How To Master Your Nafs – Part 1

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.

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  • night man  On May 20, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    this is excellent my mind became blank, lol

  • sun  On May 20, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    SubhanAllah!! I wonder if you have been to a very spiritual realm, beacuse this is mA so very peace-giving! Looking forward to the next one iA!

  • Faraz  On May 20, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    jazakumAllah Khair.I love you for the sake of Allah.

  • zubaida Khatieb  On May 21, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    Really thought provoking

  • siddick  On May 24, 2011 at 3:08 am

    ha ha ,

    well done brother…this comes straight from a technique called Quantum entrainment which a s a doctor I have been using for a while with goo results to tackle various issues in my patients etc. It will help anybody to gaiin mastery- a combination of oriental TM and modern psychology.

  • Um muhammed  On May 24, 2011 at 8:55 am

    Alsalam alikom, thank you so much for such an article. I was waiting to read something like this, especially these days, I wanted to find an understanding of the connection between the thoughts and the emotions, the control one can have with a simple understanding of how to do it. It’s not the first time that something accrued at the time of need, but subhan Allah he sends upon us good people with good information that help us through life.

    Thank you akhi for such amazing work, barak Allah feek.

  • Aisha  On May 25, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    The best article ever!!! I have only recently learned about CBT and totally agree. The experiment at the end is an added bonus as it helps you concentrate on one of the most important things in life i.e khushu’ during salah.
    JazakAllah kheyr and my Allah SWT grant you all jannah Amin.

  • Ibrahim Muhammed  On May 25, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    Asalaam Alikum. I am currently suffering from anxiety, stress, and depression, all rolled into one! I received a link to this page from a Brother on email and Subhanallah I have printed it out and read it about 100 times today, no jokes. It has seriously changed my view of how im thinking and inshaaAllah will help me to return to the old me. I ask Allah ta’ala to shower His blessings upon the author of this beautiful and outstanding article. I can’t wait to see part 2!! Jazakallahu!!!

  • Ajaz  On May 25, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    A very interesting and insightful article.

  • nomadone  On May 26, 2011 at 6:36 am

    Wow what an insightful article, although I pretty much know all of this in theory one way or another, it’s refreshing to have it presented in this way and to be reminded so clearly. May Allah reward you for your efforts to assist and enlighten the rest of us and May Allah assist us in attaining this state of peace within.

  • Hudayfah  On May 26, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    SubhanAllah I tried the experiment at the end and asked myself “I wonder what my next thought will be” and closed my eyes. My mind went completely blank! InshAllah i’m going to try this before my Salah and see what happens.

    JazakAllah khayran for the interesting article and i’m looking forward to the rest.

  • Muhammed Shaheel  On May 31, 2011 at 6:01 am

    Yes really good to start with…Alhamdhulillah….

  • Daniel  On June 8, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    Masha Allah very interesting.

    I checked the reference for nafs al-kamila and didn’t see anytHing in relation to nafs. Are you sure it’s nahl vs 91?

    • quranforbusypeople  On October 9, 2011 at 11:04 am

      I took the word of a teacher, who may have been mistaken, or I may have mis-written it. Let me know if you found the correct Quran reference for it. JAK

  • umm benyameen  On June 25, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Assalaamu alaykum

    wheres part 2?

  • aisha siddiqui  On July 3, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Asa That was very interesting, but not enough! Insha Allah I hope that this is the first in a series of articles on this topic.Regarding NLP, is their an ‘islamic version’ available, and where can one go to access this course.
    Jazak Allah kher

    • quranforbusypeople  On October 9, 2011 at 11:03 am

      Salams Aisha, we don’t need an “Islamic” version of NLP any more than we need an “Islamic” version of football. There are plenty of courses out there – go, learn & grow! In the meanwhile, yes insha’Allah there will be many more articles on this topic, on this blog insha’Allah.

  • Dr Gulam Mohammad Chinchwalker (Qadri)  On August 18, 2011 at 6:02 am

    Allah has made every thing in pair of what we know and what we do not know , light is in pair with darkness, love with hatred , big with small so on and forth so that we can understand Allah.
    In human being we have both quality good and bad , good qualities like love , kindness, humility , modesty, truthfulness, honesty etc and he bad quality like hatred , jeolousy , etc all the bad quality belongs to the nafs the most prominent among is lust, greed , anger ,ego etc , /.Also controlling of things which we love and giving them up for the love of god is also term as controlling Nafs . Nafs can only be controlled

  • Syed Nazmul  On August 20, 2011 at 11:24 am

    Yes I have been struggling with my NAFS it was so hard to find the right answer to stop them. Now I have found this I can be my actual self and attain peace. May Allah (stw) reward you . PEACE!

  • Nasruddin  On July 28, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    This helps! Thank you! Do come up with a Part 2! 😀

  • MD  On October 5, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    Good article. I have been studying and trying to master psychology. And Ego or lower self or Nafs Al-Ammarah is with out any doubt our biggest suffering. It has been 3 years on my side to know how big this ego plays in creating the sufferings.

    I have been able to find few ways to control it. Power of Now – Presence Process explain Ego very well and provide certain methods (as you explained in your article) as well – however the major problem is sometimes we dont have a single clue we are controlled by Ego in a particular moment or situation and hence the methods presented by spirituality are not bullet proof effective. All we need a single incident of pain or other suffering to make this Ego come alive and take us over. You have to meditate daily and offer Salah with extreme presence to make the duration of controlling Ego long and longer.

