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Islamic Researcher based in Pakistan. Masters Graduate in Islamic Studies.
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Islamic model of human psyche, soul or the self (nafs).

In a Nutshell: The nafs (self/person) begins with the spark of the Divine breath known as the ruh (spirit) which gives us life. Our biology is the source of desires (ahwaa) pushing us in various directions. Decision making involving irada takes place in the qalb (heart) which, in an Islamic paradigm, is the center of the nafs where consciousness and intuition resides. The cognitive and analytical aspect is often referred to as the aql (intellect), responsible for the higher intellectual functions of the personality.

Introduction

Throughout history thinkers have thought about the human psyche and the self. A multitude of models have been proposed trying to understand the shared and embodied moral understandings about what it means to be human.

Every culture’s understanding of the human psyche or self reflects mankind’s place in the world. For those with a secular perspective, the Arabic term nafs, variously translated as psyche, soul or the self is often used in Muslim literature as part of the body/soul paradigm, bringing to the body a person’s psychological state. The term fitrah was used for human nature, the original bodily state, containing the divine breath. Nafs encompassed a broad range of topics including the qalb (heart), the ruh (spirit), the aql (intellect) and irada (will).

This answer aims at outlining the structure and dynamics of the nafs based on Islamic sources.

Scholars' Views

Theoretical frameworks are relatively scarce in contemporary Islamic psychology. Interest in the nafs however appears in the works of early Muslim thinkers including al-Balkhi (b. 849), Ibn Miskawayh (d. 1030), Ibn Sina (d.1037), Ghazali (d. 1111), Razi (d. 1209), Ibn Arabi (d. 1240) and Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 1350).

Al-Balkhi made the early connection between body and soul, (or mind and body as it is sometimes presented), the health of each impacting the other, saying:

“when the body becomes ill… it will prevent… learning and other (mental activities) or performing duties in a proper manner. And when the soul is afflicted the body will lose its natural ability to enjoy pleasure and will find its life becoming distressed and disturbed”.

He also recognised psychosomatic illness where psychological pain may lead to bodily illness, a notion entering Western psychology with Freud in the nineteenth century.

Ibn Sina sought to demonstrate the existence of the self, distinguishing between the notion of existence (i.e., the thing itself) and essence (i.e., the reality of the thing). He argued self-awareness was the essence and evidenced the existence of the self.

Ibn Miskawayh considered the self’s self-regulatory functions (e.g., self-control) emphasizing the importance of managing emotional impulses.

Ghazali structured the self with notions of a spiritual heart (qalb), spirit (ruh), ego (nafs), mind (aql) and free will (irada). He defined the spiritual heart as the psyche or the whole self, and categorized the ego: desire-ego (nafs al-ammarah - sensitive to pleasurable stimuli), reproachful ego (nafs al-lawamma - self-censure), and tranquil-ego (nafs al-mutma’inna; i.e., state of peace).

Razi distinguished between bodily and intellectual pleasures privileging the latter.

Ibn al-Arabi considered the spiritual heart as a part of the universal reason, allowing one to access the Divine truth. He also distinguished the rational soul from the animal soul, characterising the former as an eternal and pure spirit.

Ibn al-Qayyim characterised the dynamic patterns associated with specific emotional, cognitive and behavioural contents of the spiritual heart.

As important as the above scholarly activities may be, none comprehensively explained what an Islamic psychology would look like. Whether it was just Sufism (tasawwuf), psychology from an Islamic perspective, psychology with a little Islam, Islam with some psychology, Islamisation of psychology and so on.

The three major schools of Western psychology, Psychoanalysis, Behaviourism and Humanistic Psychology have contributed their portion in explaining the nature of man, but the views provided by these schools have never been able to explain comprehensively the pre-natal and post-mortem realities of human. Humanist psychology’s concept of man is though closer to the Islamic concept; it still cannot provide the explanation from where man got his state of being good and what happens upon death. On the contrary, Islamic psychology based on the religion of Islam has given a concept on man, which is diametrically opposed to what has been conceived, by the Western schools of psychology. It presented a concept of human nature, which is comprehensive and all encompassing; describing that man has physical, social, psychological and spiritual dimensions. The last dimension is missing in almost all Western schools of psychology. Islamic psychology highlights the many interesting facts about man that he is the best creation of Allah, born with the fitrah (primordial nature). He has a dual nature; body and spirit, he is the khalifah of Allah (God’s vicegerent), the pledge or ahd-e-alast etc.

Given this fragmented scholarship, Islamic psychology is defined and conceptualized according to however any given scholar understands it.

