It is generally thought that the human body contains only one subtle center of consciousness: the mind or brain. But the elder Sufis, through their spiritual experiences, discovered additional centers of perception or inner senses which they referred to as lata’if (singular: latifah). They further concluded based on their kashf (intuitive insight) that there are ten such lata’if.
The origins of the lata’if reflect the origins of the universe as a whole. According to Shaykh Ahmad Faruqi Sirhindi (r.a.), the Indian master from whom the Mujaddidi lineage descends, God created the universe in two stages. First came ‘alam’i amr (the world of God’s command), which emerged instantly when God said, “Be!” Then God created ‘alam’i khalq (the world of creation) through a process of evolution that lasted many years. After ‘alam’i khalq, God created the human being. God blessed this new creation with certain inner faculties or points of light; the lata’if. Five of the lata’if – nafs (self), bad (air), nar (fire), ma’ (water), and khak (earth) – were part of the world of creation. The other five – qalb (heart), ruh (spirit), sir (secret), khafi (hidden), and akhfa (most hidden) – were part of the world of God’s command.
The lata’if were luminous initially. When God connected them to the body, their light started to be filtered through the influences of the physical world, including human beings’ tendency to identity with materiality. The dimming of our natural inner radiance is reflected in the Qur’anic passage, Surely We created the human being of the best stature, then We reduced him to the lowest of the low, except those who believe and do good works, for they shall have a reward unfailing. (Qur’an 95:4-6). Through practices that involve concentrating on the lata’if the Sufi aspirant becomes able to use them as means to greater awareness of the Divine Presence. The more the seeker develops this ability, the less the light of knowledge is obscured.
Like the faculty of memory, the lata’if are faculties that we may sense and experience, yet have difficulty explaining. How would you define memory? You might say it resides in the brain – you might even describe its physiological working – but these descriptions fail to convey all its dimensions. Sometimes, a person loses his or her memory due to injury. He or she becomes even more aware of its importance, yet is no better able to explain it. Similarly, the lata’if cannot be adequately defined in words; but as a person brings them to light, he or she comes to understand them.
Different Sufi orders have associated the lata’if with various locations on the body. The Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi order places the five centers of the world of God’s command (the lata’if of ‘alam’i amr) in the chest. The heart or qalb is on the left side of the body, two inches below the nipple. The spirit, ruh, is in the corresponding position on the right side of the chest. The subtle center known as secret, or sirr, is on the same side as the heart, but above the breast. Hidden (khafi) is on the right above the breast. Most hidden (akhfa) is in the middle of his chest, between the heart and spirit.
Shaykhs of the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi order guide the salik (spiritual traveler) in enlightening the lata’if one by one. This is accomplished primarily through muraqabah (meditation). While sitting, the student makes an intention (niyah) to pay attention to a particular subtle center. He or she focuses first on the heart (qalb), then, in sequence, the other lata’if of the world of God’s command: spirit, secret, hidden, and most hidden (ruh, sirr, khafi, and akhfa). When these are fully enlightened, the student pays attention to the lata’if associated with the world of creation (‘alam’i khalq).
Of the subtle centers connected with the world of creation, only the self or nafs is regarded as corresponding to a particular point on the human body. Its location is in the middle of the forehead. It is the first of the lata’if of ‘lam’i khalq that the student refines, for it is considered the sum total of all the others. After concentrating on the self for some time, the student is guided next to focus on the four gross elements of which the body is constituted – air, fire, water, and earth (bad, nar, ma’, and khak). When these are infused with light, every pore of the body becomes illuminated and starts to remember God.