Agents of Human Spirituality: Dominical Subtle Faculties of Man According to Said Nursi

Kerim Balcı

Abstract: Said Nursi’s treatment of the ten subtleties can be studied within the Naqshbandi tradition to a large extent. His study of the subtleties is unsystematic and scattered throughout his Risale-i Nur collection. Two dominical subtleties – spirit and heart – comprise a larger part of his writings on the subtleties. The first half of this article deals with Nursi’s general view of the subtleties, their raisons d’être, instruments, restraints, sustenances and strategies of purification. The second half deals with spirit and heart in greater detail, showing the similarities and differences between these two faculties according to Nursi.


In one of his letters to Refet Bey[1] recorded in the 16th Flash,[2] Nursi replies to his disciple’s questions,[3] but refuses to elaborate on his question about the Ten Subtle Faculties [Letâif-i Aşere in Turkish] as he believes that his “duty at the present time is the discovery of mysteries, not the relating of existent matters”. Instead, he enumerates the Ten Subtle Faculties,[4] with a reference to the scholars of the Naqshbandi way, Ahmad Sirhindi in particular.[5]

Despite the fact that he did not want to “relate to this existent matter” in a systematic way, Nursi appeals to the subtleties in countless places in the Epistles of Light. It may securely be claimed that one of Nursi’s projects in the Epistles is “harmonization of spirit, heart and intellect” and joint use of the purification mechanisms of these superior subtleties. This project invites an in-depth study of the subtleties according to Nursi. His treatment of spirit and heart is particularly valuable as he regards the spirit as the unifying law of all other subtleties, and the heart as their commander. 


Subtleties in Sufi Tradition

The term latīfa (plural latā’if) is derived from the Arabic word latīf, meaning “gentle,” “sensitive,” or “subtle.” In Sufi terminology the word latīfa refers to a psycho-spiritual organ or a faculty of sensory and supersensory perception that can be influenced, purified or awakened through spiritual practices.[6] Latīfa has been translated as “subtlety,” “tenuous body,” “subtle point” and “subtle essence.” A majority of the models developed on the subtleties were done so within the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition. Three names are particularly important in the development of the Sufi latā’if tradition: Abu Hamid Ghazali (d. 1111), Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1624) and Shah Wali Allah (d. 1762).[7] All were known to be the renewers (mujaddid) of religion in their ages, hinting at an unstudied relation between openness to dealing with subtleties and openness to renewal (tajdīd).

The latā’if tradition is in a continuous process of renewal. This has resulted in a literature that is hard to follow. The names of subtleties[8] have replaced one other over time, and new subtleties have been discovered throughout the history of the tradition. Despite the fact that the latā’if tradition was considerably influenced by the Greek medical and Hindu chakra disciplines, there is no canonical text listing Sufi subtleties and giving universally accepted definitions for them. In any case latā’if were not thought of only in psychological or psychical terms; in line with the chakra tradition they were taken to be local manifestations of identically named parts of a higher realm of the cosmological structure, one above the realm of created things.[9] In that sense, the science of latā’if was accepted as a part of the Sufi cosmology, in which an analogy between the macrocosmic and microcosmic realms was drawn through latā’if.

Sirhindi, for example, divided the world into two realms: World of God’s Creation (‘alam al-Khalq) and World of God’s Command (‘alam al-‘amr). In the first level there were five lower latā’if; fire, air, earth, water and lower soul (nafs), and in the second five higher latā’if; heart (qalb), spirit (rūh), mystery (sirr), arcane (khafi) and super-arcane (akhfa). Again as in the chakra tradition, Sirhindi appointed to the five second-level subtleties sites on the body and colours, and Islamized them by appointing a prophet to each latīfaQalb was the subtlety of Adam and was located just under the physical heart; Rūh was the subtlety of Abraham and was located under the right breast; Sirr was the subtlety of Moses and was located above the physical heart; Khafi was the subtlety of Jesus and was located on the right side of the chest above the right breast; and finally Akhfa was the subtlety of Muhammad and was located at the centre of the chest.

Shah Wali Allah, on the other hand, had a more anthropocentric understanding of the latā’if. He synchronized Greek medicine with the latā’if by saying that al-rūh al-nafsani, which is traditionally positioned in the brain, corresponds to the intelligence (‘aql); al-rūh al-haywani, which is in the heart, corresponds to Qalb (the heart as a subtlety), and finally al-rūh al-tab‘i, which is in the liver, corresponds to Nafs, the lower soul. These are the three lower latā’if in Shah Wali Allah’s understanding. ‘Aql has its higher latīfa, Sirr, the Mystery, while Qalb’s higher latīfa is Rūh, the spirit. Shah Wali Allah also detected faculties related to the latā’ifquwwa shahawaniyya (the faculty of desire or concupiscence, which expresses desire of acceptance) and quwwa ghadabiyya (the faculty of anger, which expresses aversion or anger.) Shah Wali Allah mentioned the extremes of these faculties and suggested that religion was needed for a balanced temperament. 


Latā’if in Nursi’s Writings

Despite the fact that he was deeply influenced by the Naqshbandi school, Nursi never gave a central position to the latā’ifin his writings. The letter to Refet Bey informs us that he was well informed about Sirhindi’s classification of latā’if:[10]

Nursi’s own understanding of latā’if preserves the main lines of Sirhindi’s classification, but cleanses the discipline of any trace of early Greek medicine or the Hindu chakra. Thus Nursi is not interested in the positioning of latā’if within the body, or giving colours to those centres of latā’if. Sirhindi’s association of the higher latā’if with the prophets Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammad is also absent in Nursi’s definition of the latā’if. It cannot be claimed that Nursi’s understanding of latā’if wholly lacks the cosmological dimension that illuminates Sirhindi’s and Shah Wali Allah’s understandings, but it is fair to say that the cosmological dimension is not dominant in the Epistles of Light.[11]

Nursi’s understanding of the subtleties is a part of his understanding of the human being as a combination of the “senses and feelings, limbs and systems, members and faculties, and subtleties and immaterial aspects”[12] with which God equipped man. In numerous places in his Epistles of Light, Nursi compares and contrasts external senses to subtleties. In one particular passage he compares the white and red blood cells circulating the body to the latā’if that circumambulate the heart,[13] , and in another rather interesting passage he claims that the human disposition is prone to mistake the provisions of the senses to those of the latā’if at times of inattention.[14]

Apart from these two passages, unparalleled in the works of Nursi, the overall treatment of the issue of latā’if in the Epistles of Light revolves around five major claims: (1) the number of latā’if is not limited to ten and that there are also undetected latā’if; (2) just like the external senses all latā’if have their passions, desires, sources of sustenance and duties; (3) faith, the Qur’an, invocations, prayers and reading the Epistles of Light appeals to all the latā’if according to their level of purification; (4) man can attain perfection only through felicitous utilisation of the latā’if; (5) the capacity of human latā’if is so under utilised that it is obvious they are given for another world, where they will be made full use of; and finally (6) latā’if that are not used in accordance with their reasons for creation will testify against their owners in the hereafter.


Number of Latā’if

Nursi does not make a distinction between latā’if and the faculties of those latā’if. Hence, Nursi counts the lower soul and the faculties of concupiscence and anger categorized by Shah Wali Allah as the faculties of the lower soul as separate subtleties.[15] It is clear that Nursi is ready to increase the number of the latā’if open-endedly. He concludes a list of the ten subtle by noting the numerous other faculties that exist “like the sense of premonition, and faculties of inclination and fervour.”[16]

In other passages memory and thought are also counted as subtleties.[17] Nursi speaks of a number of latā’if that are not accountable and should not be held responsible for deeds they may induce.[18] A comparison of these two passages reveals that these unaccountable latā’if can be at work in both the laymen and the ecstatic when they are immersed in divine contemplation. These passages open in front of us a vast space of possibilities that were not investigated by the former theoreticians of subtleties. Nursi is aware of the huge range of “immaterial powers and subtle faculties” he is thus investigating; from those that even if they “devoured the world, they would not be satisfied” to those that “cannot sustain even a minute particle within themselves.”[19]


Sustenance, Desires and Duties of the latā’if

In the 32nd Word Nursi suggests that just as each man’s many members and faculties performs different functions, equally they have “completely different pleasures, pains, duties and rewards.”[20] In line with the generally accepted analogy between the external senses and the subtleties, Nursi gives a complete list of five external senses, their duties, pleasures and pains and notes that these differ for all man’s faculties, “including his important subtle aspects such as the heart, intellect and spirit.”[21] These subtleties also require their specific sustenance: “In the same way that a stomach requires sustenance, so too the subtle capacities and senses of man, his heart, spirit, intelligence, eye, ear and mouth, also request their sustenance from the Compassionate Provider and gratefully receive it.”[22]

