Controlling the ego
The concept of ‘ego’ in Islam is more complicated than what a cursory look reveals. It revolves around the Quranic term ‘nafs’. Literally, it means one’s ‘self’. Very close to the term ‘ego’ but not quite the same thing. Nafs is one’s ‘individual soul’ with one’s individual inclinations. Those inclinations may be righteous and sinful, depending on the prompts which nafs gets. The prompts provided by the ego.
The word ‘ego’ comes from Latin where it means ‘I’. It is the part of nafs that looks after the soul’s individual interests. Putting these before the Will of Allah is dangerous, for man is fickle and loses way completely without God’s guidance. Yet the treatment of this ‘I’ for benefit is more than simply stifling it.
Many scholars postulate killing the ego, waging a war on it and stomping it out mercilessly. But can this really be done? Our ego is part of our being, it was inserted into humans by Allah at Creation, it was His will and His decree. It is meant to be one of the many tests which Allah has in store for the faithful. But ego can be good for you as long as you keep it in control.
Ego is generally understood as arrogant pride. The one described by George Harrison as ‘I, Me, Mine’. But in its proper sense ‘ego’ is simply ‘I’. While this ‘I’ can be arrogant, it can also be a positive driving force. There is one condition, though. It is submission to Allah in anything you do. The ego becomes deadly when it is allowed to believe that it has its own powers in this world, that it is the source of one’s achievements and thus needs not refer to God on any matters at all. Such escalation of the ego is the working of the devil. Once allowed to even consider this possibility, the nafs becomes slave to him and prey to him. This cannot be allowed to happen. This needs to be stemmed at the bud by prayer and repentance. Allah the Almighty alone is the source of any achievements of man. He gives both the opportunity to realize them and power to go through with them. Submission to Him is what makes anything in this world possible. Once that is taken care of, the rest of the ego story shall take on a more promising edge.
As personal pride in its positive sense ego can be the driving force for distinction. Distinction in your own name is a sin but distinction in the name of Allah is a good deed. The Golden Age of Islam had many a testimony of that. The egos of scholars like Ibn Sina and Biruni and many others craved to distinguish themselves in learning and Allah responded to their yearning by giving them knowledge. They distinguished themselves in the name of Allah and in the name of proclaiming His Glory and Wisdom. This same gift will be given to anyone who chooses to bend down his ego to God and pray for his craving for distinction to be satisfied. The true challenge of the ego part of nafs is to stay the Lord’s humble servant. And that is what the true believer’s ego ought to be aiming at, the ego of “those who have believed and whose hearts are assured by the remembrance of Allah . Unquestionably, by the remembrance of Allah hearts are assured.” (13:28)