A definition of psychology that is a helpful starting point to contemporary discussions, “the study of the self and ensuing behavioural, emotional, and mental processes; and both the seen and unseen aspects that influence these elements” (Utz, 2011, p. 34) which I’ll work with in this answer.

Evidences

Qur’an:

فَأَقِمْ وَجْهَكَ لِلدِّينِ حَنِيفًا ۚ فِطْرَتَ اللَّهِ الَّتِي فَطَرَ النَّاسَ عَلَيْهَا ۚ لَا تَبْدِيلَ لِخَلْقِ اللَّهِ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ الدِّينُ الْقَيِّمُ وَلَٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ

1. “(Adhere to) the fitrah of Allah upon which He has created [all] people. No change should there be in the creation of Allah. That is the correct religion, but most of the people do not know.” (Qur’an 30:30)

إِنَّا هَدَيْنَاهُ السَّبِيلَ إِمَّا شَاكِرًا وَإِمَّا كَفُورًا

2. “Indeed, we guided him to the way, whether he be grateful or be he ungrateful.” (Qur’an 76:3)

وَنَفْسٍ وَمَا سَوَّاهَ ۔ فَأَلْهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقْوَاهَا ۔ قَدْ أَفْلَحَ مَنْ زَكَّاهَا ۔ وَقَدْ خَابَ مَنْ دَسَّاهَ

3. “By the soul and that which shaped it. And inspired it to lewdness and God-fearing. Prosperous is he who purifies it, failed has he who seduces it.” (Qur’an 91:7-10)

فَاِذَا سَوَّيۡتُهٗ وَنَفَخۡتُ فِيۡهِ مِنۡ رُّوۡحِىۡ فَقَعُوۡا لَهٗ سٰجِدِيۡنَ

4. “When I have completed shaping him and have breathed into him of My Spirit,19 then fall you down before him in prostration.” (Qur’an 15:29)

Sunnah:

كُلُّ مَوْلُودٍ يُولَدُ عَلَى الْمِلَّةِ فَأَبَوَاهُ يُهَوِّدَانِهِ أَوْ يُنَصِّرَانِهِ أَوْ يُشَرِّكَانِهِ

5. Each child is born upon nature i.e. fitrah and then his parents make him a Jew, Christian or a Zoroastrian. (Tirmidhi, 2287)

إِنِّي خَلَقْتُ عِبَادِي حُنَفَاءَ كُلَّهُمْ وَإِنَّهُمْ أَتَتْهُمُ الشَّيَاطِينُ فَاجْتَالَتْهُمْ عَنْ دِينِهِمْ

6. I created my servants on the right deen but devils made them go astray (Muslim, 2865)

كَانَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم لاَ يُغِيرُ إِلاَّ عِنْدَ صَلاَةِ الْفَجْرِ فَإِنْ سَمِعَ أَذَانًا أَمْسَكَ وَإِلاَّ أَغَارَ فَاسْتَمَعَ ذَاتَ يَوْمٍ فَسَمِعَ رَجُلاً يَقُولُ اللَّهُ أَكْبَرُ اللَّهُ أَكْبَرُ ‏.‏ فَقَالَ ‏"‏ عَلَى الْفِطْرَةِ ‏"‏ ‏.‏ فَقَالَ أَشْهَدُ أَنْ لاَ إِلَهَ إِلاَّ اللَّهُ ‏.‏ فَقَالَ ‏ خَرَجْتَ مِنَ النَّار

7. Once the Prophet was on a journey and heard a shepherd calling out ‘Allahu Akbar Allahu Akbar’. The Prophet (saw) said ‘He is upon Fitrah’. The man then said the shahadah (testimony of faith). The Prophet said ‘Now he has saved himself from the fire’. (Tirmidhi, 1618)

أَلاَ وَإِنَّ لِكُلِّ مَلِكٍ حِمًى، أَلاَ إِنَّ حِمَى اللَّهِ فِي أَرْضِهِ مَحَارِمُهُ، أَلاَ وَإِنَّ فِي الْجَسَدِ مُضْغَةً إِذَا صَلَحَتْ صَلَحَ الْجَسَدُ كُلُّهُ، وَإِذَا فَسَدَتْ فَسَدَ الْجَسَدُ كُلُّهُ‏.‏ أَلاَ وَهِيَ الْقَلْبُ ‏

8. There is a piece of flesh in the body if it becomes good (reformed) the whole body becomes good but if it gets spoilt the whole body gets spoilt and that is the heart. (Bukhari, 52)


Analysis

Fitrah (Human Nature):

The concept of fitrah defined as ‘human nature’ or ‘natural disposition’ posits all human beings are born with the same sound nature, which is pure and comes from and has a direct link to God (see evidences 5 and 7 above). Both narrations suggest fitrah is a ‘natural state’ which is one of purity and cleanliness unaffected by external factors. If one was left in this natural, uncorrupted and pristine state they would determine the truth. There is a primordial instinct and recollection of a creator.

