Posted by: Dawud Israel | June 2, 2013

Spring Cleaning the Nafs

Cross-posted at

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 īmān is and underestimate our reliance upon Allāh subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He).

We will be asked by Allāh 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 āyah 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 Allāh. 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 down in half and got rid of more than half of my clothing. 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 Allāh 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.

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 Allāh 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. Imām 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.


  1. I think when we listen to Sh. Hamza talks all day long, we are going through a phase of detoxing. The talks are indeed healing and theraputic — the next best thing to actual company of the righteous is listening about the righteous. Better that than listening to pop music / watching videos / sleeping. Inshallah, we hope and pray that Allah gives us tawfeeq to move from acquiring knowledge to action. But my point is, listening to talks is in and of itself a rewardable act.

  2. thank you for this article. it’s simple and straightforward, practical and helpful.

  3. Thanks for sharing nice information. It will really help me in living in right way. May Allah help us to seek Islamic knowledge and share it with other people in society. Thanks

  4. Thanks for sharing valuable information. Yes Jihad bin Nafs is very important to get the true taste of satisfaction. Cleaning nafs ensures our success in both here in this world and hereafter. Thanks

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