[Chapter 24] Mutations of Nafs: Tribal Tentacles

Dec 21, 2010

Chapter 24
Still Working for Allah in the West: Theory and Methodology


Mutations of Nafs: Tribal Tentacles

The trouble is, the Nafs takes on many forms and shapes and it has many extensions and surrogates. The Nafs is often quite robust and sturdy. And it is also a master of deceit and camouflage. As a result, it is often hard to predict the exact direction, nature or form of its attack.

Sometimes its approach is simple and direct; at other times it is as devious and convoluted as it can be. Sometimes Nafs puts on tribal garbs and colors; at other times it plays, as the saying goes, the race or culture or some other group-identity and group-loyalty card.

From being an individual concept of near-total personal preoccupation, self-centeredness and self-absorption – me, me, me and more me, right or wrong – it acquires certain collective and social properties. It then mutates into a group-based or tribe-centered entity whose focus now becomes organizational, national, racial, ethnic, cultural or just about anything else of that nature – my organization, my Jama’at, my party, my community, my nation, my town, my culture, my race, my people, right or wrong.

These are all manifestations of the tribe in us. Nafs is quite happy and satisfied so long as we choose any of these. It does not really matter to our Nafs which one, so long as it is not Allah and his Deen. This is what is going on all around us – and right inside of us. And we know and care so little about it.

So the personal, individual Nafs now appears in a new and often loftier, nobler and more acceptable garb as organizational Nafs; as Jama’at Nafs; as community Nafs; as national Nafs; as racial Nafs; as cultural Nafs; as family Nafs – you name it and your Nafs is ready, able and perfectly willing to put on that garb and come at you from that direction – any garb you will accept and any direction that you will be least resistant to.

That is what our Nafs does. The object of Nafs at all times is to keep us away from Allah and keep us busy in other things. It is the earth, the dingy, sticky, smelly clay in us, the baser elements of our nature and constitution, using their inherent gravitational force to pull us down toward Asfala Safileen – lowest of the low. Qur’an (95:5)

Is there any wonder that there is such close collusion between Shaitan and our own Nafs? It is a precarious existence for human beings – being pummeled incessantly by the enemy without as well as by the enemy within. It is dangerous, being a human being – not the least to ourselves. As I say to my students in one of my classes, being human can be fairly hazardous to your health. Read history, read newspapers, watch television, listen to the radio, go on the Internet, observe the world around you and tell me that it is not so.

Wal ‘Asr! Innal Insana La Fi Khusr! Qur’an (103: 1-2)

To a common Muslim mind long tarnished and damaged by a combination of colonial, post-colonial, racial, cultural, materialistic, nationalistic and other individual and tribal diseases – Amradh Al-Qalb, ailments of the heart – it is not easy, all of a sudden, to rub off that psychosocial dirt and debris from its eyes and look at something or someone in an objective and open way – the way Islam expects us to do.

In the early 1980s, after carefully observing Muslim behavior, both in native habitat and Diaspora, I came to the sad conclusion that often the best among us tend to associate with the other best among us, provided they were from the same street, in the same village, in the same district, in the same geographic patch – on our side of the international border.

Ummatey Ahmadey Mursal ko Maqami Karlo, lamented Iqbal – localize the Ummat of Muhammad, Sallallahu Alaihi wa Sallam. And that is what we have done over the years: localized it, paradoxically, by tribalizing it. We have taken it out of the vastness of heavens and earth and forced it inside the boundaries of our own Nafs that came to us wearing an attractive tribal garb. We want to keep it from falling into the hands of other rival tribes and keep it instead within our own respective tribal jurisdictions.

So, the underlying message – the subtext as some people call it – is this: glory be to my Egyptian or Jordanian Islam, my Indo-Pak-Bangla Islam, my Arab Islam, my Indonesian-Malay Islam, my black-centered Islam, my white Sufi-type Islam, the Islam of my Jama’at, of my organization, of my Shaikh and my Mowlana. Translation: glory be to me in my myriad forms and manifestations and to my own special brand of Islam. Shaitan – and our Nafs – are perfectly happy with that.

A-Fa-Ra-Ayta Manit-Takhadha Ilahahu Hawah? Qur’an (45:23)


Did you see how people have turned their own inclinations and preferences into gods?

With the passage of time – 1400 years is a long time (Fa Ta’ala Alaihimul Amad) – we became adept at filtering our Islam through a wide range of personal, social, cultural, linguistic, regional, tribal, national, social class and organizational prisms. This way our Nafs made sure that we stayed within our own respective comfort zones.

