Revelation of Mystery (Kashf al Mahjub)

The Reality of nafs نفس (Lower Soul) & hawa ھویٰ (Passion)

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Chapter XIV (k)

The Reality of nafs نفس (Lower Soul) and hawa ھویٰ (Passion)


You must know that nafs نفس (lower soul), etymologically is the essence and reality of anything, but in common use and writings it is used to denote many meanings, and even at times is used for contradictory meanings also. Some take its meaning as spirit whereas some call it manliness and still some refers it to as body and blood. But the theologians accept none of these meaning. However, they all unanimous on that it is the source of evil and wickedness. Some have the view that it is a substance which like ruh روح (spirit) has been entrusted to the heart while others hold it to be like life, an attribute of the heart.

But there is a general consensus that through it base qualities are manifested and that it is the immediate cause of blameworthy actions. The actions of nafs (lower soul) are of two kinds, namely,

-          sins and disobedience of the command of Allah

-          base qualities, i.e. pride, envy, avarice, anger, hatred, etc., which are not commendable in law and reason.

These qualities can be removed by self discipline: e.g. sins are removed by repentance, for acts of disobedience and sins are external attributes, whereas the base qualities are internal attributes. The self-discipline is an external act, and repentance is a quality of internal attributes. Therefore, base qualities which appear inwardly can be purged by excellent outwardly attributes and those base qualities which appear outwardly are purged by laudable inwardly attributes.

Both the nafs نفس (lower soul) and the ruh روح (spirit) are subtle things and exist in the heart just as devils and angels and Paradise and Hell exist in the universe, but the one out of the two is the mansion of good, while the other is the mansion of evil, as eye is the mansion to sight, ear is the palace of hearing and tongue is the mansion of taste and similarly the other attributes which have been inculcated in the human body. Hence, the resistance to the nafs (lower soul) is the truth of all acts of devotion and the brilliance of all acts of self-mortification, and without it man can not find his way to Allah because submission to the lower soul is his destruction and resistance to it is his salvation. Allah has also commanded to resist the nafs (lower soul) and have praised those who oppose it and have condemned who submit to their nafs and follow its instructions. Allah says:

وَنَهَى النَّفْسَ عَنِ الْهَوَى -  فَإِنَّ الْجَنَّةَ هِيَ الْمَأْوَى

“And had restrained (their) souls (نفس) from lower desires, their abode will be the Garden. (Q 79:40-41),

أَفَكُلَّمَا جَاءكُمْ رَسُولٌ بِمَا لاَ تَهْوَى أَنفُسُكُمُ اسْتَكْبَرْتُمْ

“Is it that whenever there comes to you a Messenger with what ye yourselves desire not, ye are puffed up with pride?” (Q 2:87).

And Yusaf (may blessings of Allah be on him) speaks through Quran:

وَمَا أُبَرِّئُ نَفْسِي إِنَّ النَّفْسَ لأَمَّارَةٌ بِالسُّوءِ إِلاَّ مَا رَحِمَ رَبِّيَ

“Nor do I absolve my own self (of blame): the (human) soul (نفس) is certainly prone to evil, unless my Lord do bestow His Mercy,” (Q 12:53).

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

اذا اراد الله بعبد خيرا بصره الله بعيوب نفسه

“When Allah wants to do good to a person, He makes him to know evils of his nafs (lower soul).”

Allah revealed to David:

يا داءود عاد نفسك و ودني بعد اوتها

“O David, consider your nafs (lower soul) thy enemy, thy friendship to Me is in its enmity.”

These all are attributes, and every attribute needs an object whereby it subsists, as attribute can not stand by itself and knowledge of that attribute, namely the nafs (lower soul), is not attainable save by unveiling its mystery, which knowledge in turn demands an explanation of the human nature and its qualities. People have talked a lot about the reality of humanity that this name implies to what. It is incumbent upon all seekers of the Truth to acquire its knowledge, because one who is ignorant of himself is yet more ignorant of others. Since man is bound to attain marifat (know Allah) therefore, he must first know himself, in order that by rightly perceiving his own temporality he may recognize the Eternity of Allah, and through his own annihilation may understand the Everlastingness of Allah. The following verse of Quran is witness to it:

وَمَن يَرْغَبُ عَن مِّلَّةِ إِبْرَاهِيمَ إِلاَّ مَن سَفِهَ نَفْسَهُ

“And who turns away from the religion of Abraham but such as debase their souls with folly.” (Q 2:130).

