Exploring the Sufi Concept of Nafs

Many religious beliefs address the discrepancy between the ego and the unconscious mind, although not all of them fully understand what they are dealing with. Sufism’s adherents claim that the sect represents the inner mystical dimension of Islam. As in so many mystical belief systems, the aim of the individual Sufi is direct experience of God, or as the Muslims say, Allah.

A Turkish Sufi in Traditional Garb

The Sufi sect represents the inner mystical dimension of Islam. The nafs is a sound psychological concept. (Photo: Wikimedia)

One of Sufism’s key concepts is an aspect of the psyche referred to as “nafs,” which is confusingly translated as either the self, psyche, ego, or soul. In English, a similar confusion surrounds the word “self,” with some people using it to mean the psychological concept of the self (the definition of which also varies), while others are merely referring to the conscious “I” or ego. For the sake of clarity, let me say that I use the word “self” in the psychological sense that includes the unconscious mind.

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Sleepwalking Through Reality

Concepts, abstract or general ideas, are a veil that hides reality from our eyes. Without our knowing it, they create a powerful illusion. Anyone who unquestioningly accepts their society’s consensus worldview is suffering from cultural hypnosis. Most of us are affected. We sleepwalk through our lives never understanding that much of what we assume to be true simply is not. We are not even aware that concepts can have this effect.

Sleepwalker in old fashioned nightdress

Many of us sleepwalk through our lives in a muddled state of cultural hypnosis. (Image: public domain)

To dispel the illusion, we must peer past preconceived concepts at the raw data of experience. There is a hidden reality, but it is not on some astral plane or stashed in some mystical “beyond.” The hidden reality is all around us, firmly rooted in this world, yet invisible to eyes blinded by consensus notions of what we are seeing. The hunger that cries, “There must be more to life than this” is, in part, the hunger to experience what lies behind the obscuring veil of concepts. Many sense its presence, as indeed they must, but immediately fall into the very trap they need to escape. They conceptualize the nature of this hidden reality in bizarre and obscure ways, thus trading a consensual illusion for another, even more unrealistic, one.

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