineations were merely matters of intuitive insight" and that
"it is not necessary for every seeker to see the same colour;
nor is seeing the colour the objective" . Thus, there are differences
between the various explanations of the lata'if.
Furthermore, each tariqa utilises particular methods for opening the
lata'if. For example the Chishti method emphasise activities that
provoke ecstasy such as sama' and dancing while the Qadiri technique
utilises rigorous ascetic practices such as fasting and long prayer
vigils . While these practices are not exclusive to these particular
turuq, the examples are included to highlight variations in the relevant
literature. These differences are equally valid, just as divergent
legal judgements "of qualified jurisprudents are equally valid"
as long as "all of these paths lead to the goal" . What
is offered here is in accordance with the Burhaniyya-Shadhiliyya-Dasuqiyya
Tariqa as presented by our Murshid.
The qalb is the subtle essence or subtle centre of the heart. It is
the "supra-rational organ" which utilises spiritual discernment
and intuition to perceive the Transcendent Realities. The qalb is
an isthmus (al-barzakh) caught between this world and the next, between
the influence of the nafs and the ruh. "Normally the heart is
'veiled', blackened by sin, tarnished by sensual impressions and images,
pulled to and fro between reason and passion" as a result of
the downward pull of the nafs. For, " if victory is not won here,
there is no access to the higher dimensions of the subtle self except
for brief flashes" as Allah says "every time the light (helps)
them, they walk therein, and when darkness grows on them, they stand
still, and if Allah willed, He could take away their faculty of hearing
and seeing; for Allah hath power over all things" (2: 20). The
greater the purification of the heart the more receptive it is to
the "irresistible attraction of the celestial spirit" whose
powerful attraction on the heart "endeavours to guide it towards
the Knowledge of Allah" .
The heart is the sanctified centre of the human. Part of the spiritual
struggle is "keeping watch over the heart" with the aim
being to arrive at the point where we "never allow any intruders
to enter their sanctified hearts" . The goal is to become the
Perfect Man where the heart becomes "the Divine Throne (al-'arsh)
around which circle the spiritual realities" . Here we see one
aspect of the Hadith "My earth and My Heavens contain Me not,
but the Heart of My believing slave contains Me". Before this
centre is sanctified, it is the qalb that gains the "first certainty
as to the existence of the True Self" for "it is within
this organ that the 'child' of the True Self is born" .
By examining the word root for qalb we can expand our understanding
of this latifa. The root for qalb includes the meanings 'to turn a
thing upside-down', 'to be baked on one side', 'to be restless', 'reverse;
invert; wrong side' , 'placing one in front of the other', whence
the expression qiblah, as well as 'mould', which "gives the inversion
of 'negative' and 'positive' in the process of moulding" .
The function of the qalb is dhikr. Its strength increases one's capacity
for dhikrullah, the remembrance and invocation of Allah. The remembrance
with the heart (dhikr al-qalb) occurs when the dhakir contemplates
the Beauty and Majesty of Allah and "may be sweet when Beauty
reveals itself or awesome when Majesty dominates" .
It can also be said that the qalb knows Allah; it is the site of knowing
(ma'rifa). Ibn 'Ata' Allah says that "the hearts and the innermost
centres of being are the places where lights arise" for "ma'rifa
is a light which Allah casts into the heart of whomsoever He Will"
. In order to enact this Ibn 'Ata' Allah says, "empty your heart
of otherness and He will fill it up with illuminations and insights"
The "cleansing of the heart forms the spiritual endeavour of
the earlier stages of the Journey" so that "once the heart
has been purified the traveller (salik) is in a state of preparedness
and receptivity to receive whatever Allah Wills to send" . One
aspect of this is purifying our emotional life. As this latifa opens
we open ourselves to "an inner spaciousness" which allows
us to "come in touch with a sense of essential, objective hope"
. The aim of this cleansing is to erase everything that hinders the
pure love of Allah.
The colour of the qalb is yellow. Yellow is the most luminous of the
primary colours and has been consistently been used to symbolise Divine
Consciousness or Intelligence , hence the site of ma'rifa. The qalb
is pulled both up by the ruh and down by the nafs, and this is reflected
in their respective colours as "yellow remains latent in red
and blue" .
The qalb is related to the sense of hearing and corresponds to the
little finger. The little finger corresponds to humanity in that humans
"are as weak as the little finger, and in constant need of support"
. The connection between the little finger and hearing can be found
when making wudu, where the seeker cleans their ears out with their
Its location is on the left side of the chest, with some being so
specific as to locate it two fingers width below the left breast.
The ruh is the subtle essence or centre of the spirit. It is in opposition
to the nafs in that "the ruh endeavours to pull the heart (qalb)
towards Allah, whilst the lower self (nafs) exerts a downward pull
on the heart" . As this latifa opens one discovers that "the
heart contains a point of contact with the infinite dimension of Spirit,
the source of all qualities" . "The human spirit is also
Allah's Spirit because Allah breathed His Spirit into man" and
for this reason it can be said that the ruh is both "uncreated"
and "created" . The created ruh prostrates to the uncreated
Universal Spirit (al-ruh al-ilahi) from which it has emerged.
