Allah (swt) has granted human with a domain of legal and illegal and a will and freedom to choose between them. Human is tested with this faculty called nafs which is predisposed both for good and evil.
The concepts spirit, ego and nafs are different but overlapping aspects of the same truth and they are the subject of a long travel which begins from the realm of spirits and continues through the realm of witnessing and realm of interval (barzakh) and leads to the eternity.
Nafs has two meanings: person and faculty
Nafs which means person is ego. For that reason nafs is our spirit which is our real existence. That is, what is meant by our spirit is us and our nafs. We, seemingly, consider our body as us but in reality our body is like cloth of our spirit.
We wear our body as a cloth with our eyes and nose, hands and arms, heart and brain in the world. The life in grave which is our next stop is not corporeal but spiritual. When we die and put off our body as a garment our spirit will not be totally naked and it will be covered with a nice garment like a pile fabric in the realm of spirits and interval that is grave life.*
The spirit in its essence is not an imaginary concept out of body; it is a being covered with an external body, and has consciousness and life. When the spirit leaves the body, the body dies and it is disintegrated but the spirit stands stable with its transparent existence and it perpetuates its vitality.
It is the body which is born, grows old and dies because the spirit is eternal. It is not extant with its body but itself. That is, it does not need that body to be in existence. Death is not an end for the spirit but it is transition to another form of life. As Yunus Emre (a 14th century Turkish sufi poet) says “It is the animal [body] that dies, the lovers do not die!” He means that difference between the body and spirit.
We are going to wear a body as garment in the afterlife as our last stop which is totally different and more perfect than the body in the world. The resurrection will not be realized only spiritually as in grave life but corporeally. That is, in that eternal place we will be given a more perfect body which is appropriate for there.
None of these several bodies which our spirits wear as garments according to the realm that we live are our real identities. It is our spirit as a response when we are asked “Who are we?” It is not our arms and legs either in this world or in afterlife. For that reason the spirit is nafs (self) in terms of existence and persona.
As it is said in the Qur’an كُلُّ نَفسٍ ذائِقَةُ المَوتِ “Every soul shall taste death” (Ankabut, 29:57) it is meant every one of us in terms of nafs and personality.
The relationship of the spirit and ego
Allah (swt) has created our spirit in a simple essence, that is, it is not complex or compounded with several elements. With that complexion, the spirit is a one and indivisible essence. Though our spirit is such a one essence it has different functions, capabilities and attributes.
Every being, for instance an orange, has different attributes such as shape, colour, smell, taste, ingredients and location. Even though that orange is compounded and one thing, it has attributes which are different from each other.
In the same way, though our spirit is an indivisible element it has lots of faculties embedded into it such as mind, heart and consciousness and attributes such as knowledge, will, hearing and loving.
The divine power has granted our spirit with ego. By that way, we get information about us and our surrounding. We have an ego and an identity. We distinguish ourselves from other things. We know that we are different from what surrounds us.
This function, the awareness of ego, which does not exist in many beings, this trust which makes us different from the other beings is “feeling of ego – calling ourselves ‘I’”. It is the sacred burden which the earth and the heaven hesitate to carry. As our spirit know itself and what happens around it through this “I”, it knows and gets acquainted with its Lord which is its real goal.
Ego is such a vehicle and capability that it mirrors all the Beautiful Names of Allah (swt). That means all names of Allah (swt) reflect on the mirror of our spirit. By that way, we notice not only ourselves and our surrounding but also all the Names manifested on us through presumed and illusory lordship of ego.
As the objects seen on the mirror reflect their counterparts in reality, in the same way, meanings reflected upon the mirror of our spirit are reference points and keys and features given us in order to get to know our Lord. It introduces us to Him with its different names each of which shows us His features.
However, if the man is not able to conceive that “entrusted” feature of ego embedded into our spirit for that purpose, he considers these features reflected upon the mirror of his spirit as owned and supposes that way. As he is not able to form the connection with his Lord he owns what he sees on his mirror, considers himself owner, lord and powerful and he betrays to what is entrusted to him.
