Deliberation and reflection on the human self has continued unabated over the centuries. From the time when self-realisation was linked to the recognition of God, the wayfarers in the procession of divine passion began to search for salvation in the enchanting and tempting vastness of the human Self. This enigma has continued to engage mankind under the guise of various names, such as, self-consciousness, deep understanding and self-realisation. Few, however, have succeeded in attaining to the depth of its meanings: whilst those who were afraid of it, grew more in terror as their understanding of it grew.
Those that did gain some knowledge of it found the Nafs to be the archenemy of Man, dominating every aspect of his life: the lawful and unlawful; good and evil; chaos and order; poverty and opulence; war and peace; the positive and the negative. Further, they witnessed it in the pomp and glory of the victorious and in the wretchedness of the vanquished; in the sublime knowledge and wisdom and in the prejudices of the populace; in the dignity and awe of Kings, and in the petitions of the penniless; in the refined style of wordsmiths and in the vulgar tongues of the rabble; in the romance of love and beauty and in the backdrop of libidinal desires. In short the influence of this corrupting self was felt everywhere.
The question arises: What was its origin? And what is its true nature?
The issue was not always that complicated. Over aeons of time animal characteristics firmly lodged themselves in the inner consciousness of Man. To such an extent that human life, which began on the basis of survival and self-defence, was unable to shed these characteristics even in the midst of the most advanced social and economic structures. All human systems, no matter how supportive they appear, have in some fundamental way aided and supported some aspect of the Nafs.
Despite the change of battlefield and type of contest, the conclusion of the struggle between Man and beast was replaced by the struggle of mutual rivalry between Homo Sapiens. Before this time, Man, on a collective level, was as one single body fiercely upholding his individuality in the face of opposition from other forms of life. Emotions of generosity and kindness grew in strength alongside the spirit of rebellion and arrogance: survival is avarice for life. Furthermore, the sense of survival that the Prophet Suleyman (PBUH) witnessed in the procession of ants surged like a herd of wild elephants in its diverse and varicoloured forms in the character traits of Man.
Knowledge and wisdom failed to release the human Self, which had its origins in the struggle for survival, from the mindset of survival. Instead, it altered the means of achieving the same goal. For instance the entire fields of arts and sciences, which attained mastery in the understanding of physical reality, and all the methods adopted by civilised Man, all had their centre and focal point in the promotion of ease, comfort and the strengthening of the Self. The Self constructed channels which would promote sympathy and affection within Man in its favour, and would be regarded as the ultimate standards of humanity.
How could Man possibly regard as an enemy that which had seeped into his consciousness, becoming a fundamental part of his life and was now flowing within his blood and veins? Despite the exhortations to adopt the path of guidance, it was an extremely difficult challenge for Man to see himself as his own enemy. Indeed, for whom should he wage this war on himself and for what reward: ‘friendship’ of God and an unseen paradise! Moreover, the human self depends for its support on outward causes. It convinces and influences Man through the agency of the five senses. As a result, Paradise was seen as a mirage and an empty promise, impossible to test before death, not to mention God and the intellect, which were far removed from the ambit of the five senses and the boundaries of the heart and vision.
The Nafs is another name for the nerve centre of Man: it is his childhood, his youth and his old age. Indeed, the human self is a ‘packet’ of needs and wants. It is a defence system, resting on the basic instincts of Man, which has, since prehistoric times, become so powerful that the entire body of science and knowledge cannot withstand its defence weaponry. Lurking in the ‘trench’ of survival this warrior is familiar with the strategies needed to ward off all the assaults of knowledge and reason. However, its greatest weapon is to show sympathy and affection to its ‘victim’. This then, is a war which Man has no desire to win. There is no compensation or blood money forthcoming for the one who is slain. In the words of the Generous Lord: ‘I created my biggest enemy in the form of Man’. Indeed, the inner consciousness of Man is ruled by this Dajjal and his acts of construction are in truth acts of destruction. This Anti-Christ dwells in both you and me. The statement ‘I am’ is an expression of its individuality, for it divides both people and the person and is the personality of every individual. It can be glimpsed in the scholar’s boastings of his knowledge, in the depraved behaviour of the ignorant, in the ascetic's display of piety, in the man of letters' desire for fame, and in the prince's desire for power and glory.
Psychologists attempted to understand the workings of this bundle of instincts. They searched for the underlying principles of Man’s reactions and behaviour. They subjected his feelings to the theories of ‘inferiority’ and ‘superiority’. Discovering in the process a whole host of complexes, phobias, neuroses, psychoses, fantasies and evil whisperings, insanity and madness, lurking in the mind of Man. Further, they searched for the fundamental causes of fear and depression.
