The Wisdom Behind the Existence of the Ego

Had I but briefly described your inner world,

You would have been terrified;

Fear might very well have killed you;

You would have been crushed like a mouse before a cat.


The honor that fills our heart in triumph is borne of the sense of accomplishment we feel for having endured the trials and tribulations one must taste in the struggle to succeed.

Prophet Adam (a.s) unknowingly committed an error that resulted in his exile to earth from paradise. The ultimate reason for this event is to offer the descendants of Adam (a.s) during the course of their life on earth, the opportunity to regain their lost honor of having had the “best stature” (Tin, 95/4). This supreme distinction is bestowed only upon those human beings who pass the tests conferred upon them by their Creator during this earthly life and in so doing earn their right to return to their primordial paradisiacal home. Allah, with the intention of increasing this honor, has furthermore equipped all human beings with an ego or nafs that functions as an obstacle on the straight path of return. The process of prevailing over the nafs functions to increase the value of the achieved aim as in all other cases when one triumphs over impediments on the path to victory. Beyond this, Allah has also bestowed upon man the necessary means for attaining to this aim. In this regard, of principle importance are the prophets He has sent and the chains of saints and scholars following them who will continue to offer guidance to man until the end of the world.


Rumi, quddisa sirruh, symbolically explained the wisdom behind the existence of the ego in the following story.

An amir (ruler) was riding along at the very moment a snake was going into the mouth of a sleeping man.

The amir observed this and in spite of hurrying to scare the snake away, he had no chance to do so.

Since his Creator had endowed him with an abundant supply of intelligence, he struck the sleeping man several powerful blows with a mace.

The strokes of the hard mace drove the man to quickly flee from the amir to a point beneath a tree.

Beneath the tree there were many rotten apples that had fallen from it and the amir said, “Eat of these, O you in the grip of pain!”

He gave the man so many apples to eat that they were falling out of his mouth.

He was crying, “O amir, I beseech you, why have you set upon me? What have I done to deserve this treatment?

If you have an inveterate and mortal feud with me, strike me with your sword and shed my blood at once.

Ill omened was the hour I fell into your gaze: oh, happy would be the one who was never blessed with your visage!

Untarnished by guilt or sin, without having done anything great or small– in all sincerity even the heretics permit no oppression such as this.

Blood gushes from my mouth together with my words. I entreat Thee O Allah, grant him the retribution which he truly deserves!”

Every instant he continued to utter a new curse, while the amir kept beating him and saying, “Run on this plain.”

 The blows of the mace and the rider were as swift as the wind! He therefore went on running between periodic bouts of falling on his face.

Full-fed and deeply fatigued: his feet and face became covered with a hundred thousand wounds.

Till nightfall the amir drove him to and fro, until vomiting caused by bile finally overtook him.

All the things, both good and bad, came up from within him: the snake shot forth from him along with all that he had eaten.

When he saw the snake outside of him, he fell on his knees before that beneficent man.

No sooner had he seen the horror of that big, black, ugly, snake, than the grief departed from him.

“Truly,” said he, “you are the Jibril of divine mercy, or you are Allah, for you are the lord of bounty.

Oh, blessed is the hour that you first saw me: I was dead and you have given me new life.

You were seeking me as a mother searches for her children; I was fleeing from you as if an ass.

The ass flees from his master out of asininity, while his owner runs after him as a consequence of good nature.

He seeks him, not on account of profit or loss, but rather that a wolf or another wild beast might not tear him apart.

Oh, happy is he that espies your face or suddenly lights upon your abode.

O you whom pure spirit has praised, how many foolish and idle words have I uttered to you!

O lord and emperor and amir, I spoke not, my folly spoke: do not punish me for this offense.

If I had only known your title, o master, how could I have spoken such foolish words?

I should have praised you, O man of virtuous qualities, if you had but given me a single hint as to the actual circumstance.

But you, maintaining silence, were perturbed and silently continued to beat me on the head.

My head became dizzy; the wits flew out of my head– especially as this head has but little brain.

Pardon me, O man of beneficent countenance and benevolent behavior: let pass that which I have exclaimed in a state of frenzy.”

The amir answered, “If I had uttered a hint of it, your gall would instantly have turned to water.

Had I described to you the qualities of the snake, in terror you would have given up the ghost.

 If I had told you about the snake, neither would you have been able to eat, nor would you have been capable of vomiting or cared to do so.

I heard your abuse and went on with my work; I kept praying beneath my breath, ‘O Lord, make it easy!’

Neither was I able to speak of the cause, nor did I have permission to abandon you.

Borne of the grief in my heart I was continually praying, ‘Oh Lord, guide my people; verily they know not.’”

