The human soul (nafs): Perceptions from the classical mystics of Islam

The human soul (nafs); Perceptionsfrom the earlySufi masters

God the Almighty has created the human and equipped him/her with different faculties so the human can survive and developin this world and pave his/her path of bliss toward the Hereafter. Among these faculties provided to the human is what the Qur’an refers to al-nafs. There are different definitions given by scholars. Some of them define it as “self”. Others describe it asthe passion and the desire of the human being, while others define itas the human ego. The word nafs is mentioned in many verses throughout the Qur’an.In chapter al-Shams, it states,”By the Soul (nafs), and the proportion and order given to it. And its enlightenment as to its wrong and its right. Truly he succeeds that purifies it, and he fails that corrupts it!”[1]

The Quran recognizes the fact that the human possesses different kinds of nafs: The nafs which directs towards sin (nafs al-ammārah bi al-su’), the nafs that blames (nafs al-lawwāmah), and the nafs at peace (nafs al-mutmainnah). Some Muslim scholars have extracted four more from the Quran,even though they are not mentioned conjointly alongside the word nafs as ones previously mentioned. They are,the inspired nafs (nafs malhamah), the pleased nafs (nafs rādiyyah), the pleasing nafs (nafs mardiyyah), and the purified and complete nafs (nafs safiyyah wa kāmilah). This writing will focus on elaborating on the nafs that commands for evil, as perceived by the early Sufi masters.

After recognizing the fact that nafs may lead the human astray and be a threat for his/her Hereafter, it becomes crucial to possess not only the knowledge of how to prevent oneself from its deceits but also to comprehend the ways how nafs works. Such a task is not an easy one for the fact that it is an inner struggle that requires one to work or discipline his/her carnal-self through ways of attentiveness, analysis, reflections, and Islamic practices.

It is reported that Luqmān, who was one of the righteous people whose name was mentioned in the Quran, said to his son, “The first thing that I warn you against is your nafs. Every nafs has desires and lusts. If you give vent to its ambitions, it will persist and demand other ambitions, for ambition is concealed in the heart like a fire is hidden in a (volcanic) rock. If the rock is pierced, the fire is exposed. If left as is, the fire would remain concealed.[2]

The deception of Nafs

In the famous book Al-Risālah al-Qushayriyyah, written by Abū al-Qāsim al-Qushayri (d.1072), when talking about the nafs, the author states two main categories of the human soul where deficiencies fall in. The first one is the category of sins and acts of disobedience, acquired by oneself. As for the second, Qushayri mentions the category of one’s inherent base ethics, which includes dreadful values, like, pride, envy, wrath, spite, bad temper, lack of tolerance, and similar character traits.[3]

Qushayri also mentions the most objectionable and challenging characteristic of the nafs is that it imagines that there is something good about it and that it deserves respect. The author includes this to be an act of polytheism.”[4]

This characteristic leads many people astray. Some people, because they possess wealth or higher status, demand respect from others. This tendency of the soul is an evil attribute, and it is the source of many other negative traits.  It is mentioned in the Qur’an that when Joseph (pbuh) talked about his nafs, he said, “Nor do I absolve my own self (of blame): the (human) soul is certainly prone to evil, unless my Lord does bestow His Mercy: but surely my Lord is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.”[5]

Struggling with one’s nafs

Among the most essential traits that distinguish the human from other creatures, is the ability to struggle with the nafs. God rewards the struggling person with significant prosperity in this world and the Hereafter. In the Quran, it is mentioned, “But those will prosper who purify themselves.”[6]

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) considers opposing the nafs to be the greatest strive that one may engage in. On the authority of Prophet’s companion, Jābir bin cAbdullāh (may God be pleased with him) it is related that, “The Prophet (pbuh) returned from one of his battles, and thereupon he told us, “You have arrived with an excellent arrival, you have come from the lesser jihād (striving in war) to the greater jihād, (indicating the striving of a servant of God against his desires.)”[7]

The nafs erects walls between the human and the Creator. As a result, the person lives in the heedlessness of God. The struggle with the nafsleads to the eradication of those walls. Then, the human realizes that everything revolves and is about God and not about the nafs. When such a realization takes place, then the individual could gain proximity with God and attain spiritual blessings never experienced before. Such a discipline will generate physio-spiritual tranquility and illuminate the path of human’s mission in this world. This way, he/she will not be wandering around, trying to find out the purpose in life.

