De-Centering the ego (nafs): Responding to the trials of life

It is well known – indeed common sense – that in the Qur’anic paradigm, all things are from God. All good and bad, calamities and blessings, all come from God alone. The message is of course implicit throughout the Qur’an in the fundamental principle of God’s omnipotence and power over all things. It is also made explicit in many different passages, such as {2:155}, {10:107}, {57:22} and {64:11}, among many others.

Yet the Qur’an also says in many verses throughout its sacred pages (see {3:165}, {4:62}, {30:36}, {42:30}, and {42:48} for examples) that whatever befalls you of good is from God, and whatever befalls you of evil is from yourself and your own actions. That seems a bit contradictory.

In fact, in one passage, this tension is made all too apparent. In speaking of the weak of faith, it is said: “And when a good thing happens to them, some say, ‘This is from God,’ whereas when evil befalls them, they say, ‘This is from you [O fellow­man]!’ Say: ‘All is from God’” {4:78}. Then immediately in the following verse, the divine voice proclaims, “Whatever good happens to you is from God; and whatever evil befalls you is from yourself” {4:79}.

This juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory messages strikes one as not the most philosophically cogent and coherent message that can be offered. Are calamities that befall us because of something that we did, or because God has willed this for whatever reason? It can of course be philosophically explained and made sense of, but the fact remains that as presented in the Qur’an, it is simply two straightforward statements in tension with one another yet placed side by side.

I would suggest that this is precisely because the Qur’an is not interested in providing us with philosophically cogent, abstract metaphysical truths about the nature of Reality, just for philosophy’s sake. For one, the Qur’an’s consistent use of such paradoxes is a reminder that our finite intellect and the limitations of language cannot capture the true nature of Reality, which is far beyond our frail human capacities. Thus what we have are glimpses, approximations. Truth enshrouded in veils.

More importantly, however, the message of the Qur’an is interested above all in our moral formation and development, not in having us accept and understand abstract propositions about the nature of reality. The goal of the Qur’an is our own tarbiyya, fashioning and molding our spiritual dispositions, our character, and our ethical outlook on life. To train us in how to live with ourselves, with others, and with God. To push us forward in our journey from ego-centeredness to Other-centeredness (and by this I mean the Divine Other as well the rest of creation). The Qur’an is thus a pedagogical process and training, rather than a book of information. It achieves this goal by providing glimpses and windows into Reality and using rhetoric, thus stirring our hearts and souls and moving us to action, introspection, and thus the path of self-purification (tazkiyya). This is what my father has called “maqasid al-`aqa’id” (the objectives of creedal beliefs) in an article he wrote long ago, in which he insightfully reflects that the Qur’an says “And if all the trees on earth were pens, and the sea ink, with seven more seas added to it, the words of God would not be exhausted: for, verily, God is almighty, wise” {31:27}. If with God’s absolute infinity of knowledge and wisdom, and with the virtual infinitude of all that exists, only these limited bits and pieces were offered to us, then surely that is for a reason, surely they are meant to point us toward something. It is up to us therefore to search for those meanings and struggle to make our hearts pliable and amenable so as to be molded by those meanings.

That brings me back to the verses we began with, the topic of trials (both “blessings” and “calamities”) we face in life. Each of the verses in the Qur’an that touch on this issue pushes us to inculcate in ourselves a particular spiritual disposition. Among the abundant spiritual fruits of such verses are a humble recognition of one’s utter fragility and dependence on God, contentment in the face of life’s ups and downs, and self-introspection and repentance for one’s shortcomings and moral failings. I think it is worth mentioning that all of these verses in the Qur’an leave out one possibility: that what good befalls you is from yourself. Clearly the self-importance and self-satisfaction sown by such an idea is not meant to be a part of our inner dispositions.

In particular, though, I wanted to point to one passage in particular that seems to provide a slightly different message than all of those mentioned above, one that I have rarely heard touched upon.

In surat al-Fajr, it is said: “And as for the human, whenever her Lord tests her by His generosity and by letting her enjoy a life of ease, she says, ‘My Lord has been generous towards me.’ Whereas, whenever He tries her by limiting her sustenance and livelihood, she says, ‘My Lord has disgraced me!’” {89:15-16). Immediately following this description of the common human response to blessings and calamities in life, the divine voice powerfully proclaims: “But nay, nay! You are not generous towards the orphan, and you do not urge one another to feed the needy, and you devour the inheritance with devouring greed, and you love wealth with boundless love!” {89:17-20}. It then goes on to speak of the next life, the torment of divine punishment, and the utter tranquility, peace, and love of reunion with the Divine.

This is one of those beautiful and priceless moments in the Qur’an that calls on us ever so powerfully to transcend ourselves and the ensnarements of the ego. It jolts us out of our common human responses to the ups and downs of life – how has this affected me? ME ME ME!! – calling on us to move beyond our constant preoccupations with ourselves, our own pleasures and desires, and instead to concern ourself with the other. To move from ego-centeredness to Other-centeredness, the core of all true spiritual teaching.

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