The man that had been delivered from woe fell on his knees and said, “O (you who are) my bliss, O my fortune and treasure,

You will gain great rewards from Allah, O noble one; this weakling has not the power to thank you.

Allah will say thanks to you, O leader; I have neither the lips nor the chin nor the voice for that.”

It is in this fashion that we find the enmity of the wise: their poison brings gladness to the soul,

While the friendship of the fool brings with it woe and perdition: hear this tale as a parable.


The Prophet (pbuh) said:

“… If I should tell aright the description of the enemy which is in your souls, the gall bladders even of courageous men would burst: he (such a one) would neither go his way nor care for any work.

Neither would there remain in his heart endurance in supplication, nor in his body sufficient strength for fasting and ritual prayer.

He would become good for nothing like a mouse before a cat; he would be distraught as a lamb before a wolf.

No power to plan or power to move would remain in him: it is for this reason that I tend you without speaking.”

The Prophet (pbuh) adopted this method. For the purpose of protecting the interests of those around them, the saints have chosen silence, too. Furthermore, they never reveal what is in the heart of those surrounding them. Instead, they veil their shortcomings. They educate by virtue of exemplary actions and behaviors instead of on the basis of words. Those under divine guidance have the ability to influence people even with hearts like iron so long as such hardened people retain the ability to be influenced in the same way Prophet David was able to soften iron.

Abu Darda, may Allah be pleased with him, was serving as the judge of Damascus. One day, he witnessed some people cursing a person who had committed a sin. He asked them:

– What would you do if you saw a man who had fallen in a well?

They said:

– We would use a rope to save him from the well.

Abu Darda said to them:

– Then why do you not show mercy on this person who has fallen into a well of sins? Why do you not prepare a rope of glad tidings for him and save him from his misfortune?

One asked:

– Do you not feel animosity towards this sinful person while Allah is threatening to punish him with the Hellfire?

The distinguished companion, who was raised under the eyebrow of the Prophet (pbuh) answered this question as follows:

–  Yes, I feel animosity for the awful acts he has committed, but I do not feel animosity towards him.

Rumi expressed his love and mercy for all creatures for the sake of their Creator in the following lines:

 “My Lord! If the pious alone can hope for your mercy, who else can the sinful turn to for refuge?

O my Glorious Allah! If you accept only the prayers of your special servants, to whom can the criminal turn to in prayer? … (Verily, You are the most Merciful of the merciful!)”


The sleeping man in the story by Rumi symbolizes the heedless person. The black snake that entered his mouth is his ego or nafs. The amir is the Perfect Guide. What woke him up with blows from the mace are seclusion and the battle against the nafs. Finally, the departure of the snake symbolizes liberation from the dominion of the nafs.

When Allah spoke to Musa (a.s) in the sacred valley of Tuwa, He asked him about the staff he was holding. Musa answered:

He said, “It is my rod: on it I lean; with it I beat down fodder for my flocks; and in it I find other uses.” (Taha, 18)

Allah ordered him: “Throw it, O Musa!” (Taha, 19)

Some scholars who have written commentaries on the Qur’an have interpreted these passages symbolically. They have explained that this guidance applied to the inner world of Musa (a.s). When Musa (a.s) referred to temporal attachments in relation to his rod, Allah ordered him to abandon them. The ego and all the attachments associated with it, appeared in the form of a snake. In this way, the Creator revealed to Musa (a.s) the truth of the nafs. He was frightened. He trembled and he ran away. He was then ordered:

– O Musa! This snake represents attachment to things other than Allah. If the true nature of this condition was revealed to whomever suffers from it, all would flee.

Another symbolic meaning extrapolated from this story is related to the Lord’s command, “Throw away your staff!” “You have now been blessed with the attributes of Tawhid, faith in the unity of Allah. How can it remain appropriate for you to rely on a staff and hope to benefit from it? How can you claim that you perform actions with this staff and claim that you continue to derive benefit from it? The first genuine step in the path of Tawhid is to leave all agents behind. So abandon all wishes and claims…”

The following is said in the Tawilat-i Najmiyya:

He who hears the divine voice and sees the divine light detaches himself from everything else and never relies on anything other than the generosity and blessing of Allah. He completely cleanses his heart of all base desires.

When Yusuf (a.s) was confronted with the tricks of Zulayha, an involuntary inclination rose up in him. At that moment, Allah revealed to him His indisputable proof. The roof of the room opened up and he saw his father Yaqub biting his finger. Another person appeared next to him who said:

– Yusuf, look to your right!

When Yusuf (a.s) looked to his right he saw a huge snake.

