By Dr. Eren Tatari
“… So do not hold yourselves pure (sinless; it is vain self-justification). He knows best him who keeps from disobedience to God in reverence for Him and piety” (Qur’an, 53:32).
We have an innate disposition to love and to always defend ourselves. God has given this disposition to defend our rights and to be dignified as a human being. But the ego/ nafs’ job is to claim its independence of the Creator and declare false ownership of our qualities.
Every sense we have been given, we can use them in two opposite ways. We can either use it for the purpose it was given to us, or abuse the feeling and use it for the nafs. For example, envy is not innately bad. Envy can compel us to do good actions, which is useful. But if we use envy to viciously envy someone else, thinking we should have been given those things instead, this is wrong. Through iman education we can direct our senses to the positive ways. We have been given the ability to deny God, but we are given this sense to deny false deities (or those who attribute deity qualities to themselves), and say la ilaha (there is no deity). But we may misuse it and deny the true God.
The ego loves only itself, and sacrifices everything for itself. He praises himself as if he is worthy of worship. He exonerates himself from any fault, looks for any excuse to disclaim any fault. The verse is specifically referring to a person’s introspective/inner analysis in which he sees himself as faultless. In a way, God is saying “do not consider yourself pure, do not justify yourself, do not find excuses, do not exonerate yourself.” We need to realize that our nafs has such an inclination, hence with this awareness, when that inclination arises in us, we do not let it overtake our iradah (willpower), and we do not act upon it.
Our creation, including our partial-freewill and the nafs, is perfect. To have nafs is not bad, but to follow our nafs is bad. Because of our nafs, we can say la ilaha. We realize through our ego: “I do not want to worship something that is not worthy of worship.” We swim against the current of the ego to gain strength and rise in spiritual ranks. What make us human beings (i.e. our difference from animals and other created beings) is our partial-freewill, our ability to reason, and nafs. Choice necessitates alternatives, one correct and one wrong, true vs. false, white vs. black. If I want to, I can choose the false, but I do not have to. Nafs is always telling us to choose the false. So the fact that, due to our nafs, we are able to say there is no God makes us perfect. This enables us to say la ilaha. Nafs has no power over us. If we educate our self through iman not to ever follow the nafs, then nafs loses its influence. Gradually the nafs realizes it is pointless to suggest the falsehood to the person. Then we become the perfect/complete person (al-insan al-kamil), by becoming a perfect worshipper of God, abd.
Is feeding the poor necessarily a good deed/action? It depends! If it is done in the name of the nafs, thinking I am good, this is bad. However, it is good for me to help people with the realization that it is my Creator who gave me the capacity to help someone (aka. I am only a mirror reflecting the manifestations of His Attributes). A person whose ego says: “I am feeding you,” as if claiming “I am your Lord,” like the Pharaohs, is in fact increasing his arrogance through this seemingly good deed. The person who feeds someone and recognizes the Creator as the source of that ability is living in pure submission. So in a sense, we could outwardly look like the best human being in terms of actions, but without submission to God, we would be pure ego, and our actions would be void, having no value in reality. When there is shirk (associating partners with God) in our actions, our actions become void. Shirk is committed by not attributing the action to God, but appropriating it to ourselves, as if we are the source of the goodness.
When the sunlight is reflecting from a mirror, the mirror is not the source of the light. Likewise, we are not the source of goodness. But when we close that mirror, preventing the light from reflecting, this is our fault. We choose to prevent the light. Hence, we are the cause of the bad we choose.
 Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age (Tughra Publications, December 2012). She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.