Question: You stated that a person who has not been able to settle the problems within his or her own self is not able to solve the problems related to their environment and the society. Would you explain the relationship between reforming oneself (nafs) and reforming the society.
Answer: With respect to its dictionary meaning, the word “nafs” refers to the essence of something or the thing itself. As a religious term, nafs, or the “carnal soul,” refers to the essence and center of the potentially harmful feelings like grudge, hatred, lust, wrath, and the like, all of which are placed in human nature for certain wisdom; it is the title for the mechanism that is prone to whisperings and goading of Satan and which functions as a center for him. But it needs to be known that this mechanism has a potential for transformation and progress at the same time; it is the most important means for a person’s ascending to spiritual realms. However, its being able to fulfill this desirable mission depends on its being disciplined and purified under the guidance and control of heavenly disciplines, like taming a wild horse before it becomes suitable to ride. Otherwise, if the nafs, or carnal soul, is left to its own devices, it will continuously run after its fanciful inclinations and desires, become a slave to animal desires and physical pleasures and go after the evil. In the end, it will cause a person to fall headfirst into eternal ruin.
The Child Who Did Not Give up Sucking Milk
In his famous eulogy, Imam Al-Busiri describes the situation of an undisciplined carnal soul as follows: “The carnal soul resembles a suckling infant. If you do not cease breastfeeding when the time comes, its appetite strengthens and it asks for more. If you can once exert your willpower to cease breastfeeding, then it just stops.”
If the carnal soul is made to cease its appetite for breastfeeding by using significant and convincing arguments at the right time, it will then be possible to keep its insatiable appetite under control. But—may God forbid—if the carnal self is left prone to bohemianism and gains strength under the influence of negative thoughts and feelings, it becomes disobedient, spiraling out of control; it begins to continually impose its own desires, fancies, and caprices on the individual, which results in screens between the truth and the individual; a kind of spiritual eclipse occurs. For this reason, a person captivated by the nafs, or carnal soul, and burdened heavily with its problems cannot set a good example for others and guide them to goodness. The duty that then befalls the person is to first solve his or her problems within. This can be realized by giving the willpower its due and calling a halt to the endless desires and wishes of the carnal self, making it suffice with the delights within the lawful sphere and not allowing it to step toward transgression. Thus, it will have been saved from the state of “ammara”—a soul which continually commands to commit evil, and rise to the level of “lawwama”—one that continuously makes self-criticism and questions whether the behaviors are right. Furthermore, it can even ascend to the horizons of “mutmainna”—the soul with a clear and satisfied conscience that is content with respect to its relationship with its Creator. In addition, just as people seek refuge in God against so many harmful things and factors, they must, night and day, seek refuge in Him against their own selfhood and evil-commanding soul, which serve as a center for Satan in human nature. Otherwise, as the carnal soul will not give up generating problems, the individual will not be able to avoid being heavily laden with the many problems of the carnal soul.
The Greatest Striving on the Way of God
While returning from a military campaign, the Messenger of God warned his Companions that they were returning from the lesser jihad, or striving on the way of God, to the greatest one.1 His use of the term “greatest” is noteworthy, for it indicates the significance of the issue. Furthermore, this intimidating statement was made on the way back from an absolutely critical, great battle for Muslims, and thus it gives us a perspective of comparison between struggling against the carnal soul and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. In addition, it is very meaningful that it was uttered at a time when people felt the delight of victory. Sometimes, a very important remark can be made without taking people’s mood into consideration (and thus being unable to raise their awareness for that remark). Therefore, it does not have an impact on hearts at the desired level. When seen from this perspective, the timing of this blessed saying is very important in terms of saving Muslims from the dizziness of victory. With this remark, God’s Messenger, upon whom be peace and blessings, aimed to keep clear of the possible negative thoughts that may emerge among the victorious military of the Companions while returning back to Medina as the conquering army.
Indeed, we always hold a good opinion of the Companions of the Prophet, in compliance with the meaning of the Qur’anic prayer: “O Our Lord! Forgive us and our brothers (and sisters) in Religion who have preceded us in faith, and let not our hearts entertain any ill-feeling against any of the believers. O Our Lord! You are All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate (especially towards Your believing servants)” (al-Hashr 59:10). On the other hand, as the Pride of Humanity was responsible for their spiritual purification and training, he may have taken their souls into consideration, and he may have intended with his warnings to prevent certain negative feelings from the beginning, even before they emerge. As a matter of fact, on the way to Hunayn, it may have occurred to some that their crowded army was an invincible one. Afterwards, they experienced a temporary defeat, but by the extraordinary efforts of the Pride of Humanity, peace and blessings be upon him, the temporary defeat was transformed into a victory again. This example is also closely related to our subject. People may go through much hardship while striving on the way of God, sometimes at the expense of serious losses. And as a consequence, God Almighty might grant them material or spiritual victories. Right at such a moment of victory, it is very important to keep under control certain negative feelings (of arrogance) that may arise in a person. In his treatise on sincerity, Bediüzzaman raises very important arguments against such tendencies of the carnal soul: “O my ostentatious carnal soul! Do not be proud of your services to God’s religion. As stated in a Prophetic Tradition, God may strengthen this religion by means of a dissolute person. You are not pure, so regard yourself as that dissolute person.” Let alone ordinary people, even saintly figures may not keep up their humbleness in the face of such achievements and triumphs.