The ruh is most consistently seen as a dormant spiritual faculty.
The illumination of the ruh comes about through constant prayer and
vigil. This results in purity from mental distractions and projections
as we "dissolve self-images, our narcissistic fictions"
and "learn to keep our thought processes in alignment with the
Divine Reality" . The luminosity of an individual depends upon
the degree of activity of their ruh . The illumination of the ruh
results in spiritual strength, freedom from fear of people, and concentration
towards Allah .
The salik enters the state of unconditional and pure love for Allah
(mahabbah). This love transforms the "murid from 'the one who
desires Allah' into the murad, 'the one whom Allah desires" .
It is out of this love that 'ishq develops .
The colour of the ruh is red. The symbolism of red "partly coincides
with that of fire" , hence the burning of love for Allah. Interestingly,
the ternary nafs, qalb, and ruh corresponds to the triad of primary
colours, which can be seen to "form together a harmonious totality"
in that to "take away red
the perfect balance would be
broken in the direction of too much cold; the absence of blue would
make for excessive heat; without yellow, the residue would be too
The ruh is related to the sense of sight and corresponds to the ring
finger. It is said that the ring finger corresponds to "the station
of the seal of faith (iman) that is engraved on the ring the spiritual
seekers symbolically wear", for it is the station of the people
of Tariqa, the true spiritual seekers, "who wear the ring of
absolute faith in their Guide" . As the ruh opens and our self-images
dissolve we begin to see the relationship between Allah's Spirit and
the human spirit.
Its location is on the right side of the chest, with some being so
specific as to locate it two fingers width below the right breast.
The sirr is the subtle secret or mystery hidden in the innermost centre
of consciousness or being of the human. We are told that it is the
"hidden place where Allah manifests His mystery to Himself"
and that it is "the point of secret communication between Lord
(rabb) and His slave ('abd)" . It is also known as the qalb ul-qalb,
the heart of the heart.
The sirr is the site of witnessing and its cleansing makes Kashf (unveiling)
possible. With the opening of the sirr it becomes possible to "begin
to discern the Real from the illusory" . Through the opening
of the sirr "we begin to see the Divine Reality more clearly
in the multiplicity of forms" . This is known as kashf basari
where "an incident, a place, a human word or action, a sanctified
person may be the place for this visual unveiling" as it "takes
place through Allah's creation" .
Ibn 'Ata' Allah says that "lights are the riding-mounts of hearts
and of their innermost centres" such that when Allah discloses
Himself to his slave, the latter "not only increases his Knowledge
of Allah but also increases his yearning and intense love of Allah"
. "The raying-out of lights [are] in accordance with the purity
of the innermost being" , with the purity of the sirr increasing
through contemplating Allah, focusing on His names and attributes
in perpetual remembrance. Through this purification one's attention
is diverted away from the mundane, becoming firmly fixed on the spiritual
The opening of the sirr marks a distinct change within the consciousness
of the individual. It is marked by the development of true will. Equally
important, "the activation of this centre is seen often as the
initial step or transition from the world of the personality"
. This is represented on the Chart of Knowledge where the Self at
Peace (nafs al-mutma'inna) begins to break free of the self which
commands, or ego self (nafs al-ammara).
The colour of the sirr is green. The meaning of this symbolism can
be seen in the statement that "it has been said in Sufism that
knowledge of the Truth entails the grasping of 'the union of opposites'"
. Green is the result of when yellow is brought to bear on blue, thus
the opening of the sirr is connected to the subjugating of the nafs
by the qalb. Green is neither hot nor cold and thus does not recede
like cold colours nor does it project forward like warm colours. Green
is in the middle of the spectrum.
The sirr is related to the sense of touch and corresponds to the middle
finger. The middle finger, the highest of all fingers, corresponds
to the Holy Prophet Muhammad who is the highest spiritual
authority . In this sense it can be said that the "highest authority
is manifested as the superior height of the middle finger" .
Its location is in the middle of the chest, between the qalb and the
ruh. This latifa has also been located at the solar plexus .
The khafi is the innermost secret or consciousness. We are told that
it is "a Divine subtlety that lies hidden within the spirit
placed there in trust by Allah to be awakened and actualised only
when the lover has been overwhelmed by Divine Love ('ishq) .
'Ishq is intense, overflowing and passionate love of Allah. Just as
Allah is infinite, 'ishq is without limit. As rare as red sulphur,
"'ishq is the highest stage before absorption in Allah"
which "burns away everything of the lover" and only arises
as a result of the actual vision of the beloved .
The function of the khafi is to perceive the omnipresence of Allah.
