3 states of the soul
The Spiritual Wayfarer
The Journey Towards Peace and Tranquility
“They ask you concerning the soul. Say that the soul is from Allah and you have not been given knowledge of it except a little” (Qur’an 17:85).
One of the greatest Islamic theologians, Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazzali, wrote an account about the soul in his works Ihya’ `Ulum ad-Din (Revival of the Religious Sciences) and Kimiya’i Sa`adat (The Alchemy of Happiness).The nafs (soul) is the commander and overseer of what the heart feels, the eye sees and the tongue states. The soul is recognized as a vehicle that can be guided and trained to do good or bad deeds, and can lead a person to eternal bliss or wrath. Hence, the goal of a Believer is to realize his full potential; in order to do so, he must understand the main purpose for coming into existence—to worship the Creator so that his soul can return safely to its blissful home.
The soul can be classified under two categories: the rational, which meets spiritual needs, and the non-rational, which is shared with animals and humans, and meets physical needs such as food, shelter, and the desire to reproduce. Balancing spiritual needs with physical needs reminds a person that he or she is a traveler in this world and will not live forever.
Al-Ghazzali explains in the Alchemy of Happiness, “The soul should take care of the body, just as a pilgrim on his way to Makkah takes care of his camel; but if the pilgrim spends his whole time feeding and adorning his camel, the caravan will leave him behind, and he will perish in the desert” (50). This example signifies that in order to reach his destination, a traveler must maintain and care for his transport in order to keep it intact for the journey. More importantly however, the traveler should not forget his ultimate destination in the process.
In the Qur’an, the soul is divided into three stages of spiritual development referred to as al-Nafs al-Ammara (the sinful soul), al-Nafs al-Lawwama (the lamenting soul), and al–Nafs al-Mutma’inna (the satisfied soul). Al-Ghazzali writes, “These three conditions of the soul are not to be thought of as distinct stages, but rather as different aspects or potentials within the soul, which are present simultaneously, some being latent and others active. Their relative strength is contingent upon four factors: man’s inborn disposition, which may be good or evil, angelic or animal; his upbringing; his self-discipline in adulthood, and finally, God’s grace” (Ihya `Ulum ad-Din xxix).
Al-Nafs al-Ammara is characterized by evil, and if not checked, can lead to destruction of itself and of other people. Al-Ghazzali discusses the process of al-Nafs al-Ammara by stating, “Similarly, one venial sin leads to another, until the basis for salvation is lost through the destruction of the basis of faith at the moment of death” (37). The state of Ammara is thus the absence of faith that constitutes a meaningless life where the soul no longer separates itself from evil actions and has no sense of how to balance its non-rational and rational sides.
Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala (the Exalted and Glorified) warns in the Qur’an, “Have you seen the one who takes as his god his own desire? Then would you be responsible for him? Or do you think that most of them hear or reason? They are not except like livestock. Rather, they are [even] more astray in [their] way” (25:43-44). These verses reveal how one who follows his whims and ignores Allah’s (swt) authority over him cannot be a servant of Allah (swt). Such a person has misused the gift of intellect and has gone farther astray than cattle, which neither disobey a spiritual command nor commit injustices in this world.
The second potential stage of the soul is al-Nafs al-Lawwama, which tries hard to abstain from evil acts, consistently questions itself, and constantly repents. Allah (swt) states, “And [by] the soul and He who proportioned it; And inspired it [with discernment of] its wickedness and its righteousness; He has succeeded who purifies it; And he has failed who instills it [with corruption]” (91:7-10). The lamenting soul is crucial as it represents the struggle for change within the self: “That is because Allah would not change a favor which He had bestowed upon a people until they change what is within themselves. And Indeed, Allah is Hearing and Knowing” (8:53).
The lamenting soul aims to become aware of its actions and to stop itself before committing an evil deed, or to replace an evil deed with good. This struggle between the self and the soul fluctuates as one can easily become occupied by the glitter of this world and forget the purpose of one’s existence. Al-Ghazzali narrates that Sufyan al Thawri once said, “Never have I dealt with anything more difficult than my soul, which sometimes helps me, and sometimes opposes me” (Ihya `Ulum ad-Din 57). Therefore, the key to balancing one’s soul in favor of goodness is to understand what the soul needs so that it will not fall into a state of forgetfulness or neglect.
It is with the Mercy of Allah (swt) that He reminds us, “So remember Me; I will remember you. And be grateful to Me and do not deny Me. O, you who have believed, seek help through patience and prayer. Indeed Allah is with the patient” (Qur’an 2:152-153). Strenuous effort, determination, and reliance on Allah (swt) are required in order to begin the difficult process of shaping the self as an ally of the soul. Furthermore, Allah (swt) uplifts those among His servants who struggle to reform themselves, by reaffirming, “Say, O my servants who have transgressed against themselves [by sinning], do not despair of the Mercy of Allah. Indeed Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful” (Qur’an 39:53). The struggling soul is given hope that it may look forward and aim high at achieving an elevated level that is nearer to Allah (swt).
The last and highest stage of the soul is al-Nafs al-Mutma’inna, in which the soul has reached a state of peace and tranquility through aligning its will with the Will of its Creator. Al-Ghazzali remarks, “The aim of moral discipline is to purify the heart from the rust of passion and resentment, until, like a clear mirror, it reflects the light of God” (Kimiya’i Sa`adat 23). The analogy of the mirror enhances the idea that the heart reflects truth only if it is pure. Therefore, one needs to fill one’s heart with complete love for Allah (swt) so as not to be deceived by the outward appearance of the world.
It is the nature of the human being to love what Allah (swt) loves and hate what He hates. The spiritual soul is determined to become one with the commandments of Allah (swt) in order to fulfill the desire to be with Him in Eternity. Blessed is the soul that strives in the cause of Allah (swt), for it not only lives under the shadow and protection of Allah (swt) in this world, but will also be asked to return happily to Him when it has succeeded in preserving its pure and truthful nature. Allah (swt) tells mankind, “[To the righteous it will be said], ‘O reassured soul; Return to your Lord, well-pleased and pleasing [to Him]; And enter among My [righteous] servants; And enter My Paradise’” (Qur’an 89:27-28).
This world is a station created to shape one’s heart and soul into the best of molds; purifying it to be worthy of residing in the eternal bliss of Paradise. Knowledge of the different states can bring a person closer to ascending to the highest state. The third stage is attained through complete love, devotion, and trust of Allah (swt).
Allah (swt) reassures, “And when My servants ask you, [O, Muhammad], concerning Me—indeed I am near. I respond to the invocation of the supplicant when he calls upon Me. So let them respond to Me [by obedience] and believe in Me that they may be [rightly] guided” (2:186). May Allah (swt) protect us from a heart that does not fear, eyes that do not tear, ears that do not hear, and from a soul that is not satisfied. Ameen.
Author: Annan Aboul-Nasr