Nafs (pl. Anfus or Nufus) is an Arabic word and lexically means the soul, the psyche, the ego, self, life, person, heart or mind. The Quranic concept of 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’. There is a saying attributed to the Prophet ﷺ. "Man 'arafa nafsahu fa-qad 'arafa rabbahu", i.e. “the one who knows his nafs (soul or self), knows his Lord".  Knowledge of the self, knowledge of your own soul thus leads to knowledge of the Lord.
The Three Stages of Nafs
The Quran delineates three levels or characteristics of the Nafs. Each of these levels of the Nafs represents a phase change within the human being.
Nafs al-Ammara (The Commanding Soul)
In the first stage, one struggles against the commanding soul or Nafs al-Ammara. This is the commanding soul - but it is not one which commands but rather it is a self which is commanded by a host of impulses and desires.
Nafs al-Ammara is the level at which most of us exist and is the tendency in man to disobey God, and to take pleasure in evil deed and thought. By its very nature it directs its owner towards every wrong action. No one can get rid of its evil without the help from Allah. Allah refers to this Nafs in the story of the wife of al-Aziz (Zulaikha) and Prophet Yusuf (as):
Allah also says in the Quran:
The struggle to overcome Nafs al-Ammara involves the purifying of the body, tongue, mind and heart.
- The body is purified by keeping it free from dirt, by preserving its members from harm and by not indulging in sexual license.
- The tongue must be purified by restraining it from backbiting, malicious gossip and vain talk, or from using it to alter the truth.
- The mind must be purified by abstaining from suspicion, plotting and thinking ill of others.
- The heart must be purified by keeping it free from lust, jealousy, greed, selfishness, hatred and pride.
- In this stage, man constantly examines the motives of his likes and dislikes.
Imam Baghawi (ra) says regarding the Nafs al-Ammara:
The Nafs al-Ammara has Shaytan as its ally. He promises it great rewards and gains, but casts falsehood into it. He invites it and entices the soul to do evil. He leads it on with hope after hope and presents falsehood to the soul in a form that it will accept and admire.
Nafs al-Lawwama (The Self-Accusing Soul)
This is the level at which an inner struggle is taking place within the self. It is the Nafs al-Lawwama which reproaches man for his evil deeds and impels him to acts of mercy and generosity. At this stage we feel a sense of guilt for the acts we committed while inclined towards evil. We become aware of a higher, deeper reality and our conscience is aware of the wrong doing we bestow upon ourselves. We begin to understand that worshiping the body, the nature around us, falling into acts of pride, envy, and malice is not what benefits us. Allah refers to this stage of the Nafs:
Ibn al-Qayyim says regarding Nafs al-Lawwama:
It has been said that the Nafs al-Lawwama is the one, which cannot rest in any one state. It often changes, remembers and forgets, submits and evades, loves and hates, rejoices and become sad, accepts and rejects, obeys and rebels. Nafs al-Lawwama is also the Nafs of the believer….It has also been mentioned that the Nafs blames itself on the Day of Qiyamah - for every one blames himself for his actions, either his bad deeds, if he was one who had many wrong actions, or for his shortcomings, if he was one who did good deeds. All of this is accurate.
Nafs al-Mutma’inna (The Soul at Peace)
Allah refers to this stage of the Nafs in the Quran:
In this stage, man develops the tendency to obey God and to act in perfect harmony with His commandments. Here the soul is reconciled with all other stations of the path, such as poverty, patience, gratitude and trust in God. Here the soul finds perfect satisfaction in being governed by the heart, the Divine spark in man.
In this stage, man is filled with love, mercy, kindness, and a burning zeal to help others. In order to reach this high station, man must constantly strive to control his ego, to curb his anger and impatience. He must eat less, sleep less, talk less, and deny himself the pleasure of other people's company. Sometimes he withdraws completely from the worldly activities and occupies himself entirely with the remembrance of God and meditation.
It is the soul of the believer, made calm by what Allah has promised. Its owner is at rest and content with his knowledge of Allah's Names and Attributes, and with what He has said about Himself and His Messenger ﷺ, and with what He has said about what awaits the soul after death: about the departure of the soul, the life in the Barzakh, and the events of the Day of Qiyamah which will follow. So much so that a believer such as this can almost see them with his own eyes. So he submits to the will of Allah and surrenders to Him contentedly, never dissatisfied or complaining, and with his faith never wavering. He does not rejoice at his gains, nor do his afflictions make him despair - for he knows that they were decreed long before they happened to him, even before he was created….
Imam Baghawi (ra) says regarding the Nafs al-Mutma'inna:
The Nafs al-Mutma`inna has an angel to help it, who assists and guides it. The angel casts good into the Nafs so that it desires what is good and is aware of the excellence of good actions. The angel also keeps the self away from wrong action and shows it the ugliness of bad deeds. All in all, whatever is for Allah and by him, always comes from the soul which is at peace.