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Islam and Mysticism: Is ‘Nafs’ Soul? (Part - 1)



By Naseer Ahmed, New Age Islam

05 July 2017

The dictionary defines mysticism as vague or ill-defined religious or spiritual belief, especially as associated with a belief in the occult. The Quran describes itself as Kitabum Mubeen or a perspicuous Book which is lucid, clearly expressed and easily understood - a Book that makes everything clear beyond a shadow of doubt. Islamic religious knowledge is therefore lucid and crystal clear and what is vague or ill-defined is not Islam. Islamic mysticism is therefore an oxymoron although mysticism among Muslims is pervasive and has completely distorted the simple religion of the Quran.

Growth in our knowledge follows two paths a) Exponential growth based on empiricism and logical reasoning. This is incremental, step-wise growth which can be thought to be continuous b) Discontinuous growth or by sudden leaps through inspiration. The proofs of many of the theorems in Mathematics came years after the theorem was formulated. For example, while Ramanujam gave us many brilliant theorems in number theory, the proofs of those theorems were provided by other Mathematicians several years later. Einstein struggled with the mathematical proof of his general theory of relativity for several years while the theory was already formulated by him. Equally brilliant scientists had difficulty understanding even after the proof was provided so how did Einstein think up such a different model of the physical world? The empirical proof of his theory also followed much later. So, it wasn’t even a case of formulating a theory to fit observed behaviour. Such leaps of knowledge through insight can only be thought of as inspired or based on intuition which is another word for the same thing.

Mysticism is also defined as the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, which may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender. The Quran is a Book of revelations and contains all the ‘mystical’ knowledge that man needs, but is inaccessible to human intellect in foresight. The Quran describes itself as a Book that cannot be produced by man. It is a Book that has come as a revelation from God or is inspired by God and therefore, the simple challenge in the Quran to those who deny it, to produce anything the like of any of its Surahs or chapter. This challenge is discussed in detail in my article: Science and Religion.

The Quran has cleared all mysteries, and therefore any ‘mysticism’ that is not firmly anchored in the Quran, or else is not Science, are myths and falsehoods and a product of hallucinations.

 (5:15) O people of the Book! There has come to you our Messenger, revealing to you much that you used to hide in the Book, and passing over much (that is now unnecessary): There has come to you from Allah a (new) light and a perspicuous Book, -

(36:69) We have not instructed the (Prophet) in Poetry, nor is it meet for him: this is no less than a Message and a Qur´an making things clear:

The Book is not to be interpreted as one may interpret poetry. Its verses do not have multiple meanings as poetry does but these have only one clear unmistakable meaning. Those who however choose to interpret rather than ascertain and understand the clear meaning are the lovers of philosophy and poetry and not honest seekers of the truth. They are the mystics of Islam, the distorters of the simple faith of Islam.

Prophets Sent With A “Clear Message”

Prophets were sent with a clear message They are referred to as “Rasoolum Mubeen” or bearers of the clear message, or as clear warners “Nazeerum Mubeen”: 7:184; 11:25 , 22:49, 26:115; 29:50; 38:70; 43:29; 44:13; 46:9; 51:50, 51; 67:26; 71:2;

Prophets of Islam Did Not Possess “Mystical Knowledge”

The Quran makes clear that the prophets of Islam did not know anything beyond what was revealed to them by inspiration and what was revealed to them was for all mankind and shared by them with all.

(46:9) Say: "I am no bringer of new-fangled doctrine among the messengers, nor do I know what will be done with me or with you. I follow but that which is revealed to me by inspiration; I am but a Warner open and clear."

 (7:188) Say: "I have no power over any good or harm to myself except as Allah wills. If I had knowledge of the unseen, I should have multiplied all good, and no evil should have touched me: I am but a warner, and a bringer of glad tidings to those who have faith."

(11:31) "I tell you not that with me are the treasures of Allah, nor do I know what is hidden, nor claim I to be an angel. Nor yet do I say, of those whom your eyes do despise that Allah will not grant them (all) that is good: Allah knows best what is in their innermost thoughts and feelings: I should, if I did, indeed be a wrong-doer."

(6:50) Say: "I tell you not that with me are the treasures of Allah, nor do I know what is hidden, nor do I tell you I am an angel. I but follow what is revealed to me." Say: "can the blind be held equal to the seeing?" Will ye then consider not?

Pursuit Of The Occult Is Worship Of Satan And Kufr.

As far as belief in the occult or in magical powers is concerned, the Quran makes clear that pursuit of the occult or of magical powers is to follow the Satan and therefore Kufr and Fitnah and the buyers of magic will have no share in the happiness of the Hereafter.

