Spring Cleaning the Nafs

By: Dawud Israel

I believe we overestimate and underestimate mentally by about 50%. We underestimate time spent driving, like it’s a chase scene in a film. We overestimate how much we can eat. We underestimate how much we covet. We underestimate how one habit influences another habit. We overestimate the benefit of an easy fix and underestimate the benefits of a hard fix. We overestimate how strong our eman is and underestimate our reliance upon Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He).

We will be asked by Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) about everything we owned and possessed on the Day of Judgment. We will be asked about how we used it and those possessions and blessings will either be for us, or be a proof against us. So will what I possess come crashing down on me on that day? But am I zahid (ascetic) like Eesa (alaihis salaam), who supposedly possessed no more than a comb and a toothpick?

Cleaning My Emotions
So today, I cleaned away the easiest and most modern form of clutter: Information. I deleted 60% of my Twitter feeds. Was there any loss? No, since the number of activists who tweet about Palestine, Libya, Syria is pathetically ridiculous. The more they tweet, the more hopeless it seems. It reminds me of the ayah about habaa’un manth-thura — deeds like scattered dust blown into the wind. It’s really sad to see so many Muslims characterizing themselves in their Twitter description as “Arab” or “Hijabi” — isn’t there more to you? Why turn yourself into a caricature? At the same time, doesn’t Twitter and social media reduce people to icons to be clicked in an information society for only information? Ironically, what I found was social media is not used for information as much as it’s used for cynicism, venting anger and frustration. This can really hurt my relationship with Allah. So what’s the real loss?

But digital cleaning is over-rated. There is no benefit in deleting emails. They aren’t biting you nor will you feel a change in your life by making them disappear. Cleaning your real life is much harder. Real cleaning is not about what is obvious, but it’s about the less obvious, the nooks and crannies and what that say about you. Cleaning the back of a cooking stove and seeing all manner of things you had lost, and finding filth in places you barely think about. I think that is what cleaning the nafs is really about.

Uncovering hidden Blessings
There is no art-form closer to the body than clothing, as a Shaykh once said. The Romans wore togas and couldn’t move around much in them, so all day long they stood around talking politics. What you wear affects the tone and attitude you have to life and your behavior. So yesterday, I cut my wardrobe in half. There is always much second guessing and doubting, but it feels so good to just say, “Get rid of it. Out!” It feels transformative to force yourself to wear new clothes or unworn clothing. What do I look like in this? How do I want people to see me? How do I want Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) to see me? What about Islamic logos on my shirts — what do I do with that? If I give it to Salvation Army, then what about this story that people make money on textile recycling and perhaps sell them to the less fortunate abroad? Shouldn’t I give these clothes directly myself, since the best charity is that which is given by your own hand? So I made a gift pile of clothes, for different types of people I will gift them to, their clothing style, age, and body size.

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To understand the baraka in this, consider finding clean socks for jumuah — it takes a far longer time when you have too many socks to sort through and then they don’t even match, but is much easier when you only have a few socks to go through. This is that elusive benefit of simplicity that Ulema of the past call tawseer – expansion. What is the loss if I never wore it anyway? Giving away clothing is far easier than giving away money. Maybe the only reason Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) gave me all these clothes was to make me accustomed to giving charity?

Cleaning Away my Delusions
We overestimate how many books we have read and understood. Umberto Eco said famously the real purpose of books is the anti-library – it’s there just in case and not for any immediate purpose. Those books will never do anything but sit there–to others it may seem a testament to my piety, but after a while it seems like a testament to my hypocrisy and weakness. Books make you feel like you have much intellectual pride but you realize you didn’t really experience this book as thoroughly as you thought you did. What happens is the most intense experience you had with a book, becomes the stereotypical experience of reading books, so you convince yourself you had that great experience with all your books — when you barely read some of them.