As a result of this refusal, he, God forbids, dares to regard his self as lord and he deserves the slap of مَنِ اتَّخَذَ إِلٰهَهُ هَواهُ (…him who has taken his desire to be his god… (Furqan, 25:43)).
Communication codes of our spirit: the faculties
“There is a great deal of faculties in general disposition and capability of life of human.”
Each of the faculties embedded into our spirit by Divine Power are vehicles and receptors providing us with understanding the eternal Beautiful Divine Names. We comprehend the external realm and act based on these faculties. This fact manifests itself in our life with different kind of actions and preferences.
What really carries out and owns the numerous actions such as seeing, hearing, understanding, loving, showing mercy, and getting angry is not our body but our spirit.
As the doer of action of cutting is not the knife but us, in the same way, our body is just an instrument in fulfilling these actions. Thus, the will which determines them do not belong to body but to spirit. The doer is the spirit.
The manifestations of the Divine Beautiful Names on us introduce us to our Lord through the faculties in our spirit sometimes in a form of samples and embroiders similar ones, and sometimes with its opposites such as weakness, poverty and defect.
Each of the faculty is like a mirror facing a name. Human enjoys the manifestation of that name through that faculty and notices that truth behind the curtain. This awareness becomes a window to his spirit.
However, if human considers and conceives that bounties surrounding him, each of which is a priceless artistic wonder, are miracle of power and gift of mercy of Allah, One and Self-Sufficient and if he could make use of these faculties and draws a lesson from what is going on around him, his knowledge increases and he begins to read the book of universe. The word من عرف نفسه فقد عرف ربه “He who knows his nafs (self) knows his Lord” points out this truth.
The spirit connects to this realm of witnessing through body mechanism. However, a spiritually enlightened person who passes from carnal dimension to the spiritual dimension does not need the eyes as window in order to see. He watches the universe with all its width through the window of his spirit. An enlightened spirit does not need body neither for seeing, nor for hearing, and nor for reaching anywhere.
For that reason, a friend of Allah (swt) who does not leave his cell informs the people of the world about the secrets from around the world with this knowledge, as Ibrahim Haqqi knows the conditions of heaven better than the streets of Tillo, his hometown.
Nafs as a faculty that is different from self
One of the talents and faculties which Allah (swt) has embedded into our spirit is nafs which is source of all our feelings and which affects and govern all other faculties and mind, heart and will with its attraction in line with its lust.
In this respect, nafs means different from self and it is a divine faculty and it has seven ranks called nufus al sab’a (seven nafs’). That means we could use this talent with seven different ways.
Allah (swt) has created everybody with Islamic disposition but unlike He has done to the angels He has granted us with a domain of legal and illegal and a will and freedom to choose between them. Human is tested with this faculty called nafs which is predisposed both for good and evil.
If our nafs had not commanded us doing evil and we had not been capable of committing evil, we would have been like the angels and there would not have been an examination.
For that reason, the angels are not capable of committing evil. They are honoured servants. وَيَفعَلونَ ما يُؤمَرونَ “And they do whatever they are commanded to do.” (Nahl, 16:50)
However the people and the jinns are disposed both for good and evil. For that reason, the one who is tested is us.
The first rank of the nafs: Nafs al Ammara
As the verse ان النفس لامارة بالسوء “Truly, the nafs commands the evil”, states it clearly, our nafs commands us committing the evil. He loves and sanctifies himself. He is pampered and arrogant. He holds himself perfect. He pursues after low desires. The nafs in this rank is ammara, evil-commanding.
However, had ammara been the only rank for nafs, we would not have got rid of this danger. Only one of the seven ranks of nafs commands committing the evil.
Except for ammara among the ranks of the nafs, all other six ranks encourage us for doing good-action. This is a blessing for us from Allah (swt) and is another manifestation of superiority of His mercy over His rage (ghadhab).
