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Self-Education: What To Do with the Naughty Child Inside?
Mar 1, 2016

Parenting is one of humanity’s most difficult tasks – but it’s also one of the most important ones. But before one can become a parent, they must self-educate. How can someone educate another person if they have already failed at self-education?

Self-education is an all-inclusive term for an individual’s efforts to refine his or her whole being. This struggle is a part of human nature and it has always been emphasized in ancient texts and holy scriptures. The essence of this “being” is related to a Biblical concept, neshamah, or the “breath of life” God breathed to Adam. Thus Adam was made a living soul, a nefesh. Nefesh is the seat of emotions such as greed, desire, or passion; or even destructive emotions, such as revenge. The Islamic counterpart of this term is nafs, which also means soul, heart, flesh, body, desire, greed, drive or control, or the influential center of the devil within us. According to the classical Islamic works, the nafs is where emotions such as anger, rage, revenge, hatred, aggression, and desire originate.

Nafs in Islam or nefesh in Judaism are both used to refer to the negative side of our being. Materialist psychology points to such a center within people, too. Sigmund Freud’s “Id” also represents humanity’s basic drives – for example, the self-preservation or reproductive instincts.

The vernaculars of both religion and psychology, then, speak of the so-called weaker self: a creature that lies dormant in all of us, and basically wants nothing else than to chase our most base instincts, such as eating, drinking, sleeping, and reproducing.

A powerful enemy lurks in all of us. This enemy – the Nafs, Nefesh, or Id – can be compared to a naughty child who needs to be reined in.

The nafs strikes when we are least attentive, like when Prophet Adam forgot about the prohibited fruit. We also tend to forgetfulness. Don’t the worst things happen during inattentive moments? In moments of weakness, forgetfulness, or recklessness? All it takes is a single pull of a trigger, and our life – and the lives of others – can be ruined. A weak moment and our marriage can be damaged forever.

But the dangers of the nafs are also much more banal: instead of studying for an important test, we may spend an evening chilling on Facebook or playing a video game. Then, the exam is ruined – and perhaps our academic career. In whatever way our nafs overwhelms us, it can do it again and again; we live with it, and it will not die before us.

A major part of self-education, then, is the struggle against one's own ego, which is part of the nafs. In Islam, the struggle with yourself, against your own baser instincts, is called the great jihad. This shows what Islam’s priority is: not fighting with sword and shield, but self-education. The focus is directed inward, to one’s own errors to produce conscientious, moral people.

In Islamic mysticism the nafs is usually divided into seven stages. Carnal, Evil-Commanding Soul; the Self-Condemning or Self-Accusing Soul; the Soul Receiving Inspiration; the Soul at Rest; the Soul Well-Pleased (with God, with however God treats it); the Soul Pleasing (to God); and the Perfected Soul, or the Purified or Innocent Soul.

Carnal, Evil-Commanding Soul (nafs ammara) is the one which always gives in, at any time, to its urges. It does what it wants and is thus completely satisfied, just like an animal. The Self-Condemning Soul (nafs lawwama). While this soul still acts like an animal and is not really under control, it has at least developed an ability to see where it fails. The Soul Receiving Inspiration (nafs mulhima) is potentially able to turn away from its urges to the good.

One step higher is the soul is the soul at rest (nafs mutmainna). It has come to trust its owner, and its owner trusts it. It is as quiet and peaceful as the calm sea. A soul that has reached this level has a good character and a good personality.

But it can go even higher: the Soul Well-Pleased (nafs radiyya) is fully satisfied with what it receives from its Creator. It is a magnificent specimen of satisfaction and inner gratitude. And the Soul Pleasing (nafs mardiya) is a soul with which God is fully satisfied. A soul at this level has passed its test in this world.

The highest level is the seventh stage: the Purified Soul (nafs kamila). This soul is, from head to toe, thoroughly trained, mature, and grown up.

Self-education is climbing up these levels as one purifies his or her soul. The goal in this struggle is to master one’s soul and one good way of an exercise is to face one’s own self every night before sleep about how the day was spent. Umar, the third Caliph, has been reported to have said, “Settle up your accounts before you are called to account for them.”

This is not an easy struggle, for the soul will strongly resist being mastered. Thus, it’s best to start slowly, with an accounting of wrong deeds. But over time, we should step up our efforts. We will probably have to win several battles until we get used to this kind bedtime. But the battle will be worth it.

At the beginning, be prepared for heated discussions. But it is possible to always be one step ahead of the soul; it can be unmasked with rational and moral arguments. On the other hand, it will not be easily dissuaded from its primitive justifications, which can disturb our peace of mind, over and over again. The soul behaves like a child, and children can sometimes be very annoying. We just have to be very patient and cannot get worked up. Then, we will notice how it fades after a few weeks. But beware: it will continue to lie in wait for a favorable moment in which we think we are safe, and then it will strike with a redoubled force. It never gives up.

One of the best ways to defeat the carnal soul is to not give it any time. We are the masters of our body, and thus can determine our daily schedule. In other words, consider planning the day in advance – with objects and things that need to get done, and with the necessary breaks and rest periods; nothing is more tempting and constructive for the soul than haphazard time, boredom, and aimless wandering. The best way to combat the soul is by keeping it busy.

Another part of controlling the soul is a good diet. Modern nutritionists can argue about fasting, which is prescribed in many faith traditions, but one thing is certain: no one recommends an unhealthy diet. It does no good for the soul or body. The carnal soul may like unhealthiest food the best. Moreover, it also loves to eat too much. But overweight people are living unhealthy lives and have a higher risk of falling ill earlier, and faster. Obesity is a disease, and if the body is not healthy and fit, we can’t expect our soul to be healthy, either. To educate the soul, we must change and rein in our eating habits.

A healthy and balanced diet is preferable, and it is best to cook with fresh ingredients. A healthy diet means eating vegetables and legumes, drinking plenty of water, and avoiding sweets or fast food. If you always eat only when you feel hungry, and stop eating before you are completely sated, you’ll be amazed how much easier life is when your body finds its balance.

A good school for our soul is ultimately life itself, despite all its difficulties and trials. When we fall short, we must not be too depressed. We must try to recognize the blessing in it. As an example, briefly imagine a millionaire who went bankrupt, and was thus forced to lead a simple life. He may think his life is ending. But when he looks at it more closely, he might finally find more time for his family, eat less, and lose his ego. It’s best if we can self-educate. But if we cannot educate ourselves, life will do it for us.


  • Eren, Sadi; Olaylar ve Örneklerle Nefis Teribiyesi, Istanbul 2011
  • Schöpflin, Karin; „Seele II Altes Testament“, in: Theologische Realenzyklopädie, Bd. 30, Berlin 1999
  • Wolff, Hans Walter; Anthropologie des Alten Testaments, 4. Auflage, München 1984
  • Gülen, M. Fethullah; Sufismus 3, Mörfelden-Walldorf 2005.

Translated from German by Jennifer Sengun