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How Do The Self, Soul, and Personality Differ?

10 January, 2017
Q What is the difference between nafs and ruuh in Islam? Which is the soul and which is the self or personality. Is it true the soul leaves the body during the night and comes back in the morning? Is it true the soul hang around the dead body, hoping to revive it?! Please clarify, because some writings mess me up! Also, please give me the shortest advice to develop my personality to the better.


Asalamu Alaikum Dawood, 

Thank you for contacting About Islam with your question. 

It is important to distinguish between nafs (self) and ruuh (soul). Some authors have interchanged between both freely. 

Ruuh, strictly speaking, should be translated as soul. This is while nafs should be reserved for self, person, personality or even ego. Personal identity includes the three dimensions of the psyche viz identity, ego, and superego. 

It needs to be clarified that nafs and ruuh; are separate words and are not interchangeable. In fact, they are even distinguished separately in the Holy Quran and hence, have different meanings. Thus, nafs should not be translated as soul. 

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It is noteworthy that nafs (self) has not been associated with angels, for example, in the Quran. This is while ruuh has been associated with Almighty Allah, human beings, as well as jinn

The idea of personality or self – as we know it- refers to a person’s uniquely organized predisposition to perform, perceive, think, and feel. This is either singly or during interaction with others. 

Still, some commentators have translated nafs in the Quran by saying – for example – that Allah takes out the “soul” at the time of death, and also from those who die not, during their sleep. In fact, such translation is inaccurate. 

In fact, Allah never mentioned ruuh in the verse that discussed this point. This is because ruuh (soul) of a person is still present in the body during sleep, while nafs (personality) is non-functioning, both during sleep and also at time of death. 

It is also common for a person to sleep over a disturbing thought, during which Allah would eliminate that undesirable component of his/her nafs. This is while the ruuh (soul) is still present in the sleeping person, and the person wakes up with a change of attitude.

Moreover, some of us are half-asleep and half-awake at times, called dissociated sleep. This happens, especially with mothers who are nursing their babies and can hear the cry of her baby, but not the ringing of the phone.

Here, we can say that still the ruuh is present in the half-awake and half-asleep mothers. 

The concept that the soul leaves the body during sleep to return in the morning, is originally Jewish. You can find it in Genesis Rabbah 14:9. Also, the idea that the soul lingers near the body after death for three days hoping that it will return to life is Jewish, not Islamic. You can find it in Tanhuma, Miqetz 4 and Pequdei 3. 

Furthermore, personality is reflected in the person’s behavior when exposed to the stresses of life. The first step in developing and perfecting the personality is to learn the methods of exploring the hidden powers and capabilities of one’s self, throughout one’s journey on Earth.

Some of us, who are not fond of resisting temptation, have no inclination to develop our personality. 

To have a greater understanding of one’s self, one has to delve much deeper into oneself and spot all those avenues that have been ignored by one for too long. 

These include making amends with those whom we hurt by our speech and/or actions, as well as to forgive those who hurt us. There is never a wrong time to do the right thing. 

As time is against all of us, we should begin to probe our “self” today. 

I hope my answer satisfies your question.

Walaikum Asalam. Please keep in touch.

Please continue feeding your curiosity, and find more info in the following links:

Body and Soul: Any Link to Self Development in Islam?

And They Ask You Concerning the Soul

5 Ways to  Care for Your Soul