The Human Soul and its Dimensions
Al-Nafs and its dimensions
“By a soul (Nafs) and how He fashioned it (sawwaha). 7 and how He inspired it (alhamaha) with its immorality (fujooraha) and with its piety (ta’qwaha) ! Truly successful is he who purifies it (Zakka-ha) * and truly lost is he who buries it (Das-sa-ha) 91:7-10”
وَنَفْسٍ وَمَا سَوَّاهَا 7 فَأَلْهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقْوَاهَا 8 قَدْ أَفْلَحَ مَن زَكَّاهَا9 وَقَدْ خَابَ مَن دَسَّاهَا 10
The notion of soul or Nafs is the most mysterious notion of the human being. Throughout history this Notion has generated a great interest among all religions. In the Muslim literature there was some ambiguity around it and it was often confused, by reader, with the notion of “spirit” or “Ruh“
Certainly there is a difference, from a Quranic perspective, between the two notions; the notion of “Ruh-spirit” and the notion of “Nafs-Soul”
However, here in this short study of this notion, to avoid such confusion, I will refer to it as “Nafs” which is the same as it is mentioned in the Quran.
There were many valuable writings regarding the notion of Nafs by many great Muslim philosophers, such as Mullah Sadra, Ibn ‘Arabi, Abi Hamid Al-Ghazali and others. I personally have learned tremendously from their extraordinary philosophical writings and discourses regarding this issue.
According to the majority of Muslim scholars, in relationship to the notion of Nafs, it is often divided into seven stages or patterns. These stages are to be considered as the path of spiritual growth for the Nafs to achieve its perfections.
However I will look at the notion of Nafs from a different angle in trying to establish a correlation between the various aspects or facets of Nafs and try to define their station of definitions. This study focuses on the anatomy of the human Nafs, from a Quranic perspective, and how it is fashioned with its various aspects through which Man is able to seek the ultimate Reality. And man’s journey is then to follow a certain spiritual steps to connect to the Ultimate Truth.
May Allah (SW) guide me through this humble attempt and I ask His forgiveness for any unintended errors.
This short essay is not a commentary on these verses rather it is a metaphysical reflections upon the notion of the “Nafs-soul” in relationship to its various definitions.
Universal Dimensions of Nafs-Soul:
According to above verses, from a Qur’anic perspective, the “Nafs-soul” has two universal dimensions. Both are essentially different in relationship to their station of existence. The first dimension is called “fujoor” and the second one is called “ta’qwa”;
1- “fujoor”- immorality.
2- “ta’qwa”- morality.
1- “fujoor”- immorality.
“fujoor” is a lower definition of the Nafs and it has an accidental relationship with the corporeal aspect of the human body “hiuli (1)”
So “fujoor” is the lower reality of the “Nafs” and its reality resides in its station of existence in relationship to the latitudinal system of the cosmos. Its relationship to the corporeal aspect of the Nafs is homogeneous, for its accidental connection to the corporeal world.
“fujoor” ultimately emanates from the station of weakness of human lower reality. And the human body, with its various predispositions, natural urges, and vices, is the throne of the manifestations of the definitions of “fujoor” for the human body is weak in nature. Its weakness is related to its lower station of existence as being an accidental contingency in the world of matter. Such weakness of man is stated in the Holy Quran:
“Man has been created weak 4:28”
وَخُلِقَ الإِنسَانُ ضَعِيفًا
2- “Ta’qwa”- morality or piety.
“Ta’qwa” is a higher definition of the Nafs and it has a sublime relationship to higher reality of existence. Its reality resides in its station of existence in relationship to the longitudinal system of the cosmos. Its relationship to the corporeal aspect of the Nafs is not homogeneous for its real connection to the “Ultimate Truth” of the Cosmos.
