Nafs and Ruh
The Self and the Soul
A reflection from Surah al Zumar (Chapter of The Throngs)
“He created you from a single soul then from it its mate,” says Allah in the Qur'an.
This word soul is interesting. Soul is from the Old English sawol, meaning the spiritual and emotional part of a person, animate existence, or life, living being. The Arabic word used by Allah is nafs which could also be translated as self or ego. Self means your consciousness of your own identity while ego, in a metaphysics sense, means the self or that which feels, acts, or thinks. There is obviously some overlap here in the words soul and self/ego.
Elsewhere, Allah says, “Then He fashioned him, and breathed into him of His Spirit...”
The word standing in for ruh here is spirit which comes from the Latin spiritus meaning a breathing (respiration, and of the wind), breath or breath of a god. Spirit, then, would be the most accurate translation for ruh as it has the same meaning Allah indicated in this verse.
Nafs, however, is harder to pin down. The nafs is spoken of by Allah and commented on by the scholars as being something that can be refined, something that goes through developmental stages. Hence, it would seem that self might be more appropriate as it refers to being conscious of our own identity, more specifically, being conscious of our separation from God which is the essential suffering we experience in this world as indicated by some scholars. Ego could be a close second had it not the Freudian and common usage baggage attached to it. The nafs starts its path as being child-like, but has the potential to develop, moving past that essential suffering, into something that is reconnected to its Lord, content with its Lord, and its Lord content with it.
Allah says, “O thou self at peace! Return unto thy Lord, content, contenting...”
A final note and something that requires more research, the word nafs is feminine. Traditionally, the scholars have interpreted the verse I started with as referring to Adam, peace be upon him, understandably and far beyond me to question. I can't help wonder though. The word being feminine might indicate that it doesn't refer to Adam, as he was definitely masculine, and maybe refers to some other primordial creation. I know that the gender of words in languages such as Arabic don't always correspond to the object they signify, but they often do.
And Allah, Glory to Him and Most High is He, knows best.