(2:102) They followed what the progeny of Satan gave out (falsely) against the power of Solomon: the Kafala were, not Solomon, but the progeny of Satan, teaching men Magic, and such things as came down at Babylon to the angels Harut and Marut. But neither of these taught anyone (Such things) without saying: "We are only for trial (Fitna); so do not commit Kufr." They learned from them the means to sow discord between man and wife. But they could not thus harm anyone except by Allah´s permission. And they learned what harmed them, not what profited them. And they knew that the buyers of (magic) would have no share in the happiness of the Hereafter. And vile was the price for which they did sell their souls, if they but knew!

(103) If they had kept their Faith and guarded themselves from evil, far better had been the reward from their Lord, if they but knew!

While it was Allah’s angels who taught mankind the occult, it was as a trial and those who succumb to its temptations have sold themselves to Satan and will have no share in the happiness of the Hereafter.

There Is No Scope for Mysticism in Islam

When the Quran leads one into light, who, except the followers of Satan will seek the vagueness of mysticism and enter once again into the depths of darkness?

(2:257) Allah is the Protector of those who have faith: from the depths of darkness He will lead them forth into light. Of those who reject faith the patrons are the evil ones: from light they will lead them forth into the depths of darkness. They will be companions of the fire, to dwell therein (For ever).

Do We Have A Soul?

What is mysticism without the soul? But do we have a soul? The primary meaning of "soul" in all religions and cultures is the non-material or “spiritual” part of our "true-self", with a consciousness and intelligence of its own, even without our body and without our brain, which does not die when our body dies, and perhaps existed even before we were born. No such thing exists nor is it recognized by Science or by the Quran. Even though such a concept of soul is illogical and unscientific, and there is no empirical evidence of its existence within us or within others, the belief in the existence of such a soul in all religions and cultures including among Muslims is very strong. To be told therefore that the Quran does not have such a concept of soul would be shocking to most people but is true as we shall soon see.

Two words in the Quran are often mistranslated as “soul”. These are:

1.       Ruh

2.       Nafs

The irony is that these two words are not even synonyms. Clearly therefore, there is no single word in the Quran that means soul and two words that are not even synonyms have been misused to mean “soul”. The Quran simply has no concept of a soul, and none of the verses in which the subject is death, or resurrection, contain either of the two words.

What is it that we have apart from our physical body and brain? We have our life’s experiences in the form of memories, acquired knowledge, patterns of thinking, consciousness of self and a moral conscience or reproaching self that we have developed based on our religious moral teachings or secular ethics which tells us when we are wrong. We also have our senses and the temptations that these senses lead us into and the controlling self which prevents us from indulgences that we have learnt to consider immoral or unethical. We have cognition to use a modern all-encompassing word. None of what is discussed can be called “soul”. I have just described the meaning of Nafs in the Quran. Nafs is the consciousness that we have in a state of wakefulness which leaves us when we are asleep and when we die. What is Nafs without the body, the brain, the memories, patterns of thinking or mental processes, the senses, the nervous system and the organs? The Nafs also dies when the body dies and there can be no Nafs without a living person. All of it, including our physical body, mental processes, memory, feelings etc. can be thought of as information, which can be used to recreate us on resurrection exactly as we were when alive, including our “Nafs” as described. There is no independent existence of Nafs without the living body in a state of wakefulness as far as Science is concerned, and also as far as the Quran is concerned as we shall see.

The English word soul is also used to mean a person, self, inner-self, innermost being and conscience. When used in this sense, it means Nafs but since we are interested in finding out whether it means “the indestructible true self capable of existence without our living body”, we will ignore all other meanings of soul except this one while translating the Quran. I have looked up translations by forty of the most popular translators and given brief statistics of how they have translated.

The Nafs Dies

Yusuf Ali (3:145) Nor can a soul (Linafsin) die except by Allah´s leave,

Literal Translation: It is not for a person to die except by Allah’s leave

Linafsin is translated as “a soul” by Yusuf Ali while it means “for a person”. Thirty one other translators translate similarly as soul in this verse. Since the concept of soul is that it does not die, Nafs is better translated as “person “in this verse since it is the person who dies. A living person is inseparable from his Nafs as discussed and Nafs has no existence independent of a living person which also dies when a person dies. In the Quran, there is no concept of Nafsun that does not die and therefore it does not mean “soul” by its primary meaning. Eight translators have translated Linafsin correctly as person, human being or self.

كُلُّ نَفْسٍ ذَآئِقَةُ الْمَوْتِ29:57,21:35,3:185

Every Nafsin shall have a taste of death

Clearly Nafsi means person and not some indestructible “soul”.

