The Philosophical Concept of Psyche in Islam in Light of Quran and Hadith – by Asma Parveen and Iftekhar Ahmed, Professors at Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh

Note: Asma Parveen and Dr Iftekhar Ahmed are professors in the Department of Psychology, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh (India). Additionally Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed is a professor in the Department of Political Science, N.R.E.C College, Ch. Charan Singh University, Khurja, Bulandshahar, Uttar Pradesh (INDIA)

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Asma Parveen, Department of Psychology, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh (INDIA)- 202002.



The Muslim scholars down the ages since the inception of the Quran have grappled with the concept of psyche or illm-al nafs and have contributed copiously in understanding the mind and behavior of human beings. The early Muslim scholars may seem to rely heavily on the Greek and Hellenistic concept of self. Nevertheless, when seen in the glare of Quran and Hadith, the whole idea of nafs gleamed and gelled with a light of knowledge unique to it, and at the same time ushered in a well developed science of psychology. In short, what was gleaned from magnum opus of Muslim scholars paved the way and worked as a precursor to modern concept of psyche. What is interesting, however, is that a lot of what the Muslim scholars wrote was blended with Islamic philosophy and religious ideas, wherein the term nafs (self or soul) was used to denote individual personality and the term fitrah for human nature. Even the Quranic verses and Hadith of prophet of islam uses the word Nafs to encompass a broad range of topics like – the Soul, the Qulb (heart), the Ruh (spirit), the aql (intellect) and irada (will). The author examines the concept of psyche from the Homeric, the pre-Platonic, the Platonic, the Aristotalian point of view in general and its metamorphosis during the Islamic golden age from 8th- 15th centuries in particular through the prism of Quranic verses and Hadith. The author found that although the concept of psyche did arise under the umbrella of philosophy which had in its fold almost all areas of human enquiry, it charted a definite and set course for the concept to come of its own in the exacting environ of modern western milieu.


The ‘Psyche’ refers to the forces in an individual that influence thought, behavior and personality. The word has its source in ancient Greek and refers to the concept of the self, encompassing within it the modern concept of soul, self, and mind. The Greeks believed that the soul or ‘psyche’ was responsible for behaviour (Rohde, 1972, ch.1&7). The inner nature of human psyche- is a major theme of the Quran, and the Quran uses its own terminology while speaking about it. During the recitation of the Quran, one comes across terms like nafs, qalb, ruh etc, and it is quite problematic to assert that their connotations correspond exactly to the locution ‘psyche’ as used in the classical literature as well as in modern psychological discipline. To examine the concept of psyche, we shall start off by making an in depth exploration into the usage, meanings and conceptual import of the word ‘psyche’ in different periods of time and clime.

Homer on ‘Psyche’

In the encyclopedia of philosophy, Professor G.B.Kerferd writes that the word psyche, in Homer, first means life and later means a departed life or Ghost. The difference in interpretation boils down to two basic types-

(1) The Homer self is dualistic; (2) The Homer self is multiple. According to the first, the different ‘soul-words’ i.e- thymos, nous, menos, phrenes, ker, ethor or kardie, psyche- fall under two comprehensive categories. Rhode opted for the duality of the visible man (the body and its functions) and psyche (“the otherself”, the double of the self etc.) (Rohde,1972, pp.4-10). Some other thinkers distinguished between body and soul, endowing the body with life and consciousness and the free soul representing the individual. The free soul is ‘psyche’ in Homer; it is active during unconsciousness. The body souls (thymos, nous, menos) are active during waking life.

Advocates of second, the ‘multiple soul’ view claim that the Homeric self is fragmented according to the different soul words employed to grasp different aspects of the field we unifyingly call the ‘mental’.

The self is the open field of internal and external forces that determine behavior. In Homer we witness the immediate flux and fusion of feelings, thoughts, and gestures, inner and outer worlds. Homeric self, however, seems untenable in the light of the following: Homeric heroes had no difficulty saying, “I wish” or “I thought”, therefore they must have had a sense of a psychic whole, a psychic coherence implied by the use of the personal pronoun (Lloyed, 1971, p.9; Dover, 1974, p.151). Achilles urges: ‘But let us allow these things to be over and done with, having subdued our thymos in our chest1 (Lombardo, 1977; Adkins, p.22). In this situation it is the whole personality expressed by the personal pronoun that inhibits impulses. However, Homeric hero is instigated by his thymos or nous or feet and hands2 instead of by a representative core of personality that would hold all “thoughts” and feelings under purview. Further, the given-ness of motivating factor is manifest in the intervention of gods3 (Rieu, 1991). Yet this “divine meddling” does not absolve the hero from being responsible for his actions (Kirk., Raven., Schofield., 1983, p.9).

The departed life or afterlife in Homer is a miserable state in comparison with life “here under the sun”4.  In the afterlife the psyche lacks, ‘flesh, bones and sinews.” It has the power of motion but it is devoid of purpose; it has a voice, but only that of a squeaking; it is smoke-like, filmy, vaporous in nature. Some psyches still possess “consciousness” and are effected by emotions; but most souls have lost ‘consciousness’, ‘memory’, etc. They live on in an unsubstantial reflection of their life: Orion still pursues his quarry, Achilles is still the lord of the dead, Minos still pronounces judgment. The gloomy view of after-life state is due to the inseparability of life, body, and person in Homer. Life is inseparable from the body. Existence is primarily physical or bodily existence. The person reduced to a ‘permanent core’ that would represent him. If we ask, if the living body or its counterfeit, the psyche, is the ‘real’ man, we find an inconsistent view in Homer5 (Rohde, p.6). The body is contrasted, as the ‘man himself’ with the psyche; in other passages it is the psyche, hastening to hades, which is referred to by the person’s proper name. The disembodied psyche is still capable of ‘feeling’, ‘sensation’ etc. as long as the body is unburnt. The idea of life after death for Homer is continued existence rather than the immortality of an immaterial core of the person (Rohde, pp.54-79). Immortality in the Homeric sense is not the immortality of a ‘soul’ capable of surviving the body’s death, but the translation of the whole person into a new mode of existence shared with gods, the whole person continues living in a new existence6 (Rohde, p.56).