Some venerable elder said that who was ignorant of his self, was more ignorant of others.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

من عرف نفسه فقد عرف ربه - اي من عرف نفسه بالفناء فقد عرف ربه بالبقاء

“He who knows himself already knows his Lord, i.e. he who understood the annihilation of his nafs (lower soul), he found the secret of everlastingness of his Lord.”

He also said:

من عرف نفسه بالذل فقد عرف ربه بالعز

“Who took his nafs (lower soul) as wretched; he perceived the true majesty of his Lord.”

He further said:

من عرف نفسه بالعبودية فقد عرف ربه بالربوبية

“Who apprehended the humility of his nafs (lower soul), he understood the lordship of his Lord.”

Who does not know himself, is ignorant of everything and this leads to knowledge of humanity where the people differ.

Among Muslims some assert that man is nothing but ruh روح (soul), of which this body is the cuirass and skeleton or residence and resting place, in order to preserve it from interference of natural disposition, and sensation and intelligence are its attributes. But this view is false, because a body which loses its ruh (soul) is still called a human being. This identification does not finish, as when a person is alive he is a living human being and when he is dead he is still called dead human being. Moreover, animals also have ruh (soul) in their bodies but they are not called human being. Had humanity been the name of ruh (soul) everything which possesses it should have been called human being. Since it is not like that, therefore, this assertion is wrong.

Some others have the view that the term is applicable to the soul and the body together, and that it no longer applies when one is separated from the other; e.g.  when two colors, black and white, are combined on a horse, it is called piebald, whereas the same colors, apart from each other, are called black and white and the name piebald will no more exist. This assertion is also wrong because Allah has said:

هَلْ أَتَى عَلَى الْإِنسَانِ حِينٌ مِّنَ الدَّهْرِ لَمْ يَكُن شَيْئًا مَّذْكُورًا

“Has there not been over Man a long period of Time, when he was nothing – (not even) mentioned?” (Q 76:1).

Here Adam’s lifeless clay without soul (for the soul had not yet been joined to his body) is called Man.

Some others have the opinion that human being is such an ingredient which is undividable. Heart, which is the centre of all human attributes, is its resting place. This is also absurd, for if anyone is killed and his heart is taken out of his body he does not lose its identity as human being. Moreover, it is agreed that Adam’s body did not have heart before the ruh (soul).

Some pretenders to Sufism have fallen into error on this subject. They declare that human being is not that who eats and drinks and suffers decay, but a Divine mystery. This body is his clothing and Divine mystery lies in the interfusion of the natural humors and in the union of body and spirit. In reply to their view point I say that all intellectuals are unanimous that the name of “human being” belongs to all including mad, infidels, immoral and ignorant persons, in whom there is no such divine mystery and they also eat and drink and suffer decay. There is no sign in the body which might be named “human being” either while it exists or after it has ceased to exist. Almighty Allah has given the name of “human being” to the sum of the subsistence which He compounded in us, in spite of the fact that some human beings lack these senses.

Allah hath said:

وَلَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا الْإِنسَانَ مِن سُلَالَةٍ مِّن طِينٍ

 ثُمَّ جَعَلْنَاهُ نُطْفَةً فِي قَرَارٍ مَّكِينٍ

 ثُمَّ خَلَقْنَا النُّطْفَةَ عَلَقَةً فَخَلَقْنَا الْعَلَقَةَ مُضْغَةً فَخَلَقْنَا الْمُضْغَةَ عِظَامًا فَكَسَوْنَا الْعِظَامَ لَحْمًا ثُمَّ أَنشَأْنَاهُ خَلْقًا آخَرَ فَتَبَارَكَ اللَّهُ أَحْسَنُ الْخَالِقِينَ

“Man We did create from a quintessence (of clay);

then We placed him as (a drop of) sperm in a place of rest, firmly fixed;

then we made the sperm into a clot of congealed blood; then of that clot We made a (foetus) lump; then We made out of that lump bones and clothed the bones with flesh; then We developed out of it another creature. So blessed be Allah, the Best to create! (Q 23:12-14).

