What is Meant by the Word Nafs in the Qur-aan?

The word nafs is frequently used in the Qur-aan to refer to a person as a whole – a single entity. Some people think that it means “soul” as opposed to the “body”. That is not correct/accurate. This confusion is created and reinforced by many translators rendering  “nafs” into English as “soul”, though their use of soul is also, in fact, its idiomatic use for a person, rather than a soul exclusive of body, just as it is used in English phrases such as honest soul, poor soul, etc., for individuals. If we look at all the uses of this word and its derivatives in the Qur-aan, we find the following:

  1. Nafs as a singular word has been used to mean a person or an individual. It is also used to function as the English word “one” that is used for a person in pronominal combinations such as “no one”, “everyone”, “anyone”, “someone” and “oneself”. In total, its use for a “person” or “one” has occurred67 times in singular, and six times in plural.
  2. Nafs has been used 207 times to mean “self” (meaning: a person referred to with respect to complete individuality) as in the following pronouns:   

    Nafsi – myself (12 times),
    Nafsuhu – himself (37 times),
    Nafsahaa – herself (2 times),
    Nafsik – yourself (for the Prophet) (9 times),
    Anfusikum – yourselves (47 times),
    Anfusuhum and Anfusihinna – themselves (95 times) and
    Anfusanaa – ourselves (3 times).

  3. “In one’s nafs” meaning “within oneself” --  mentally or in one’s mind;  and use of nafs for “mind” or “mental state” or “psyche” of a person:

    Jesus (AS) acknowledging to Allaah, “You know what is in my mind (Fi nafsi)…” – 5:116
    Remembering Allaah mentally – 7:205
    A concern in Jacob’s (AS) mind (nafs)  – 12:68
    Keeping one’s thoughts to oneself – 12:77
    Allaah knows what is in your minds (nufoosikum) – 17:25
    A person’s mind justifying his bad behaviour for himself – 5:30; 12:18; 12:83; 20:96
    Mind (nafs) suggesting/whispering – 50:16
    Used for instincts (nafs gives rise to instinctive lusts and desires) – 12:53
    Used for a person’s self-reproaching conscience (An-nafsul-lawwaamah) – 75:2

  4. Nafs used for persons’ physical being:

    People (Anfus) would have to endure hardships without the availability of the animals of burden as a means of transportation – 16:7
    Muslims who are dedicated to the Islamic movement are tested through a variety of sufferings including death or injuries to their persons (Anfus) from the opponents – 2:155

  5. Nafs’ (person’s) subjection to death or killing:

    “Everyone (every Nafs) is going to taste death” 3:185 or “Do not kill a person (Nafs)…” 6:151
    Other examples: 2:72; 3:145; 5:32; 17:33; 18:74; 20:40; 25:68; 28:19, 33; and 29:57.

    If “Nafs” means soul, how can a soul die or be murdered? The fact is that it is not the “soul” but the “person” who dies or is killed, and “Nafs” is used to refer to that person.
  6. Nafs meaning “soul”:
    According to some Mufussireen, verse 81:7 means “when souls that were separated from bodies at death are re-joined with bodies on the Day of Resurrection”. However, the resurrection is described in the Qur-aan as a seamless single process, not resurrection of the body and then coupling of the soul with it. Also, “Zuwwijat” implies coming together of two independent living entities (like husband and wife), not those where one cannot live independent of the other. Thus, the verse means “When people (the persons) will be grouped according to their deeds on the Day of Judgment”, as described in Soorah Al-Waqi‘ah.

From this analysis, it becomes evident that “Nafs” is consistently used for a “person” as a single entity, not at all for the “soul”, separate from the “body”.



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