The different levels of the soul & ego (nafs)


From the Proof of Islam – The Great Imam Ghazali

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) theologian, logician, jurist and mystic, was born and died at the town of Tus in Central Asia, but spent much of his life lecturing at Baghdad or leading the life of a wandering dervish. Because of his success in revealing the compatibility of the outward forms of religion with the inner experiences of Sufi tradition, he is commonly regarded as the ‘Renewer’ of the fifth Muslim century, and the most influential thinker of medieval Islam.

In this book (Disciplining the soul and breaking the two desires) Imam Ghazali shows the inner conflicts of the human in the spiritual dimension. The imam shows the main concepts for explaining the human being are the heart, spirit, intellect and the self. In this paper we will focus on the three levels of the soul. What determines these levels, the dynamics inside and between these levels and how they change from one state to the other.

It is behaviour (action) that leads to good and bad. How do we recognise such behaviour? By refining the character, meriting good behaviour and condemning bad behaviour. To discipline the self and define the levels of the self, we should know which habit comes from good character and which comes from bad character. Bad habits and bad behaviour is a sign that the heart is diseased, and we should recognise the disease and diagnose it so we can cure it. Good character is at the level of nafs al-mutmainnah, (the tranquil self) and the level of bad character is of nafs al-ammarah, (the self who commands evil (the tyrannical self)).

To be able to beat the nafs (the self – nafs al-ammarah bissu’), and for the heart to be the more dominant, it is vital to avoid the habits of bad character and to adopt the habits of good character as part of personality. This struggle mostly happens in the level of nafs al-lawwamah (the regretful self). So, at this point the part of Ihya, Tazkiyatu’n nafs – disciplining the soul carries great importance.

How do we reach the tranquil self? Through disciplining the self and watching over the heart, to protect it from spiritual illnesses and bad character that lead to badness occupying the heart and making it ill. We do not want to destroy the natural impulses of the heart but to bring them to equilibrium, and then we can pave a path for the human to get close to Allah without distraction. In this book Imam Ghazali first defines what good character is and how it is exemplified by the Prophet Mohammad صلى الله عليه وسلم , then the Imam shows the ways of disciplining the self and refining the character.

We need to know more than the essence of the heart, like how these diseases will put the heart into a situation of continuous destruction. Imam Ghazali touches on how to recognise the diseases of the heart and the ways of knowing the faults in the heart. The Imam also offers the cures for these diseases and faults. Imam Ghazali has a separate part on breaking the two desires, which are appetite and anger. The Imam puts a lot of emphasis on breaking and disciplining these desires, because through discipline will they give rise to refining the character directly, thereby moving away from the bodily desires and getting close to Allah spiritually.

Imam Ghazali shows and warns us that bad character is a ‘mortal poison’ and it is definite that when you follow its path, it will surely lead you to perdition and humiliating disgrace. Eventually this will cause a distance between the human being and Allah. Because of the open vices and foul practices, the human being will be urged to pursue the path of Satan, the accursed. What follows is the wrath of the Allah as made clear in the Quran as follows; “Allah strokes up fire, which rises over man’s heart.” The Qur’an, 104: 5,6

Foul characteristics are the very illnesses of the hearts and the diseases of the souls, and it results in the human being’s deprivation of felicity in the everlasting life. The Imam continues in saying that to learn the origins and reasons of these sicknesses and the ways to cure them is essential for all men of sense, since there is not a single heart which is free of diseases.

“And [by] the soul (nafs) and the One Who proportioned it; then He inspired it [to discern between] its iniquity and its righteousness; indeed, he who purifies it has succeeded; and indeed, he who defiles it has failed.” The Qur’an, 91

The self is capable of receiving inspiration and insight, taking its source from Allah to be able to tell the difference between right and wrong action. It is also an indication of the self’s free will, which leads to the responsibility and accountability of the self. In other words, inspiration helps the self to choose between iniquity and righteousness, which is actually a moral dilemma in which the intellect plays a role alongside the influence of the heart. Purifying the soul will enable the human to acquire Allah’s good grace and to enter His paradise in addition to true success, prosperity and salvation.

The Imam states that humans are between animal beasts and the angels within the levels of existence (maratibu’l wujud). The human being has the qualities of both, and what distinguish the human being from the animals are knowledge/wisdom and will. The human being will be like an angel when he gains control of himself and his body parts and uses them for obtaining knowledge and practicing it. Moreover, the human being is cited among the animals when he spends all his efforts in pursuit of bodily pleasures, like eating, drinking and reproducing. When the human is on the side of Satan, he should get help from wisdom, knowledge and reflection.