With its opening we "recognise that everything we long for is
infinitely close" as "infinite possibilities are contained
within a dimensionless point accessible to us within our own heart"
. It brings about a state of peace and absolute stillness within the
consciousness, which relates to "the activity of intuition and
objective understanding" .
All light (nur) enters through the khafi, before spreading to the
other senses. It is interesting to note that "in a baby, the
ruh (spirit) enters through [the] khafi, and when the ruh departs
the body it leaves [the] khafi last of all" .
The colour of the khafi is white. White contains within it the complete
colour spectrum in harmony. We are told that the khafi is hidden and
that its activation "marks the 'disappearance' or 'hiddenness'
from this world" . Allah says in the Qur'an that "Allah
is the Light of the heavens and the earth" (24: 35). This light
is all that we ever see. Thus, we could say that light obscures and
hides everything other then itself. For the lover overwhelmed by 'ishq,
everything other than Allah is obscured and hidden, making possible
the vision of the Beloved.
The khafi is related to the sense of smell and corresponds to the
index finger. It has been said that "the index finger corresponds
to [the] khafi because it represents the shahadah index" , the
finger that we lift during salat when reciting the shahadah. The shahadah,
which defines Unity (tawhid) , annihilates all that that is 'other'
than Allah. Thus, this correspondence between the khafi and the index
finger reaffirms the disappearance from this world.
Its location is between the two physical eyes, just above the eyebrows
The akhfa is the innermost consciousness. We are told that it "is
that 'place' where a knower sees Allah through Allah" and that
it's opening contains "the knowledge of the Supreme Being"
. It is also known as akhfa al-khafi, the most secret of the secret
or most hidden of the hidden, and is equivalent to the Ultimate Unseen
The akhfa makes it possible for the ruh to perceive the closeness
of Allah. With the opening of the akhfa we begin to "know ourselves
as a reflection of the Divine" as our servant hood is subsumed
in Allah . The akhfa manifests qualities of compassion and love, for
one sees the Real beauty. The Real beauty is "the Reality of
Unity", where the Supreme Being manifests itself in every moment
without absence. For "when that is before our physical eye and
the eye of the heart
there is Unity of Time, Unity of Place
and Unity of Essence" .
It is seen by the Sufis to be the most important and central latifa.
It brings about loving kindness and compassion within the consciousness,
for "compassion is selflessness and is equated with selfless
action" . It is also represents seclusion, that is, seclusion
The colour of the akhfa is black. The symbolism of this colour has,
within modern times, been associated with dark forces that must be
overcome by the goodness of light. However, the colour black has other
symbolic functions. In Arabic, one root for black can also mean "wise"
or "understanding", while "the word sayed (prince)
is connected with another root for black" .
Black is the absence of colour. This symbolises the lack of all qualities,
where one no longer looks through their own eyes but "sees Allah
through Allah" . The akhfa in relation to the nafs is like the
vastness of space in relation to the earth.
The akhfa is related to the sense taste and corresponds to the thumb.
It has been repeatedly said that the Sufis are the people of tasting.
Its location is on the crown of the head. "This is the 'crowning'
latifah and because of its sacred reality it must be protected, covered
up and veiled", for "herein lies one of the meanings of
the prayer cap and turban and the veil" .
Now that each latifa has been detailed, we may ask: if the aim of
every Sufi is to activate the lata'if, how does this relate to the
Perfect Man (al-insan al-kamil)? In answering this we must look to
the Qur'an where Allah says "We have created man of an extraction
of clay; then We set him, a drop, in a secure receptacle; then We
created the drop into a clot, then We created of the clot a tissue,
then We created of the tissue bones, and covered the bones with flesh,
then We transformed him into a different being" (23: 12 - 14).
From this we can see that the opening of each successive latifa corresponds
to the natural development of the human.
However, the Perfect Man (al-insan al-kamil) is an altogether
"different being". It is "through the Perfect Man that
Allah enters the world" and this transformation from being human
to becoming a human being is one of the supreme gifts of Allah to
his creation as He installs his viceregent (khalifah) on earth. Thus,
while the aim of every Sufi is to open the lata'if, their joint opening
is not the goal of the Sufi path. Despite this, it has been said that
"having completed his journey through the lata'if, the disciple
is then dominated by the latifa that is strongest in his nature"
We must know that "perfect piety is not possible to attain without
developing one's subtle entities (lata'if), which in turn depends
upon the acquisition of inner knowledge ('ilm al-batini)" . Furthermore,
Shah Waliullah informs us that "if you wish to know the path
taken by those who have reached the stage of establishment and have
become heirs to the prophetic endowment, it is important that you
should realize that this is not possible without knowledge of these
faculties" . May this article be of benefit for those struggling
on the Path to Allah, and may Allah grant us success in this life
and the next. Amin.
About the author:
Abu Bakr Siraj ud Din Cook has a Master's Degree in Philosophy from
the University of Tasmania. He is studying Tasawwuf under the guidance
of his Murshid, F. A. Ali ElSenossi.