The Meaning of Nafs
by Muhammad 'Afifi al-'Akiti ©

In the Name of God, Most Compassionate and Merciful

Praise be Allah, Who has adorned the aspect of man by granting him good stature and proportion, safeguarding him from increase and decline in his aspect and measurements,
We ask for His forgiveness and guidance,
We seek refuge from the evils, which are in ourselves and the wicked in our actions,
And may the blessings and salutations be invoked upon Muhammad, His Prophet .

To proceed:

"As for whoever exceeded the limits and preferred the life of this world, surely his abode will be the Fire; and as for whoever feared to stand before his Lord and restrained the desires of his self, surely his abode will be the Garden."
(Sura 79:39-40)

Ibn Kathir says:

"The Mu'min are a people who have been prevented through the Qur'an from indulging in the pleasures of this world; it comes between them and what might destroy them. The Mu'min is like a prisoner in this world, who tries to free himself from its shackles and chains, placing his trust in nothing in it, until the day he meets his Creator. He knows full well that he is accountable for everything that he hears, sees and says, and for everything that he does with his body."

(Al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 9 pg. 276, Cairo 1352)

There are two kinds of people, one are those whose Nafs have overcome them and led them to ruin because they yielded to them and obeyed their impulses. The other kinds are those who have overcome their Nafs and made them obey their commands.

Nafs (pl. Anfus or Nufus) lexically means soul, the psyche, the ego, self, life, person, heart or mind. (Mu'jam, Kassis)

Although some scholars have classified the Nafs up to 7 stages, there is agreement among Ulama' that in the Qur'an, Allah (s.w.t.) has described at least 3 main types of the Nafs. And these are in rank from the worse to better: Nafs al-Ammara Bissu' (the Nafs that urges evil), Nafs al-Lawwama (the Nafs that Blames) and Nafs al-Mutma`inna (the Nafs at Peace).

(Chapter 12 v. 53 in the Tafsir of al-Tabari: Jami' al-Bayan fi Tafsir al-Qur'an, 30 vols., Bulaq 1323 & also in Imam Baghawi's Tafsir: Lubab al-Ta'wil fi Ma'alam at-Tanzil, 8 vols. Cairo, 1308)

A summary of these states of the Nafs are given by Imam Tabari in his Tafsir of Surah Yusuf verse 53:

1. Nafs al-Ammara Bissu' (The Soul which Commands):

This is the Nafs that brings punishment itself. By its very nature it directs its owner towards every wrong action. No one can get rid of its evil without the help from Allah. As Allah refers to this Nafs in the story of the wife of al-Aziz (Zulaikha) and Prophet Yusuf (s):

"The (human) soul is certainly prone to evil" (12:53).

Allah also says:

"And had it not been for the grace of Allah and His Mercy on you, not one of you would ever have been pure; but Allah purifies whomever He wishes, and Allah is Hearing, Knowing." (24:21)

This Nafs resides in the world of the senses and is dominated by earthly desires (Shahwat) and passions….

Evil lies hidden in the Nafs and it is this that leads it on to do wrong. If Allah were to leave the servant alone with his self, the servant would be destroyed between its evil and the evil that it craves; but if Allah grants him success and help, then he will survive. We seek refuge in Allah the Almighty, both from the evil in ourselves and from the evil of our actions.

2. Nafs al-Lawwama (the Soul that Blames):

Allah refers to this Nafs,

"And I do call to witness the Nafs that blames" (75:2).

This Nafs is conscious of its own imperfections.

Hasan al-Basri said, "You always see the believer blaming himself and saying things like 'Did I want this? Why did I do that? Was this better than that?"….

3. Nafs al-Mutma`inna (the Soul at Peace):

Allah refers to this Nafs,

"O Self, in complete rest and satisfaction!" (89:27).

This Nafs is tranquil as it rests on the certitude of Allah.

Ibn Abbas (r) said, "It is the tranquil and believing soul".

Al-Qatadah (r) said, "It is the soul of the believer, made calm by what Allah has promised. Its owner is at rest and content with his knowledge of Allah's Names and Attributes, and with what He has said about Himself and His Messenger , and with what He has said about what awaits the soul after death: about the departure of the soul, the life in the Barzakh, and the events of the Day of Qiyamah which will follow. So much so that a believer such as this can almost see them with his own eyes. So he submits to the will of Allah and surrenders to Him contentedly, never dissatisfied or complaining, and with his faith never wavering. He does not rejoice at his gains, nor do his afflictions make him despair - for he knows that they were decreed long before they happened to him, even before he was created…."….

(Al-Tabari: Jami' al-Bayan fi Tafsir al-Qur'an, vol. 13, Bulaq 1323)

Imam Baghawi says,

"The Nafs al-Mutma`inna has an angel to help it, who assists and guides it. The angel casts good into the Nafs so that it desires what is good and is aware of the excellence of good actions. The angel also keeps the self away from wrong action and shows it the ugliness of bad deeds. All in all, whatever is for Allah and by him, always comes from the Soul which is at Peace.

The Nafs al-Ammara Bissu' has Shaytan as its ally. He promises it great rewards and gains, but casts falsehood into it. He invites it and entices the soul to do evil. He leads it on with hope after hope and presents falsehood to the soul in a form that it will accept and admire."

Ibn al-Qayyim also mentioned the states of Nafs:

"The Nafs is a single entity, although its state may change: from the Nafs al-Ammara, to the Nafs al-Lawwama, to the Nafs al-Mutma`inna, which is the final aim of perfection….

It has been said that the Nafs al-Lawwama is the one, which cannot rest in any one state. It often changes, remembers and forgets, submits and evades, loves and hates, rejoices and become sad, accepts and rejects, obeys and rebels.

Nafs al-Lawwama is also the Nafs of the believer….It has also been mentioned that the Nafs blames itself on the Day of Qiyamah - for every one blames himself for his actions, either his bad deeds, if he was one who had many wrong actions, or for his shortcomings, if he was one who did good deeds. All of this is accurate.

(Madarij as-Salikin fi Manazili Iyyaka Na'budu wa Iyyaka Nasta'in, vol. 1 pg. 308)

Sa'id Hawwa says regarding these Nafs:

"Depending upon its condition, the Nafs exist in multidimensional. When the Nafs is tranquil because of obeying Allah, and the soul opposes its desires, this soul is known as Nafs al-Mutma`inna. Regarding this, Allah has spoken about it in the Qur'an (89:27-28). But if the soul does not attain peace with itself, rather being exposed to desires, then such soul is known as the Nafs al-Lawwama because this soul reproaches its owner due to the owner's carelessness in fulfilling out Allah's wishes - Qur'an (75:2). More so, if the soul submits to lusts and allows itself to be seduced by Shaytan, such a soul is known as Nafs al-Ammara Bissu'. Allah tells the story about the wife of al-Aziz (Zulaikha) in Qur'an (12:53).

(Tarbiyatun nar Ruhiyah, pg. 32, Cairo: Dar al- Salam, 1408)

There is a famous Arabic saying:

"O soul..Watch out! Help me with your striving,
in the darkness of the nights;
so that on the Day of Qiyamah,
you will win a good life on those heights."

May this be of benefit.

And the last of our prayers,

"Glory to your Lord, the Lord of Honour & Power! He is better from what they ascribe to Him! Peace be upon the Messengers! Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the worlds." (37:180-182)

Muhammad 'Afifi al-'Akiti

Belfast, 4 May 1997.

Copyright: Published originally in BICNews.
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Related links at other sites: •   jerrahi.org/writings_english/68blemishes.htm - The 68 Blemishes of the Nafs, x L 20120703






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