These two dimensions of the Nafs manifest themselves as shadows which accompany the Nafs in its quest for perfection. Human soul begins its journey towards perfection within those two realms of inner dimensions; the shadow of “fujoor” and the shadow of “ta’qwa”
And those two shadows are being inspired or infused “ulhimat-ilham (4)” by Allah SW, within the Nafs. And their influence on the human intellect is sequential; or in the same sequence as they are stated in the Holy verse 91:8
“And how He inspired it (Al-hama-ha) with its Fujoor and its Ta’qwa! 91:8”
فَأَلْهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقْوَاهَ ا91:8
Furthermore, those two shadows are true representation of Man’s free will. His free will ultimately decides to pursue one of those dimensions; ta’qwa or fujoor. “ta’qwa” is a definition of the higher reality of his free will and where as “fujoor” is a definition of the lower reality of his free will. Man’s free will is referred to in the holy Quran as being “the way” or “alssabeel” as it is seen in 76:3:
“Verily, We have shown him the way (alssabeela): either grateful or ungrateful. 76:3”
Inna hadaynahu alssabeela imma shakiran waimma kafooran
إِنَّا هَدَيْنَاهُ السَّبِيلَ إِمَّا شَاكِرًا وَإِمَّا كَفُورًا76:3
According to 76:3, Man’s freewill is enabled to recognize the true reality of the dimensions of Nafs. If man’s freewill decides to pursue the dimension of ta’qwa then Man would be grateful to its beauty and blessings. And Man would appreciate his higher reality of his Nafs; he would be pursuing the journey towards self realization. This follows that the state of “gratefulness-shukr“; as stated in this verse “shakiran-grateful”is a manifestation of the dimension ta’qwa of Nafs.
On the other hand if Man’s free-will decides to pursue the dimension of fujoor then Man would be ungrateful to whatever blessings have been bestowed upon him. And man would be pursuing the lower reality of his Nafs; his journey toward denigration of the Nafs. This follows that the state of “ungratefulness-kufr” as stated in this verse “kafooran-ungrateful” is the manifestation of the dimension of fujoor of Nafs.
Furthermore, according to verse 91:8 “fujoor-immorality” seems to have more influence, on the human being, than “ta’qwa-piety” for “fujoor” was referred to first and then “ta’qwa” in verse 91:8. This Qur’anic reference in respect to the sequence of inclinations of the Nafs-as it is ordered in verse 8; that is “fujoor” first and “taqwa” second–and not visa versa, follows that human being is susceptible and greatly influenced by the various aspects of his lower corporeal elements and its essential urges for co-existence.
And the reason for this particular order of notions in 91:8, in my opinion, is because of the necessary relationship of the first dimension “fujoor” with the corporeal aspect of the human being that is the “Badan-body” in this manifested world of matter.
But such relationship render the human being as weak creature. And because of such corporeal weakness of Man which would impose a heavy burden upon his being in relationship to his moral and religious obligations, then Allah’s Will (SW) decrees to lighten such burden; as it is stated in the holy Quran:
“4:28 God wants to lighten your burdens: for man has been created weak.”
“يُرِيدُ اللّهُ أَن يُخَفِّفَ عَنكُمْ وَخُلِقَ الإِنسَانُ ضَعِيفًا 4:28 “
In addition to the fact that Man being created week due to his corporeal nature, out of the mercy of the Merciful, Allah dose not burden him beyond his ability:
“God does not burden any Nafs with more than he is well able to bear-2:286”
La yukal-lifu Allahu nafsan illa wusAAaha
لاَ يُكَلِّفُ اللّهُ نَفْسًا إِلاَّ وُسْعَهَا
And this corporeal essential weakness of Man is encompassed by the second universal dimension that is “ta’qwa“
As mentioned above, “ta’qwa” is a higher definition of the Nafs and it has a sublime relationship to higher reality of existence. The notion of “ta’qwa” of the Nafs is the first station toward self realization.
This dimension of “ta’qwa” is very much firmly connected to all of the sublime Ideals of the cosmos; the ideals of the Most High.
“30:27 ….To Him belongs the loftiest similitude”
walahu almathalu alaAAla
وَلَهُ الْمَثَلُ الْأَعْلَى (30:27)
Attributes of the Dimensions of Nafs
A) Attributes of the Dimension of “ta’qwa“:
1- al-Nafs al-law-wama – the constant (6) reproaching soul.
2- Al nafs al mut’ma’inna– the certain soul.
