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Know Your Soul, Know Yourself

Know Your Soul, Know Yourself

Many passages in the Qurʾān extol the significance of the soul or nafs. In one celebrated passage, it says:

By the soul and Him that formed it, then inspired it with its wickedness and God-fearingness. He is truly successful who purifies it, and he is indeed ruined who corrupts it. [Surah Ash-Shams, 7-10]

The Qur'ān also offers this glad-tiding:

But those who feared the standing before their Lord and curbed their soul's desires, the Garden is their abode. [Surah An-Nazi'aat, 40-41]

The idea of curbing the soul's passions and of seeking to purify it is reiterated in the following hadith: 'There are three acts that, whoever does them will experience the sweetness of faith: one who worships God alone, for there is no true god but Him; one who pays his yearly zakat on his wealth with an agreeable soul – not giving a weak, decrepit nor diseased animal, but giving from his middle wealth, for God does not ask for the best of your wealth and nor orders to give the worst of it; and one who purifies his soul.' A man inquired: What is purification of the soul (tazkiyat al-nafs)? He replied: 'To know that God is with him wherever he may be.'1

The Qurʾān describes the human soul (nafs) as possessing three potentials or degrees which are present within it simultaneously.2

The first and the lowest degree is al-nafs al-ammarah bi'l-su' – “the soul that constantly incites to evil”. The Qurʾān says:

…The soul does indeed incite to evil… [Surah Yusuf, 53]

 This untamed, unweaned soul is the abode of a multitude of incessant cravings and passions: be it for wealth, fame, power, physical gratification, exploiting others – that is, anything which deflects one away from God and to the lower possibilities of the human condition. Al-Jurjani (d.816H/1413CE) defined the nafs al-ammarah as: 'It is that which inclines to the bodily nature, ordering [the pursuit of] physical pleasures and carnal appetites, pulling the heart to debasement. It is the abode of evil, giving birth to all reprehensible traits.'3 So, this nafs, equivalent to the English word “ego”, refers to the reprehensible aspects of our actions and character – actions in respect to our sins of omission or commission; character in terms of pride, envy, vanity, greed, impatience, ostentation, and the like.

As the believer strives to purge his soul of blameworthy traits (radha'il) and labours to replace them by their praiseworthy opposites (fada'il), the nafs al-ammarah is gradually weaned away from heedlessness and disobedience to God, and thus begins to give way to al-nafs al-lawwamah – “the reproachful soul.” The Qurʾān declares:  

No! I swear by the reproachful soul. [Surah Al-Qiyamah, 2]

 This soul is man's active conscience that is afflicted with regret, remorse and self-reproach whenever the Divine Will is disobeyed and elements of the lower, evil-inciting soul resurface. Al-Jurjani writes of the nafs al-lawwamah: 'It is that which is illumined with the light of the heart, according to the measure of how much it has become awakened from habitual heedlessness. As soon as it commits a sin due to its natural oppressive disposition, it takes to blaming itself and repenting from it.'4

After much inward striving and discipline, the nafs al-lawwamah is further purified of any opposition to God's will or shari'ah, and is ever receptive to heavenly outpourings. Here the nafs al-mutma'innah – “the soul at peace” or “the tranquil soul” then begins to predominate. It is this soul that is most worthy of divine assistance and acceptance. It is about this that the Qurʾān says: 

O tranquil soul! Return to your Lord, pleased and well-pleasing. Enter among My servants. Enter My Paradise. [Surah Al-Fajr, 27-30]

Having established His obedience and internalized it, it is intimate with God, at peace with God's decree (rida bi'l-qada'), tasting the sweetness of faith. Al-Jurjani defines the nafs al-mutma'innah in the following manner: 'It is that whose illumination is completed by the heart's light, such that is has been purged of its blameworthy traits and adorned with praiseworthy ones.'5

In all of this, four factors are crucial and have a significant bearing in purification of the soul: (i) one's inborn nature; (ii) his upbringing; (iii) spiritual striving (mujahadah) and self-discipline (riyadah) in adulthood; and, of course, (iv) God's tawfiq or enabling grace.

Concerning spiritual struggle or mujahadah, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), said: al-mujahid man jahada nafsahu fi ta'ati'Llah – 'The warrior is the one who strives against his lower soul in obedience to God.'6

So let us roll-up our sleeves and let the work begin.

Our Lord! Grant piety to our souls and purify them.

You are the Best of those who purify;

You are their Guardian

and Master.

āmīn!

References:

1. Al-Bayhaqi, al-Sunan al-Kubra, no.7275. Its chain is sahih - as per al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma'arif, 1987), no.1046.

2. Cf. T.J. Winter (trans.), al-Ghazali, Disciplining the Soul and Breaking the Two Desires(Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1995), xxviii-xxix.

3. Al-Jurjani, al-Ta'rifat (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyyah, 2000), 239; no.1931.

4. ibid., 239.

5. ibid., 239.

6. Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.4707; al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.1671, who said the hadith ishasan sahih.

amin

About Abu Aaliyah

Abu Aaliyah is the founder of The Jawziyyah Institute, a leading institute for Islamic moderation and contemporary thought in the United Kingdom. Sidi Abu Aaliyah has been in involved in Dawah and Islamic teachings for the last 14 years. He has translated a number of books from the Arabic language into English such as "The Exquisite Pearls". Abu Aaliyah's written works and audio lectures can be found online.

