Quranic Reflection No. 481. Āyat 12:18 – Enhancing a wrong deed

قَالَ بَلْ سَوَّلَتْ لَكُمْ أَنفُسُكُمْ أَمْرًا
Qāla bal sawwalat lakum anfusakum amrā
He (Ya‘qūb) said: No, your souls have made a matter seem decorous to you.
(Sūrat Yusuf, No 12, Āyat 18)

When the brothers of Prophet Yūsuf  ‘alayhis-salām brought his shirt to their father and narrated the false story of how the wolf ate him, Prophet Ya‘qūb ‘alayhis-salām responded saying that their souls have made the matter seem good to them. It is a subtle rejection of their claim and an indication of how the soul works to enhance and justify an evil action. The same words are repeated by Prophet Ya‘qūb later in the same Sūra when he responds to the brothers who come back from Egypt without his younger son Benyamin: No, your souls have made a matter seem decorous to you (Q 12:83).

The Quran also talks about this action of the soul in another place.When Sāmirī was asked by Prophet Mūsā ‘alayhis-salām about why he constructed the golden calf for the people while the Prophet was away, he said, ‘That is how my soul prompted me’ (Q 20:96) explaining what he did and attributes it to the prompting of his soul.

The word used in all these three verses is ‘sawwalat’ from ‘taswīl’. Allāmah Tabātabā’ī defines ‘taswīl’ as a form of whispering of the soul. The whisperings make a matter that the soul desires seem correct and good. It enhances the action and presents it in a different light, disguising the wrong within it. It also makes the evil act seem light and not so serious. Thus, the person performing the deed believes it is right to do it, or that it is a small matter of not too much importance. Imam Ali ‘alayhis-salām has a beautiful advice on how to conquer the soul: Subjugate your souls to abandon their habits, drive them to perform acts of obedience, make them bear the burdensome consequences of their actions, adorn them with the performance of noble acts, and protect them against the pollution of sins. [Ghurar, H 5199]

The Shaytān is also responsible for the same type of prompting and whisperings to make a matter seem decorous. The Quran says: Indeed those who turned their backs after the guidance had become clear to them, it was Satan who had seduced them, and he had given them [far-flung] hopes (Q 47:25). The Arabic phrase used here is ‘sawwala lahum’.

One of the diseases of the soul is to not acknowledge the wrong it does. Instead of accepting it and realizing its full evil, the soul pretends it is perfectly fine to do it. This is the trickery of the soul, a process so ingenious that the person does not even realize it. Sometimes the soul makes the mind believe it as if it is doing a good deed. Many verses warn about this cunningness of the soul and its impact on human beings. It becomes an obstacle to growth and progress because the person loses the ability to distinguish between good and evil. The evil that it desires can be made to look good and it becomes a murky darkness through which the truth cannot be perceived. We need to rein the soul through continuous efforts. Amirul Mu’min Imam Ali has said: Gain control of your souls through constant self-struggle. (Ghurar, H 2489)

Believers need to be alert to the whisperings of the soul and the Shaytān. Let this verse remind us of how a wrong deed may seem good and right to us. Strong God consciousness is the only way to see through it and counter it by seeing wrong and evil in true colors.

Sources: Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzānhttps://rasekhoon.net/article/show/1252248/