On the Intricacies of al-Nafs, the Individual Self


[Al-Nafs is] an individual, the self, the inner self, the spirit; frequently a synonym of Ruh, yet is different from it. That is why Jihad against oneself is Jihadal-Nafs or Jihadma` al-Nafs and never Jihadma` al-Ruh (Jihad against the soul).

It is thought that when a man sleeps, his Ruh remains, but a part of Nafs leaves out, while a part remains in the body, but the two remain in contact with each other. It is this part of the Nafs (which leaves the body and goes up), which meets with other Anfas in the `Alam al-Arwaahm (the world of the souls), and which sees those dreams that come out true.

It informs the Ruh all about what it has seen when it returns to the body. But if Allah (swt) wills death for the person, the Nafs which had left is held back, while the Nafs within body and Ruh are both drawn and joined with the Nafs which was already out, as one entity, now combined and known as Nafs, Ruh or Nasmah.

Although attempted, differences between Nafs and Ruh cannot be clearly delineated. What can be generally stated is that: the body is from the earth, the Ruh is from the heavens. The two brought together, create a new entity called Nafs. If this new entity is more heavenly inclined, a person is more likely to be virtuous, inclined to acts of devotion, etc.; but if more inclined towards the earth, then he is dominated by animalistic qualities and animalistic behavior.

In the meantime, both the entities Ruh and Nafs influence each other; while, on the other hand, the body and the soul also receive influences on a permanent basis, the body from the earthly, animalistic and Satanic forces, and the Ruh from the heavenly, angelic forces [from al-Mala’ al-A`la(the Higher Council of angels: Shah Waliyullah)]. Allah (swt) said (42: 5):

“The angels chant glories of their Lord and seek forgiveness of those on the earth”.

The struggle for domination remains the story of the whole life so that (91: 7-10),

“And, by the soul and what molded it. Then He inspired to it, its wickedness and its piety. Surely, succeeded he who purified it; and surely, ruined (himself) he who seduced it.” [Ash-Shams: 7-10]

Although in a different context, and not meant to be applied here as an inference derived from the above, we could quote Shah Waliyullah’s analysis about the broad nature of human beings, as a result of the variety of forces acting upon them. Broadly speaking, there can be four kinds of persons with the following four tendencies, with many in between:

  1. A high angelic with a strong animalistic
  2. A high angelic with a weak animalistic
  3. A lower angelic with a strong animalistic
  4. A lower angelic with a weak animalistic.

In a rough analysis, there are three facets of the existence of Nafs, and, therefore, three types of it: (1) Nafs al-Ammarah bi as-ssu’, the Nafs which incites to evil; (2) al Nafs al Lawwamah, the nafs which blames when a wrong is committed; and, (3) al Nafsal Mutma’innah, the satisfied or comforted soul (or a soul in peace), which is in bliss when a good act is accomplished.

The four states above determine the kind of personality that develops, either Zalim, Muqtasid or Sabiqun bi al-Khayrat (transgressor, moderate and the outrunner in good deeds, respectively). Allah (swt) said,

“Then We gave the Book in inheritance to such of Our servants as We chose. Of them are some who wrong their own souls, of them some who are on the middle course, while some who are, by Allah’s leave, forerunners in good (works). That is the great bounty.” [Al-Fatir: 32]

This is about the personalities that emerge. With reference to the mind, it can be seen from the above that there are three psychological states: the inner base self, which incites to evil action; then, depending on how evil the action was, remorse follows, but if it was a good act, it feels bliss in some measure.

Actually, all worldly things that are not essential to life have the same kind of psychological relationship with the Nafs (of which the mind is yet another expression): the base self incites to material possessions, but as soon as they come into possession, the other part of the self begins to reproach. It applies to minor situations too, such as, e.g. purchase of an item that is not of immediate need to the buyer. As soon as he purchases one of them, a mild chill runs through the body and regret follows. ‘If I hadn’t paid for it,’ he says to himself as it is being packed, ‘I would rather back out.’ This is so well-realized by the salesmen that when some products are unpacked, a note emerges that assures the buyer that ‘you have purchased the right thing,’ to prevent him from returning the commodity within the stipulated time of purchase.

Since things are first created in the `Alam al-Mithal (the World of Images), which the Nafs witnesses whenever it leaves the body, it is possible that when a man acquires a thing or an item of pleasure (e.g. musical instrument), he is immediately dissatisfied with his acquisition because, his Nafs having seen it in a perfect form in the `Alam al-Mithal, is dissatisfied with its imperfect physical form that it takes in this life.

If he sacrifices his desires, remaining within the basic needs, driven to him by the forces let loose by Allah (swt), the thing of the `Alam al-Mithal is reserved for him which he will inherit in Paradise.

On the other hand, if someone indulges and engages himself in obtaining all that the Nafs desires, he loses the right to what he witnessed in the `Alam al-Mithal, in their perfect form and he is told:

“You (have already) exhausted your good things in the life of the world, and enjoyed them well. Today you shall be recompensed with a punishment of extreme humiliation.” [Al-Ahqaf: 20]

The Prophet advised `Umar that he may not seek after wealth, but if it comes his way, say welcome to it and enjoy it: it is Allah’s bestowal.

This is a complicated subject, and we shall have more to add with later editions, Allah willing.