This way, also, Shaitan made sure we kept our Zulumaat (layers upon layers of darkness – Zulumaatun Ba’duha Fawka Ba’dh) intact. Because that after all is his job – to keep us trapped in our Zulumaat. But at the same time we strapped on spiritual lifejackets by ensuring that we had enough of the Nur (light) of Islam in every situation. We used the twinkling of these candles to guide us through the windswept superhighways of life. We did that in the East and now we are doing it in the West. This arrangement allows us to get by as good Muslims on a day-to-day basis, even though the larger picture of Islam is effectively shielded from our eyes.

Even though some of these diseases of the heart that I alluded to earlier – racism, national and cultural chauvinism, slavish commitment to organizational dictates, etc. – are of more recent, colonial and postcolonial origin among Muslims, at least in their more virulent forms, they have always been a force to reckon with in human societies in one form or another.

For centuries Muslims had successfully conquered many of these diseases with the rise of Islam in their midst. But as the influence of Islam diminished in their lives, these diseases began to raise their ugly heads again. Second half of the 20th century saw a remarkable resurgence in them among Muslims who were part of the great population intermingling, migration and wealth generation that came about during that period. And now they have a great number of Muslims tightly in their grip – some of them, alas, the so-called good Muslims.

Does anyone remember that beautiful Aayah of the Qur’an – all Aayaat of Qur’an are beautiful, each more than the other – which talks about people loving their fathers, their sons, their brothers, their spouses, their families and relatives, the wealth they have amassed, the businesses whose decline they fear, and places of residence that they find so delightful … then just wait till Allah’s decision arrives?

Does anyone remember that Aayah of Surah Attaubah (9:24)? Would you say we fall in any of those categories and – having done that – we have waited long enough? Would you also say that, as a result, we Muslims now are right in the middle of Allah’s decision – Amrullah? Well, that is what I am talking about.

Playing ostrich with things of this enormity does not make them go away. Muslims need to learn to face their realities and proceed to address them in a systematic, intelligent and rational manner – based on research, evidence, Allah’s directives and the Prophet’s, Sallallahu Alaihi wa Sallam, example. And it all begins with a clear and proper understanding of the difficulties that face Muslims in different places today.

When it comes to this – and when Muslims put on their thinking caps and sit down to properly understand and solve their problems – there is no such thing as one size fits all. The understanding of our problems requires a highly localized approach – even though we are never cut off from the broader perspectives of the Ummah and the world. As a result, our efforts to find a solution to our problems – in different parts of the world, not the least in the West – also need to be, per necessity, highly focused and localized. Once again, never losing sight of the fact that we are and will always remain a part of the larger picture at both Muslim and human levels.

And that is what we are tying to do in this seminar, in a small and humble way – help Muslims understand the nature of their world and their environment a little bit more clearly; understand the true nature of Islam a little bit more clearly; and explore ways for making Islam a reality in their lives, neighborhoods and societies in the West as the Western Wing of the Muslim Ummah.

There is an Ilah that sometimes creeps up on us without our even noticing it. It is called organization. Sometimes, sadly for the better ones among us, our Nafs takes a different and seemingly benign, even positive, form. For many of us it generally ends up being the question of organizational affiliation, purity and loyalty – often in the name of and for the sake of Allah. How dangerous a game this could be, we don’t fully appreciate. Michel’s – the iron law of oligarchy and all that stuff – would have given us a hint or two on the subject of how organizations behave – and a long time ago too. The danger is all the more real when the organization in question happens to have loud and powerful Islamic credentials. Its chances for quickly and surreptitiously turning into an Ilah remain quite significant.

I have been asked more than once: “Mashallah!” People have said to me. “It was wonderful what you just said. Why aren’t you working with our organization?”

My reply at times has been: “Mashallah! What a great idea. Why doesn’t your organization work with me?”

We both have a twinkle in our eye; we both know what we are saying. There is pain and disappointment on both sides – and a mutual shaking of heads and widening of distances and erection of barriers.

The point is, Muslims keep themselves well supplied with their own repertoire of Halal and permissible IlahsIlahs that nevertheless never fail to do what Ilahs generally do: distract us from focusing on Allah, the real and only Ilah – in the heavens and right here on earth and diminish and destroy our work on earth.

Often these Ilahs are little more than filters that Muslims have set up to shut out unwanted intrusions on their consciousness and their sense of comfort and psychic security. Sometimes it is a simple question of my Shaikh vs. your Shaikh; or the real and ideal Shaikh vs. the pretenders; or the Shaikh with the superior – and the right – physical, national, tribal, racial, ethnic and sartorial features than those who somehow turn out different or wanting on those considerations.

We are all guilty of this – in one way or another, to some degree or another.

On the face of it, this is often a very Islamic-sounding way of looking at things. But the damage it does is quite real. For it locks up people’s minds into what former American presidential candidate Al Gore would call lockboxes – each with the name of its own preferred Shaikh stamped on it and generally closed to everyone and everything else. We did this for the longest time with the four Imams – Abu Hanifah, Malik, Hambal and Shafi’ – May Allah bless them!

