Self is our biggest and most staunch enemy being permanently and continuously at war with reason. By listening to Satanic whispers, it attacks the reason together with its soldiers to get it isolated and ultimately silenced so that it becomes the sole contender. Its single goal is to force out God’s angels from the heart’s kingdom helping Satan take over its absolute control. Naturally, defeating such a treacherous enemy is not an easy task; it requires determination, resistance, perseverance and even jihad (holy war)—a jihad not only for once or twice, for a few days and few years but also continuous one until the last breath of life, which is a hard, difficult and serious struggle.
In order to defeat the self and to control passions, we must fight hard by strictly following the commands of the Prophet (a.s) and the Infallible Imams (a.s); with the help of reason must march forward preventing transgressions and encroachment of the self and destroying the roots of his forces so that reason can take over the power and by taking inspirations from religious law can gulide us upon the path of human perfection leading towards God’s Nearness. We must know that while confronting self compromise and piece settlement is not possible, and what is required is a devastating blow making him crippled permanently from plotting any further conspiracies. In order to achieve happiness and salvation, there is no other alternative except to follow this course and because of this, struggle against the self has been called in traditions as the Greater jihad (Al-Jihad Al-Akbar). Let us quote few examples from Amir al-Mu’minin Imam `Ali (a.s):
إمْلِكوا أنفُسَكم بِدَوامِ جِهادِها.
“Take over the possession of your self through continuous struggle.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, vol. 1, pp. 131)
إغْلِبوا أهْوائَكُم وحارِبوها فإنهّا إنْ تُقَيِّدْكم تُورِدْكُم مِن الهَلَكةِ أبعَدَ غايَةٍ.
“Fight and dominate over selfs whims and passions because, if they succeed in making you prisoners, they will treat you in a most humiliating manner destroying you eventually.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, vol. 1, pp. 138)
ألا إنّ الجِهادَ ثمَنُ الجَنّة، فمَنْ جاهَدَ نفْسَهُ مَلَكها وهي أكْرَمُ ثوابِ الله لمَنْ عَرفَها.
“Be aware! Paradise is purchased through self‑struggle. Therefore, whoever is engaged in self‑struggle will be victorious. Paradise is the greatest reward for one who really appreciates its worth.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, vol. 1, pp. 165)
جاهِدْ نفْسَكَ عَلى طاعَةِ اللهِ مُجاهَدَةَ العدُوِّ لِعَدُوّهِ، وغالِبْها مُغالَبةَ الضِّدِّ ضِدَّهُ، فإنّ أقوى النّاسِ مَن قَويَ على نَفسهِ.
“By means of fighting against the self, incite its towards God’s worshipping. Fight it the way one must fight with his worst enemy, and dominate over it like the domination of victor over an opponent. The most powerful is he who is victorious over his self.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, vol. 1, pp. 371)
إنّ الحازمَ مَن شُغِلَ بجِهادِ نَفْسِه فَأصْلَحَها وَحَبَسها عَن أهْوِيَتِها ولَذّاتِها فَمَلَكها، وإنّ لِلعاقِلِ بِنفْسِه عَن الدّنيا وَما فِيها وإهْلِها شُغلاً.
“A wise man keeps himself engaged in struggle against his self reforming and preventing it from indulging into passions and amusements and in this manner subdues it ultimately taking over his possession. Such a wise person is so much preoccupied by his self-refinement that he is totally detached from the world, whatever it contains and its dwellers.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, vol. 1, pp. 237)
Struggle against one’s self is the most crucial warfare which ultimately determines our destiny—a warfare upon which depends our’s manners of living in this world and the Hereafter. If we do not dominate the self through struggle and take over the ruling authority in our own hands, it will take over the control of our possessions by pulling us in every direction at it will. If we fail to make it our prisoner, it will certainly take us into imprisonment as slaves; if we can not succeed in inciting it for doing good moral deeds, it will force us to indulge into most shameful evil deeds. Therefore, it must be said that struggle against one’s self is one of the most important and difficult duties taht have been assigned upon the shoulders of the wayfarers journeying towards God, and whatever energy is spent by them in this struggle deserves merit and is energy well spent.
