Many verses in the Qur’an extol the significance of the soul or nafs. In one celebrated passage, it states: By the soul and Him that formed it, then inspired it with its wickedness and God-fearingness. He is truly successful who purifies it, and he is indeed ruined who corrupts it. [Q.91:7-10]
The Qur’an also offers this glad-tiding: But those who feared the standing before their Lord and curbed their soul’s desires, the Garden is their abode. [Q.79:40-41]
The idea of curbing the soul’s passions and of seeking to purify it is reiterated in the following hadith: ‘There are three acts that, whoever does them will experience the sweetness of faith: one who worships God alone, for there is no true god but Him; one who pays his zakat on his wealth with an agreeable soul: not giving a weak, decrepit nor diseased animal, but giving from his middle wealth, for God does not ask for the best of your wealth and nor orders to give the worst of it; and one who purifies his soul.’ A man said: What is purification of the soul (tazkiyat al-nafs)? The Prophet ﷺ replied: ‘To know that God is with him wherever he may be.’1
The Qur’an describes the human soul (nafs) as possessing three potentials or degrees which are present within it simultaneously.2
The lowest degree is al-nafs al-ammarah bi’l-su’ – “the soul that constantly incites to evil”. The Qur’an says: The soul does indeed incite to evil. [Q.12:53] This wild, untamed and unweaned soul is the abode of a host of incessant cravings, whims, greed or desires: be it for money, fame, power, physical gratification or exploiting others; that is, anything which deflects one away from God and to the lower possibilities of the human condition. So this nafs, equivalent to the English word “ego”, gives rise to the reprehensible aspects of our actions and character – actions in respect to our sins of omission or commission; character in terms of pride, envy, spite, vanity, impatience, ostentation, and the like.
As the believer strives to purge his soul of blameworthy traits (radha’il) and labours to replace them by their praiseworthy opposites (fada’il), the nafs al-ammarah is gradually weaned away from its heedlessness and disobedience to God, and begins to give way to al-nafs al-lawwamah – “the reproachful soul.” The Qur’an declares: No! I swear by the reproachful soul. [Q.75:2] This soul is man’s active conscience that is afflicted with regret, remorse or self-reproach whenever God’s Will is violated and disobeyed and elements of the lower, evil-inciting soul resurface.
After much inward striving and discipline, the nafs al-lawwamah is further purified of any opposition to God’s will or shari‘ah, and becomes ever receptive to heavenly outpourings. Here the nafs al-mutma’innah – “the soul at peace” or “the tranquil soul” then begins to predominate. It is this soul that truly attracts divine assistance and acceptance. It is about this that the Qur’an announces: O tranquil soul! Return to your Lord, pleased and well-pleasing. Enter among My servants. Enter My Paradise. [Q.89:27-30] Having been graced with establishing His obedience and internalising it, it is intimate with God, at peace with God’s decree (rida bi’l-qada’).
In all this, four factors are crucial and have a significant bearing in tazkiyah or purification of the soul: (i) one’s inborn nature; (ii) his upbringing; (iii) spiritual striving (mujahadah) and self-discipline (riyadah) in adulthood; and, of course, (iv) God’s tawfiq or enabling grace. Concerning spiritual struggle or mujahadah, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘The mujahid is the one who strives against his lower soul in obedience to God.’3 So let’s roll-up our sleeves and begin the work.
Our Lord! Grant piety to our souls and purify them.
You are the Best of those who purify;
You are their Guardian
1. Al-Bayhaqi, al-Sunan al-Kubra, no.7275. Its chain is sahih – as per al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1987), no.1046.
2. Cf. T.J. Winter (trans.), al-Ghazali, Disciplining the Soul and Breaking the Two Desires (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1995), xxviii-xxix.
3. Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.4707; al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.1671, who said the hadith is hasan sahih.