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NAFS: What is Nafs (ego)?

Along with our souls, Allah (SWT) has placed within us something called the 'Nafs' or the 'Self', which encourages our evil passions, our relish for food and other sensual gratification. The Nafs also keeps us occupied with the worldly affairs thus preventing us from following the orders of Allah (SWT).

The Nafs was created along with the soul so that it would serve as a transportation vehicle to the soul. In other words, the Nafs is like an engine of a car and Ruh is like the driver of that car. Mechanical knowledge of the body is only given to the Nafs. The Nafs is not holy, divine or absolutely pure, it was created to acquire knowledge of the world's physical, chemical and biological mechanism so that they would serve their worldly purpose.

The Nafs or the 'self' is very much self-centred. It is the duty of the soul to obey Allah (SWT), to obtain the love of Allah (SWT) and His affection. This is the 'food' of the soul. The soul is always self-sacrificing. Unless we find out the origins of the Nafs and understand its orientations, it is impossible to keep it under control. And once the Nafs is no longer under the control of the soul, the soul will find itself in the control of the evil Nafs or evil passions providing a destructive weapon for the devil against humans. These evil passions are implanted in the Nafs at the time of birth and grow in magnitude over time. For example, the evil Nafs will draw human beings towards idol worship and will inspire them to take part in corruptive dealings. In other words, it could be stated that evil Nafs and passions represent the devil's workshop.

The soul is given to human beings and contains intellect and power over planning and talking and reciting the holy words and gradually putting them into action, but the real meaning of the soul is to obey Allah (SWT) - the Quran says, "And they ask you about the soul, say the soul is the order of Allah (SWT)." (Q17: 85). The soul is an immortal thing that never dies, but "all Nafs will taste death" (Q). So, in theory, the soul is among the Makluq (created) with the peculiar characteristics of being immeasurable and invisible and it is not possible to describe what a soul is as we know it is just the order of Allah (SWT).

"Verily I created man from clay - soon when I fashioned him and installed in him from my spirit" (Q15:28,29). This is perhaps light (Knowledge) (for what man is proud of) so man is honoured as a supreme creation of our Creator so Allah (SWT) made Adam (A.S) his Khalifa (representative). The object of the Soul is to discover its original source (i.e. Allah (SWT)) and obey His orders and receive His love and affections. The body of a man is a vehicle for the soul. The body's different organs are created to serve the soul. As long as the soul remains in the temporary station (world) the soul's duty is to give an account each day to its Creator, of its words and deeds. It performs this obligation while performing duties such as prayers and Zakat. In performing these duties, man's body and soul become engaged in the remembrance of his Creator. If the soul fails to engage in these activities, it is the fault of the soul itself. The obedient souls report to the Creator several thousand times a day. The Nafs is not given the power to order the body, so in order to control the body, the Nafs will have to take control of the soul first.

It is a known scientific fact that the brain controls all our intellectual and physical functions. The deeper aspect of this control is explained by the Holy Quran and Hadith which suggest that all control is in fact from the creator Himself and is relayed to the hearts directly. Unless we try to understand this essential process with the help of Allah (SWT), we are in the danger of living an uninformed life facing a barrier between ourselves and Allah (SWT). This barrier acts as a veil with two sides, light and dark where through the former, information from Allah (SWT) is received and understood while the opposite is the case with the latter i.e. the dark side does not allow passage of information from Allah (SWT).

For example, Hazrat Moosa (A.S) (Moses) asked Allah (SWT), " Can you show me where Shaytan lives in our body?" Allah (SWT) showed him that the Shaytans' head is watching over our qalb (heart) as if a kingfisher is watching his prey on the sea water. Whenever Shaytan sees divine input, he tries to grab it before it can reach us. Shaytan's actions are extremely fast as he can enter and exit the body seventy times in a pulse circulating within our blood stream where he is in a position to draw a person towards his evil plans.

Given that it is the brain which controls our intellectual and physical capacities, the question then arises what prime function is performed by the qalb? It is stated that the qalb controls us spiritually. Shaytan has the capacity to inject doubts into our hearts and minds leading us away from the Creator and towards worshipping the created.

If the Nafs is not pure, the Shaytan enters into the Nafs and draws it towards his evil intentions and over time the soul becomes weaker and weaker and eventually starts receiving orders from Shaytans directly. Those who cannot fight against these passions and are unable to bring them under their control may find themselves the servants of Nafs or evil passions and thus moving away from the righteous path since the greatest enemy of the Nafs or passions is obedience to Allah (SWT). Allah (SWT) said "who restrains himself from passions, Paradise will be his abode" (Q).

But those who fight their own Nafs or ego so as not to be led astray, are mentioned by Allah (SWT) in the following way; "These are those whom Allah (SWT) puts their hearts to rest in pure state" (Quran). There are ways to control the Nafs as narrated by the Sahaba Ikram (Companions of Our Prophet (S.A.S) ), Walis. One Wali Allah (Allah's friend, for example has said, "little food, little drink, little sleep and little talk is helpful to bring the Nafs of passion into control easily". Another Wali Allah said "As it is Farz to eat and sleep because this is also Ibaadat this is the reason I am sleeping and eating, otherwise I could have spent all my time in worshipping Allah (SWT)". He stated that it is very difficult to control the Nafs without the help of Allah (SWT).

