“The word nafs (pl. anfus, nufus) is derived from the verb nafusa meaning to be precious or valuable. As is said naffasa (to cheer up, reassure or relieve) and tanaffasa (to breathe, inhale or pause for a rest). The Taj al-Arus (4:260) lists 15 meanings of nafs and adds two other from Lisan al-Arab (8:119). The word nafs is used in no less than 10 connotations in the Koran.
Like ruh and qalb, it is another word to indicate an important aspect of human psych. At the lowest level it refers to the principle of life and consciousness. Nafs is a subtle force and is seen as imparting life and power of motion to the body, and thus forming the inner dimension of man’s self. The soul has a multi-layer structure consisting primarily of three principal strata, or the three different dimensions or conditions of one and the same “soul”. The Koran refers to three state of nafs:- “The human soul is certainly prone to evil” (inna nafs la-ammaratun bi al-su) (12:53), “And I do call to witness the self-reproaching soul” (al-nafs al-lawwamah) (75:2) and “O soul, in complete rest and satisfaction” (al-nafs al-mutma’innah) (89:27).
Thus, the three categories of the nafs are as under:-
1. an-nafs al-ammarah (the nafs impelling towards evil).
2. al-nafs al-lawwamah (the blaming nafs).
3. al-nafs al-mutma’innah (the nafs at peace).
The main effect of al-nafs al-ammarah is to paralyze the cognitive process. It is the lower nafs instigating man to evil. It has its attributes, ignorance, stinginess, pride, lust, envy, heedlessness, ill-nature, covetousness, hatred. This seems to have been alluded to at several places in the Koran: “They have hearts with which they do not understand, and they have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear; they are like cattle, nay, they are in worse error; for they are heedless ones” (7:179). Taming the beast in man has had special importance in Islam, because it is this beast which has played havoc in the world, when left untrained and unbridled. The most ferocious beasts of the forests are nothing as compared with the ferocity of man with the untamed beast in him. In Islam this beast has been given the name of nafs or the carnal self and particular emphasis has been laid on the crushing and subduing of the evils of nafs, not only to ensure social welfare, but also enable the soul to fulfill its spiritual mission of taking man to the higher, happier and nobler regions of Divine Proximity and Presence. Islam, therefore, came out with a practical solution to this impasse. It denounced renunciation and introduced a programme of severe training to subdue the carnal self and put an end to its mischief. It prescribed a busy programme of worship in daily life.
On the other hand, al-nafs al-lawwamah is the state of constant awareness. It indicates nafs in a state of change and flux, always conscious and vigilant, constantly examining and scrutinizing its actions, fighting against the baser desires, never heedless and sordid. The ego which is formed in this dimension is principally a rational ego. Thus, it is also called an egotistic soul. When ego comes to dominate the self and recognizes no other entity apart from itself, man loses sight of his spiritual nature and is confined within the narrow realm of individual consciousness. This is the most harmful tendency of nafs.
The third stratun is al-nafs al-mutma’inah, the pacified, tranquil or inspired soul, designating the mode of the soul, in which the turbulence of desires and passions has been calmed down and the agitations of thoughts reduced to stillness, tranquillity and quietude. The state of al-nafs al-mutma’inah is the very end of life when one emerges victorious after a constant and life-long struggle against evil. The nafs at peace because the state of al-nafs al-lawwamah which encompassed the whole of an individual life is now behind, and the period of tussle is over, ending with triumph.
The Sufi circle also adds the following in the kind of nafs:-
4. al-nafs al-radiya : the contented one. It has attributes of fidelity, God-fearing and contentedness.
5. al-nafs al-mardiyya : the approved one, having the quality of kindness to all creatures, forgiveness, loving and compassion.
6. al-nafs al-kamila : the perfect one. It quality embraces all the good attributes of the souls, the complete and perfect.
The way to polish the nafs is through jihad, striving at all times. The struggle is very tiring because the nafs is rebellious. For instance, the mirror has many layers of dust on it. Scraping it is hard work. Later on, polishing it is as easy as lightly passing a cloth over it. Similarly, the seeker desires the light as he is the reflector of Reality. His heart reflects the truth, striving at all times is unavoidable. No one is spared struggle because life is based entirely upon movement and dynamism. If one strives more and more, harder and harder, one finds that the afflictions became subtler and subtle. In order to reflect the truth in his own small reflector, the seeker must abandon into complete solid web in which he is caught and from which there is no escape. If he has completely and utterly abandoned into it, then that web itself will resonate him; then he is the hand of God, the eye of God, the tongue of God. Hence, there is no separation, there is only Oneness. Once one has begun to act with nothing of himself, then the stream of bliss nourishes him, which is the same stream as that of the pure garden.