(Thirty three translators have translated Nafsin as soul and seven have translated it as person, human being or living being).

63:11 وَلَن يُؤَخِّرَ اللَّهُ نَفْسًا إِذَا جَاء أَجَلُهَا وَاللَّهُ خَبِيرٌ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ

Literal Translation: But to no person/self (Nafsan) will Allah grant respite when the time appointed (for it) has come; and Allah is well acquainted with (all) that ye do.

We have established that “Nafs” dies and cannot therefore be what lives on after we die. or may have existed even before we were born.  It is not soul by its primary meaning. When translators translate Nafs as soul even when the verse speaks of the death of Nafs, it is clear that they have used soul to mean person.

Nafs as Temptations and Feelings

Nafs is al-Ammara Bissu or Nafs is the enjoinder of evil

The senses are prone to temptations. For example, Yusuf (pbuh) was sought to be seduced when he had grown into an adult by the Aziz’s wife who had adopted him when he was a child. Yusuf (pbuh) says that he does not absolve himself of blame for being human; his senses are also prone to the temptations of desire even when such desire is illegitimate. It is only through the mercy of God that he could save himself from temptations that may have lead him to do an evil act.

(12:53) "Nor do I absolve my own self (Nafsi): the senses are certainly prone to the evil temptations (Nafs al-Ammara Bissu), unless my Lord do bestow His Mercy: but surely my Lord is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful."

(Twenty eight translators have translated Nafsi as soul while twelve others have translated it as self, inner self or myself.)

20: 96 قَالَ بَصُرْتُ بِمَا لَمْ يَبْصُرُوا بِهِ فَقَبَضْتُ قَبْضَةً مِّنْ أَثَرِ الرَّسُولِ فَنَبَذْتُهَا وَكَذَلِكَ سَوَّلَتْ لِي نَفْسِي

Literal Translation: He replied: "I saw what they saw not: so I took a handful (of dust) from the footprint of the Messenger, and threw it (into the calf): thus did my inner self (Nafsi) suggest to me."

(Thirty translators have translated Nafsi as soul. Three translators as mind, and eight others as self/inner self/lowerself/ownself).

4:128     وَأُحْضِرَتِ الأَنفُسُ الشُّحَّ

And the Alanfusu are swayed by greed

(Thirty translators have translated Alanfusu as soul. Ten others have translated as persons or people).

فَطَوَّعَتْ لَهُ نَفْسُهُ قَتْلَ أَخِيهِ فَقَتَلَهُ فَأَصْبَحَ مِنَ الْخَاسِرِينَ

5:30 Then prompted to him his Nafsuhu to kill his brother so he killed him and became of the losers

Here Nafsuhu is “his feeling self” with its inclinations, temptations, envy, fear, greed, etc.

(Twenty nine translators have translated Nafsuhu as soul. Eleven others have translated it as self, selfishness, lower-self, passion, mind, evil thought, ego).

Nafs al-Lawwama or the self-reproaching conscience

(75:1) I do call to witness the Resurrection Day;

(2) And I do call to witness the self-reproaching conscience: (Eschew Evil).

(3) Does man think that We cannot assemble his bones?

(4) Nay, We are able to put together in perfect order the very tips of his fingers.

(5) But man wishes to do wrong (even) in the time in front of him.

Nafs al-Lawwama may be described as the cognitive dissonance we experience when what we do is contrary to what we believe is the right thing to do. Our sense of right and wrong, or the values of our society, are learnt in the same manner as we learn our mother tongue. We imbibe our values and sense of right and wrong while learning to communicate since what we learn through our interactions is not just the language but also the values of the society with which we interact. This further gets refined based on our efforts directed towards acquiring necessary knowledge for leading a moral life. The cognitive dissonance may be dealt with honestly by changing our actions to conform with what we believe is right or we may succumb to our temptations and do evil acts. We may even rationalize such behaviour.

(Thirty four translators have translated Nafs as soul. Only six have translated it as conscience.)

 Nafs al-Mutma`inna or the Nafs that is content and at peace

Those who will be successful in the hereafter are described as the Nafs al-Mutma`inna or those whose conscience is at peace with self

(89:27) To the persons whose Nafs or consciousness is at peace and satisfied (Nafs al-Mutma`inna) will be said

(28) "Come back thou to thy Lord, - well pleased (thyself), and well-pleasing unto Him!

(29) "Enter thou, then, among My devotees!

(30) "Yea, enter thou My Heaven!

Whose Nafs will be completely content and at peace? Those who dealt with their cognitive dissonance honestly and acted in accordance with what they truly believed to be right. Those who were satisfied with their lives in every way and did not yield to greed, envy, hate, anger and carnal desires and who remained grateful to God for all that they received.

