The States of the Self
Chapter 12 of "The Purification of the Soul" © 1993 Al-Firdous Ltd.
There is agreement amongst those who seek Allâh, despite their different schools and practices, that the self stands between the heart and reaching Him. Only the silencing of the self – by turning away from it and ignoring its whims and overcoming it – can lead you into the domain of Allâh and make it possible to reach Him.
There are two kinds of people: one kind are those whose nafs have overcome them and led them to ruin because they yielded to them and obeyed their impulses. The other kind are those who have overcome their nafs and made them obey their commands.
Some of those who know have said, “The journey of those who seek Allâh ends with them overcoming their selves, because whoever triumphs over his self succeeds and wins, and whoever has his self triumph over him loses.”
Allâh, the Exalted, says:
“Then as for whoever exceeded the limits and preferred the life of this world, surely his abode will be the Fire; and as for whoever feared to stand before his Lord and restrained the desires of his self, surely his abode will be the Garden.” (79:37-40)
The self urges you to wrong actions, and to preferring this life to the next life; while Allâh tells his servants to fear Him, and to restrain the self from following its impulses. The heart is torn between these two. It listens to one caller one moment and to the other caller the next. Here lies the source of affliction, and a challenge.
In the Qur’ân, Allâh has described three states of the self: the self at peace, the reproachful self, and the self that urges evil. Accordingly, people have varied in their views as to whether a servant has one self, of which these three states are attributes, or three selves.
The first view is that of the people of knowledge and explanation, while the second has been attributed to the Sufîs. The truth of the matter is that there is no contradiction between the two. The self is a single entity as far as its essence is concerned, and is one of three main types, depending on what attributes it has.
The Self at Peace
When the self can rest at peace in the Presence of Allâh, and is made tranquil when His Name is invoked, and always relates all matters to Him, and experiences the intimacy of His nearness, then this is a soul at peace. It is the soul to whom it is said at the time of death:
“O soul at peace, return to your Lord, well pleased and well-pleasing. Enter with My servants, enter into My Garden.” (89:27-30)
Qatâda said, “It is the soul of the believer, made calm by what Allâh has promised. Its owner is at complete rest and content with his knowledge of Allâh’s Names and Attributes, and with what He has said about Himself and His Messenger, may Allâh bless him and grant him peace, and with what He has said about what awaits the soul after death – about the departure of the soul, the life in the barzakh, and the events of the Day of Resurrection which will follow – so much so that a believer such as this can almost see them with his own eyes. So he submits to the will of Allâh and surrenders to Him contentedly, never dissatisfied or complaining, and with his faith never wavering. He does not rejoice at his gains, nor do his afflictions make him despair, for he knows that they were decreed long before they happened to him, even before he was created, for Allâh says:
‘No calamity occurs without the permission of Allâh; and whoever trusts in Allâh, He guides his heart; and Allâh knows all things.’” (64:11)
Many of our predecessors have said that such a soul belongs to the servant who, when afflicted by misfortune, knows that it is from Allâh and accepts it and submits to His will.
The peace that comes with ihsân springs from a reassuring familiarity with the decree of Allâh, which is reflected in submission, sincerity and worship. No desire, or will, or force of habit, can be given precedence over His will and command; there can be no attraction to anything that contradicts any of His Attributes; and there can be no desire that opposes His decree – and if ever such a thing does happen to such a person, then he simply dismisses it as the whispering of shaytân. Indeed he would rather fall from the sky than give reality to such a thing within himself.
This, as the Prophet said, is clear and true faith. By it he is saved from the worry that accompanies wrong actions and from anxiety about them, thanks to the peace and sweetness that come with turning to Him.
If he comes to rest in firm belief after having doubted, or in knowledge after ignorance, or in remembrance after being forgetful, or in repentance after rebellion, or in sincerity after showing off, or in truthfulness after deceit, or in clarity after confusion, or in humility of intimacy after the impetuousness of desire, or in modesty after boastfulness, then his soul is at peace.
All this is due to the awareness that frees the heart from idle sleep and lights up the places of the Garden ahead of him – as when a man cried out:
O soul, watch out! Help me with your striving
in the darkness of the nights,
so that on the Day of Resurrection
you will win a good life on those heights!