In this dimension of “ta’qwa” Nafs possess two divine potentials or facets, which enables it to acquire the journey of ta’qwa and the journey toward the Beloved. These two potentials are mysterious attributes of the Nafs.
1- Al-Nafs al-lawama– the constant(6) reproaching soul.
The first such divine potential; attribute, is called in the Holy Quran as “Al-Nafs allawama” as in:
“Al nafs al-lawama-the constant(6) reproaching soul 75:2”
وَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِالنَّفْسِ اللَّوَّامَةِ 75:2
This attribute of the Nafs is within the dimension of “ta’qwa” of the Nafs. It represents the lower definition of the dimension of “ta’qwa” of Nafs. It is the desire of the pure reality of Nafs to embrace “ta’qwa”; to begin its journey towards purification process of the Nafs ” tazkiya-tul-nafs” as it is refer to in 91:9 “Zakka-ha; he who purifies it”
When the Nafs engages in the stage of “al-Nafs al-Lawwama” or “the constant reproachful soul”, then the Nafs has put itself on the divine path of the journey towards the Beloved and has established a divine connection with the essential principle of existence that is “al-ha’qq“
This stage becomes very sacred and sublime in the sight of Allah. Its sacredness is signified by being an object of oath for Allah SW, as it is stated in 75:2
“and I swear by the constant reproachful soul”. 75:2
“Wala oqsimu bialnnafsi allawwamati”
وَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِالنَّفْسِ اللَّوَّامَةِ 75:2
Constant attempts of the Nafs for self reproaching represents the divine desire of the higher reality of Nafs to have a glimpse at the Glory of the Absolute. And it is the only right starting point for the journey of purification “tazkiya”; the only path to take the Nafs into a higher level of reality; it is the only gate which would leads toward its Lord.
In entering this gate; at this stage the Nafs has entered the mysterious garden of the Absolute, which represent the higher reality of the conscious; of Nafs; the true state of Transcendent Reality. This station of reality will lead to the ultimate finishing line of the victorious Nafs; the state of success “falah al-Nafs” as it is stated in:
“Truly successful is he who purifies it”91:9
“ Qad aflaha man zakkaha” 91:9
قَدْ أَفْلَحَ مَن زَكَّاهَا 91:9
Furthermore, such station; the “victorious Nafs” has merited the status of “certitude” and it is ready to meet its Beloved fulfilled “radhiya” and pleased with “mardhiya; as in 89:27-30
“But ah! thou soul of certitude! 28 Return unto thy Lord, pleased and pleased with! 29 Enter thou among My servents! 30 Enter thou My Garden!89:27-30
“Ya ayyatuha alnnafsu almutmainnatu 27 IrjiAAee ila rabbiki radiyatan mardiyyatan 28 Faodkhulee fee AAibadee29 Waodkhulee jannatee 30” 89:27-30
يَا أَيَّتُهَا النَّفْسُ الْمُطْمَئِنَّةُ 27 ارْجِعِي إِلَى رَبِّكِ رَاضِيَةً مَّرْضِيَّةً 28 فَادْخُلِي فِي عِبَادِي 29 وَادْخُلِي جَنَّتِي 30
2- Al Nafs al mut’ma’inna-the certain soul.
This station represents the second divine attribute of Nafs within the higher dimension of Nafs that is “ta’qwa”
This divine attribute represents the higher definition of Nafs, within the dimension of “ta’qwa” and a higher station of reality. This higher attribute of the Nafs is the highest station of “the purified Nafs; al-Nafs al-zakia” which the Quran calls it the “al-Nafs al-mutma’ina-the certain soul” as stated in 89:27:
“Al nafs al mut’ma’inna-the certain soul 89:27”
النَّفْسُ الْمُطْمَئِنَّةُ 27
“But ah! thou soul of certitude!28Return unto thy Lord, pleased and pleased with! 29 Enter thou among My servents! 30 Enter thou My Garden! 89:27-30
“Ya ayyatuha alnnafsu almutmainnatu 27 IrjiAAee ila rabbiki radiyatan mardiyyatan 28 Faodkhulee fee AAibadee29Waodkhulee jannatee 30” 89:27-30
يَا أَيَّتُهَا النَّفْسُ الْمُطْمَئِنَّةُ 27 ارْجِعِي إِلَى رَبِّكِ رَاضِيَةً مَّرْضِيَّةً 28 فَادْخُلِي فِي عِبَادِي 29 وَادْخُلِي جَنَّتِي 30
Such soul has reached a sublime status where God defines it to be first “fulfilled- radhiya” and “pleased with-mardhiya” 89:27
It is so fulfilled with the presence of the Beloved within itself of which there is nothing else is needed to acquire.