Their goal was neither to find God nor to explore the self in order to find God. It was merely to activate, to reinvigorate, and to strengthen the Self which had become passive, downtrodden, defeatist and inactive. This was simply so that it could once more resume the struggle for survival. However, the main distinguishing factor between psychologists and Sufis is that the former seek to understand the Self for the sake of the Self, whereas, the latter seek to understand it so that they can place it in the service of God. Moreover, Nafs and desire are two inseparable companions and together they carve out the priorities and preferences of the Nafs, to the extent that desires, bosom companions of Satan, can affect and alter the ‘seasons’ of the Nafs. The nature of the Nafs is that it craves to dominate others. It jealously guards its own possessions, yet it seeks to plunder the property of others. Set aside clemency and forbearance: all the civilised behaviour of the Nafs is nothing but ‘camouflage’ and defensive ploys. It is the governor of the province of ‘No Mercy’ and ‘No Remorse.’ Appeals for clemency only add fuel to its tyranny. Further, in defeat it turns dangerous and seeks to inflict injury on others. The full brunt of its enmity is directed towards the alien soul which originates from an alien place and dwells within its territory. It exerts its entire efforts to prevent the Soul from returning to its source of origin.
In contrast, the choice and priorities of the soul are clear and eminently superior. It possesses the consciousness of the One God, and despite being imprisoned in a physical body its yearning for the divine presence never ceases. The Nafs seeks to wipe out this memory and longing and, like the Angels imprisoned in the chasm of Babel, the subjugation of the spirit to the body and mind is its fundamental goal. In this struggle for Man's humanity, the Nafs seeks assistance from Satan by occupying the pathways leading to the Sublime Assembly of Angels (Mala ‘Alaa). Moreover, benefiting from centuries of experience in this struggle, the Nafs becomes a terrifying social force whom none has the power to subjugate save God. As the Prophet Yusuf (PBUH) said:
Nor do I absolve My own self (of blame): the (human) self is certainly prone to evil, unless My Lord do bestow His mercy: but surely my Lord is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. (12:53)
None is spared from the attacks of the Nafs, for the Nafs always commands evil, only those for whom God has mercy are saved from it. Thus only divine intervention can protect the soul from the domination of the acquisitive and merciless Nafs.
God has declared war on this enemy and has made it known that one who yearns for His love and intimacy must oppose the Nafs no matter what form it takes or what strategy it employs. In every age, the Nafs drapes the ‘corpses’ of its devotees in the latest style of shrouds: if not as Olympus, Brahman, Shiva and Vishnu, Ashtar and Isis, then as the models of abstract philosophies. If not in the worship of physical objects, then in the festivals of culture and tradition, in the complementary understanding of ecstasy and sobriety, and in the interaction between literature and homosexuality. Today, in our day and age, in the labelling of oppression and injustice as civilisation and the mass media’s propaganda as truth, in the movements of indecency and obscenity promoted in the name of art, idol worship parades under the guise of the fine arts, and any mention of God is dubbed backwardness. Indeed, these phenomena are master strokes of the Nafs, and executed with the utmost of ease.
The tyrannical Nafs is always close. So it comes as no surprise when we witness it in the poet’s smile on receiving applause for his poetry; in the writer's eye, as it sparkles in a literary assembly held in his honour; in the politician's hand as it waves to a cheering crowd; in the humble nod of the holy man’s head, when the praises of his piety are sung; and in the champion who puffs his chest in pride at the rehearsal of his achievements. In all these situations the Nafs is in extremely close contact. Furthermore, when the Nafs enters our consciousness, God withdraws. For proximity to the Nafs means only distancing from God, the distance between Heaven and Hell, the distinction between the Rahman (Allah) and the Shaytaan, between the forces of evil and the forces of good, and in the conflict between light and darkness. Thus the manifestations of the Nafs are unlimited.
Consider the pieces on a chessboard. Despite being limited to just a few pieces, the numbers of possible moves that can be made are, perhaps, over a billion. Similar is the case of the Nafs. Consisting of a few fundamental instincts common to both humans and animals, the mutual interactions and permutations of these handfuls of instincts are unlimited. According to one mystic, 'to this day I have not fathomed two things: the stations of rank of Muhammad (PBUH), and the forms of deception employed by the Nafs.' However, individual instincts acting on their own cannot exert influence and control over the Nafs without the mutual involvement of other motivating instincts. From all of these, desire is the ultimate driving force of the Nafs, and it operates on ever more sophisticated levels as Man becomes more ‘educated and cultured’. It reaches a stage where it goes beyond the control system of the fundamental balance placed inside Man. When this occurs, destruction becomes its second nature.
