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Do You Understand Your Nafs?

The weight room smelled of recycled rubber, steel, and sanitizer.

Our cross country team split into teams of two at the various stations.

My friend and weight-lifting partner was always very encouraging. “Come on,” she would tell me. “This is where the difference gets made.”

I had been running cross country for several years, but only recently had I been introduced to the idea that lifting weights could make me run faster.

Our coach was a former Olympic runner, and she explained to us that if we really wanted to improve our running performance, we had to improve from the inside out.

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She had us lift weights twice a week. That increase in strength, she told us, was what made the difference between a runner and a fast runner.

We human beings are multi-faceted, complex creations of Allah. As such, changing something about ourselves, physically, psychologically or spiritually, requires understanding the various components that make up that part of our being.

The unfortunate reality is that, too often, we try to change by focusing on just one component and then are frustrated by our lack of results. For example, many of us wake up every day and perform the same spiritual routine in hopes of having a sound heart and growing closer to Allah Almighty.

We may have a certain “religious” outward appearance, or we may pray or supplicate or do any number of things, but wonder why we don’t feel that our hearts are sound, or see in ourselves the good character we would have expected.

Like many runners who forget to focus on improving their strength, it may be that we are neglecting other aspects of our being, aspects that are less obvious.

If we want to grow spiritually and improve our character and actions, we need to first understand the various factors affecting the internal states of our hearts.

The Freedom of Choice

Allah created us with features and characteristics that set us apart from other creations. For example, the human was created with a qalb, a heart, for the sole purpose of knowing and loving Allah, and a ‘aql, or mind, which gave him a capacity for knowledge and understanding.

The human being was also created with the ability to distinguish between right and wrong: the ability to choose. This freedom of choice is something most other creations of Allah were not given.

Rocks, trees, animals, the wind, the rain, and even the angels, all submit to the orders and Will of Allah without the freedom to do otherwise. The human ability to choose right and wrong stems from the presence of the nafs.

How the Nafs Affects Us

The word nafs can mean the soul, psyche, ego or self.

By nature, the nafs can incline to both good and evil. Allah tells us this:

By the Nafs (Soul), and the proportion and order given to it; and its enlightenment to understand what is right and wrong for it. (91:7-8)

In the context of the spiritual health of the heart, the nafs usually takes on a more negative connotation. It is: “the soul in its unrefined, unconstrained, immature state.”[i] In Surah Yusuf, the wife of the Aziz, after having admitted to wrongfully accusing Prophet Yusuf, states:

I do not absolve my nafs of any blame. Surely, the nafs commands what is vile, except for those my Lord has mercy on. Indeed, my Lord is Forgiving, Merciful. (12:53)

Thus, if a person does not consciously work to discipline his soul or nafs, it will incline towards vileness, baseness and vulgarity, and will detour his heart from its spiritual journey. It will also adversely affect his actions and his character.

What’s most dangerous is that often a person may outwardly appear to do “Islamic” things, but inwardly have such a sick heart that his actions are of little benefit to him—they are done out of ostentation, for example, or to achieve some worldly end.

When this occurs it is usually because the base inclinations of the nafs have overpowered the heart and are thus driving the person’s actions. If left in this state, the heart can become completely suffocated by the nafs until it spiritually dies altogether.

Inclinations of the Nafs

Although in its unrefined state, the nafs inclines towards base desires. With discipline, the nafs can be purified and elevated.

Scholars discuss different types or inclinations of the nafs based on evidence from the Quran and Sunnah.[ii] These are simply categories, and the nafs may exhibit any combination of them.

The strength of each one depends on the degree to which a person indulges these inclinations. Those most indulged dominate; they direct the actions and character of the individual, all the while reflecting on the spiritual health of his or her heart.

Cattle-Like Inclinations

The first type of behavior to which the nafs can incline is the baheemi or cattle-like behavior, which exhibits the qualities of the baheema (an Arabic word that refers to cattle, sheep, chickens, etc.).

This type of nafs derives happiness from those things which bring happiness to the baheema, namely, eating, drinking, sleeping, entertainment and sexual activities.

It is natural and necessary for the human being to incline toward these activities to a certain degree. However, when these inclinations are over-indulged and become the main focus of life, they deter the heart from its spiritual development.

Most contemporary societies give us perfect examples of this. People work hard throughout the week so they can “play” hard on the weekends—so they can enjoy this part of their nufoos by excessively eating, drinking, playing, and fulfilling their sexual desires.

As the focus of society shifts toward this “work hard, play hard” mentality, so too do spiritual debasement and shamelessness become the norm.

Predatory Inclinations

The second type of behavior to which the nafs can incline is the predatory behavior. This type of nafs not only desires eating, drinking, sleeping and so on, but also finds pleasure in taking over the rights of others.

This type of nafs inclines toward attacking, usurping, killing and stealing in the same way exhibited by a hyena or other predator.

Again, when such inclinations are indulged, individuals and even entire societies begin to behave with predatory impulses, taking wrongfully what is not theirs and spreading injustice and oppression.

Satanic Inclinations

The satanic nafs, is characterized by that which would characterize the devil, namely, scheming and plotting against others, lying, deceiving and cheating.

It is driven by a desire for power and leadership—not to benefit others, but to feed its own inflated self-image. Thus, this part of the nafs will pursue these with disregard for what it takes to achieve them.

Lastly, it is characterized by pride, arrogance, and ostentation, just as Satan himself exhibits these qualities.

Angelic Inclinations

The angelic type of nafs finds happiness in that which brings it closer to Allah: the worship and remembrance of Him, showing gratitude to Him, patiently persevering in His cause and carrying out other acts of goodness. It cares for the ephemeral, material aspects of this world only in so much as they help it know and love Allah more.

Purification of the nafs involves subduing and controlling the first three types of nafs and polishing and strengthening the angelic type. When the angelic inclinations of the nafs are most dominant, they help bring the heart closer to Allah, constituting success for the believer.

He will indeed be successful who purifies it [the nafs], And he will indeed fail who corrupts it [the nafs]. (91: 9-10)

Thus, the nafs, like any other part of the human being, is multi-faceted. It can lead us towards evil and can lead us towards good, depending on how we allow it to develop.

When we steer it away from its base desires, it becomes a vehicle that helps us worship Allah. When we leave it to its ignoble inclinations, it recklessly drives us deeper into the temptations of this lowly world and away from what is truly good for us. Allah tells us:

Then as for he who transgresses, and prefers the lowly life of this world, then surely, hell will be the abode. and as for the one who fears to stand in the presence of his Lord and forbids the nafs from low desires, then surely, the garden will be the abode. (79: 37-41)

To ensure the spiritual health of our hearts, we have to begin the process of purifying our nufoos so that they will benefit us rather than harm us.

(From Discovering Islam’s archive)

About Marwa Abdalla
Marwa Abdalla received her B.A. in political science from Southwestern University, in Georgetown, Texas, and is currently working toward a degree in Islamic Studies with the American Open University. She is interested in writing about Islam, marriage and family. Her writing has been published in a book entitled Toward the Well Being of Humanity as well as on numerous websites. She lives with her husband and three daughters in San Diego, CA.