Journey of Self
It is clear to us when we view our lives from this perspective, our time here on earth is actually only a small part of our ultimate destiny. The Prophet (pbuh) described this life as a mere drop of water as compared to a whole ocean. Yet, most of us focus the majority of our energy and time on things related only to this life – whether it be our education, our jobs, aiming to reach a certain status, having big bank accounts, wearing the right clothes etc… we rarely step back and think where we have come from, and ultimately where we are all going to. For one thing that every single person on this planet shares in common whether they are rich or poor, white or black, from a high or low class, is that each moment brings us all closer to our death. The death we experience, however, is only physical. Within each and every human is a part of them which is beyond this. It is amazing to reflect that all of us contain infinity within us, within our souls. This is the real us. The part that is not destroyed. How we look after this part of us determines our state in this world and in the hereafter. It is a very simple reality but often forgotten. It is up to each of us to focus on and do our utmost to develop this inner, spiritual aspect of ourselves. Just as people recognize the need to do regular exercise to keep our bodies fit and toned we need to exercise our inner senses. Simple physical neglect we know leads to slackness in our body and ultimately disease. In the same way neglect of our inner selves leads to slackness and disease. Inner diseases include things like arrogance, selfishness, greed, impatience etc. …..all these affect our inner hearts, they are like layers of “dirt” which can lead to us becoming blind inside. Sometimes when people become tuned into their inner hearts they say “my eyes opened” and they wish that others could ‘see’ what they could and regret not seeing it sooner. Obviously there was nothing wrong with their eyesight, it was their inner heart which had been blind. In the simple diagram above, lies the distinct approach that Islam has to the aims and objectives of human beings.
Islam has its own definition of ‘progress’ – encompassing both spiritual progress of man – affecting his psychological and social state, and material progress – the harnessing of resources and skills development, which is also very much encouraged in Islam. The important thing to remember here is that for the last few centuries the Western definition of ‘progress’ has really only related to material, technical progress. It is only now being acknowledged, even within Western academic and scientific circles that the West has paid a heavy price in social terms for this material success. It has been learning in a slow and painful manner that material progress in itself cannot ensure social progress. It may help alleviate certain problems but not solve them completely. And if not pursued in a cautious and conscious manner, the rise in technology itself can be a source of social problems. As a psychotherapist I have to deal first hand with the many social and psychological problems people experience in England, which is considered among the most developed and ‘progressive’ countries in the world. Social cohesion has been eroded and the family unit has disintegrated. Cases of anxiety and depression have increased at alarming rates. The irony is that I am actually being approached by mainstream psychology services in England to provide ‘spiritual therapy’ even within the National Health Service. This shows the limitations of the standard psychological therapies: they are simply not adequate in dealing with the severe problems society is facing. However, my message is not that we should not progress materially – of course we should – people have a right to good living standards. Only that we see before us the results of a scientific experiment on the part of the West. It would be unwise to not learn from the results of this – otherwise history would simply repeat itself in the developing countries. Let us take the best and beneficial aspects of Western technology, but from the basis of a firm Islamic foundation and perspective. In this way we should avoid repetition of some of the West’s mistakes of material progress at the expense of social progress. There is no reason why we cannot have the best of both.
Concept of Nafs
Of particular interest in the model of the self is the concept of ‘Nafs’ – the Arabic word used in the Qur’an and translated as ‘self’ or ‘soul’. Due to the different possible states of the self, different types of ‘Nafs’ have been described in the Qur’an. From the Islamic point of view Nafs can be good or evil as it can be pulled toward higher potentials of the self or lower potentials of the self (At-Teen 95:14-16). Earthly existence is about choice – which way will we go? Again the idea of the journey of the self is important. We are capable of choosing various paths – some which are consistent with Islamic aim in life – Union with the creator, and others which are not. The point is that the self is always in a dynamic flux – the same person experiences different states within themselves at different times. Three important states of the self mentioned in the Qur’an include:
Nafs Ammara (the commanding or lower self) Qur’an 12:53. This self is prone to the lower aspects of the self, representing the negative drives in man. It can be viewed as analogous to the Freudian concept of ‘id’ e.g ‘I want to do it now… I don’t care if it’s right or wrong.’
Nafs Lawwama (The self reproaching self) Qur’an 75:2. This state corresponds to the self when it becomes aware of wrong- doing and feels remorse. A parallel between the Freudian concept of ‘superego’ and nafs lawwama may be drawn. The feeling of “I shouldn’t have done that” or “why did I do that – I wish I hadn’t…”.
Nafs Mutmainnah (The peaceful self) Qur’an 89:27-28. This is the state of inner peace and happiness, when you feel satisfied and content in yourself. This is the state that we are aiming to achieve. In order to achieve the state of tranquility and peace one has to activate the remorseful self (e.g. through sincere repentance) and control the lower commanding self (through self discipline).