‘Psyche’ in Pre-Socrates

The concept of psyche in pre-Socrates like Pythagoras, Leucippus, Democritus, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras and Diogenes of Apollonia etc. failed to be conceived as soul which is immaterial or incorporeal agent. Even Pythagoras, a renowned advocate of the body, resorted occasionally to materialist images of the soul. According to one fragment Pythagoras envisioned the soul as made up of small particles that we see dancing in the air in sunlight (Utjai, 1986, p.14). Besides this, these thinkers depict the soul of the ‘individual’ as being essentially connected with a larger, cosmic order or element outside. They present us with a uniquely ‘open self-construct’, this self is not self-contained, rounded up within the confines of a body but it is constantly under the influence of elements (either, fire or air) from outside. Thus, in the pre-Socratics we witness a process of unifying man’s perceptual-cognitive-emotive acts in a more coherent concept of psyche.

Socrates on ‘Psyche’

The earliest full identification of psyche with the rational as well as with the emotional side of personality has been attributed to Socrates. Here the idea of psyche is taken as a unified core of behavior, a representative of the entirety of the person after death, and an antagonist of the body. Socrates has no difficulty in grasping the soul as an incorporeal agent. He does not need the body any more to save the wholeness of the human being. Socrates/Plato presents a coherent picture of the soul and a clear cut dualism of body and soul; nevertheless, regarding nature of soul and its relation to the body we find some difficulties and even inconsistencies. Socrates/Plato identifies the real self with the soul imprisoned in the body7. In the introductory paragraphs of the Phaedo, Socrates is trying to sooth his disciples by claiming that the real task of the philosopher is to get ready for death, i.e., the separation or liberation of soul from the body. The Phaedo suggests that passions, emotions, desires are attributes of the body, and they are in opposition with aspirations of the soul. On this very question, we find inconsistent accounts in Socrates/Plato.

As opposed to the clear-cut soul-body dualism and intellectualism view of the soul given in the Phaedo, Socrates locates the sources of affective elements like emotions, desires, passions within the soul in The Republic 435a-444e, 589b2, The Sophist228b, Timaeus44,70 and in the famous chariot analogy of the Phaidrus. Vlastos points out that the very same quotation from Homer taken by Socrates of the Phaedo to depict the struggle between the body and the soul, reappears in the Republic as an illustration of a struggle within the soul itself8 (Vlastos, ed., 1971). The chariot analogy of the Phaidrus describes the inner conflict of the soul after its separation from the body.

Plato on ‘Psyche’

The first identification of soul in the sense of the conscious self is found perhaps in Ionia. Plato’s argument seems to be a clear-cut two component of the human person. Body and soul or psyche is two distinct, ontologically disparate, things or entities. The self, soul or mind in his view is something distinct from a gross material and observable body. In one sense it was considered as the principle of life, defined as what makes living things alive. The Greek word for ‘alive’ like the equivalent Latin word ‘animatus’ and its English derivative ‘animate’, is etymologically the same as ‘ensouled’. Plato, presumably following Socrates, both identified the soul with the person who reasons, decides, and acts, and assumed that this person or soul is not the familiar creature of flesh and blood but rather the incorporeal occupant and director of, even prisoner in, the corporeal being. Plato contends that souls, like commonsense persons, are substances; and, second, for various reasons-including the fact that it is the principle of life- the soul must be immortal. The technical term ‘substance’ is here defined as something that can be said to have a significantly separate existence. If souls are not in this sense substance, then it makes no sense at all to suggest that they might survive the dissolution of their bodies.

According to Plato it is the presence and activity of a substantial soul which is responsible for bringing about all the various phenomena of life and mental activity. And he begins by defining death in a way that plainly seems to presuppose a two-component conception of the person: Being dead is this: the body having come to be apart, separated from the soul, alone by itself, and the soul’s being apart, alone by itself, separated from the body.

Aristotle on ‘Psyche’

Aristotle does a very systematic elaboration of the concept of psyche in ‘De Anima’. The unity of the human self is a central doctrine in Aristotle. The human being is the organic union of body and soul. ‘The soul…is the primary act of a physical body capable of life’ (translated by Foster & Humphries, 1965). The soul is the substantial form of the body. His concept of soul is not intellect (nous poetikos) nor is it

restricted to the realm of mental operations. Soul, as the first actuality of the body, was also the principle of life, nutrition, reproduction and locomotion. Aristotle’s soul concept is amazingly liberal and incomparably less anthropocentric than Descartes9 (Sorabji, 1994). However, Aristotle introduces the concept of the agent intellect (nous poetikos) as an immortal, immaterial element of the soul.(De Anima, book iii , chapter v,430a10-430a25); This intellect is described as ‘separable, uncompounded and incapable of being acted on’. Also it “alone is immortal and perpetual. It does not remember, because it is impassible”. Etienne Gilson expresses his appreciation of Aristotle’s attempt to identify a principle in the workings of the psyche that could guarantee that our soul was more than just the substantial form of the body (Gilson, 1940, p.177).