One particular duty of man in this world, for Nursi, is to be a mirror to the Divine Names and the subtleties are no exception. The different Names are to be expressed by man “through all his members and faculties, all his organs and limbs, all his subtle senses and faculties, all his feelings and emotions.”[23] He also notes that aside from the literal recital of the sacred Names, man “causes [these] to be recited by reason of his spirit, heart, mind, and through the pages of life and other subtle qualities.”[24]

Nursi also expresses the idea that the subtle faculties like spirit, heart and mind can weep together with the eyes.[25] In another passage Nursi claims that although each and every faculty has its distinct pleasures and pains, the members, senses and subtleties of man take a share from the pleasure, pain and affection of each other.[26]


Latā’if Enjoying the Sacred Texts and Prayers

Nursi has a holistic understanding of man. Normally man observes the universe not only with his eyes, but with all his external and spiritual senses. As such, faith disciplines not only the intellect of the believer, but also all of his/her subtleties, and all subtleties want and take their shares from what one sense or subtlety experiences:


You cannot say, therefore, that “One window is enough for me,” because if your reason is satisfied, your heart wants its share as well, and so will your spirit want its share. Your imagination will also want its share of the light. The other Windows are also necessary, therefore, for each contains different benefits.[27]


Nursi is particularly interested in showing that recitation of the Qur’an, invocation of the Beautiful Names of Allah and reading of the Epistles of Light appeal to all the subtleties -- not only to the intellect. In one passage he explains how he felt during repetitive reading of a passage from the Qur’an, noting how different faculties received sustenance in different ways and at different times until “[g]radually with repetition only a few of the subtle faculties would remain, becoming wearied long after the others. They would persist, leaving no need for further study and meanings.”[28] Nursi noted further that “the subtle faculties that persist do not need to study and comprehend but to recollect, turn towards, and be prompted.”[29] The reason repetition of the Qur’an does not cause boredom is that “it is food and sustenance for the heart, strength and wealth for the mind, water and light for the spirit, and the cure and remedy for the soul.”[30]

In another passage Nursi claims that subtleties are nurtured by the gaining of faith, just as food is digested and distributed around the body, “after entering the stomach of the mind, the matters of faith that come through knowledge are absorbed by the spirit, heart, mystery, soul, and other subtle faculties; each receives its share according to its degree.”[31]

            In similar passages Nursi says that the latā’if are enlightened through daily prayer;[32] that during Ramadan the subtle faculties benefit from fasting;[33] and that the heart, spirit, mind, and all other subtle faculties of man should invoke the Beautiful Names of Allah together with the tongue.[34]

Last, but not the least, Nursi explains the influence of his Epistles on their readers with the claim that they appeal not only to the intellect, as the works of other scholars do, or only to the heart, as the works of some Sufis do, but that instead “they fly with the union and harmony of the intellect and the heart together with the mutual aid of subtleties like the soul.”[35]


Man of Perfection and the latā’if

Nursi’s path to perfection and God’s love is a four-step path comprising impotence, poverty, compassion, and reflection. He contrasts this path with the Naqshbandi and Qadiri paths, claiming that his path is shorter and safer.[36]

However, in other passages dispersed within the Epistles of Light we see that Nursi’s path, in fact, incorporates both the purification of the ten subtleties and the climbing of the seven stages of the lover soul. A passage in the Addendum of the 27th Word describes the perfect man as one who purifies not only his heart, but also all of his senses and subtleties: 


If man consisted of only a heart, it would be necessary to give up everything other than God, and to leave behind even the Divine Names and attributes and bind one’s heart to the Divine Essence alone. But man possesses many senses and subtle faculties charged with duties, like the mind, spirit, soul, and others. The perfect man is he who, driving all those subtle senses towards reality on the different ways of worship particular to them, marches heroically like the Companions in a broad arena and rich fashion towards the goal, with the heart as commander and the subtle faculties as soldiers. For the heart to abandon its soldiers in order to save only itself and to proceed on its own is the cause not of pride, but of distress.[37]


Nursi warns that the subtle faculties that are given to man are immensely capable, also extremely sensitive, to the point that “[t]hey are sometimes extinguished and die even.”[38] The immaterial members and subtle faculties in man have expanded to a degree a hundred times greater than that of the animals,[39] but occasionally the animal and vegetable powers in man come to dominate man’s subtle faculties.[40] These powers are blind to consequences and obsessed by immediate pleasure, inducing subtle faculties such as the heart and reason to give up their humane and far-sighted duties.[41] Nursi cautions: “Since it is thus, be careful, tread with caution, be frightened of sinking! Do not drown in a mouthful, a word, a seed, a flash, a sign, a kiss! Do not plunge your extensive faculties, which can swallow the world, in such a thing.”[42] On other occasions Nursi reminds his readers that even the latā’if of good people may occasionally tend towards abjectness.[43] These warnings are, of course, a reminder about the need for constant awareness and vigilance about the state of the latā’if, since man is capable of being infinitely perfected as much as he is ultimately corrupt:


Consider this: together with being physically small, weak, and powerless, and being one of the animals, man bears within him an exalted spirit, and has vast potentiality, unrestricted desires, infinite hopes, uncountable ideas, and unlimited powers, and he has a nature so strange he is as though an index of all the species and all the worlds. […] Worship also removes the rust of nature from his members, physical and spiritual, each of which when transparent is like a window onto his private world and that of humankind. Also, when performed with both conscience and mind and heart and body, worship raises man to the dignity of which he is worthy and to his appointed perfection.[44]


Nursi is rather interested in infinite perfection. He gives the examples of such students of the Qur’an as Shah Geylani, Rufa’i and Shazali. In reference to the latter, Nursi notes that his subtle faculties were expanded to such a degree that “the beings in the mighty world appear inadequate as prayer-beads for his invocations. He considers Paradise to be insufficient as the aim of his invocations and recitations of the divine names, yet he does not see himself as superior to the lowest of Almighty God’s creatures.”[45] At such a level of spiritual perfection men can take in their hands “the strings of particles, the droplets of water, the breaths of all creatures, and recite their invocations with them.”[46]

Muslims remember the Companions of the Prophet and the Prophet himself as the embodiments of perfection. Nursi underlines that since all subtle inner faculties of the saints among the Companions and of the following two generations were able to receive their share from the Qur’an directly, for them the Qur’an was a true guide and it was sufficient for them.[47] Nursi adds that, thanks to the mighty social revolution brought about by the lights of the Qur’an, “all the senses and subtle inner faculties of the Companions were awakened, to such an extent that even senses like those of fancy and imagination, in an awakened and aware state, received the numerous meanings of those recitations and glorifications [included in the Qur’an] in accordance with their own perceptions, and absorbed them.”[48] In this state of awakened senses and alert subtle faculties, when the Companions recited from the Qur’an, “they did so in all their meaning and they partook of them with all their senses.”[49]

If the Companions showed such level of purification and awareness of their subtleties, the Prophet should have been in a superior position. Nursi underlines that as the Messenger’s “hand, fingers, spittle, breath, and speech, that is, his prayer, were the means of numerous miracles, so too, his other subtle faculties and emotions and senses were the means of many wonders.”[50] Among these wonders related to the Prophetic subtleties, Nursi mentions the miracle of Ascension:


God’s Most Noble Messenger (Upon whom be blessings and peace), the lord of all the saints, opened up a mighty highway with his Ascension, which lasting forty minutes rather than forty years, was the supreme wonder of sainthood, and which he made not only with his heart and spirit, but also with his body and his senses and his subtle faculties. He rose to the ultimate degrees of the truths of faith.[51]


Nursi reminds his readers that the Prophet set an example of spiritual journeying in his Ascension and that all the saints of Islam travelled under the shadow of this highway he disclosed through the door of the Ascension, with their spirits and hearts, in accordance with their degrees.[52]


Latā’if as Evidence of Resurrection

Any issue Nursi touches upon eventually leads to speaking about faith in God and the Hereafter. Contemplating the human subtleties, Nursi finds a hint of the existence of Paradise. Since it is a well-established belief that Allah never creates anything, including a subtlety, without reason, the subtleties that cannot be satisfied in this world attest to the existence of another world, where man will use all of his subtle faculties in their full capacity.