The nafs’ trajectory becomes a challenge or a test the minute they enter into the dunya. After conception, a process of corruption begins, as the person makes their way through the trials of the dunya (temporal world) which begins to distance them from and cover over their pure nature. As Islam narrates, at the end of the temporary state of human life in the dunya all souls will again be made aware of Allah’s omnipotence as the veil is lifted from us, but what each soul has done in terms of their striving to uncover that witnessing in the time they had in the dunya will determine their relative state in the next life.Thus, an Islamic paradigm of psychology is not limited to this life, as contemporary psychology is, but rather includes both pre-natal and post-mortem realities.

The optimal state of the person then is to be in alignment with fitrah and to uncover that true nature of witnessing which is constantly being veiled and challenged by multiple factors within this life. When we are in a state of submission to the will of Allah, we are in our optimal state of functioning and aligned with our fitrah. However, this is a difficult state to maintain as we have several factors impacting our ability to be in the state of remembrance of that true nature which is necessary to maintain optimal functioning. In addition to the external factors in the dunya that distract us from the remembrance of Allah, there is a constant struggle inside of us that we must engage in that amounts to a battleground in our nafs. In order to be better equipped for the battle, it is important that we understand the terrain of the nafs and how to navigate it.

Structure of the Nafs:

The nafs begins with the spark of the Divine breath that was breathed into us, known as the ruh. The ruh, or spirit, is aspect of the human nafs that is always there, and which cannot be corrupted or misaligned. It is this pure of our nafs that allows us to always come back to the witnessing of Allah and provides the human being with a direct connection to Allah.

When we entered this world in a physical form, ahwaa (desires) originate in our bodies and sway us in one direction or another. While it is not bad in and of itself, it has a tendency to lead us away from our fitrah and into a state of ghafla, or forgetfulness of Allah, because it is the part of ourselves that is oriented to the dunya and lives purely in this realm.

The central crux of where this battle takes place and what determines our relative outcome is in the qalb, or heart, which, in an Islamic paradigm, is the centre of the nafs.

The word qalb in Arabic is a linguistic root that indicates turning one way or another. The word taqalab means “to turn”. So, the function of the heart is that it can turn to or away from desires. Qalb is the place where consciousness resides. This cognitive aspect of the qalb, is often referred to as aql (intellect). In the Islamic model of the soul, the aql is not understood as the central driving aspect of the self but is better understood as a function of the qalb. In addition to the normal kind of logical reasoning that we attribute to the mind, the qalb can perceive and to see things as they are intuitively. The Qur’an situates the heart at the centre of human awareness and intelligence. In Qur’anic terms, the heart becomes “blind,” “rusty,” or “ill” and this results in ignorance and forgetfulness, which in turn lead to disobedience and sin.

Stages of the Nafs:

The three main stages of the nafs mentioned in the Qur’an comprise:

  • Nafs al ammara bil su (the nafs that commands to evil): a state in which a person is not exerting concerted effort in controlling the nafs, and essentially allowing the lower self to run wild. This stage/state is not necessarily characterized by evilness per se but that it is an ‘evilness premised on the state of individuation,’ where the person is anchored in selfishness rather than in awareness of God and they are in a state of ghafla (forgetfulness of God).
  • Nafs al lawwama (self-reproaching nafs): it is considered the stage when most of the work on the soul is being done. It sometimes brings a person to do sin, but then that nafs self incriminates itself, it reproaches itself, it feels bad, it feels guilty. It is conceived as the place of the battleground where a person strives to resist the downward pull toward nafs, dunya, and shaytan and reach towards the akhirah (afterlife) and Allah through diligence and self-awareness.
  • Nafs al mutmainah (soul at peace with God): As said in Qur’an:

يَا أَيَّتُهَا النَّفْسُ الْمُطْمَئِنَّةُ ۔ ارْجِعِي إِلَىٰ رَبِّكِ رَاضِيَةً مَرْضِيَّةً

“To the righteous it will be said “Oh reassured soul, return to your Lord well pleased, and pleasing to Him.” (Qur’an 89:27-28)

It means they are content with the hukm of Allah Almighty, there is nothing else that makes them happy. It is considered as an ideal stage and people rarely reach it.

