Is desire bad? Much like expressing one’s anger, desire is not praiseworthy at all times, nor is it blameworthy. Excessive anger is blameworthy, as is excessive desire. How do we define excess in these situations? Excess is when their expression goes beyond what benefits or what fails to prevent harm. Despite there being acceptable expressions of desire, we find almost universal condemnation of it in religious texts. Why?
Because most people that obey their desires or emotions do not confine them to a level that benefits them. Instead, they exceed the bounds of acceptable expression in ways that harm both themselves and others. When mentioned in the Quran, desire is universally condemned and when mentioned in the Sunnah it is restricted, curbed by the controls of Prophetic guidance on proper action and character. “None of you truly believes until his desire is in accordance with what I have brought” has been narrated as a hadith on this topic.
Unrestricted desire allows one to indulge in contemporaneous pleasures without consideration for their consequences, even when such indulgences lead to both present and future pain. This life has consequences that come before those of the next, and desire blinds one from this realization.
Gentility, faith, and intellect prevent one from indulging in a pleasure that is followed by pain, or in lusts that bequeath regret. Someone that lacks gentility, i.e. a higher sense of character and refinement, will give his desires precedence even if doing so will devoid or diminish such character. This is the stage in which mindfulness comes into play, where you avoid things, even permissible things, if you know that partaking in them will play a negative role in your emotional and spiritual state. Al-Shafi’ said “If I knew that drinking cold water would diminish my gentility, I’d never drink it.” But this takes a level of self-awareness that can only come from constant evaluation of your own actions, feelings, and how those affect your subconscious thoughts.
Those addicted to their desires come to a point when they are never gratified by them. Despite this, they can’t abandon them, as indulging in desire becomes life itself. A person with a sex or alcohol addiction will not experience even one tenth of the gratification that a person who rarely seeks pleasures from sex or drinking experiences. Despite the sparsity of such pleasure for the addict, he or she will throw themselves into ruin just to gain even a little of what they assume will bring them happiness. Desire then ceases to be a temporal state, and instead is an ingrained habit that can’t be shaken. Inseparable in your mind, it then consumes you. Were such a person to step out of the shadow of their desires, they’ll find that what was presumed to be happiness was only grief, joy only depression, and pleasure only pain. Like a bird attracted to seed, under which lies a trap; neither did it gain the seed, nor escape the cage it found itself in eventually.
So, what are some ways that a person can save themselves from the pain of addiction and the traps of desire?
To start, you have to come to the realization that there is no way around the pain, only through it. Pain is inevitable, but one type of pain is less than the other. By acknowledging that the pain of patience and perseverance pales in comparison to the pain of addiction and giving into desire, a more fruitful choice can be made.
Also, by remaining mindful of one’s place with God being better and more beneficial that indulging one’s desires, the satisfaction that comes from dignity and self-worth becomes sweeter and more satisfying in the end. Much like a sick person who finds no pleasure in eating regardless of the amount, tasting only the bitterness of medicine, the palate is eventually cleansed, and the body purified, so that natural desires become enjoyable again.
Finally, by realizing that succumbing to your desires makes you bestial in nature. Succumbing to your indulgences makes you enslaved to them, which prevents you from your higher calling. You are no beast or animal. You were created in the best of forms and with the highest potential in creation. You should use those desires to fulfill those temporal needs that – if left unchecked – would prevent you from that higher purpose. Just as you don’t eat all day, and eating is not life, nor should any other desire or indulgence be. Just like you abstain from some foods due to the harm they cause, so too should you not chase after desires – even legitimate ones – at all times. And just as you do not consume certain things because of the negative effects they have on your body, you must also abstain from some desires totally because of the harm they cause both spiritually and emotionally.
أَفَمَن كَانَ عَلَىٰ بَيِّنَةٍ مِّن رَّبِّهِ كَمَن زُيِّنَ لَهُ سُوءُ عَمَلِهِ وَاتَّبَعُوا أَهْوَاءَهُم ﴿١٤﴾
“So, is he who is upon a clear sign from his Lord like one whom his evil deeds have been decked out fair, having followed their whims?”