Nursi observes that this transitory world and brief life, even if man was given the rule of all the world with its wealth and pleasures, do not satisfy the ambitions of man, despite the fact that the subtleties of man are not yet fully activated in this world. So it is obvious that this finite world is not sufficient for the infinite needs of these subtleties:[53]


Just as we saw by looking at the identity papers of an officer in our comparison that his rank, duty, wage, instructions and equipment prove that he exists not for the sake of some temporary battlefield, but rather that he is proceeding to some permanent kingdom, for the sake of which he is exerting himself -- so too those to whom truth and certainty have been unveiled are unanimously agreed that the subtleties inscribed in the book of man’s heart, the senses written down in the notebook of his intellect, the equipment contained in his essential character, are all turned towards Eternal Bliss; they have been given to man and fashioned in accordance with this ultimate goal.[54]


Nursi concludes that God has prepared for man a Paradise of “everlasting favours that will satisfy all the longings of your spirit, heart, mind, and other subtle inner faculties.”[55]



Testifying latā’if

A particular duty of the subtleties mentioned in the Epistles of Light is testifying against the man who misuses them. Nursi claims that by leaving himself to his ego and the worldly life of temporary pleasures, man limits himself to an “extremely constricted sphere.” Upon his departure from this world, “All the members, systems, and faculties given him will testify against him at the resurrection and will bring a suit against him.”[56] This is so, because making “the elevated subtle faculties subject to the soul and caprice and [to] make them forget their fundamental duties is certainly decline and not progress”[57] and man is accountable for how he used the “capital of latā’if and human abilities given to him to buy eternal diamonds,” if he gives them to “temporary bottles and pieces of cold ice.”[58]



Two Dominical Subtle Faculties: Heart and Spirit

In several occasions Nursi gives special place to heart and spirit among all the subtleties and calls them the dominical subtle faculties.[59] Although on occasion Nursi uses the term independently of heart and spirit, and some of his passages give the sense that there is a dominical subtle faculty other than these two, the dominant tone in the Epistles of Light is that both heart and spirit are dominical subtle faculties. Whether there are other dominical subtle faculties or not, or whether Nursi uses this combination simply to connote subtleties in general is not clear. Since the spirit is defined by Nursi as the law harmonizing senses and subtleties of the body, and the heart is defined as the commander of all other subtleties, it is legitimate to give special place to these two subtleties.


The Spirit (Rūh)

The meaning of rūh in Islamic terminology has been a topic of discussion since the time of the Prophet. The Qur’an notes that the Prophet’s interlocutors asked him about the spirit, and suggests that he answers: “The spirit is from the command of my Lord, and you have been given little knowledge!”[60] Throughout the history of Islam, this verse has also set the benchmark, and the issue of the spirit was left the least studied among the major subtleties. Nursi is no exception in terms of the amount of information he gives about rūh, but an exceptional passage claims:


Spirit is a law possessing external existence, a conscious law. Like the stable and enduring laws of creation, spirit comes from the World of the Divine Command and the attribute of will. Divine power clothes it an existence decked out with senses. He [God] makes a subtle, flowing being the shell to that jewel. Existent spirit is the brother of the conceivable law. They are both enduring and come from the World of the Divine Command. If pre-eternal power had clothed the laws governing in the species of beings in external existence, they would have been spirits. And if the spirit banishes consciousness, it still would be an undying law.[61]


There is no other direct definition of the spirit in the Epistles of Light. Passages scattered throughout the Epistles about the spirit are either about the properties of the spirit, or about its perfection, its pleasures and its instruments. The following passage is particularly important as it creates a hierarchy among the living beings on the basis of spirit:


… the choicest result of the universe is life, and the choicest essence of life is spirit, and the choicest of beings with spirits are intelligent beings, and of intelligent beings the one with the most comprehensive nature is man; and since all the universe is subjugated to life and works for life, and living beings are subjugated to beings with spirits and they are sent to this world for them, and beings with spirits are subjugated to man and they assist him [...] He [God] surely would not offend men, who love Him greatly and are loved, by causing them to die then not raising them again to life, and while He created them for an eternal love, to make them feel eternal hostility; to do that would not be possible.[62]


Immortality of the Spirit

A major issue Nursi deals with in relation to the spirit is its immortality. In line with orthodox Islamic doctrine of the spirit, Nursi underlines that “the body subsists though the spirit; in which case, the spirit does not subsist through the body. Rather, since the spirit subsists and is dominant of itself, the body may be dispersed and gathered together again as it wishes; it will not infringe the spirit’s independence.”[63] Nursi uses commonplace experiences of engagement with the spirits of deceased people as empirical and objective evidence of immortality of the spirit. His logic is simple, but convincing: “Indeed, when it is understood that a single spirit continues after death, this necessitates the continuation of all spirits as a category of being. For according to the science of logic it is certain that if an intrinsic quality is observed in a single individual, the existence of that quality may be assumed in all individuals.”[64]As Nursi regards the spirit as the unifying force of the machine called human being,[65] that unifying force should not be subject to dissolution or destruction. Nursi explains: 


As for spirit, it is not subject to destruction and dissolution. This is because it is simple and uncompounded; it has unity. As for destruction, dissolution and decomposition, they are the function of complex and compound substances. As we explained above, life ensures a form of unity within multiplicity; it causes a sort of permanence. That is to say, unity and permanence are fundamental to spirit, from which they spread to multiplicity.[66]


Nursi uses nature as a metaphor to the immortality of the spirit, which is preserved just as the “large flowering and fruit bearing plants are formed and the representations of their forms are preserved and perpetuated in most regular fashion in tiny seeds throughout tempestuous changes.”[67] In a rather intriguing passage, Nursi also claims that if the fruits created every year in exact similitude of the previous year had spirits like human beings, “they would be the actual fruits that died last year.”[68]


Relationship of the Spirit to Time and Space

Nursi believes in the relative freedom of spirit (and heart) from constraints of time and space. According to him, the expansion of time and space for a person is a sign of elevation to the life-level of the spirit. “Time, which for others consists of the past and the future, is as though the present for such a person,” he says.[69] The precondition of breaking the constraints of time and space is belief, as:


… belief takes from the hands of the body the reins of the faculty of will, which cannot penetrate to the past and future, and hands them over to the heart and spirit. Since the sphere of their life is not restricted to present time like the body, and included within it are a great many years from the past and a great many years from the future, the will ceases being limited and acquires universality. Through the strength of belief it may enter the deepest valleys of the past and repel the darkness of its sorrows; so too with the light of belief it may rise as far as the farthest mountains of the future, and remove its fears.[70]


The spirit can also move in space with utmost speed. Because, “near and far are the same in relation to the spirit.”[71]Just as the air does not prevent us from walking, or water from diving, nothing can stop or prevent the spirit and its servants from wandering around, Nursi says.[72] Nursi uses this relative omniscience of the spirit to explain how “the people of Paradise, whose bodies have the strength and lightness of the spirit and the swiftness of imagination” will be in “hundreds of thousands of places at the same time.”[73]

The spirit’s freedom from time and space restraints reaches, for elevated spirits, to such a level that they can communicate with Paradise “by means of the telephone of the heart, and receive gifts from Paradise.”[74] This also explains the ability of certain soothsayers to give news from the Unseen using jinn and the spirits,[75] and of certain saints to form a relation with the spirits “by going to their place and drawing close to their world to an extent, to benefit from their spirituality.”[76]


Sicknesses of the Spirit

Nursi believes that corresponding to the outer wounds and sicknesses of the body, man has “inner sicknesses of the spirit and heart.”[77] “Sins are the chronic illnesses of eternal life, and in this worldly life they are sicknesses of the heart, conscience, and spirit,”[78] as “each sin that we commit and each doubt that enters our mind inflicts wounds on our heart and our spirit.”[79]

The two greatest sicknesses of the spirit are disbelief and misguidance.[80] Disbelief is not only a sickness in its own right, it also causes pain and suffering to the spirit:


The person, therefore, who does not believe in the everlasting life of the hereafter casts himself into a sort of Hell in this world, arising from his unbelief, and suffers constant torment. As is described in A Guide For Youth, through their death and parting, all the past and the future and creatures and universes continuously rain down endless pains on his spirit and heart, making him suffer the torments of Hell before going there.[81]


Nursi counts “worship of the human form,”[82] “struggle for livelihood together with lack of reliance on God,”[83] “to flatter the ego and give high status to the evil-commanding soul by attracting attention to oneself and public acclaim, driven by the desire for fame, renown, and position,”[84] “excess (al-ifrāṭ) or deficiency (al-tafrīṭ) in the three powers of intellect, anger, and animal appetites,”[85] and for nervous spirits “politics in this time”[86] as other sicknesses of the spirit. 


