THE STRUGGLE WITH one’s nafs, or self, is the strangest of things. This is because it requires a surprising talent.
Now, some people give free reign to their nufûs, that is, they “let themselves go” to whatever they love. This yields the antithesis of what they intended, for unbridled pursuit of what they love causes them to fall into what they hate.
Others become extreme in going against what they love to the point that they prohibit their nufûs, their ‘selves’ from what is rightfully due them. Thus do they wrong their own ‘selves.’ This transgression against themselves also yields the antithesis of their intention, in that it negatively affects their worship rather than augmenting it and positively building it.
Among this latter type are those who fail to nourish themselves well. This causes their bodies to grow weak, which, in turn prevents them from performing their obligations. Others seclude themselves from people to elevate their spirits. It has the opposite effect, for it makes them uncivilized, causing them to abandon their worshipful obligations and good deeds, such as visiting the sick or being good to their parents.The well-balanced and decisive one is he who trains his ‘self’ to be serious and moderate in his principles. When such a one does let his nafs, his ‘self,’ indulge in what is permissible, it does not grow bold enough to transgress into the forbidden.
The balanced believer is to his own ‘self’ even as a king to his own knights, when he engages them in mock combat for training. Never will the subjects of the king take advantage of him. Even if taking such advantage should come to the mind of the king’s subject, he remembers the aura and prior position of the kingdom and thereby he is borne back to his senses.
He who is balanced and right-minded gives to his ‘self’ its due share, and takes from it all that it must give.
Lessons of Life
I NOTICED THE subjugation (taskhîr) of the clouds. Then, behold, from their midst the rain is sent down with all gentleness. The seeds? They wait, buried beneath earth like the dead. They rot in wait, in want…for the breath of life. Then rain strikes seed. They tremble and shoot forth greenery.
Now, should water be cut from plant, it stretches forth the hand of want and seeks to be given. It bows it head in humility and dons the garment of change, for plant needs what I need…in sun’s warmth, water’s cooling, breezes’ pleasant touch, a land breathing.
Then sub ḥân’Allâh! Transcendent is the glory of Allah! O for the One, Who has shown me, so as to teach me, how He nourishes me and makes me grow.
O Self of Mine! You who have glimpsed a glint of wisdom behind provision, how ugly of you, by Allah! to go to other than Him [for provision]—astounding, rather. How go you to others…in need like yourself for [provision]. See this one to whom you turn, how his condition cries out to you, saying: “I am like you, in the self-same condition, O Pigeon!?” Return to the Origin. Seek from the One who causes all.
And glad tidings to you that you know Him. For in knowing Him, indeed, abide the kingdom of this life and the Next.
Distracting the Self
TWO WORKERS PASSED by me carrying a heavy tree trunk. By turns, they sung to each other different songs, and chatted together. In this way, one of them would listen to what the other was saying and sometimes repeat it back to him, or tell him something else of the like. The other, in his listening, had the same concern for his companion.
I saw that had they not done this, the task’s difficulty would have increased manifold for them the “weightiness” of their affair, as it were. With each instance of song and exchange, however, their affair grew easier for them. I thought about the reason for this and realized that it was because the mind of each focused on what the other was saying, or on his singing. Thus, the thoughts of the listener, each in turn, were occupied with how he would respond with similar banter or song. So was the path taken, and the weight of their burden forgotten.
I grasped from this an amazing lesson. The human being is burdened to carry very difficult affairs and responsibilities. One of the heaviest weights he carries is managing his nafs, his ‘self,’ and imposing upon his ‘self’ patience by restraining it from what it loves, and even moving it toward what it hates.
The right way, I could see, went through patience, but with occasional diversions, all the while going easy on one’s ‘self.’ Based on this, it is told that the great [sixth-century hijrî (ca. 1200ce)] ascetic, Bishr Al-Ḥâfi, Allah’s mercy be upon him, was traveling the road with a man who grew thirsty. The man said to him: “Should we drink from this well?”
Bishr replied: “Be patient till we get to the next well.”
Then when they reached the next well, he said to his companion: “Just be patient until the next well.”
He continued to distract him in this manner until Bishr turned to his companion and said: “This is how we get through the world.”
One who understands the meaning of Bishr’s living lesson and moral diverts himself from the toil of life, takes it easy on himself, and promises himself the good things to come so that he can be patient with what he is carrying. Among the pious of old, men would say to their nufûs, the ‘self’ of their souls: “By Allah! I wish not to deprive you from this thing that you love, save out of my concern for you.”
Abû Yazîd, Allah’s mercy be upon him, said: “I kept driving myself to Allah while it [my nafs] was crying. Thus did I continue training it, until I was driving it, and it was laughing.”
Know, then, that good management of the self and being easy on the self is a must, and thus do we cross great distances. I have given you here but a hint of a glint on this subject. Its full explanation is much longer, indeed.
 Here, the author calls the reader “Pigeon” because birds are associated with living beings who seek provision. Both the Quran and sunnah instruct human beings to look at them as creatures who need many times their body weight in provision, and still Allah fulfills their needs. Further, they fly making it impossible for them to carry their provisions with them, yet Allah provides for them on their journeys. Lastly, their flying out provides a striking image for a person contemplating the seeking out of provision.