What is nafs (lower-self)? What can we do against this enemy of ours and how can we protect ourselves from it?

The Details of the Question
What is nafs (lower-self)? What can we do against this enemy of ours and how can we protect ourselves from it?
The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

Nafs is described in various forms such as the very self of something, its true nature; soul, heart, life; the self which consists of soul and body or the soul which is the administrator of the body; a sense which is the beginning of lust and wrath; and an essence in human which contains negative characteristics in itself.

Nafs al-Ammara (forcing self) is a deteriorated personality which is into doing forbidden (haram) things, which loves profligacy, which is heedless and so poor that likes dirt and dirtiness, which is lazy and hesitant in doing good things and, impulsive and brave in doing evil things.

This question needs to be analyzed at length but in summary. That is to say; explanation of some features of nafs and how these features can be improved will shed light on the issue.

1- The most significant feature of nafs is that it does not want to recognize its Lord. In this sense, its improvement can only be done by contemplation (tafakkur). That is to say; it can be done by seeing Allah’s greatness and magnificence which He makes manifested everywhere. Allah is the owner of every place. He is the organizer of everything and also He is the creator of everything.
2- Nafs has got some lustful feelings which can be corrected only by fasting and worshipping.
3- Nafs has also got a feeling of wrathfulness. The correction of this feeling can be possible by contemplating its own end. That is to say; “I am strong right now, I can harm anything and anyone, however, after a while I will be weak and old. Allah will make strong men be unfair to me, because He is fair. Therefore, I should hold my wrath back.”
4- It is possible for nafs to lead the mind to demagogy by misusing it. It can be corrected by gaining knowledge and reading right books.

Those who understand disciplining of nafs as “killing nafs” avoid everything and anything that their nafs loves. As a result of this, they do not love the world, they are unambitious, and they are not obsinate or angry at all. Though accepting that it is also a way of disciplining nafs, we consider that it is better to direct nafs to goodness instead of killing it. The former resembles decreasing the amount of bad-tempered horse’s food and trying to rule it by starving it. The latter resembles giving its food normally and reaching the goal in a shorter time and with a strong horse by disciplining it nicely.

Yes, the world has got good aspects to like and also bad aspects to dislike. There are times when one should be ambitious and times when one should be unambitious. There are conditions under which obstinacy is favorable and conditions under which it is unfavorable. Sometimes anger is good and sometimes it is bad.

It is favorable to love the world considering it as the mirror reflecting Allah’s names and a field for the hereafter (1). It is unfavorable to like its ways which serve human beings’ unreasonable desires and which make them heedless (2). Ambition for knowledge and service is favorable; and ambition for fame, property and position is unfavorable. Obstinacy in truth is favorable and obstinacy in falsehood is unfavorable. It is favorable to feel anger for unfair and cruel people, yet it is unfavorable to feel anger for true believers.

In conclusion, it is better to direct the feelings and desires which already exist in the essence of nafs towards goodness than killing it; that is, silencing it forever (3). And it is possible by finding an appropriate place for nafs’s desires and wishes and directing it towards good things; just like building a dam on a river which harms its environment by flooding, and utilizing it for irrigation.

1- Ajluni, I, 412
2- Nursi, Sözler (The Words), p.584
3- Nursi, Mektubat (The Letters), Envar Publishing, Istanbul, 1993, p. 33-34

Şadi Eren (Assist. Prof.)

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