Although in the rhetoric of religious exhortation (nasihah) nafs is stressed with negative connotation for the purpose of abstaining, caution and warning, in other six ranks it is an esteemed concept as a relatively purified nafs. Yet, the spiritual elders always used to take refuge into Allah (swt) from the mischiefs of nafs which is collaborator of Satan and affects negatively our will.
The warnings such as, فلا تزكوا انفسكم “Do not justify your nafs” and “find its purification in its un-justification” remind us this danger.
Nafs regrets, too
The next rank after being ammara for nafs is lawwama. The nafs in this rank does not command committing the evil anymore. Furthermore, it regrets if it does commit one.
Husrev Efendi [the successor of Imam Said Nursi] says, “if the nafs of the one who joins the service of Risale-i Nur is ammara, it turns into lawwama by that participation.” That is, that person questions himself and sees his defects by just that joining action. Even though, he could not abstain himself from doing all faults, he regrets because of the sins he commits. This situation is a progress towards good for that nafs which was ammara.
Every nafs has an opportunity for inspiration
As the person progresses steadily in the right path of Allah (swt), he reaches to the rank of nafs al mulhama, “the inspired nafs”. That means, as the servant approaches to Allah (swt) with its spiritual progression, Allah (swt) also approaches to him. Allah (swt) inspires him about what is right and what is wrong. The nafs begins to notice this inspiration which is previously given to him.
قَد أَفلَحَ مَن زَكّاها “He who purifies it gets rescued” (Shams, 91:9) is a principle. The one who purifies his nafs gets saved.
The good and bad commands coming from nafs should be considered within this framework. Ammara nafs commands definitely the evil-doing. Yet, a nafs reaching the level of lawwama does not command us evil-doing in every situation. On the contrary, he interrogates his faults before being questioned by Allah (swt). If we cannot hold ourselves and get into the trap of evil-commanding nafs, he condemns us. He questions us asking “why did you do that?”
When the nafs reaches to the level of mulhama he informs what is wrong and what is right as he confronts dilemmas. فَأَلهَمَها فُجورَها وَتَقواها “And inspired it [with discernment of] its wickedness and its righteousness,” (Shams, 91:8) Allah (swt) informs the nafs in that level about what is taqwa and what is evil. In that expression, mulhim, that is the one who inspires, is Allah (swt), and mulham, that is the one who is inspired, is nafs.
Sometimes we say that something came to my mind. How does something which we have never thought before come to our mind? The inspiration is a truth known through conscience. Allah (swt) warns the nafs in this rank about his sins and encourages him to good.
The level where the heart finds satisfaction: Nafs al Mutmainnah
Nafs becomes mutmainnah (reassured) in the next level. That nafs knows what is right and what is wrong. He knows that there is no place for coincidence and it is Allah (swt) who dominates all things. He sees His seal on everything. He begins to read the book of the universe. He knows that Allah (swt) controls everything in existence. He is assured that everything is controlled by Allah (swt). He perceives the inner reality of things taking place under the guise of causes.
Allah (swt) praises the ones who are in the level of mutmainnah with the verse,
يا أَيَّتُهَا النَّفسُ المُطمَئِنَّةُ ارجِعي إِلىٰ رَبِّكِ راضِيَةً مَرضِيَّةً
“O reassured soul, Return to your Lord, well-pleased and pleasing,” and invites them to the next ranks, that is, radhiyya and mardhiyya and heralds them with heavens.
Being pleased with his Lord
The next level is Nafs al Radhiyya. That means that the person in the rank of mutmainnah knows about what is right and what is wrong; but what is his reaction to proceedings going on around him? Are his heart and mind prevailing over his feelings? Does he say “I wish” in the sense of criticizing the fate? Does he say “damn it!” when he is hurt and does he complain? Or, does he hold the fire [calamities] and the light [blessings] equal since both come from Allah (swt)?
