In pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, Nafs was used to refer to a self or person, derived from the root n-f-s whose basic verbs are: nafusa, “to value, deem precious,” and nafisa, “to crave, desire, hoard.” The word nafas, meaning “breath,” is also from the same root. In the Qur’an, the word “nafs” appears 295 times and is used in a manner similar to the English “soul,” “psyche,” “ego,” or “self” and is used as a reflexive pronoun (e.g. “myself,” “herself,” “ourselves,” “yourself,” “itself” etc.). For example:
O you who believe! You have charge of your own souls/selves (5:105)
O humankind! Revere your Lord, Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate, and from the two has spread abroad a multitude of men and women…
They said, “Lord, we have wronged ourselves, and if you do not forgive us, and have mercy upon us, we shall surely be among the lost.” (7:23)
Upon the earth are signs for those possessing certainty, and within your souls/selves, do you not see? (51:20-21)
By the soul and the One Who fashioned it
and inspired it as to what makes it iniquitous or reverent
Indeed, he prospers who purifies it
And indeed he fails who obscures it (91:7-10)
The Qur’an describes the nafs as participating in various experiential, appetitive, affective, and intellectual functions, and is generally understood to persist after the experience of death, which separates it from its body. “Nafs” is also used as a marker of identity, e.g. “nafs al-shay’” means “the self-same thing” and “nafs al-amr” refers to “things as they are in themselves.” A polysemic term, in its various uses in later Islamic traditions, it is typically defined in reference to the body (jism) and spirit (rūḥ), and debates over its origin (physical or spiritual, temporal or non-temporal), nature (material or immaterial or in-between), persistence and transformation after death (individually, collectively, or not at all), and the possibility of reincarnation and metempsychosis have continued down to the present day.
As in ancient philosophy, the disciplines of Islamic philosophy (falsafa) and Sufism (taṣawwuf) both present themselves as methods of purifying and perfecting the nafs, and many prominent traditions of both describe themselves as being founded upon self-knowledge. A standard definition of the goal of the discipline of Islamic philosophy is “the perfection of the soul (nafs) by gaining the knowledge of the reality of things as they are through investigation and proofs, not through opinion and imitation.” Although its authenticity is contested, the hadith (saying of the Prophet) “he who knows himself (nafsafu), knows his Lord” is frequently quoted in Sufi literature to underscore the centrality of self-knowledge to the tradition.
Early Islamic theologians (mutakallimūn) and some Sufis held the nafs to be a kind of corporeal substance that suffuses the sensible body like sap in a tree or water in a flower. In this perspective, the nafs is the moral agent, controlling the body, and experiencing felicity or torment after death and resurrection (in which it is given a new body) depending on its actions and God’s will. As such, the nafs is the object of ethics and that in which the various human faculties of awareness, cognition, deliberation, memory, will, etc. inhere. The prominent Ash‘arī school of Islamic theology (kalām) generally argued for a kind of occasionalism in which that the nafs was a substance whose accidents were perpetually recreated at every moment by God. The continuity of the self was thus due to the continuity of the substance in which these different accidents inhered. However, later theologians, such as al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), were more influenced by the philosophical psychology of Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) (d. 1037) and that of the Sufi tradition.
In most traditions of Islamic philosophy (falsafa), the nafs was generally held to be an incorporeal, eternal, spiritual, self-subsistent substance. Ibn Sīnā’s famous “flying man” thought experiment, which posits a person created floating in mid-air in a state of total sensory deprivation with no memory would still have self-awareness, thus separating knowledge of one’s self from knowledge of one’s body, indicating the distinction between the nafs and the body. Ibn Sīnā held that this self-awareness is an ever-present characteristic of the nafs, even in sleep, and is a kind of background foundation for all psychological (mental and sensory) activity. Nafs was the term used to translate the various forms and levels of the Aristotelian/Neoplatonic psyche ranging from the vegetative soul to the rational soul (al-nafs al-nāṭiqa), which characterizes human beings and is the aspect of the soul that survives the destruction of the body. An interesting corollary of this position is that some Islamic philosophers held that those who had not sufficiently cultivated this intellect or rational soul, bringing it from potentiality into actuality, would have no afterlife.
