A few days ago, I was having a discussion with my friend, also a psychologist about the concept of nafs. I asked him to elaborate on terms like psyche, nafs, soul, spirit and mind, but he couldn’t give a satisfactory answer; maybe because our educational system has failed to inculcate in the students the trait of critically looking at things. However, we cannot put the whole blame of this situation solely on our educational system. Everybody, especially a student of psychology, is linked with these terms, and most of the people want to – and they should – know these terms.
Nafs and psyche are two different names for the same thing, but scientists and religious scholars slightly differ on their interpretations. The word “psychology” is translated as “Nafsiyat” in Urdu because it is a subject which deals with the psyche, or in other words Nafs. According to the modern concept, psyche consists of consciousness, unconsciousness and mind.
Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis, believed that psyche structured into three parts: id, ego and superego. ‘Id’ is an unconscious part of our personality that motivates us to seek pleasure and get our basic needs and wants met without considering norms and the real world. Unfulfilled wants lead to anxiety or tension; for example, a hungry baby keeps on crying until she is fed.
The other extreme side of the psyche is superego. A major portion of the superego is unconscious, and unlike id, its remaining portion is conscious. It deals with norms, rules and ethics of society and inhibits desires of the id. For example, if a government servant has opportunity to accept bribe and despite knowing that he will never be caught, he doesn’t accept it. He does so because he knows that it’s morally bad. So, it is superego of the psyche that inhibits a person from doing something wrong by informing that it is morally bad.
Between these two extremes of the psyche, there is a third component: ‘ego’. Almost half part of the ego is conscious and remaining is unconscious. The ego is like a reality that satisfies our demands while keeping in front the norms of society. For example, if a boy wants to eat his friend’s cake but knows that his friend will not like it if he does so without permission, so he asks for permission. So, it is ego of the psyche which satisfied his want ethically.
Theologically, psyche is called ‘Nafs’ which is its translation. Allah Almighty says in the Holy Quran, “Every nafs shall have a taste of death…” (Surah Aal-e-Imran, Verse 185). We all know that when a person dies, his body remains on earth (in grave), and his soul (Rooh) moves to the heavens. Then, what did die? It’s his psyche (nafs) which is the connector of soul and body.
There are three main components of Nafs: first is the abetting Nafs or Nafs al-Ammarah. It leads to sin, hypocrisy and wicked behaviour. Second is self-blaming Nafs or Nafs al-Luwwamah. If a person commits a sin, Nafs al-Luwwamah makes the person feel that what he has done was wrong (a feeling of remorse). The third component is the Nafs at peace or Nafs al-Mutmainnah. When a person doesn’t commit any sin and is serene, he has a Nafs al-Mutmainnah.
After psyche and nafs, next term to describe is “soul”. Soul or Rooh is an immaterial essence which gives life to the body. Plato described soul as immortal and stressed on the process of reincarnation. According to him, just like a person sleeps and then wakes up, the process of reincarnation is almost same; the soul of a person after his death is transferred to a newborn child, and this cycle continues. But, with the passage of time, the population on earth keeps on rising. It is sufficient to prove that new souls are sent on the earth, and there are not a few souls who are being infused in different bodies – reincarnation. From Islamic viewpoint, soul is immortal, and there is no concept of reincarnation in Islamic philosophy. Avicenna described that as the consequence of soul’s nature, it is immortal. On the day of the Resurrection, Allah Almighty will send souls either to heaven or hell as reward or punishment. So, even though a person dies, his soul remains alive.
Now let’s find what spirit actually is. Spirit is a theological concept. The spirit is what leads to spirituality. The word “spirit” is found hundreds of times in the Old and New Testaments. According to the Bible, spirit is the element in humans and it gives us the ability to have an intimate relationship with God. So, spirit is the aspect of humanity that connects with God. According to Islamic philosophy, the more the spirit of a person is healthy, the more he will be religious. Human beings possess soul and spirit, but animals only possess soul and do not have spirit. In the Holy Quran the “Holy Spirit” refers to the angel Gabriel (Jibrael AS) as it is mentioned in Surah Al-Maidah, verse 110: “[The Day] when Allah will say, “O Jesus, Son of Mary, remember My favour upon you and upon your mother when I supported you with the Pure Spirit …”
The last term to define is ‘mind’.
The mind is about consciousness, intelligence, memory, thinking and cognitive abilities. Brain is the physical part of the body and mind is the function of the brain. According to dualism, mind and brain are two different entities, but mind controls the body; the body can also influence the otherwise rational mind. French philosopher René Descartes, who was himself a famous dualist, argued about the mind (non-physical) as a separate entity from the body (physical). Besides dualists, monists also believe that the process of the mind is the function of the brain and the mind cannot be separated from the brain. So, both schools of thought agree that our cognitive abilities and mental process are called mind.
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