Islamic Sufism and Emotional Intelligence
Copyright 2010 Jehan-i-Seema. All rights reserved.
All material in this page is original writing of  Seema Arif. Using it in any form of publication and
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    One important topic of study in modern psychology is the study of emotional intelligence propounded by Daniel
    Goleman (1995). [1] Fostering emotional intelligence and the raising of social capital [2] are rendered key
    components of success in knowledge age. According to Goleman (1998) emotional intelligence refers to “the capacity
    for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in
    ourselves and our relationships.” [3] Emotional Intelligence comprises the attempt at self awareness and developing
    better personal and social relationships for personal benefit as more emotionally intelligent seems to make lots of
    profits for their businesses and organizations. Goleman and associates seem to rather entice the business community
    toward learning and development of emotional intelligence so that they can “feel” good about themselves and at the
    same time prosper materially. Goleman’s theory has nothing to do with the material sacrifice or adopting a simpler way
    of life for greater happiness as proposed by many religions and also an essential element of Confucian and
    Aristotelian ethics. Hereby two extremes are set, one of material success and the other of the spiritual satisfaction. Is
    there any mid-point or balance proposed by any other philosophy? Then we are reminded of Islamic Sufism and
    principles of moderation taught by renowned Muslim scholars like Ibn-Sina, Imam Ghazali, Ibn-i-Arabi, Ibn-i-Khaldun,
    Rumi and Iqbal to train human Nafs to reach an ideal state of balance, where one is working in harmony with the divine
    principles. Can such traditional Islamic principles be attuned with modern science of psychology? Iqbal had said a
    century ago that both the sciences of psychology and biology had to learn a lot to reach the cognition of a Muslim
    mind. [4] Whether or not that point has reached after many advances in biology, neuroscience and psychology? The
    article does not aim at identifying gaps in Western theories but attempts at proposing an Islamic model for personal
    development and reaching the states called emotional or social intelligence in modern psychology.     

    Years ago, I had started my research on educational leadership to develop a model in Islamic perspective. I like most
    Pakistanis have always trusted one intellectual source for guidance, i.e. Dr. Allama Muhammad Iqbal. Dr. Iqbal’s own
    PhD dissertation “Development of Metaphysics in Persia” [5] is a huge resource which invites you to tap at the
    valuable treasure of knowledge of Muslim heritage holds for you. Iqbal’s philosophy of selfhood (Khudi) invites the
    reader to have critical examination of the self and be very careful when determining ego ideals for oneself. Iqbal calls
    you for the search of your identity first – not just a “physical awareness” of yourself with a Muslim name, born to
    Muslim parents and/or raised in a Muslim Republic, but what are the values and beliefs that a system called Islam
    holds for you. How can you develop your “personal competence” [6] by adopting Muslim values like “Adl”, “Ihsan” and
    “Taqwa”, and how do you reform your practice corresponding to those beliefs that will inspire in you a feeling of
    cohesion and solidarity (Assabiya). [7]

    Iqbal introduces you to Abdul Karim Al Jilli, a Morrocan social scientist of his time who developed a model of a
    knowledge leader, “Insaan-i-Kamil” – The perfect man [8] based upon Seerat of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and
    inspired by philosophy of Ibn-Arabi. While going through Iqbal’s text you come across few contested names in Muslim
    intellectual history, like Shahab ud Din Suhrawardi and his Illumationist school of thought [9] and two great products of
    this school, Ibn-Arabi and Rumi, who never claimed to be the direct disciples of Suhrawardi, but their thought and
    philosophy is marked by strong imprints of his work, i.e. their preference of intuition and revelation over the rational
    empirical knowledge and proceeding in the realm of knowledge with art of self-reflection. Their leadership had begun
    an infinite progeny of knowledge leaders, those who could balance between ‘feeling’ and ‘thinking’ and relied more
    upon intuition than sensory judgment. We are reminded of names like Shah Wali Ullah and Iqbal and following Iqbal,
    Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi in Indian subcontinent. Of course, there are many more spread around four corners of the
    world. Self knowledge was the key for salvation for Ibn-Arabi and his followers. They had further expanded the
    concept of “know thyself” of Socrates and Plato to

    A better understanding of the ‘self’ leads to a better cognition of God [10]

    Knowing oneself here does not mean knowing about the physical whereabouts of oneself or reiterating one’s personal
    whims and desires but to ‘know’ here you may have to open the book of psychology. To “know” means one needs to
    know about all predictors of human action and behavior, attitude, personality, temperament, learning or motivational
    style, personal defense mechanisms and many related concepts as proposed by the discipline called psychology.
    However, psychology does not hold you accountable for any of your thoughts and behavior and does not assign any
    moral purpose to your life; it is beginning to learn the importance of “altruism” and “empathy” after the development of
    concepts like “prisoner’s dilemma” and “game theory”. [11] Furthermore, like any other material science psychology
    rejects the utility of metaphysics deciding to operate in domain of needs for physical survival and wellbeing.

