Sufism: Struggle With One’s Nafs

The behavioral absolutes of the shari’ah (Islamic law) set the outer limits that the Sufi must keep within. But the Sufi struggle with one’s nafs puts further curbs on the Sufi’s behaviour and consciousness. Usually this struggle is spoken of as having two dimensions: negation (nafy) and affirmation (ithbat), corresponding to the two components of the first shahadah (testification of faith), La ilaha (There is no deity) and illa Allah (except for God). In reference to the two kinds of effects of the dominance of the nafs mentioned above, the “negation” can be said to take the form of attempting
to control oneself from acting out one’s anger or gratifying addictions,
to negate the thought that one will find fulfillment through these means,
to negate the sense that one cannot escape one’s depression, and
to give up imagining that God is absent.
The “affirmation” can be said to take the form of embracing and engaging the presence of God in whatever form it may appear within one’s consciousness–even in the form of the thoughts that “God is absent,” “I am depressed, or “I am distant from God.” This unconditional embrace of the presence of God is simply called taslim in Muslim languages. This word is cognate with and is at the root of the word “Islam,” and in light of the meaning expressed here, I have translated it as “engaged surrender.”

In this regard, the struggle with one’s own nafs has been called the greater struggle or greater “holy war” (al-jihad al-akbar) in contrast to the lesser struggle (al-jihad al-asghar), which is against injustice and oppressors in this world. The concept derives from the popular hadith of the Prophet, in which he said to Muslims returning from a battle, “You have returned from the lesser struggle to the greater struggle.” And he was asked, “What is the greater struggle?” He answered, “The struggle against one’s self (nafs), which is between the two sides of your body.” Needless to say, in Sufism these two struggles are mutually reinforcing and occur simultaneously. In particular, the practice of “engaged surrender” in the “greater” struggle with one’s own nafs diminishes certain obstacles in the consciousness of the Sufi, obstacles that–if not stuggled against–will hinder the Sufi’s capacity to engage in the “lesser” struggle in their life in the world.

An early text on the struggle with one’s self is the treatise Jihad al-nafs, written by the al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi (d. 932). 


Another treatise on the struggle with the nafs is al-Ghazali’s jihad al-nafs. This is taken from his masterpiece Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences). Al-Ghazali (d. 1111) is one of the most well-known Islamic scholars and is often credited with establishing the orthodoxy of Sufism. A substantial biography of al-Ghazali  emphasizing his contribution to Islamic philosophy is by the scholar, Kojiro Nakamura. A short biography of Al-Ghazali is present in the online Encyclopedia Britannica (but only a few paragraphs are online unless the reader has a paid subscription to the Britannica, which libraries often have, or which individuals can obtain for free though a 14-day subscription). 

See also Jihad al-akbar, an except from the book Islamic Beliefs and Doctrine According to Ahl al-Sunna: A Repudiation of “Salafi” Innovations written by the contemporary Naqshbandi, Shaykh Hisham Kabbani. In this online article, the author discusses the idea of the struggle against one’s self, the “greater jihad” (al-jihad al-akbar), paying particular attention to the various evidence from hadith literature. Note that at the beginning of the excerpt a reference is made to the “above Hadith.” It is possible that the hadith in question is the hadith on the “greater jihad” that I have mentioned above.

In spite of strong arguments for the idea that the greater jihad is the jihad against the self, Muslim militants and Wahhabis resist such a concept and attempt to invalidate it on the basis of hadith criticism and the conviction that relegating warfare to the status of “lesser jihad” gives it far less significance than it should have in Islam. See the article Greater and Lesser Jihad by a certain Abu Fadl and on line originally at Nida ul-Islam (The Call of Islam), a website supportive of al-Qaeda.

A contemporary discussion of jihad from a Sufi perspective is expressed in the essay The Spiritual Significance of Jihad by Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University.




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