To engage oneself in the battle against the evil Nafs for the sake of Allah (SWT) is equated with Jihadul Akbar (or the Greatest battle one can ever fight). Our Prophet (S.A.S) said that Nafs is our greatest enemy. When Sahabas came back from physical Jihad the Prophet (S.A.S) advised them that now their greater Jihad is against their Nafs.

The Quran reads "He will indeed be successful who purifies it and he will indeed fail who corrupts it" (Q91:9).

When death of the Nafs comes, the body will return to Earth (just as a body of a car damaged will go back to the scrap yard). When the body returns to the Earth, the Soul will return to Allah (SWT), its origin, and the Nafs will receive rewards or punishments according to its actions. But since the Soul is intertwined with the Nafs, the Soul will, therefore, also receive its reward accordingly.

The Nafs is defined by three names in the process of evolution. In the first stage, it is known as the "Nafsi Ammara" which is prone to disobeying (or the Nafs attached to evil). As the Quran says, "This Nafs is attached to evil, in the second stage it develops towards the moral Nafs, this is called Nafsi Lawwama" (or the self-accusing Nafs). This Nafs is engaged in distinguishing between right and wrong and accuses itself when any wrongdoing is committed. Allah (SWT) says in the Quran "Nay, I swear by the self accusing Nafs" (75:2 Q). The third stage is called a moral self, which develops into a spiritual self called "Nafsi Mutma'innah" (or the Nafs pleased with Allah (SWT)). In the Quran, Allah (SWT) says, "Oh! Nafs that is at rest!" (Al-Fagar Q89:27). After these stages, the soul will continue to develop in the spiritual world.

The Nafs of a disbeliever is of the type called "Nafsi Ammara". A disbeliever is pleased with this Nafs and the Nafs is pleased with him. This is because whatever the Nafs wants in terms of all its worldly requirements such as wealth, food, pride, selfishness, and satisfaction is provided for by a disbeliever. This is the case even if these requirements are contrary to the Laws of Allah, They are disobedient to Allah (SWT), they are outside of His law. So Allah (SWT) has nothing to do with them.

A mumins Nafs is able to distinguish between good and bad and cares for Allah (SWT)'s order. Sometimes their Nafs may be influenced by Shaytan but as soon as the realisation takes place, it repents and asks for forgiveness from Allah (SWT), and Allah (SWT) forgives them. This Nafs is called "Nafsi Lawwama". "But as for him we feared to stand before His Lord and restrained his soul from lust, Lo! the garden will be his home". (Q79:40-41)

The Nafs of a good mumin such as a Wali Allah or Dervish, those who are ready to sacrifice themselves for Allah, (SWT) their Nafs will never die. Their Nafs is developed to such an extent that it becomes a watchdog for them. For such devout beings, even the worldly obligations become a part of Allah's (SWT) orders. Whatever they do they are pleased with Allah (SWT), and Allah (SWT) is pleased with them.

".....Allah will bring a people whom He loves and who loves Him". (Q5:54).

The Quran says "Oh! Soul that is in rest return to thy Lord well, pleased (with Him)" (Surah 89:27 Q). Also, "Verily, we are from Allah (SWT) and to Him we shall return."

"Allah receives soul at the time of their death, and that (soul) which deith not (yet) in its sleep......" (Surah 39:42 Q).

"Your creation and your resurrection are nothing but like a single soul."(Surah 31:28 Q).

"Death is the first stage of the eternal journey to heaven, as birth is the first stage of this world's journey" (Hadith). Before Birth, however, a man takes another journey of man as his creation began from a tiny cell of life, from which he grew stage by stage into a lump of flesh. Unto this flesh the current of life was infused and it began to move. After some time, this figure of flesh was ushered into this world. The Holy Quran says "Have you considered the small life germ? Is it that you created it or are we the Creators? We have ordained death among you, and none can prevent us that we may change your attributes and make you grow into what you know not" (56:58 Q).

One of the functions of the Nafs is to prevent man from performing divine duties. One must not forget that Shaytan was a most pious and obedient servant of Allah (SWT). He was a leader of Angels and Jinn, before Adam (A.S.) was created. But Shaytan was deceived by his Nafs, which caused his jealousy and pride. Our Prophet Muhammed (S.A.S) said that your worst enemy is your Nafs.

Unless the good influence predominates, and one gets rid of the evil self, which is the seat of passion, this evil self will gradually take over and present itself as the good self. Eventually it will reach a status whereby the Nafs will dictate all our actions.

In order to become a good Muslim, one must get rid of his evil self (Nafs) completely. A disbeliever, for example, posses both good and bad self within him. If he does good in this world, he will face pleasant results. If a disbeliever is possessed by a bad Nafs, however, he will not enjoy the world in the long-run and will have to suffer for his actions even in this world. But to be a mumin, one has not only to stay away from these Nafs, but one must also develop the Nafs as a watchdog. Only then can we find Allah (SWT)'s mercy and help. Once this stage is reached, Allah (SWT) will come to us through His own grace, to provide us with the nourishment for the soul. We will find Him every where and our negative passions will vanish.

Once Rabeya-Basri (R) was asked by someone, "I have committed many sins, if I turn myself and repent to Allah (SWT) will He turn in mercy to me?" She replied, "No, if He shall turn towards you, then you will turn towards Him."
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