Therefore, according to the words of Allah, Who is the most veracious of all who speak the truth, from clay adopting to specified forms and after going through different changes what came into being is named as “human being.”

Hence, a group of Sunnis (orthodox Muslim) has the opinion that human being is a living creature, whose form has been created on such countenance that death does not deprive him of this name, and that he is endowed with a definite physiognomy and a distinct organ both externally and internally. By “a definite physiognomy” they mean that he has either good or ill health, and by “a distinct organ” that he is either mad or sane. It is a general consensus that the more sound a thing is the more perfect it is in constitution.

You must know that in the opinion of theologians of mystic path the most perfect composition of human being includes three elements, i.e. spirit, soul, and body and that each of these has an attribute which subsists therein, the attribute of spirit being intelligence, of soul, passion, and of body, sensation.

Human being is like a prototype of the whole universe. The universe is the name of the two worlds, and in human being signs of both are found. The signs of this world are four elements, viz. water, earth, air and fire, correspond to the phlegm, blood, bile, and melancholy which constitute the human body. The signs of the other world are Paradise, Hell and place of Resurrection. Soul (jan) being subtle corresponds with Paradise, nafs (lower soul) being evil and grief corresponds with Hell and body corresponds to the place of Resurrection. Paradise is the reward of Allah’s satisfaction, and Hell is the result of His anger. Similarly, the spirit of the true believer reflects the delight of knowledge of the Truth, and his lower soul reflects profligacy and depravity which veils him from Allah. The believer, until and unless is released from the Hell, will not be permitted entry in Paradise and he will neither attain the vision of Allah nor purity of love.

Similarly, in this world until and unless Man escapes himself from the evils of his nafs (lower soul) he cannot attain the truth of his devotion, as his essence is spirit and is denied the proximity (of Allah) and gnosis.  Hence, whoever knows Him in this world and turns away from all evils and follows the Shariat (religious law), at the Resurrection he will be safe from the bridge Sirat and Hell.

In short, the spirit of the believer continues to calls him to Paradise, of which it is a type in this world, and his nafs (lower soul) calls him to Hell, of which it is a type in this world. The counselor of spirit is intelligence and guide of the nafs (lower soul) is erring greed. One guides to righteousness and other to faults. Therefore it behooves on seekers of the Truth to resist their nafs (lower soul), in order that thereby they may reinforce their spirit and the intelligence, which are the palaces of the Divine mystery. Dhu al-Nun says:

اشد الحجاب روية النفس وتدبيرها

“Vision of the nafs (lower soul) and its deceitfulness is the worst of veils,”

because, submission to nafs is to oppose Allah’s will, and disobedience of Truth is the source of all veils.

Abu Yazid Bastami says:

النفس صفة لا تسكن الا بالباطل

“The nafs (lower soul) is an attribute which never rests save in falsehood,” i.e. it never let to seek the Truth.

Muhammad b. Ali al-Tirmidhi says:

تريدان تعرف الحق مع بقاء نفسك ولا تعرف نفسها فكيف تعرف غيرها

“You wish to know the Truth while your nafs (lower soul) subsists in you, although your nafs is incapable to know itself, how would it know the other?”

Junaid says:

اساس الكفر قيامك علي مراد نفسك

“To fulfill the desires of your nafs (lower soul) is the origin of infidelity,” because the nafs has no concern with the subtlety of Islam, therefore, it always keeps striving to remain away from it. It turns away from Islam and denies it and who denies, is always a stranger.

Abu Suleiman Durani says:

النفس خاءنته مانعته  وا فضل الاعمال خلافها

“The nafs (lower soul) is treacherous and an impediment to seek pleasure (of the Truth) and resistance to it is the best of actions,” because dishonesty with trust is otherness, while abandonment of rida (acquiescence) is a deviation.

There are many more sayings of Sufis on the subject but now I turn to my main purpose, which is to set forth the doctrine of Sahl concerning the mortification and discipline of the nafs (lower soul), and to explain its true nature.



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Zahid Javed Rana, Abid Javed Rana, Lahore, Pakistan

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