Indeed, somebody who does not turn towards his or her own carnal soul for the sake of its taming and gaining of moral virtues loses so much in terms of happiness in both this world and the next. What makes people truly human is not their body but their carnal soul, or their very selves. The noble Prophet once said, “God does not look at your bodies and your physical appearances, but He looks at your hearts and deeds (that stem from the heart).”2 If one truly possesses a feeling of reverence and respect in his or her heart, this will be reflected in all of that person’s attitude and behaviors. Another time, the Prophet referred to a certain heedless man and stated that if his heart were in awe of God, so would be his body parts.3 For this reason, it is very important for a person to turn first toward his or her own human essence, engage in a struggle with the carnal self, and settle the problems within. It is for this significance of the issue that the Messenger of God referred to it as the “greatest struggle.”
Blessings That Become a Curse
As the carnal soul can tempt someone into committing sins, sometimes it can cause a person to fall by the way of blessings showering upon that person. As an example, the Qur’an relates the story of Qarun: “Qarun (Korah) was one of Moses’ people, but he betrayed and oppressed them” (al-Qasas 28:78). He was led astray by the wealth and means God Almighty had granted him, because he had not believed in God in the way that he should have, and failed to settle the problem with his carnal soul. Even though he seemed to have belief, he failed to transform his belief into certainty in faith, never ascending to a horizon of heartfelt acceptance. That is, he did not transform mere information into knowledge of God with practice, nor gain certainty based on or arising from that knowledge, and he had nothing to do with attaining certainty based on being able to see the truth. Therefore, there came a time when he said: “All this has been given to me only by virtue of a certain knowledge that I have” (al-Qasas 28:76). Although Korah had spent time with Prophet Moses and lived among his people, he was tempted by worldly means and was among the losers.
Similarly, as-Samiri (the Samaritan), who was from the people of Prophet Moses, was a person who had certain merits of speech and craftsmanship. However, he also abused the gifts God had granted to him by making an image of golden calf to worship, thereby bringing about his own ruin. As stated in the Qur’an, “(Moses) said: “Be gone, then! (The sentence) upon you is that in this present life, you say ‘Touch me not!’ (to warn people against proximity to you)…” (Ta-Ha 20:97). As-Samiri lived in abject misery until the end of his life.
So it seems that when the problem is not settled within the individual, even God’s blessings may become curses for people. In other words, things seeming like blessings can transform into retribution unawares: skills, power, opportunity to rule, appreciation of people, and gaining status can all be considered in this respect. When a person gains such means without taming his nafs, he will stray from the path of the Messenger of God to that of the pharaohs without even being aware of it.
I would like to elucidate the issue further with a narration from the time of Prophet Moses, peace be upon him. Actually, certain parables may be questionable whether they really took place or not, but what really matters with parables is the meaning that they convey and the lesson we learn from it. Accordingly, on the way to Mount Sinai Moses sees that somebody has buried himself in sand because he had no clothes to wear. This man asks Moses to pray to God so that he has worldly goods. As Moses petitions God Almighty about it, he learns that the man’s present state is better for him. After that, Moses conveys this message to the man, but the man still insists on his wish. Finally, God Almighty commands Moses to help that man. Moses provides him some support and after a while the man has enough money to buy a sheep. In time the man owns flocks of sheep through geometrical increase. One day, when Prophet Moses is traveling to Mount Sinai again, he sees a crowd of people. He decides to get closer to see what is happening. He is told: “There used to be a very poor man. In time, God granted him abundant means. But richness did him no good. He started to drink. One day he got drunk, engaged in a fight, and killed someone. Now the man is going to be executed in retaliation.”
In conclusion, as it is seen in history and many examples in our time, a person who does not settle his or her problems within can often make material and spiritual bestowals into means of their own ruin. In fact, if a blessing makes one forget God Almighty and causes that person to become a heedless one, then that seeming blessing is a “curse in disguise.” Even if what distances a person from God is a great victory, it should be known that it is a calamity sent by God—it makes one suffer the greatest loss, where it is fairly possible to win (i.e. one could have been among the righteous if he had truly tamed his carnal self). So the way to protect oneself from all of these dangers is never giving up the struggle against the nafs, or the carnal soul, and being constantly alert against its tricks and traps.
1. Bayhaqi, Zuhd, 1/165
2. Sahih Muslim, Birr, 34; Sunan ibn Majah, Zuhd, 9
3. Hakim at-Tirmidhi, Nawadir al-Usul, 2/172
This text is the translation of “Nefiste Çözülen Problemler ve Toplumun Islahı“