The Nafs, nevertheless, does not deceive: rather it is sincere in its deception, since both its scientific and emotional natures are closely intertwined. Furthermore, its governing principles are plain and evident, namely that the survival instinct does not recognize any moral values. It has, from time immemorial, been accompanied by all the aides and supporters it requires to maintain its continued existence: envy, rancour, slander, anger, rage and lust. Not a single one of them will ever betray the Nafs, operating universally without distinction of race and religion. Despite fluctuations in the severity and vigilance of their attacks, their aims undergo no such change and remain stable. For instance, their collaboration does not always lead to killing and bloodshed, but envy does not permit even a shred of compassion to enter its dealings.
These qualities stand diametrically opposed to the attributes of God and are devoid of any sense of reverence. Their field of work is restricted and their horizons extremely limited. The sublime sense of tranquillity is rarely witnessed in the conduct of these instincts which, akin to a blazing forest fire, seek to scorch and ravage instantly everything in their path, offering no opportunities to stop and pause. Its flames are fanned by the winds of egoism, defiance and self-respect. The latter is perhaps the most puzzling and in need of further investigation. It is an interesting and amusing fact that the vast majority of people regard ‘self-respect’ as an admirable attribute. The truth, however, is that the notion of self-respect is a ‘Palace of Glass’ built on the twin foundations of luxury or ease, and a sense of inferiority. Indeed, we do not possess a criterion to assess the self, for it constructs itself by exploiting the crisis and insecurities which we experience in our lives, from childhood into old age. The Nafs adopts the path of antagonism or the path of harmony towards its victim, depending on its situation, and becomes itself the raw material for the manufacture of ‘self-respect’.
In this scenario ‘self-respect’ becomes a highly intricate psychological concern. Despite the fact that the Nafs can be regarded as a factor of great significance and weight, it can, nevertheless, be fully understood in the early stages of its development and before a man becomes ‘cultured and educated’. With the growth of skills, education and new outlooks in a person, the Nafs begins to resort to a greater degree of sophistication in its ‘technical’ capacities. Consequently, the acquisition of knowledge and art leads to the development of increasingly refined and enigmatic emotions. When united with personal and self-influenced preferences, these feelings result in the Nafs going beyond the scope of accountability.
This is the phase in which one's entire spiritual prowess and thinking becomes a target for manipulation by the Nafs. For no one can surpass it in the hatching of reasons to justify itself. Exploiting the whole spectrum of values of good and evil, the human Self displays the results of its handiwork everywhere: pride, arrogance, detestation of others and their opinions, ostentation and show, the hunger for power, assigning importance to oneself, scientific and intellectual boasting, surrounding oneself by like-minded people, creating ‘mirages’ through speech and manipulation of emotions, creating divisions among people, self-love, material opulence, the pandering after choice, the designation of identified approaches to various branches of learning, and in the latest styles of culture and civilisation. We witness the handiwork of the Nafs wherever we turn.
In the western intellectual climate, despite its advancement, longing for power and fame is regarded as a fundamental part of human nature. Thus receiving praise for one's achievements and striving one's utmost for this goal is seen as something noble and worthwhile. Similarly, in the East the endless list of honorific titles at all levels is an evident illustration of the Self’s handiwork. No religious scholar, thinker or professional sees any harm in receiving these titles, whose very roots lie in flattery and hyperbole, which ultimately originates in the Self’s flattery and praise of the admirers themselves.
Both the mystic and the cynic view the intrusions of the Nafs with ridicule and derision. Despite his mockery and sarcasm of the Self, the cynic cannot, however, shelter himself from being consumed by the flames of envy and anger, a product of the Self’s counter attack. In contrast, the mystic neutralises the states and feelings induced by the Self through the adoption of a sublime philosophy of life, intellectual modesty, and achieving balance in life. Furthermore, the cynic resists the Self like a diseased man who shows contempt towards everyone who is healthy. The mystic, walking under the shade of divine love and affection, does not regard his merits over others as deriving from his own person, but rather he considers all notions of excellence and pre-eminence as a trust and favour from God. Thus he is preserved from the destructive emotions of arrogance and conceit, for he realises too well that any claim to ‘superiority’ (godhood) based on borrowed ‘goods’ is transitory and groundless.
