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The Lataif


Arvan Harvat

A brief historical overview

Since our central interest is location of main signposts of the Lataif approach to Sufi psychospiritual doctrine and practice, we will address only those names and occurences pertaining to the subject.

The true history of the Lataif Sitta begins with the Turkestani shaykh Najm-ud-din Kubra ( 12/13. centuries C.E.), the founder of the Kubrawiyya order (ref). His numerous visionary experiences bear the distinctive mark of what was to become the "trademark" of the Lataif approach: color, or "photisms" associated with levels of spiritual advancement. Although, in all likelihood, he didn't assign different spiritual "organs" to various parts of the body, his influence has proven to be decisive.

Among his spiritual descendants, Ala-ud-din Semnani (13/14.century C.E.) has built an intricate system in which a network of correspondences between prophets ( Abraham, Jesus,..), lataif ( qalb, ruh,..) and colors was established. (ref) Yet, there is no unanimity re the nature of lataif, or their respective order. For instance, Semnani's scheme places latifa sirr/secret below ( or, before ) latifa ruh/spirit, whereas other blueprints of "spiritual physiology" reverse the order. Other two important Sufi masters were Jurjani and Ruzbekhan Baqli Shirazi ( 14.century C.E.), their chief works being treatises, spiritual diaries and theosophical commentaries.

However, other spiritual currents moulded esoteric "geography".  One of them was powerful Naqshbandi order, whose central figure in the revival of Islamic orthodoxy in the Indian subcontinent was a controversial figure of Ahmad Sirhindi/Mujaddid ( 17. century C.E.).  A man of deep spiritual insight, boldness and personal charisma, he undisputably left the heritage of Islamic exclusivism, bigotry and communal tension. Our main concern here lies in his legacy of redesignment of the Lataif Sitta and the attributions that are still practiced in the Mujaddidiyya branch of the Naqshbandi order ( named after him ). Common Sufi concepts of fana and baqa ( annihilation/effacement and subsistence- referring to various stages of vita purgativa and vita unitiva ) were assigned to different lataif. For instance, the Naqshbandi blueprint is as follows (ref):

Nafs- under the navel (blue) Qalb- on the left side of the chest (yellow) Ruh- on the right side of the chest, below the nipple (red) Sirr- between Qalb and Ruh, adjacent to the left nipple (white) Khafi- in the forehead, or adjacent to the right nipple (black) Akhfa- in the brain, or, alternately, in the centre of the chest (green)

Spiritual practice is dhikr/invocation of God's names, sometimes visualized in Arabic script in respective colors; hence, superficially a form of Islamic mantra-yoga with mantras located in foci of spiritual consciousness, similar to the Tantric tradition.  Only- this resemblance is deceptive, because, from the indeterminacy and "laxity" of the enumerated correspondences latifa- physical location, follows arbitrariness of the entire scheme.

The last ( and the most genuine ) modus of interdependence of esoteric ideas was assimilation of chakra system of Nath yoga within the practice of the Shattari order, through the agency of shaykh Muhammad Ghawth (16. century C.E.)(ref)


Our main interest in this essay lay in exposition of the Lataif doctrine. Having adumbrated key concepts & raisons for a multiplicity of spiritual practices, we would like to end with a few nagging questions that haunt anyone who has seriously analyzed and dissected the Lataif Sitta problem:

 From rudimentary Qur'anic concepts of nafs, qalb and ruh, an intricate and at the same time contradictory network of esoteric correspondences and practices grew, combining a multitude of extraneous Weltanschauungen like Hermetic cosmology, Neoplatonic philosophy, Gnostic teaching on the divine spark, Tantric "baroque" meditative rituals and so forth. However, crucial concepts remained fuzzy and undefined:

a) It is not clear whether these psychological terms correspond to real, although to a degree dormant, organs of the psychospiritual perception ?

b) Although some authors are explicit about the existence of the subtle body/jism-i-latif, there is no unanimity regarding this matter. Any automatic reference to the Hindu concept of koshas is inappropriate. So, even those who work with these "subtleties" ( latifa, pl. lataif ) are equivocal on the matter of assigning those subtleties to the subtle/latif body. The majority even don't take this body under consideration.

c) There is no unanimity regarding the number of lataif. Some consider khafi, akhfa, or, even sirr, to be only deeper layers ( or core(s)) of other, more common lataif like qalb or ruh. Some orders, like Halveti, consider all lataif to be different dimensions/layers of the latifa qalb/heart.

d) Even those who operate with all lataif separately, locate them in different parts of the body, or assign them different colors ( Sirhindi permuted Semnani's colors of qalb/heart and ruh/spirit ).

e) The alluring association of the Lataif Sitta with the Tantric esoteric physiology is deluding. In Tantricism, chakras perform a multiplicity of psychophysiological functions as defined in Ayurvedic medicine. The lataif have no physiological functions per se.  More: the central mythic power defining the Hindu Tantra, Kundalini Shakti, has no equivalent in the Sufi psycho-symbology.

Our conclusion would be that the rudimentary Qur'anic psychological terms, enriched and expanded by the already existing vast and conflicting welter of Gnostic, Neoplatonic and Hermetic teachings, formed a system of psychospiritual correspondences resembling partially the Kabbalistic one. The true ancestor of the Lataif Sitta, in its most widespread impersonations, lies in the Eastern Mediterranean, not in the rainforest of the Hindu-Buddhist tradition.

Sufi cosmology
Sufi psychology
The Lataif

printed referenceLiterature

Mir Valiuddin: Contemplative Disciplines in Sufism The Sufi Journal, 1994-1995

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page by Arvan Harvat
page uploaded 29 November 1998, last modified 6 September 2004