Such persons whose are at peace with themselves and with God will enter Heaven. Such state is not possible as Yusuf (pbuh) says without the Grace and Mercy of Allah.  Without belief in God, people will tend to suppress their cognitive dissonance with rationalization, succumb to their lower desires, will be greedy for more of everything, envious of those who are better off, hate others for what they are, feel insecure and defend their faults/mistakes. The Nafs that are not completely satisfied are those who die wanting to live longer, dissatisfied with what they could achieve or feeling unfulfilled in some respect. The Nafs that will be in peace will be those who know that they did their best with the best of intentions and remaining true to their own selves and beliefs and to the best of their knowledge, using every opportunity to do what was best under the circumstances.

Each one of us knows to what extent we have attained the status of Nafs al-Mutma`inna. Such a Nafs is fearless, optimistic, free of hatred and certainly not paranoid. Paranoia is a sign of a Nafs that is ill at ease with self and his environment.

(Thirty four translators have translated Nafs as soul. Only six have translated it as human being or self.)

16:7 وَتَحْمِلُ أَثْقَالَكُمْ إِلَى بَلَدٍ لَّمْ تَكُونُواْ بَالِغِيهِ إِلاَّ بِشِقِّ الأَنفُسِ إِنَّ رَبَّكُمْ لَرَؤُوفٌ رَّحِيمٌ

Literal Translation: And they (animals) carry your loads to a land which you could not have reached except with great trouble to yourselves (Alanfusi). Indeed your Lord is surely  Most kind, Most Merciful.

Yusuf Ali: (16:7) And they carry your heavy loads to lands that ye could not (otherwise) reach except with souls distressed: for your Lord is indeed Most Kind, Most Merciful,

Trouble is to the body and not the “soul”.

(Six translators have translated Alanfusi as soul. Twenty four have translated it as yourselves)

39:42 اللَّهُ يَتَوَفَّى الْأَنفُسَ حِينَ مَوْتِهَا وَالَّتِي لَمْ تَمُتْ فِي مَنَامِهَا فَيُمْسِكُ الَّتِي قَضَى عَلَيْهَا الْمَوْتَ وَيُرْسِلُ الْأُخْرَى إِلَى أَجَلٍ مُسَمًّى إِنَّ فِي ذَلِكَ لَآيَاتٍ لِّقَوْمٍ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ

Yusuf Ali (39:42) It is Allah that takes the souls (l-anfusa) at death; and those that die not (He takes) during their sleep: those on whom He has passed the decree of death, He keeps back (from returning to life), but the rest He sends (to their bodies) for a term appointed verily in this are Signs for those who reflect.

What is taken away in our sleep is not our soul but our consciousness. In our death also what we lose is our consciousness of self.  What is taken away in both sleep and death is consciousness which returns for those who do not die but does not return for those who die. (l-anfusa) therefore means consciousness and not soul. This verse makes the meaning of Nafs amply clear. It is what a living person has in a state of wakefulness. It is not what you have in a state of sleep, coma or death. Neither does it have any existence independent of a living person in a state of wakefulness

(Thirty translators have translated Alanfusa as soul. All others have struggled with the correct meaning and confused sleep with death. They have translated it as “self” taken away when asleep and sent back to those who have not died and wake up. The correct meaning simply is that it is our consciousness that is taken away when asleep and given back when we wake up but does not return to those who die. Death is described in very simple words as losing life or consciousness of self permanently while sleep is temporary loss of consciousness. Only one translator Shabbir Ahmed comes close)

In this part, we have seen what Nafs means and what it does not mean. It certainly does not mean the indestructible soul which survives after death. It means our ‘feeling, thinking, discerning, prone to temptations, rationalizing self and our reproaching and correcting conscience in a state of wakeful consciousness’ or simply the unique individual or self or being that we are, which lives and ultimately dies. Death is for both the body and the Nafs. Although many translators have freely translated Nafs as soul, in no verse does Nafs take the primary meaning of “soul” but only the secondary meanings. We can conclude that Nafs is not “soul” by its primary meaning of “our true indestructible self that lives on after we die” in any verse of the Quran. In the next part, we will see what ‘Ruh” means.

Naseer Ahmed is an Engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur and is an independent IT consultant after having served in both the Public and Private sector in responsible positions for over three decades. He is a frequent contributor to NewAgeIslam.com

URL: http://www.newageislam.com/islamic-ideology/naseer-ahmed,-new-age-islam/islam-and-mysticism--is-‘nafs’-soul?-(part---1)/d/111786

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