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The Psychological Implication of Fitrah

 By Yasien Mohamed

 Adapted with some modifications from “Fitra: The Islamic Concept of Human Nature” © 1996 TA-HA Publishers Ltd.


Although man is born in a state of fitrah, he also has the potential for wrong. In order to actualise his fitrah, man needs to gain control over this potential for wrong within himself. Wrongdoing, kufr (rejection of tawhîd) and breaking the Divine law, are all part of the Divine scheme of Creation; their functions are important and decisive for man. Allâh has endowed man with the inborn capacity to distinguish right from wrong. Through intellect, freewill and revelation he can be guided to choose what is right and lawful and thus reawaken this recognition in him. Although man is not born evil he is vulnerable to evil stimuli or external sources of misguidance. This property of the human constitution, to be vulnerable to wrong, is intrinsic to man and is referred to as the psyche or the self (nafs) of man.

The emotional and biological impulses of man are not inherently evil, but are readily susceptible to evil stimuli. They need to be controlled and directed in accordance with Divinely prescribed laws so that the nafs can be transformed into the highest level of spiritual achievement – an-nafs al-mutma’innah.

The individual who has attained a highest spiritual consciousness has passed through three broad levels of psycho-spiritual growth. The Qur’ân uses the term nafs to denote the psychic dimension (or the self) of man. It is a dynamic entity which, if properly trained, can develop to the highest stage of spiritual awareness and, ultimately, harmony with the rűh.

The lowest level of psycho-spiritual state of the nafs is an-nafs al-ammârah – the commanding self. This state is the negative psychic force in man, the seat of the egotistic and selfish drives. It may be contrasted with the qalb, the rűh and the ‘aql, which represent the spiritual drive in man, always seeking the presence of Allâh. Nafs has a negative character in the Qur’ân  through being called ‘an-nafs al-ammârah bi’s-su’[1] (the self commanding evil)…This aspect of the nafs is referred to as the lower self, which at-Tustari grouped under four main headings:[2]

(i)                  The selfish desire of the nafs: it desires its own pleasures through its inborn lust (shahwah) and passion (hawâ’).

(ii)                The autonomous claim of the nafs: it claims its own self-centred power (hawl) and strength (quwwah) and follows its own planning (tadbîr) without regard for Allâh’s guidance.

(iii)               The antagonistic temper of the nafs: it tempts man to act in accordance with his natural inclination for both restless movement (harakah) and listless passivity (sukűn), in opposition to Allâh’s command (amr) and prohibition (nahî).

(iv)              The nafs as man’s enemy and shaytân’s companion: it is the worst enemy (‘adűw) of man and associates itself with shaytân by taking heed of the whispering (wawasah).

An-nafs al-lawwâmah (the reproachful self: see Qur’ân 75:2) is the first major step in psycho-spiritual growth. It is the inner guide that directs man to the truth, and stands mid-way between the negative tendency of an-nafs al-ammârah and the positive tendencies of rűh and ‘aql. At this stage, the slightest departure from the straight path arouses in the believer the pains of conscience.

Unlike the commanding self, the reproachful self does not totally submit to carnal desire and whims. The motive force of the reproachful self is fulfilled when it reaches the final stage of psycho-spiritual growth, an-nafs al-mutma’innah (the contented self). At this latter stage the individual is totally liberated from the carnal self and attains the highest level of spiritual balance…

The psychological or psychical implications of fitrah are associated with the nafs. Since the emotions and desires form an integral part of the nafs of man, the psychological implications are directly related to its emotional dimensions. Both the emotional and the psychological dimensions of man have positive as well as negative tendencies. If man’s emotions are controlled and directed to higher spiritual ends, then his psychical nature is disciplined. Although the biological constitution of man is completely different from the biological constitution, the former nevertheless serves as an instrument for the drives of the psyche…The lower self of the nafs must be transformed into a positive, spiritually higher state so that the individual may be liberated from bondage to the lower nafs, for it tends towards gratification of the biological and emotional needs of the individual and away from the service of Allâh.

