One Who Knows One's Self Knows One's Lord
by Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh
There is a Prophetic Tradition, in which the Prophet says, "One who knows one's self knows one's Lord." Various interpretations of this tradition are possible, depending on whether we interpret 'Lord' to mean the one who commands, or God.
If we mean the former, then the psychological interpretation of the tradition is as follows:
We know that each person's behavior is, by and large, motivated by unconscious or subconscious conditioning; in other words, one's behavior is influenced by one's pre-existing psychological state. Hence, one can say that whoever knows one's self, meaning the character traits and behavioral characteristics that have been influenced by the personalities of one's father and mother, as well as one's childhood environment and training, knows one's lord, which is, in fact, one's psychological personality.
If we understand 'Lord' to mean God, however, then the literal interpretation of the Tradition would be that whoever knows one's self knows one's God. Yet, as philosophers and gnostics have pointed out, humankind is transitory and knowledge of one's transitory nature does not amount to knowledge of the eternal. Furthermore, a transitory being can never come to know the eternal.
Sufis, however, strive to throw away the garment of transitoriness by the aid of love and annihilate themselves in God. In this way, through Him they come to know Him. Thus, in interpreting this tradition they say:
One who knows oneself in annihilation knows one's Lord in Subsistence.
One who knows oneself in non-existence knows one's Lord in Existence.
One who knows oneself as non-being knows one's Lord as Absolute Being.
One who knows oneself as poor knows one's Lord as Rich.
One who knows oneself as nothing knows one's Lord as Everything.
However, becoming nothing is a difficult task indeed, for as long as any trace of being remains, you have not lost yourself in your Lord, who is everything.