An extremely important and
highly reasonable question often posed regarding the terms “nafs” and
“rûh” is: “Do these terms signify one and the same thing or
are they two distinctly different entities?” The majority of Islâmic scholars
agree that the nafs (soul) and the rûh (spirit) are two
names for one and the same thing. However, others maintain that they are two
different entities. The latter is not a tenable position
because it lacks clear, unequivocal delineations of these two terms from the
texts of the Qur’ân and the sunnah. Rather, it is a result of a
misunderstanding of the terminology in these texts and personal conjecture. This
is amply illustrated in the following two examples cited in detail by Ibn al-Qayyim.
One group, consisting of some hadîth
scholars, jurists and Sûfîs, states that “the rûh is other
than the nafs.” Muqâtil bin Sulaymân explains this view as follows:
“Man has life [hayâh], a spirit [rûh] and a soul
[nafs]. When he sleeps, his nafs – with which he senses and
understands things – emerges from his body; however, it doesn’t completely
separate from the physical body. Rather, it extends from it, radiating outward
like a cable. While both life and the rûh remain in his body
(being the two means by which he breathes as well as tosses and turns during
sleep), man sees visions by means of the nafs which emerges from him.
When he is about to awaken, his nafs returns to him faster than the
blinking of an eye. However, if Allâh wills that he die in his sleep, He seizes
that nafs which had come out as described.
Another sector of hadîth
scholars also holds the opinion that the rûh is other than the nafs
but that the nafs, which is in the form of man, is dependent upon the rûh
for existence. Man’s nature (i.e., nafs) is filled with vanities,
desires and passions. It is the source of his trials and afflictions, and there
is no enemy more hostile to him than his own nafs. Thus, the nafs
wants and loves nothing other than the things of this world, while the rûh
longs for the Hereafter and invites to it.
The two previously stated
notions are essentially similar in that they assert that the nafs and the
rûh are two separate entities. Other positions exist which are
either completely absurd or irrelevant. The absurd views are based on mere
personal belief or concepts borrowed from philosophies or teachings foreign to
Islâm, such as those stating that the nafs is earthy and fiery, whereas
the rûh is luminous and spiritual. The irrelevant theories
include the conviction that souls are entities whose nature and reality are
known only to Allâh, implying that nothing has been revealed to mankind about
In contrast, the correct view,
as maintained by the vast majority of Muslim theologians and endorsed by the
scholars of ahl as-sunnah,
that the terms “nafs” and “rûh” are
interchangeable. However, the term “nafs” is usually applies when the
soul is inside the body, and the word “rûh” is used when the soul is
apart from the body.
these terms may be used interchangeably in relation to their essence, the
difference between them is merely a difference in attributes and usage. Each one
has clearly distinct and restricted applications in certain contexts. For
example, the term “nafs” may be used to mean blood as indicated
saying, “Sâlat nafsuhu.” (“His blood flowed.”) Since death
resulting from the flowing of one’s blood necessitates the exit of one’s
soul, blood came to be referred to as “nafs.” Additionally, the term
“nafs” may be used to mean “the eye” (“ ‘ayn”) –
commonly referred to as “the evil eye”. For instance, it is said, “Asâbat
fulânan nafsun.” (“So and so has been struck by an [evil] eye.”)
Upon occasion, the word “nafs” may represent the self (dhât)
as evident in a number of Qur’ânic verses such as the following:
upon each other [anfusikum] a greeting of peace – a greeting from
Allâh, blessed and good.”
Just as the term “nafs”
has several different connotations, so does the term “rûh.”
It is never used to refer to the physical body (badan) alone or to the
soul when it is inside the body. Rather, it has various other usages in Arabic
language and in religious literature.
the following words of Allâh to His Messenger ,
it is used to mean revelation, specifically, the Qur’ân:
“And thus We revealed to you a spirit [i.e., the Qur’ân] by Our
In other places in the Qur’ân
the word “rûh” is used to designate Angel Jibreel, whom
Allâh entrusted with the conveyance of divine revelation. For example:
this [Qur’ân] is a revelation of the Lord of the Worlds brought down by the
trustworthy spirit [i.e., Jibreel].”
The various forces and senses
contained in the human body are also spoken of as “spirits.” Thus it is
said, “ar-rûh al-bâsir” (“the seeing spirit”) and “ar-rûh
as-sâmi‘” (“the hearing spirit”) and so on. However, these are
called “spirits” only by convention. These senses are extinguished upon the
death of the physical body, and they are different than the rûh,
which does not die or disintegrate.
Finally, the term “rûh”
is sometimes used in an extreme restricted sense – to designate the spirit of
faith which results from one’s knowledge of Allâh, from turning to Him in
repentance and from seeking Him with love and aspiration. This is the spirit
(i.e., consciousness of God) with which Allâh strengthens His obedient, chosen
servants as stated in the following verse:
those, Allâh has written faith upon their hearts and strengthened them with a
spirit from Him.”
In this manner, knowledge is a
“rûh” (“spiritual force”), as is sincerity, truthfulness,
repentance, love of Allâh and complete dependence upon Him. People differ in
respect to these types of spiritual forces. Some are so overcome by them that
they become “spiritual” beings. Thus it is said, “So and so has spirit.”
Others lose the power of such spiritual forces, or the greater portion thereof,
and thus become earthly, bestial beings.
them it may be said, “So and so has not spirit; he’s empty like a hollow
reed,” and so on.
Authentic traditions from the
clearly establish that the rûh and the nafs are
essentially one and the same thing. The following narrations, which are two
different versions of the same incident, will clarify this point beyond the
shadow of a doubt. They explain the manner in which rûh/nafs
departs from the deceased person’s body upon death:
Salamah reported Allâh’s Messenger
as saying: “When the rûh is taken out, the eyesight follows it.”
Hurayrah reported that the Prophet
said: “Do you not see when a person dies his gaze is fixed intently; that
occurs when his eyesight follows his nafs [as it comes out].” 
Clearly, since the word “rûh”
was used in the first narration and the word “nafs” was used in the
second, the two terms are, in essence, interchangeable.
 See Ibn Al-Ālûsî’s
Jalâ’ al-‘Aynayn, pp. 142-143 and as-Safârînî’s Lawâmi‘
al-Anwâr, vol. 2, pp. 31-32.
 For a more
detailed account of various contradictory opinions, see Kitâb ar-Rûh,
from Ibn al-Qayyim’s Kitâb ar-Rûh, p. 296.
 See Kitâb
ar-Rûh, pp. 294-297 and Jalâ’ al-‘Aynayn, pp. 142-143.
 This occurs
temporarily, during sleep; completely, at death; and throughout the various
states encountered thereafter, such as in the grave, in Paradise, etc.
 See Lane’s Lexicon,
vol. 2, p. 2828.
 Sûrah an-Nûr,
 See at-Tahâwiyyah,
pp. 444-445 and Kitâb ar-Rûh, pp. 295-296.
 Sûrah al-Mujâdilah,
 For more
details, see Lawâmi‘ al-Anwâr, pp. 31-32; at-Tahâwiyyah, p.
445 and Kitâb ar-Rûh, p. 297.
 Both of the
preceding hadîths are authentic and were related in Muslim’s
compilation. See also al-Qurtubî’s at-Tadhkirah, p. 70.
 See also
Siddeeq Hasan Khân’s Fat-h al-Bayân, vol. 8, p. 232.