by Elizabeth Debold
Upon returning from the Battle of Badr, our prophet, Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “We have returned from the lesser jihad [holy war] to the greater jihad. They asked, “O Prophet of God, which is the greater jihad?” He replied, “The struggle against the nafs [ego].” —Hadith
When the first of the two World Trade towers crumpled and fell in on itself like a hollow toy, I watched, as millions did, in disbelief and horror as jihad exploded on American soil. Jihad, the holy war, born with Islam when the Roman Empire became “holy” by adopting Christianity, took a burning leap into the 21st Century, leaving behind ancient images of swords clashing in the desert for television coverage of jets igniting modern monoliths. Struggling to recognize the reality of what it was I was seeing, I asked what so many of us were asking—how could human beings do such a thing?—and met in myself the stark recognition that I actually knew how it could happen. No, I don’t have a secret life as an arsonist or a history of violent crime. You see, “jihad” doesn’t just refer to Islamic fundamentalists’ war upon the infidels. The truer, greater meaning of jihad refers to the battle for the utter liberation of the spirit from the tyrannical nafs—the unconscious motivation in the human psyche that insists on separation and division. The nafs—or ego—is the ultimate terrorist, changing disguises with shape-shifting ease, scurrying within the labyrinth of the mind, setting off explosions of fear and rage, never quite visible until war has been declared and a warrant for its capture, dead or alive, has been issued.
Sound improbable? Believe me, I had no idea that such an entity existed within the human psyche—let alone my very own psyche. Even though I nodded at the appropriate moments whenever my teacher or anyone else spoke about the ego’s evil ways, frankly, I didn’t really take seriously the fact that I had an ego. Such is human pride: no matter that Muhammad and every major religious tradition, or and even my own teacher, warned of the ego’s wiles and the necessity to wield a sword, I knew better. From Lord Krishna commanding Arjuna in battle in the Bhagavad-Gita to the fierce Zen masters of Japan and China, from Zoroaster’s inner struggle between good and evil to Christianity’s version of the same, from St. Theresa of Avila to Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan, the metaphorical battlefield is rife with the images, injunctions, and inspirations of a rich legacy of spiritual warriors who have left their mythic mark on the pages of our religious history. Each of these teachings and legends makes it perfectly clear that the spiritual life is a fight to the death, a war between good and evil, a true and bloody battle that takes place in the soul of the aspirant. I dismissed these stories as archaic, merely metaphoric, speaking in a language appropriate to medieval times, perhaps, but hardly relevant to our psychologically savvy world. Or my own situation.
But why would every major religious tradition describe the spiritual quest in such violent and stark terms? In my postmodern arrogance, I assumed that the great traditions lacked the sophistication of our modern psychological understanding. But, increasingly, I am coming to understand that it is our contemporary view that lacks depth because, so often, it blunts the sharpness of distinctions that give dignity to the human struggle. Andrew Delbanco writes in The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil that eliminating the devil, or evil, from language, philosophy, and metaphor means simultaneously the loss of God and goodness: “If evil . . . escapes the reach of our imagination, it will have established dominion over us all.” The concept and experience of “evil” as a moral judgment has been replaced by an endless list of pathologies that rationalize destructive behavior as the result of victimization, not choice. “What does it mean to say that the inventor of the concentration camps, or of the Gulag, was subject to a ‘disorder’?” asks Delbanco, “Why can we no longer call them evil?” The point that the religious traditions make—and illustrate through the wild images of Tibetan demons, Satanic spirits, and the personification of the Seven Deadly Sins—is that there is something fundamental within each of us that must be named, faced, and conquered in order to free the human spirit. The sins of our forefathers weren’t simply an inventory of human darkness; they pointed to what needed to be transcended, moved beyond, in order to realize the glory of God ringing through the beauty and goodness of creation.
Living in a contemporary spiritual culture where “compassion” often is an excuse to avoid realness and intimacy and where hurting someone’s feelings is a greater sin than lying through your teeth, it is no small wonder that there is so little talk of the true jihad and the grit necessary to engage in spiritual battle for the liberation of the human soul. Such polite lying between us so often masks how much we lie to ourselves. Somehow, in our collective loss of faith in traditional authority and our desire to cast a wider net of inclusion in society, the sharp contrast between good and evil has been lost, as truth has increasingly become a relative matter. Not wanting to offend those whose cultural contexts differ from our own, we have avoided taking up the challenge to go deeper into the human experience and grapple with the true universals of what it means to be human. The reality of the human condition has not changed even as we have blurred to gray, the black-and-white distinctions that traditionally sharpened the perception and experience of life.