Development of the soul:

The work of self-improvement or personal development is the work of constantly staying engaged in the effort to uncover the blocks on the heart, essentially cleaning the heart, and striving and struggling to stay in remembrance of Allah amidst the distractions and downward pulls of the dunya. As the Prophet (saw) said:

أَلاَ وَإِنَّ لِكُلِّ مَلِكٍ حِمًى، أَلاَ إِنَّ حِمَى اللَّهِ فِي أَرْضِهِ مَحَارِمُهُ، أَلاَ وَإِنَّ فِي الْجَسَدِ مُضْغَةً إِذَا صَلَحَتْ صَلَحَ الْجَسَدُ كُلُّهُ، وَإِذَا فَسَدَتْ فَسَدَ الْجَسَدُ كُلُّهُ‏.‏ أَلاَ وَهِيَ الْقَلْبُ

“There is a piece of flesh in the body if it becomes good (reformed) the whole body becomes good but if it gets spoilt the whole body gets spoilt and that is the heart.” (Bukhari, 52)

Islamic paradigm of understanding the human being views the purpose of human life as an opportunity to purify the soul i.e., to uncover the fitrah inside by purifying the nafs. We experience different qualities or characteristics of our nafs depending on our relative position in the battleground of our nafs. When we are subsumed by the covering on our heart and are in a state of an-nafs al ammarah, we can manifest character qualities that are destructive, such as anger, jealousy, and envy; these are called the muhlikat, or destroyers. And when we are engaged in the struggle of the jihad an-nafs (struggle of the self), attempting to reign in our lower tendencies toward individuation and self-direction, we are in a state of an-nafs al lawwamah, or the self- reproaching soul, where we take ourselves to account and make an effort to doing the work of turning our hearts. This can involve a process of thadhib al akhlaq, or the refinement of character, where through self-awareness we consciously try to change the muhlikat and attempt to emulate good character traits such as courage and wisdom and justice, called munjiyat, or saviors and were exemplified in the perfected character of the Prophet (saw). These manifestations of muhlikat, or negative character, are signs of where we need to do the work on ourselves in our process of personal development with the goal of aligning with fitrah and evolving to our higher self, or the next best version of our self. When we have moments of success in this process, we can experience the nafs in a state of peace, which is the an-nafs al mutma’inah, or the soul at rest. While it is rare to fully achieve this state, we can get glimpses of it that keeps us motivated to do the work of striving toward that next best version, having more frequent experiences of the state of the soul in an-nafs al mutma’inah.

This is the goal of personal development in an Islamic paradigm and there exists within the Islamic tradition a whole host of tools and guidance in the pursuit of the purification of the qalb and nafs.

Islamic Model of the soul:

According to this model, the nafs has an innately pure nature, fitrah comes from and is connected to God but becomes covered over and forgotten as a natural part of life in the dunya. Throughout its life in the dunya, within the soul there exists a dynamic interplay of conflicting forces that affect the psychological state of the person and determine relative levels of alignment or misalignment with fitrah. This process is represented by the purple elements in the middle of the model in the figure.

The qalb, which is the spiritual centre of the person, and where the faculty of intellect is located as the aql, has the potential to turn in either of two directions which shapes the relative, transient outcome of this conflict. It can turn toward the lower impulses of the nafs (used here to refer to desires) and become further misaligned with fitrah by the influences of the dunya and shaytan, resulting in increased negative characteristics of the muhlikat and a state of ghafla. This process is represented by the red elements toward the bottom half of the model in the figure, from the nafs downward. Or it can turn toward the higher, Godly nature of the ruh with the remembrance of Allah and the akhirah (afterlife), resulting in increased positive characteristics of the munjiyat, and come more in alignment with the soul’s state of fitrah. This process is represented by the blue elements toward the top half of the model in the figure, from the ruh upwards.

Conclusion

If we locate our identity within our nafs, rather than the persona that we project, we can take personal transformation to a whole new level. By adopting an approach to personal development that is informed and guided by the Islamic model of the nafs, we have an opportunity to integrate this with our answers to the meaning of life and integrate our religious belief system and worldview with our daily life struggle.

References

Abdallah Rothman, What Islam Offers to Modern Self-Help: An Islamic Paradigm of Psychology
Abdallah Rothman & Adrian Coyle, Toward a Framework for Islamic Psychology and Psychotherapy: An Islamic Model of the Soul
Amber Haque, Psychology from Islamic Perspective: Contributions of Early Muslim Scholars and Challenges to Contemporary Muslim Psychologists
Ghazali, The revival of the religious science
Many Cultures, One Psychology, https://www.americanscientist.org/article/many-cultures-one-psychology
William Chittick, Reason, Intellect and Consciousness in Islamic thought
William Chittick, The Islamic concept of human perfection​​​​​​​


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