In the Quran, there are three stages of the self: al nafs al ammara bil su (the self commanded/inclined toward evil), al nafs al lawwama (the (self)-blaming self), and al nafs al mutmaana (the reassured self).
If we ponder the state of the world, it is apparent that plenty of us on this planet are inclined toward evil. This is manifested in human trafficking, our erroneous system of distribution of wealth, imperialism, capitalism, greed, self-obsession, dictatorship, the use of intoxicants, gambling, slavery, objectification of men and women, materialism, consumerism, and evil distractions and perversions which, though once considered illicit and shameful, are now permeating the mainstream.
When we no longer flinch at what is going on around us, when we do not stand up for justice, when we forget acts of worship, we become engulfed in darkness. Only the straight path (al sirat al mustaqeem) designed for us by our Creator can transform the status quo; and in a world where hedonism is du jour, addressing the evil that lurks within us is essential in order to adhere to God’s commandments and uphold our covenant with Him.
Imagine a world where we follow the path toward God; imagine a world without casinos, nightclubs, bars, usury, adultery, crime, and pornography. Imagine a world where dutiful worshippers eradicate poverty by spending in voluntary charity (sadaqa) and the annual requirement of almsgiving (zakat). Imagine a world without greed, without transgression, without injustice. This is all possible when we are God-realized and when we take our roles as divine ambassadors seriously.
Each of us is invited to strive against evil by completely surrendering our desires, our ambitions, our actions, our thoughts—everything—to God. The more we humble ourselves in His presence, the more God exalts us. And, paradoxically, the more we ascend on the spiritual ladder, the more people will consider us regressive, even backward. But what is more important: God’s pleasure or society’s? And why are we afraid of being considered backward?
In a world as upside-down as ours, where vice is considered a right, being called backward is awe-inspiring; it reflects our modesty, piety and inner strength. If being backward means praying to God, shunning previous sins, and inviting one another to self-purification and repentance, then being backward is actually the way forward for us. When people argue that Islam is not compatible with the modern world, we should be elated not ashamed. The modern world is a mess. The only thing compatible with our world today is evil. Why would we ever want to adjust our religion to the sickness we witness today or fit our religion into a wayward system? Islam is not compatible with modernity, but it is compatible with God’s ways, which are eternal and good. God was, is, and will always be the cure for humanity. We have manifested a filthy playground in which we equate libertinism with freedom and capitalism with dignity. Our desires are our priority. And what does our beloved God say about those who are slaves to their desires in the Quran?
“Have you seen he who has taken for his god his desire, and God has led him astray upon knowledge and has sealed upon his hearing and his heart and placed over his sight a veil? So who will guide him after God? Will you not remember?” (Surah Al Jathiya 45:23).
Are we going to follow our desires or follow God? When we begin to feel an ounce of guilt at following our desires, when we begin to cringe in shame that we are not following the ways of God, the stage has been set for al nafs al lawwama. For many, this is a very painful inner struggle. Set in our ways, the devil will put up a fight along with our self. But, we are not to worry about the devil. God states that “…the devil has no authority over those who believe in God and who put their trust in Him” (Surah Al Nahl 16:99). And, as for our selves, God Himself informs us that He has full knowledge of “what [the] self whispers to [us]”, and is “…closer to us than the jugular vein” (Surah Qaf 50:16).
Thus, there is no need to fear. The One who knows us better than we know our very own selves is close, very close. We are not alone in this battle both against the devil and against our inner self. With God as our guide, we can take on the challenge of self-purification and repentance in patience and perseverance.
One of the ways to transcend the second stage is to think about God constantly. Or in God’s words, to “[r]emember Your Lord within yourselves…” (Surah Al A’raf 7:205). Each time we find ourselves daydreaming or thinking evil thoughts, let us (re)turn our focus back to The Merciful One. Thinking about death and the afterlife is also essential. It places us in a frame of mind where we are steadfast in acts of worship. Many people erroneously think that because they avoid major sins and are dutiful worshippers that they do not need purification. But mockery and insulting others (see Surah Al Hujurat 49:11), spying on others and backbiting (see Surah Al Hujurat 49:12) and arrogance (see Surah Al Nahl 16:23) all fall into the category of evil.
We have to give up negativity altogether, within us and externally, in order to ascend and so as not to slip back into evil ways. God has informed us in the Quran that He “…does not change the condition of a people, until they change what is in themselves” (Surah Al Raad 13:11). So it is up to us to transform our selves. We are also promised:
“As for those who strive in Us, we guide them to Our paths, and God is with the righteous” (Surah Al Ankabut 29:69).
So the path of guidance and grace opens up to the righteous ones who strive toward God.
The last stage of the self is the one we aspire to the most: al nafs al mutmaana. Imagine God Himself addressing our selves, saying:
“Oh reassured self Return to your Lord, pleased and pleasing And enter among my servants And enter my Paradise” (Al Fajr 27-30).
The reassured self is at peace in God’s paradise, untouched by evil, and free of self- incrimination. It would be such a pity to miss this opportunity to enter such a noble station. Our Creator gave us a roadmap in the Quran. Each word, each verse, each page, each chapter invites us to Paradise. The Quran reminds us that “What happens to us that is good is from God, what happens to us that is evil is from ourselves…” (Surah Al Nisa 4:79). This reminds us that before we complain of our circumstances and surroundings, let us ask how we contributed to evil. It takes courage to face the evil that lurks within us, but it is worth it. God is beyond worth it. Beyond. Beyond. Beyond.