… Verily, in the body there is a piece of flesh which, if it is sound, the entire body will be sound, and which, if it is corrupt, the entire body will be corrupt. Verily, it is the heart. (Bukhari, Muslim, Ibn Majah)

What is the Nafs?

What has been called the nafs here is the aspect of human beings that is associated with survival and satisfaction of needs—in other words, the survival instinct. It is associated with the body, which is the vessel of our spiritual existence. The nafs is not evil by nature; rather it is, as Al-Ghazali calls it, the animal soul within the human. Only when it is left uncontrolled by a higher moral authority, does it behave like an untamed beast. Allah the Most Wise has created it within us for a good reason—it seeks to survive and to fulfill the basic needs of earthly life. But the fact that human beings are capable of recognizing and controlling the functioning of this animal instinct –and caring about what is morally right or wrong– points to the truth there must be a higher aspect of our self. This higher authority is the qalb.

The Quran mentions three kinds of nafs /self:

  • The unbridled nafs or the evil-commanding nafs (alammara bi al-sû’), this is the natural state of the human nafs which is given to base desires (also called the animal soul)
  • The blaming nafs (al-lawwama), which is under the guidance and discipline of the qalb, and laments its wrongdoings
  • The blissful nafs (al-mutma’innah), that, as a result of worship and discipline and submission to Allah, has achieved harmony with the sound heart—there is no more tension within such a person, only peace and bliss.

The Struggle against the Nafs

The nafs, or baser self, constantly struggles against our qalb, or heart, and –depending on which one we nourish more, which one we strengthen and enrich– one of the two becomes stronger. Every deed that we do and every moral decision we make either strengthens our nafs and sickens the heart, or vice versa.

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To understand how the nafs is tamed and controlled, think of how the trainers at a circus train the wild beasts. The animals are kept hungry at times, punished for undesirable behaviors and rewarded with food for desirable performance. A trainer can even stick his head inside the jaws of a properly trained lion. But never can a trainer be heedless of the beast—the nature of the beast does not change and there remains a chance that it will cut loose and cause havoc.

The training and taming of the animal soul within us, the nafs, is similar. This precisely is the wisdom of fasting. In fact, the word ṣawm, before Islam, was used by the Arab to refer to the “starvation” (controlled feeding) of war horses so that they were trained to perform better during their battles. Fasting is the “starvation” of our animal soul so that it is tamed and our qalb –or what Imam al-Ghazali calls the “angelic soul” –becomes strong and nourished.

The Blissful Heart

Allah mentions three kinds of qalb /heart in the Quran:

  • The sound and blissful heart
  • The sick or stained heart
  • The dead or sealed heart

Now we can solve the mystery of true happiness in this world: it is the happiness of our hearts, the spiritual bliss, that we are really after, while the satisfaction of the body is only a means.

The gratification of the body (or nafs) must always be kept under the close watch of the heart, for if the spiritual bliss of the heart is sacrificed for the short-term pleasure of the body, both the body and soul will suffer.

A sound heart is in a state of bliss and peace if –and only if– Allah is pleased with it. About the fortunate believers who possess such a heart, Allah says,

Their reward is with Allah: Gardens of Eternity, beneath which rivers flow; they will dwell therein forever; Allah is well pleased with them, and they with Him: all this for those who feared their Lord. [Sûrat Al-Bayyinah, 98:8]

This ultimate bliss is what all humans ought to compete for.

And for this let the competitors compete. [Sûrat Al-Muṭaffifîn, 83:26]

On the Final Day, Allah will call these souls most lovingly into His special company:

O soul that is at peace! Return to your Lord, well-pleased and well-pleasing. Enter among My servants. And enter into My Heaven. [Sûrat Al-Fajr, 89:27-30]

How the Heart (Qalb) Rusts and the Nafs Spoils

Allah says,

Nay, but that which they have earned has become rust upon their hearts. [Sûrat Al-Muṭaffifîn, 83:14]

The Prophet ﷺ said:

Trials are presented to the heart little by little. If the heart fails and falls into a sin, a black spot is placed upon it. If the person repents and mends his ways, the spot is purged from the heart. But if he keeps on sinning, the spot will grow until it covers the entire heart. (Tirmidhi)

The preceding verse and hadîth say something very significant about the effect of sins upon the human heart. We all know, but often do not pay due attention to, the effect of our actions on our hearts. Any good or bad action has consequences, but no consequence is more immediate and longer lasting than its effect upon our hearts.