Importance of Balance and Boundaries in Islam
The idea of balancing the different aspects of the self – physical and spiritual – is very important in Islam. One should not go to the extreme of emphasizing one aspect of the self at the expense of the other. Exhortation to seek a balance in satisfying both body and soul is found in the Qur’an:
But seek the abode of the hereafter in that which Allah has given you and neglect not your portion of the world, and be kind even as God has been kind to you and seek not corruption in the Earth…..” (Al-Qasas 28:77)
We can place Islam’s attitude to physical appetites on a continuum where it lies in between the extremes of suppression and overindulgence:
Continuum of Attitudes to Physical Instincts
The extremity of suppression is condemned:
Who has forbidden the beautiful and good things which God has bestowed? (Al-A`raf 7:32)
For example, the relationship of attraction between men and women is sanctified, not viewed as a moral compromise, but a blessing, elevated to the rank of the signs of God himself:
And among his signs is this, that He created for you spouses from among yourselves, that you may find repose in them, and He has put between you love and mercy. Verily in that are indeed signs for people who reflect. (Ar-Rum 30:21)
God has created for your enjoyment everything on earth. (Al-Baqarah 2:29)
In Islam physical aspects of man are not only legitimated, but man is encouraged to enjoy them. In the light of this, the secular, e.g. Freud’s view of religion as repressive of natural instincts is clearly not universally applicable. The extremity of over indulgence however is also warned against:
…..eat and drink without excess, for God loves not those given to excess. (Al-A`raf 7:31)
In this way boundaries are set up to ensure moderation. Removal of boundaries and unlimited indulgence may appear attractive at first. However they inevitably lead to an imbalance, the result being an unhealthy state as opposed to a healthy and fulfilled one.
The notion of balance in Islam has implications for the important area of self development. Western psychology conceptualizes self indulgence as removal of moral restrictions on people so that they are not ‘repressed’. According to Freud religious belief is a pathological symptom and sign of arrested development leading to neurosis. In this way the removal or ‘transgression’ of those boundaries limiting free expression of physical drives is encouraged. However no real notion of a ‘healthy’ ideal is suggested. This Freudian approach to mental health of ‘absence of pathology’ is reflected within the tradition of western medicine as a whole. This can be seen to be a rather limiting approach, however. A model at best aimed at ‘absence of disease’ offers no contribution to the important area of self development, as it is unable to define positive mental health. The Islamic model however, would advocate seeking to establish equilibrium within the physical aspects, so that they are neither denied nor over indulged. The notion of moderation in the Islamic perspective is very much related to concepts of ideal states, balance, adopting the middle way and justice in Islam:
Thus we have appointed you a middle nation, that you may be witnesses for mankind. (Al-Baqarah 2:413)
Indeed, the Arabic word ‘Wasata’ in the Qur’an, translated here as ‘middle’ has been translated in differing English translations as ‘just and best’ (Hilali and Khan) and ‘golden mean’ (Maududi’s commentary translated by Akbar). In this way one word conveys many interrelated concepts. Justice is the consequence of following the middle way, and it is one of the main characteristics of the middle way. Adoption of the ‘middle way’ in the Islamic perspective, is thus both a means and aim of self -development and fulfillment. By taking the middle path we will achieve the ideal state and the ideal state itself is the ‘middle’ or balanced state. In this way, boundaries (determined by God) are not viewed as simply limiting the human self, but as providing parameters within which ultimate inner balance and development can take place. As Muslims we can appreciate the perfection in the balance and limits Allah has placed in creation. If the earth was even slightly closer to the sun, everything would be burnt, and if the earth was even slightly further from the sun, it would be too cold to sustain life. But where Allah has placed it is just right for living things to grow. It is amazing when we discover the beauty, the intricacy and harmony that Allah has placed in the natural system – from cosmology to biology to physics. In the same way the beliefs and practices of Islam provide people with the perfect balance. Islam provides the perfect context for optimum growth and development as it is from Allah who has placed such beauty and order in everything else. He has placed it within us, in our Fitra. When we go beyond the correct limits, we commit an injustice, and ultimately it is an injustice to ourselves – we only betray ourselves in the end:
O Mankind! Your rebellion is only against yourselves! (Yunus 10:23)
But because we have free will we can choose not to live in this perfect balance within ourselves and with the rest of creation.
The Islamic approach to the self, I have outlined above, can be summarized in two basic points. Striving for self for unification with the Divine, and Striving for self for equilibrium within physical instincts. Both spiritual and physical possibilities are thus optimized.
(Heaven) Spiritual Aim is Dimension UNIFICATION
(Earth) Physical Dimension Aim is EQUILIBRIUM
I cannot stress enough the importance of developing Islamic psychology – because psychological assumptions about the nature of the self and what it means to be human -underlie not only psychological therapies but the approach of governments to social welfare and education. In this way psychological models actually shape the agendas and priorities e.g. those of important policy makers, thereby influencing whole nations. For example, the national education policy in England for school curricula stipulates that the three core subjects of Maths, English, and Science must be taught. None of these subjects incorporate ideas of self development and inner growth in the pupils. A whole generation of children is therefore being shaped by fragmented education which allows them to be technically skilled but does not allow them to explore their potential as whole people. To conclude, for too long the Islamic contribution to knowledge of the self and its application/ implications for positive mental health development has not been recognized or explored fully. I believe that the science of the self is the foundation of all sciences. As the Prophet (saw) said: “He who knows himself knows Allah”. The word ‘science’ is based on the Greek word meaning ‘knowledge’ or ‘to know’. And the simple truth is that Allah is not only the Ultimate Reality but the source of all knowledge. I think it is time that we woke up to our valuable heritage and carried the baton of Islamic knowledge from the past, forward into the future. In the field of psychology two steps are required for this – theory development and practical application. We need to consciously develop a new field of study – Islamic Psychology – involving theoretical integration of Islamic notions of the self with current western models of psychology. This theoretical framework should be applied in developing a practical “Islamic Counseling” approach with its own distinct processes and techniques. I am confident that such research will benefit not only Muslims but all people – Islam came as a mercy to the whole of mankind. As Muslim scientists and practitioners we need to be pro-active, not reactive. We must sow the seeds now for a firm foundation and InshaAllah they will flourish, even if not in our own lifetime but in future generations.
Courtesy Islamicwritings.org with slight editorial modifications.
Salma Yacoob is the former leader, and former vice-chair, of the Respect Party and a former Birmingham City Councillor. She is also the head of the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition and a spokesperson for Birmingham Central Mosque.