Often, different individuals pay close attention to prevent their bodies from becoming sick but neglect their souls from falling preys of their own harmful and excessive desires (shahawāt). God warned Prophet David in the Qur’an by mentioning, “O David!Indeed,We have made you a successor upon the earth, so judge between the people in truth and do not follow (your own) desire, as it will lead you astray from the way of Allah.”[8]

Muslim sages instruct their followers that even indulging one’s self in permissible desires may be harmful to one’s battle against the nafs. In his book, Jilā’ al-Khāir, the famous Muslim sage, Sayyid cAbd al-Qādir Jaylānī (d. 1166) enquires, “Satisfying your soul with extra permissible desires will intoxicate it, what about satisfying it with unlawful desires?”[9]

Another way the nafs may deceit the human is through illusions. Often, whims resemble illusions. The Qur’an notes some fine details of a conversation between Prophet Noah (pbuh) and his son before the Flood arrived, “Noah called out to his son, who had separated himself (from the rest): “O my son! Embark with us, and be not with the unbelievers! The son replied: “I will betake myself to some mountain: it will save me from the water.” Noah said: “This day nothing can save from the command of Allah, any but those on whom He hath mercy! And the waves came between them, and the son was among those overwhelmed in the Flood.”[10]When allegorically commenting these verses, Sayyid cAbd al-Qādir Jaylānī mentions that your mountain is your far-reaching hope and your greedy keenness on this world.[11] The boat of Noah is the rope of God, the rope of salvation. Individuals in this world have a profound reliance on the materialistic-illusionary peaks they erect themselves while forgetting to put their trust on the One who created them and their resources.

Taking One’s self into account (muḥāsabah)

Taking one’s self into account (muḥāsabah) is highly emphasized in Islam. The second calif, cUmar Ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (d. 644), is observed to have mentioned, “Take yourself into account before you are held accountable (indicating the accountability in the Day of Judgment).”[12] Most of the time, people point out the shortcomings of others and tend to forget judging their own actions. Sayyid cAbd al-Qādir Jaylānī notes, “If a person does not act as a preacher to his lower self, no preacher’s advice will ever benefit him.”[13]Besides self-accountability, one is also recommended to have others observe his/her actions and give their feedback. That is because one is limited in perceiving all of his/her own shortcomings. For that, Abū BakrAl-Ṣiddīq(d. 634), the first leader of the Muslim believers after Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) stated in his election speech, “I am not the best among you. If I do well, assist me, and if I incline to evil, direct me in the right way.”[14]

Seeking God’s assistance

Another way that can help restrict the nafs from passion is by asking the assistance of God in the struggle against nafs. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) used to direct his prayers to his Lord with these words, “O God, give righteousness to my nafs, and purify it for You are the best of those who purify…O God, I seek refuge in You from non-beneficial knowledge, a heart that fears not, an unsatisfied nafs, and unanswered supplication.[15]Such prayers should be accompanied by implementing self-discipline, for it could be pointless seeking God’s help while not working toward confining the nafs.

Remaining in the company of the righteous

In the renowned book,Fīhimāfīhi, the distinguished Sufi scholar and poet, Jalāl al-Dīn al-Rūmi (d. 1273) mentions that struggles are of various kinds, but the greatest and the most challenging combat is to spend time with friends who have turned their faces to God and turned their backs on this (mundane)world.[16] That is because they are constantly cautious about God, and far from the passions of their nafs. Remaining in their company requires one to struggle with the nafs. Rumi goes further and mentions that even those who are hypocrites benefit when found in the company of the righteous people. He says the verse from the Qur’an where God stated,When they meet those who believe, they say: We believe; but when they are alone with their evil ones, they say: “We are really with you: We (were) only jesting.”[17]

Rumi then asks, “How then, when a believer sits with a believer?Since such a company has this effect on a hypocrite, consider what benefits it brings to the believer!”[18]

In my career as a spiritual leader and Imam of the community, I often come across individuals who do not put sufficient efforts in rectifying their nafs, yet, they expect rapid results. It is not uncommon to come across those who also expect others to change them through a supplication. Others envision that by merely being momentarily in a company of a righteous person will mysteriously transform their nafs for better. Such supplications or interactions may help, but ultimately it is the personal struggle of the individual, which will lead to self-progress.God assured in the Qur’an by saying, “Allah does not change a people’s lot unless they change what is in their hearts.”[19]

Observing one’s own actions (murāqabah)

Another essential step toward disciplining the nafs is observing one’s own actions (muraqabah). In the famous book,Iḥyāculūm al-Dīn, the great Muslim scholar, Abū Ḥāmid Ghazāli (d.1111)mentions three types of actions related to murāqabah. First, are those actions considered as virtuous. Employing murāqabah on such actions consists of committing them with sincerity while safeguarding them from faults.Second, are those actions considered permissible (mubāḥ). Employing murāqabahon such actions consists of observing their limits while being appreciative of obtaining them. Third, are those actions considered sinful. Employing murāqabah on such actionsconsists inexamining them and repenting to God for such actions.[20]

Reprimanding of the nafs (mucāqabah)

