Freedom from sin

Take for example envy and greed. When these shortcomings are stimulated for some reason. We become, for example, envious of the wealth, fame or knowledge of another individual, or we become greedy for more worldly possessions. The first thing that then happens is the natural light (nur) of the heart becomes dim. It must be remembered here that innately (bil-fitrah) we are equipped to know the Devil’s ruse. Every human being is gifted with the light (nur) of insight. This insight however, is blocked and even seriously impaired if greed and envy gets the upperhand over us. Once this happens, once we fall victim to envy and greed and many other negative qualities – such as fascination with money, impatience, suspicion, bad-temper and so forth – Shaytan comes into our hearts and beautifies the actions that result from these blameworthy attributes.

Whether the actions we want to take are haram or ugly in the extreme, we will do them because Shaytan makes them appear acceptable to us. The result is we adopt a sinful path while at the same ironically thinking we are living the good life.

Much of what we are still going to discuss in this column is going to deal with the crucial subject of self-discipline and self-knowledge and how these can be harnessed to overcome the influences of Shaytan.

The nafs (the self)


The Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, said in a tradition narrated by al-Bayhaqi , “Your worst enemy is your nafs within you.” In another tradition he, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, is reported to have said, ” We now return from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad, the jihad against the nafs“. Another hadith, about which Imam Nawawi expressed reservations and which Imam al-Mawardi in his Adab al-dunya wa al-din argues is sound at least in its meaning, says, ” He who knows himself knows his Lord.”

The person who knows and comes to realize the essential weakness, insignificance, powerlessness and impermanence of himself (his nafs) will realize and know the Strength, Greatness, Power and Permanence of Allah, the Most High. In other words one of the paths to knowledge of Allah, the Most High, is honest self-reflection and knowledge of the self (nafs). If this is true then the converse is equally true. The individual who is ignorant of himself (his nafs) will be ignorant of Allah, the Most High. These traditions and meanings are adequate proof of the importance of acquiring a good working knowledge of the nafs, its nature and ways of curing its illnesses.

In the Quran Allah, the Most High says, “O peaceful nafs (al-nafs al-mutma’innah) return to your Lord, satisfied and satisfied with. Enter into my jannah enter together with my slaves”. In another verse Allah, the Most High, revealed that Zulaykhah said, “ Surely it is the nafs (al-nafs al-ammarah bi al-su’) that commands with evil“. In Surat al-Qiyamah Allah, the Most High, says, “Verily I swear by the the day of judgment and verily I swear by the reproaching self (al-nafs al-lawwamah).”

Taken together these verses show the different phases and modes of the nafs. At one level of development it is completely at peace and at another level it is fiery, passionate and inciting. It drives one to cross the boundaries of good. In the other verse Allah, Most High swears by the reproaching nafs or the conscience as we would say today. We know that Allah, the Most High, in some instances swears by certain things to underline its importance. In this surah the Day of Judgment and the conscience is mentioned together and both of these realities we know play key roles in the process of moral and ethical transformation.

What then is the nafs? Opinions have differed on this crucial issue. A good working definition is given by Shaykh al-Kurdi, he says:

Know that the nafs is a divine subtlety and it is the ruh (human spirit) before it entered and became connected to the body. And Allah, the Most High, created the spirits before the physical bodies during which time it was near and close to Allah, the Most High. When He ordered them to connect and be associated with the physical body they perceived the world and became veiled from the Divine Presence as a result of attachment to the physical world…

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