In fact, our penchant for Imams has been so deep-seated that we have created a flourishing market for Imams. We elevate anyone who is what the Indo-Pak-Banglas call a Pesh Imam – a man who is appointed to lead Salat in a Masjid that is – into a co-occupant of the front seats of Islam along with such big players as Ibn Taimiyyah, Ibn Qayyim, Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Hanifah and a host of others who were the real and acknowledged leaders of Islam through centuries. It is not the bad Muslims doing it; it is the good ones. They don’t do it out of bad intentions, but out of good ones. They allow their ignorance – and the arrogance that often goes along with it – to lead them by the nose into situations that are not only wrong but are counterproductive and detrimental for the true interests and purposes of Islam.

We have let our collective, tribal Nafs run amuck in the noble ideological wars we wage, to this day, to affirm the purity of our own version of the Deen – under the labels of Bareilvi and Deobandi; Jama’ati and Tablighi; Salafi and something else. And we have been so ostensibly loyal to our own clan-version of our Islam that we took it – and all the petty fights that go with it – with us across the seven seas wherever we went.

As Sherlock Holmes would put it: It is elementary, my dear Muslims! When our brains are brimful with these assorted claimants to our loyalty, where, pray tell where, is the room in those brains for some other details of our faith such as the Qur’an and the Hadith?

What most of us don’t realize is the fact that often these are little tricks that our individual as well as collective Nafs plays on us – and we are often not smart enough to catch our Nafs in these tricks.

That is partly because we have Shaitan in hot pursuit of us and he has mounted an all-out invasion and assault on our mental, spiritual and physical existence and functioning from all directions. He has a close ally in our own Nafs. Shaitan never forgot who the enemy was: us. We, on the other hand, forgot the dire warning that Allah gave us:

Innash-Shaitana Lakum ‘Aduwwun,

Fatta-khidhoohu ‘Aduwwa


Surely, Shaitan is your enemy.

So treat him as an enemy Qur’an (35:6)


Who or what is Shaitan? Where is he and why don’t we see him? And yet our lives, we are told, are closely intertwined with his existence and activities.

Allah talks about Shaitan in the Qur’an – and about Iblis – with some frequency. You and I talk about him only rarely and sparingly.

You can think maybe that is how effective Shaitan’s propaganda has been in distracting our attention from his ongoing conspiracies and machinations against us and in getting us trapped, instead, in sterile debates on issues that lead us nowhere; that divide us and dissipate our resources; that bring us nothing but grief and heartache; and that set us up for physical annihilation and spiritual debilitation.

Go back and analyze some of our prime issues of the day – in any age – such as whether a Barielvi or a Deobandi will get into Jannah first; or whether those working for Allah in Britain should take their marching orders from the Jama’at in Pakistan or in Bangladesh; or whether they should all be unified in being told what to do – in original Arabic – by the Jama’at in Egypt or Jordan – complete with Kata’ib. Who do you think is the genius behind some of these self-destructive tendencies and proclivities of Muslims throughout the ages?

Where do you think all that narrow-mindedness and fanaticism is coming from on whether or not to participate in the civic affairs of the community and the society in which you live – and whose laws already surround you from every direction and govern every single aspect of your life from the marriage of your parents and your birth to your death and final disposal?

Allah’s Rasul, Sallallahu Alaihi wa Sallam, warned us against Shaitan. He said, Shaitan courses through our veins like our own blood. How much more dangerous can something be? And how much more difficult to detect and defeat? And yet most of us operate with near-total oblivion of his presence, power or threat.

The way to protect ourselves from Shaitan is long and arduous. One part of it is to keep reading A’udu Billahis Sami’il ‘Aleem Minashaitanir Rajeem. The other is eternal and tireless vigilance. Keep a sharp lookout for Shaitan to show up at the least expected of times, in the most unexpected of places. It is a life-long struggle, and yet there is no complete immunity from Shaitan – unless we have special protection and a release order from Allah himself Illa ‘I-baadaka Minhumul Mukhlaseen Qur’an (15:40).

So, before you come to the seminar, be warned of Shaitan and his off-springs and underlings; be on your guard; be on the look out; know that they are up to no good where you are concerned; keep reading Ta’awwuz both inside the seminar and thereafter, when you leave the seminar and return home.

May Allah protect you and me – and those we love – from the accursed Shaitan.

Still Working for Allah in the West: Theory and Methodology

© 2003 Syed Husain Pasha

Dr. Pasha is an educator and scholar of exceptional 
talent, training and experience. He can be reached at DrSyedPasha [at] 
AOL [dot] com or www.IslamicSolutions.com.

image_printView All

Comments are closed.