Sufism & the Paradox of Self (Nafs)

By Sheikha Fatima Fleur Nassery Bonnin

Bismillaah ir Rahmaan ir Rahiim
In the name of Allah, The Merciful, The Compassionate


Allah uses many different ways of awakening people from the sleep of this world and attracting them to Him. Upon awakening, people begin searching and become travellers of the path (salek). As they start their journey towards God, their thoughts and feelings shift. They begin to behave and live differently in varying degrees. This change is necessary for a person to be considered a traveller of the path. Why the change? They are now beginning to distinguish between the ‘reality’ that they have always known and the Reality that truly is. They start to realise and understand that the purpose of this life’s journey is not what they had thought and that the journey of life, in fact, encompasses greater depth and meaning than they had ever imagined. The innermost part of their self responds strongly to this realisation and the outer mechanics of the person therefore shifts.

There are various spiritual paths that attract people but, sooner or later, all these little roads lead to one main road and unless one travels the distance to this grand highway, one will not get far. To travel on this highway, one must disable and break down the self, removing the self (nafs) from its position of king and ruler, and making it the slave. While the terms used may differ, all the mystical paths are in agreement on this fundamental aspect. In Buddhism, they speak of suffering and killing the ego; in Sufism, they speak of servanthood of the nafs to Allah. This also marks the separation between the real traveller and the pseudo traveller.

The vast treasury of Sufi teaching, poetry and literature, points out this fundamental and uncompromising stage of spiritual unfoldment. In Sufism particularly, this highway is well sign-posted and can be followed if sincerity governs the heart. This road is marked with many teachers and once one surrenders himself to be taught and becomes a salek, he or she is well on the road to God discovery. Guided by his teacher (murshid), the salek follows and obeys the murshid, whose job is to prevent the salek from falling into the trap of its self (nafs). The self uses every trick and manipulation to get the traveller off the road that will ultimately lead to the self’s demise. Its tools include man’s mind, emotions and belief systems - a dangerous and powerful array of weaponry. One must be most aware and equipped to defy the attempts of the nafs.


The teachings tell us two seemingly contradictory things about the self. In the first instance, the self is the most dangerous trap in the path to God. It is the biggest obstacle, it is vile, it is beastly. It is only interested in the fulfilment of its animalistic and selfish desires. It is a veil to the Truth and Reality. It makes you believe things that are not true and makes you like things that are not good for you. It is difficult to recognise this because you have always lived this way and you are surrounded by people who live similarly. So, pay attention! These are the characteristics of Satan as described in the Qur’an. For example in Surah 15:39-40, Satan says:

“O my sustainer! Since Thou hast thwarted me, I shall indeed make (all that is evil) on earth seem goodly to them, and shall most certainly beguile them into grievous error – save such of them as are truly Thy servants.”

At the same time, Sufism points to the other aspect of self, the high station of the self. Man is created in the image of God and is the height of creation. God created other creations for the sake of human beings and made man the master over other creations. He created everything for man and created man for Himself. He blew His spirit into man and gave man the ability to rise above angels. He did all of this so that man could know Him, worship Him and love Him.

Photo by Christophe Verdier
There appears to be a paradox here and one may get confused or fall into the trap of taking himself to be the higher self without wanting to acknowledge the lower, animal self. It is important to recognise both aspects of self, the satan and the angel, the shadow and the light, the ignorance and the consciousness. Within man are both potentialities. In the heart of man is the treasure of knowing his Creator, but he is sent to this world of distraction through attraction to temporal pleasure. The part of the self that is in absolute darkness becomes consumed with this temporal pleasure and material engagement. Becoming totally conscious of self and preoccupied with the material world, man does not pause to look inside himself to find the treasure within his heart. The treasure of knowing his Creator marks the highest aspect of the self. This is the Self that is God-conscious, rather than self-conscious.

The purpose of man’s creation is to become close to God. In order to reach this destination of knowing his Creator, the traveller must travel a road of war with his ego until it is brought into submission. This is only possible by bringing the ego self to a place of servanthood. But modern man’s ego or self has a big problem with the idea of servanthood. The irony is that man is in the grip of his demanding self and a slave to the material world, but he is not aware of it. Modern society promotes ‘individuality’, which in reality is ‘slavery’ to materiality, yet ignores and/or shuns servanthood to God, which is the true purpose of creation. It is only through servanthood to God that man can actually be freed from servanthood to the material life. One cannot be a servant of God and a servant to oneself at the same time. All the Prophets have pointed this out to us.

Prophet Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas, Verse 47:
“A person cannot mount two horses or bend two bows, and a servant cannot serve two masters.”

Moulana Rumi, from his treasure box of Masnavi, brings out pearls and forms verses urging man to recognise both aspects of the self. He explains how this ‘donkey’ (or self) perpetually runs to the pasture for grazing and self-satisfaction, forcing you to continually run after him, unless you learn to break him in, mount him, and become his master. It is then that the ‘donkey’ becomes your transcended Self, the vehicle to take you to the Beloved.

“Sell the donkey ears (these worldly ears) and buy another ear
since the worldly ears cannot receive secret words of God”


“The way to become a king is through servanthood
when you submit to be a slave of the Beloved, you become the beloved”
Moulana Rumi

The ego self uses everything for its own benefit, including truth, justice, fairness and even God. It even worships God to get something in return. This is why the self needs to be dismantled.