I treat clutter like prose, I hold on to it trying to search for some hidden value in it that maybe a situation will arise where it will be needed, but it never happens. That paperclip in your pocket won’t be used to lock-pick, because you can’t lock pick– nor will that book on gender studies intersectionality ever be read. Nor will that big hadith book be understood because you don’t have the commentary. So give it to someone else who will appreciate it and make more shukr for it than you do. Perhaps God reward you for your sacrifice and teach you in a better way.

The same can be said about notes on Islamic talks. Either I memorize them or give to someone else. Imam an-Nawawi would take notes in the day from his teachers and memorize them all in the evening. I will probably end up putting many of my notes online for people to share, but what else can I do with them? My friend once criticized some brothers by saying, “All they do is just lie around and listen to Hamza Yusuf all day long. Why don’t they do something good for somebody?” So, what’s the benefit if I don’t put it in my words and actions? May be, it’s time to cash in on these investments before I go bankrupt on Qiyama.

3 take-away lessons: 
There is always more to clean — we keep blinking to keep our vision clean

If I get rid of this, what is the perceived loss and what is the actual loss? Can I as a human being do without it?

It takes time to become attached to things, but it takes effort to become detached from them.

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16 responses to “Spring Cleaning the Nafs”

  1. May Allah helps your effort, brother!
    – On online detachment : this is what I’m trying to do too, except that I’m a blogger and that’s why I try my best to avoid negativity in my blog. And I thought if you want to clean your nafs better, don’t watch TV. I don’t watch TV for a year and it helped me tremendously. I don’t feel lost for “not watching the current news” — it’s all too depressing and will deplete your energy. Almost every news will give impression as if there is no hope out there.

    Have you noticed that people for many reasons responds louder to negativity? When we talk about hope, they will replied how the world is a mess. When we talk about pray for or give charity to your persecuted brothers and sisters, they will talk about “it’s no use, won’t help”.

    – And regarding books : I would say, don’t cut off yourself from the books just because you think “it won’t be useful”. Reading beneficial books as entertainment (I don’t mean novels or all that stuff) is much better than say, music or Twitter or Facebook. No knowledge is NOT useful. At least, a good book can enrich your mind and makes you humble, that you actually knows nothing. If knowing many things just make one more arrogant, he truly needs a mindset reality check.

    • Abez says:

      AssalamuAlaikum Sister- mabrook on going a year without TV! I’m on year 13 and haven’t regretting it for a day. I have enough real and important things in my life without adding the fakery and sin of sitcoms, dramas, movies, etc, and I have more time and more brainpower to spend making changes in the real world than just watching them happen. May Allah bless you and give you the strength to keep up the Idiot Box Detox!

      • Alaikum salaam, whoa masha Allah 13 years….:D. LOL agree @ Idiot Box Detox. I remember an advice from a self help guru that If you want to start removing negativity littering your soul, start with removing TV. Indeed works.

      • Hyde says:

        I probably younger than you, but yeah two plus years without the “psychological box’. Too early to get bona fide results, but worth every minute. Now only if people in the Muslim world had the sense turn the garbage off.

      • Farah Ali says:

        Assalam alaikum! I was going to send you the link to this article, then saw your comment :) There’s IdiotBoxDetox going on here as well, and I am loving it. alhamdulillah.

    • Fatima Ariadne:

      Jazaka Allahu khayran for your remarks.

      -Yeah, generally not hearing news is key. Alhamdulillah, I don’t watch so much TV but written news feels like its even worse since its more indepth and a more convincing form of negativity.
      -On books there was an interesting article I read about reading and forgetting: http://t.co/SEaotKSBpz


  2. ahs says:

    Great article. This is a topic on which we need to work on constantly every single day.
    I am motivated by the sisters above leaving TV once and for all and feeling great. I have tried it and have succeeded but then fall back. Inshallah i will succeed this time.

  3. Subhana ‘Allah a true insight into excess luggage.

    The thing with TV’s and movies is that you are pretty excited before you watch and then when the thing comes to an end you are not satisfied, it is like a raging fire which consumes and grows the more you feed it.

