QUESTION: What is the exact nature of the self (ego/nafs) ?
The ego is basically what we call the essence of human nature with qualities that are prone for goodness and evil. God Almighty has placed both good and evil feelings and emotions in our nature. In this respect, we can be both angelic and devilish. Just as we can gain a spirituality that can surpass the level of angels, we can also fall to such pits that even the devil seeks pity on us.
Yes, although created in the best stature, human beings also have a part of them open to negative feelings that can drag them down, feelings placed in their nature for a specific purpose and wisdom. Under the influence of these feelings, a person can at any time fall to the lowest of the low.
Our salvation from becoming the lowest of the low is through having faith and making good works. It is by means of faith and good works that while on one hand we can develop our angelic feelings and abilities on the other hand we can suppress and eradicate satanic drives.
There is a center point in our nature, like a seed, that is the seedbed for good and bad feelings. It is no doubt important to be born into a good family and be raised in the presence of good teachers; however, it essentially falls on our part to later channel our will to the angelic path, in Rumi’s words, in order to develop our nature in the direction of our purpose of creation, and this will become second nature to us. Yes, the human is like a piece of paper with a text invisibly written in its nature. A second nature is possible by applying on this paper a mix of good intention, freewill, good works, sincerity, determination, courage, and effort to reveal this hidden writing leading humans to become the celestial being they are destined to be.
A person appearing with such a true nature will at the same time have suppressed all his evil feelings. Probably in time what will remain of the carnal self and the devil will be a mere influence of the “nervous” system so it can do its duty until the end of a person’s life. A person coming to such a point will have no hesitations or doubts on issues regarding the pillars of belief and worship. Even if fifty thousand devils were to confront him, with God’s permission, they would not be able to shake that very profound and enlightened truth in his or her conscience. Given that struggle is by definition a natural part of our lives (considering this world is an abode of testing), the carnal soul or the nervous system might produce flames of irritability, sensitivity, violence, rage, and anger in their soul. For this is the human nature which encompasses multiple factors like ego, spirit, intelligence, tendency towards good and evil, and the human existence with its material-spiritual dimensions.
The human self is of the nature of a mirror reflecting the mystery of the Divine. Yes, if the human nature is both dark and light, how is it possible for a person to fully know God, to hold a light to the world of His names and attributes and to attain a level of perfect knowledge about the Almighty God?
People conceptualize a framework of existence for themselves by saying things like, “me,” “my will,” “my strength,” “my power,” and “my life.” In one respect, there is benefit in this conceptualization because the self, with one of its sides being in the dark, is in a position to be a mirror to God’s existence, a mirror in which the human becomes a witness. In Sufi terms, this is referred to as asrar-i khudi, the secrets of the self and how to attain them with which we determine for ourselves a domain of authority, a jurisdiction. This further requires a thorough review of our nature.
By way of such a review, the human can observe in the mirror of his or her own capacities of knowing, seeing, hearing, and wishing within his or her partial willpower, the reflections of the Divine attributes Seeing, Hearing, Great Willpower, Speech, and Creation – for all of these attributes exist in the human even if they are no more tangible than respective shades. Claiming and protecting these, we draw limitations of our conceptions. Then we realize that what we call “life” belongs entirely to another and that all the things that we thought belonged to us have been temporarily entrusted upon us.
With such a nature, the self is a prism reflecting the attributes of God. For the Exalted One is comprehended through His attributes. We describe Him as the One “known through His names and comprehended with His attributes, though His essence is unknown.” If He is described in this manner, then it is necessary for us to evaluate everything within this framework. René Descartes connects the finite to the infinite in the following words:
Although I do not comprehend the infinite, and although there may be in God an infinity of things that I cannot comprehend, nor perhaps even compass by thought in any way; for it is of the nature of the infinite that it should not be comprehended by the finite; and it is enough that I rightly understand this, and judge that all which I clearly perceive, and in which I know there is some perfection, and perhaps also an infinity of properties of which I am ignorant, are formally or eminently in God, in order that the idea I have of him may become the most true, clear, and distinct of all the ideas in my mind…
Said Nursi evaluates the matter in a similar way and says that with the existence of visible and invisible things, God’s existence is proven; with their becoming lost, His permanence is proven - just as the transient bubbles of water on a stream show the existence of an eternal sun by each being a mirror to its light.
All the creation is alive only with His power of Creation. It remains alive only with His Self-Existence, and when He destroys it, it perishes away.
Yes, with His putting an end to it, everything and everyone meets their end, for He is the only one who is eternal. The verse, “All that is on earth is perishable. But there remains forever the “Face” of your Lord, the One of Majesty and Munificence” (Ar-Rahman, 95: 26−27) expresses this truth.
Yes, with the annihilation and disappearance of these attributes in us, we can connect with the perfect attributes belonging to God. Our own attributes being flawed and deficient shows us that the attributes of the real Owner are perfect and complete.
Our human existence, to say the least, is dependent on necessities, like food, air, etc. However, we are not in control of even one percent of the entire process of, for instance, eating – from the growth of the wheat in the soil to its dependence on the sun light and heat, to all the digestive steps in our body. God Almighty is the One who makes the saliva glands work. God Almighty is the One who sends the food to our stomach, and it is He who sets and adjusts the mechanism. When occasionally something gets into our windpipe, we all know well how complicated the matter becomes.
Consequently, if a person could think of all these things, instead of saying “I ate,” he would know it is more appropriate to say “I was fed.” A believer who says, “I ate,” actually is saying this figuratively and means to say, “I was fed.”
As can be seen, when just one of a person’s voluntary acts is taken up, it becomes evident that he possesses a number of faults and deficiencies. This is the human nature and we exist within this framework. This being the case, the nature of man shows that there is the Most Exalted One who is perfect, without fault and free of weakness, who makes these things in man with wisdom. In this way, by means of every deficiency, a person will get to know the One without deficiency. Consequently, the nature of man is in the form of a mirror that reflects upon him the radiance of the Exalted One’s attributes. Man can always see the radiant attributes of God by looking at this mirror. The reality is that being able to see the attribute of God Almighty is the station of wonder; I do not know if it is destined for everyone, but this is the road to know the Exalted One.
We can increase our knowledge of our Lord by thinking of our helplessness in every action and behavior by contemplating on the aspects that belong to God; by becoming aware of our impotence and understanding that we are nourished by the blessings of our Lord; and by deepening our knowledge of Him more and in the guidance of four principles, i.e., awareness of our helplessness and impotence, offering our thanks and contemplation. Essentially, rising to such an exalted level (the highest of the high), and attaining the station of the “perfected man” should be every person’s goal. Following the path of the Prophets, and in a sense representing this reality, is the best direction a person can take.
To conclude, on one branch of the self are the Prophets and their loyal followers. They did what they did for the sake and pleasure of their Lord only. In another branch of the self are Nimrods and Pharaohs who boasted of their wealth, promoted themselves, and did things for their own interest.
When it comes to speaking of God Almighty, we voice the Divine Oneness in the words of Erzurumlu Ibrahim Hakki:
He does not eat or drink; not bound with time, God is free from all of them,
Free from alteration, deterioration, colors, or forms,
He is all transcendent, these are His negative attributes.