The Beloved is pleased with it “mardhiya” for its servitude and desire to uphold its eternal covenant made with Allah(SW) before its corporeal existence 7:172.
“Am I not your Sustainer? to which they answer:Yea, indeed, we do bear witness thereto! 7:172“
alastu birabbikum qaloo bala shahidna
أَلَسْتُ بِرَبِّكُمْ قَالُواْ بَلَى شَهِدْنا 7:172
It is worth mentioning here that the two definitions of Nafs stated in verse 89:28 that is “ fulfilled- radhiya” and “pleased with-mardhiya” 89:28, are often considered, by many Muslim scholars, to be as stages of the Nafs’ spiritual development. However, I believe that according to 89:28, they are to be an attributes of the “Al nafs al mut’ma’inna-the certain soul 89:27”, for both are mentioned after the mentioning of “the certain soul” as mentioned in verse 89:28. This follows that “the certain soul” is to be as a spiritual stage for the Nafs’ development where as the “fulfilled- radhiya” and “pleased with-mardhiya” 89:28, are to be the attributes of “the certain soul” and not necessarily as stages of spiritual development of Nafs. However this only an opinion and is not meant to contradict any one.
B) Attributes of the dimension of “Fujoor”
1- Al Nafs Al-Musawwila– The Embellished Soul 12:18
2- Al Nafs Al-Ammara– The constant commanding soul 12:53
In the lower dimension of Nafs that is “Fujoor” the Nafs has a two negative attributes or potentials which are called in the Quran “as:
“Al Nafs Al-Musawwila- The Embellished Soul 12:18and Al Nafs Al-Ammara- The commanding soul 12:53”
بَلْ سَوَّلَتْ لَكُمْ أَنفُسُكُمْ
“Al nafs alammara-the constant commanding soul 12:53”
إِنَّ النَّفْسَ لأَمَّارَةٌ بِالسُّوءِ
1- Al Nafs Al-Musawwila– The Embellished Soul (5)
This attribute is referred to in the Holy Quran in three Suras; 12:18, 12:83 and 20:96. In all three places this attribute is having the same meaning (5).
Here I have taken 12:18 and have rendered my own translation. For I was not fully satisfied with available English translations in relationship to the word “sawwalat” which is often translated as “commanded or suggested” But looking into its true meaning according to the Arabic language (see footnote 5) it becomes very evident that this notion is another definition of the lower dimension of Nafs. In other words it represents the first stage of the dimension of Fujoor towards its lower journey which precedes the stage of the “Al Nafs Al-Ammara– The constant commanding soul” which is to be considered as the second stage of the dimension of “fujoor”
I would also like to point out here that this notion of the Nafs “almusawwila” is not addressed in the writings of our Muslim scholars. However I truly believe that this notion is another lower definition of the Nafs within its “Fujoor” for a simple reason that is it was mentioned in the Quran in two different occasions. First in the story of Prophet Yusif (twice is mentioned 12:18, 12:83) and the second one is in the story of Prophet Musa in relationship to the “Alsamirie-20:96” as stated below:
“He answered: “I have gained insight into something which they were unable to see: and so I took hold of a handful of the Apostle’s teachings and cast it away: for thus has my soul-nafsi embellished to me 20:96”
Qala basurtu bima lam yabsuroo bihi faqabadtu qabdatan min athari alrrasooli fanabathtuha wakathalika sawwalat lee nafsee
قَالَ بَصُرْتُ بِمَا لَمْ يَبْصُرُوا بِهِ فَقَبَضْتُ قَبْضَةً مِّنْ أَثَرِ الرَّسُولِ فَنَبَذْتُهَا وَكَذَلِكَ سَوَّلَتْ لِي نَفْسِي (20:96)
In this stage the Nafs begins to create a false reality to itself in order to satisfy its corporeal impulses and needs. So it tries to converse with itself regarding a particular relevant matter for worldly gains and then it make itself believe in the merits of doing such an affair. Eventually it justifies the means for perceived noble cause to execute the act. This can be seen in 12:18
“ No, but it is your souls-Nafs’ have embellished(5) to you an affair! But beautiful patience and surly Allah alone is sought regarding what you are describing. 12:18
“بَلْ سَوَّلَتْ لَكُمْ أَنفُسُكُمْ أَمْرًا فَصَبْرٌ جَمِيلٌ وَاللّهُ الْمُسْتَعَانُ عَلَى مَا تَصِفُونَ (12:18)“
“bal sawwalat lakum anfusukum amran fasabrun jameelun waAllahu almustaAAanu AAala ma tasifoona”
After the Nafs succeeds in disguising the truth and creating a false reality by making ugly things appear to be nice and good. In other words, the Nafs enters into an illusionary world of its own creation and imagination. Then it moves to the next stage; of commanding to execute the evil act or it is called Al Nafs Al-Ammara.