Concept of ‘Psyche’ in Islam

The Philosophical concept of psyche in Islam was not an alien plant that was uprooted from some alien land and implanted in Islamic soil but it was, in fact, a continuation of Hellenic outpourings. The separate Greek word translated as ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ later became English ‘psyche’ which is also the root in psychology, psychosomatic, psycho-physical etc. The word ‘Psyche’ is translated in Arabic as ‘Nafs’, ‘Qulb’, ‘Ruh’ according to the context.  The philosophical concept of psyche in Islam cannot be comprehended without the over-archaical understanding of Hellenic concept of psyche or soul, as Islamic philosophy is intimately connected with Greek philosophy. Theoretical questions such as the concept of psyche in Islam and others were raised right from the beginning of Islam; these questions could be answered to a certain extent by reference to Islamic texts such as the Quran, the traditional sayings of the prophet and his companions. The Islamic philosophy propounded by stalwarts’ like-al-Kindi, al-Farabi, ibn -Sina, ibn-Rushd mainly and al-Ghazali, imam Razi, Mulla Sadar later concretized the concept of psyche in the light of the Quran, on the foundation of which the westerns built the edifice of the modern concept.

For the most part the Muslim philosophers agreed as did their Greek predecessors that the soul consists of non-rational and rational parts. The non-rational part they divided into the plant and animal souls, the rational part they divided into the practical and theoretical intellects. All believed that the non-rational part is linked essentially to the body, but some considered the rational part as separate from the body by nature and others that all the parts of the soul are by nature material. The philosophers agreed that, while the soul is in the body, its non-rational part is to manage the body, its practical intellect is to manage worldly affairs, including those of the body, and its theoretical intellect is to know the eternal aspects of the universe. They thought that the ultimate end or happiness of the soul depends on its ability to separate itself from the demands of the body and to focus on grasping the eternal aspects of the universe. All believed that the non-rational soul comes into being and unavoidably perishes. Some, like al -Farabi, believed that the rational soul may or may not survive eternally; others, like ibn-Sina, believed that it has no beginning and no end; still as ibn-Rushd believed that the soul with all its individual parts comes into existence and is eventually destroyed.

Al Kindi on ‘Psyche’

Amongst the luminaries of Islamic philosophers, al-Kindi occupies honored place as the philosopher of the Arabs, who worked as a bridge between the Greek philosophers and Islamic philosophers. He gained insight into the thought of Greek philosophers’ esp. Aristotle through the translation movement. He is notable for developing a vocabulary for philosophical thought in Arabic. Al-Kindi believed that the soul is a simple, immaterial substance, which is related to the material world only because of its faculties which operate through the physical body. Al-Kindi abhors the idea of attachment to material things as these material things will invariably be taken away by death. He explained in his best known treatise in metaphysical study, Fi al-Falsafa al-ula (on first philosophy) that death is the soul’s taking leave of the body but the intellect continues. Perhaps the soul is primarily the locus of the intellect (mind, psyche). He reiterated the idea that human must choose the world of the intellect over the material world (Jolivet, 1971). He then says that our soul can be directed towards the pursuit of desire or the pursuit of intellect; the former will tie it to the body, so that when the body dies, it will also die, but the latter will free it from the body and allow it to survive ‘in the light of the creator’ in a realm of pure intelligence (Adamson & Tayler, 2005, pp.41-42).

Al-Kindi further wrote, ‘our residence in this phenomenal world is transitory; it is a journey towards the eternal one. The most miserable man is he who prefers for himself the material above the spiritual, for the material, apart from its ephemeral nature obstructs our passage to the spiritual world10 (Atiyeh, 1966, p.127). Al -Kindi divides theoretical intellect into the material intellect (al-aql-al-bayulant), the habitual intellect (al-aql bil-malaka), the actual intellect (al-aql bi’l-fib), and the acquired intellect (al-aql al-mustafad). The material intellect is a blank slate with the potentiality for grasping the intelligible forms or universals. The habitual intellect grasps the universals, as one acquires the skill to write; in other words, this intellect has the ability to use the universals but does not always do so. The actual intellect grasps the universals in actuality and is always ready to use them. Acquired intellect is the highest human state, the point of contact with the divine, the agent intellect, which makes it possible for the theoretical intellect to acquire the universals in the purest form. To Al-Kindi, the essence of rational soul is non-material (existing in themselves) thus the soul pre-exists the body, and by virtue of it being by nature simple, it is indestructible. While non-rational soul is destroyed after the destruction of the body. Al-Kindi, like other Islamic philosophers, uses ‘soul’ to refer to the rational soul after it separates from the body and reaches a complete state of purity from matter.

Al Farabi on ‘Psyche / Soul’

To Al Farabi, nafs (psyche) is composed of four faculties:  the appetitive (the desire for, or aversion to an object of sense), the sensitive (the perception by the senses of corporeal substances), the imaginative (the faculty which retains images of sensible objects after they have been perceived, and then separates and combines them for a number of ends), and the rational, which is the faculty of intellection (Leaman & Nasr, 2001, p.184). It is the rational faculty which is unique to humans and distinguishes them from plants and animals, and survives the death of the body. Even though, the soul is of different parts, it is a unity with all its parts working for one final end, happiness. That, each faculty, in spite of serving its own specific function, also serves the powers that are higher than it in rank. i.e. Plant soul which serves animal power, which in return serves the rational power.  The operations of the animal powers, esp. those of senses, are particularly important for the attainment of the final end, because the external senses strip the forms from material objects and convey them to the internal senses. The more they are transferred internally, the less mixed with matter do they become. The highest human state is one in which unity with the universals or the eternal aspects of the universe are reached. This state is described as happiness because in it eternity is attained. Thus, only those rational souls that have knowledge of the eternal aspects of the universe are indestructible at their separation from the body, other souls are eventually destroyed.