He recognized, by the light of this awakening, what he had been created for, and what he would encounter, from the moment he died to the moment he entered the abode that lasts for ever (i.e. Garden of the Fire). He realised how swiftly this world passes, and how unreliable it is for its children, and how it destroys whoever loves it. So he arose in this light, full of determination and said:
“Ah, woe is me, that I was forgetful of Allâh!” (39:56)
So he sets out on a fresh start in his life, making up for what he missed and bringing back to life what had died. Now he faces the pitfalls that he encountered before head-on, and seizes the moment with his newly discovered capacity, which, when it passed him by before, caused him to miss all good.
The he realises, in the light of this awakening and in the light of Allâh’s gifts to him, that he is incapable of measuring and counting Allâh’s blessings, or of repaying his debt. With this realisation, he recognises his shortcomings and faults, his wrong actions and all the bad things he has done, all of his disobedience and the neglect of so many rights and duties. His self is broken and his body is humbled and he approaches Allâh with his head down. He recognises Allâh’s generosity and sees his own misdeeds and faults both at the same time.
He also sees, in the light of this awakening, how precious his time is, and how important it is. He realises that it is capital of his future well-being which must not be wasted, and he becomes so thrifty with it that he only spends it in actions and deeds which bring him nearer Allâh – for wasting time is the seed of failure and regret, and being careful with it is the root of success and joy.
These then, are the consequences of being aware and what increase it. These are the first steps of the soul at peace on its journey to Allâh and the âkhirah.
The Reproachful Self
It has been said that this kind of self is the one which cannot rest in any one state. It often changes and alters, remembers and forgets, submits and evades, loves and hates, rejoices and becomes sad, accepts and rejects, obeys and rebels.
It has also been said that it is the self of the believer. Al Hasan al-Basrî said, “You always see the believer reproaching himself and saying things like: ‘Did I want this? Why did I do that? Was this better than that?’”
It has also been said that the self blames itself on the Day of Resurrection: every one blames himself for his actions, either for his bad deeds, if he was one who had many wrong actions, or for his short comings, if he was one who did good deeds.
Imâm Ibn al-Qayyim says that all of this is accurate
There are two types of reproachful self: one that is blameworthy and one that is not blameworthy. The blameworthy self is the ignorant, disobedient self that Allâh and His angels blame. The self that is not blameworthy is the self that blames its owner for his own shortcomings in obeying Allâh, in spite of all his efforts in that direction. This self is not really blameworthy.
The most praiseworthy selves are the ones that blame themselves because of their shortcomings in obeying Allâh. This is the self that endures criticism from others in its quest to please Him, so that no one can find fault with it as regards his worship of Him. This one has escaped being blamed by Allâh.
As for the self which accepts its actions as they are, without criticism, and which does not have to endure the criticisms of others – which means that it cannot be being sincerely obedient to Allâh – this is the self that Allâh blames.
The Self that Urges Evil
This is the self that bring punishment on itself. By its very nature it directs its owner towards every wrong action. No one can be rid of its evil without help from Allâh. As Allâh says of the wife of al-Azîz, in the story of Yûsuf:
“And I do not say that my self is free from blame: surely the self urges evil, unless my Lord is Merciful; surely my Lord is Forgiving, Compassionate.” (12:53)
Allâh also says:
“And has it not been for the grace of Allâh and His Mercy on you, not one of you would ever have been pure; but Allâh purifies whomsoever He wishes, and Allâh is Hearing, Knowing.” (24:21)
We have been taught the dû‘a, “All praise is for Allâh, we praise Him and seek His help and His pardon. We seek refuge in Him from the evil in our selves and from the evil of our deeds.”
Evil lies hiding in the self, and it is this that leads it on to do wrong. If Allâh were to leave the servant alone with his self, the servant would be destroyed between its evil and the evil that it craves; but if Allâh grants him success and help, then he will survive. We seek refuge in Allâh the Almighty, both from the evil of our selves and from our the evil of our deeds.
