1. First way that the word nafs is used, is to indicate our own-self. Some people would translate it in English as self, some people would translate it in English as soul. An example of this is when Allah Almighty says in the Quran:
وَاذْكُرْ رَبَّكَ فِي نَفْسِكَ And remember your Rabb inside your-self [7:205]
2. The second way the nafs has been used in the Quran, which is quite frequent, is that the nafs is referring to a specific part of our self and it is that part of our self that has desires, appetite, some people call it ego. It has anger, it has passion, it has lust, desire, it has all these things. Some people may even call it the carnal self or the carnal soul. This nafs is not part of the Ruh, its part of the physical human being. So if we wanted to say that we have some physical part of our creation, that is our body and our nafs and then Allah Almighty has also put inside of ourselves an inner or spiritual part of our creation, that is our ruh. This nafs is part of our physical self, even though its not part of our physical body.
Three adjectives have been used in the Nobel Quran to describe three different types of nafs.
1. The first is NAFS-UL-AMMARAH.
إِنَّ النَّفْسَ لَأَمَّارَةٌ بِالسُّوءِ
Indeed the nafs that overwhelmingly commands a person to do sin.[12:53]
So this refers to that nafs, that is ruling over the self. This means that the nafs commands us and tells us what to do. So when the nafs has any desire, any wish, any appetite, it simply commands us, it dominates us. It is that nafs which is sovereign over a human being, it has sovereignty over us. What it means is that the nafs is sovereign over us, if it is Ammarah, it means we are subjugated by it, we are sub-ordinate to it, we listen and follow all of its dictates and commands. So this is the first type of nafs and the sign that a person has this type of nafs is that they sin willingly, blatantly, remorselessly, in any way that they ever want.
And if we think about it, in many places in the west, this concept is actually glorified because people say ”you should do whatever makes you happy, do whatever pleases you, do whatever your heart desires”. They may glamorize that by saying that it’s the heart but actually there are many people, whether in east or west, even muslims now, that are doing what our passion desires. So that means that we have a nafs-ul-ammarah.
2. Second type of nafs is known as NAFS-UL-LAWWAMAH.
Lawwamah, lawwam, it’s the same type of word as ammar and Allah Almighty has mentioned this in Quran:
وَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِالنَّفْسِ اللَّوَّامَةِ [75:2]
Lawwam here means to self incriminate, to self reproach, to have blame, to do mulamat of oneself. So, this is that nafs that does sometimes bring a person to do sin, but then that nafs self incriminates itself, it reproaches itself, it feels bad, it feels guilty. And then this guilt is supposed to increase so much so then the person leaves those sins because they feel so guilty about them. So, the sign of this is precisely that the person has such a nafs that when they commit a sin they feel remorse, regret, they feel guilt, they feel shame, they feel embarrassment, they wish they could take it back, they wish they never did it, they may even intend at that moment never to do that again. So, they are fighting a battle with their nafs. Sometimes they make sin and sometimes they are able to stay away from sin.
3. The third way this word has been used in the Quran-e-Kareem is NAFS-UL-MUTMAINNAH.
يَا أَيَّتُهَا النَّفْسُ الْمُطْمَئِنَّةُ ارْجِعِي إِلَى رَبِّكِ رَاضِيَةً مَرْضِيَّةً
To the righteous it will be said “oh reassured soul, return to your Lord well pleased, and pleasing to Him” [89:27-28]
So, Allah Almighty addresses the mutma’innafs. And mutma’in here means two things.
a) Number one is that they are mutma’in, they are content with the hukm of Allah Almighty, there is nothing else that makes them happy. So, this person is also doing what makes them happy. But this person has been molded and trained and disciplined it in such a way, that the only thing that makes it happy, that gives it solace, the only thing that it ismutma’in on, that it is content with, is what Allah Almighty is please with, what Allah Almighty is content with. So, it’s heart’s content lies in that which Allah Almighty is happy and pleased with.
b) Second meaning of mutma’in is that has reached a state of serenity. The serene, contented, tranquility, at peace nafs. And obviously, the peace here means that it has aman, itminan from doing sin and also aman and itminan from desiring sin. It has no unlawful desires. It has desires, that is what the nafs does, but it only desires good things. The sign of this is exactly what we just mentioned that this person, not only do they not do sin, they no longer desire sin. That faculty, that part of their humanity that desires, only and only desires things that Allah Almighty views as desirable and has stopped desiring those things that Allah Almighty has labeled as undesirable.