Greater Struggle (Al-Jihad Al-Akbar)
Struggle against one’s self is so important that the Prophet (a.s) has described it as the Greater Struggle (Al-Jihad Al‑Akbar). It is so crucial that it has been described even greater than the armed conflicts. Amir al-Mu’minin Imam `Ali (a.s) narrated:
إنّ رسول الله بَعث سَرِيّةً، فلمّا رجعوا قال: مَرحباً بقومٍ قَضوا الجهاد الأصغر وبَقي عليهم الجهاد الأكبر، قيل: يا رسول الله، وما الجهاد الأكبر؟ قال: جهاد النفس.
The Holy Prophet (a.s) dispatched his soldiers to battle front to fight against the enemy. When the soldiers returned triumphant, the Prophet said, “Welcome to those who have successfully completed the Minor Struggle, but they have yet to engage themselves into the Greater Struggle.” He was asked, “What is the Greater Struggle?” “It is the struggle against the self,” replied the Prophet (a.s). (Wasa’il al‑Shi`ah, vol. II, pp. 124)
Amir al-Mu’minin Imam `Ali (a.s) said:
إنّ أفضَلَ الجِهادِ مَن جاهَدَ نفْسَهُ الّتي بَينَ جَنْبَيهِ.
“The best jihad is the struggle against one’s self that is between his two sides.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, vol. 11, pp. 124)
In his final will, the Prophet (a.s) said to Imam `Ali (a.s).
أفْضَلُ الجِهادِ مَنْ أصبَحَ لا يَهمُّ بِظْلمِ أحَدٍ.
“The best jihad is the struggle of him who made his night into morning without thinking to oppress a single individual.” (Wasa’il al‑Shi`ah, vol. 11, pp. 123)
In these traditions, the importance of struggle against one’s self have been described as the Greater Struggle" or the Supreme jihad,which is even superior than jihad for sake of Almighty God. Considering the exalted position of jihad for sake of God that is considered as one of the most superior acts of worship, the importance and worth of self‑struggle becomes explicitly clear. In order to further explain its superiority in details, we may point out the following three reasons:
Each act of worship, including armed struggle, requires self‑struggle from two considerations; firstly, the performance of each act of worship with perfection and in accordance with certain requirements itself requires self‑struggle. For example, is the performance of the daily prayers with presence of mind as well as meeting all other conditions so that it indeed becomes a believer’s heavenly journey preventing him from forbidden deeds—is it possible without efforts and self‑struggle? Is fasting with perfection satisfying all its requirements so that it becomes a shield against Hellfire possible without self‑struggle? Is it possible for a valiant mujahid (undertaker of jihad) who is eager for martyrdom to appear on the battlefield to fight bravely with the enemies of Islam without self‑struggIe? Secondly, every act of worship is accepted by Almighty God and becomes a means of attaining His Nearness subjected to its being performed solely for sake of His Pleasure, being purified from all traces of polytheism, self‑deceit and other selfish passions and the performance of such acts without self‑struggle is not possible. Even the armed struggle and martyrdom are worthy and become means of attaining God’s Nearness only if they are perfumed purely for sake of God’s Pleasure and declaration of the slogan of Monotheism (Tawhid).
However, if this superior worship is performed with the intention of
achieving fame and glory, taking revenge upon the enemy, for sake of lasting the name in history, for showing off and deceit, for achieving wealth and position, running away from facing life’s difficulties and other desires of the self, then they will lack any spiritual distinction and will not become means of attaining God’s Newness. Therefore, self-struggle is superior than all acts of worship and virtuous deeds, including jihad undertaken for sake of Almighty God because it is a prerequisite for their genuine dischargement with perfection. Accordingly, self-struggle has been called the Greater Struggle (Al-Jihad Al-Akbar).