Ibn Sina on ‘Psyche’ (Nafs)

Ibn Sina inquires about the soul (nafs) in Al-Shifa (Healing) and asserts that “existence of soul is inferred from the fact that bodies perform certain acts with some degree of will”. These acts are exemplified in taking nourishment, growing, reproducing, moving and perceiving. Since these acts do not belong to the nature of bodies, for this nature is devoid of will, they must belong to a principle they have other than bodies. This principle is what is called “soul” (Rehman, 1959). He also argued that the soul is incorporeal and cannot be destroyed. The soul is an agent with choice in the world between good and evil, which in turn leads to reward or punishment. For Ibn-Sina that soul is incorporeal implies that it must be immortal. The decay and destruction of the body does not affect the soul. The rational soul is aware of its existence without any instrument. Soul is ‘form’ of the body. Body consists of matter and form, which results in perfection of the body. By virtue of the fact that soul is the source of ‘will’, soul is ‘form’ not ‘matter’. It is the degree of perfection of soul which makes it plant, animal or rational being.

There is, according to him, first, plant stage which is primary perfection for an organic natural body. In it body takes nourishment, growth and reproduction. The plant soul is the power human beings and animals share with plants. Second stage is that of animal soul which is a body with a soul of an animal, the soul develops into the animal soul as far as the body has sensation and movement through will. Faculty of sensation has both external and internal senses. External senses are that of—touch, taste, smell, hear and sight. The first three external senses are for survival and last two are for well-being. Ibn-Sina enumerates five internal senses, namely, common sense, representational power, imagination, estimative power and memory. Further, in defining these internal senses, he says, common sense can grasp all external sensations, as commonsense is an internal power that collects all the objects of external senses. The representational power preserves the sensation of the common sense even after the sensible thing disappears. The imagination selects at will, combines and separates objects of representational power. It makes judgment about external things, in their absence, where it works best as in sleep. The estimative power grasps non-sensible notions of sensible things, such as the sheep’s notion that wolf is to be avoided. Memory preserves the notions of the estimative power. The imagination acts in the objects of memory in the same way it acts in those of the representational power.

The power of movement branches into cause of movement and actual movement. The former, the desiderative power subdivides into the appetitive and the irascible. The appetitive causes movement towards it and the irascible causes movement away from harmful or impediment in the pursuit of dominance. The actual movement causes nerves to relax the muscles at the demand of the appetitive power and tighten them at the demand of the irascible one. The third stage is that of rational soul which acts by rational choice and grasp the universals. Practical intellect is like the face of rational soul turned downwards and Theoretical intellect is like the face of rational soul turned upwards. Regarding the ultimate objective of soul, Ibn-Sina takes it to be preparation for the theoretical intellect to receive the universals from the agent intellect. Regarding eternity of the soul, he believed that rational soul is in essence non material and that it pre-exists the body while non-rational soul is destroyed after the destruction of the body, the rational souls are indestructible. Ibn-Sina feels it is in the grasping of the universals that the happiness of the soul lies, not in the eternity of the soul. The fate of the rational soul in the hereafter is determined by its grasp of the intelligibles. When the human intellect grasps these intelligibles it comes into contact with the Active Intellect, a level of being that emanates ultimately from God, and receives a ‘divine effluence’.

Al Ghazali on ‘Psyche’

Al Ghazali was undoubtedly one of the mightiest theologians, philosophers in the history of Islamic thought. In a single stroke of his magnum opus ‘the incoherence of the philosophers’, he swept the Islamic metaphysics influenced by ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophy under the carpet of Islamic philosophy based on cause and effect that was determined by almighty God, a theory known as occasionalism while discussing the concept of the psyche/ self/ nafs and the causes of its misery and happiness, he used four terms in concordance with the Quran. These terms are Qalb (heart), Ruh (spirit), Nafs (soul) and Aql (intellect). Al Ghazali divides the psyche into three categories based on Quran: Nafs Ammarah which ‘exhorts one to freely indulge in gratifying passions and instigating to do evil’. In modern psychology this concept of psyche was identified by Freud with ‘Id’ part of the psyche. Second category is that of Nafs Lawammah which is ‘the conscience that directs man towards right or wrong’, and third category is that of Nafs Mutmainnah which is a self that reaches the ultimate peace. In modern psychology, these two categories are that of ‘ego’ and ‘super ego’.

He further states that the self has an inherent yearning for an ideal, which it strives to realize and it is endowed with qualities to help realize it.’ He compares the self (soul) to that of a King running a kingdom, arguing that the bodily organs are like the artisans and workers, intellect is like a wise vizier, desire is like a wicked servant, and anger is like the police force. He argues that a king can correctly run the state of affairs by turning to the wise vizier, turns away from the wicked servant, and regulating the workers and the police; and in the same way, the soul is balanced if it ‘keeps anger under control and makes the intellect dominate desire.’ To make the soul do exactly that, Al Ghazali suggested various stages through which the soul must evolve. These stages are-Sensuous (like a moth which has no memory), imaginative (lower animal), instinct (higher animal), rational (transcendes animal stage and apprehends objects beyond the scope of his senses) and divine (apprends reality of spiritual things).

Al Ghazali further stated that the self has motor and sensory motives for fulfilling its bodily needs. He wrote that the motor motives comprise of propensities and impulses, and further divided the propensities into two types: appetite and anger. He wrote that appetite urges hunger, thirst and sexual craving, while anger takes the form of rage, indignation and revenge. He further wrote that impulse resides in the muscles, nerves and tissues, and moves the organs to fulfill the propensities (Haque, 2004, pp.357-377). He was one of the first to divide the sensory motives (apprehension) into five external senses ; hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch and five internal senses: common sense (hiss Mushtarik) which synthesizes sensuous impressions carried to the brain while giving meaning to them; imagination (takhayyul) which enables retention of mental images from experience; reflection (tafakkur) which brings together relevant thoughts and associates or dissociates them as it considers fit but has no power to create anything new which is not already present in the mind; recollection (tadhakkur) which remembers the outer form of objects in memory and recollects the meaning and the memory (hafiza) where impressions received through the senses are stored.

