Part 1 – The Nafs And The Mind
The human being has 4 enemies, according to the Islamic tradition: your ‘nafs’ (lower self), your desires (hawa), shaytan (satan), and the ‘dunya’ (this temporary material world). In this article, I’m going to define the ‘nafs’ as it has traditionally been defined, in the Quran and Sunnah. Then I’m going to share with you how this relates to your mind and emotions. Then, I’ll give you some techniques you can use to literally ‘master’ your nafs, or at the very least, prove to you that you can.
Much has been written about the nafs by Muslim scholars throughout the ages, and much has been discovered more recently in Western psychology, and by leaders of the ‘human potential’ movement. This series of articles intends to bridge that gap, and set you up with a new understanding that will literally empower you to ‘master your nafs’. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the Arabic term for ‘psychology’ is ‘ilm an-Nafs’ – knowledge of the ‘self’.
The first thing to clarify is that there are several definitions that can be given to the nafs, and the several ways in which the term is used throughout the Quran and in Islamic literature.
1. The Nafs as the ‘Lower Self’
Start by thinking of the human being as having a ‘heart’ – a psycho-spiritual heart – the essence of what makes us human. According to the Islamic tradition, this ‘Qalb’ or ‘heart’ contains 2 parts of us. The ‘nafs’ – the lower self and the ‘ruh’ – the higher self. There is a precedent in the Islamic tradition to avoid over-questioning what the ‘ruh’ is, because by essence its true nature cannot be understood by the human mind. It suffices to say that it makes up the best part of us.
For those of you into psychology, this definition of the nafs is comparable to Freud’s understanding of the id (lower self, nafs), super-ego (higher-self, ruh), and ego (self – the balance between the two). However, what Freud writes about the id and super ego does not necessarily equate to what the Quran and Sunnah teach about the nafs and ruh. (The Islamic understanding of the ‘ruh’ in particular is very different to Freud’s theories about the super-ego)
2. The Nafs as the ‘Level’ of your soul.
Throughout the Quran, references are made to the nafs and from these scholars have deduced that there are 7 distinct ‘levels’ of the nafs. The first and lowest is “nafs al-ammarah” the inciting soul (see Surah Yusuf vs 53) which is completely unconscious and unaware and so inclines towards evil. The highest is “nafs al-kamila”, the perfect soul, believed by some to be a station attained only by the Prophets (see Surah Nahl, vs 91).
The 2 definitions above will give you much more clarity when you read Islamic writings on the soul, where the term nafs is either being used to describe the ‘lower self’ or the current ‘level’ of your soul.
With these definitions in mind, I would like to let you in on a theory that allows us all to understand the connection between our mind, thoughts, emotions and soul, in accordance with the Quran and Sunnah.
3. A Psychological Definition Of The Nafs.
My contention is that the ‘nafs’ is a word used to describe our thinking mind. This includes every thought you have or are having right now of the past and the future, and the emotional patterns triggered by your thoughts. If you want to master your ‘nafs’, the most effective way to do this (as is done automatically by all the pious people who have mastered their nafs) is to let go of your thoughts. If this makes absolutely no sense to you right now and you’re thinking…
“But aren’t thoughts… good?! Aren’t we meant to think? Isn’t it ‘I think, therefore I am’?”
…then hang in there, because you’re about to have a spiritual insight that, insha’Allah, will bring you much closer to Allah (swt), improve the power of your Salah, and put a smile on your face for the rest of the day by allowing you to master your nafs, right now.
The reason your mind, (or your nafs) has a strong reaction to this understanding is that your whole sense of your “self” is based around your thinking mind. You think you are your thoughts. You are not. You are much more than your thoughts. You are the consciousness, the space, within which the thoughts exist.
Often your thoughts rush through your mind so thick and fast that you can go for an entire day without ever having peace of mind – a peace which can only come by quieting your thoughts. And sometimes, perhaps during Salah, or the few moments after a Salah, you will have been in a state where there was silence, not just around you, but inside you. Silence inside your mind. You were free from thought. Free from your nafs.
When your thoughts are completely quiet, you are fully conscious. When a thought enters your mind, just notice that the thought entered. Observe the thought. By doing this, you do not identify with it. You realise that you are the consciousness that observes the thought, not the thought itself.
Play this game as you read this article. And rest assured that once you ‘get’ the point of this article, you can be in a state of ‘no-mind’, or ‘no-thought’, if only for a few seconds to start with. Then, you can move on to the following articles and train your mind (your nafs) so that you control them, rather than allowing them to control you.
First you must simply notice your thoughts, and realise that you are not your thoughts. The moment a thought comes up, observe it, and you are outside of it. You realise that you are more than it.
Mind And Emotions
It’s well established in different areas of psychology that your mind and your emotions are linked. In cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), the aim is to realise which thoughts came up when you felt a negative emotion, then write out the distortions in that ‘automatic’ thought, and think about the situation in a different, more realistic way. This frees you from the negative emotion, and allows you to improve your well-being.
In Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), a central tennet is that you control your mind, therefore your emotions and your results. NLP teaches you to direct your focus or ‘internal representations’ (ie. the pictures and words that make up your thoughts) and to direct the way you use your physical body in order to get into any emotional state you want. This is very cool, and very powerful, and I’ll show you how in a future article, insha’Allah.
Both these methods are good for helping you direct your mind and control your emotions. In other words, they help you master your nafs. However, the deeper spiritual state I want you to enter is to be completely free from your thought-emotion reactional patterns. You can do this instantly, by simply noticing your thoughts as they enter, and noticing the feelings inside your body when they come up.
Some great questions to ask yourself consistently to help you enter this state are:
“What’s happening in my body right now?”
“Is my body at ease right now?”
“Am I at ease right now?”
…and notice what is happening inside your body. By asking yourself these questions, you will interrupt the thought/emotion pattern and for a moment you become present and fully conscious (free from your nafsy-thoughts).
Here’s another great question I want you to ask yourself right now. Ask yourself…
“I wonder what my next thought will be…”
Read that question again, close your eyes and pause before continuing.
What happened? Did you have millions of thoughts rushing through your mind right away, or did you experience a few moments where no thoughts came up? Most people, myself included experience the latter.
Now that you’ve experienced the state of no-mind for a few moments, commit yourself to doing it for a few seconds before the ‘Allahu Akbar’ at the start of every Salah you pray today. Then tell me what happens, and read the subsequent articles to discover the real impact of being in the state you just experienced.