The two Aspects of the Soul
The “soul”, (in Arabic, nafs) as commonly used in the Qur’an, means “ego” or “ one’s personality.”
In the Qur’an, Allah explains the two aspects of soul: the one inspiring evil and wicked deeds, and the other, guarding against every inculcation of evil. As the Qur’an makes it clear in Surat’ Ash-Shams:
By the Soul, and the proportion and order given to it; And its enlightenment as to its wrong and its right; Truly he succeeds that purifies it, and he fails that corrupts it! (Ash-Shams, 7-10)
The information provided in the verses about soul is of great importance: in the creation process of man, Allah inspired wickedness in the human soul. Wickedness, that is ‘fucur’ in Arabic, means “tearing apart the limits of righteousness.” As a religious term it means “committing sin and stirring up rebellion, telling lies, disobedience, transgression, adultery, moral corruption...”
Apart from the wicked side of the soul, from the Surat Ash-Shams we know that Allah also inspired in the soul a conscience i.e. a sense of what is wrong and right for it. In the second part of the ayah we learn that one who sincerely accepts the wickedness of his soul and purifies it by the guidance of the inspiration of Allah, will attain salvation for all eternity. This is indeed a certain and true salvation; earning the approval, mercy and heaven of Allah. Those, on the other hand, who fail to banish the wickedness from their souls will face a fearsome end.
At this point an important conclusion may be drawn: every soul has wickedness in itself; the only way to purify it is to accept it and to observe the limits of Allah by the guidance of Allah.
The difference between believers and unbelievers becomes quite clear at this point. Only Qur’anic teaching provides an inner understanding of the wicked side of the soul and the ways to remedy it. Identifying the evil of the soul and purifying it are characteristic of the true religion and the messengers communicating it.
In the 87th verse of Surat’Al-Baqara, the Jews are addressed as follows: “...Is it that whenever there comes to you a messenger with what you yourselves do not desire, you are puffed up with pride? Some you called impostors, and others you slay!”
As the verse suggests, unbelievers simply surrender themselves to the evil of their souls and thus always challenge the true religion and its messengers. Such individuals fail to save their souls from greed, as explained in the Surat Ash-Shams.
This being so, we may well observe that all unbelievers demonstrate an absolute submission to the evil of their souls. That is to say that they are devoid of understanding. The life they lead is one of instinct life; to all thoughts and behaviours are inspired by the wicked side of the soul. This is also one of the reasons why analogies between unbelievers and animals are made in the Qur’an.
Believers, on the contrary, are conscious of the existence of Allah. They fear Him and thus they take care to observe His limits. They are always guided by the inspiration of Allah. They never surrender to the evil in their soul,they do not cover it, but disclose it and guard against it as Allah inspires. The words of the Prophet Joseph guides believers towards typical righteous conduct: “Nor do I absolve my own self (of blame): the (human) soul is certainly prone to evil, unless my Lord bestows His Mercy: but surely my Lord is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Joseph, 53). Knowing that the soul is always prone to evil, a believer should be ever alert to the misdeeds in which his soul is likely to become involved.
From the foregoing we have a clear understanding of the “evil” side of the soul. However, the soul is also open to the instigation of righteousness, in other words, to the inspiration of Allah. This inspiration makes a person turn to himself and restrain his soul from fulfilling lower desires. This inspiration leading man to righteousness, this faculty of judging between right and wrong is commonly referred to as “conscience.”
Conscience is an infallible compass within the human soul continuously calling man to righteousness. On that account, conscience is, in a way, the whispering voice of Allah. Provided that a person listens to this voice and embraces the basic principles of the Qur’an, he will always proceed in the right way.
As long as the individual follows the voice of his conscience, he will be a model displaying the attributes of Allah in his personality. Allah is infinitely compassionate and merciful; a person submitting himself to Him will also have mercy on others. Allah is infinitely intelligent, so that a believer who serves Him will also be intelligent. The closer he feels to Allah and the more he surrenders himself to Him, the purer he becomes in the presence of Allah:
“Those who have faith and do righteous deeds, they are the best of creatures.” (Al -Bayyina. 7)
The human conscience functions in compliance with all of Allah’s commandments. However the criteria of the conscience given in the Qur’an are quite different from those adhered to by society. Feeding stray dogs or giving charity to a beggar are typical examples reflecting the inherent understanding of conscientiousness in society. The conscience of a believer, on the other hand, demands complete compliance with the commandments and prohibitions of the Qur’an. Furthermore, one comprehends and implements the details of many issues stated in general terms in the Qur’an by the guidance of one’s conscience.
