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Nafs (نفس, DMG nafs 'soul') is an Arabic term that already appears in the Koran and stands for the person or the self, but also has the meaning of soul . The idea of ​​the Nafs has undergone a special elaboration in Sufism . Nafs is a cognate of the Hebrew word " Nefesch " נפש. A related word in Arabic is nafas ("breath"). The word nafs appears 276 times in the Koran.

Koranic usage

The word nafs , together with its plural forms anfus and nufūs, is very common in the Koran, meaning “soul”. The Qur'an mentions three types of souls: first, the soul that emphatically commands evil ( an-nafs al-ammara : sura 12 : 53), second, the soul that repentantly rebukes itself ( an-nafs al-lawwāma : sura 75 : 2), and thus signals the conversion or the striving for more perfection, and thirdly the soul that has found rest ( an-nafs al-muṭmaʾinna : Sura 89 : 27-28). She is content and is accompanied by the pleasure of her Lord. When in sura 6 : 93 the angels stretch out their hands on the day of judgment to the wicked who float in the abysses of death, they call out to them: "Give your souls out" ( aḫriǧū anfusa-kum ). In sura 39:70 it says: "And every soul ( kullu nafs ) is fully reimbursed what it has done (in earth life)."

In other cases, especially when it is connected with a suffused personal pronoun , the word Nafs can take on the meaning of "self", "own person" or "inner things". For example, in sura 3 : 61 the prophet is asked to say: "We want to call together our sons and yours, our and your wives and us and yourselves ( anfusa-nā wa-anfusa-kum )." In sura 5 : 116 Jesus said to God: "You know what is inside me ( fī nafsī ), but I do not know what is inside ( fī nafsi-ka )."

The Sufi doctrine of the soul

As in many languages, the term “soul” is ambiguous in this case too, it includes morally higher and lower qualities such as hatred, greed etc. Now the lower qualities of a person should not be killed off, but rather channeled in order to find the way to God to be able to serve. This becomes clear, for example, in a story about the Prophet Mohammed , who is said to have once said that his shaitan (Arabic: شيطان, DMG Šayṭān), the expression used here for the nafs, had become a Muslim . Thus all of His lower instincts and qualities had been turned into useful tools necessary for the service of God.

Above all within Sufism there was a rich literature on this topic, and various classifications of the nafs were described, which can be used to define the level of development of a seeker of God. This teaching has influenced thinkers outside of Islam as well. The ethical work Duties of the Heart of the Jewish philosopher Bachja ibn Pakuda , who lived in Muslim Spain in the 11th century , follows the Sufi doctrine of the ascending soul in its structure.

The well-known mystic Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya al-Qaisiyya is said to have asked: “Who will lead us to the beloved (= God )?” Her servant replied: “Our beloved is always with us, but this world cuts us off from him. "

However, the Sufi interpretations of the Koran are controversial and conflict with those of most Orthodox Muslims . The doctrine of the soul presented below is essentially based on the interpretation of the Sufis.

Mujāhadat an-nafs

An important concept within Sufik is the "struggle with oneself" ( mujāhadat an-nafs ). It is based on the following passage from the Koran:

“Those believers who stay at home (instead of going to war) - apart from those who have (physical) damage (to be shown as an excuse) - are not the same as those who have their property and their own Person (anfusihim) wage war for Allah's sake. Allah has ranked those who struggle with their wealth and with themselves one notch higher than those who stay at home. But to everyone (believers, whether they stay at home or go to war) Allah has promised the very best (al-husnaa). Yet Allah has awarded those who wage war with enormous wages to those who stay at home. "

- Sura 4:95 (Translated from Rudi Paret )

“With their own person” here in Arabic means anfusihim , literally “themselves” or “their souls”. The Sufi al-Ghazālī († 1111 ) now interprets this passage in such a way that the fight against one's own souls is meant here, and thus justifies the “great jihad ”, the fight against the lower self. An early representative of this concept of Mujāhadat an-nafs was the Syrian ascetic Abū Sulaimān ad-Dārānī (d. Approx. 850).

The different qualities of the soul

an-Nafs al-Ammara

an-nafs al-ammara is the soul that incites evil (more precisely an-nafs al-ammara bi's-su ) and is usually translated as the lower self , the determining self or the tyrannical ego . This stage is regarded as a starting point on the way to God, and according to the teaching of the Sufis all people are at this stage who do not or not seriously live and act according to the laws of God; People who are caught up in the dunya ("world") of the Sufis .

The lower self tries to dominate people and control their thoughts and actions. The Sufis say that a person under the influence of the nafs al-ammara obeys the commands of this lower self more than the commands of God. It is said that the lower self will never submit to the commandments of God.

