By Nilofar Ahmed
THE mystery of life and death can be explained in the Quranic framework by understanding that the soul gives life to the body and that the body dies as soon as the soul leaves it. The foetus in the womb, in spite of being biologically alive, becomes a living thing only after a soul is injected into it (32:9).
The ‘nafs’, ‘ruh’ or ‘soul’, defined as a ‘refined body’, needs nourishment and training just like the body. Since the soul is made up of ethereal matter it wants to live in the other world and to be rid of the base desires of the body. The Sufis often look upon the body as a cage in which the soul is trapped. They long for the time when the soul will be freed; the body is mortal while the soul is immortal.
Since there are three broad stages of development in which the body and soul progress hand in hand, a human being has also been described as a ‘developing soul’. In the Quran, these stages are called ‘nafs ammara bissu’ (12:53), or the lowest or base soul, which is selfish. It can be seen in action in little children whose main interest is self-interest, until they are trained to be different. If left untrained, it can become evil. The second is ‘nafs lawwama’ (75:2), the blaming or the self-critical soul, or the conscience. The third is ‘nafs mutmainna’ (89:27-30), the highest stage of the purified, blissful soul.
The first self-centred stage, ‘nafs ammara bissu’, a necessary vehicle of bodily existence, helps one to survive by providing for the instincts of survival, self-defence, developing and nurturing one’s potential. Here the soul’s main desires are to fulfil the needs of the physical body, to collect and hoard physical possessions and the desire for self-promotion. All these keep pulling it down spiritually.
Since the complex human mind has been given the gift of free will, the person refines as well as complicates the primary needs of the body into secondary and more complex urges for worldly things, such as gourmet cuisine and designer clothing, for instance.
In this process, the monsters of competitiveness, desire for superiority, lust for luxurious comforts and entertainment and the desire to acquire fame are born. To achieve these ends, this person can become jealous, aggressive, deceitful and cruel.
But greed breeds greed and the more one gets, the more one wants, until one gets caught in a whirlpool of insatiable desires related to this world.
‘Nafs ammara bissu’ has a forceful energy and has been compared to the untrained, wild horse whose good qualities cannot be utilised. If the rider has not learnt to tame and master it, the wild horse will run away. When proper training is given in the early stages and, later, when the person strives in trying to acquire the values of honesty, mercy and following a balanced, middle course, the ‘nafs’ reaches the second stage known as the ‘nafs lawwama’ (75:2), or the ‘blaming soul’.
‘Nafs lawwama’ now starts using its free will with the consciousness of accountability to God and blaming itself for the wrong committed. It appears that no outside control is necessary. Since a conscience and a longing for the sublime has been developed, the main goal in sight is the ‘akhirat’ (the Hereafter) and not this ‘dunya’. The final result is that selfishness decreases, altruism increases and giving and sharing become more satisfying than taking and hoarding.
Now all natural urges can be satisfied, but in a balanced manner prescribed by God. The desire for superiority changes into striving to excel morally and spiritually. A high office is taken as an opportunity to benefit mankind. Gradually, desires are harnessed and the wild beast of ‘nafs ammara’, instead of being a violent and harmful creature, is now a tame and helpful companion. It is now ready to move on to new territory: the highest spiritual stage of the ‘nafs mutmainna’.
‘Nafs mutmainna’, the ‘satisfied’ or ‘blissful’ stage, is reached through a lifetime of constant training, abstinence, prayer, fasting and zikr or remembrance (13:28). The person rises higher by following the prescribed rules of behaviour and worship and excels by offering voluntary devotion, vigils and sacrifice until the stage is reached where all worldly hurt as well as the charms of the world fade away. The satisfied soul guides God’s creation with mercy, feels compassion for others, and prays for their transformation and salvation. The only goal in sight is to move closer to God, to obey and love Him and to be loved by Him.
The love of the ‘blissful’ soul for God and His attributes is made up of a sense of utter dependence on Him, on humility, singing of His praise, worshipping Him, pleasing Him, sacrificing everything in His path and asking Him alone for His bounty. The greatest desire of the soul is to achieve closeness to Him, to reflect His light and to give up its own shortcomings by trying to reflect God’s perfection.
The greatest reward of the good soul, the moment it has been waiting and working for, is the final and complete harmony and proximity with its Creator, when ‘nafs mutmainna’ will be welcomed by God Himself into His presence and to Paradise on the Day of Judgment (89: 27-30), with these words:
“O blissful soul/ Return to your Lord, such that you are pleased with Him, and He with you/ Enter with My devotees/ Enter My Paradise!”
The writer is a scholar of the Quran and writes on contemporary issues.
Source: The Dawn, Karachi