Understanding our Nefs

Allah (swt) says in surat al Nisaa: 135 {O you who believe, be upholders of justice, bearing witness to God – though it be against your own selves (nefs) or your parents or kin….} Here in these verses, Allah (swt) calls upon us to stand against our ‘nefs’ in our walk towards Him, and to help our parents and relatives in what is right (as opposed to helping them just because they are our relatives, even though it is in something that is wrong).

al Zamlakani (may God have mercy on him) said, “The barrier of a believer is his nefs and his whim. If he opposes them, the barrier will be lifted.”

Our nefs – loosely defined as that which calls us to fulfill our whims and desires – is recognizable in almost every human problem.

At home the feeling of being unappreciated, at work the feeling of being passed over, and in social circles the feeling of being dissed – it’s all nefs. If we can push the proverbial pause button and realize that – we don’t work at home to be appreciated, or at work for a promotion, or in social skills to be popular, but rather we work in all three for the pleasure of God – we will finally push beyond our barriers.

We must do our own individual work on our nefs. It is not something we can ‘borrow’ from someone else. It is the hard and real work that finds us getting less sleep, working cheerfully even when we feel slighted, and supporting people of all different backgrounds and behaviors.

We hear much about a spiritual awakening, spiritual highs, and spiritual experiences. Some people will increase their worship, hoping to find those elusive feelings. And while sometimes Allah in His generosity will gift a worshipper rich and real spiritual feelings, the real reaching comes in the fighting of the nefs.

A student who attended with Shaikh al Bustamiy (r) for thirty years said to him, “For thirty years I have attended your sessions while fasting and standing at night, yet even so I have not tasted any of the inner knowledge of which you speak, though I believe in it and yearn for it.” The shaikh said to him, “Were you to fast and pray at night for an eternity, you would not taste of it.” he asked, “But why?” he said, “You are barred by your nefs.”

Practical steps to lessen the power of your nefs include: 1. Sleep less and eat less. 2. Be kind to people, putting others before yourself. 3. Be willing to serve with out thanks and praise. 4. When there is a bubbling and hard to control desire for recognition, or a ‘right’, or an object – realize this is probably your nefs and should be quieted. 5. Give in charity.

It is important while fighting your nefs, that you understand your nefs. You should not over burden your nefs only to burn out after a few days. Rather train your nefs to obey you, much the same as an athlete trains her body to perform; a little at a time, but always pushing a little harder. Reward yourself when you have a break through. If you struggle with feeling ‘put upon’, then the next time you fight that feeling and get over it – offer your nefs a little gift (some extra time reading or a bar of chocolate for example.)

This is a sacred and blessed path. We are fulfilling our purpose in the worship of God, and in good deeds. We will not be able to do either, however, if we continue to hold on to that difficult, yet oh so comfortable and familiar, nefs.

May Allah give us all the ability to recognize when our nefs is getting in our way, and to deal with it appropriately. And may we all taste the sweetness of faith that is pure and clear – free of the murkiness of selfishness and self righteousness.

Ya Rab.

Ameen.

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