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

God the Almighty has created the human and equipped him with different faculties so the human can survive in this world and pave his path for bliss in the Hereafter. Among these faculties provided to him is what the Qur’an refers to al-nafs. There are different definitions given by scholars, but they are similar to each other. Some of them define it as “self”, while others define it as passion and desire of the human being or the ego. This word is mentioned in many verses throughout the Qur’an. In the Qur’an 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]

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 from its deceits, but also to comprehend the ways how nafs works. This is not an easy task because it requires one to deal with the inner self and not his physicality. In other words, it is a spiritual struggle and not a materialistic one.

The entire struggle with the nafs should make one realize that it is not about you, but it’s about Him, Allah the Almighty. This realization becomes effective when one annihilates the nafs, which leads to witnessing none but Him in all actions.

Often people pay close attention in preventing their bodies from becoming sick but neglect their souls from falling victims of their own negative and excessive desires (shahawāt). God warns 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.”[2]

 Among the most important traits distinguishing the human from other creatures, is the ability to struggle with the inner self, nafs. This struggle is rewarded by God with success in this world and in the Hereafter. In the Qur’an it is mentioned, “But those will prosper who purify themselves.”[3]

In the famous book Al-Risālah al-Qushayriyyah, written by Abū al-Qāsim al-Qushayri (d. h. 464, 1072), when mentioning about the al-nafs, the author states two main categories of the human soul where deficiencies fall in. The first one is the category of sins and the acts of disobediences, acquired by one self. As for the second, Qushayri mentions the category of one’s inherent base morals. This includes bad morals like pride, envy, wrath, spite, bad temper, lack of tolerance and similar character traits.[4]

Qushayri also mentions the most difficult and objectionable characteristic of the soul (al-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.[5]

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 a satanic 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 do bestow His Mercy: but surely my Lord is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.”[6]

Taking yourself into account (muḥāsabah)

Often taking yourself into account (muḥāsabah) is highly emphasized in Islam. The leader of the believers cUmar al-Khaṭṭāb (d. h. 23, 644) is observed to have mentioned, “Take yourself into account before you will be hold accountable”[7] Most of the time, people point out the shortcomings of others and tend to forget judging their own actions. When a person points the finger to another, he has to realize that the other fingers are facing him. The other fingers indicate that one has to look first and foremost after his own mistakes. Not only that, but we are also recommended to have others observe our actions and give us their feedback. This is because one is limited to perceive all the shortcomings from the nafs, while others may recognize more shortcomings. [even just by observing one’s behavior] (optional phrase). For that, Abū Bakr (d. 634), the first leader of the Muslim believers after Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) passed away, stated in his election speech, “I am not the best among you, yet if I do well, assist me and if I incline to evil, direct me in the right way.”[8]

Seeking God’s assistance

Another way which can be helpful in restricting the human nafs from passion, is asking the assistance of God in the struggle against nafs.. In sūrat al-Nās, God commands Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the believers to seek refuge in the Lord of mankind. [9] However, it is pointless seeking His help and not working on restricting these passions.

Remaining in the company of the righteous

 In his book Fīhi mā fīhi, Jalāl al-Dīn al-Rūmi (d. h. 671, 1273) mentions that struggles are of various kinds, but the greatest and the most difficult combat is to spend time with friends who have turned their faces to God and turned their backs on this world.[10] 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 to mention that even the hypocrites benefit when found in the company of the righteous people and mentions the verse from the Qur’an,

 “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.”[11]

Rumi then asks, “How then, when a believer sits with a believer? Since such company has this effect on a hypocrite, consider what benefits it brings to the believer![12]

It is reported that Luqmān said to his son, “The first think that I warn you against is your soul. Every soul has desires and lusts. If you give vent to its desires, it will persist and demand other desires. Desire is concealed in the heart like fire is concealed in a (volcanic) rock. If the rock is pierced, the fire is exposed. If left as is, the fire would remain concealed.[13]