He wrote that, external senses find expression through specific organ, while the internal senses are located in different regions of the brain, and discovers that the memory is located in the hinder lobe; imagination is located in the frontal lobe, and reflection in the middle folds of the brain. He stated that these inner senses allow people to predict future situations based on what they learn from past experiences. He writes that self carries two additional qualities, which distinguishes man from animals enabling man to attain spiritual perfection, which are aql (intellect) and irada (will). Human will is conditioned by the intellect while animal will is conditioned by anger and appetite and that “all these powers control and regulate the body”. He further writes that the Qalb (heart) “controls and rules over them.”, and that it has six powers- appetite, anger, impulse, apprehension, intellect and will. He states that humans have all six of these traits, while animals have only three i.e. appetite, anger and impulse. He further argues that there are four elements in human nature: the sage (intellect and reason), the pig (lust and gluttony), the dog (anger) and the devil (brutality). He argues that the latter three elements are in conflict with former element and that ‘different people have such powers in different proportions’.

Ibn Rushd on ‘Psyche’

Like other peripatetic Muslim philosophers Ibn Rushd too believed in non-rational and rational parts of soul. That the rational part is divided into practical and the theoretical intellects, and the non-rational part into plant and animal souls. They believed that the non-rational soul comes into being and unavoidably perishes. Ibn Rushd believed that the soul with all its individual parts comes into existence and is eventually destroyed. In Talkhis Kitab an-nafs (middle commentary on Aristotle’s on the soul), Ibn Rushd asserts that the five external senses may be in potentiality, as in infancy and sleep, or in actuality, as in daily seeing or hearing. Talking about internal senses like common sense, imaginative and memory. Ibn Rushd points out that animals such as worms and flies that do not act except in the presence of sensible things are devoid of imagination. Regarding the eternity of the soul, Ibn Rushd believed unlike others, that rational soul is originally not separate from matter, and hence it did not pre-exists the body. Since rational soul grasps the universals from particular sensibles, and since such sensibles are material and have a temporal beginning, this soul must also be material and must have a temporal beginning.

It can be said, finally, about the four major peripatetic Muslim philosophers that , they asserted that human souls (nafs) are self-subsisting substances which are not impressed upon the bodies, and that death means the severance of their connection with the bodies, when their directive function ceases. First, they argue, the soul exists in itself in any event. And, they assert, this can be known by a rational argument. Secondly, their assertion that the extinction of these souls is impossible; and that once having been produced, they have an everlasting existence whose annihilation is impossible. Thirdly,  their assertion that the return of the souls to the bodies is impossible. Fourthly, that there can not be any departure from the usual course of events. There is a connection between the causes and effects, and it is not possible or feasible to produce cause not followed by effect, or to bring into existence an effect independently of the cause. With this knowledge about psyche and the stand of major Muslim philosophers, it becomes all the more pertinent to take into consideration the light of the Quran and the Hadith.

The Quranic Concept of ‘Psyche’

Talking about psyche (nafs) the Quran says, “O mankind! Reverence your guardian-lord, who created you from a single nafs, created, of like nature, his mate, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women.” Sura.4. Nisaa. Verse. 1 (Ali, 1991, p.178)

“Behold, thy lord said to the angels: I am about to create man from clay:” Sura 38.Sad. Verse.71 (Ali, 1991, p.1232)

“When I have fashioned him (in due proportion) and breathed into him of my spirit, fall ye down in obeisance unto him.” Sura.38.Sad.Verse.72 (Ali, 1991, p.1232)

In these verses, addressing the whole mankind, Allah refers to Himself as guardian lord who created humanity in like nature from a single nafs (soul). The nafs is that essence of very being of a human that makes him what he is. First God creates man from clay- a substance of this earth, of this material world. Then, He breaths His spirit into man, making a mould of clay very high and noble. In fact, demanding obeisance from angles. The spirit is a reality that possesses, in some measure, all the divine attributes. It manifests in some manner, in some measure, the characteristics, attributes or names of God. It is luminous, alive, subtle, unseen, knowing, unified etc. The body on the other hand, being composed of a low type of matter (clay), has a lack of the luminous divine attributes.

Sura.7.Araf. Verse.176 says that it ‘inclines towards the earth, and follows vain desires’ (Ali, 1991, p.395). In this two opposite ends of a spectrum, body – spirit , nafs becomes the meeting point, the mediator which is characterized by opposing characteristics. It is both luminous and dark, high and low. it is mixture of two sides. Quran describes it in Sura.18.Khaf.Verse.60. as “… It is the junction of the two seas…”(Ali, 1991, p.747) The sea of the spirit and the sea of the material world.

In Sura.25.Furqan.Verse.53-54, Quran says “and it is He who has made the two seas to flow freely, the one sweet that sub-dues thirst by its sweetness, and the other salt that burns by its saltiness… and it is He who created man from the water”(Ali, 1991, p.939). The material world is the visible world or the manifest world (the world of the salt sea that burns). The non-manifest world is the unseen world, the world of the spirit (the sweet sea that quenches thirst). And the human nafs is a microcosm containing characteristics of both these worlds, created from the ‘water’ of both of these worlds.