Reprimanding or punishing the nafs is also another effective way that can help in achieving self-discipline. Sufi scholars highly emphasize on reprimanding the nafs. Nonetheless, when they elaborate on the methods of reprimanding, they do not suggest the implication of physical abuse on the body. Such an approach would be inconsistent with the teachings of Islam. Nevertheless, there are some isolated instances where harmless bodily reprimanding has been applied by certain Sufi masters to discipline the nafs. Such implications mentioned in some Sufi books do not suggest that everyone who is on the path of self-discipline must apply such approaches, nor do they promote bodily or phycological injury. Imam Ghazāli demonstrates some practical methods of mucāqabah by mentioning, “Punish yourself with more duties when you are bound to do your duties.”[21]

Many saints chose to eat less and fast so that they can have better control of their nafs. Others would sleep less and instead perform prayers during the night. In the hadith collection of Bukhāri and other collectors, there are many statements of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) mentioning about fasting not only during Ramadan but also during other days throughout the year. The objective of such a practice is to weaken the nafsand obtain better self-control. One of the Sufi classical scholars, Yahyābin Mucādh(d. 871), states, “If one could purchase hunger in the marketplace, then the seekers of the Hereafter would not need to buy anything else there.”[22] Similarly,another prominent Sufi classical scholar, Abū Sulaymān al-Darāni (d. 830), observed, “The key to this world is filling one’s stomach, and the key to the Hereafter is hunger.”[23]

Attaining a real understanding of the nafs and gradually overcoming the obstacles posed by it, can result in self-discipline. Such discipline may lead to the abolishment of the barrier between the human and the Creator, which will pave the path toward the pleasure of God and His proximity.

By: Imam Didmar Faja


Al-Bayhaqiy, Ahmad: Kitab al-Zuhd al-Kabir, Dar al-Jinan, Bayrut, 1987

 Al-Qushayri, Abu al-Qasim: Al-Risalah al-Qushayriyyah ,Matabe’ Muassasah Dar al-Sha’b, Cairo, 1989

Al-Suyuti, Jalal al-Din: Tarikh al-Khulafa, Dar Ibn Hazim, Bajrut, 2003

 Ghazali, Abu Hamid: Mukashafat al-Qulub, translated from Arabic to English from Muhammad Muhammady, Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyyah, Bayrut, 2009

Ghazali, Abu Ḥamid:Iḥya ulum al-Din, translated from Arabic to English by Fazl-ul Karim, Dar Isha-at, Karachi, 1993

Ibn Abi Shaybah,Abdullah: Musnaf ibn Abi Shaybah,  Al-Faruk Al-Hadithah li-al-tiba’ahwa al-Nashr, Cairo, 2007

Jaylani, Abd al-Qadir: Jila al-Khatir, translated from Arabic to English by Shetha al-Dargazelli and LouayFatoohi, Kuala Lampur, 1999

Rumi,Jalal al-Din: Kitab Fihi ma fihi, translated from Persian to Arabic by Isa Ali al-Akub, Dar al-Fikr al-Muasir, Bayrut, 2001



[1] Quran: (91:7-10)

[2] Abu Hamid Ghazali: Mukashafat al-Qulub, translated from Arabic to English from Muhammad Muhammady, Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyyah, Bayrut, 2009, pg. 395.

[3] Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri: Al-Risalah al-Qushayriyyah,Matabe’ Muassasah Dar al-Sha’b, Cairo, 1989, pg.174.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Q. (12:53).

[6] Q. (87:14)

[7] Ahmad al-Bayhaqiy: Kitabal-Zuhd al-Kabir, Dar al-Jinan, Bayrut, 1987, pg. 165.

[8] Q. (38:26)

[9]Abd al-Qadir Jaylani: Jila al-Khatir, translated from Arabic to English by Shetha al-Dargazelli and LouayFatoohi, Kuala Lampur, 1999, pg. 55.

[10] Q. (11:42-3)

[11]Jaylani:Jila al-Khatir. pg. 55

[12] Abdullah ibn Abi Shaybah: Musnaf ibn Abi Shaybah,  Al-Faruk Al-Hadithah li-al-tiba’ahwa al-Nashr, Cairo, 2007, v. 12, hadith 35463, pg. 58.

[13]Jaylani:Jila al-Khatir. pg. 53.

[14] Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti: Tarikh al-Khulafa, Dar Ibn Hazim, Bajrut, 2003, pg. 57.

[15] Narrated by Zayd bin Arqam, repoted in Sahih Muslim.

[16] Jalal al-Din Rumi: KitabFihi ma fihi, translated from Persian to Arabic by Isa Ali al-Akub, Dar al-Fikr al-Muasir, Bayrut, 2001, pg. 334.

[17] Q. (2:14)

[18] Rumi: KitabFihi ma fihi, pg. 316.

[19] Q. (13:11).

[20]Abu Ḥamid Ghazali: Iḥyaulum al-Din, translated from Arabic to English by Fazl-ul Karim, Dar Isha-at, Karachi, 1993, pg. 342.

[21]Gazali:Ihyaulumal-Din, v. 4, Pg. 347.

[22]Qushayri: Al-Qushayri’s Epistle on Sufism, pg. 80.

[23] Ibid. 81.

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