No tradition seems to make clearer distinctions than Islamic mysticism regarding the inner foe that holds the spirit captive. In WIE Issue 17, “What Is Ego?” Sheikh Ragip Frager told us that traditional Sufi wisdom explains the agenda of the ego, or nafs, as two-fold: “One [aspect] is self-survival. The ego is scared of change, scared to death of deep mystical experience and transformation, because, from its point of view, that kind of change is death. . . . It is the part of all of us that wants to stay the same, a kind of inertial component in all of us that says, ‘Don’t change.’ Another aspect is that the ego is often talked about by the Sufis as connected to Satan, to the devil. . . . And no one likes to talk about this. It’s not real popular. . . . It also seems like it’s not inaccurate to occasionally refer to the nafs almost as though it is motivated, like a person.” Because the nafs is a fundamental motivation—the motivation to be separate, to hold out from the wholeness and perfection of Life.
The always devious nafs only reveals itself under conditions of war, when one is willing to engage in true jihad, to declare allegiance to the heart’s desire for liberation rather than the ego’s desperate self-preservation. Only when one is fully determined to know and face one’s deepest motivations, does the blinding rage and defiance of ego unleash itself, unmasked, in consciousness. Sheikh Ragip Frager tells us that as we begin to lure the nafs from its caves, it takes on different guises—each with the intent to keep us from the love that moves creation. The first glimpses of the “tyrannical nafs” that unconsciously motivates our psychological self-protection and separation come when we seriously begin to seek greater wholeness, to live a more profound truth. Like all terrorists, fear is its major stratagem. But the ego also disguises itself in the desire to be right, to win or to lose, to fit in or to stand out, to know for sure or to play dumb, to be a special case, to have a problem, any problem . . . in short, the ego lurks in any and every means by which the human mind can perceive itself as separate. And most shocking—the ego fully revealed—is that this psychological illusion of uniqueness has such momentum in the human psyche that it will do anything to survive—even if it literally risks destruction. Truly the ultimate kamikaze terrorist, the ego, when pushed to the wall and forced to give up its games of separation, actually does not even care about our own survival.
And yet, even knowing what the Sufis say, even agreeing that it makes sense logically, or recognizing that there is something within us that keeps the awesome explosion of liberation at a distance, it is hard to believe that the nafs is for real until it reveals itself for real. For myself, while the terror of dissolution was familiar from sitting in meditation retreats, it was only when I was faced by my teacher with the absolute demand to choose—freedom or ego—that my own war on terrorism actually began. Face to face with my blazing teacher and his demand for freedom from limitation, suddenly, I felt myself split down the middle: there was a raging scream from my heart for liberation, while, at the same time, my ego-ruled mind began to warn me that expressing my heart was wrong, dangerous, untrue. As Islamic scholar Charles Upton notes in his article The Doctrine of the Nafs, “When God has become the conscious center of one’s life, then—as in a time of civil war—the various citizens of the psyche are forced to take sides. The commanding nafs only reveals itself as ‘commanding’ when we have begun to disobey it.” Pushed by my teacher to choose, to take sides, I chose to pay attention to the ego ventriloquizing the voice of reason rather than to sing out the heart’s always unreasonable cry for freedom. In that crucial moment, I gave myself to the enemy, became hostage to the terrorist within. Months of siege followed. But even in losing this first big battle, I made a deeper commitment to winning the war.
How do we arm ourselves against such a devious and dangerous terrorist? What do we carry into battle? Nothing. The inner jihad demands that we be empty-handed. This is a war fought with only the courage of our very being to lead us through the minefield created by the ego-driven mind. We can only bring our best Muslim selves—the meaning of “muslim” is one who surrenders. So, oddly enough, this is a war that can only be won through surrender. Yes, surrender means to give up—but, constantly, actively—to turn our minds over to our hearts. In surrendering to the longing of our own hearts, choosing the pull that leads us beyond self, a current begins to take us into the truth of who we are beyond ego. Letting go, letting go, leaning into a trust so vast it is beyond comprehension, a whole possibility for human life calls us to leave behind the pettiness of self-concern for the thrill of the unknown that manifests only as we step forward.
True jihad demands an ever-deepening resolve, a commitment to never run from battle, to get up when shot down and move ever onward. Life transforms in knowing how much glory and goodness are truly at stake, and knowing that the responsibility for human freedom is ours alone. In taking up this responsibility, and only in this, the true heart of liberation comes to life and pulls us forward. The realization of the power of our choices—for good or evil, creation or destruction—calls forth a warrior’s vigilance, an alertness that is the current of life itself. Standing ready on the battlefield of the human predicament, the gap between self and Life closes. Here the terrorism of separation and destruction ends in the true creative fire of human potential bursting into being as ourselves.