The Nafs does, however, have its rivals. Humour is a deadly poison for the Nafs for it possesses an equal footing to the greatness and superiority of the Self. Of course, humour can act as a tool of the Nafs in many ways: finding faults and weaknesses in others, assassination of their character, creating scandals, invading the privacy of others, and gaining pleasure by degrading others. These are amongst the favourite pastimes of humour. However, when it turns its gaze on itself, it succeeds in breaking the enchanting spell of ‘self-sympathy and support’. Digging its heels in the trenches of self-deception and self-centredness, it deals heavy and sustained blows to the scheming Self. Is not the one who can laugh at himself a thousand times better than one who laughs at the expense of another? The Nafs routinely ignores its own defects and yet is constantly vigilant of its status and standing.
However, this watchdog over the Nafs is above morals of right and wrong, oblivious to honour or disgrace, even-handed in times of want and plenty. It flourishes merely through the complete aid and assistance of God. Humour recognises that hopes and aspirations are not the function of the needy, for their period of duration is not long: nor does it attribute its aptitude and ability as originating from itself; nor claim the right of ownership over loaned ‘goods,' nor does it regard life on Earth as perpetual. Further, it regards the ultimate goal of knowledge as the achievement of balance and equilibrium in life.
Thus, humour prevents the Nafs from displaying sympathy towards itself and obliges it to accept its shortcomings. It tolerates each and every person in accordance with his or her intellectual capacities. The single most important factor behind the pervasive influence, in the present age of conditions such as impetuosity, discontent, depression and boredom, is the refusal of self-accountability, promotion of self-absorption, the desire for ease and comfort, and in the displacement of reverence by the desire to become God. Despite the acceptance of the Eternal and All-Governing God, indifference and active striving against His guidance, management and submission leads us to assume personal, splintered and self-centred ideas, as well as the adoption of negative lifestyles. As a result, there is bloodshed and destruction, intense emotions of dissatisfaction, insomnia, and memory loss. The present age is deeply suffering from these factors.
The Nafs does not deceive; rather the phases of trial and testing that the children of Adam have to undergo are of two types: the static and the dynamic. The former ‘technology’ is centred on the Self, whilst the latter is under the control and guidance of Shaytaan. The technology of the Nafs is characterised as static since it does not possess any originality both in its aims and its methods. From pre-eternity until the genesis of Man the Self, yearning for everlasting life, led Man astray. The outcast Shaytaan manifested this yearning in the time and space dimensions of Paradise with the result that Adam was distanced from the vicinity of God.
The Self furnishes and prepares the ground in which Shaytaan sows the seeds of corruption, followed by the growth of the sturdy tree of ‘repulsive desires.’ It is a poisonous ‘shrub’ which destroys the healthy harvest of knowledge and understanding. The lethal success of the Nafs rests primarily on the mind of Man and the lack of knowledge and ignorance of the commands and counsels of the Generous Lord. God, like a Great and Eminent Teacher, does not employ compulsion in the matters He has given choice to Man. Indeed, it would not have been difficult for God to make the whole of Mankind accept His guidance. None would have the power to refuse, nor even to contemplate it. Even the notion of disobedience would not exist.
If this had been the case, the purpose of education would not have been achieved, since the fundamental goal of education is to develop the capacity to make right choices. For instance, giving a man no choice and then passing judgement on him, would be an arbitrary and pointless system and God is certainly not inequitable. Thus Man was provided with opportunities to develop his intellectual capacity through a variety of supportive and encouraging methods. Alongside this, the Self too was equipped with the capacity to sense loss and express regret. From time to time it is possible for this capacity to lead Man to awareness, and offer him, yet again, another opportunity to regain his sense of balance and soundness.
In short, this human saga in God’s view consists merely of three possibilities: sin or error, the sense of regret, and repentance and forgiveness. Can there be anyone more unjust than the one who knows he has wronged, knows that his repentance will be accepted, and still fails to make amends for his loss and failures? It is this injustice and ignorance alluded to by God in the Quran as the ‘trust’ of knowledge bestowed on Man. The rehabilitation of Man and inspiring him towards it by means of hardship is at least in God’s wisdom not a possibility, since hardship can itself lead to a kind of enmity and the harbouring of hidden notions of pride and arrogance. Indeed, sacrificing ones life is not such a worthwhile action and, certainly not one which leads to deserving the proximity and closeness of God. If this were the case, the sturdy bull which drives the oil press would surely be the greatest mystic and knower of God! The Self adulterates logical necessity with false claims and demands, making it a constituent part of Shaytaan’s repertoire.
