The Islamic Concept of the Nafs: Battling the Human Ego
Here we discuss the nature of our “base self” or “base ego” called the nafs. There is a battle raging inside, one for good and the other for evil. Whichever one wins depends on whichever one we feed the most.
Bismillāhir Rahmānir Rahīm, As-salāmu ʿAlaykum wa rahmatullāhi wa barakātuh. Peace be upon you brothers and sisters.
Welcome back to the Muslim Converts Channel! In our last lesson, we talked about the Sharīʿa. We learnt that the Sharīʿa is a way of life. More specifically, it is way of reaching closeness to God through a life of servitude and surrender to Him. We do this by following his commands.
We also learnt that humans by nature are always in a state of servitude, either serving their delusions and attachments, or serving God Almighty. The goal of the Sharīʿa is to instil a specific discipline in the human soul whereby it can rechannel itself and surrender to God through the habit of obedience.
Obeying God is an internal struggle. One the one hand, we have the desire to want to do our own thing, but on the other, God is asking us to do what He wants. The platform and the grounds in which this struggle takes place is inside the human soul. Simply put, it is a struggle against the evil inclinations of the ego, or nafs as it is called in Islam. In this lesson, we will go over the types of nafs in Islam.
BODY OF TEXT
For unto him who shall have transgressed the bounds of what is right, and preferred the life of this world [over God and the good of his own soul,] the Hellfire shall be his refuge. But unto him who shall have stood in fear of his Sustainer’s presence, and held back his inner self from base desires, then indeed Paradise shall be his refuge (Chapter 72, verses 37-41).
So far in our current section we have had little trouble in translating Arabic terms to English. Today’s discussion is about the concept of the nafs which is an Islamic term with NO equal meaning in the English language and may mean different things depending on the context.
In this lesson, we will be discussing the part of the nafs that commands to evil which is otherwise known as nafs al-ammarah in Arabic. According to Islam, the inner dimension of person is divided into two camps, the first is the spiritual self - commonly known as the fitrah – and the lower or base self which commands us to evil, commonly known as the nafs. The nafs that commands to evil is the realm that produces delusion and attachment to mental illusions. It is the center of our unruly desires, base thoughts and heedlessness.
These mental illusions include, among other things, the need for power, fame, excessive money, and worst of them all, pride and arrogance which most of the aforementioned desires stem from. Pride and arrogance are especially problematic for they are the grounds through which humans defy Allah.
Allah commands humans to do good and to obey Him for the sake of their own souls, but it is the pride and arrogance which the nafs produces that refuses to surrender to God and instead, surrenders unto its own whims or hawā as the Qur’an calls it.
So the battle against the nafs is a battle against inordinate and spiritually subversive desires. It is a battle against desires that support and facilitate a lifestyle of heedlessness (ghaflah) towards God.
Seeing how the nafs is the prime source of a human’s downfall, it is the prime target of Shaytān who whispers in the human self and tries to compel it to do evil. The way one protects oneself from Shaytān is self-control, that is, control of the nafs. God has given every human ability an inner gage that helps us orient ourselves towards God.
A diseased self is where this inner gauge and will to control the nafs becomes corrupted. As one sins, darkness develops inside. As this darkness develops, it becomes harder to fight one’s nafs. One must not despair however, for not only does God forgive but despite one’s circumstances and mistakes, God has given us a way to win this battle.
How does one go about in winning this battle? Recall that the battle is between the nafs and the fitrah. Whichever one wins depends on which one we feed the most. If we spend our lives indulging in every whimsical and carnal desire, such as gluttony, drugs, cigarettes, or wanting to show off, we will simply make the evil nafs stronger.
As time goes by, it will be harder and harder to fix ourselves if we get into the habit of submitting to our selfish desires. Yet if we spend more time on spiritual activities, such as prayer, reading the Qur’an, and saying no to the whims of the nafs, then one strengthens the fitrah. As one repeats this over and over again, it becomes easier and easier to say no to the nafs.
If you haven’t noticed already, the key factor that determines which side wins in the battle of the self is habit. Our habits are what determine the inherent strength of our fitrah or our nafs and hence why so much of Islam is about repetition. Acquiring healthy habits is the basis of purifying the self in Islam.
The Qur’an says:
The Day where neither wealth nor children will benefit anyone except for he who comes to Allah with a pure and sound heart. (Chapter 26 of the Qur’an, verses 88-89)
A subject that has often been repeated in our lessons is that of the pure heart or al-qalb al-salīm. The pure heart is what truly determines success in the eternal life to come. The pure heart is a heart that is full of God’s remembrance and is empty of sin, pride and other spiritual pollutants. This comes about through feeding the soul with spiritually “nutritious food.”
Doing it once or twice, or haphazardly is not enough. Long vigils of prayers here and there are not sufficient either. In fact, sometimes it can be spiritually detrimental. What does work is consistency whatever spiritual practice one does. That is the key to success in winning the battle against the nafs. Simply asking God’s forgiveness is not enough. One must couple it with action!
Until Next Time, Thank you for watching. As-salāmu ʿAlaykum wa rahmatullāhi wa barakātuh
Inner self or egoic self that commands to evil
The pure heart that is devoid of sin and full of the remembrance of God. This is the goal of mankind.
The Devil, Satan
In Islam, it is thinking we are better than others and/or know more than God.
What is the nafs?
It can refer to the inner self, or the base self and ego that commands to evil.
What is the fitrah?
The fitrah is our spiritual nature, the realm within us that commands towards the good and Allah.
What is the pure heart?
The pure heart is a heart that is empty of sin and completely submerged in the remembrance of God.
What happens when we refuse the whims of the nafs?
Your fitrah or spiritual nature becomes stronger. You become more disciplined in life.
How do we win the battle against the Nafs?
By starving it and feeding the fitrah instead.
the evil self
love of the world
Jihad al-Nafs (in a nutshell) by Anonymous
A Glance at the Process of Self-Development by Muhammad Ali Shomali
Self-Building: An Islamic Guide for Spiritual Migration towards God by Ibrahim Amini