Written by: Agha Shabbir Abbas
It is most certain that the majority of readers have taken a course in Psychology, either in high school or in university studies. In this field of psychology, there is a huge study called personality and behavioral psychology. Within this study, a major focal point is the concept of the human ‘ego’. This ‘ego’ as defined by the academics, is the view of oneself, the thing that distinguishes oneself from the other selves, self-importance. This ego is a major cause of concern because of the negative aspects it produces: pride, arrogance, anger, hatred, jealousy, revenge, etc… The ego is an issue that all people face but yet it is one of the hardest to distinguish. For example if one is an alcoholic, it is visible & self-evident to everyone. But, issues with the ego are internal and cannot be quantified. Just as alcoholism ruins lives, similarly the ego ruins lives. There is much research and discussion on the issue academically and within secular sciences, but the true answer to this dilemma is found within the religion of Islam.
Before delving into the Islamic aspects, let’s first quickly glance at one psychological theory on the ego. Abraham Maslow, a 20th century psychologist, through his extensive research proposed a “Theory of Human Motivation”, now known as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”. His theory is presented in the shape of a 5-layered pyramid. The lowest two layers are the physiological and safety needs, the middle two layers are love/respect esteem, and the highest layer is self-actualization.
Now let us diverge our attention to the Qur’an. Allah SWT says in Surat al-Ana’am:
مَّا فَرَّطْنَا فِي الكِتَابِ مِن شَيْءٍ
“We have not neglected anything in this book” (6:38)
Thus Allah SWT is asserting that all knowledge can be found in the Qur’an. This is the beauty in the religion, the concept that Abraham Maslow prepared after intense research was already told in the Qur’an fourteen hundred years prior.
This ego in the Qur’an is analogous to the term ‘nafs’. Allah SWT in the Qur’an states that there are three stages of the nafs. The first is called the “nafs ammara” in Surah Yusuf:
إِنَّ النَّفْسَ لأَمَّارَةٌ بِالسُّوءِ
“The self is inclined towards evil” (12:53)
This is the most basic level, equivalent with the bottom two layers in Maslow’s theory. It is the basic animal-like instincts of a human which lead one to only worry about oneself. The second is called the “nafs al lawwama” in Surat al-Qiyamah:
وَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِالنَّفْسِ اللَّوَّامَةِ
“But nay! I call to witness the accusing voice of man’s own conscience!” (75:2)
This is equivalent to the two middle layers in Maslow’s theory. This state of the nafs is where one begins to gain consciousness and realize personal errors and weaknesses. The third and highest state is the “nafs al Mutmainna” in Surat al-Fajr:
يَا أَيَّتُهَا النَّفْسُ الْمُطْمَئِنَّةُ
“O thou human being that hast attained to inner peace/tranquility!” (89:27)
The nafs al mutmainna is equivalent to the layer of self actualization; the state when the ego is totally killed and the individual understands their true purpose in life. This is the state where one should attempt to reach. And to achieve this state of tranquility Allah SWT says in Surat al-Ra’ad:
الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ وَتَطْمَئِنُّ قُلُوبُهُم بِذِكْرِ اللّهِ أَلاَ بِذِكْرِ اللّهِ تَطْمَئِنُّ الْقُلُوبُ
“…those who believe, and whose hearts find their tranquility in the remembrance of God – for, verily, in the remembrance of God [men’s] hearts do find their tranquility” (13:28)
Thus to quell the negative forces of our ‘ego’ we must have constant remembrance of Allah SWT, in essence being humble in every act we do, inwardly and outwardly.
This trait of being humble, having humility is the one of the main reasons for the chain of Risalat, the Prophets came to teach us this trait. Allah SWT says in Surat al-A’raf:
وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا فِي قَرْيَةٍ مِّن نَّبِيٍّ إِلاَّ أَخَذْنَا أَهْلَهَا بِالْبَأْسَاء وَالضَّرَّاء لَعَلَّهُمْ يَضَّرَّعُونَ
“Whenever We sent a prophet to a town, We took up its people in suffering and adversity, in order that they might learn humility.” (7:94)
Thus if we take a glance at history we have a model in one person who was at such a state of humility that he was given the title “nafs al mutmainna” because he gave everything away in the love of Allah SWT, this was Imam Hussain (AS). He did not hesitate at the size of his opposition. Allama Iqbal in his Rumuz e Bekhudi, the Secrets of Selflessness says:
“Mudda ā yash saltanat boody agar
Khud na hardy bā chunin sāmmāne safar”
If Imam Hussain (AS) had an ambition to rule,
he would have made preparations to face his enemy,
instead he was ready for the ultimate sacrifice.
The extreme opposite of ‘nafs al-mutmainna’, one of the most animalistic individuals in history was Yazid(la). The Qur’an further tells us what happens to those who follow their ego and have no humbleness no humility.
لَـكِن قَسَتْ قُلُوبُهُمْ وَزَيَّنَ لَهُمُ الشَّيْطَانُ مَا كَانُواْ يَعْمَلُونَ
“They did not humble themselves, but rather their hearts grew hard, for Satan had made all their doings seem goodly to them.” (6:43)
People who follow their egos, their hearts have become hardened, whilst they enjoy life. Albeit this enjoyment is a false enjoyment, it is just an illusion, whereas real enjoyment is at the stage of self-actualization, where ego is erased and man reaches his greatest potential.