Note: The control of Nafs (the Ego) is a major objective of Islamic religious training. Through parables and examples, the great Shaikhs taught their students how to achieve this in their lives through detachment and self-control.
In one of his sohbets (associations or classes) the illustrious Shaikh Nazim al Haqqani al Qabrusi of Cyprus and Turkey related the following parable. A cat is offered in this parable as a simile for the Nafs. Shaikh Nazim had heard it from his Shaikh Abdallah Daghestani who in turn had heard it from Shaikh Sharafuddin Daghestani. The chain of transmission of some parables takes us to the earliest days of Islamic history when the great Shaikhs taught their students in halqas (study circles) in their homes and mosques.
Once upon a time there lived a hunter in a forest. He was young and strong and very successful as a hunter. Each day, at the break of dawn, he would march forth with his bow and arrow, hunt a deer, a rabbit or a bird, bring it back to his hut, roast it and feast upon it.
To amuse himself, this hunter kept a cat as a pet. In the late afternoon, when the hunter ate his meal of roasted meat, he gave some of it to the cat. This cat got so used to the meat that if any other food was offered that was not meat, it would refuse to eat it. It was indeed a spoiled cat.
It so happened that one day the young man fell sick. He could not go out hunting. There was no game to roast and feast upon. So the hunter took out some barley that he had saved up for a rainy day, boiled it and sat down to eat. The cat came running for its food and the hunter offered some of the barley to the cat. The cat smelled the barley, hissed at the food and walked away.
There also lived in the forest a certain Shaikh in a hut not too far away from that of the hunter. The learned Shaikh lived on a few grains of barley each day. With each bite, he said, Shukr Allah, Alhamdu lillah, Allahu Akbar(Thanks be to God, Praise to be God, God is the greatest) and he felt supremely satiated with what he ate.
The sensitive soul of the Shaikh was keenly aware of its surroundings. After the Fajr (morning) prayers, the Shaikh would sit outside his hut in contemplation, performing a silent dhikr (remembrance of God). The sounds of the forest, the flutter of birds, the rustle of trees due to the passing winds brought him the news about what was going on in the forest.
Sensing that something was wrong with the hunter because he had not heard the sounds that resulted from his usual hunting, the Shaikh went to see the young man.
“Assalamu alaikum” (Peace be with you), the Shaikh greeted the young hunter.
“Wa alaikum salaam wa rahmatullah” (Peace be with you too and the Grace of God as well), responded the young hunter.
“Are you well, my young friend”, said the Shaikh.
“I have a fever, my Shaikh”, said the hunter, “And a terrible headache. So I could not go hunting today”.
The Shaikh handed the hunter a herb that was known to cure such ailments. “Here, take this with the next meal. It will help you, inshallah”.
At this point, the hunter’s pet cat came out. It was still hissing from the lack of meat. “This cat eats only meat”, said the hunter. “I offered it some barley but it refused to eat it. And it has been hissing since the morning”.
The Shaikh thought for a moment. “Give me the cat for three days”, said the Shaikh, “And help me built a cage. I will train the cat.”
The hunter agreed. The two of them gathered some wood. Using branches of vines, they constructed a cage. The hunter brought out the cat, put it in the cage and locked its door.
The Shaikh carried home the cage and with it the cat. The first day, he offered the cat water and some barley in a cup which was placed outside the cage and within reach of the cat. The cat hissed and turned way. It would have nothing of the barley.
This scene was repeated the second day. The third day, the Shaikh pulled the cup of barley away so that the cat could not reach it even if it wanted to. The cat hissed all morning but by the afternoon of the third day the hissing stopped and it was all quiet.
By now, the hunter was feeling better and he came to the Shaikh to collect his cat. Greeting the Shaikh, he asked how the cat was doing.
“I will show you”, said the Shaikh. He opened the door to the cage. The cat ran straight to the cup of barley. Only after licking the cup clean of all the barley did the cat turn to the hunter and meowe.
The hunter had learned his lesson. “Thank you, my Shaikh”, said the hunter. “I should treat my Nafs the way you treated this cat. Do not give in to the fancy desires of your Nafs. Keep it on a tight leash. Feed it with the food of contentment.”
The young man carried the purring cat back to his hut.