In any case, God regards Man as superior to beasts and animals, and intellect as the most distinguished part of his creation. Deliberation and reflection offers Man the capacity to make his choices more freely and autonomously. Although the Nafs promotes the currency of its transitory preferences and priorities, recognising true identity is a product of the efforts of ones Fitrah (primordial nature) and balanced intellectual curiosity. However, the Nafs does possess a vulnerability which can be exploited by the people of knowledge. It is this weakness which can be utilised to temper its excesses and halt the flow of its destructive tendencies, namely that the Nafs possesses, more than any other desire, intense curiosity and inquisitiveness. It is continuously engaged in the acts of smelling, tasting and finding out. It seeks amazing and bewildering sensations and occurrences, always hungry for new experiences, and it has a passion for individuality. This passion drives it to seek knowledge of the world and its surroundings and occasionally directs it to tread the path leading to God.
By utilising the Self’s inquisitiveness and curiosity, its level of knowledge and training can be increased, thus distinguishing it from the common masses and the poorly educated. It resembles a wild predatory beast almost impossible to tame. However, it is not uncommon to observe that even wild and predatory animals such as lions, wolves, wild dogs, and poisonous snakes can be reared as pets. In the early stages of training, and despite its willingness, the Self revolts and refuses to submit on account of its original characteristics. It unceasingly struggles to act according to its former tendencies and habits. Similarly, in the early stages of its ‘nurturing’ the Nafs should not be driven by any sublime and worthy ideals, rather its curiosity should be used to make it seek and strive harder.
After the completion of its training and the adoption of new habits and tendencies, the Nafs is eager to stamp its individuality and distinguish itself from others. With the passage of time and growth of knowledge the Nafs begins to develop love and affection for this new approach and internalises it as a permanent and freely chosen practice. This developmental stage of the Self’s thought, leads to the desire to seek the friendship of God. The ideas of this new ‘world’ and the discovery of new horizons prevent the Self from abandoning this choice for divine longing. All the while, its original instincts are striving to pull it back to its days of ignorance (Jahiliyya). However, the strength and fortitude of the new practices keep it steadfast on the path towards God. Further, through the mercy and support of God, tranquillity and inspiration descends upon the Self. This unexpected blessing is one that the human self has never tasted before. It is now that its purpose in life becomes crystal clear and its beliefs and thoughts clarified. Indeed, ultimate consciousness is attained.
However, this phase is not without its own perils and dangers. Righteousness, coupled with the intense desire for piety and the hardships of the struggle for self-purification, seek to instil in the Self the craving to make claims of superiority and the pursuit of a special status. In this phase of its intellectual evolution, apart from the love of God and sincerity, nothing else can help the Nafs. Indeed, the love of God and submission to the Messenger are beacons of guidance in this way-station. However, compliance to the messenger does not merely consist of outward actions and optional acts of worship. Rather it requires a complete and in-depth understanding of the Prophet’s love, ethics and values.
In all of this, three ranks of the ‘sweetness’ of faith are clearly discernible. Firstly, when love is for the sake of Allah and enmity for the sake of Allah. Secondly, when love for the Messenger of Allah is stronger than all worldly ambitions and desire for wealth. Finally, when the Nafs feels absolute abhorrence to return to values of the animal instinct which are synonymous to unbelief or kufr. The Self at this stage of its ‘training’ will not, under any circumstances, turn back to its former ways. It is also at this stage that the minor mistakes of the Nafs are overlooked, and it is given the news of forgiveness both in this world and the next. This is alluded to in the Quran:
O the Nafs (that is) content, return to your Lord pleased and pleasing. So Enter (amongst) my bondsmen and enter my Paradise. (89: 28-30)
Finally, no one can claim to be the ultimate specialist or an expert on the Nafs. However, broadly speaking, the Nafs is surrounded by the habits and tendencies acquired during three main phases. Thus it consists of genetic qualities; immediate parental upbringing; and personally acquired capacities. The latter two factors seem more prominent and are easily identified. However, the former, centuries old ‘Fitrah’ can be an invincible enemy. Thus, the mystic fights his ultimate battle against his own ‘Fitrah’. In the face of overt and secret enemies, namely the Nafs and the Shaytaan, it is Allah alone who can influence this Fitrah, which He created. Ultimately, Allah’s grace and love can conquer this level.
(Translated from Muqaddama-tul-Quran (pp....)
An English Edition of Muqaddama-tul-Quran by Prof.Ahmad Rafique Akhtar