So the nafs is a barzakh, a meeting place where matter (body) and spirit come together. Since the nafs contain both, we should strengthen the luminous or ‘spirit’ aspect of the nafs. Any progress towards spirit is said to be movement towards integration and unity, by virtue of the fact that ‘the spirit is one reality while body has many parts’, thus, any movement towards man’s bodily or clay aspect represents a descent towards dispersion and multiplicity. In Quran it is mentioned at various places that if the spirit aspect dominates, then order and correct proportion will be given to all man’s existence- the body won’t be denied its due, but all things will attain the correct proportion.

Sura.91.Sams.Verse.7-10. says, “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.”(Ali, 1991, p.1743)

The Quranic concept of psyche (nafs) is used mostly to mean human self or person, the human soul. The Quran contains 143 verses that encompass the Arabic word ‘Al-Nafs’. The Quran delineates three levels or characteristics of the nafs (the soul, the self). In Sura 12.Yusuf.Verse.53, the nafs ammara (the commanding soul) is mentioned in following words-

“Nor do I absolve my own self (of blame):  the soul is certainly prone to evil.”(Ali, 1991, p.571)

Nafs- Ammara is the lowest level of development of soul. It is prone to evil, impelling, headstrong, and passionate. It is a conglomeration of wants, desires, impulses, habits, fears, angers, appetites, tendencies and an ego that constructs a self-image then seeks to protect and maintain it anyway it can-even by distorting the true nature of the realities around it. This is the commanding soul – but it is not one which commands but rather it is a self which is commanded by this host of impulses and desires. It wanders distracted or seeks out satisfaction of its wants and justifies its behavior to itself  so that it can continue doing what it does, it tends to trap itself in “safe” (self protective), or habitual, or addictive behaviors. At this stage the person is like a kingdom in chaos where the citizens are habits, desires, fears, moods, impulses, and egoism and all clamor for attention and satisfaction and the self is a slave to them pulled this way and that in response to their demands.

In sure 75. Qiyamat.Verse.2. Nafs- Lawwama (the blaming soul) is mentioned in following following verses-

“And I do call to witness the self-reproaching spirit.”(Ali, 1991, p.1649)

This is the stage of the active jihad- the greater jihad by which the lower self is subdued and the higher potentials within a person are opened up. The person has become aware of a higher, deeper reality and struggles to center their consciousness so that they do not move erratically from impulse to impulse but so that all action and thought is fed through an aware, conscious centre that struggles to manage and control the self. It manifests itself in both inner and outer forms of striving and struggle. The person struggles with turning his inner self and his worldly life towards a new form of living- one that is immersed in a larger, truer vision of the nature of reality- a reality of which the material reality is only a small portion. Here the person begins to realize the truth of the covenant that was made with God before the person’s existence on this earth- and he struggles (performs jihad) in an attempt to make himself true to this covenant, wherein God brings before Himself all the (souls of the) children of Adam who will ever be born and asks them “Am I not your Lord”- and they answer “Yes”. After the acknowledgement of this covenant, they are born into the world at their destined time and place. Sura.7. Araf.Verse.172 (Ali, 1991, p.394).

Sure 89.Fajr.Verse.27, speaks of the third and final level in the development of nafs i.e. the Nafs- Mutmainna (the soul at peace).

“(To the righteous soul will be said): O! (thou) soul Be In (complete) rest and satisfaction!”(Ali, 1991, p.1735)

This the highest level in the development of nafs. The Quran tells us that at this level of nafs, God discloses Himself to man. It says, “soon will we show them our signs on the horizons, and within their own nafs, until it becomes manifest to them this is the truth.” It is said that God manifest Himself in the silence of the soul. And the Quran describes God as “the subtle, the aware, one has to cease talking, and then cultivate an alert but calm attentiveness in order to see deeper than the surface. The people of this level know the great reality behind the world and the endless distractions of this life are seen in their proper perspective- they no longer dominate but yet they are given their proper due.

Elsewhere , where the Quran speaks about the creation of mankind from a single nafs, it calls to witness the ‘people of understanding’, again underlining the importance of the nafs- its crucial and central role as the joining place between the unity of God’s spirit and the multiplicity of the material universe.

Sura 6.An’am.Verae.98, “It is He who hath produced you from a single nafs:  here is a place of sojourn and a place of departure:  we detail our signs for people who understand.”(Ali, 1991, p.317)

Sure 82.Infitar.Verse.7, “Him who created thee, fashioned thee in due proportion and gave thee a just bias.”(Ali, 1991, p.1700)

Nafs is what makes humans human. It unites two disparate worlds in one location and through this makes it possible for man to draw near to God. The nafs is born with the individual and every individual is equipped with good and bad instincts. These instincts are basically those inborn conditions in the nafs which imparts direction to its progress.

Sura 12.Yusuf.Verse.53, “Nor do I absolve my own self (of blame): the (human) soul is certainly prone to evil.”(Ali, 1991, p.571)

Sura 28. Qasas. Verse.16, “He prayed: “O my lord!  I have indeed wronged my soul!”(Ali, 1991, p.1005)

Sura 10.Yunus.Verse.30, “There will every soul prove (the fruits of) the deeds it sent before.”(Ali, 1991, p.492)

Sura 7.A’raf.Verse.160, “(But they rebelled), to us they did no harm but they harmed their own soul”(Ali, 1991, p.390)

Sura 10.Yunus.Verse.23, “O mankind! your insolence is against your own souls”(Ali, 1991, p.490)

Sura 12.Yusuf.Verse.51, “It was I who sought to seduce him from his (true) self.”(Ali, 1991, p.570)

Sura 68.Qalam.Verse.31“Alas for us we have indeed transgressed.”(Ali, 1991, p.1590)

In these verses one can see that there is a pleading of inability by the soul (nafs) to resist such instinctual drive which makes it remain at the lowest level of animal existence. Pleasure seeking and trying to fulfill its instinctual demands. It is “Id” part of the psyche.