Does he, or can he, say “whatever you do to me, it is fine and welcome” when anything happens to him?
The nafs in that level is pleased with every kind of operation of his Lord like the Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him) who took his son to make sacrifice to his lord and like the Prophet Ismail (peace be upon him) who did not hesitate a moment though he was aware of everything. Even if he [nafs al radhiyya] knows that he is going to get shot in that corner of the street, he goes there.
Both Sayyidina Umar and Sayyidina Ali (may Allah be pleased with them) knew their murderer and informed about them to their aides. They were khalifas. If they had wished they could have arrested them but they did not. These extraordinary people who reached to the utmost levels of the nafs as companions could see the Divine will and were pleased with it. May Allah be pleased with all of them.
The attainment of Divine Pleasure: Nafs al Mardhiyya
The next level is nafs al mardhiyya. The servant endures lots of plights, but is his Lord pleased with him?
A nafs who aims at the pleasure of Allah (swt) in his every move reaches such a level with this straightforwardness that his Lord also becomes pleased with his attitudes and behaviours.
Husrev Efendi used to say “if Allah (swt) gets pleased with you once in your lifetime, it is enough for you!” If only He Who is the Sultan of eternity had looked once at our faces and said “I am pleased with you.”
For that reason, when Imam Bediuzzaman says “you should seek the pleasure of Allah (swt) in your actions!” in the first principle of Treatise on Sincerity the goal that he puts forward before the students of Risale-i Nur is these radhiyya and mardhiyya levels.
For those who are in that level, they are pleased with their Lord and their Lord is pleased with them.
The uppermost of nafs: Nafs al Safiyya
The utmost level of the nafs is safiyya. These friends of Allah (swt) who preserve the trust in the way they got it and who never contaminates it and who are called asfiya are extraordinary people who reach the level of nafs al safiyya and whose ammara nafs is surrendered completely and even against whom the Satan gives up effort.
There is no further of this level for normal people. The next level is prophethood status which Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) completed as the last messenger and this is gained through selection by Allah (swt) not by effort.
Man has ups and downs until he reaches the level of safiyya among the ranks of nafs. Although the other levels may also make feel their efficiency, usually, the level in which the nafs stays imposes its dominion. Yet, a nafs which reaches to the level of safiyya does not shake easily and nafs al ammara cannot show its effect.
Though the friends of Allah (swt) kill their ammara nafs in this level in order not to get deceived by the danger of self-assurance they take refuge in Allah (swt) from the mischiefs of nafs al ammara.
Imam Bediuzzaman points out to the fact that an imagery ammara condition is felt in nerves in these blessed people and that condition makes them always vigilant and on the alert against its dangers, and seek refuge in Allah (swt).
Nafs as a faculty in level of ammara always commands us to commit evil. Though it does not let us have perpetual peace thoroughly in the other ranks it exhorts us into good. These leanings which our nafs encourages us in lots of ways are our feelings and choices. We feel and aspire in those ways. The source of our feelings, good or bad, is the faculty of nafs embedded into our spirit.
In this respect our will is an attribute which determines the boundaries of desires of our nafs. The fact that we have a will is seen in decision-making process when we confront events in which we need to prefer a specific kind of action. Thus, the final say does belong to our will.
As conclusion, nafs as a faculty embedded into our spirit is different from the nafs used meaning ‘person’. The ‘I’- which gives sense of ego to the spirit, is the most important feature which was given as a trust and makes it different.
May Allah (swt) not make us heedless of His Names manifested into our spirit like mirror even a moment and not leave us into the hands of our nafs even for a period of closing and opening our eyes and make us assured of His trust until He takes it back. Amin.
* If we think that two angels named Thawr and Hoot charged with turning the world around the sun are represented with appearance of a fish and ox, it can be said that imaginative body of our spirits seem in a shape which is similar to our corporeal bodies. The spirits know each other in the realm of the spirits.