Training Your Best Friend and Worst Enemy: Your Nafs

Imagine that you just got the rudest, most condescending email of your life. Someone who can barely express themselves in writing thinks that they can question the very validity of your career and years of experience.

Your first reaction is to give them a taste of their own medicine, responding with a snarky email that points out their own faults. That will make you feel a lot better… for a few minutes, of course.

Then you will get another email that ignores the subject entirely and focuses on your rudeness. Next thing you know, there are meetings being held with your bosses, and your job is on the line.

Sound familiar?

This is what happens when you let your self, or your nafs, take control of your actions. This part of you – and indeed it exists in all of us – has only one thing in mind: your best interests.

In many ways it is your greatest friend, leading you directly to everything that is the most physically and mentally pleasing and beneficial to you.

The problem, of course, is that life is not all about you. As you can see from the simple example above, the endless pursuit of selfish goals and self-satisfaction is one of the quickest ways to a dangerous end. As the Qur’an tells us:

Indeed the nafs is a persistent enjoiner of evil (12:53).

The trick to success, therefore, is just like everything else in Islam: balance. We must strive to reign in our nafs and teach ourselves to pursue the things that we want, but within a guiding framework defined by God and the Prophet Muhammad, who have the bigger picture in mind.

Today we are going to cover a few quick methods that you can employ in your daily life to put you in control of your nafs without it ultimately controlling you.

Taking Time for Internal Dialogue

Think back to that email that you just got. Your strongest initial reaction – to send them the best-written pile of snark that has ever passed through the internet – is probably not correct.

Take some time to think about what the appropriate response should be. It might take a while, but eventually your initial emotions will subside, and an internal dialogue will start.

Your nafs will begin to speak with your intellect (‘aql). You will then find yourself weighing the options to find the maximum benefit for yourself (keeping your job) and responding appropriately to your colleague by, for example, requesting a formal meeting to discuss your cooperation and dynamics.

Giving yourself the time to work out these issues is the first step to controlling your nafs, which benefits the most from instant gratification.

This doesn’t have to apply to only interpersonal conflicts. For example, when you see that thing on the store shelf that you just must buy, don’t. Even if you can afford it, wait and think about it for a while and see what happens with that internal dialogue. If it eventually comes out that the best solution is to go ahead and buy it, fine.

Remember, you are doing this not to torture and forbid yourself from having nice things; it is about taking the small steps to developing a disciplined and better self.  

Bringing the Nafs Back to God

O reassured self, return to your Lord, well-pleased and pleasing [to Him], and enter among my [righteous] servants and enter My Paradise (89:27-30).

This is a Quranic verse often connected to when someone passes away. However, calling your nafs back to God is an important way to train it. Your nafs is all about you, and therefore it is all about this world. It can easily run astray and ruin both this life and the next.

Therefore, work to bring your nafs back to where it should be, in line with what God wants. Do this through the remembrance of God or dhikr and by performing your religious obligations like prayer on time. This will help you to control your impulses and discipline your mind.

Trust Yourself

I know that this point might seem to be a bit contradictory, but the nafs has another side to it. You know that moment when you have made a mistake, or at least you think you have? Your mind might start spinning out of control, thinking about all the terrible things that will happen to you and the consequences that you will have to face.

That is your nafs talking. As it wants the best for you, your nafs can take the reins and become your harshest critic.

When this happens, take a deep breath and find something else to occupy your mind. Go out to a restaurant, watch some TV, or pick up a book that can take you away to another place.

As your anxiety subsides and that internal dialogue, we talked about takes over, you will begin to understand that your mistake was probably not that big of a deal and you will survive.

Even if there are negative consequences, handle them with faith and confidence. You are a valuable person. One that makes mistakes, of course, but despite it all trying to do your best.

Learning to trust yourself in these moments, while remaining conscious of your actions, is one of the best ways to keep that critic at bay and bring yourself closer to God.

About Brian Wright
Brian Wright is an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi. He holds a PhD from the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University. His dissertation was on Islamic criminal law in Egypt, India, and Ottoman Turkey during the 19th century. He has studied fiqh with a number of traditional scholars in Egypt and India.