The Voices of God, The Nafs, and The Shaytan
In every moment of the day, all people experience an undercurrent of conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions. Most people think that these thoughts and emotions are their own, flowing through their consciousness. The Sufis recognize these thoughts and emotions as emanating from a deeper source (or sources) we call voices. The three types of voices are:
- The Voice of Allah (God)
- The Voice of the Nafs (your lower ego)
- The Voice of the Shaytan (darkness).
As Sufis, we need to know which voice we’re listening to in order to know how to respond. Each voice has a discernible quality.
The Voice of Allah (God)
The voice of Allah is the voice of your heart that is connected and witnessing Allah. It helps your whole being to soften and feel more at ease. This voice only speaks kindly and lovingly, though it may be firm. It’s an uplifting, positive voice that rings with truth. You may ask yourself, “Where did that come from?”
The voice of Allah helps you to feel calm, centered, grounded, peaceful, creative, joyful, inspired, nurturing, or happy, to name a few. It inspires you to be in your natural state, called fitra, that is divinely inspired and full of faith, love, praise, and peace. Listening to the voice of Allah is your default mode…and this can be an important reframe if you think of yourself as depressed, anxious, etc.
The Voice of the Nafs (Lower Ego)
The voice of the nafs will feel more whiny, hurt, or needy in nature, as it is coming from the parts of yourself that are not connected and witnessing the Truth of Allah. An example of this voice is your inner child that is having a bad day because things are not going your way. It’s usually a voice of resistance to what is. It’s the voice that draws us towards activities that the body or mind enjoy in a way that doesn’t draw us closer to God.
“I want to sleep in, I want ice cream, I want to watch TV, Jimmy is being mean, They don’t like me, I’m hurt, I’m sad.” These are all examples of the voices of the nafs. They are not connected to the Love, but they are still a part of your inner being.
This voice can be very persistent, but it is also very simple. It’s not using complex strategies to get you to do what it wants. For instance, you see chocolate cake in the refrigerator and the voice of your nafs instantly says, “Eat the cake!” You say, “No, I don’t need cake right now, I’m not hungry.” The voice insists, “Eat the cake!” and the nafs will keep on saying, “Eat the cake” until you eat it, eat an equally delicious, healthier alternative, walk away and put it out of your consciousness, or find a way to connect to Allah in that moment and receive the Love into the veil which distorts your perception of what cake will give you.
The Voice of the Shaytan (Darkness, Satan, etc.)
This voice is different because it often speaks in the third person and says, “You.” As in, “You are a failure,” “Nobody cares about you,” “You will never get what you want.”
This is truly a dark-sounding voice, which is why Sidi calls it the “evil whisperer.” It sounds like it is coming from slightly outside of you, as if it is whispering in your ear. Usually it whispers negative commentary about you or it will try to lead you astray, such as, “You have had a hard day, you deserve a drink,” or “No one is looking, go ahead and do it.” Any voice that commands us or incites us towards doing what we know is wrong is coming from the shaytan. The voice of the shaytan will often use words like “never, forever, always, whenever” in a heavy damning voice.
Shaytanic voices are slightly less persistent than the voices of the nafs, but they use slightly more complex strategies. It’s still not rocket science, but if you say no to one of these voices, chances are you’ll hear it urging you to wrongdoing from a slightly different angle. For instance, there’s a pencil belonging to your supervisor that you wish was yours. The shaytanic voice will tell you, “Just take it, no one is looking.” You say to it, “No, that’s stealing.” Then the voice says, “You’ve been working so much overtime lately. You’ve earned that pencil. You deserve it. Take it.” If you continue to resist, this voice will eventually go away, but you may have to say no several times.
Why Do We Even Listen to Shaytan?
When the shaytan whispers, it is our nafs that is listening and our nafs that may choose to follow its commands. If that aspect of the nafs is clean, it will not listen to the shaytan at all. If that aspect of nafs is perceiving through a veil, a misconception, a distortion, a wound, etc., then it will listen to shaytan. If the nafs has listened to a particular shaytanic voice for a long time and believed it, the nafs can become stained with darkness and it can be difficult to distinguish between the shaytan from the nafs.
Why Spiritual Practice is So Important
This is why it’s so important to do the practices, receive healings if possible, and clear all of the veils we can. Our wounds, our distorted perceptions of Truth, make us vulnerable to the voices of the nafs and shaytan, which diminishes our proximity to the Beloved, the One We Long For With All Of Our Heart.
Through the voices and learning how to distinguish between them, we learn about the importance of our Divine connection and the danger of disconnection. It is necessary to bring all the incongruent parts of our self, the nafs, gently back into the Unity, where they can be healed and nourished by the Real Love.
What To Do When You Are Listening to the Nafs or Shaytan
When you hear what sounds like your nafs complaining, lead that voice gently to Allah. Hold it like you would hold a crying child and help it connect to the Love and the Mercy so that it can receive what it really needs, not what it thinks it needs.
When you hear what sounds like evil whispering, treat it much differently. Do not engage it, turn away from it, keep the door closed; don’t open the door and let it in, or it will overtake you. This voice requires firmness and a strong “No.” Do not open the door and argue with it or attempt to bargain with it. You will lose. Shut the door firmly and hold tight to the rope of Allah.
See the teaching “The Commanding Nafs” in Sidi’s book He who Knows Himself Knows His Lord, p. 64 for specific instructions on how to deal with the voices of the nafs and shaytan.
Ask for help, seek support if you have any questions about which voice is speaking. It is sometimes very hard to discern the voice of shaytan, it is often a cunning and deceiving voice. Remember, if it doesn’t sound like the voice of love and mercy be careful and know that even if it does, it can still be the shaytan speaking with the voice of truth from a veil of light. See the chapter titled “The Inspired Self” pp. 93-113 in He Who Knows Himself Knows His Lord, for more about the shaytan speaking in this way.
Keep walking, and you will find your way through the voices, with Allah’s help and Mercy. Amin.