“A true believer and an infidel both say ‘God’
but there is a difference between the two

The beggar (infidel) says ‘God’ for the sake of bread
the true believer says ‘God’ in his very soul”
Moulana Rumi

In Sufism, dismantling and fighting the ego self is an essential part of the work. The degree of a man’s success depends on the degree of the man’s sincerity of effort.
We are being warned that the most important work of the salek is the difficult task of subduing the authority of the nafs, as it is our most dangerous enemy. One metaphor used to describe how one must deal with the self is:

Imprisoning it - killing it - burning it - and scattering its ashes.

Servanthood imprisons the self. Abstaining from passion kills it. Love of God burns it. Gnosis scatters the ashes of the self, eliminating all of its traces.

“Until one hair strand of your being you, remains
the business of vanity and self-praise, remains

You said, ‘I broke the idol of my mind, therefore I am free’
this idol ‘that you are free from your mind’, still remains”
Moulana Rumi

The make up of the ego self is in stark contrast to serenity and peace, because peace and serenity are states that can only be experienced as a result of closeness to God (taqarob). The self requires constant movement and turmoil. If events and problems in life are not enough to keep the system going, it will create more. Therefore, one is in a constant state of busyness of the mind, of inner chatter, of existing in the past or future and in turmoil in order not to be present. All of these are constructs of the personality to fog and blur one’s vision to what lies beneath - like waves on the surface of the ocean preventing one from seeing the depth of the water. One exists in this fallacy of distraction until one day, by the Grace of God, one wakes up just a little and realises the untruth of life’s predicament. When one makes the effort to quieten the mind and to negate the demands of the nafs then, little by little, one purifies the state of the self. Only when the self is transmuted is one able to experience serenity and peace and it is in that station that one can hear with the inner ear, the voice of his Creator.

Prophet Mohammad says:
“If you did not talk too much and if there were no turmoil in your heart, you could see what I see and hear what I hear.”

The paradox of self is that man has two aspects of the self in him, one hidden and one apparent. He needs to break away from the one to get to the other. If he spends his life busy with the little self, which is considered his lowest level of being, then that will be his predicament in this life and in the hereafter. It is man’s task in this life to break away from his habitual behaviour and his immediate gratification in order to become worthy of what he has been created for. If he breaks through the illusion of identifying with his self as the only reality and if he gets to know his self from his Self, then he moves ahead on the highway towards the Beloved.

Prophet Mohammad says:
“He who knows his self knows his Lord.”

Prophet Jesus says:
“One who knows all, but is lacking in oneself, is utterly lacking.”

He also says:
“Whoever has found oneself, for that person the world is not worthy.”

“You know the price of every merchandise,
but you are ignorant of knowing the value of your self”
Moulana Rumi

In the Qur’an, this theme has been addressed many times by the Creator. For instance in Surah Al Asr, Allah says:
“Verily man is in loss (in his trades). Except the ones who attain to faith and do good work.”

Imam Ali (a.s.) says:
“It is a losing trade if you believe that this world is worthy of you.”

In all the above quotes, the message is that when man sells his self to the goods of this life, he is a loser because what he is selling is far more precious than what he is buying.

The irony is that one does not know his own value and is not in touch with his Self. All he knows is the little self. Yet at the same time, there is no shortage of signs, teachings, prophets, saints and teachers from Allah, to point out the truth, and the way to it.

Moulana Rumi remarks in the story of Moses and Pharaoh:
“Don’t look at that staff (Moses’ staff) and think of it as a piece of wood
look at what is in it that could part the sea of Ahmar”

In a similar teaching, Prophet Jesus says:
“If two make peace with each other in a single house, they will say to the mountain, ‘Move from here,’ and it will move.”


“Nothing can kill the nafs like the shadow of the master
hold tight to his skirt for he is a good killer of your self

Your lower self is after material affairs
how long will you trade in unworthy affairs, give them up

Someone who says ‘I am thinking to deny my lower self’
is still captive to the lower self

And he who says, ‘God is merciful and kind’
is also being manipulated by that wretched self”

Moulana Rumi, Masnavi, II/2528, 2601-02, 3086-87
Translated by Fleur Nassery Bonnin

You can say very sincerely that you will control your selfish ego but it is not easy. Therefore, you need a sheikh to help you because your carnal desires will continue to trick you. In many cases you may think that God is Forgiving and Merciful and that He will forgive your sins. This idea is also put into your heart by your ego, which is in the command of Satan. Without doubt, God is Forgiving but there is a limit to that because He is Just at the same time. “We shall set up scales of justice for the day of judgment, so that not a single soul will be dealt with unjustly” Qur’an 21:47 and “God did not save angels who sinned” Bible 2 Peter 2:4. God is unlikely to place those who sacrifice their lower self for the love of God in the same scale with those who depend on God’s Mercy without deserving it.

About the Author: Sheikha Fatima Fleur Nassery Bonnin is a Sufi teacher (murshid), a psychologist and the Founder and Director of the Australian Centre for Sufism and Irfanic Studies. Originally from Persia (Iran) she has practised in the United States and has been living and working in Australia for some years, focusing on Sufi psychology and spiritual teaching.

Visit Australian Center for Sufism and Irafnic Studies



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Technology of the Heart: Sufism & the Paradox of Self (Nafs)
Sufism & the Paradox of Self (Nafs)
What does Sufism teaches about the paradox of the self? An article by Sheikha Fatima Fleur Nassery Bonnin - a Sufi teacher (murshid), a psychologist and the Founder and Director of the Australian Centre for Sufism and Irfanic Studies
Technology of the Heart
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