The Lantern of Guidance    

Chapter 3

Section 2

Discussion     Join    


Ma’refat (Cognition) of Nafs (Psyche)

The word Nafs in Arabic has two meanings. One means essence or nature of something, how something’s reality is. However in Sufism the meaning of Nafs is the ensemble of the Latif (Indivisible Subtle & Non-material) components & faculties that may be called animal spirit or natural spirits (instincts), and the Noor (Divine Light) was shone upon this Nafs whereupon became the lofty human spirit and this Noor (Divine Light) empowered the Nafs with inspirations (instincts) for both evil as well as righteousness as was said in the Nass (Verbatim Lection) of the Majestic Words, “By the Nafs, and the proportion and order given to it; And its enlightenment (inspiration) as to its wrong and its right” (Koran, [91:8-7]).  (If you listen to what Allah swore by in previous verses to the latter you hear, “By the Sun and his (glorious) splendor; By the Moon as she follows him; By the Day as it shows up (the Sun's) glory; By the Night as it conceals it; By the Firmament and its (wonderful) structure; By the Earth and its (wide) expanse” Please note that these are all vast, complex, ancient and intricate creations and then afterwards the Nafs is brought up—and Allah knows best—perhaps to indicate the vastness, complexity, intricacies and time immemorial age of the Nafs! In the discussions that follows and the other chapters on Nafs, Soul & Heart keep in mind that we are reading about a creation as vast as the cosmos!)

The intent behind this definition of Nafs is the rational explanation of the shameful acts of human being that cause him to bring forth excuses. The attributes of the Nafs are like the Chameleon, from moment to another assumes a different color. Every moment a different shape imaged upon the water waves, and each breath Nafs schemes a new trick afresh.

As a prerequisite, cognition of the Nafs is related to the cognition of the Divine, therefore knowing Nafs is an Ishaarat (Paradigm) hinting at knowing ‘It’.  To reach to the bottom of Nafs’s cognition is impossible, the same as in full understanding of the Divine. As it is difficult to understand the Nafs, it is equally impossible to manage its affairs. As was said by the Commander of The Believers, Imam Ali, “I & my Nafs are nothing but a shepherd herding his sheep i.e. gathers them from one side yet they are scattered from another”. (Simply understand that your Nafs is like a herd of sheep and there is not much you can do about it)

Nafs is coined with names such as Ammarah (Depraved inciting towards evil), Lawwamah (Accusing & Blaming) and Motma’in-nah (Serene) each describing different attributes and characteristics of the same Nafs (these are not separate Nafs). In the beginning when the fief of the human being is under the liege of the Nafs’s overwhelming power, it is called Nafs Ammarah (Depraved inciting towards evil). In the middle period when the personal desires govern the human being and the Nafs follows the desires’ dictate like an absolute imitator, yet still much room is left for deviance & indulgence, therefore the Nafs blames itself (Because it feels it is the slave of the desires, an imitator of the wishes). Towards the end when the protesting & detesting (against the Lord’s Edict) are uprooted, motions of disobedience & strife are becalmed by the Toma’ninah (Serenity), and the Nafs is tamed by the Divine Fiat and Nafs’s detesting (against man’s fate & decree) are transformed to Redha (Contentment), this state & characteristic of the Nafs is called the Motma’in-nah (Serene).

In the beginning when the Nafs is firmly residing within the natural instincts’ incubator, perpetually pulls down the Rooh (Soul) and the Qalb (Heart) from the lofty exalted realm of the Divine to its lowly incubator and perpetually adorns itself to lure the human eye while in the midst the middleman is the Satan offering a helping hand to embellish and adorn the Nafs evermore, thus (Satan) making the Nafs the decoy-bird to entrap the Rooh (Soul) & the Qalb (Heart), humiliating & belittling the Rooh and with such cunning trickery to sully the pure & pristine Qalb.

Sahl Abdullah has said, “For (every) Nafs there is a Serr (Secret) and this secret has not been revealed to anyone except for the Pharaoh therefore, “Saying, "I am your Lord, Most High"” Koran ([79:24]). For Nafs there are seven terrestrial Hijab (Veils) and seven extraterrestrial Hijab i.e. if the person buries his Nafs under the terrestrial veils (avoiding the desires & lusts) then his heart soars aloft (some extraterrestrial veil is removed, thus closer to the Divine Nearness) and once he completely buries his Nafs indeed his Qalb (Heart) reaches the Divine Throne.” (Please see another translation from Tusi’s book)

Abu Yazid said, “When the person’s Nafs dies he is wrapped in the cerecloth of mercy and buried in the grounds of benevolence, but when his Qalb (Heart) dies he is wrapped around the cerecloth of curses and buried in the grounds of punishment (Final unfavorable Judgment)”.

Junaid said, “The Nafs Ammarh (Depraved inciting towards evil) invites towards exclusively many deaths and the followers of the lusts are immersed within the afflictions riddled by accusations of heinous crimes”.

And the proverb says, “The strong is not the one who conquers the people, indeed the strong is the one conquering his Nafs”.

There are some schools of thought that consider Nafs and Qalb (Heart) the same, since they see within Nafs positive traces of goodness e.g. Toma’ninah (Serenity) & Redha (Complacence) which are believed to be the attributes of the Qalb (Heart). They suspected that there is no difference between the Nafs and Qalb (Heart), therefore Nafs Ammarah (Depraved inciting towards evil) is another type of Nafs by itself. But they are unaware that the same Nafs Ammarah (Depraved inciting towards evil) disrobed the gown of Ammarah (Depravation) and enrobed the garment of Toma’ninah (Serenity) and Redha (Complacence) thus camouflaged itself the same as the Qalb (Heart). And each time Nafs dyes itself with the color of the Qalb (Heart), Qalb imbues itself with the color of the Rooh (Soul) in order to plainly differentiate itself.


Human Being is shaped by a molecular mold within which is poured the Nafs (Psyhe) and the Rooh (Soul). Nafs being the obverse and yet inseparable side pulling down towards the lowly characteristics while the Rooh (Soul) is pulling up towards the Divine Sublimity. And the Qalb (Heart), an opportunist that takes side with the winner of this match. If the Nafs (Pyche) wins then Qalb (Heart) is filled with the love & desires of the vanity and if the Rooh (Soul) wins again the Qalb (Heart) is filled with love except that of the Divine.
Nafs (Psyche), in contrast to our corpuscular form, is an indivisible subtle and non-material entity that continues to exist even after the body has turned into dust.
Today thanks to the progress of the Genomic sciences Mankind understands that its molecular mold is not much different than that of a worm or a fly!? Therefore the modern Dervish carefully squints to search for traces of the Divine Light that transformed human being to be the paramount most notable member of the creation.  
Understanding the Nafs (Psyche) is the preamble to Ma’refat (Divine Gnosis). As with the case of the Divine, the cognition of the Nafs (Psyche) is searchlessly bottomless. The Dervish rests at peace understanding that management of the Nafs (Psyche) is even more difficult than understanding the Nafs, therefore Dervish behaves like a shepherd and his flock the ever scattering herd of his Nafs (Psyche). Other than this simple notion of shepherd & flock, Dervish knows not much else surrounding the Nafs (Psyche) or how it can be managed.

© 2004-2002,  Dara O. Shayda