The Nafs and the Rh

  By Abu Bilal Mustafa al-Kanadi

  Extracted with slight modifications from Mysteries of the Soul Expounded 1994 Abul-Qasim Publishing House


An extremely important and highly reasonable question often posed regarding the terms nafs and rh is: Do these terms signify one and the same thing or are they two distinctly different entities? The majority of Islmic scholars agree that the nafs (soul) and the rh (spirit) are two names for one and the same thing. However, others maintain that they are two different entities.[1] The latter is not a tenable position because it lacks clear, unequivocal delineations of these two terms from the texts of the Qurn 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.[2]

One group, consisting of some hadth scholars, jurists and Sfs, states that the rh is other than the nafs. Muqtil bin Sulaymn explains this view as follows: Man has life [hayh], a spirit [rh] and a soul [nafs]. When he sleeps, his nafs with which he senses and understands things emerges from his body; however, it doesnt completely separate from the physical body. Rather, it extends from it, radiating outward like a cable. While both life and the rh 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 Allh wills that he die in his sleep, He seizes that nafs which had come out as described.[3]

Another sector of hadth scholars also holds the opinion that the rh is other than the nafs but that the nafs, which is in the form of man, is dependent upon the rh for existence. Mans 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 rh longs for the Hereafter and invites to it.[4]

The two previously stated notions are essentially similar in that they assert that the nafs and the rh 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 Islm, such as those stating that the nafs is earthy and fiery, whereas the rh is luminous and spiritual. The irrelevant theories include the conviction that souls are entities whose nature and reality are known only to Allh, implying that nothing has been revealed to mankind about them.

In contrast, the correct view, as maintained by the vast majority of Muslim theologians and endorsed by the scholars of ahl as-sunnah,[5] is that the terms nafs and rh are interchangeable. However, the term nafs is usually applies when the soul is inside the body, and the word rh is used when the soul is apart from the body.[6] Although 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, Slat nafsuhu. (His blood flowed.) Since death resulting from the flowing of ones blood necessitates the exit of ones 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, Asbat fulnan nafsun. (So and so has been struck by an [evil] eye.)[7] Upon occasion, the word nafs may represent the self (dht) as evident in a number of Qurnic verses such as the following:

Send upon each other [anfusikum] a greeting of peace a greeting from Allh, blessed and good.[8]

Just as the term nafs has several different connotations, so does the term rh. 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.[9] In the following words of Allh to His Messenger , it is used to mean revelation, specifically, the Qurn:

            And thus We revealed to you a spirit [i.e., the Qurn] by Our command.[10]

In other places in the Qurn the word rh is used to designate Angel Jibreel, whom Allh entrusted with the conveyance of divine revelation. For example:

Verily, this [Qurn] is a revelation of the Lord of the Worlds brought down by the trustworthy spirit [i.e., Jibreel].[11]

The various forces and senses contained in the human body are also spoken of as spirits. Thus it is said, ar-rh al-bsir (the seeing spirit) and ar-rh as-smi (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 rh, which does not die or disintegrate.

Finally, the term rh is sometimes used in an extreme restricted sense to designate the spirit of faith which results from ones knowledge of Allh, 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 Allh strengthens His obedient, chosen servants as stated in the following verse:

For those, Allh has written faith upon their hearts and strengthened them with a spirit from Him.[12]

In this manner, knowledge is a rh (spiritual force), as is sincerity, truthfulness, repentance, love of Allh 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.[13] About them it may be said, So and so has not spirit; hes empty like a hollow reed, and so on.

Authentic traditions from the Prophet clearly establish that the rh 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 rh/nafs departs from the deceased persons body upon death:  

Umm Salamah reported Allhs Messenger as saying: When the rh is taken out, the eyesight follows it.

Ab 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]. [14]

Clearly, since the word rh was used in the first narration and the word nafs was used in the second, the two terms are, in essence, interchangeable.[15]



[1] See Ibn Al-Ālss Jal al-Aynayn, pp. 142-143 and as-Safrns Lawmi al-Anwr, vol. 2, pp. 31-32.

[2] For a more detailed account of various contradictory opinions, see Kitb ar-Rh, pp. 296-297.

[3] Paraphrased from Ibn al-Qayyims Kitb ar-Rh, p. 296.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See Kitb ar-Rh, pp. 294-297 and Jal al-Aynayn, pp. 142-143.

[6] This occurs temporarily, during sleep; completely, at death; and throughout the various states encountered thereafter, such as in the grave, in Paradise, etc.

[7] See Lanes Lexicon, vol. 2, p. 2828.

[8] Srah an-Nr, 24:61.

[9] See at-Tahwiyyah, pp. 444-445 and Kitb ar-Rh, pp. 295-296.

[10] Srah ash-Shr, 42:52.

[11] Srah ash-Shuar, 26:192-193.

[12] Srah al-Mujdilah, 58:22.

[13] For more details, see Lawmi al-Anwr, pp. 31-32; at-Tahwiyyah, p. 445 and Kitb ar-Rh, p. 297.

[14] Both of the preceding hadths are authentic and were related in Muslims compilation. See also al-Qurtubs at-Tadhkirah, p. 70.

[15] See also Siddeeq Hasan Khns Fat-h al-Bayn, vol. 8, p. 232.

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