Nafs – The Enemy Within
The human being is a walking laboratory designed for the purpose of observing and understanding Allah, who created him from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high. Man's animal nature, comprised of bodily functions and egoistic desires, is known as the nafs. The nafs is tied to the material world, and is therefore restricted by the temporary quality of all creation. The perspective from which the nafs perceives reality is itself. This self-biased aspect of the human being is part of the triad which describes him more thoroughly. For the purpose of simplification, nafs can be thought of as the outer man, ruh (soul; spirit) as the inner man, and aql, the composite faculties of rational discrimination and decision-making, as the bridge between the two.
The basic motivation of the nafs is survival, self-preservation. This inherent urge to stay alive and reproduce itself colors its behavior. Void of wisdom, the nafs is prone to conduct itself on a reactive basis, as higher knowledge is not within the realm of its operation. Although he has an animal nature, man is distinguished from and considered a higher being than an animal because of his rational and spiritual capacity, even though his actions far too often do not reflect that capacity.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “If you know your nafs, you know Allah.” Once we have learned to identify the ways of nafs within ourselves, we have gained a perspective from which to distinguish between selfish desires and the wishes of Allah. From this basis we may choose actions motivated by the desire to please Allah. A Sufi constantly strives to know whether his actions please Allah or his nafs.
In traditional Sufi lore nafs is likened to a donkey. The Sufi asks him- or herself: Am I riding the donkey, or is the donkey riding me? The method of Sufism is designed to help the murid, a student of Sufism, identify his nafs so that he can conquer it. The point is for the murid to gain control over the nafs, so that his or her actions and thoughts are Allah-based and not self-centered. When he succeeds, he achieves the optimum balance between his outer, material, self and his inner, spiritual, one. The Sufi’s intention is to be in a continuous state of vigilance vis-a-vis his own nafs. In that way, he proves to Allah that he is choosing Him and not nafs. For example, nafs might incite him to cheat on an exam in school, but when he chooses not to cheat he has shown Allah that His pleasure with his actions is more important to him than any temporary benefit derived from cheating. Having nafs is a natural and necessary part of the human condition; having one’s nafs under control is the condition of the insan-i-kamil (mature human being).
The intensity of the struggle with his nafs’ desires is the standard Allah uses to judge man and reward his efforts with closeness to Him. The more choices made for Allah’s sake, the closer man comes to knowing Allah. In exercising his free will in the right way, he learns to fulfill his destiny as a human being, to be a knower of Allah, His deputy, and, finally, His lover.
Life in the world can be seen as a long series of creating nafs-attachments, as our desires and expectations grow along with us. The Sufi murid quickly learns the considerable magnitude of his attachments, and the seemingly endless ways he has learned to put his trust in other than Allah. He realizes that he himself is the idol that must be broken in surrendering to the true God.
The nafs is a very stubborn idol, prone as it is toward self-preservation. Any attempt at tampering with its long-cherished habits is naturally met with extreme resistance. Therefore, in tasawwuf different apects of the nafs are tackled in sequence, starting from the roughest and most obvious, to the more subtle characteristics.
The nafs is separated into seven levels, a divide-and-conquer tactic, so that the murid can detach himself by degrees from its influence. With each level of cleansing, the murid moves another step closer to unity with Allah, with the shaykh’s permission, as he holds the key to his student’s promotion through the levels of nafs. Every level bids a specific practice, which the shaykh usually changes when he knows that his student is ready to move on.
And We have created above you seven tariqas (paths) and We are fully aware of and know what We are creating and making. (Qur’an 23:17)
1. Nafs-i-Ammara: The Dominant Nafs
Traits: narcissistic, mechanical, conditioned, non-reflective, impulsive
Habits: pride, enmity, cruelty, lust, stinginess
There is no doubt that nafs-i-ammara (the dominant nafs) orders us to do evil, except those on whom my Lord has mercy. (12:53)
2. Nafs-i-Lawwama: The Blaming Nafs
Traits: conscience, capacity for self-observation
Habits: backbiting, trickery, conceitedness, hypocrisy, self-consciousness, guilt, fearfulness, wishful thinking, intense desire to please others
But I swear by the nafs-i-lawwama (blaming nafs) (that this Scripture is true). (75:2)
3. Nafs-i-Mulhama: The Inspired Nafs
Traits: generosity, gratitude, modesty, empathy, ardent desire
Habits: liberality lacking discrimination, mystical inflation, tendency toward spiritual greed
And a nafs and Him who gave order to it and inspired it with a sense of what is wrong for it and (what is) right for it. (91:7-8)
4. Nafs-i-Mutmaina: The Tranquil Nafs
Traits: dignity, sincerity, courage, compassion, complete loyalty
Habits: Attachment to spiritual ambition
O, you nafs at peace! (89:27)
5. Nafs-i-Radziyya: The Satisfied Nafs
Traits: endurance, resignation, constancy
Habits: personal identification with affliction
Return to your Lord, content... (89:28)
6. Nafs-i-Mardziyya: The Satisfying Nafs
Traits: knowledge of God, sincerity, unbounded faith and hope in existential communion
Habits: mystical intoxication, lack of sobriety and balance
...for His being pleased with you! (89:28)
7. Nafs-i-Safiyya: The Purified Nafs
Traits: freedom from duality, acceptance of God’s will, joy of union, freedom from expectation, contentment
Habits: None remaining
Today I have perfected your din (way of life; religion; path of righteousness to Allah) for you and have completed my favor to you and have chosen Islam (surrender; submission) for you as a din. (5:3)
As the murid moves through the levels of nafs, he or she is learning ever deeper levels of surrender by detachment from the mire of personal desires. Tasawwuf is a process of constant surrender, through which one puts nafs in its proper place, which is away from the heart, the sultan, within. If the murid chooses not to proceed and stops at any level, this becomes his maqam, or permanent station. The insan-i-kamil (mature human being) has surrendered to Allah completely, having become complete master over his nafs. Detached from himself, he has strengthened His attachment to Allah in body, mind, and soul. Born with the capability of becoming the lowest of creatures, one who is dominated by his nafs’ selfish inclinations, in defeating the nafs he or she has attained a station higher than the angels. For him the nafs has been transformed into an agent of spiritual advancement.