So the self is a single entity, although its state may change: from the self that urges evil, an-nafs al-ammârah, to the reproachful self, al-nafs al-lawwâmah, to the self at peace, an-nafs al-mutma’innah, which is the final aim of perfection.
The self at peace has an angel to help it, who assists and guides it. The angel casts good into the self, so that it desires what is good and is aware of the excellence of good actions. The angel also keeps the self away from wrong actions and shows it the ugliness of bad deeds. All in all, whatever is for Allâh and by Him, always comes from the soul which is at peace.
The self which urges evil has shaytân as its ally. He promises it great rewards and gains, but casts falsehood into it. He invites it and entices it to do evil. He leads it on with hope after hope and presents falsehood to it in a form that it will accept and admire.
The nafs al-mutma’inna, the self at peace, and its angel require the following: unwavering belief in Allâh, the One, without any partner; moral excellence; good behaviour towards Allâh, and parents, and companions, and so on; fear of Allâh; total reliance on Allâh; turning in repentance to Allâh; relating all things to Allâh; drawing near to Allâh; curbing expectations; and being prepared for death and what follows it.
Shaytân and his helpers, on the other hand, require the nafs al-ammârah, the self that urges evil – the opposite of all this.
The most difficult challenge to the self at peace is to free itself from the influence of shaytân and the nafs al-lawwâma, the reproachful self; and if the struggle is won, then it becomes nafs al-mutma’inna. If even one good action were to be accepted by Allâh, one would have success by virtue of it, but shaytân and the nafs al-ammârah refuse to urge the self to do even one such deed.
Some of those who were give knowledge by Allâh and of their own selves have said, “If I could know for certain that even one of my actions had been accepted by Allâh, then I would be happier at the arrival of death than the much travelled wayfarer is at the sight of his family.” Abdullâh ibn ‘Umar said, “If I could know for certain that Allâh had accepted even one of my prostrations, there would be no long lost friend dearer to me than death itself.”
The nafs al-ammâra urges evil and openly opposes the nafs al-mutma’inna. Whenever the latter presents a good deed, the former presents an evil deed in return. The nafs al-ammârah tells the nafs al-mutma’innah that jihâd is nothing more than suicide, a widowed wife, orphaned children, and wasted wealth. It tries to convince the nafs al-mutma’innah that zakât and sadaqah are nothing less than an unnecessary expense and a burden, a hole in your pocket, which will lead you to depend on others, so that you too will then be like the poor.
Bringing the Self to Account
When the self that urges evil overwhelms the heart of a believer, the only remedy is to bring it to account and then disregard it. Imâm Ahmad has related on the authority of Umar ibn al-Khattâb, may Allâh be pleased with him, that the Prophet, may Allâh bless him and grant him peace, said, “The intelligent person is the one who brings his self to account and acts in preparation for what lies beyond his death; and the foolish person is the one who abandons himself to his desires and cravings and expects Allâh to fulfil his futile wishes.”
Imâm Ahmad also related that Umar ibn al-Khattâb, may Allâh be pleased with him, said, “Judge your selves before yourselves are judged; and weigh your selves in balance before you yourselves are weighed in the balance. When you are brought into account tomorrow, it will be much easier for you if you have already brought your selves to account today – so do so, before you come to the Final Gathering for:
‘On that Day you will be exposed – whatever you have hidden will no longer be hidden.’ (69:18)”
Al-Hasan said, “A believer is responsible for his self, and he brings it to account in order to please Allâh. Judgement will be lighter on the Day of Judgement for the people who brought their selves to account in this life, but it will be severe for the people who did not prepare for it by bringing their selves to account beforehand.”
A believer is distracted by something that he likes, so he says to it: “By Allâh, I like you and I need you, but there is no means by which I can have you, so you have been kept from me.” When whatever it is, is out of his sight and beyond his reach, then he returns to his senses and says, “I did not really want this! What made me preoccupied with it? By Allâh, I shall never concern myself with it again!”
The believers are a people who have been prevented through the Qur’ân from indulging in the pleasures of this world; it comes between them and what might destroy them. The believer is like a prisoner in this world, who tries to free himself from its shackles and fetters, placing his trust in nothing in it, until the day he meets his Creator. He knows full well that he is accountable for everything that he hears, sees and says, and for everything that he does with his body.
