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December 19, 2015

Personality and Islam


December 19, 2015

The toughest challenge in life is to learn how to train and tame one’s ‘self’. Self-discipline lies at the heart of every noble journey and every miraculous achievement.

The Sufi tradition in Islam gives primacy to self-purification and provides a framework for assessing one’s stage of self-development. The framework is based on the Quranic verses 12:53, 75:2, and 89:27-28.

Nafs-e-ammara (12:53) is the id in Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis. The id, which operates on the principle of gratification and pleasure, is the biologically inherited/born part of one’s personality. It constantly fuels man to pursue pleasure regardless of any legal, social, or ethical constraints. On the face of it, the id is supposedly evil as it drives one to do things without worrying about the consequences.

This kind of nafs, being the only biggest obstacle in the way of one’s personality development, is recommended for suppression and ultimate elimination. People seeking salvation are advised by their mentors to abstain from delicious food, sex, and other comforts of life.

That, however, is not the case in Islam. Too much suppression of id in early childhood causes personality disorder which expresses itself in fantasies and/or various forms of phobias besides many other psychological problems. In the absence of id, life comes to a standstill. Self-gratification, in one form or another, provides the very energy and motivation for doing something. In other words, it is the need for self-actualisation that drives people to think, create, and act.

Nafs-e-lawwma (75:2) is equivalent to the Ego and Superego in psychoanalysis – the reality check. Part of it is built-in or hardwired in the mind and part of it is acquired from the social environment one lives in; both keep a check on the id.

The Ego (intellect or reason) makes decisions on empirical evidence. It collects data from the physical environment through the senses and guides the id what is right and what is wrong in terms of material consequences of actions. The Superego (conscience) reflects on things and actions from the moral perspective which it has developed through socialisation.

The outcome of a harmonious relationship between the id, ego, and superego leads to Nafs-e-Mutminnah – a state of being where man achieves full satisfaction through understanding the larger scheme of things and balancing individual and collective life, present and the future needs, and more importantly personal and social interests. This harmony is what some people call nirvana or hayat-e-tayyiba (perfect life).

That, however, does not mean that people with nafs-e-mutminnah have all the material resources available to them for a comfortable and luxurious life; it is quite the opposite. The peace of mind they are blessed with flows from their conscious sense of vision, commitment to ethical conduct, and the courage to stand up to tough choices in life. A disproportionate emphasis on the demands of id, ego, and superego causes cognitive dissonance and alienation from self and others.

The life of prophets is testimony to the fact that the exalted status of humanity over other creatures is due primarily to its moral basis of existence. The dominance of materialism has made us subservient to vanity, lust, and self-gratification. We are in the process of getting alienated from such qualities as altruism, honesty, and modesty.

The triumph of matter over soul has created chaos, oppression, and hopelessness. The ultimate test of our perfection (symbolised by nafs-e-mutaminnah) is how best we embody the morals of God – compassion, generosity, forgiveness – in this transitory life.

The writer teaches at FAST-NU, Peshawar.

Email: [email protected]

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