15 comments

  1. JazakAllah Khlairen for sharing this, it is a much needed reminder. May Allah SWT bless the person who wrote this Ameen.

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  2. Jazakallah khair for this great post!

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  3. What a beautiful article! Useful too, the way the author gives the arabic terminolgy and explains it.

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  4. jazakAllah, very fruitfull ,great subject.

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  5. Amazing article, forces you to evaluate your weaknesses and strengths.

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  6. AbdelRahman Mussa

    The verses in this article are shamelessly loose in their translation. You are equating the nafs to the soul and they are not the same thing.

    The nafs is to be controlled by the roh (spirit). When the nafs takes control of itself then things go awry.

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    • It seems we have been down a similar road before, br AbdelRahman – the road of you seemingly reading into my words what I have not said.

      I have translated the word nafs as “soul”. I have not used the word ruh which, in all likelihood, I would have translated as “spirit”.

      Your objection about nafs and soul not being the same thing is somewhat misplaced. For this is not a religiously cut and dry issue, but merely one of translation – and therefore open to some flexibility and subjectivity in terms of choice of words.

      How should the word nafs have been translated? And would your choice of a specific word have equally applied to nafs al-ammarah and nafs al-mutma’innah? And is there any religious or linguistic proof to give your choice of translation authority over that of many others translators and scholars?

      I am sure you are aware that eminent scholars (seasoned in knowledge of the English and Arabic languages, and of the science of sulk/tazkiyah/tasawwuf have translated the word nafs as soul – and then qualified it for its different contexts.

      To say that the translation is “shamelessly loose” is surely not the speech of knowledge, justice or spiritual courtesy – all of which are required from us. It could also suggest that you have some specialisation in such matters that others do not.

      ISince I have spent the best part of twenty-five years translating and teaching, I would definitely like to learn more about why you object, on what scholastic basis you do so, and what spiritual master[s] you have studied with so as to make such a bold claim about shamelessly loose translations. One or two people on this forum could probably attest to how I am open to learning from different people and different perspectives.

      One final point. To say that when the nafs takes control then things go awry – then I couldn’t agree more. But only if we are talking about the nafs in its ammarah state. When the nafs is at the level of mutma’innah, then that statement is utterly false and is in direct opposition to the Book, Sunnah and consensus of the scholars.

      The whole article was about distinguishing between the various types of nafs; their differing traits; and the overall way that one progresses from the lower nafs to the higher one. So to then make a rather general statement, after sufficient detail has been given in the article, is to either have misread the article; or to not have read the article; or to have ignored what was said in the article.

      May Allah protect us both from our own egos. What is correct in this brief response, is from Allah. What is incorrect is from my own nafs or ego/self/soul/. And I seek forgiveness for that.

      I pray we have the good fortune to meet face to face one day, so as to discuss these matters in greater depth and in the dignity of courteous brotherhood, and to benefit mutually.

      Your brother, and at your service

      Surkheel Abu Aaliyah.

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      • salaam,

        I would agree that using the words “shamelessly loose” may not be the best usage of words. A well known maxim states that translation at best is an echo. One may get the general understanding, but the subtlety is lost.

        The nafs, which I understand to be the collection of your carnal needs (hunger, thirst), desires, and feelings (physical happiness, sleepiness, pain, joy, jealousy).

        The ruh, on the other hand, is what Allah breathed into Adam (15:29) and each of us. It is what makes us alive and conscience, with the abilities such as to choose and make decisions. It is our ruh that was with Allah and it was our ruh that testified that Allah is the Lord. (7:172). It is our soul that is connected to Allah and even returns to Allah in our sleep (39:42).

        It is the nafs that dies and is resurrected with the body and it is the soul that sees his body being washed and buried during the funeral. And the truth is that we have not been given extensive knowledge about the ruh (17:85)

        Perhaps another translation of the word nafs can be “the self” and the ruh can be the “sprit that makes us alive, aware, and conscience”. I know its a bit wordy translation :)

        This article is very useful for it shows us a way to check our own selves. If we are stuck in a sin and we do not even feel the remorse of the nafs-al-lawwama then we know our nafs has become accustomed to the particular sin and we need to perform astaghfar and make diligent effort to see the harm the sin is doing to our mind, body, and soul.

        ws

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    • The adjective “shamelessly” is not at all necessary. One can disagree without being disagreeable.

      Salaam!

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  7. alhumdulilah nice explanation,
    jazakAllah

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  8. Very nice article Mash’Allah and Amin to your du’a at the end. Brother AbdelRahman Mussa does bring up an interesting point and that is that Nafs and Ruh are not the same. I would like some more clarification on that In sha Allah if the author (or anyone else amongst the readers) wouldn’t mind explaining. Jazakallah ul khair!

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  9. Salam,
    In my very limited understanding both are same, Nafs and Ruh. However some times word Nafs is used to refer to ones desire. Word Nafs comes from Hebrew word Nefesh which refers to spirit or soul or ego.
    I thank the write for this beautiful article. May Allah reward you.

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  10. beautiful article!

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  11. Jazakallah khair for this beautiflul and useful Aritcle ..

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  12. Its a post touching my Heart Jazakallah.

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