Two primary qualities of the nafs are passion and anger. All other negative drives are derived from these two. Passion instinctively tends to weigh the individual down with an inertia of complacency and indulgence, while, at the same time, it is expressive and pulsates with its own energy. Dispersing waves of its activity beyond itself. Anger is an emotion bent on glorification, arrogance and domination. Its energy serves to stifle its own dynamic and confines free emotional expression to forceful self-justification. These attributes suggest an ambivalence in human emotional states: they have positive as well as negative tendencies. They are, nonetheless, integral to the soul. Passion may appeal to the individual’s sense of charisma, make him of a pleasant disposition and produce in him a sense of serenity. Anger may serve the function of self-preservation, seek to resist falsehood and to establish harmony where there is discord.

However, one must maintain balance in the degree to which these drives influence the thought and behaviour of the individual. A lack of such drives may prove harmful for the soul and body, while an excess of them may harm the individual’s intellect and faith. Indeed, the refinement and discipline of the nafs consist in restoring the qualities of anger and passion to a state of balance, in order to avoid descent into bestial animal states and to prevent the emergence of other blameworthy qualities. Regarding the way in which one can maintain this state of balance, Najm ad-Dîn ar-Râzî (654 A.H./1256 C.E.) said:

‘In obedience to the Law (sharî‘ah), man should earnestly fear Allâh and not to strive to seek dispensation, for the Law and the fear of Allâh are a balance which maintain the attributes in a state of equilibrium, preventing some from prevailing over others. Disequilibrium would be in a state of animals and beasts of prey, for in animals the attribute of passion prevails over that of anger, and in beasts of prey the attribute of anger prevails over that of passion. Of necessity, animals are given to greed and lust, and beasts of prey to conquest, wrath, and dominance, to killing and hunting.’[3]

According to Najm ad-Dîn ar-Râzî, Allâh does not intend the ‘alchemy of the Law’ to eliminate blameworthy qualities, for that would result in deficient spiritual and physical well-being; herein lies the folly of those philosophers who sought to completely eliminate anger, passion and lust. Instead, the property of Law and the alchemy of the dîn are to restore each of these qualities to a state of balance in the soul so that they may be exercised in accordance with the sharî‘ah. Thereby they cause praiseworthy qualities to emerge from within the self. The paradoxical nature of these drives is that their energy, after being transformed so as to manifest its potential for good, can elevate the individual to the highest level, an-nafs al-mutma’innah.

With regard to the transformation of the lower elements of the self, we again consider the drive of anger and examine the distinction between the ‘holy anger’ of the saintly man and the gross anger of the profane man. The fearfully obedient believer is one who has actualized his fitrah, by transforming it from its original state within his being to an embodiment in reality. The influence of the actualised fitrah pervades and suffuses all experience, all thought and all behaviour. Although, anger, for example, derives its energy from itself, the fearfully obedient and conscientious individual expresses it with the direction and immutable Divine quality of guidance of fitrah. Whether consciously, subconsciously our unconsciously, the individual, by his anger, seeks only to fulfil his actualized fitrah and to resist evil and establish good. Note here the connection between the emotional experience and fitrah; by means of this connection the transformation of the believer’s anger takes place.

The profane man, on the other hand, experiences profane anger. His fitrah is only in his being; it is not actualized in his behaviour. The relationship between his fitrah and his emotional experience is, at best, fleeting or, at worst, non-existent; there is no real or substantial connection. The fitrah of the profane man remains a dormant potential, untapped by his conscious will, while with his anger he may seek gratification for his own sake, for selfish, cowardly or unjust motives. Consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously, he has not allowed his fitrah to orientate, direct and express his anger in an Islâmic manner.

