As soon as you feel good about yourself, know that the devil has got you, because he is made from fire and he understands the nafs better than you.
When I read in the news last week about the inflammatory Defeat Jihad ad campaign hitting New York City buses, I couldn’t help marvel at how poorly Muslim thinking and preoccupation is represented in the media. It made me ponder the widely known story whereby the Prophet (peace and blessings of God be upon him) once welcomed home troops returning after an expedition. “You have returned from the lesser struggle to the greater struggle”, he is reported to have said to them. When the companions asked him what he meant by the “greater struggle”, he clarified: “the struggle against (the desires of) oneself”.
This story is so widespread and so well diffused into Muslim discourse that it could very well be one of the most cited traditions (hadith) in our times. It is all about the battle with the nafs, the “urging self”. Libraries of Islamic literature are filled with books written by masters of the subject such as Imam Ghazali, sermons abound with the idea, poets have wrought verse about it for centuries. Even I felt compelled to craft a riddle on it two weeks ago. (Seriously, take a look! 🙂
To better understand the idea of the greater jihad, I’d like to lean on what I think is one of the most beautiful modern day lyrical poems in the English language on the topic – Yusuf Islam’s Angel of War. Mr. Islam takes the idea of the greater jihad and embellishes it with the mundane vocabulary of warriors and warfare. But to the seasoned reader/listener, every verse has a remarkably subtle reference to the nafs.
The poem reads as a dialogue between a hypothetical angel of war and a young man who Mr. Islam aptly refers to as a soldier boy. That the poem was cast into song in the tune of his original number, My Lady D’arbanville, dating back to his days of rock-stardom, is no mere coincidence in my opinion, but certainly inconsequential.
Oh, angel of war, what am I fighting for?
If death comes tomorrow, inform me before
Inform me before
Oh, young soldier boy, I’ll tell you what I know
If peace is your wish, to battle you must go
To battle you must go
Oh, angel of war, please, make it clear to me
Which is my side and who is my enemy?
Who is my enemy?
Oh, angel of war, within myself I see
The battle has started, what will become of me?
What will become of me?
Oh, young soldier boy, you’re wiser than you seem
Look into your heart and keep your motives clean
And keep your motives clean
Oh, angel of war, what weapons do I need?
Lest I may perish, that I may succeed
That I may succeed
Oh, young soldier boy, if you protect the poor
Let truth be your armour and justice be your sword
And justice be your sword
Oh, young soldier boy, the war that you wage
If it’s for your ego, it will die in rage
It will die in rage
Oh, angel of war, how can I tell for sure
Pride’s not the reason that I’m fighting for
That I’m fighting for
Oh, angel of war, when I look at me
I’m fearful to confess, the enemy I see
The enemy I see
Oh, young soldier boy, now you can go to war
I’ll see you tomorrow and a boy you’ll be no more
A boy you’ll be no more
Here are a few insights I have gleaned from this poem.
- “O Young Soldier Boy” could be anyone, and is meant for the reader/listener to identify with. Its repetition in every verse is almost taunting, but is clarified in the closing couplets.
- “If peace is your wish, to battle you must go”. This is the overarching theme. If you seek peace then you must wage war. But as the following couplet goes, against who? “Who’s my enemy?” That does not come out until the penultimate couplet.
- Truth as an armor… for the soul. And justice as a sword… for how can justice smite unjustly.
- The closing couplets confirm that one remains a boy – a soldier boy – for as long as one has not recognized that one’s self, one’s nafs, is one’s greatest enemy.
Ali restrains his dagger, gets off the giant’s chest and steps back. When Amr asks him why he had not slain him, Ali responds that had he slain him then, it would have been out of an anger he felt towards Amr, and not out of love for and service to God.
Now that is the greater jihad. This of course upsets Amr even more, so he picks up his sword and attacks Ali again, and so the story goes. A poetic rendition of the entire incident is here if you like: https://khamuk.com/2012/11/blog-post.html
I’m fearful to confess, the enemy I see
The enemy I see.