The following is a translated selection from the early Sufi commentary on the Qur’an authored/compiled by al-Sulami, a Sufi who lived a little after the great foundational figures of early Sufism. Al-Sulami, in this commentary and in other works of his, worked to draw the various strains of Sufism that had developed, sometimes in relative independence from each other, into a coherent body of doctrine and practice. This commentary was part of that process. In this excerpt, which deals with a verse which retells the famous story of the children of Israel and the Golden Calf, our author has collated various interpretations which interpret the calf allegorically as the nafs of the human person. Nafs– variously translated as self, soul, ego- is one of those multivalenced words that Sufis delighted in coining and employing; they are words that have a history both in the milieu of Eastern Christianity monastic spirituality and practice and in the textual world of the Qur’an. But rather than try to explain further, I will leave you to the following explorations al-Sulami has collected here:
Surah al-Baqrah [Q. 2]. 54: His saying, exalted is He: ‘Verily, you have oppressed yourselves by your taking [as an object of worship] the calf [in the wilderness].
It is said: the ‘calf’ (‘ijl) of every person is his self (nafsuha), and whoever humbles it and turns away its desire and passion, he has been freed from its oppression.
His saying, exalted is He: ‘Turn (tawbū) to your Creator, slaying (fa-aqtalū) your selves.’
It is said: If the first step in spiritual conduct is repentance (al–tawbah)- and repentance is the destruction of the self (al-nafs) and slaying it through abandoning the passions and cutting it off from desire)- then how is attachment to a thing among the stations of the sincere believers? In its first step is the destroying of the life-blood [of the self].
And it is said: ‘Turn to your Creator’: return to Him through your inner secret self (asrārikum) and your hearts; ‘slay your selves’ through being rid of it [the self]- for it is not even worthy to be someone’s rug! And Abū Mansūr said: The Truth does not begin one upon a path otherwise [than in this manner], and its beginnings are destruction [of the self].
God, exalted is He, said: ‘Turn to your Creator, slaying your selves.’ As long as discrimination and reasoning keep you company, you are in the essence of ignorance, until your reason is misled, your notions go, your connections fail- then, perhaps, perhaps…
Al-Wāstī said: The repentance of the children of Israel was the annihilation (fanā’) of their selves, but for this community [Muslims] it is more intense: the annihilation of their selves and the annihilation of their desires alongside the remaining of their corporeal traces.
Fāris said: Repentance is the effacement of humanness and the rooting of divineness. God, exalted is He, said: ‘So turn to your Creator, slaying your selves.’