Sustenance and Pleasures of the Spirit

We have already seen that Nursi attests different pleasures and duties to each of the latā’if and that subtleties like heart, spirit and intelligence have their specific means of sustenance. The subtleties also have different perceptions of beauty:


… beauty perceived by the eye is not the same as something beautiful heard with the ears, and an abstract beauty comprehended by the mind is not the same as the beauty of food relished by the tongue; so too, the beauties appreciated and perceived as beautiful by the external and inner senses and the spirit are all different. For example, the beauty of belief, the beauty of reality, the beauty of light, the beauty of a flower, the beauty of spirit, and the beauties of form, compassion, justice, kindness, and wisdom. Similarly, since the utter and infinite beauties of the Most Beautiful Names of the All-Beauteous One of Glory are all different, the beauties in beings also differ.[87]


As disbelief is the prime sickness of the spirit (and heart), belief in God and in the hereafter is the prime sustenance of these subtleties: “O man! Your one and only point of support is belief in God. The only source of assistance for your spirit and conscience is belief in the hereafter. One who does not know of these two sources suffers constant fear in his heart and spirit, and his conscience is perpetually tormented.”[88]

Naturally, guidance to belief has to be counted among the bounties of the spirit. “For of itself it is the greatest bounty, and rapture of the conscience; it is the paradise of the spirit. …Later it will produce the fruits of happiness and salvation in the hereafter.”[89] Recitation of the Qur’an and repetitive reading of some of its passages comes third in Nursi’s list of sustenance of the spirit. It is “food and sustenance for the heart, strength and wealth for the mind, water and light for the spirit, and the cure and remedy for the soul,”[90] Nursi says. In Nursi’s understanding, the words of the Qur’an are like basic sustenance, not like fruits. Since “they strengthen the mind and feed the spirit. The more they are repeated, the better they seem and the more familiar they become, like sunlight,”[91] unlike fruits, which give rise to boredom when repeated and provide pleasure when replaced with something new. This is because “for fourteen centuries at every moment its six thousand, six hundred and sixty-six verses have been read by the tongues of more than a hundred million men, training them, refining their souls and purifying their hearts.”[92] Thus the Qur’an offers spirits “a means of development and advancement,” to intellects “an orientation and light” and to life “life itself and felicity.”[93]

Daily prayer is also a great sustenance of the spirit, as “the spirit, the heart, and the mind find great ease in prayer”[94]and as daily prayer allows one’s spirit to relax and one’s heart to take a breather,[95] and these prayers “attract the needs of your (of the soul’s) companions in the house of my body, the sustenance of my heart, the water of life of my spirit, and the air of my subtle faculties.”[96]

Prayer is also a sustenance for the spirit as its observation turns regular daily work or terms of imprisonment into prayer,[97] just as the light of belief turns the bounty of hearing into a bounty for the subtleties also, causing the ear to hear the “dominical speech in the sighing of the blowing wind, the peals of the rolling thunder-clouds, the refrains of the billowing sea, the clamour of the throbbing stones, the pattering of the falling rain, and the songs of the twittering birds,” turning the universe into a vast orchestra arousing in his heart an elevated sorrow and exciting passion in his spirit.[98]

Apart from these, Nursi mentions the believer’s reading of the Epistles of Light,[99] travelling and visiting old friends “both in reality or in dreams”[100] as a healing for the spirit and nourishing for the heart.


Relationship Between the Body and the Spirit

We have already seen that Nursi regarded the spirit as a kind of centripetal force keeping the parts of the human body together, orchestrating their moves and using them for various ends. Nursi elaborates on this point in The Words:


The relationship between man’s spirit and his body is such that it causes all his members and parts to assist one another. … Thus, in administering the parts of the body, and hearing their immaterial voices, and seeing their needs, they do not form obstacles to one another, nor do they confuse the spirit. Near and far are the same in relation to the spirit. They do not veil one another. If the spirit wishes, it can bring the majority to the assistance of one. If it wishes, it can know, perceive, and administer through each part of the body. Even if it acquires great luminosity, it may see and hear through all the parts.[101]


This relationship is further clarified when Nursi claims that “the body is the spirit’s house, it is its home; it is not its clothes.” He goes on to elaborate that the spirit itself is clothed in “a subtle, fine sheath, something which may be likened to a body, which is to some extent constant, and is ethereal and appropriate for the spirit,” and that thus at the time of death “the spirit is not completely naked, it leaves its home dressed in its body-like sheath.[102]

            This description of the cloth of the spirit resembles the aura of theosophists. This thesis cannot be proved or disproved, however. In any event, Nursi believed that the spirit was a law clothed in a body-like sheath and that this body-like sheath overlapped with the physical body as long as the body was alive, and the relation between the two is cut when the spirit, together with its clothing leaves the body at death. 

The detachment between the body and the spirit is not eternal, though. Nursi makes it clear that the spirit and the body are united once again in Paradise, “because it is the body that is the means by which the duties of worship are performed and the means of innumerable pleasures and pains.”[103]

The body houses, together with the spirit, all other senses and subtleties of man, and the spirit is a unifying force coordinating the moves of these senses and subtleties. Inescapably, the spirit has relations with the physical organs or senses of the body. Nursi mentions the eye as a window through which the spirit looks out on this world,[104] the tongue as being to the spirit as a key is to a lock,[105] and the sense of taste as inducing the heart, spirit and mind to thank God by recognizing and perceiving the varieties of divine bounty.[106]

The spirit (and heart and mind) also has a unique relationship with the soul. This relationship remains antithetic as long as the soul is at the level of “evil-commanding soul,”[107] where the soul rejects obeying the heart and the spirit.[108]But the soul can discipline itself and learn to listen to commands[109] -- particularly through fasting -- and the relationship between the spirit and the soul may turn into one of obedience. At this level, the spirit rules the body, the heart rules the desires of the soul, and reason rules the stomach.[110]


Instruments and Powers of the Spirit

The spirit in charge of unifying the body, its senses and subtleties is given certain instruments and powers to realize its duties. A passage directly related to the powers of the spirit (rūḥ) counts three of them: the power of animal appetites (faculty of concupiscence), to attract benefits; the power of savage passion (faculty of anger) to repulse harmful and destructive things; and the power of angelic intellect to distinguish between benefit and harm.[111] Nursi then goes on to detail how these should be utilized:

However, since His wisdom necessitated that humanity should achieve perfection through the mystery of competition, Allah placed no innate limitation on these powers, as He did on those of other living beings. He did however limit them through the Shari‘a, for it prohibits excess (ifrāṭ) and deficiency (tafrīṭ) and enjoins the middle way (wasaṭ). … In the absence of any innate limitation, three degrees arise in the three powers: the degree of deficiency, which is negligence; the degree of superabundance, which is excess; and the middle way, which is justice.[112]


In another passage Nursi defines will, intellect, sense and dominical subtle faculty as the four elements of the conscience and four senses of the spirit. He suggests that each one of these four senses have a particular “aim of aims”. The aim of aims of the will is the worship of God, that of the intellects if the knowledge of God, that of the sense is the love of God, and finally the aim of aims of the dominical subtle faculty is the sight of God.[113] On other occasions Nursi counts premonition (foresight)[114] and imagination[115] as faculties used by the spirit. 


Perfection of the Spirit

Just like the soul, which has seven stages, the spirit has a vast range of qualifications. At the two extremes Nursi puts “a spirit like coal” and “a spirit like diamonds”.[116] This allegoric naming does not say anything about the state of a spirit that is like coal, but it makes it clear that this life of examination and competition is intended to purify the spirit, together with other subtleties, and elevate it from inferior levels to superior ones. 

We have already seen Nursi’s four-step path to perfection, which included impotence, poverty, compassion and reflective thought. As a general rule Nursi regards religion, particularly Islam, as the path to perfection of the subtleties.[117]

Nursi claims that the Islamic religion and Shari‘a comprise the essence of “the science of refining the spirit, and of training the heart, and of educating the conscience,” together with all other material sciences.[118] For Nursi, the path to perfection is the wide path of religion and Shari‘a, and there is no need to run after psychic methods. Only once does he mention the inverse relation between the size of the body and the quality of the spirit,[119] hinting at a kind of training of the spirit through fasting and avoiding bodily pleasures. He also believed that active servitude to belief and the cause of spreading the message of the Qur’an would provide his students with such eternal merits, virtues and joys of the spirit and heart that it would reduce their sorrows and hardships in this world to nothing.[120]


Heart (Qalb)

In Sufi terminology the “heart” plays a large part, for it is viewed both as the source of man's good and evil aspirations and as the seat of learning or religious apprehension and of divine visitations.[121] It is regarded as the battleground of intellect and lower soul. There in the heart lies the secret and hidden (sirr) home of the conscience and also the place of Satan. It is with his heart that man “understands”, receives inspirations and intuitions. It is also the seat of all moral impulses, both evil desires and instincts and the struggle to be free of them.[122] And the heart is the seat of belief. “The first evidences of the Maker are manifested from the heart’s consultation with itself and from the conscience referring to the innate disposition.”[123]

Nursi’s definition of qalb as a dominical subtle faculty is quite clear:


What is meant by the heart is the dominical subtle faculty -- not the piece of flesh shaped like a pinecone -- the emotions of which are manifested in the conscience and the thoughts of which are reflected in the mind. The term heart indicates that the dominical subtle faculty is to man’s spiritual dimensions what the cone-shaped piece of flesh is to the body. For just as the physical heart is a life-machine that pumps the water of life to all the parts of the body, and if it is obstructed or ceases from activity, [life departs and] the body stiffens; so the subtle inner faculty dispenses the light of true life to all the parts of the corpus composed of man’s spiritual aspects, and his [mental] states, and hopes. And if, God forbid, the light of belief fades away, his being, with which he contends with the universe, becomes like a motionless spectre, dark in its entirety.[124]