This is how the true nature of things was revealed to Yusuf (a.s). The deeds of the ego appeared to him in both a concrete and ugly form. The transient appearances melted away and the deeper reality behind them emerged unveiled. At that moment, the divine manifestations and the secrets of things became clearly visible to him.

When the help of Allah arrived with a clear proof, Yusuf (a.s) was saved from the forthcoming harm of both his nafs and the woman.

The Prophet (pbuh) said: “Paradise is surrounded by what the ego despises while the Hellfire is surrounded by what the nafs enjoys.”

Overcoming the obstacle of the ego is made possible by making bay’ah (a special compact between a spiritual teacher and a disciple) with a friend of Allah who is an heir of the Prophet (pbuh) and is linked to him through an unbroken chain of transmission. One must then submit himself to the training of his teacher. The Qur’an states: “His (Allah’s) hand is above their hands”(Fath, 10), during the bay’ah. What is referred to by “their hands”, are the hands of the companions of the Prophet (pbuh) who made bay’ah or gave allegianceto him. In the same way, every man of Allah (ahlullah), even a poor dervish, carries a bay’ah that reaches to the Prophet (pbuh). This is made possible through the chain of transmission that extends back in time though the hand of his teacher, his teacher’s teacher, and the hands of all previous masters reaching back to the hand of the Prophet (pbuh). The power of Allah remains above all these hands through the course of time. The presence of the power of Allah with the hand of the Prophet (pbuh) is what distinguishes the hands of the perfect servants of Allah and it is through this presence that they are able to function in extraordinary spiritual capacities. The Absolute Actor (al-fa’il al-mutlaq) is Allah and He grants His friends permission for the performance of acts spiritually engendered solely by Him.

There are two forms of love: real and metaphorical. Real love exists solely in the love of Allah while all metaphorical love is in fact an attachment to a created, transitory condition. The true lover is freed from all attachments because he is exclusively and completely attached to Allah alone. He neither recognizes nor considers the love of anything other than Him. For instance, Majnun finally attained to a spiritual state in which he could not even recognize Layla.

Rumi points to this issue in the following passage: “Due to a love for body, Allah made Majnun unable to distinguish between friend and foe.”

The poet Fuzuli, who was a lover of the Prophet (pbuh) in his famous Ode for Water (Su Kasidesi), compared the Prophet (pbuh) with a rose:

Let the garden keeper give up the rose garden to the flood of water,

For, a single rose (like him) would not blossom even if he would water a thousand rose gardens.

Rumi articulated this love as follows: “The Almighty Allah gave such a special power to divine love that even if one is blessed with but a single drop of it, he will be emancipated from the concerns of both worlds.”


That means that the one who is lost in divine love no longer cares about the deficiencies, the jealousy, and the mistakes of others. In this way his perfection grows and he eventually attains to the destination he has sought. This is pure love. This is the love of Allah.

A guide attracts his disciples to himself through a spiritually sanctified act and reconfigures their bondage to the mundane by slowly transforming it into a genuine love of the divine. The real connections that gradually emerge between disciple and master slowly replace the false attachments and in fact become the first steps on the path to being extinguished in divine love.

Sheikh Sadi illustrates the divine acts of guides in the following story:

One day, one of my friends in the public spa gave me a soap that was made out of a special soil. I asked the soap:

– Are you musk or amber? I am genuinely impressed by your wondrous fragrance.

The soap answered:

– I was the soil of a rose. The rose’s petals used to be burdened with drops of water in the morning. These rose petal drops used to fall on me as tears. With them, I was molded like dough. In truth, I am an ordinary soil whose exquisite fragrance comes from the rose.

Allah has created the universe for human beings. He has put everything in the sea, in the sky and on the land under the command of man. However, in exchange He has burdened man with a weight of responsibility beyond that which mountains can bear.

If a human being looks at this world through materialistic, acquisitive eyes, he will inevitably be drawn to think about living in it in a fashion devoid of eternal insight. One event in life functions to restore balance to our vision. This is the event of “death”. It is a deep spiritual concern of any person who takes life seriously for this transition draws into full relief the meaning of life and is thus filled with many important lessons. It is the extraction of these lessons and their integration that become the measure of one’s ultimate success in life. Having acknowledged this truth, in a complementary sense we also need to remember that death is a sorrowful end for those who have cared only for their bodies and have abandoned their souls.

The Prophet (pbuh) defined mundane life as follows:

Why should I be concerned with this world? My condition is similar to a traveler who shortly stops over under a tree to get some rest in its shadow and then continues his journey.

O Lord! May You bestow upon us the endless joy of your love and blessing.


Osman Nuri Topbas from the book of  “Tears of the Heart”