Committing a sin, for example, is not like simply losing money on a bad product, but it is like losing the very capital which you invest in your business to make more money. Or, it is like being demoted at work and thereby losing part of your salary permanently. The harm done to the core source is much costlier than is the harm limited to a branch. The worst harm to be caused by our sins is therefore their effect on our hearts, which can become “rusted” and “hardened” as a result and which makes easier the committing of more sins.

Another kind of problem with the hearts is sickness. Hypocrisy has been referred to in the Quran as a disease of the heart.

In their hearts is a disease, so Allah has (as a punishment) increased them in this disease—and for them is a painful chastisement for what they used to earn. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:10]

One scholar explained this relationship using the analogy of the eye and the lens: The heart is like the eye which is the device to receive light and to see things: The heart has been designed by its Creator to want to receive the light of Allah. It does not find peace except when it receives that divine light. The nafs is like a lens through which the light passes: If the lens is dirty or stained, the eye will see little or no light –nor will it see objects in their true colors.

The Dead or Sealed Hearts

The heart can become completely dead due to sustained sinning or due to stubborn rejection of Allah’s message.

Such hearts are described by Allah thus:

As to those who have disbelieved, it is the same to them whether you warn them or not: They will not believe. Allah has sealed their hearts and their ears, and on their eyes is a veil—for them is a great chastisement. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:6-7]

Thus does Allah seal up the heart of every arrogant and obstinate transgressor. [Sûrat Ghâfir, 40:35]

Overcoming Depression

We must distinguish between the grief that a person feels immediately when a calamity hits, and, on the other hand, the depression or despair that result from losing hope in things ever getting better, or, giving in, thus losing faith in Allah or generally being negative about life.

A believer knows that all the calamities on this earth put together cannot equal even an ounce’s loss in the eternal scale of the Hereafter, and hence, as soon as the aggrieved believer regains composure and reconnects with Allah, his or her hope regenerates and faith increases. In other words, the problem is not the grief that one feels at losing a loved one, but the loss of hope.

One may still grieve over the loss of a beloved child, while hoping and knowing that God will replace him. The grief of Prophet Yaqûb (Jacob) over the loss of Yusuf (Joseph) is an example of a profound grief of a God-fearing prophet who never let go of hope in Allah’s mercy.

But depression is a different matter: it is a low level and long-term anguish of an unknown and diffused nature that results from the accumulation of a number of untreated anxieties or fears. It is always the result of a weakened qalb— due to one’s lack of remembering Allah and of self-evaluation, which ultimately leads to negative conversations of the nafs. These negative conversations of the nafs, or “hadîthu al-nafs,” are going on whenever we are in a state of heedlessness (ghafla) or whenever our hearts are rusty or stained. And, we know from the verse (83:14) and hadîth given above that the hearts “rust” or are overtaken with disease as a result of sins.

Some scholars have said,

Show me a believer in distress, and I will show you one who has committed sins that he has not yet repented for.

Imam Ibn al-Jawzi relates that once he became excessively depressed by the prospect of paying back a heavy loan that he had incurred. Being the connoisseur of the inner secrets that he was, he immediately realized that this depression and anxiety was not normal; rather, it was the result of some sins that he had committed and had not repented for. So he started to think and to search into his past sins that he had forgotten about. Finally, he writes, he remembered a sin that he had committed forty years ago and for which he had neglected to seek repentance. He immediately got to his knees and sincerely repented. No sooner did he do that, than he found that his distress and depression had disappeared –even though, his loan had not.

Hence, sincere and profound tawba –understood as a complete return to Allah in love and regret on the one hand and hope and promise on the other– is the first step towards recovering from depression. Unlike Ibn Al-Jawzi, we are likely to find tons of sins committed and periods of heedlessness every day—and so we need to recognize even more desperately that the mercy of Allah is greater than our sins.

Allah says:

Say: O my servants, who have wronged their souls, despair not of God’s mercy. God surely forgives all the sins, for He is most Forgiving, ever Merciful. So turn to your Lord and submit to Him—before the chastisement approaches you, for then you shall not be helped. [Sûrat Al-Zumar, 39:53-54]

…To be concluded, inshâ’Allah, in Part 3.


Originally posted 2016-05-16 16:00:02.

Dr Ovamir Anjum

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim's Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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