It has to be underlined that the heart, and not the brain, is also the seat of the intellect. Nursi makes a clear distinction between the working of the brain and that of the heart:


… since man is a comprehensive index of the universe, his heart resembles a map of thousands of worlds. For innumerable human sciences and fields of knowledge show that man’s brain in his head is a sort of centre of the universe, like a telephone and telegraph exchange for innumerable lines. Similarly, the millions of light-scattering books written by incalculable saints show man’s heart in his essential being to be the place of manifestation of innumerable cosmic truths, and to be their pivot, and seed.[125]


On other occasions Nursi defines heart as the mainspring of the human machine,[126] the seat of belief,[127] the seat of the remembrance and knowledge of God,[128] a most brilliant and comprehensive mirror to the universe’s Maker,[129]the faculty the receives inspirations,[130] the arising place of meanings,[131] and the battleground of “inspirations and Satanic whisperings.”[132]


Sustenance of the Heart

We have already seen that the subtle capacities and senses of man require sustenance “from the Compassionate Provider” in the same way that the stomach requires feeding.[133] Nursi observes that the senses and subtleties of man are created in such a way that they will be able to receive their sustenance:


[God] had placed in my head a brain, and in my breast a heart, and in my mouth a tongue containing hundreds of scales and measures with which I might weigh up and know all the gifts of that Most Merciful One stored up in the treasuries of mercy. He had inscribed on these, thousands of instruments for unlocking and understanding the treasures of the infinite manifestations of His Most Beautiful Names, and given numerous smells, tastes, and colours to the assistance of those instruments.[134]


The utmost pleasure and sustenance of the heart is belief in one God and in the hereafter. The core of the heart accepts only the One, the Single. It is “content with nothing other than eternity and the Eternal One. It can address itself to none but He.”[135] “It is as if the heart has world-filling adversities and hostilities. It is satisfied only with the One who can make it independent of, and protect it from, everything.”[136]

Belief is such sustenance for the heart that it changes the perceptions of man. In the 23rd Word Nursi mentions a man “that attains to Divine guidance and belief enters his heart, and … the tyranny of his soul is smashed.” Eventually that man realizes the real nature of events of this world that he previously perceived as bad. “He will even see death to be the introduction to eternal life, and the grave, the door to everlasting happiness,”[137] contents Nursi. One who does not have a belief in God and in hereafter “suffers constant fear in his heart and spirit, and his conscience is perpetually tormented.”[138] Human spirit and the heart, suffering countless needs and the attacks of innumerable enemies, are saved from utter desolation and from aching sorrow only through belief, which ensures an eternal joy, a perpetual happiness.[139] A critical dimension of the joy and happiness that fills the heart through belief is the promise that believers will “behold the vision of Divine beauty in eternal happiness” in Paradise.[140]

Not unrelated to belief, listening to the Qur’an is also sustenance for the heart. Man listening to the Qur’an with the ear of his heart “may rise through the ascension of worship to the throne of perfections. He may become an eternal man.”[141] Tranquillity of the heart is only in the light of the Qur’an.[142] With its inimitability, the text of the Qur’an “flowing like water and shining like the stars” is also sustenance for the heart.[143] The Qur’an “fills the spirit with ardour, the heart with delight, the mind with interest, and the eyes with tears.”[144]

Together with recitation of the Qur’an, invocation of the Beautiful Names of Allah and phrases glorifying God are also a source of sustenance and of joy for the heart. Nursi finds a most effective means of working the heart in turning it towards the truths of faith through remembrance of God.[145] Hence, “all the saints and purified ones have found their sweetest illuminations and most delectable spiritual sustenance in repeated recitation of ‘There is no god but God,’ the profession of Divine unity.”[146] Apart from the invocation of this phrase, Nursi described the invocation of “He is One” as a refuge and protector that will deliver the spirit and the heart from all the confusion and bewilderment,[147] and the invocation of “O Eternal One, You alone are Eternal!” as a kind of surgical operation that severs the heart from everything other than God.[148]

Itself a disciplined and organised invocation of the Beautiful Names and recitation of sections from the Qur’an, daily prayer should also be counted as sustenance for the heart:


Yes, it is by knocking through supplication on the door of One All-Compassionate and Munificent that sustenance and strength may be obtained for a heart afflicted with infinite grief and sorrows and captivated by infinite pleasures and hopes. And it is by turning towards the spring of mercy of an Eternal Beloved through the five daily prayers that the water of life may be imbibed by a spirit connected with most beings, which swiftly depart from this transitory world crying out at separation. And being most needy for air in the sorrowful, crushing, distressing, transient, dark, and suffocating conditions of this world, it is only through the window of the prayers that a conscious inner sense and luminous subtle faculty can breathe, which by its nature desires eternal life and was created for eternity and is a mirror of the Pre-Eternal and Post-Eternal One and is infinitely delicate and subtle.[149]

The daily prayer is such sustenance that it turns transient time into permanent time[150] and it turns the mundane worldly works into prayers.[151] Five daily prayers should “not cause man boredom” for it is “the sustenance of my heart, the water of life of my spirit, and the air of my subtle faculties.”[152] It is not tiring for the body, and the spirit, the heart and the mind find great ease in prayer.[153]

As in the case of the spirit, the heart also takes its share from reading the Epistles of Light. Nursi believes that this quality of the Epistles is based on it being a contemporary exegesis of the Qur’an. He believed wholeheartedly that being occupied with the Epistles “by studying it, or reading it out loud, or writing it out, affords an expansiveness to the heart, an ease to the spirit, health to the body, and makes sustenance plentiful.”[154] Nursi observed that certain parts of the Epistles had a healing effect on his “various deep ills”[155] and that “those whose spirits are needy and hearts wounded search out and find those Qur’anic remedies” of the Epistles.[156]

On other occasions, Nursi counts the principles and matters of the Shari‘a and practices of the Prophet,[157] good health and wellbeing,[158] as sources of pleasure and means of sustenance for the heart.


Sicknesses of the Heart

Unsurprisingly, disbelief is a common sickness of the spirit and the heart.[159] Nursi comments that disbelief is not only a sickness that will hurt the heart in the hereafter, but that the unbelievers are losers “by reason of their pangs of conscience, anxious hearts, and desolate spirits” in this world also.[160] In particular the failure to believe in resurrection “arouses in the heart the pathetic sorrow of the orphan; that is, the lack of friends; and the desolation of alienation; that is, being without owner or guardian.”[161] That is so, because the human heart yearns for eternity, and disbelief makes man regard death as separation from life and friends once and for all.[162]

Another major sickness of the heart is to use for other reasons the love that is included in man’s nature for the Creator , or to use the fear that is given for fear of God for other fears.[163] In another passage Nursi goes further and claims, “the inner heart is the mirror of the Eternally Besought One and pertains only to Him.” Accordingly, he warns his readers not to give other loves the opportunity to enter into their inner hearts.[164]

We have already seen while discussing the sicknesses of the spirit that sins are a common sickness of the spirit and the heart. They may have further implications for the heart, though: “[T]he temptations and doubts that arise from those wounds will -- may God protect us! -- penetrate our inner heart, the seat of belief, and thus wound belief. Penetrating too the spiritual joy of the tongue, the interpreter of belief, they cause it to shun in revulsion the remembrance of God, and reduce it to silence.”[165]

            Unless the sin is swiftly obliterated by seeking God’s pardon, it will grow from a worm into a snake that gnaws on the heart,[166] and eventually penetrating the heart, repeated sins will “blacken and darken it until it extinguishes the light of belief.”[167]

One particular sickness of the heart Nursi deals with is the sickness that exists even in the most sound and illumined hearts:[168]


Many great saints and holy men have complained about their evil-commanding souls although their souls were tranquil. They have lamented over sicknesses of the heart although their hearts were completely sound and illumined. But what afflicted these persons was not their evil-commanding souls, but the soul’s functions that had been handed over to their nerves. Their ailments were not of the heart, but of the imagination.[169]


Despite the fact that he deals with the sicknesses of the heart in passages scattered around the Epistles of Light, it should be noted that Nursi ranks striving to “eliminate the sicknesses of the heart by way of Sufism and to journey with the feet of the heart” third in importance in the Naqshbandi way. The first and second places go to serving the truths of faith directly, and to advancing the cause of the religious obligations and serving the glorious practices of the Prophet.[170]

On other occasions Nursi counts doubt cast by Satan into the heart,[171] worry about physical illnesses,[172] feelings of materialism,[173] feelings of enmity towards others,[174] disquiet in the heart,[175] and desire for position[176] as sicknesses of the heart.