Socially, anger plays a vital role in the manifestation of the believer’s spiritual consciousness. The following hadîth testifies to this:

‘Whoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart, and that is the weakest of faith.’[4]

The above hadîth refers to the conduct of the believer who experiences holy anger with respect to unjust social conditions and wrongdoing, for example. Holy passion, like holy anger, is sanctified by the individual’s fitrah. The natural energy of passion, under the guidance of fitrah, teaches the fearfully obedient believer the difference between attachment to the Creator and His Divine guidance, and attachment to all circumstances, events and things. He acknowledges and appreciates all that is relative, mortal and transient, as the creation of the Creator; nothing can detract from or diminish his admiration and appreciation of such things in the physical world, for this is, after all, relative to the absolute. Real passion, however, in all its intensity of energy, is invested in the absolute itself. On the other hand, gross worldly passion is, in the extreme, ignorant of the fleeting nature and relativity of physical reality. At times profane man doubts even his own physical morality. In his frame of reference, the Creator is relative or does not feature at all; God is a consequence of or a means to his intense and unconquerable attachment to this world. The energy of his passion drowns his potential for reawakening, in inertia and it vibrates with activity bent on greed, lust and the like. Profane passion is not transformed and sanctified by fitrah, but holy passion is, and the latter seeks expression through spiritual values.

Al-Ghazâlî’s picture of dynamic interaction shows how the elements of anger and appetite, when controlled and transmuted with the aid of the ‘aql, are able to transform the lower nafs into the higher levels of psycho-spiritual development, and in so doing actualize the state of fitrah. Although the soul and the body are separate entities, they affect each other. Al-Ghazâlî maintains that every act produces an effect on the soul, if it is done deliberately and repeatedly. As physical action influences the soul, so the soul influences the body. This is known as the ‘traditional interaction theory’. An act creates an effect on the soul; this effect causes the body to repeat the same act which again produces an effect on the soul. The resultant effect is added to the previous effect produced.[5]

Before I can discuss al-Ghazâlî’s interaction picture, which deals with the dynamics of the self, I need to introduce the faculties of the self in relation to the human constitution. Most Muslim philosophers accepted Plato’s view that the soul consists of three qualities. Al-Ghazâlî introduced a fourth quality, the quality of justice, the function of which is to maintain a balance between the other qualities of anger, appetite and reason. The quality of anger is referred to in the Qur’ân and hadîth as a passion (hawâ’). Appetite and passion are also referred to as nafs (the carnal self). Al-Ghazâlî regarded these as the source of wrongdoing. Like Najm ad-Din al-Râzî, al-Ghazâlî also maintained that passion has been created for the benefit of man, but that it serves a good purpose only when it is expressed within the prescribed limits which are determined by ‘aql and sharî‘ah. However, since nafs tends to exceed the limits because of its vulnerability to impulsive behaviour, it needs to be controlled and directed by the quality of justice, which is referred to by al-Ghazâlî as the ‘motive of religion’ (ba‘ith ad-dîn).

These two motives of the nafs, the susceptibility to irrational impulses and the quality of justice, compete with each other in the self of every sane human being.[6] The introduction of the quality of justice is important to al-Ghazâlî as it has a bearing on his theory of root virtues, struggle with the self and moral responsibilities. The faculty of justice is not yet present in man before the age of discretion and he is not able to control his passion (hawâ’) and cannot choose to refrain from wrongdoing.

The four elements of bahimiyyah, sab‘iyyah, rabbaniyyah and shaytâniyyah respectively determine the natures and the extent of the forces of appetite, anger, intellect and shaytân. Individuals possess these powers in different proportions. A full appreciation of ar-Râzî’s and al-Ghazâlî’s views requires an analysis of the dynamic interaction of the forces of appetite and anger and of the satanic and angelic elements in man, (cf. diagram P which may prove useful in understanding the dynamic nature of man’s nafs and its discipline and transmutation into higher spiritual levels).

‘Aql and shaytâniyyah are opposing forces of the soul that work through shahwah (appetite) and ghadab (anger) towards a constructive and destructive purposes. The animal forces of anger and appetite are instigated by shaytâniyyah to revolt against ‘aql and conquer it. ‘Aql, on the other hand, because of its inherent angelic element, seeks to control these animal forces and diver them through proper channels in order to make them useful to the soul. If ‘aql succeeds in subjugating them, the satanic influence on man is weakened and rendered ineffective, and a state of harmony conducive to the realization of God prevails. The tendency towards wrongdoing is subdued and the animal forces are harmonized, which permits the soul to pursue its goal without interruption. It is this state of peace and harmony in the soul which is referred to in the Qur’ân as an-nafs al-mutma’innah.