2- Al Nafs Al-Ammara– The constant commanding soul… 12:53
This negative attribute of Nafs within the dimension of “Fujoor” is a representation of the lower reality of Man’s corporeal nature; the lower reality of Man’s free will. It is the desire of the corporeal reality of Nafs to embrace “Fujoor”; its desire to begin its journey towards denigration “Dassa-ha; to bury it”; journey to lower reality.
So “Fujoor” is defined as the Darkness of human conducts; the shadow of the evil potentials and inclinations of the Nafs-soul “Fujoor-a-ha”
According to 91:7 the Nafs, after being fashioned by Allah SW “Sawwa-ha” is infused with the ability of acquiring evil as well as its ability of acquiring the hidden knowledge of the Divine Glory of God; to be God conscious.
So such shadow of darkness of the Nafs is the traces of the infused potential of evil within which is an accidental manifestation of the world of matter. In this world of matter, we go through life in the midst of this shadow of the Nafs accompanied by the shadow of the “Taqwa” “God conscious”
By virtue of the free will of Human being and man’s essential corporeal nature, while he is in the shadow of “Fujoor”- his strong accidental connection to matter, he struggles to be in the shadow of “Taqwa” for “Ta’qwa” is essentially connected to “Al-Ha’q” or the “Truth” of the existence.
In this struggle Man is pulled apart by two factors; two poles; two wills, one is his own free will and the second one is Allah’s Will.
Man’s free will is very much influenced by the powerful vices of his corporeal matter and his decreed weak nature. This strongly influenced, Man’s free will is inclined to acquire impurity, evil and injustice as it is stated in:
75:5 But man wants “yureedu (2)” to deny “li-yafjura (3)” what is ahead of him.
Bal yureedu alinsanu liyafjura amamahu
بَلْ يُرِيدُ الْإِنسَانُ لِيَفْجُرَ أَمَامَهُ 75:5
Where as the second will or the second pole is the “Will of Allah” (SW) which wishes for Man’s guidance and lighten his burdens by sending messengers, books, shedding His mercy upon all people.
“4:28 God wants- “ yureedu (2)“ to lighten your burdens”
“يُرِيدُ اللّهُ أَن يُخَفِّفَ عَنكُم 4:28
And this continuous polarization between man’s two opposite realities “ Yureedu Al-Insan (man wants) 75:5” and “yureedu Allah (Allah wants) 4:28” is the inevitable reality of the lower world of matter. Hence the Merciful has given the dimension of “Taqwa” the ability to prevail and to over come the powerful influence of matter on the Nafs of Man.