Sura 32.Rum.Verse.13, “If We had so willed, We could certainly have brought every soul its true guidance.”(Ali, 1991, p.1095)

Sura 2.Baqara.286,On no soul doth God place a burden greater than it can bear.”(Ali, 1991, p.116)

In these Quranic verses point is made to the fact that the individual nafs can be channeled into another direction. There is presence of developed self in nafs that controls and checks the unmindful demands of lower nafs. This developed self is imbued with understanding to rationalize the demands of lower self. It is considered as largely conscious of logical and has moral standards. It is “ego” part of the psyche.

Sura17.Bani Israil.Verse.14, “Read thine (own) record: Sufficient is thy soul this day to make out an account against thee.’(Ali, 1991, p.694)

Sura 50.Qaf.Verse.17, “Behold! two (guardian angels) appointed to learn (his doings) learn (and note them), one sitting on the right , one on the left. (Ali, 1991, p.1412)

Sura 50.Qaf.Verse.18, “Not a word he utter but there is a sentinel by him ready (to note it). (Ali, 1991, p.1413)

Sura 50.Qaf.Verse.21, “Every soul with each will be an angel to drive and an angel to bear witness.” (Ali, 1991, p.1413)

Sura 86.Tariq.Verse.4,There is no soul but has a protector over it.” (Ali, 1991, p.1719)

In these verses it can be seen which ample clarity in the highest stage of development the nafs is in communion with conscience which is the moral or judicial branch of personality. It is the moral monitor which is responsible for the sense of guilt or sense of peace with one’s whole being. Once soul acts as a supervisor, a witness against its own wrong doings. It is “super ego” part of the psyche.

The human soul / psyche is guided by its own higher level which, at that stage, is protected and guided by the super-consciousness, the God. Because of, this substantial relation of our nafs to God, our knowledge of God in this world is, in large part, predicated upon gaining knowledge of the essence of our own nafs. On the path of the nafs to evolve, it works in three realms at once:  transforming the ego (nafs- ammara)-  ruled by fear and desire with servants such as- ambition, self- importance, selfishness, rationalization, fantasy, delusion, self- righteousness, and aggression- purifying the heart [through the development of presence and remembrance of God (zhikr) ]- and activating spirit. When the nafs (soul) becomes receptive pole of the individual, assimilating what the active pole, spirit, can give. It becomes inspired self (nafs al- mulhama).  At this stage we might no longer describe the nafs as ‘ego’ but a ‘soul’, when the nafs (ego) becomes the active pole, driving the individual with its demands, then we have a human being out of balance. The most disruptive and evil manifestation of the self is known as the commanding self (nafs al- ammara). So in the process of its development, the ego needs the purified heart (qalb) and the spirit (ruh) to guide and inspire it in order that it might truly mature as a peaceful living soul (nafs-a- mutmainna). Put another way, the soul must be in submission to the heart which is guided directly by spirit.

The Quran emphasizes turning the commanding self (nafs-al-ammaara) the compulsive ego into enlightened peaceful soul (nafs-al-Mutmainna) through the continuous presence and remembrance of God (zhikr) in the heart (qulb) which draws the light of spirit into the heart, from where it is distributed to the psyche as a whole. With light and presence in the heart, even the tyrannical demands of the commanding self can be witnessed and transformed, and following stages in ascending order can be reached:

Nafs-i- ammara (the commanding self),

Nafs-i- lawwama (the regretful self),

Nafs-i-mulhama (the inspired self),

Nafs-i- mutmainna (the contented self),

Nafs-i- radiyya (the pleased self),

Nafs-i- mardiyya (the pleasing self),

Nafs-i- safiyya (the pure self).

Hadith on Concept of ‘Psyche’-

Because the purified nafs is a point of God’s self disclosure to man, the prophet (s.a.w) said in a hadith:

He who knows his nafs, knows his lord.” (Muslim)

Beware, in the body there is a flesh; if it is sound, the whole body is sound, and if it is corrupt, the whole body is corrupt, and behold, it is the heart.”(Bukhari & Muslim). (Bukhari, book-2, hadith-49)

It has been narrated that when Usamah killed an infidel who had uttered “there is no God save Allah,” the Holy Prophet disliked his assassination, and when Usamah pleaded that he had said those words out of fear, the prophet said, “Why did you not open up his heart?” This indicates that knowledge and belief concerns the heart. (Nizami press, p.14)

The Holy Prophet used to pray: “O Allah who turns hearts! Keep my heart firm on thy faith! ”

It is in the heart that we glorify Allah. It is the action of heart when we refrain from the unlawful. If the heart is strong, sound, has no weaknesses, and is full of iman (faith), then this would lead us from nafs- ammara to nafs-mutmainna i.e, the heart that is full of love for Allah and glorification of Allah, will refrain from following vain desires of doubtful matters. It is the purity of heart, activation of iman in the heart that makes it fulfil the covenant made to lord and control oneself from digressing the path of spiritual development and makes soul (psyche) the righteous soul. Wherein the God manifests itself. At another place the Prophet (s.a.w) said-

“Righteousness is good character, and sin is that which wavers in your heart and which you do not want people to know about.” (Muslim)

According to Wabisah bin Ma’bad (r.a) who said- I came to the messenger of Allah (s.a.w), and he said; “You have come to ask about righteousness?” yes, I answered. He said, “Consult your heart. Righteousness is that about which the soul feels tranquil and the heat feels tranquil, and sin is what creates restlessness in the soul and moves to and fro in the breast, even though people give you their opinion (in your favour) and continue to do so.” (Ahmed bin Hannbal and Al- Darimi)

These hadiths reveal a significant aspect of Islam that is an internal controlling and guiding system. It is the feeling of the soul with respect to a particular act. The righteous soul will be unhappy and worried about sin and its consequences.