However, if the animal forces are instigated by shaytaniyyah, they rebel against ‘aql and conquer it, strengthening the wrong influence on man until it has complete control over the ‘aql, thus weakening the angelic element in man. All the other faculties then become subservient to shaytân; and reason becomes the slave of anger, passion and lust. The wrongdoing tendency becomes stronger, with a correspondingly increased desire for self-gratification through the physical expression of wrongdoing at the expense of the good of the soul. Shaytân devises means for the satisfaction of these wrong needs. When this tendency reaches its maximum potential it becomes the active principle in an-nafs al-ammârah, the lowest level of spiritual development.

Nevertheless, the angelic element opposes these animal forces and is seldom totally subdued. It is when the angelic element of the soul is engaged in this kind of struggle that it is referred to by the Qur’ân as the admonishing or reproachful soul – an-nafs al-lawwâmah.[7]

These conditions of the soul represent the spiritual consequences of the interaction of these elements. A balance of power is maintained when anger and appetite are controlled by ‘aql. The equilibrium of the three phases of the soul’s development produces ethical consequences that are conducive to the realisation of the ideal. If shahwah, for example, is controlled and expressed in moderation, qualities such as chastity, contentment and modesty emerge. If ghadab is controlled, qualities such as courage, generosity, fortitude, endurance and forgiveness emerge. If both shahwah and ghadab are subordinated to the angelic element, qualities such as knowledge, wisdom, faith and certainty develop. However, if shahwah dominates, the progress of the soul towards its goal is affected; bestial characteristics such as greed, gluttony, wickedness, hypocrisy and jealousy then emerge. If ghadab dominates, characteristics of ferocious animals such as enmity, hatred, contempt, pride and love of self-aggrandisement are acquired. If the angelic element transcends its limits then qualities such as claiming lordship (rubűbiyyah), despotism and making claims to special privilege are displayed.[8]

Man stands midway between animals and angels and his unique characteristic is intelligence – ‘aql.

He can rise to the levels of the angels with the help of the intellect or stoop to the level of the animals by permitting his anger and lust to dominate him. The foregoing psychological analysis makes it clear that Allâh has created all bodily organs and faculties of the self to help him realise his fitrah. However, al-Ghazâlî emphasized that the realization of fitrah can be achieved only when the intellect has been fully applied. Thorough knowledge is, to al-Ghazâlî, a prerequisite for the application of the intellect…


Al-Ghazali’s Theory of Dynamic Interaction  

(angelic element/intellect)

  Shahwah SELF   Ghadab
(appetite)             (nafs, rűh)              (anger)


(satanic element)  

Degrees of Dominance over and Subservience to the Animal Forces of Anger and Appetite

an-nafs al-ammârah subservience dominant
an-nafs al-lawwâmah partial subservience partially subservient
an-nafs al-mutmainnah dominance subservient


Notes and references:

[1] Qur’ân 12:53

[2] Gerhard Böwering, The Mystical Vision in Classical Islam, (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1980), p. 243.

(i)  The Selfish Desire of the Nafs: it desires its own pleasures through its innate tendencies of lust (shahwah) and passion (hawâ’).                                                                                                                                          

(ii)  The Autonomous Claim of the Nafs: it makes claim over its self-centred power (hawl) and strength (quwwah), and to follow its own planning (tadbîr) without regard for Allâh’s guidance.

(iii)  The Antagonistic Temper of the Nafs: it tempts man to act in accordance with his natural inclination for restless movement (harakah) and listless passivity (sukűn) in opposition to Allâh’s command (amr) and prohibition (nahî).

[3] Najm al Dîn ar-Râzî, The Path to God’s Bondsman from Origin to Return, (New York: Caravan Books, 1982), trans. Hamid Algar, p. 195.

[4] An-Nawawî, Forty Hadîth, (Lahore: Kazi Publications, no date), trans. Ibrahim and Davies, p. 110.

[5] A. Quasem, The Nature of al-Ghazali’s Ethics, (Edinburgh, 1973), pp. 50-51.

[6] Ibid., pp. 50-51.

[7] M. Umaruddin, The Ethical Philosophy of Al-Ghazali, op. cit., pp. 63-64.

[8] Ibid., pp. 63-64.

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