    On the other hand, Muslim scholars’ like Ibn-Arabi’s vision is not limited to the necessities of personal existence but
    the imperatives of collective life. I’ve found Ibn-Arabi to be a great mentor (‘Sheikh Akbar’ is his salutation) in knowing
    about and developing “personal competence”. [12] Ibn-Arabi starts educating you in names of Allah, the divine
    attributes by which we cognize Allah. These attributes are of special significance as they do not embody personhood
    of Allah, but the energies and forces that comprise His absolute oneness and celebrate Allah’s ultimate command over
    the system of life. These “names” are the divine laws and principles that were taught to Adam by Allah so that his
    progeny may govern the system of life in best possible of ways. Thus, some of these names are perfected in lives of
    prophets of Allah, each of whom practiced it to perfection and initiated an evolution in thinking by adopting a better
    course of life, such as Joseph (Yusuf AS) laid down the moral foundation of an agrarian society; Moses (Musa AS)
    taught humanity to protect the weak from the atrocity and coercion of dictators and laid foundation of civil liberty and
    human rights (freedom for all); Jesus (Issa AS) of compassion and care for one’s people and sacrificing personal will
    for the will of Allah. Ultimately, Muhammad (SAW) synthesized previously held systems to perfection by adding the
    attribute of “Husn”, the beauty – a natural alignment and harmony amongst the rules and laws that govern life. We can
    achieve this standard by being tolerant and respectful to diversity life has to offer and providing unconditional love
    and care to the life and the living. Life of the ‘group’ of faithful was more important than ‘individual’ life of a believer
    and individual must surrender his/her personal will to the group of faithful he/she belongs to. This adherence is not
    upon the basis of a clan or race one belongs to but upon the steadfast belief over the values and principles that Islam
    teaches us. [13]

    It initiates an undying sense of “social awareness” [14] in oneself and I am indebted to Ibn-Arabi for opening my mind
    to the fact that only by adhering to above mentioned principles I will “be” a Muslim. Being born as a Muslim does not
    assure any rights to secure paradise or salvation. I am just given a fairer chance that increases my responsibility that I
    may conscientiously justify the title of “vicegerent” of Allah. I must let go first of all of the delusion similar to that of the
    Bani Israel of ‘being the chosen one of the God’. Instead I must endeavor to give life and the human beings my best.
    All of us are mortal and will return to Allah. Life has been pronounced as a “gift” for us and what we will make out of it,
    must be a “gift” that we are to return to the Creator. This vision has made my life more meaningful and purposeful
    than ever. [15]

    I have learned the sesame for individual salvation, but what about my people, brothers and sisters in my faith. This
    problem has been solved for me by none other but the spiritual mentor of Iqbal, Maulana Jalal ud Din Muhammad
    Rumi. Referring back to my research on development of conceptual model for educational leadership in Islamic
    Perspective, one day, I got too dejected and disappointed and put two words on internet search, “Rumi and
    Massanavi” and the ‘sesame’ worked. I was amazed to find out that the sage whose stories my grandfather used to tell
    me was one of the most popular authors of all times and was widely sought after in North America and Europe. I
    anxiously looked for some English Translation and got 1st 14 lines, the ‘Fatiha of Masanavi’ before me. It was a new
    beginning, the life after life, as all veils of ignorance were lifted, sloth was bubbled away and I could clearly see the
    path to my destination. Ultimately I started my thesis with Rumi’s couplet:

    “Dost thou know why the mirror (of thy soul) reflects nothing?
    Because the rust is not cleared from its face”. [16]

    The question arose: what was that mirror? Why it was rusted and needed polishing and abrasion? I learned that mirror
    was my heart, a heart full of selfish desires and aims. I learned that a heart caught in chain of worldly gains of
    unpromising pursuits was a polluted heart, which could not offer help and concern to fellow human beings also leads
    to a dull mind, which could not question about what was happening with the life process around us. [17]

    I realized that we are making our lives increasingly difficult by depending upon so many unnatural, artificial resources.
    My heart is sick and needs rejuvenation; it had needed healthy and living “relationships”. Therefore, it must be
    emptied first and then refilled with love of life and concern for the living. I must learn to “empathize”, i.e. I will have to
    leave aside my personal notions of right and wrong, good and evil and learn to “feel” about others to do them some
    good by offering ‘catharsis’ rather than indulging in quick recipes of problem solving and/or conflict resolution. I may
    have to understand others before being understood. This is something said by Stephen Covey but I found its meaning
    in Rumi because that is more culturally relevant, thus elucidating. [18] I wonder that it’s me who will be gifted and to
    receive ‘bounty’ I may have to shed away with old corpse of ideas to welcome new life. I will have to persevere to give
    meaning and life to a whole new world. I will assume personal responsibility for personal improvement and change; I
    could be so bold and courageous and so optimistic when Rumi quotes Qur’an in Fi ha Ma Fi:
    “And We honored the Children of Adam.”
    Rumi reminds us not to forget that human beings took the load (of knowledge) when jinns and mountains refused. [19]