Sufi doctrines also posited a hierarchy of levels of the soul (marātib al-nafs) based on Qur’anic terminology, such as this common schema:
1) The “soul that incites to evil” (12:53). The level of soul that drives one to fulfill appetites without regard to morality or consequence
2) The “blaming soul” (75:2). The level of the soul that reproaches one for having done wrong
3) The “inspired soul” (91:8). The level at which the soul becomes open to inspiration and discernment between good and evil
4) The “serene soul” (89:27). The level at which the soul becomes serene and tranquil through its knowledge and experience that all the occurs comes from God.
5) The “contented soul” (89:28). The level of the soul that is pleased with all of God’s decrees-everything that happens to it.
6) The “contenting soul” (89:28). The level of the soul that is pleasing to God, even as it is pleased with God.
7) The “perfect” or “pure” soul. The level of the soul that is likened to a perfectly-polished mirror, reflecting all the Divine Names and Attributes, and is as pure as possible, being transparent before the Divine Reality.
These different levels of soul are described as being present in potentia in everyone, but are only actualized through spiritual exercises leading to the purification of the soul. Related doctrines described different levels of subtle “spiritual bodies,” in which the nafs was one particular level/body (the psycho-sensory-affective) or a name for the totality of spiritual “bodies” comprising the human being. Often in Sufi literature, the term nafs is used to refer to these lower levels of consciousness and selfish desire which must be overcome, purified, or even annihilated in order to reach God. In this sense, the nafs is typically described as the veil that separates one from God. Hoewever, in all of these schemas, as the knowing subject, the soul’s purification and health was deemed essential for proper cognition, particularly of metaphysical/spiritual matters.
This perspective uniting epistemology and ethics was broadly shared by the Islamic philosophical tradition, which described the purification of the soul in terms of its tajrīd (separation/liberation) from the body and the world of matter through spiritual exercises, ascesis, discipline, and contemplation of the non-corporeal realm and its realities. As Islamicist and contemporary Islamic Philosopher, Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes, this perspective constitutes a “universal Islamic principle stated in so many ḥadīths that gaining theoretical knowledge and a purification of the soul have to be combined in order for ‘science’ or ‘ilm to become rooted in the soul, transform its substance and embellish it in such a way that it will be worthy of eternal life in the Divine Presence.”
The prominent tradition of philosophical Sufism, particularly that inaugurated by Ibn al-‘Arabī (d. 1240)and his commentators, developed a doctrine known as “the Breath of the All-Merciful” (nafas al-Raḥmān) in which the nafs and everything else in creation is perpetually returned to God and manifested into existence at every instant, “with every breath,” in the poetic terminology of a hadith. The influential mystical philosopher, Mulla Sadra (d. 1636) made this doctrine the basis of his theory of substantial motion (al-ḥarakat al-jawhariyya) in which all substances, but especially the substance of the human soul (nafs) is constantly increasing in intensity of being (wujūd), moving towards the perfection and simplicity of being, returning to the One from which it was originally manifested. Although having an existence that precedes its attachment to the body, the soul’s individual existence begins with this attachment, which is what gives it its individual identity (this association with the material, sensory, and spatio-temporal is what allows it to be differentiated from other souls). Then the soul’s being increases in intensity as it develops, bringing its various potential faculties into actuality, like the blossoming of a flower from a seed, until the soul becomes a fully actualized intellect through the practice of philosophy (which includes spiritual exercises). Ṣadra thus argues that the individual human soul is corporeal in its origination and spiritual in its subsistence’ (jismāniyyat al-ḥudūth wa-rūḥāniyyat al-baqā’)
Islamic theories of the nafs were strongly influenced by the Qur’an, hadith, and traditions of Qur’anic interpretation, and also by the rich philosophical/religious contexts of the various traditions of Egyptian, Platonic, Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, Stoic, Hermetic, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Vedic, Dharmic, Chinese, indigenous African (and various admixtures thereof) practice and thought that flourished in Islamic and neighboring lands. Arabic translations and commentaries upon Aristotle’s De Anima and Plotinus’ Enneads (translated as the “Theology of Aristotle” and attributed to the Stagirite) were particularly influential in shaping Islamic theories of nafs, with various thinkers creatively adopting, adapting, and arguing against the frameworks presented in these works. Many Islamic philosophical, theological, Sufi, and Heremetic works were translated into Latin (particularly) those of Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroës), profoundly influencing the development of medieval Christian and early modern notions of the “soul” and self, while in the Eastern Islamic lands, texts of philosophical Sufism and Sufi poetry in Persian and Chinese influenced Dharmic and neo-Confucian debates on the nature of the self in South and East Asia, respectively.
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