One of the issues found in most of us, is that we determine a date in the future which indicates that on that day, we will change this and that within ourselves, usually, abstaining from sin. Unfortunately, no one can guarantee the future. That is a part of God’s knowledge. Knowing this, we have to act immediately in correcting ourselves. Sometimes we also expect others to change us. This shows our weakness and the wrong comprehension of dealing with our nafs. Almighty God says in the Qur’an, “Allah does not change a people’s lot unless they change what is in their hearts.” [14] The famous saint cAbd al-Qādir Jaylānī (d. h. 561, 1166) states in the book of his discourses Purification of the Mind, “If a person does not act as a preacher to his lower self, no preacher’s advice will ever benefit him.” [15] Jaylānī also states, “Satisfying your soul with extra permissible desires will intoxicate it, what about satisfying it with unlawful desires?” [16]

The desires in this world resemble illusions. They may seem attractive but they are empty from the inside. The Qur’an mentions in details the conversation that took place 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.”[17]

When commenting these verses, Jaylānī mentions that your mountain is your far-reaching hope and your greedy keenness on this world.[18] People in this world depend heavily on the materialistic-illusionary mountains they build and yet forget to hold tight and to depend on the Supreme Creator of heavens and earths. The boat of Noah is the rope of God, the rope of salvation.

On the authority of Jābir (r.a.) who said, “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[19] to the greater jihād – the striving of a servant (of God) against his desires.”[20]

 

Watching over the actions (murāqabah)

In his famous book Iḥyā culūm al-Dīn, Abū  Ḥāmid Ghazāli (d. h. 504, 1111) mentions three types of actions related to murāqabah. First, actions considered virtuous. Employing murāqabah on these deeds means committing them with sincerity and guarding those good deeds against faults. Second, actions considered permissible. Employing murāqabah on these deeds means observing the limits on those deeds and being grateful for receiving them. Third, actions considered sinful. Employing murāqabah on these deeds means to repent and examine them.[21]

 

Reprimanding of the nafs (mu cāqabah)

The mystical scholars highly emphasize on punishing the nafs. However, when they elaborate on the methods of caring on with the act, they do not intend to approve physical abuse on the body. This would be in contrary with the teachings of Islam. Nevertheless, there are some isolated examples in their in their narrations where limited physical abuse has been chosen by certain masters in order to better their nafs. Perhaps, those examples are mentioned to show how far and how seriously people have gone in order to better their nafs. Numerous examples mentioned by Qushayri, Ghazāli and others lead towards constructive and rewarding methods of mu cāqabah. Gazāli mentions, “Punish yourself with more duties when you are bound to do your duties.” [22] Many saints chose to eat less and fast, so they can have a 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 mentioning about fasting not only during Ramdan but also during other days throughout the year. The objective is to weaken the nafs and to obtain self-control. Yahyā bin Mucādh states, “If one could purchase hunger in the marketplace, then the seekers of the Hereafter would not need to buy anything else there.”[23] Similarly Abū Sulaymān al-Darāni observed, “The key to this world is filling one’s stomach and the key to the Hereafter is hunger.”[24]

O Allah, help us in staying away from the whisperings of devil and assist us to overcome the negative ambitions of our souls! Amin

(Friday lecture, delivered on August 21st, 2012 at Greenway Masjid – by Imam Didmar Faja)


[1] Q. (91:7-10)

[2] Q. (38:26)

[3] Q. (87:14)

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

[5] Ibid.

[6] Q. (12:53).

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

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

[9] Q. (114:1).

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

[11] Q. (2:14)

[12] Rumi: Kitab Fihi ma fihi, pg. 316.

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

[14] Q. (13:11).

[15] Abd al-Qadir Jaylani: Jila al-Khatir, translated from Arabic to English by Shetha al-Dargazelli and Louay Fatoohi, Kuala Lampur, 1999, pg. 53.

[16] Ibid.

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

[18]Abd al-Qadir Jaylani: Jila al-Khatir. fq. 55

[19] War

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

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

[22] Gazali:Ihya ulum al-Din, v. 4, Pg. 347.

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

[24] Ibid. 81.

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