In the final analysis it can be said that the later philosophers followed the tradition of Imam al- Ghazali and emphasized the importance of psychology or the science of the soul (ilm- al-nafs) above and beyond what peripatetic philosophers had accorded to it. More over, the study of psychology was made complementary to the science of the origin of things.  Through out the discussion about the philosophical concept of Islam, an enumeration of the inner faculties of soul is made, which is essentially the same whether made by the peripatetic Muslim authors borrowing it from Aristotle or the later ones. However, there is one point on which the later philosophers departed from the peripatetic completely. It is well known that Aristotle considered only the universal intellect to be immortal and the Muslim peripatetic like Ibn-Sina accorded immortality only to the intellectual part of the human psyche, while later ones asserted that the faculty of imagination also enjoys a form of immortality or at least existence independent of the body. The soul follows a certain course of development in its bodily journey. And, the various faculties discussed and enumerated by Muslim philosophers are not something added to the concept of soul but the soul itself.


1. Homer, The Iliad, 19.65., See also The Iliad, 1.188 where Achilles controls his Thymos.

2. For body parts as instigating factors see The Iliad.1.166. “For Homer the feet, the knees, the hands, the eyes are not simply parts of the body, not instruments or agents charged with an overflowing energy, and single acts are often represented as self-developing processes almost independent of a person’s control: it is then the feet that steps out, the knees that move and carry away, the hands that crave for action, the eyes that look and gaze.”

3. The Iliad.5.177; 5.185; 6.108; 9.495; 11.366; 15.255; 15.290; 15.473; 17.98; 20.98; 24.331; 24.374; 24.538.The Odyssey: 3.131; 3.173; 4.380; 4.469; 4.712; 5.221; 9.142; 10.141; 14.65; 14.227; 16.356; 18.407; 19.488; 21.196; 21.213; 23.63; 24.182

4. The Odyssey. 11.468-499 (Achilles who would rather be a servant on earth than the king of the dead in Hades).

5. In the introductory verses to the Iliad we are told that the heroes’ death-souls go to Hades…whereas they themselves, the writer says, are left behind on the field of battle. Straight after death, therefore, it is not the death-soul but the corpse which has the better claim to be regarded as the man’s self.

6. The translated are not disembodied souls but men “whose souls have not been separated from their visible selves-for only thus can they feel and enjoy the sense of life. The picture…here is the precise opposite of the blessed immortality of the soul in its separate existence.

7. Protagoras ,312c, 313a-314b, 351a-b, Criton, 47d-48a. Phaedo, 65d, 115b-116a. Republic, 469d 6-9, 526a-b, 535b-d.

8. Plato, Phaedo 94d-e, The Republic 441b-c. see Plato- “a collections of critical essays”, vol.ll.

9. Concerning Descartes’, Redefinition of Anima and his separation of life from consciousness

10. See Rasail al-Kindi al-falsafiya, i-280


Adamson,P.(2005) Al-Kindi, In Adamson, P and Taylor.R(2005), The Cambridge Campanion to Arabic Philosophy, Cambridge University  Press. p. 41-42.

Ali, A.Y., (1991) The Holy Quran, Text, Translation and Commentary Kitab Bhavan, Second Reprint, New Delhi.

Aristotle, De Anima, translated Foster, K and Humphries, S., (1965) New Haven and London, Yale University Press

Atiyeh, G.N., (1966) al-kindi, Rawalpindi: Islamic Research Institute. p.127.

Black, D. Al-Farabi, in Leaman, O. and Nasr, H (2001), “History of Islamic Philosophy”, London: Routledge, p.184.

Bukhari, Kitab al-Buyu, Book 2, Hadith-49.

Dover, K.J., (1974) Greek Popular Morality in The Time of Plato and  Aristotle, Oxford, p.151.

Gilson, E., (1940) The Spirit of medieval philosophy, New York, Charles  Scribner’s son, p.177.

Haque,Amber, (2004), “Psychology from Islamic Perspective: contributions of early Muslim Scholars and Challenges to Contemporary Muslim Psychologists”, Journal of Religion and Health 43(4), p. 357- 377.

Jolivet, J.(1971), L’Intellect selon Kindi, Leiden, Brill a classical work extensive commentary and French translation of al-Kindi’s treatise on the intellect.

Kirk, G.S., Raven, J.E and Schofield, M., (1983) The Pre-Socratic  Philosophers, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p.9.

Lelektan Utjai, A., (1986) The Ways of Psychology, Budapest, Akademiai  Kiado, p.14.

Lloyed-Jones, H., (1971) The Justice of Zeus, Berkeley University of California Press, p.9.

Lombardo, S., (1977) translated Homer’s, The Iliad, 19.65 Indianapolis: Hackett publishers, Cf. Adkins, A.W From the many to the one, p.22.

Nizami Press, Mishkat, p. 14

Rahman, F., (1959) (Eds), Avicenna’s de Anima, London, Oxford University Press

Rieu, E.V., (1991) , translated Homer’s, The Odyssey London-New York: Penguin Books

Rohde, E., (1972) “Psyche” The Cult of Souls and Belief in immortality among the Greeks, Freeport, N.Y. Books For Libraries Press, pp. 4-10; pp.54-79

Sorabji, R., (1994) Animal minds and Human morals, Ithaca, Cornell University Press

Vlastos, G., (1971) Notre Dame press

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9 Responses to The Philosophical Concept of Psyche in Islam in Light of Quran and Hadith – by Asma Parveen and Iftekhar Ahmed, Professors at Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh

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