Have you seen he who has taken as his Allah his [own] desire, and Allah has sent him astray due to knowledge. The Qur’an, 45: 23

And, followed his lust and his likeness was as the likeness of a dog; if you chase him, he pants, or if you leave him, he [still] pants. The Qur’an 7: 176

[But] as for he who feared standing before his Lord, and restrained his soul from lower desires, then indeed Paradise will be [his] refuge. The Qur’an, 79: 40-1

The Self That Commands Evil (Al-Nafs Al-Ammarah)      

This self is an enemy and has to be tamed in this world. In this stage, the person is always after the worldly and bodily pleasures even if the Islamic law forbids them. It can be said that in this stage the intellect, ‘aql’ is the servant of the self that commands evil, namely the nafs.  

Imam Ghazali explains this is the level of the self that those will lower themselves to until they reach the lowest level of beasts, even lower than them and they can be considered as a standing and speaking dogs or donkeys because they are stripped of human virtues. The only thing they have common with mankind is their outward form. This type of self is like a servant of a stone, a brick, a beast or a zaime (woman).

This is what Allah calls, the self which is indeed prone to evil.

“I do not absolve my own self [of blame], as indeed, the human soul is prone to evil, except when my Lord bestows mercy, as indeed my Lord is the Oft-Forgiving, the Most Merciful.” The Quran, 12: 53

This nafs is the one that inclines to bodily nature, ordering the pursuit of physical pleasures and appetites, attracting the heart to base levels; as such, it is an abode of every evil and the source of blameworthy characteristics. This self is inherently donated with a love of social status and domination. Its intention is to feel superior to others wishing for other creatures to be dependent upon it for everything. It does not need anyone or to be under one’s control and command. This is a pretense to being Allah and to sharing Allah’s incommensurability.

There are certain outward implications of al-nafs alammarah, behavioural outcomes coming from inner feelings that are embedded in this self. These characteristics are undoubtedly the blameworthy ones that are to be watched and tamed in order to pass the level of the self. The ‘aql and qalb – the reason, intellect and the heart are under the reign and service of nafs. These blameworthy actions and behaviours are an obstacle to having moral character, and they are the diseases of the heart to be cured to ascend to the level of nafs al-mutmainnah.

The Self – Reproaching Soul (Al-Nafs Al-Lawwamah)

Ghazali states that this self is in a situation of war, and it fights against and disputes with its faculties and powers. It fluctuates between them in such a way that sometimes the heart controls them, but other times it loses the control. Therefore, its state is not steadfast; sometimes it inclines towards intelligences and is perseverant in obedience to Allah; and sometimes it is invaded by the beastly powers and falls down to the lowest stage of beasts. It is always in-between and fluctuates between the appetitive self and the intelligence, the ‘aql in the field of heart.

The heart is a battleground between the armies of spiritual characteristics and a praiseworthy temperament, and the characteristics of the nafs and a blameworthy temperament. The heart becomes dead if it surrenders for the nafs and its attributes although the heart will become alive if it is full of spiritual and human attributes. Yet, the Imam continues in saying that many people’s hearts are in a state of flux; they fluctuate between being dead heartedness and live heartedness

When this stage of the soul follows its worldly and bodily desires, it becomes regretful and after the act, it blames itself for what it has opted for promising not to do it again or erasing it by making a good deed. This is why it is called ‘self-blaming soul’.

The Basic Attribute of This Self: Regret and Repentance

There is always a conflict and tension at this stage due to the appearance of a state of consciousness in the self. The person starts to develop a certain kind of conscience and the ability for insight and inner vision generally through repentance. Repentance means being sorry and seeking forgiveness from the Lord. When the heart is darkened by the blameworthy actions, the repentance can help to erase this darkness from the heart. It is evidently indicated in a Hadith of Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم as follows; when a servant commits a sin, a black dot is struck onto his heart. If he abandons that sin and turns to repentance, his heart is polished. But if he does not do so and returns to committing the sin, the black dots grow and eventually cover the entire heart.