This overwhelming and mysterious power of “ta’qwa” is signified in the reversed order of notions of “Ta’qwa and Fujoor” where in verses 91:9-10 begin by addressing the ultimate victory status of Nafs. In verse 91:9 reference was made first to the notion of the Nafs’ attainment of success in reaching purity, which is a consequence of the path of “Ta’qwa”:
“Truly successful is he who purifies it (soul)”-91:9
قَدْ أَفْلَحَ مَن زَكَّاهَا9
We can also see such order of notions, in 73:3 where the “gratefulness state- shakiran” is referred to first and then followed by the ‘ungratefulness state- kafooran” which support the notion of the mysterious power of “Ta’qwa” over the aspect of its “Fujoor” as mentioned above.
In other words, the Nafs’ ability to attain victory over the aspect of its “Fujoor” is more superior to its ability towards failure. This follows that the Nafs’ ability towards self realization and its purification “Zak-kaha” is destined to succeed first should the individual’s free will chooses to do so. Its ability to overcome the powerful influence of “Fujoor” is far stronger.
Furthermore, in the following verse, 91:10 we see the reference was made to the notion of the Nafs’ failure to attain nearness to God, which is the consequence of the path of “Fujoor”
“and truly lost is he who buries it (soul). 91:10”
وَقَدْ خَابَ مَن دَسَّاهَا 10
Those two consequences stated in Verse 9 and Verse10, are in the opposite order of notions of “Fujoor” and “Ta’qwa” stated in verse 8
In other words, we see in verse 91:7-8, after the Nafs was fashioned and then it was inspired or infused by “Fujoor” and “Ta’qwa” ; as mentioned above, where as in verse 8 and 9 the order of notions are reversed.
Truly this is the Majestic style of the Holy Quran and the hidden Absolute reality of the word of God, clearly manifest itself in this simple order of words or verses.
Please note that if anyone or group wishes to use this post for educational purpose, please do so but giving credit to Katib would be the right thing to do, and a small prayer for Katib.
(1) “Hiuli” is a philosophical term denote for the corporeal aspect of human being
(2) In both verses 75:5, 4:28 there is the Arabic word “yureedu” which is rendered as “wants” although some translations render them differently as “Man wishes” and “God wants”
(3) In this verse the English word “to deny” is rendered for the Arabic word “liyafjura” which is derived from the root word of “fajara” and other derivatives are “fujoor” which is in 91:8. And “yafjur” means “he commits wrong or to deny as rendered above. This verse very much connected to verse 91:8 which refer to the same notion of the “Fujoor” of Nafs “Fujoora-ha” where “-ha” denote for the pronoun of “Nafs”
(4) “ulhimat-Ilham” root word is lahama. Its derivatives are alhama; yalhamu, lahama. Original meaning of root word “lahama” is “taking or consuming something inside one’s mouth. Where as ilham literally means “casting something into the inner core of man” – according to Al-Raghib
(5) ““Sawwalat” in verse 12:18 consist of two parts; one is the word “sawwala” and the pronoun “t or the letter ta” its derivative are; sawwal and tasweel. its original meaning is to be lax, laidback, or lenient (Sha’rawi Mutwali). “Tasweel” means make things easy or the Nafs’ attempt to disguise the reality of what it desires to obtain (Ibn ‘ashoor). And “altasweel” means “alwaswasah or the nafs fooling itself of something or creating a false reality to itself in order to achieve its desire”. When we say the Nafs of someone has disguised itself something or an affair means his nafs has decorated and made it appear to be better than in reality; or it made it look nice where it is ugly and bad(tan’tawi). Please refer to the various translations of the term “sawalat” in verses 12:18, and 20:96 as follows: “12:18-Nay, but it is your [own] minds that have made [so terrible] a happening seem a matter of little account to you!” and “20:96-for thus has my mind prompted me [to act].” Where such translation are Ok but they seem to be as meaning and not literal, therefore I have rendered litteral translation for these verses as seen above.
(6) Here I have translated “Al nafs al-lawwama” as “the constant reproaching soul” because according to Arabic form of the word “al-lawwama” means a repetition of the process of reproaching. If it was “al-la’ima” instead of “al-lawama” , which both means the same thing but the first one could involve reproaching as little as once. Where as the second word “al-lawwama” which is used in the verse involves continuous attempts of reproaching. For the same reasons I have also translated the word “al-ammara” as “the constant commanding” in comparison to the word “al-aamira” -commanding; which is not used in the verse.