    Though I would search; but do you happen to know Quranic Verses which explain Nafs Al-Ammarah more in detail and ways to control it?

  • uroos  On November 18, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Where is the part 2 of this article?

  • zarish khan  On January 8, 2013 at 10:50 am

    JAZAKALLAH KHAIR may ALLAH bless you

  • zarish khan  On January 8, 2013 at 10:51 am

    JAZAKALLAH thanks great advice MAY ALLAH reward You

  • Salahudin  On January 17, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    thanks for that, brilliant!

  • haania  On January 23, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    I am a girl .. i never had any intentions to allow nafs to control me .. and i am stucked now .. i tried to protect myself a lot .. but somehow i get involved in it again .. i cant blame anyone … as one should have a control on one’s nafs.. if there is a culprit that is me .. i have no control over my thoughts . and it has made my life a mess now .. really want to get out of it as soon as possible

  • Tareq  On March 19, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Salom mualaikum,
    Thank you for this informative article.
    Look forward for the rest. ….🔭

  • naas246  On May 5, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    Jazak Allah Khaire Mamoon…..I blanked …. waiting for the 2nd.

  • naas246  On May 5, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Reblogged this on nasreene.

  • naas246  On May 5, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    Jazak Allah Khaire Mamoon…..I blanked …. waiting for the 2nd.

    • quranforbusypeople  On March 22, 2014 at 5:05 pm

      As your mind quiets down like that, you become open to having a true inner realisation. That’s your inner wisdom speaking to you – it comes from beyond the ego. It’s all explained in the Instant Ihsan System. Check out our free training:

  • nafkilla  On June 11, 2013 at 1:36 am

    next level stuff works like magic may allah bless the author and all reading the post thankyou.

  • AABID  On June 16, 2013 at 11:09 am

    Asalamu alaikum good work brother.Keep it up

  • Khan  On August 3, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    I am not sure about all this, I can understand your theory of thought process and controlling your thought, but I think (I may be wrong); your nafs control your thinking, your activities control your thinking, your physical state control your thinking, try to be busy for 24 hours and do constant work and see what’s happening to your thinking process and see how much can you control it.
    Your brain works like a machine out of control.
    There are billions of thoughts going through your brain but control may be difficult as you are tired.

    Overindulgence in many activities- get your nafs get used to it and limiting activities and resorting to Allah’s remembrance is the only way to control it; does it not happen in Ramadan?

  • shoaib ahmed naseer  On October 17, 2013 at 11:25 am

    AA I think its amazing.

  • Ajab  On March 22, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    Brilliant article. Very well written.

    Not being able to control your nafs/thoughts is diagnosed psychologically as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), I.e- obsessively thinking about negative things that you don’t want to think about and acting on them thoughts in a compulsive way. The treatment for this as mentioned by the author of this article is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which focuses on strengthening your willpower/nafs by controlling your reactions to what you think about. The author quite rightly points out, you are NOT your thoughts, YOU are your values (Muslim) and your thoughts are a separate entity. The overall aim in conquering your nafs is to make your values stronger than your thoughts, so you act according to your values and not your thoughts.

    • quranforbusypeople  On March 22, 2014 at 5:01 pm

      Salams! Thank You! There is a way of getting in touch with the “Real You”, beyond your nafs that is far more effective than Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The challenge with CBT is that a) when you have a thought that cause a strong feeling, you’re not in a great state to ‘do’ the exercises & b) when you sit down afterwards to do the exercise, you’re analysing a thought that has already come & gone. It’s a great starting point, but I direct people to a more powerful approach. It’s covered in Module 3 of our Instant Ihsan program. You might enjoy this webinar training: 🙂

  • Waheed  On June 1, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    Both of the above websites appear to be down. Why???

  • Salma  On July 16, 2014 at 8:42 am

    Great read, really useful. I’m motivated to try the techniques. Bless you and thank you.

  • Umair  On October 1, 2014 at 11:41 am

    JazakAllah for such a nice insight about our nufs and how to control this. That is a totally new perspective for me and I never thought like that before. I am a PhD student in computer science and I want to gain some knowledge about this. Can you tell some links or refer some books for that please.

  • Abdullah Al Noman  On November 5, 2014 at 3:21 pm

    Assalamu Alaikum.May Allah Bless You.Alhamdulillah.

  • abdul shukoor  On July 10, 2015 at 2:20 am

    alhamdulillah it is very informative. when i get a solution for my problems i feel very very happy,especially when the solution is based on quran and sunna

  • imran rahman  On November 5, 2015 at 1:48 pm

    eagerly waiting for the second part

  • Mohammed Shahin R.  On May 8, 2016 at 3:37 pm

    Salamoalaikum w.r.w.b
    In case of psychosis disorder the thought process gets muddled and the self-consciousness also loses its power of observation at the same time. This means the self- consciousness is not an independent entity since it appears to be controlled by mind (nafs) only. Kindly guide me in the light of Quran

  • Farhan  On February 18, 2017 at 5:48 am

    Jazak Allahu Khairun. Have tears in my eyes. Have sinned all my life and desperately want to get away from it all. I just feel it is too late and too difficult, but am trying nevertheless. May Allah grant you ajar for this wonderful article.

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