Muhasibi, Al- (781–857)

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Muhasibi, Al- (781–857)

Harith ibn Asad al-Muhasibi of Baghdad was a master of Sufi ethics and the father of Sufi psychology. He is most famous for his theory of the three-part nature of the human soul. His nickname, "al-Muhasibi," refers to his practice of muhasaba, the critical examination of actions, motives, and spiritual states. He was an exemplar of ethical conduct and refused to allow any form of self-deception. He taught his disciples to follow reason and avoid emotionalism. His major opponent was Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855). Ibn Hanbal criticized al-Muhasibi for his rationalism and his use of dialectical reasoning. He incited his followers in Baghdad to intimidate al-Muhasibi and prevent people from attending his lessons.

Al-Muhasibi's theory of the soul is contained in al-Ri˓aya li-huquq Allah wa al-qiyam biha (How to observe and abide by the rights of God). He called his theory the "science of hearts." The "heart" is a metaphor for the soul. It includes the conscience (sirr), which is the spiritual center of the soul, and the nafs, which is the "psyche," "self," or "ego." Although the nafs is necessary for human existence, its desire for self-gratification undermines the spiritual nature of the soul. Using a term from the Qur˒an, al-Muhasibi calls the egocentered soul the "commanding nafs" (al-nafs al-ammara). The key to taming the "commanding nafs" is self-examination (muhasaba). Through self-examination, the "commanding nafs" is transformed into the "self-blaming nafs" (al-nafs allawwama). At this stage, one becomes aware of the damage that has been done to oneself and others by allowing the nafs to control one's life. But the "self-blaming nafs" is still egoobsessed. Its overly critical attitude can lead to self-hatred and even suicide. Only by transcending the ego entirely is it possible to attain the third and final stage of self-awareness, the "nafs at peace" (al-nafs al-mutma˓inna). In this final stage, the soul is at peace because it has transcended the human ego and is now controlled by God. This is the meaning of al-Muhasibi's aphorism, "Be God's or be nothing."

See alsoIbn Hanbal ; Tasawwuf .

Rkia E. Cornell