For instance, Allah commands man to spend whatever is in excess of his needs. The individual can determine the extent of his needs only through his soul. one who lacks the sensitivity of conscience, surely fails to arrive at a fair judgment of his needs and cannot comply with the commandments of Allah in the best way possible.
In the course of daily life, a person continuously meets situations which require him to make choices. Only one of these choices, however, best suits the will of Allah. Believers are held responsible for making the right choice; the choice led by the whisper of Allah. This is actually what one initially hears at the moment of making one’s choice, the voice guiding one to the true path. Only then, at the second stage, does the soul come on the scene, diverting one to other unacceptable alternatives. At this stage the soul whispers some excuses to justify the wrongful options. The Qur’an gives a considerable account of these “excuses” in many verses.
Believers should know to cope with these whisperings, simply by showing no interest to them, not listening to them, and going on their way, inspired by conscience. The examples provided by the Qur’an about the conscience should lead man to ponder upon this issue. In the following verse, the case of believers who are deeply grieved at not finding a way to fight is related:
There is no blame on those who are infirm, or ill, or who find no resources to spend (on the cause), if they are sincere (in duty) to Allah and His Messenger: no ground (of complaint) can there be against such as do right: and Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. Nor (is there blame) on those who came to you to be provided with mounts, and when you said, “I can find no mounts for you,” they turned back, their eyes streaming with tears of grief that they had no resources with which to contribute. (Al-Tawba, 91-92)
Fighting against enemies obviously involves danger. One who decides to take part in a war surely risks his life or health. Despite this fact, in the times of our prophet, believers had shown an intense eagerness to fight in the cause of Allah and furthermore, suffered deep grief at not finding a way to fight. This is indeed a striking example of conscience, as explained in the Qur’an.
The evil side of the soul cannot lead a believer astray all of a sudden. Rather, it encourages neglectfulness of the responsibilities he has to fulfill in the cause of Allah. By making excuses, the soul tries to shake one’s commitment to observing the limits of Allah. The influence of the soul becomes more profound wherever one appeases the desires of his soul. The resultant effects of such an approach would be detrimental to his faith. He may even drift into disbelief. Whatever the circumstances, he is obliged to comply with the commandments of Allah, and invariably to curb his selfish desires and whims. Allah addresses His servants thus:
So fear Allah as much as you can; listen and obey and spend in charity for the benefit of your own soul.Those saved from the covetousness of their own souls, they are the ones that achieve prosperity. (Al-Taghabun, 16)
In this verse Allah commands believers to fear Him, obey Him and to listen to His judgements. They are also required to spend for the cause of Allah, since this will save believers from “the covetousness of their own souls” and make them attain real prosperity. Another verse declares:
And for such as had entertained the fear of standing before their Lord’s (tribunal) and had restrained (their) soul from lower desires, their abode will be the Garden. (Al-Naziat, 40-41)
A soul purified of selfish desires, and thus earning the pleasure and the heaven of Allah, is referred to as “the soul in complete rest and satisfaction” in the Qur’an.
(To the righteous soul it will be said:) “O (you) soul, in (complete) rest and satisfaction! Come back to your Lord, well pleased yourself, and well-pleasing to Him! Enter then, among My devotees! You, enter My Heaven ! " (Al-Fajr, 27-30)
Those, on the other hand, who fail to purify their souls and thus attain Hell are full of remorse for what they have done. The remorse felt by the billions of people that have ever lived on earth is horrible to witness. This is an inescapable truth awaiting unbelievers. This is a real day; so real that Allah calls to witness “the self- reproaching spirit” right after the resurrection day:
I call to witness the resurrection day; and I call to witness the self-reproaching spirit.(Al-Qiyama, 1-2)