Relationship Between the Heart and Other Subtleties

Nursi’s main observation about the relationship between the heart and other subtleties is that ideally the heart is the commander of all other subtle faculties.[177] This is not always the case. “Sometimes the soul’s emotions affect certain veins of character, and predominate to an extent in spite of the heart, mind, and spirit… the soul, desires, emotions, and imagination sometimes deceive.”[178]

Nursi observes a natural alliance between the heart and the spirit. “Just as one hand cannot compete with the other, so one eye cannot criticize the other, nor the tongue object to the ear, nor the heart sees the spirit’s faults,”[179] he says. But he is also aware that occasionally the external senses may obstruct the heart and the spirit, since, “if a finger is wounded, the eye, mind, and heart neglect their important duties and become preoccupied with it. Similarly, our lives, which reach this pitch of distress, busy our hearts and spirits with their wounds.”[180]

Ideally, the relationship between heart and intellect[181] is a dialogic one. The heart predominates over the intellect, but intellect has its control over what comes out of the heart also. “The light of reason comes from the heart… So long as the lights of the mind and of the heart are not combined, there is darkness, producing oppression and ignorance.”[182]Nursi is aware that at certain times and for certain people the heart predominates over reason.[183] But the dominant tone in the Epistles of Light is that Nursi would prefer “the light of the Qur’an,” which has connotations of the heart, to “the genius of Rome,” that is rationalism, since the guidance of the Qur’an “works in the heart, and works the mind,” while “genius works in the mind and confuses the heart.”[184]

As for the relationship between the heart and the external senses, Nursi is of the idea that for “those who approach reality with their hearts” external senses may work as servants of the subtleties, particularly those of the heart and spirit. The sense of taste can work as a “supervisor and inspector in the kitchens of divine mercy” helping the heart, spirit and mind recognize and perceive the varieties of divine bounty and carries out its duty of thanks.[185]

Accordingly, if man’s spirit rules his body, “and his heart rules the desires of his soul, and his reason rules his stomach, and he wants pleasure for the sake of offering thanks, then he may eat delicious things.”[186] In a similar manner, the tongue functions, apart from being the organ of tasting, as “an accurate interpreter and telephone exchange for the heart, spirit, and mind in the function of speech” pointing to an all-encompassing knowledge.[187]


Relationship of the Heart to Time and Space

We have already seen that the spirit is relatively free of time and space constraints. In almost all the passages that mention spirit’s level of life and vastness of its universe, the heart is mentioned also. In only one passage does Nursi contend that the freedom of the heart from time and space constraints is not at the level of the spirit’s freedom:


Just as the hands of a clock counting the seconds, and those counting the minutes, hours, and days superficially resemble each other but differ in respect of their speed, so too the spheres of the body, soul, heart, and spirit in man differ from one another. For example, the body possesses an immortality, a life, and an existence in the present day, and even in the present hour while its past and future are dead and non-existent, but the heart’s sphere of existence and life extends from many days previous to the present day and to many days in the future. Then the sphere of the spirit is vast; its life and existence extends from years previous to the present day to years subsequent to it.[188]


The fact that the spirit has greater freedom from time and space does not suggest a superiority of the spirit over the heart. The imagination is completely free of any limitations of time and space, yet it is still a servant of the heart and mind.[189]It will be useful to remember here that the freedom of heart and spirit from the constraints of time and space is not a given but a taken quality. Only through belief are man’s narrow time and space “transformed into a broad and easy world. This extensive world becomes like man’s house, and the past and the future like present time for his spirit and heart. The distance between them disappears.”[190]


Instruments and States of the Heart

Nursi speaks of the eye,[191] ear[192] and telephone[193] of the heart on different occasions. All of these usages are allegoric. The eye of the heart is the window of the heart opened to the unseen and “the telephone, it is a link and relation with God that goes forth from the heart and is the mirror of revelation and the receptacle of inspiration. The heart is like the earpiece of that telephone.”[194] The eyes of the heart sees better than the external eyes, and the ears hear better than the material ears.[195] Nursi believes the heart to have eyes, ears and a kind of telephone line that reaches the dominical realm, since “it is a necessary and essential consequence of His Divine solicitousness and His dominical compassion that He should also communicate His presence and existence by speech, from behind the veil of veracious inspiration -- a mode of dominical discourse -- to individuals, in a manner peculiar to them and their capacities.”[196]

Apart from the eye, ear and telephone, the heart uses intuition as an instrument to rapidly attain new knowledge.[197]Nursi also mentions the faculty of memory as an instrument of the heart:

Furthermore, tiny man’s tiny heart may hold a love as great as the universe. Yes, the fact that writings equivalent to a library of thousands of books may be inscribed in the faculty of memory, which is a coffer of the heart’s the size of a lentil, shows that the human heart may contain the universe and bear love that great.[198]


Both intuition and the faculty of memory may well be regarded as distinct subtleties under the command of the heart also. But nowhere in the Epistles of Light are these named among latā’if

It is inescapable that according to its sicknesses, its level of attainment of sustenance and its capacity to use its various instruments, the heart should have different states, similar or corresponding to the seven states of the soul. There is no established list of states of the heart in the Sufi tradition. In different places in the Epistles, Nursi speaks of the hardness and unfeelingness of the heart,[199] of its tiredness,[200] of a sound heart,[201] of a corrupt heart,[202] of aware and attentive heart,[203] of a sick heart,[204] of unshakeable heart,[205] of luminous hearts,[206] stout hearts,[207] hearts deficient in submission and obedience,[208] of vigilant hearts,[209] of a righteous and a depraved heart.[210]

In its different states, the heart perceives the world, God and the hereafter in different manners. “A black-hearted, cruel person sees the universe as weeping, ugly, dark, and tyrannical,”[211] says Nursi. This brings us to the necessity of the purification of the heart.


Purification of the Heart

Purification and emancipation of the heart (and soul) from eternal perdition is regarded by Nursi as the main struggle of this life:[212]


Since the human heart and brain … comprise the members of a mighty tree in the form of a seed, and within them are encapsulated the parts and components of an eternal, majestic machine pertaining to the hereafter, certainly the heart’s Creator willed that it should be worked and brought out from the potential to the actual, and developed, and put into action, for that is what He did. Since He willed it, the heart will certainly work like the mind. And the most effective means of working it is to be turned towards the truths of faith on the Sufi path through the remembrance of God in the degrees of sainthood.[213]


The remembrance of God can take several forms. It can be realized through invocations of the Beautiful Names of declarations of faith like “There is no god but God,” [214] or it can take the form of reflective thought.[215] The Qur’an comprises both invocations and reflective thought and hence provides for “the surrender of the heart and conscience,” and “the subjugation of the reason and intellect.”[216]

Nursi suggests that if the heart is purified, it will “stir the other subtle faculties into motion,” and drive them to fulfil the purposes of their creation making a person into a true human being.[217] It is obvious that Nursi regards the purification of the heart as a central project of the perfection of man. Thus, any attempt to use any subtlety or sense for the real reasons for they were created is a way towards purification of the heart. Nursi suggests a kind of fasting for all the senses and organs, such as the eyes, ears, heart and thoughts, together with the stomach, as a means of purification. This involves banning the tongue from lying, backbiting, and obscene language; to make it fast; and to busy it with such activities as reciting the Qur’an, praying, glorifying God’s Names, asking for God’s blessings for the Prophet Muhammad, and seeking forgiveness for sins. All other human organs, senses and subtleties have their special forms of fasting too.[218]



Said Nursi’s understanding of the subtleties of man is largely shaped by the Naqshbandi way, particularly by Ahmad Sirhindi. Sa’d al-Taftazani’s understanding of spirit as a law clothed an external body found a place in Nursi’s theory of the spirit. What is unique to Nursi is his unified and collective understanding of man. Hence it is very difficult to study subtleties in the Epistles of Light on their own, without referencing to other subtleties and senses. This is true for the two dominical subtle faculties: the spirit and the heart. Despite the fact that Nursi give clear definitions of the spirit and heart as distinct subtleties of man, an in-depth study of the sicknesses, sustenances, instruments, relations and purifications of the spirit and the heart suggests that what holds for the spirit, holds for the heart also. In line with Nursi’s general tendency of prioritizing belief as a means of perfection, and Qur’an as a means of attainment of belief, and daily prayer as an external representation of belief, these three find their places among the top three sustenances of the spirit and the heart, and strategies of purification of these latā’if also have to be built on this trio. 

This article fails short of studying the intellect, the soul (nafs) and the self (ana, the I) for various reasons. Attainment of purification through elevating the seven states of the soul is not a part of his project. His understanding of the self has already been studied extensively. Nursi’s project of harmonization of spirit, heart and mind is also well studied. The intellect as a subtlety deserves a separate study.