Armed struggle becomes compulsory only under certain times and circumstances. Further, it is not incumbent upon everyone; rather it is a collective obligation that some people are free from it. During certain times, armed struggle is not required at all or is required to the extent of collective obligation, e.g. if required number of people assume this obligation, the others are excused. Apart from this, it is not incumbent upon women, elderly men, handicapped and sick people; yet, struggle against one’s self is incumbent upon everyone being an individual obligation during all times, circumstances and situations and must be continued until the very last moments of life, and no body under any condition will ever be free this requirement.
Struggle against one’s self is harder than all acts of worship including the armed struggle in which a combatant risks his life by accepting martyrdom. This is because absolute surrender before Almighty God, self‑struggle against self’s whims and passions for the entire life and journeying towards the straight path of perfection are much more difficult than fighting the enemy in battlefields for a moment and ultimately achieving martyrdom. In fact, self‑struggle is so hard that except with continuous resistance, tolerance of pains and anguishes and without God’s assistance, it is not possible. Therefore, we recite five times a day in our daily prayers:
اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ.
“Show us the straight path. 1:6”
To follow up the straight path of perfection is so difficult that the Prophet of Islam (a.s) implored to Almighty God saying:
إلهي، لا تَكِلْني إلى نَفْسي طَرفَةَ عَينٍ أبَداً.
“O God! Do not leave me at the disposal of my self even for a fraction of a second.”
Struggle and Divine Assistance
It is quite true that self‑struggle is extremely difficult and requires resistance, perseverance and intelligence, but it is possible and absolutely necessary for achieving human happiness; therefore, if one decides seriously to begin it, he will certainly receive Divine Assistance and will succeed in his efforts as Almighty God has promised in the Holy Qur’an:
وَالَّذِينَ جَاهَدُوا فِينَا لَنَهْدِيَنَّهُمْ سُبُلَنَا وَإِنَّ اللَّهَ لَمَعَ الْمُحْسِنِينَ.
“As for those who strive in Us, We surely guide them to Our paths, and lo! Allah is with the good. 29:69”
Imam al‑Sadiq (a.s) said:
طُوبَى لِعَبدٍ جاهَدَ اللهَ نَفْسَهُ وَهَواهُ، وَمَنْ هَزمَ حينَئذٍ هَواهُ ظَفَرَ بِرِضا اللهِ وَمَنْ جَاوزَ عَقْلُهُ نَفْسَهُ الأمّارَةَ بِالسُّوءِ بالجُهْدِ وَالاسْتِكانَةِ وَالخُضُوعِ عَلى بِساطِ خِدمَةِ اللهِ تَعالى فَقَدْ فازَ فَوزاً عَظيماً.
Blessed be a servant of God who struggles against the self and his passions for sake of God’s Pleasure. Whoever becomes victorious over the self’s whims and passions has already achieved God’s Pleasure. Whoever offers resistance and with humility in front of God allows the reason to control the imperious self has received the greatest blessing.
وَلا حِجابَ أظْلَمُ وَأوْحَشُ بَينَ العَبدِ وَبَينَ اللهِ تَعالى مِن النَّفْسِ وَالهَوى، وَلَيسَ لِقَتْلِهِما وَقَطْعِهِما سِلاحٌ وَآلَةٌ مِثلُ الافْتِقارِ إلى اللهِ سُبحانَهُ وَالخُشُوعِ وَالجُوعِ والظَّمَأ بِالنَّهارِ وَالسَّهَرِ بِاللّيلِ؛ فإنْ ماتَ صاحِبُهُ ماتَ شَهيداً وإنْ عاشَ وَاستَقامَ أدّاهُ عاقِبَتُه إلى الرّضْوانِ الأكْبَرِ.
There exists between the servants of God and Him nothing darker and more horrible barrier than the imperious self and passions; and in order to destroy their roots forever, there is no armament better than the realization to seek God, humility, hunger, thirst during the day (i.e. fasting), and night awakening (i.e. engaging in night prayers and having humming communications with Almighty God). If such a person dies in this course, he will leave the world as martyr; and if he remains alive, he will ultimately attain the exalted position of God’s Nearners.