Mâlik ibn Dinâr said, “May Allâh grant mercy to a servant who says to his self, ‘Aren’t you such and such? Didn’t you do such and such?’ Then he rebukes it and puts it in its place, and disciplines it and restrains it in accordance with the Book of Allâh, Mighty and Glorious is He, and becomes its guide and master.”
It is undoubtedly the responsibility of anyone who believes in Allâh and the Day of Judgement, and who wishes to keep his affairs in order, to make sure that he brings self to account. He must control what it does and what it does not do, even its most insignificant activities, for each and every breath you take during your life-time is precious. It can be used to acquire one of the treasures which ensure a state of bliss that is everlasting. Whoever wastes it, or uses it to acquire things which may cause his destruction, will suffer great losses, which are only allowed to happen by the most ignorant, foolish and reckless of people. The true extent of such losses will only become apparent on the Day of Judgement. Allâh, Exalted is He, says:
“On the Day when every soul will be confronted with all the good that it has done and all the evil that it has done, it will wish that there were a great distant between it and its evil.” (3:30)
There are two ways of bringing the self to account: one precedes action, the other follows it.
The first way is the decision that is made when a believer hesitates before acting. This is the moment of evaluation before intention is formed. He does not proceed until he is sure that it is good and sound. If it is not, then he abandons it.
Al-Hasan, may Allâh be pleased with him, said, “May Allâh grant mercy to a servant who hesitates at the point of evaluation, and then if he sees that the action is for Allâh, he carries on with it, but if he sees that it is for something other than Allâh, then he holds back from completing it.”
This has been explained as meaning that when the self first feels like doing something or other, and the servant begins by considering its worth, he first stops and thinks to himself, “Can I do this?" If the answer is no, he will not undertake the action. If it is yes, he will again stop and ask himself, “Is it better for me to do it than not to do it?" If the answer is no, he will abandon it and not attempt it and not attempt to do it, but if the answer is yes, he will then pause for a third time, and ask himself, “Is this action motivated by the desire to seek Allâh’s pleasure and reward, or is it in order to acquire power, admiration, or money?”
If it is the latter that has prompted the idea of action, he will not undertake it, even if it would result in his acquiring those worldly gains which prompted the idea of the action in the first place – for otherwise this would result in his self becoming accustomed to associating others with Allâh, and it would make acting for the sake of something or someone other than Allâh easier for it, and the easier it is to do things for other than Him, the harder it becomes to do things that are intended for His pleasure.
If it is the former that has prompted the idea of the action, he stops yet again and asks himself, “Will I receive help in doing this? Do I have any companions who will help me and come to my assistance if I need their help in undertaking this action?” If he finds that he has no allies to help him, he will hold back from going through with this action, just as the Prophet held back from waging the jihâd against the Makkans until he had enough allies and sufficient forces to ensure success.
If he finds that there is assistance on which he can rely in undertaking the proposed action, the at last he should start doing it, and he will succeed, by the will of Allâh. Failure can only occur if one of these safeguards is lacking, for when they are all combined together they guarantee success. These are the four steps that a servant needs to take in bringing his self to account before he does anything.
The second way is that of bringing the self to account after an action. There are three categories of this:
First, bringing the self to account for an act of obedience in which what is due to Allâh has not been completely fulfilled or done in the best possible way. There are six things that are due to Allâh in acts of obedience:
Sincerity in doing it, devoting it to Allâh only, following the example of the Prophet , paying attention to doing it well, recognising Allâh’s blessings in it, and, after all this, being aware of your own shortcomings in how you do it. A person brings his self to account, but has he given all these prerequisites their due attention and effort? Did he fulfill them in his act of obedience?
Second, bringing the self to account for any action which would have been better left undone than done.
Third, bringing the self to account as to whether or not the intention in undertaking a permitted action was to seek the pleasure of Allâh, Exalted is He, and success in the âkhira, thereby guaranteeing success – or was it in fact to seek the fleeting gains of this life, thereby losing what could have otherwise been gained?