[1]Refet Barutçu (1886–1975) was a retired army officer and an imam that joined Nursi’s close circle of students. His questions to Nursi played a significant role in provoking Nursi to write on controversial issues. In a letter to him Nursi attests to Refet Barutçu’s role in the writing of The Letters: “My Dear, Loyal Brother, Refet Bey! I cannot meet with indifference your learned questions since they are the keys to important truths contained in the part of the Risale-i Nur called Mektubat (Letters).” (The Rays, 323)

[2]References to the Risale-i Nur (Epistles of Light) are made from Şükran Vahide’s translations as they are repagianated in apart from Al-Mathnawi Al-Nuri (Tughra Books, New Jersey: 2007) and The Reasonings (Tughra Books, New Jersey: 2008), both translations of Hüseyin Akarsu. References to Turkish texts are made from the Risale-i Nur Külliyatı (Nesil Basım Yayın, İstanbul: 1996) and to Arabic Mesnevi from Abdulkadir Badıllı’s edition.

[3]The Flashes, 155. This correspondence is also recorded in Barla Lahikası, 1553 (Turkish). 

[4]Nursi counts the Ten Subtle Faculties as conscience, nerve, sense, intellect, desire, faculty of concupiscence, faculty of anger, heart, spirit and mystery. But he does not limit the number to ten, and lists arcane, super-arcane, faculty of fervour, faculty of inclination and premonition as other subtleties. Even then he suggests that there are other faculties he observed as subtle faculties of “man’s comprehensive disposition and vital potentialities.”

[5]Better known among Turkish Muslims as Imam-ı Rabbani, Ahmad Sirhindi (1563–1624) was a major figure of the Naqshbandi way. Sirhindi turned the ten subtleties [five belonging to the world of creation and five to the world of higher order] into the core of his model for purification of the soul. The first five subtleties refer to the soul and subtleties corresponding to the four basic elements of existence (water, air, earth and fire), and the second five, in the case of Sirhindi, to heart, spirit, mystery, arcane and super-arcane, which needed to be activated for the attainment of the status of Man of Perfection.

[6]Marcia K. Hermansen, “Shāh Walī Allāh's Theory of the Subtle Spiritual Centers (Laṭāʾif): A Sufi Model of Personhood and Self-Transformation,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Jan. 1988), 1–25.

[7]Shah Wali Allah’s book on the latā’if, Altaf al-Quds (Gujranwala, 1964) was translated into English by G. H. Jalbani and Donald Pendleberry titled as: The Sacred Knowledge of the Higher Functions of the Mind: The Altaf al-Quds of Shah Waliullah (Octagon Press: London, 1982).

[8]The problem of nomenclature gets even worse in English translations. For sake of continuity this article uses Jalbani and Pendleberry’s translations as listed: nefis (soul), ruh (spirit), vicdan (conscience), asab (nerve), his (sense), akıl (intellect), heva (desire), kuvve-i şehevaniyye(faculty of concupiscence), kuvve-i gadabiyye (faculty of anger), kalp (heart), sır (mystery), hafî (arcane), ahfâ (super-arcane), şâika (faculty of fervour), sâika (faculty of inclination) and hiss-i kable’l-vuku (premonition).

[9]Hermansen, 1988.

[10]“I shall only say this much: Imam-i Rabbani defined the ten subtle faculties as the heart, spirit, inner heart (sirr), khafiakhfa, and a faculty related to each of the four elements in man, and he discussed briefly the progress of one faculty in each stage of the spiritual journeying.” The Flashes, 155.

[11]A rare passage that suggests a link between the subtleties and the higher realm: “…just as man’s self is endowed with the manifestation of Divine mercy and his heart with the manifestation of Divine compassion, so too does his intellect take pleasure at the subtleties of Divine wisdom.” (The Rays, 654) In another passage Nursi reverses Shah Wali Allah’s allegory between the cosmos and man: “…just as in man there are immaterial faculties apart from his body, like the mind, heart, spirit, imagination, and memory, certainly in the world, which is the macroanthropos, and in the universe, which is the tree of which man is the fruit, there are other worlds apart from the corporeal world.” (The Words, 595) In a similar manner, Nursi uses man’s qualities as proofs of universal realities: “For example, extremely decisive evidence for the existence of the Preserved Tablet in the universe and an example of it is man’s faculty of memory. And a decisive evidence of the existence of the World of Similitudes and an example of it is man’s faculty of imagination. And evidence for the existence of spirit beings in the universe and an example of them are the powers and subtle faculties in man.” (The Flashes, 453)

[12]The Words, 676.

[13]Arabic Mesnevi, 315.

[14]Arabic Mesnevi, 254. 

[15]The Words, 595.

[16]The Flashes, 155–56. (With alterations in the translation) In The Letters Nursi claims that he himself “discovered two senses … that impel and stimulate.” (The Letters, 401) These should correspond to sâika (faculty of inclination) and şâika (faculty of fervour) mentioned in this passage. 

[17]Barla LahikasıRNK, 1486.

[18]The Letters, 518.

[19]The Flashes, 184–85.

[20]The Words, 676.

[21]The Words, 677.

[22]The Rays, 195–6, with minimal changes in translation. Compare with: “And just as he strives to meet the need of his stomach for food, so he is by nature compelled to strive to provide for the stomachs of his mind, heart, spirit, and humanity.” (The Rays, 242) and “Then just as in truly wondrous fashion He causes the appropriate sustenance to hasten to all the trees, which need a sort of food, so He bestows an extensive table of foods on man’s senses, which require sustenance physical and non-physical, and on his mind, heart, and spirit.” (The Rays, 582) and “God Almighty, with His glorious Divinity, His beautiful mercy, His mighty dominicality, His generous benevolence, His immense power, and His subtle wisdom, has equipped and adorned tiny man with many senses and feelings, limbs and systems, members and faculties, and subtle and immaterial aspects so that through them He might cause man to perceive, know, taste and recognize the limitless varieties and levels of His bounty, munificence and mercy; and so that, through these tools, He might cause man to ponder over, know and love the endless kinds of manifestations of His thousand and one Names. Just as each of man’s great many members and faculties performs a completely different service and worship, so too does each of them have completely different pleasures, pains, duties and rewards.” (The Words, 676)

[23]The Words, 719.

[24]The Words, 659.

[25]The Rays, 203.

[26]Al-Mathnawi Al-Nuri: Seedbed of The Light, 133.

[27] The Words, 723.

[28] The Letters, 392, with minor changes in translation.

[29]The Letters, 392, with minor changes in translation.

[30] The Words, 389

[31]The Letters, 382.

[32]Arabic Mesnevi, 262.

[33]The Letters, 463.

[34]The Flashes, 34.

[35]Kastamonu Lahikasi, RNK, 1574.

[36]The Letters, 524.

[37]The Words, 511. Compare with: “Yes, true progress is to turn the faces of the heart, spirit, intellect, and even the imagination and other subtle faculties given to man towards eternal life and for each to be occupied with the particular duty of worship worthy of it. Progress is not as the people of misguidance imagine, to plunge into the life of this world in all its minute details and in order to taste every sort of pleasure, even the basest, make subject to the evil-commanding soul all the subtle faculties and the heart and intellect, and make them assist it; to do this is not progress, it is decline.” (The Words, 331)

[38]The Flashes, 185–86.

[39]The Words, 334.

[40]The Flashes, 114.

[41]The Flashes, 117.

[42]The Flashes, 185–86.

[43]Arabic Mesnevi, 193.

[44]Signs of Miraculousness, 162.

[45]The Flashes, 164–5.


[47]The Letters, 410–11.

[48]The Words, 506–7. (With minor alterations in translation)

[49]The Words, 507.

[50]The Letters, 185.

[51]The Letters, 356.


[53]The Words, 518.

[54]The Words, 101.

[55]The Words, 369.

[56]The Words, 333.

[57]The Words, 332.

[58]Barla Lahikası, RNK, 1520.

[59]The Reasonings: A Key to Understanding the Qur’an’s Eloquence, 16; Signs of Miraculousness, 86.

[60]Holy Qur’an, 17:85.

[61]The Letters, 530–31. For a similar, and similarly difficult passage see The Words, 735. With a reverse logic Nursi also claims that if the laws that govern in species were clothed in external existence, each of them would become the spirit of the species. (The Words, 537) This definition of spirit is informed by Sa’d al-Taftazani’s definition in Makāsidu’t-Tālibīn fī i‘-lmi Usūli’d-Din (completed in 784) and the exegesis he wrote for this book named Al-Cazru’l-Asam. Nursi attests to his indebtedness to al-Taftazani in Barla Lahikası, RNK, 1515.