قالَ اللهُ عَزَّ من قائِلٍ ﴿ وَالَّذِينَ جَاهَدُوا فِينَا لَنَهْدِيَنَّهُمْ سُبُلَنَا وَإِنَّ اللَّهَ لَمَعَ الْمُحْسِنِينَ.﴾ وإذا رَأَيْتَ مُجْتَهداً أبْلغَ مِنكَ في الاجْتِهادِ فَوَبِّخْ نَفسَكَ وَلُمْها وَعَيِّرْها تَحثيثاً عَلى الازْدِيادِ عَليه واجْعَلْ لهَا زِماماً مِن الأمْرِ وَعِناناً مِن النّهْيِ وَسُقْها كالرّايِضِ للفادَةِ الّتي لا يَذهَبُ عَليه خُطوَةٌ مِن خَطَواتِها إلاّ وقَدْ صَحَّحَ أوَّلَها وَآخِرَها.
Almighty God has promised in the Holy Qur’an that those who strive in His cause will certainly be guided towards His path and verily, God is with those who do right. When you encounter another struggle endeavoring in self-refinement better than your own efforts, then reprimand your self severely and remind it to be more careful and determined. In accordance with the Divine do’s and don’ts, make a bridle for the self and like a master training his inexperienced and wanton slave, encourage your self towards virtuous deeds.
وَكانَ رَسُولُ اللهِ صَلّى اللهُ عَلَيه وآلِهِ وَسَلَّم يُصَلّي حَتىّ يَتَورَّمُ قَدَماهُ وَقالَ: أفَلا أكونُ عَبداً شَكوراً؟ أرادَ صَلّى اللهُ عَلَيه وآلِهِ وَسَلَّم أنْ يَعتَبِرَ بِه أمَّتُهُ فَلا يَغفَلوا عَن الاجْتِهادِ وَالتّعَبِ وَالرّياضَةِ بِحالٍ إلاّ إنّك لَو وَجَدتَ حَلاوةَ عِبادَةِ اللهِ وَرأيْتَ بَركاتِها وَاسْتَضَئْتَ بِنُورِها لَمْ تَصْبرْ عَنْها ساعَةً واحِدَةً ولَو قُطِّعْتَ إرباً إرباً فَما أعْرضَ مَن أعْرضَ عَنها بِحِرمانِ فَوائِدِ السَّلَفِ مِن العِصْمةِ وَالتّوفِيقِ.
The Prophet (a.s) offered so much prayer that his feet become swelled. In response to people’s complaint, replied, “Should I not be thankful to Almighty God?” By these serious endeavors in worship, the Prophet (a.s) wanted to teach a lesson to his community. Therefore, one should never be negligent from endeavors, worship and ascestism. Know that If you can witness the sweetness of worshipping and other blessings and if your heart becomes illuminated with Divine Light, you will not be ready to discontinue even for an hour and even if they cut off your body into several pieces. Therefore, the negligence of worshipping shall never be possible except being deprived from advantages of competing for achieving immunity against sins and attaining God’s Blessings. (Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 70, pp. 69)
Self-struggle is exactly like holy fighting; each blow inflicted upon the enemy and every stronghold captured by means of soldiers make the enemy weaker in the same proportion making the forces psychologically stronger and better prepared for subsequent assaults and later victories. Accordingly, the Holy Qur’an says:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِنْ تَنصُرُوا اللَّهَ يَنصُرْكُمْ وَيُثَبِّتْ أَقْدَامَكُمْ.
“O ye who believe! If ye help Allah, He will help you and will make your foothold firm. 47:1”
Likewise, each blow inflicted upon the imperious self and each control over whims and passions makes it weaker in the same proportion and thus making us stronger and better prepared for subsequent assaults and later victories. Opposite to that, any amount of irresolution and surrender to self’s whims and passions make us weaker and making it stronger and better equipped for later assaults. If we can take the first giant step towards self‑refinement, we, with Divine Assistance, will be able to achieve absolute domination over the self; but if we run away from the battlefield against the passions and self’s soldiers, they will become stronger and ultimately take over our absolute control.