    Life is a collective phenomenon and I have learned the art of living. It is the love of humanity and “awareness” of
    others’ needs that creates tolerance, benevolence and compassion. I do not do it for better profits and more selfish
    gains but I have surrendered to the will of Allah by knowing that this is the best practice in life. Again Iqbal informs us
    that sacrificing lower value for the higher builds character and initiates a spirit of altruism that takes charge of the
    whole life. [20] Thus, let us learn this art – art of self reflection, by being reflexive of the knowledge we gain through
    our life experiences. Do not dump that knowledge in your memory, but embellish it with your values and decorate it on
    the mantle of your heart. There is strong connection between knowledge and action – praxis; unless it is established
    well with positive consequences, the wisdom that harbinger happiness does not happen. So do not waste time; start
    networking and building connections and charge your heart with will and energy to enter the gates of eternal
[1] Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.
Emotional intelligence (EI) has its roots in the concept of “social intelligence,” first identified by E.L. Thorndike
in 1920 to describe the skill of understanding and managing other people. For Salovey and Mayer (1990)
“emotional intelligence” is far more than being ‘nice’ to people. It is the ability to sense, understand, and
effectively apply the power and acumen of emotions as a source of energy, information, creativity, trust, and
connection – the ability to sense and use emotions to more effectively manage ourselves and influence
positive outcomes in our relationships. Goleman’s model of EI proposes five key steps to reach the objective
of EI: self-awareness, self-regulation, self-motivation, empathy, and effective relationships; each includes a
set of different competencies. It is also referred to as a meta-cognitive process utilizing the key competencies
of brain: feeling and thinking.
[2] Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon
and Schuster.
Corresponding to Robert Putnam’s conception social capital is widely understood as the trust, shared values
and expectations which facilitate cooperative relationships – a social consensus in favor of creating more
productive society.” Social capital is evident in nation from the dedication with which the leaders and people
work towards common objectives.
[3] Goleman, D. (1998). Working with emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books
[4] Dr. Mohammad Iqbal. (1934). Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam: Knowledge and Religious
Experience, [online] available at: retrieved [18-
06.2002] from Tolu-e-Islam database
See further Arif, S. Policy Perspectives: The Future of Knowledge Theory.  Institute of Policy Studies,
Islamabad. Vol(4), 2. July-Dec. 2007  
[5] Dr. Mohammad Iqbal. (1908). The Development of Metaphysics in Persia: A Contribution to the History of
Muslim Philosophy London: Luzac & Co.
[6] See Goleman (1998). Personal competence closely corresponds to Howard Gardner’s ‘Intrapersonal
Intelligence’, “the capacity to understand oneself, i.e. to know ones weaknesses and strengths and the ability
to regulate one’s emotions, i.e. to appreciate one's feelings, fears and motivations.
[7] Franz Rosenthal, N. J. Dawood (1967), The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History (English Translation).
New Jersey: Princeton University Press.  
Ibn-Khaldun’s concept of tribal integrity, a group feeling that promotes sense of belongingness and cohesion
within the group and works as power to acquire leadership and/or dominance over other groups (may be a
tribe, race or a nation)
[8] See Muhammad Iqbal’s letter dated 24 January 1921 to R.A. Nicholson (Letters of Iqbal Iqbal Academy,
Lahore (1978), pp. 141-42
[9] See Seyyed Hossein Nasr & Leaman, O. (Eds). (2001). History of Islamic Philosophy. New York: Routledge.
[10] A hadith found in Sufi literature, especially in Ibn-Arabi. For further commentary see Hassan Suhaib
Murad (2002). An Introduction to the Science of Hadith: Foreword. London: Al-Qur'an Society [online]
available at       
[11] See Goleman (1998).
[12] See Ibn al Arabi. The Bezels of Wisdom.  Trans. Austin, R.W.J. (1980). New Jersey. Paulist Press
[13] See Chittick, W.C. (1998). The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al-‘Arabī’s Cosmology. Albany,
New York: State University of New York Press.
[14] See Gardner, H. (1993) Frames of Mind: The theory of multiple intelligences, New York: Basic Books.
Social awareness refers to the other component of EI, the social competence corresponding to Howard
Gardner’s concept of Interpersonal intelligence, concerned with the capacity to understand the intentions,
motivations and desires of other people. It allows people to work effectively with others.
[15] See Arif, S. (2007). Following the Footsteps of Mevlana Jalal ud Din Muhammad Rumi in the Pursuit of
Knowledge. Transcendental Philosophy. Volume 8.
[16] See Nicholson, R.A. (1926) Translation Masanavi Jalaludin Rumi (book 1, lines 33-34)
[17] See Arif, S. (2006). The Memetic Counselling of Massanavi In Rumi and His Sufi path of Love, M.F.Cutlak
& Husseyin Bingul (eds). New Jersey: The Light Publishing.
[18] Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Shuster.
[19] See Arberry, A.J. (1970). Fihi Ma Fihi: Discourses of Rumi. Iowa: OMPHALOSKEPSIS
[20] See Dr. Mohammad Iqbal. (1934). Op.cit.