[2:54] Recall that Moses said to his people, "O my people, you have wronged your souls by worshiping the calf. You must repent to your Creator. You shall kill your egos. This is better for you in the sight of your Creator." He did redeem you. He is the Redeemer, Most Merciful.
What is this thing called "ego" which God advises us to kill? We all have a feeling of what it is, but Western culture has confused the issue for us. The dictionary definition of ego is almost useless, perhaps even harmful:
The thinking, feeling and acting self that is conscious of itself and aware of its distinction from the selves of others and from the objects of its thought and other operations.
That sounds harmless enough, doesn’t it? But is it really? Interestingly, even the dictionary suggests the Quranic truth. The word "distinction" is the key here. The very word implies that some are better than others, and thus should be followed in preference to others. But the messengers are just vehicles for God’s guidance, and it is that guidance we must follow, not the individuals themselves. In the same way, making a distinction between others and ourselves implies that one or the other is inherently better. Yet we know that the only thing which distinguishes the people is righteousness:
O people, we created you from the same male and female, and rendered you distinct peoples and tribes, that you may recognize one another. The best among you in the sight of God is the most righteous. God is Omniscient, Cognizant (49:13).
And even righteousness comes from God alone:
[74:56] They cannot take heed against God's will. He is the source of righteousness; He is the source of forgiveness.
Our ego directs us to make distinction among our self and others, making us better than them in our own eyes. It is also the piece that makes us feel that we have some power, control or influence over things. It is the piece that gives importance to our personal opinions, to our grudges, to our desires.
The ego is that piece which got us into trouble in the first place when we did not stand up for God’s absolute power during the heavenly feud! It is because of it that we are going through this life—the make-up test.
The Quran gives us examples of the result of following our egos rather than killing them. It teaches us that it was ego that provoked Adam’s son Cain into murdering his brother Abel (5:30). Through the example of the governor’s wife who had tempted Joseph it teaches us that "the self is an advocate of vice" (12:53).
Following our ego puts us in danger of being covered by the following verse:
[47:14] Are those enlightened by their Lord the same as those whose evil works are adorned in their eyes, and they follow their own opinions?
Following our ego causes us to be arrogant to the extent of rejecting God’s messengers:
[2:87] ...Is it not a fact that every time a messenger went to you with anything you disliked, your ego caused you to be arrogant? Some of them you rejected, and some of them you killed.
Finally, we are given the example of David whose repentance was reinforced with God’s teaching to
[38:26] ...rule among the people equitably, and do not follow your personal opinion, lest it diverts you from the way of God"
Humility is antithesis of ego. Its importance is emphasized throughout the scriptures. (See also 17:37 and 25:63):
[31:18-19] You shall not treat the people with arrogance, nor shall you roam the earth proudly. God does not like the arrogant showoffs "Walk humbly and lower your voice - the ugliest voice is the donkey’s voice."
Man’s pride causes his humiliation, but he who is humble of spirit obtains honor. (Proverbs 29 verse 23)
God teaches us that the ego can become an idol and the consequences can be detrimental for our salvation. Those who idolize their selves or egos may be sent astray by God, despite the knowledge they acquired:
[25:43] Have you seen the one whose god is his own ego? Will you be his advocate?
[45:23] Have you noted the one whose god is his ego? Consequently, God sends him astray, despite his knowledge, seals his hearing and his mind, and places a veil on his eyes. Who then can guide him, after such a decision by God? Would you not take heed?
How do we go about killing our egos? God gives us many means of working at this. For example, advice has been given to us to use criticism from someone else to kill the ego. Even if it was not correct, you have used it constructively. (Easier said than done though!) Every time we make a mistake, then repent and try to make amends, we are killing our ego. Every time we take ourselves to task for not being as eager to work righteousness, for not being straightforward, for backsliding, for falling into gossip or vain talk, we are killing our ego.
Sadly, the ego is like a hearty weed. Just when you think you have it licked, it sprouts right back up again. We must remember that God is the only one who really can do anything—including killing our ego. However, it is us who must make the initial decision to improve ourselves:
[13:11] ...God does not change the condition of any people unless they themselves make the decision to change...