According to the Sufi tradition, a person who is at this stage is "worse than an animal" because animals obey the commands of their creator , at least on the basis of their natural instincts, and do not act on the basis of motives such as power , greed , selfishness , Greed , arrogance or pride are shaped.

In the Koran an-nafs al-ammara is mentioned in sura 12 verse 53:

وَمَآ أُبَرِّئُ نَفۡسِىٓ إِنَّ ٱلنَّفۡسَ لَأَمَّارَةُۢ بِٱلسُّوٓءِ إِلَّا مَا رَحِمَ رَبِّىٓ

“And I do not consider myself free from weakness; for the soul often commands evil, excluding those alone, whose my Lord has mercy. Verily, my Lord is forgiving, merciful. "

an-Nafs al-Lawwāma

an-nafs al-lawwama is the blaming self . This roughly corresponds to the human conscience , which watches over and controls human actions.

At this stage man begins to understand what effects his actions, determined by the lower instincts, have on the environment and on fellow men. Nevertheless, at this level, humans do not yet have the opportunity to withdraw from their tyrannical ego. Rather, you get into a cycle in which you regret your bad behavior, only to be determined by the lower self shortly afterwards, then you show remorse again, etc.

In the Koran an-nafs al-lawwama is mentioned in sura 75 verses 1-2:

لَآ أُقۡسِمُ بِيَوۡمِ ٱلۡقِيَـٰمَةِ (١) وَلَآ أُقۡسِمُ بِٱلنَّفۡسِ ٱللَّوَّامَةِ

"No! I swear on the day of resurrection; (1) and (again) no! I swear to every repentant soul "

an-Nafs al-Mulhima

an-nafs al-mulhima is the inspired self . At this stage the seeker begins to find real satisfaction and pleasure in prayer (arabic salad ) and meditative or spiritual exercises ( dhikr ). At this level, the Sufi gets the first idea of ​​what religion and spirituality mean, which he has only heard of in "theory" so far. It is also said that through the inspired soul man begins to feel real love for God and for others.

The mystics also say that this stage is the beginning of the real practice of Sufism.

an-Nafs al-Mutma'inna

an-nafs al-mutma'inna is the satisfied ego or the calmed ego . This stage is characterized by trust in God, spiritual joy and contentment. Whoever has reached the level of the satisfied soul is immune from greater attacks by the lower soul. The believer is free from carelessness here, and the struggle he waged during the first three stages of the nafs is largely over.

In the Koran an-nafs al-mutma'inna is mentioned in sura 89 verses 27-30:

يَـٰٓأَيَّتُہَا ٱلنَّفۡسُ ٱلۡمُطۡمَٮِٕنَّةُ (٢٧) ٱرۡجِعِىٓ إِلَىٰ رَبِّكِ رَاضِيَةً۬ مَّرۡضِيَّةً۬ (٢٨) فَٱدۡخُلِى فِى عِبَـٰدِى (٢٩) وَٱدۡخُتِى (جَ٣٠) وَٱدۡخُتِى جَجَ

O you calm soul! (27) Return to your Lord satisfied and with (Allah's) benevolence. (28) So join the circle of My servants. (29) And enter My Paradise. (30)

Other properties

  • an-Nafs ar-Radiya is the delighted self . This level shows, in addition to the characteristics of the previous one, that man in search of God is content with all the difficulties he encounters. He fully enjoys God's creation.
  • an-Nafs al-mardiya is the pleasing self. At this stage man is no longer split between material desires and longing for God. Rather, one achieves constant inner unity and the feeling of a complete being. Likewise, one experiences the world around one as a whole. The Sufis say that at this stage man becomes a true human being. One recognizes here that all power emanates from God alone and that man has no power for himself.
  • an-Nafs as-Safiya is the pure self . This level is only reached by a few people who, according to the teaching of the Sufis, exclusively include the prophets and the spiritually fully developed saints (men and women). At this stage there is no ego left in the human being, there is only unity with God ( tawhid ). As long as a tiny bit of the ego is still left in a person, according to Sufi teaching, he is not able to reach the level of the pure self.


  • EE Calverley: Art. “Nafs” in The Encyclopaedia of Islam. New Edition Vol. VII, pp. 880a-884a.
  • Robert Frager : Heart, Self, & Soul ; The Sufi Psychology of Growth, Balance, and Harmony
  • Sia Talaat: The doctrine of the Quran: (with special consideration of the terminology) . Halle (Saale): John 1929.

supporting documents

  1. ^ Adel Theodor Khoury : The Koran. Translated and commented by Adel Theodor Khoury. Gütersloher Verlagshaus, Gütersloh 2007, ISBN 978-3-579-08023-9 , p. 544.
  2. See Josef van Ess : Theology and Society in the 2nd and 3rd Century of the Hijra. A History of Religious Thought in Early Islam . 6 vols. Berlin: De Gruyter 1991–1997. Vol. I, p. 143.

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