Nafs Ammarah

As a Muslim living in a non-Muslim country, I am always on the lookout for things in popular culture from which I might derive a reminder [dhikr ذكر] of Islam, of Reality, and perhaps of the Life To Come. I have found this to be an increasingly important exercise, both for me personally, as well as for the students of classes I teach on Islamic studies. What I mean here is not attempting to ascribe any certain thing with a level of “Islamicity” or Muslim’ness that is not there, but rather, looking at stories and narratives that remind me of that which Allah has written in His Book. One such instance happened yesterday.

The words nafs ammarah, or the commanding self, are found in the Qur’an, in surah Yusuf [Joseph], in which Allah says:

وما أبرئ نفسي إن النفس لأمارة بالسوء إلا ما رحم ربي إن ربي غفور رحيم

“And nor was I [Joseph] completely free of blame. The self commands to evil acts, save that which my Lord has mercy upon me. Surely, my Lord is Forgiving, Merciful.” [Q 12: 53]

This passage in the Qur’ān on the nafs ammārah relates to us part of the story of Prophet Yusuf [Joseph], and his test when the king’s wife attempted to seduce him.  Yusuf relates that the temptation was there, that his soul wished to entice him to evils deeds.  It was only through God’s mercy and grace that he was able to resist.

The above passage came to me as I recently chanced upon a film I watched as a kid entitled, They Live!, by John Carpenter. In summary, the film is about a man, a drifter, who by happenstance, stumbles upon the stunning reality that the human race has been subdued by a group of space aliens that have enslaved humans through advanced subliminal techniques. When the main character dons a pair of special sunglasses, he is able to see the Unseen: billboards are really devices that command humans to consume, have sex, or to obey, as well as being able to see the aliens for who they really are [ghoulish, lizard like beings]. Even money, when viewed through the sunglasses, have the words “this is your god” written on them. To be sure, the movie is quite comical and the dialog stiff. Nonetheless, I found it to be an intriguing visual example of how the nafs ammārah works. And while the nafs is an internal phenomenon, it still commands us to act upon things in the external world, making the film a worthwhile glance at a Qur’ānic principle on human psychology.

They Live! is based on the short story, Eight O’clock In The Morning, by renowned science-fiction author, Ray Nelson. I have posted the short story here as well as a link to the film They Live! for your B-movie enjoyment.

Note: if you have the opportunity to see Dr. Sherman Jackson speak, ask him to relate to you how Terminator 2 moved him to tears, as it reminded him of how the Prophet [s] had to deliver a message, one in which many people refused to believe him because they could not see what he saw, similar in the way no one believe Sarah Connor. A worthwhile treat!

Note 2: The last part of the movie features some nudity and may be avoided. You’ll get the gist of it by then and can skip the final scene.

Note 3: See this piece on about Jonathen Lethem’s film analysis of Carpenter’s film, They Live, A Novel Approach to Cinema. Hat tip to Stephen for the link.

Note 4: A khutbah that pertains to similar aspects of the soul.

10 Replies to “Nafs Ammarah”

  1. I haven’t seen the new V yet but it would seem that lizards from outer space is coming back around again.

    Keith is a great [voice as well] actor. I remember being a bit shocked by Pitch Black: Hollywood acknowledges that Muslims exist in the future?! Wow!

  2. Great flick. I’d never read the story before. It seems like reptilians are a big theme these days. There’s V of course and David Icke’s reptilian theory. I actually work with someone (a full-time math professor actually) who talks about the Illuminati and seems to literally believe in the reptilian bloodlines. I’m not sure what has persuaded him but he is definitely interesting to talk to.

    And of course Keith David goes on to play the main Muslim character in the Pitch Dark trilogy (which, after the Dune series, is probably the most significant representation of Muslims in space)

  3. Asalamu alaykum,

    Excellent points, akhi. I often ponder creating a curriculum that would not only consist of our standard Islamic texts, but be augmented with different popular culture gems that would touch the heart and feed the soul. Your post as given me inspiration to act on it.

    Thank you,

  4. Wa ‘alaykum Salaam sidi Suhaib.

    Good to hear from you. al-Hamdulillah, I used some of this post’s examples in class today and it went over well. I would love to talk about developing a course along the lines of a cinematic critique from a Muslim’s point of view. Halālwood: Interpreting Modern Cinema For a Muslim Audience. How’s that sound?!

  5. AA-

    Halalwood sounds cool, but please, please don’t use anything ‘starring’ Rowdy Roddy Piper! I mean, to call anything with him in it a B-movie does a great disservice to all the serious actors in the history of B-movies, like Nic Cage and Sly Stallone. 🙂

  6. WAS, Naeem,

    You gotta hand it to Piper. I mean, the guy was just a WWF wrestler and he did as good a job as either Cage or Stallone! I’m all for a They Live 2! Someone contact Pipe’s agent.

  7. I didn’t watch the movie, but the theme – as well as the subsequent mentions of reptilian aliens, bloodlines, popular culture – sounds very much like something I watched not long ago.

    Check out the conspiracy theory series “The Arrivals” …. it’s worth a watch – bearing in mind that you should do your own research to ascertain what’s true and what’s questionable.

    It kind of ties all of these things together to present an alarming yet possible perspective of our world today.

  8. Wa ‘alaykum salaam to all. I have been away, busied with school work, and have not had the time to respond.

    @Abu Ibrahim. While I recognize what you’re saying about the True Lies and the Delta Forces of the Hollywood world, what I and Imam Suhaib [and correct me if I’m wrong here, Imam] are trying to get at is this process is more proactive than reactive. In other words, the success of such a course would lie more in what you’re able to actively pull out of the narrative versus what you simply observe within the biased landscape. And precisely because it is a biased landscape, it’s even more critical to take ownership of one’s own narrative, even if the work isn’t originally yours [per the Jackson example above].

    على الخير

  9. An Islam/Hollywood series would be interesting. One would have to touch on not just the positives (there are very few that I can think of), but also the negatives (ala True Lies, Delta Force, The Kingdom, etc., etc., etc…).

    But I don’t think we should overlook the whole Illuminati/Freemasonry/Israel/Hollywood connection either. I know it might seem kind of “out there” but it’s interesting nonetheless.

    Autobiography of an American Muslim

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