The Nature of Nafs

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

What is ego?  What form does it take and how does this play a part in being devil's advocate when looking at the big picture of life?  The ego or the nafs is a part of us.  It may be the lowest dimension of our being in its unpurified form.  Or it may be the catalyst of the highest state.  By itself, the nafs is neither good nor bad.  It is in a sense, like an arrow nocked in the bow.  The arrow is attached to a string tied to us.  Wherever we shoot it, that is where it takes us.

Nafs is an Arabic word, a cognate of the Hebrew word ‘nefesh’.  The plural of nafs is anfus or nufus.  It means self, psyche, ego or person in this context.  In the lexicon of Arabic, it has even used to refer to the heart, the mind, life or even the ruh.  As far as the study of taswawwuf is concerned, it is the ego or the psyche and is distinct from the ruh.  To fully understand the nafs, requires an intimate knowledge of the ruh or the soul.  And to understand the ruh and its relationship with the nafs, we have to go back to the Creation of Adam (a.s.).

‘Abdullah ibn Mas’ud (r.a.) and other companions of the Prophet (s.a.w.) said that Allah (s.w.t.) Sent Jibril (a.s.) onto the earth to gather clay therefrom.  The earth said, “I seek Refuge in Allah from your decreasing my quantity or disfiguring me.”  So Jibril (a.s.) returned and did not take anything.

He said, “My Lord, the land sought Refuge in You and it was Granted.”

Then Allah (s.w.t.) Sent Mika’il (a.s.) for the same purpose, and the land sought Refuge with Allah (s.w.t.) and it was Granted.  So Mika’il (a.s.) went back and said to Allah (s.w.t.) what Jibra’il (a.s.) had said before him.  Then Allah sent the Angel of Death, ‘Izra’il (a.s.) and the land sought refuge in Allah (s.w.t.) and it was Granted.  ‘Izra’il (a.s.) said, “I also seek Refuge with Allah from returning without carrying out His Command.”  So he took clay from the face of the earth and mixed it.  He did not take from one particular place only, but rather he took white, red, and black clay from different places all over the earth.

As recorded in Swahih al-Bukhari, Abu Musa al-Ash’ari (r.a.) narrated that the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) said, “Allah Created Adam from a handful of dust taken from different lands, so the children of Adam have been Created according to the composition of the land.  Therefore, from mankind we have white, red, black and yellow ones; we have good and evil, ease and sorrow, and what comes in between them.”

Here, we note that the beginning of the Creation of Man is at the hands of the Angel of Death, ‘Izra’il (a.s.).  Thus, life and death are intimate companions to each other.  He was there at the beginning and he will be there at the end.  Death is actually the doorway to a new life and every destruction is an opening to a new beginning.  Hence the need to destroy the Self to find the Divine.  ‘Izra’il (a.s.) ascended with it.  Allah (s.w.t.) soaked the clay until it became sticky.  Then He Said to the angels:

Behold, thy Lord Said to the angels, “I am about to Create man from clay: When I have Fashioned him (in due proportion) and Breathed into him of My Spirit, fall ye down in obeisance unto him.” (Surah Swad:71-72)

So Allah (s.w.t.) Shaped Adam (a.s.) into a human being, but he remained a figure of clay for forty years.  The angels went past him and the jinn went past him.  The jinn were seized with fear by what they saw, and Iblis felt fear the most.  He used to pass by the figure of Adam (a.s.), buffeting it, which would make a sound like pottery.  Allah (s.w.t.) Told us:

He Created man from sounding clay like unto pottery, (Surah ar-Rahman:14)

When the ruh was Blown into Adam (a.s.), it flowed into his body and it started to come to life.  The ruh is light and soft, like air, flowing through the body like water through the veins of a tree.  The ruh has all the Attributes of Allah (s.w.t.).

The nafs was Created at that moment the ruh was Blown into the body.  There are attributes from the elements used in the Creation of the jasad.  When those elements mixed with the ruh, the nafs was Created.  Hence, each person, in addition to the Divine Attributes present, also has the elemental attributes present.  Just as water that has ink in it is still water, it is no longer pure.  It has become something else.  It is a mixture.  The water is akin to the ruh.  But that mixture is like the nafs.  It has to be purified.  And depending on the nature of the mixture, and the qualities acquired, it may be either good or bad.  It might be a soul at rest and satisfaction:

(To the righteous soul will be Said:) “O (thou) soul, in (complete) rest and satisfaction!” (Surah al-Fajr:27)

Or it might be a soul inclined towards evil:

“Nor do I absolve my own self (of blame): the (human soul) certainly prone to evil, unless my Lord do Bestow His Mercy: but surely my Lord is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Surah Yusuf:53)

This is the connection between the nafs and the ruh; the ruh is not the nafs except when it joins the body and is affected by it.  The ruh is the origin and essence, and the nafs consists of the ruh and its connection to the body because of the attributes acquired from the jasad.  So they are the same in one sense but not the same.  In its unrefined state, the nafs is the lowest dimension of man's inward existence, his animal self and satanic nature.  There are three principal stages of nafs specifically Mentioned in the Qur’an.  They are nafs al-ammarah, nafs al-lawwamah and nafs al-muthma’innah.