    But I don’t agree with the giving up Hadith books, lecture notes etc … I think that it taking it too far.
    I seek refuge in Allah …. but I think that may be a trick of Shaytaan into talking us into becoming “too pious” for his liking.

    A Hadith book ,the Qur’an translation, Islamic books are physical reminders to our procrastination and should keep us in check about our duty towards Allah’s Qalam, this has worked for me, everytime I look at the copy of the Qur’an translation lying on the shelf idly I would make a resolve to read it and Alhamdulillah it has worked greatly so far.

    I recently purchased a copy of Selected Ahadith from the Riyaadus Saaliheen and Maasha Allah it has been life changing the things I learnt and the deep insight each Hadeeth carries … one word Allahu Akbar.

    I understand about the part on

    ” … So today, I cleaned away the easiest and most modern form of clutter: Information. I deleted 60% of my Twitter feeds. Was there any loss? No, since the number of activists who tweet about Palestine, Libya, Syria is pathetically ridiculous. The more they tweet, the more hopeless it seems. ”

    but what else can we really do? besides making Dua for our brothers and sister. I know most of the Activists who are working in the field to bring a change for the better for our brothers and sisters.

    This article really helped me and added a new dimension to my perspective on the dunya and what the excess to it. I especially loved the part on the “sorting of socks” for Jummah, really insightful. What I noted above is things that I have a different opinion.

    I have no qualms about the intention of the author in his/her pursuit for the pleasure of Allah.
    May Allah bless us to have taqwa of him in our lives, Inshaan in our deeds and bless our Salah with the gift of Kushu and Make our religion easy for us by the virtue of which doing good becomes easy for us.

    • Thanks for your comments.

      Friends tell me giving away and getting rid of Islamic books is a step too far. I know and thought that too, but having so many books gather dust after so long, is quite disillusioning. Its unlikely I will give it due justice. This verse of the Qur’an is what brought me to that decision:

      “The example of those who were entrusted with the Torah and then did not take it on is like that of a donkey who carries volumes [of books]. Wretched is the example of the people who deny the signs of Allah. And Allah does not guide the wrongdoing people.” (Surah Jumuah, v. 5)

      You may know the story of Imam Ghazali and the robber…well, I once lost a years worth of my own writing to a thief and so my understanding of what exactly knowledge is is quite different. Knowledge increase my khawf and amal increases my raja with God. Of course, this is by no means the case with everybody…but just where I find myself…


  4. Sona says:

    JazakaAllah khayr for writing this article – it definitely served as a reminder and a push to start acting on what I know..

  5. […] Cross-posted at Muslimmatters.org […]

  6. Dreamlife says:

    Regarding the Islamic talks, like the sister said about books – it’s better than other activities like music.

    Radical idea: you don’t always have to listen to a lecture with the intention of applying it. While that would be ideal, sometimes, it’s just an alternative to music or other nonsense you’d listen to on the radio (news, talk shows, adverts).

    For me, I found that listening to lectures in the car was a way to break away completely from music and other influences that used to have a stronger grip on me. So at that point, it wasn’t about learning from the lectures – it was about immersing myself in an alternative which was better than the garbage. ANd through that, the environment of deen was solidified in my mind – because even if i never applied what i heard, at least i was constantly hearing these good reminders and knowledge. Better to have THAT as your ‘background noise’ than the other nonsense that’s around.

    And, insha-Allah, passive learning occurs too – because you may not actively remember what you hear, but all that info goes into your brain, and at some point – when it’s needed – it may pop out as a reminder for yourself or others.

    So, don’t discount that side of it either, please.

  7. Mash Allah!! Jazak Allah!!
    may Allah give you more strength and knowledge to write such beautiful articles with articulate morals.

  8. Fritz says:

    “All they do is just lie around and listen to Hamza Yusuf all day long.”

    Ouch. A little too much truth in that one :(

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