[62]The Rays, 64–5. A similar hierarchy is given in The Flashes, this time in a reverse order: “… just as life is the distilled essence of the universe; and consciousness and sense perception are distilled from life and are the essence of life; and intelligence too is distilled from consciousness and sense perception and is the essence of consciousness; and spirit is the pure, unsullied substance of life, its stable and autonomous essence…” (The Flashes, 430)

[63]The Words, 535.

[64]The Words, 536. A similar logic is used in the Signs of Miraculousness, in a passage that deals with the nature of death: “…the innumerable signs and tokens human beings have witnessed up to the present have planted in their minds the conviction and surmise that after death man is immortal in one respect, and what has immortality is his spirit. Thus, the existence of this inherent property in an individual is evidence of its existence in the race as a whole, because it is essential. Consequently [in accordance with the rule of logic], the particular proposition necessitates the universal one. Hence, death is a miracle of [divine] power the same as life is; it is not non-existence caused by the absence of the conditions of life.” (Signs of Miraculousness, 245)

[65]See below, the section that deals with the relationship between the body and the spirit.

[66]The Words, 536.

[67]The Words, 87–88.

[68]Al-Mathnawi Al-Nuri: Seedbed of The Light, 155.

[69]The Letters, 69.

[70]The Letters, 294.

[71]The Words, 720.

[72]Arabic Mesnevi, 275.

[73]The Words, 519.

[74]The Flashes, 377.

[75]The Letters, 211.

[76]The Words, 266.

[77]The Flashes, 22.

[78]The Flashes, 270.

[79]The Flashes, 22.

[80]Signs of Miraculousness, 68.

[81]The Rays, 583.

[82]The Words, 423.

[83]The Words, 508.

[84]The Flashes, 220.

[85]Signs of Miraculousness, 232.

[86]Kastamonu Lahikası, RNK, 1620.

[87]The Rays, 86 (With minor alterations in translation).

[88]The Rays, 651.

[89]Signs of Miraculousness, 68.

[90]The Words, 389.

[91]Signs of Miraculousness, 36.

[92]The Rays, 157

[93]The Rays, 157

[94]The Words, 33.

[95]The Words, 279.

[96]The Words, 277.

[97]The Rays, 214.

[98]Signs of Miraculousness, 77.

[99]Emirdağ Lahikası, RNK, 1703.

[100]Emirdağ Lahikası, RNK, 1764.

[101]The Words, 720.

[102]The Words, 535.

[103]The Words, 596.

[104]The Words, 39.

[105]Signs of Miraculousness, 22.

[106]The Flashes, 191.

[107]The Words, 46.

[108]Emirdağ Lahikası, 1764.

[109]The Letters, 463.

[110]The Flashes, 191–2.

[111]Signs of Miraculousness, 29.

[112]Signs of Miraculousness, 29.

[113]Hutbe-i Şamiye, RNK, 1980.

[114]The Flashes, 312. Nursi is consistent in relating the premonition to the spirit. See Tarihçe-i Hayat, 201 for a similar use of the term. Only in Letters, 402, Nursi suggests that the premonition is used by a dominical subtle faculty. Whether this dominical subtle faculty is the spirit, or heart, or any other intermediary faculty is not clear. 

[115]The Rays, 607.

[116]The Words, 275.

[117]Signs of Miraculousness, 231.

[118]Signs of Miraculousness, 188.

[119]“The spirit weakens on account of the body, and the body becomes finer on account of the spirit.” The Words, 551.

[120]The Rays, 321.

[121]Gardet, L. and Vadet, J. C. “Ḳalb,” Encyclopaedia of Islam. Edited by: P. Bearman , Th. Bianquis , C.E. Bosworth , E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2008.


[123]Signs of Miraculousness, 85.

[124]Signs of Miraculousness, 86.

[125]The Letters, 507.

[126]The Letters, 522.

[127]The Words, 766. A few lines below Nursi says that both “the heart and conscience are the seat of belief.” See also Signs of Miraculousness,85.

[128]The Flashes, 21.

[129]The Words, 641.

[130]The Letters, 447.

[131]“…when meanings arise in the heart, they enter the imagination stripped of form; it is there that they are clothed in an image or form.” (The Words, 282.)

[132]The Words, 195. See also The Words, 283, where Nursi reminds his readers of the proximity of Satan and the angel of inspiration to one another around the heart. In The Flashes Nursi suggests that man can mix the whisperings of Satan as coming from his heart. (The Flashes, 110.)

[133]The Rays, 195. See also The Rays, 582.

[134]The Rays, 76 (With minor alterations in translation).

[135]The Flashes, 158.

[136]Al-Mathnawi al-Nuri: Seedbed of the Light, p. 170. With alterations in translation.

[137]The Words, 322.

[138]The Rays, 651.

[139]The Letters, 262–3.

[140]The Words, 610.

[141]The Words, 374. See also The Letters, 471 and this poetic passage: “Since everywhere is a guesthouse, if the mercy of the guesthouse’s Owner befriends one, everyone is a friend and everywhere is familiar. Whereas if it does not befriend one, everywhere is a load on the heart and everyone is hostile.” (The Letters, 93.)

[142]The Letters, 227. The translator uses “peace of mind” for “tranquillity of heart”. 

[143]“It gives both pleasure and delight to the heart like dates. And it is sustenance.” (The Words, 393.)

[144]The Words, 394.

[145]The Letters, 508.

[146]The Rays, 17.

[147]The Letters, 263.

[148]The Flashes, 30.

[149]The Words, 277.

[150]The Rays, 214.

[151]The Words, 279.

[152]The Words, 277.

[153]The Words, 33.

[154]The Rays, 483.

[155]The Rays, 70.

[156]The Letters, 90.

[157]The Flashes, 88.

[158]The Rays, 338.

[159]Signs of Miraculousness, 74.

[160]Signs of Miraculousness, 237.

[161]Signs of Miraculousness, 77.

[162]The Flashes, 33. See also The Rays, 24 and The Words, 156. 

[163]The Words, 367; The Flashes, 30.

[164]The Words, 670.

[165]The Flashes, 22.

[166]The Flashes, 22.

[167]The Flashes, 22.

[168]The Letters, 380.

[169]The Letters, 380.

[170]The Letters, 38–39.

[171]The Words, 281.

[172]The Flashes, 272.

[173]The Words, 770–1.

[174]“If you wish to nourish enmity, then direct it against the enmity in your heart, and attempt to rid yourself of it. Be an enemy to your evil-commanding soul and its caprice and attempt to reform it, for it inflicts more harm on you than all else. Do not engage in enmity against other believers on account of that injurious soul.” (The Letters, 309.)

[175]The Letters, 411.

[176]The Letters, 476.

[177]The Words, 511; The Flashes, 185. Also: “It is the sovereign of your senses and faculties.” (The Flashes, 158) 

[178]The Flashes, 221.

[179]The Flashes, 215.

[180]The Rays, 326.

[181]The Turkish words for mind, intellect and reason are interchangeable and there is no way to detect Nursi’s intended choice between these three. It if most probable that he saw no distinction between these concepts. 

[182]The Words, 739; The Letters, 532.

[183]The Letters, 447. Compare with this passage: “This lesson looks to the heart more than the reason, and regards spiritual pleasure and perception rather than rational proofs.” (The Words, 18.)

[184]The Words, 747

[185]The Flashes, 191.

[186]The Flashes, 192.

[187]The Rays, 616.

[188]The Flashes, 32.

[189]The Rays, 604-5.

[190]The Rays, 651; The Words, 489; The Flashes, 294.

[191]“The eyes of my heart wept…” (The Words, 228); “he will see with the eye of the heart…” (The Words, 322)

[192]“if he listens with the ear of his heart” (The Words, 374); “Whichever of them you listen to with the ear of the heart” (The Words, 715). Also, The Words, 374; The Words, 715; 

[193]“He left a telephone in every heart.” (The Words, 684); “by means of the telephone of the heart, may communicate with elevated spirits,” (The Flashes, 377). Also: The Words, 646; The Flashes, 375.

[194]The Words, 65.

[195]The Rays, 17. 

[196]The Rays, 149.

[197]The Words, 534. 

[198]The Flashes, 90. See also: Al-Mathnawi al-Nuri: Seedbed of the Light, 170-171.

[199]The Words, 258.

[200]“And sometimes the heart becomes tired, and the mind occupies itself with anything it encounters in order to entertain itself.” The Words,283.

[201]The Words, 316.

[202]The Flashes, 110; 168.

[203]The Flashes, 176; The Words, 711.

[204]The Flashes, 177

[205]The Flashes, 92.

[206]The Words, 690.

[207]The Letters, 490.

[208]The Words, 177.

[209]The Words, 258.

[210]The Words, 49.

[211]The Rays, 583.

[212]The Words, 35.

[213]The Letters, 507–8.

[214]The Flashes, 178.

[215]The Letters, 508.

[216]The Words, 378.

[217]The Letters, 522.

[218]The Letters, 462.