Nafs al-ammarah is known as the inciting nafs.  It is the lowest state of man.  It is the state of the beasts where the beastly self rules and man is a slave to his desires.  In its primitive stage, this nafs incites us to commit evil:  Not that this nafs is inherently evil, but it is the nafs concerned with the immediate and the Self.  As mentioned above, Yusuf (a.s.) spoke of it.

“Nor do I absolve my own self (of blame): the (human soul) certainly prone to evil, unless my Lord do Bestow His Mercy: but surely my Lord is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Surah Yusuf:53)

The immediate emphasis of taswawwuf is to subdue this nafs.  Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) said after returning from the Battle of Badr, “We now turn from the jihad al-aswghar to the jihad al-akbar.”

Abu Bakr asw-Swiddiq (r.a.) asked, “Ya Rasulullah, what struggle could be bigger?”

He replied, “The struggle against the nafs.”

Nafs al-lawwamah is the self-blaming nafs.  This is the beginning of the awakening of conscience the start of repentance.  It is the state of the majority of people, where they are inclined towards good but still fall prey to temptations and then need to repent.

And I do call to witness the self-reproaching spirit; (eschew evil). (Surah al-Qiyamah:2)

The state of the believer begins when he is at nafs al-muthma’innah.  Before that, he is a Muslim, not yet a mu’min.  This is the nafs at peace with the Self.  Bad manners have left and the bad aspects of the ego have been subdued.  They angelic self is ascendant and the soul is satisfied with Divine Will.

(To the righteous soul will be said:) "O (thou) soul, in (complete) rest and satisfaction! (Surah al-Fajr:27)

Beyond this, for the people of the Path, there are four additional stages of nafs.  They are nafs al-mulhammah, nafs ar-radhiyyah, nafs al-mardhiyyah and nafs asw-swafiyyah, otherwise known as nafs al-kamilah.

Nafs al-mulhammah is the inspired nafs.  It is the stage when one becomes more firm in listening to one’s conscience.  Although the nafs is subdued, it is not in a state of surrender.  Once the faults are known and Openings have occurred in the spiritual state, the nafs inspires one to do good deeds and seek Divine Pleasure.  Nafs al-mulhammah is actually before nafs al-muthma’innah.  To move to a state of nafs al-muthma’innah from a state of nafs al-mulhammah, it is important that whenever we think of good, we must immediately act upon it to prevent the lower self from being fed by doubt and procrastination.

‘Abbas bin ‘Abd al-Muththalib (r.a.) stated three principles.  They are ta’jil, swiftness - a good deed must be done immediately so that there is no room for laziness; tahqir, contempt -good acts must be viewed with contempt to prevent self-righteousness; and ikhfa’, secrecy - good acts must be kept secret otherwise people will praise you cause you to become self-righteous.

Nafs ar-radhiyyah is the nafs pleased with whatever Allah (s.w.t.) Wills.  A soul at this stage lives only in the moment since the past and the future are irrelevant.  He sees himself in a state of need and is pleased and thankful to Allah (s.w.t.) for everything, including trials and seeming misfortune.  The lower self has finally surrendered.  It is a state of wilayat.

Nafs al-mardhiyyah is the level where the ego is not only surrendered but has made peace with the ruh.  Man is whole again and has attained Divine Pleasure.

Nafs asw-swafiyyah, or nafs al-kamilah is the perfected soul, where one is Dressed with the Attributes of Insan al-Kamil.  It is at this stage that man is Khalifah fi al-‘Ardh.  This is the level of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) and those who follow him.  Creation was Created for him and as long as there is at least one Perfected Soul, Yawm al-Qiyamah will not come.  And when the last Perfected Soul has gone, the world ends and Judgement begins.

In summary, the nature of the nafs is like a creature.  It becomes what we feed it.  Master it, and it leads us to the Divine Presence since the yearning for Allah (s.w.t.) is itself a nafs.  Be enslaved by it and we will be in a state of destruction.  We must ride it and do not let it ride us.  The character, Avi from the 2005 film, Revolver, summed it best: “The greatest con that he ever pulled was making you believe that he is you.”


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