 In the Surah of al-Mutaffifin, Allah says;

 Nay! Rather, what they used to do has become like rust upon their hearts. The Qur’an, 83: 14

This leads one to realize the vices and blameworthy qualities he has at the level of alnafs al-ammarah. Here comes the feeling of regret and blaming himself for his actions and behaviours. Sense of shame, being guilty and sinful frequently appears at this stage. The leading feature of this stage is that there are constant changes, fluctuations and transformations. Since the person is always in conflicting psychological states, he sometimes follows his bodily desires and sometimes he performs behaviours in accordance with religion and morality

Imam Ghazali states in the fourth volume where he discusses the saviours for humans that; Devotion to pure goodness is a trait of the angels close to Allah. Devotion to uncorrected evil is the nature of devils. But, return to good after stumbling in evil is inevitable in human beings.

The Tranquil Self (Al-Nafs Al-Mutmainnah)

This level is the praised one and the one that is to be achieved by all the human beings. Ghazali explains it that when the soul turns to the right direction, divine influences descend upon it. It reaches a state of rest through the remembrance of Allah and the divine mystical knowledge (maarif ilahiya). It flies to the highest horizon of the angelic realm.

It is called the tranquil self because it has gained tranquillity from establishing Allah’s obedience. It has accepted His promise of threat of punishment and promise of reward in Paradise. It is pleased with His decree. This self knows now the sweetness of faith and takes pleasure of communicating with its Lord and it is not after any other worldly substitute. It is not affected by the circumstances that can cause a change in the psychology of the human being. It has now ceased to be attracted by the ornamentation of the worldly life.

This soul is the result of tazkiya, namely the result of the process of purifying the heart, self-disciplining the soul and the struggle against the animalistic and ego self. It has reached the spiritual safety through following the Divine commands and prohibitions. Hence, there is now real and steadfast faith, which leads to genuine happiness, peace and tranquillity in the soul. The one with the tranquil self has now substituted his immoral traits with the positive moral characteristics by following the exemplary character traits of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم .

As in the self-inciting to evil, there are outward implications of this soul at rest, as well. The behavioural outcomes and the feelings at this level are totally reverse and different from what is manifested in the ego-self. The peace, tranquillity, and the steadfast faith are revealed in the behaviours of the human beings. Ghazali cites these attributes of the character that are reached at this level as follows; first and foremost the repentance, then patience, gratitude, sincerity, intimacy, truth, forgiveness, bounteousness-generosity, altruism, humbleness, gentleness (hilm), and contentment (qana’ah).

For example, patience is unique to human beings within the levels of existence. Animals are lack of this patience and angels do not have it due to their perfection. Animals always follow their desires for their appetites and do not have a mechanism to resist against their desires consciously. Angels, on the other hand, do not have desires and appetites; so do not need a mechanism to resist those desires. Therefore, patience is that one characteristic which is unique to human beings and discerns them among the levels of existence.

There are extremes in each quality and we must always seek the middle way. For instance, humbleness is the middle way and the praiseworthy characteristic of two extreme sides, which are arrogance and baseness. So, the tranquil heart of a human being, after all those spiritual struggles, does not have arrogance and baseness in it. It is pure humble towards all the beings.

The Tranquil Self as an Abode for the Good Character

The Tranquil Self as an abode for the good as a perfect example in everything for all humans, the character of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم is praised in the Quran as follows; ‘Assuredly, thou art of a tremendous character.’ The Qur’an, 68: 4

Further, Aisha (may Allah bless her and grant her peace) is recorded to have said; ‘The character of the Emissary of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم was the Quran.’ In this regard, He صلى الله عليه وسلم also said; ‘I was sent only to perfect the noble qualities of character.’ We can conclude that the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم is a great example for all people to understand good character and we must try to adopt his character in our lives by following his behaviours and actions.

The Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم said, as Anas (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) transmitted from him, ‘One day, when we were with the Emissary of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم , he said, “Good character melts away sin just as the sun melts ice”.’ Another saying of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم is, ‘The most beloved of you to me on the Day of Arising, and the ones who shall sit closest to me, will be the best of you in character’.

The Emissary of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم was once told that a certain woman fasted all day and prayed all night, but was possessed of a bad character, so that she injured her neighbours with her words. ‘There is no good in her,’ he said, ‘She is of Hell’s people.’

From these examples one can reach the conclusion that practicing the religion and fulfilling the basic requirements, and having a bad character are actually two contrasting sides. Namely, if a practicing Muslim has a bad character and does not strive for refining it, then he or she is on the verge of losing piety.


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