The last thing a person could do is to be inattentive and neglectful in bringing his self to account, by starting out without any preparation, and by treating matters lightly and just muddling along. This will only bring about his ruin. This is the destiny of the people who are arrogant.
Such a one turns a blind eye to the consequences of acting like this and relies on Allâh’s forgiveness. He neglects bringing his self to account and does not contemplate the outcome of his behaviour. If he does not do this, then he easily falls into wrong actions, until he becomes accustomed to them, and then finds it difficult to pull himself away from them.
All in all, the believer should first bring his self to account as regards the obligatory acts of worship. If he finds himself lacking is these, then he should hasten to rectify his situation, either by catching situation, either by catching up with the worship he has neglected, or by correcting whatever he may have been
Next, he should bring his self to account with regards acts which are forbidden. If he finds that he has done any of them, he must quickly turn in repentance, seek Allâh’s forgiveness, and do good deeds in order to eradicate the bad deeds which have been recorded in his record.
Next, he should bring his self to account as regards those matters in which he has been negligent. If he finds that he has been negligent in doing what he was created for, he should hasten to the remembrance of Allâh and drawing near Him with an open heart.
Next, he should bring his self to account for the words he has spoken, for the steps his feet have taken, for the things his hands have grasped, and for what his ears have listened to. He should ask himself, “What did I want this for? What did I do that for? Whom did I do this for? Why did I do it like that?”
He should know that every action and every word are accounted for in two books, one is entitled, “For whom did I do it?", and the other, “How well did I do it?" The first question is concerned with sincerity, and the second is concerned with the action itself. Allâh, the Exalted, says:
“That He may question the truthful about their truthfulness.” (33:8)
If the truthful ones are going to be asked about their truthfulness, and will be judged in accordance with how truthful they were, what do you imagine will be the case with people of falsehood?
The Merits of Bringing the Soul to Account
First, identifying the faults of the self. Whoever does not recognise his faults cannot possibly get rid of them. Yûnus ibn Ubaid said, “I know about a hundred of attributes of goodness and yet I cannot find even one of them in my self.”
Muhammad ibn Wasî said, “If wrong actions produced flatulence, no one would have been able to sit in my company.”
Imâm Ahmad wrote that Abû’d-Dardâ’ said, “No man gains full understanding and knowledge unless he detests all the people who are not close to Allâh, and then turns his attention to his own self and detests it even more.”
Second, knowing what rights are due to Allâh. This is important because it makes the servant detest his self and frees him from arrogance and being self-satisfied with his actions. This opens the doors of submission and humility for him, and results in purification of the soul at the hands of his Lord. He despairs for his self and believes firmly that his survival will not be achieved without the forgiveness, generosity and mercy of Allâh. It is His right to be constantly obeyed, remembered and thanked.
 Muslim, Kitâb al-Imân, 2/153; related on the authority of Abû Huraira, who said, “Some of the companions of the Prophet, may Allâh bless him and grant him peace, came to him and said, ‘We have found something in our hearts which we are proud to speak about.’ He asked them, ‘Have you really found it?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ Then he said, ‘That is true faith.’”
 Sahîh hadîth, Abû Dâ’wûd, Kitâb an-Nikâh, 6/153; Ibn Mâjah, Kitâb an-Nikâh, 1/609.
 Da’îf, at-Tirmidhî, Kitâb Sifat al-Qiyyâmah, 7/155; al-Hâkim, al-Mustadrak, Kitâb al-Imân, 1/57.
 Ahmad, Kitâb az-Zuhud, 7/156; al-Baghawî, Sharh as-Sunnah, 14/309; Abû Na’îm, al-Hilyâ, 1152.
 See Ibn Kathîr, al-Bidâya wa’n-Nihâya, 9/272; Abû Na’îm, al-Hilyâ, 2/157
 This saying is supported by a sahîh hadîth transmitted by Muslim, Kitâb al-Imân, 2/18, on the authority of Abû Huraira, who said that the Prophet, may Allâh bless him and grant him peace, said, “Let whoever believes in Allâh and the Last Day either speak good or keep silent; and let whoever believes in Allâh and the Last Day be generous to his neighbour; and let whoever believes in Allâh and the Last Day be generous to his guest.”