In Surat Ash-Shams, Allah swears by the nafs [here translated “soul” but better understood as “self”] saying {By the soul [nafs] and He Who proportioned it, and inspired it its wickedness and its righteousness; he has succeeded who purifies it, and he has failed who instills it (with corruption)}. (Ash-Shams: 7-9).

The above Qur’anic verses signify the following:

1. Allah swears by the nafs, and this is an indication of the serious role that the nafs plays in the life of man. According to the verses, Allah has created the nafs and inspired it with what is right and what is wrong. This means that every nafs could know what is right and what is wrong. Every nafs could drive and lead man to the truth if it is good and purified.

The nafs is of three kinds:

a. Ammarah or evil-inciting, which is prone to evil, and, if not checked and controlled, will lead to perdition. This kind of nafs in stated in Surat Yusuf: {Yet, I do not absolve myself (of blame): it (human) soul [nafs] certainly incites evil, unless my Lord do bestow His mercy: but surely my Lord is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful} (Yusuf: 53).

b. Lawwamah or self-reproaching, which is conscious of evil and resists it, asks for Allah’s grace and pardon after repentance, and tries to amend. It hopes to reach salvation. This kind of nafs is stated in Surat Al-Qiyamah, where Allah says: {I do swear by the Resurrection Day, and I do swear by the self-reproaching soul [nafs]} (Al-Qiyamah: 1-2).

c. Mutma’inah or reassured. This is the highest kind of nafs, which achieves full rest and satisfaction. This is referred to in Surat Al-Fajr: {O reassured soul [nafs], return to your Lord, well-pleased and pleasing (to Him), and enter among My servants and enter My paradise} (Al-Fajr: 27-30).

2. {He has succeeded who purifies it} This verse guides the Muslims to the way of success both in this world and the world to come. Success depends on purification of the nafs. The important question, then, is how can a Muslim purify and refine his or her nafs in order to succeed?

Tazkiyat an-nafs (purification of the nafs) is the basis for development and improvement of the personality. It is a long, proactive, and uphill task. It is not an easy esoteric rite or overnight formula. Misunderstanding of tazkiyah manifests when people look for quick methods of becoming better. Some may visit graves of the righteous; some may repeat certain supplications a given number of times. Yet others subject themselves to physical suffering in the hope that this will lead to spiritual purity. All of these are forms of escapism from facing the real challenges of tazkiyah.

3. {And he has failed who instills it (with corruption).}The last point to be reflected on is the causes of failure both in this world and in the Hereafter. The corruption of one’s self (nafs) is the result of following the ways of Satan, violating the rules of Shari`ah, and following vain desires.

Tazkiyah Is by Allah

{Allah purifies whom He wants} (An-Nisaa’: 49). All human effort towards tazkiyah should always be accompanied by supplication for Allah’s support, without which human effort will bear no fruit. On the other hand, it is wrong for a human to make no effort and passively expect Allah’s help. Humans must play their role before expecting Allah’s help.

Human Efforts Toward Tazkiyah

The human can do a lot to refine the nafs. The Qur’an talks about humans who purified themselves and about human efforts toward refinement (Fatir:18). Humans have been described by the Qur’an as clean (Maryam:19). Some human self-refinement (tazkiyah) involves maintaining correct and firm `aqeedah (belief), observing the acts of worship, avoiding the forbidden, reflecting on the creation, developing a good character and good behavior, and avoiding bad behavior.

By Wa’il `Abdel-Mut`aal Shihab