Thursday, August 25, 2011

Conquering the Nafs: Making Habits

Posted on MuslimMatters.org
By Hira Amin

Memorising Qurʾān, tahajjud, praying fajr, extra dhikr and nafl prayer all sound like familiar goals which race through our minds during īmān-boosting lectures, courses and blessed times such as Ramaḍān, Dhul-Ḥijjah and the like. We can feel the zeal and the passion oozing and the buzz of “this is it”. This is the day I will finally move forward and regularly memorise a portion of the Qurʾān a day. This is the day I will consistently wake up and pray fajr. This is the day I will consistently add dhikr after each prayer and in the morning and evening. This is IT!

Yet, as the sun sets so does our enthusiasm and as the time approaches to do the deed, excuses to postpone begin to emerge. I’ll start from tomorrow. I did not have a good night’s rest, tomorrow I will sleep extra early and then be fresh. I haven’t got the right book or I don’t want to get out of bed and wake the rest of the family! The time passes and frustration settles in.

The cycle continues and sometimes we get a few wins; some days we do the extra good deed but then revert back to our “normal cycle”. We have the passion, the zeal, the desire; we experience the spiritual high yet we cannot continuously follow through. What is the missing ingredient? What is the missing piece of the puzzle?

Here are some answers from the Qurʾān and hadith-

“The (human) soul is certainly prone to evil” [12: 53]
“The love of desires and pleasures (sexuality, offspring and money) have been beautified in human’s eyes”[3:14]

And “And indeed We have created man, and We know what his ownself whispers to him. And We are nearer to him than his jugular vein (by Our Knowledge).” [50:16] 

The Prophet (s) said: “There is none among you in whom there is not a devil” They said: “Even in you, O Messenger of Allah?!” He said: “Even in me, but God helped me to overcome him and he has submitted to me, so he doesn’t order anything except good” [Muslim]

Our nafs is not inclined to do acts of worship but rather it is up to us to master our nafs, take charge and force it to submit. Passion and enthusiasm alone will not get results. We must go through a process of pain and sacrifice. We must swallow the bitter pill, get out of bed in the cold winter mornings or the lazy hot summer days, force ourselves to open the Qurʾān and read, force ourselves to remain on the prayer mat and make dua until the soul submits and it becomes a habit. And when our souls submit, we then begin to reap the rewards in this life and we taste the sweetness of ibādah (worship). We feel the serenity in our hearts.

Ibn Taymiyyah said: “There are two paradises; one in this earth and one in the next- whoever does not taste it in the life, wont taste it in the next”

Here Ibn Taymiyyah is speaking about the sweetness of ibādah: the closeness of being with your Rabb and the yearning to be even closer to Him. Once we achieve this, then the act becomes normal just like wearing ḥijāb or keeping the beard. After some time it then becomes a necessity like food and drink.
But this process must start with swallowing that bitter pill until you get accustomed to the taste. This is why Ṣabr (patience) is of three types:

  • The first being patience with performing good deeds. Performing good deeds requires patience, as it is a struggle against your nafs.
  • The second being patience is abstaining from prohibitions as the nafs is inclined towards them.
  • The third kind is being patience with the qadr of Allah. Establishing good acts and abstaining from sins requires patience, perseverance and struggle; desire is not enough.

Sufyan al-Thawri said: “I never dealt with anything stronger against me than my own nafs; it was one time with me, and one time against me”

Yahya ibn Mu`adh al-Razi said: “Fight against your ego with the four swords of training: eat little, sleep little, speak little, and be patient when people harm you… Then the ego will walk the paths of obedience, like a fleeing horseman in the field of battle.”

Our mindset needs to change from “This is it, I am going to dramatically become super-muslim” to “I will struggle and strive and do whatever it takes to make this a habit”. We must accept the fact that it will be difficult and all great successes come from hard work and sweat over time. Expecting dramatic results overnight is similar to the student who starts studying 24 hrs before their exam and expects top marks or the person who stops eating for a few days and expects inches to disappear off their waist.

In order to overcome your nafs you must FORCE YOUR SELF and go through a process of pain and sacrifice in the beginning. Once the routine is established then practice Ṣabr to remain steadfast.

So this Ramaḍān take advantage of the fact that the shayāṭīn are chained and it is easier on your nafs to do good deeds by taking the first step and start developing long-term habits. As the famous saying goes, “Bad habits are easy to develop but hard to live with. Good habits are hard to develop but easy to live with.”


“Those who preferred the life of this world their home will be the Hell-fire. But as for those who feared to stand before their Lord and restrained their souls from lower desires, their home will be the garden.”  (79:40-41).

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