Man—His own Physician
It is true that the Prophets and the Infallible Imams (a.s) are the teachers and physicians of human souls, but the responsibility for treatment, refinement and purification of their souls have been assigned upon their own shoulders. Although the Prophets and the Infallible Imams (a.s) have lectured and explained to human beings in details about their psychic diseases and symptoms, issued relevant prescriptions for their treatments so that they could become familiar with their pains and treatments and could assume the responsibility of their own self reforms. This is because nobody could diagnose the disease and take the necessary action for its treatment better than the man himself. Man listens about the psychic disease and their treatments either from the tongue of a preacher or learns through reading a book; yet, he is the one who must discover the disease within his own self and should use a particular medicine for its treatment. A man could feel about his own pains and is knowledgeable about the hidden mysteries within far better than anyone else. Therefore, if he himself is not careful in controlling his own self, then of course the preaching and warning issued by others would not produce any useful outcome.
Islam believes that reform must begin from the inner selves of human beings; they must be prepared for undertaking self‑refinement, pay attention to psychological hygiene and be assigned the responsibility to guard their own souls. This in itself could be considered as one of the important principles of Islamic training. Almighty God has said in the Holy Qur’an:
بَلْ الْإِنسَانُ عَلَى نَفْسِهِ بَصِيرَةٌ. وَلَوْ أَلْقَى مَعَاذِيرَهُ.
“Oh, but man is a telling witness against himself; although he tender his excuses. 75:14‑15”
Imam al‑Sadiq (a.s) said:
إنّكَ قَد جُعِلْتَ طَبيبَ نَفسِكَ وبُيِّنَ لكَ الدّاءُ وَعُرِّفْتَ آيةَ الصّحَّةِ ودُلِلْتَ عَلى الدّواءِ، فانْظُرْ كَيفَ قِيامُكَ عَلى نَفسِكَ.
“You have been appointed as the physician of your own self; pains, prescriptions and symptoms of sound health have been explained for you. Now see how are you going to act for the treatment of your self.” (al-Kafi, vol. 2, pp. 454)
مَن لَمْ يَجْعلْ لهُ مِن نَفْسِه واعِظاً فإنّ مَواعِظَ النّاسِ لَن تُغنيَ عَنهُ شَيئاً.
“Whoever does not have a preacher within his own self will not be benefited from others’ preaching.” (Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 70, pp. 70)
يا ابْنَ آدم! لا تَزالُ بِخَيرٍ ما كانَ لكَ واعِظٌ مِن نَفْسِكَ.
“O son of Adam (human being)! So for as you have a preacher inside yourself, you are bound to do good deeds.” (Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 70, pp. 64)
Amir al-Mu’minin Imam `Ali (a.s) said:
أعْجَزُ النّاسِ مَن عَجزَ عَن إصْلاحِ نَفسِهِ.
“The most helpless person is he who is helpless in reforming his self.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, vol. 1, pp. 196)
يَنبَغي أنْ يَكونَ الرَّجُلُ مُهَيمِناً عَلى نَفسِهِ مُراقِباً لِقلْبِه حافِظاً لِلسانِه.
“It is desirable that a man should assume the responsibility of supervision over his own self. He should continuously watch out his heart and control his tongue.” (Ghurar al-Hikam, vol. 2, pp. 862)
 The Propher (a.s) has called the daily prayers as the ladder of a believer carrying him higher towards the heavens. Also, Almighty God says in the Holy Qur’an:
إِنَّ الصَّلَاةَ تَنْهَى عَنْ الْفَحْشَاءِ وَالْمُنْكَرِ.
“Lo! Prayer preserveth from lewdness and iniquity. 29:45” [Tr].
 If one can have a superior and more vital aim than guidance, that will certainly be included in Surah of Fatihah— the Opening Chapter of the Holy Qur’an that is an essential part of the daily prayers. It is by way of His direction or guidance that the intellect and experience set their course in the correct, advantageous and suitable position widening the path of a wayfarer. Otherwise, the intellect and experience would turn into a light in the hands of a thief or a piece of sharp blade in the hand of an insane. (Profundities of Prayers, Sayyid `Ali Khamane’i, pp. 33) [Tr]