By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, New Age Islam
12 June, 2014
One of the most loving attributes of God in Islam is that He gives us chances, a clean slate, a fresh start to purge our life of the grave sins we are prone to. As our life advances ahead, it gradually becomes replete with spiritual vices and moral deficiencies. But the all-loving God, al-Wadud (one of the 99 special attributes of Allah in the Qur'an) gives us relaxations and many opportunities throughout the life to reclaim the virtues of righteousness, purity, humility, piety and all the glorious personality traits that our first father Hazrat Adam was born with.
Every year just ahead of Ramadan, we enter into the Islamic month of Sha’ban full of divine bounties, spiritual blessings and moral virtues. But instead of giving it a pass, as we Muslims casually do, we should recall the prime objective of Sha’ban being prelude to Ramadan, that is, to reclaim our true selves; our true nature upon which we were created. It also provides us with an abundant opportunity to spiritually prepare and mentally ready ourselves to benefit optimally from the rich harvest of Ramadan. Let us not forget what the Prophet (pbuh) would say in every month of the Sha’ban: "O Muslims! A noble and generous month has come to you. A month in which a night is better than one thousand months, and this month is the month of charity, patience, and mercy. In this month the gates of Paradise become wide open and the gates of Hell are shut, and the devils are chained." (An-Nasa'i)
The first and foremost step towards Ramadan should be spiritual readiness for it. For the multi-faceted objective of fasting as enunciated in the Quranic injunctions and Prophetic traditions is spiritual purification or Taqwa. The Quran is very clear in its foundational objective of enjoining fasts upon Muslims. It says: “O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may become righteous (achieve Taqwa).” (2:183).
So, the essence of fasting in Ramadan is Taqwa, meaning righteousness and God-consciousness, which Muslims are required to observe throughout the whole blessed month of Ramadan and onwards. But one cannot attain Taqwa until he/she purifies his/her mind, soul and heart and purging them of all spiritual vices, as only a sound soul can be a proper stead of God-consciousness. Jihad al-Nafs is ordained in Islam for the very kind of spiritual purification. Once, after returning from a defensive war, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) addressed his companions: “We are returning from a minor jihad to a greater jihad”. His companions asked, “Oh Prophet, what is the greater jihad?” He replied, “The struggle against Nafs (baser instincts and carnal desires).”
The holy Qur’an laid great emphasis on the proper functioning of Nafs (soul) in human beings. The Arabic word “Nafs” means soul, self, existence, ego, life, person, heart and mind. In Islamic terminology, it has been interpreted in two ways. First, Nafs means one’s complete self or existence, as is illustrated in this Quranic verse: ““And remember your Lord inside your Nafs (self)” (7:205). Second, it refers to a specific part of one’s existence that makes up a whole of impulses, pleasures, desires, appetites and passions. In Islamic mysticism or Sufism, Nafs is considered as the comprehensive word for all the baser instincts and carnal desires. Therefore a Sufi anecdote goes like this: “One must engage in a battle against his Nafs (ego) and curb it” (لا بد من مجاھدۃ النفس وکسرھا). This Sufi saying is inspired by the Prophet tradition that says: “Your worst enemy is your Nafs which lies between your flanks” (اعدى عدوك نفسك التي بين جنبيك) (reported by Bayhaqi)
Nafs has been most often used in the Quran with the latter meaning, as in the following verse: “"Verily, the Nafs commands to harm except for those upon whom my Lord has mercy" (Yusuf: 53) Going by this, Nafs is a part of one’s physical self that stands in complete contrast to one’s spiritual being called “Ruh” or spirit, something which descends directly from God to man, and which is purely clean and innocent and, hence, cannot err. On the contrary, Nafs is contained in carnal desires, lust, boundless greed and material pleasures; therefore, it lures man to transgress the boundaries of God. The impulse of Nafs is the root cause of all evils and vices, oppression, corruption, atrocities and other heinous crimes and sins dominating the world of human existence. There is no way for us to curb the devastating impulses of the Nafs except for the constant remembrance of God reminding ourselves of the mortality of our worldly life and certainty of our death.
In Islam, both “Ruh” (spirit) and Nafs (self) have been greatly valued and mostly emphasized unlike the physical body which is not all that substantial in the process of attaining higher relationship with God. The Holy Quran mentions seven spiritual stages relating to Nafs. One has to pass through all these stages to achieve the nearness of God. The first stage is “Nafs-e-Ammara” (the inciting self) that incites people to indulge in vicious acts by instigating their base instincts. That is why it is categorized as the “lower self”. God refers to this Nafs in the following Quranic verse: "The human soul (Nafs) is certainly prone to evil" (12:53). This Nafs resides in the world of senses and is controlled by the carnal desires. Fighting the temptations of this Nafs is counted as the true Islamic jihad. The Prophet said in his Farewell Pilgrimage: "The Mujahid is he who engages in jihad (struggle) against his own self for the sake of obeying God." (Tirmidhi).Once, after returning from a defensive war, the Prophet Muhammad pbhu addressed to his companions: "We are returning from a minor Jihad to a greater Jihad". His companions asked, "Oh prophet, what is the greater Jihad?" He replied, "The struggle against Nafs (i.e. Nafs-e-Ammara).”
The second stage is “Nafs-e-Lawwama” (self-cursing soul) where human soul reaches a point that if he commits a sin, his consciences wakes up and curses him for his evil doing. It is this self-criticizing soul that compels a man to confess his crime. God mentions this Nafs in this verse: “"And I do call to witness the Nafs that blames" (75:2). A person should reach at least this second stage to find mercy of God.
The second stage begins with one’s self-introspection and ends in an awakening of his moral sense leading him to a primitive struggle against the animal desires in his Nafs. This paves the way for the third and the highest stage, i.e. “Nafs-e-Mutmainna” (the satisfied soul) where the human being reaches an abode of perfect peace, purity, rectitude and enlightenment. God refers to this Nafs: “O soul at peace, return to your Lord, well pleased and well pleasing. Enter you among My servants! Enter My Paradise" (89:27).
Fighting the temptations of Nafs is actually the greatest Islamic jihad and the best spiritual exercise to do in the ongoing month of Sha’ban through to Ramadan. As spiritually-inclined Muslims, we have to focus on our inner self before we engage with the external and mundane affairs of life. Jihad al-Nafs is all about lightening an inner spark for acts of goodness. The more good acts we carry out, the closer we draw to God, and the good deeds become compounded as Ramadan reels in.
Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is an Alim and Fazil (classical Islamic scholar) with a Sufi background. He has graduated from a leading Sufi Islamic seminary of India, Jamia Amjadia Rizvia (Mau, U.P.), acquired Diploma in Qur'anic Arabic from Al-Jamiat ul Islamia, Faizabad, U.P., and Certificate in Uloom ul Hadith from Al-Azhar Institute of Islamic Studies, Badaun, U.P. He has also graduated in Arabic (Hons) and is pursuing his M. A. in Comparative Religion from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.