An Islamic Model of the Heart & Soul

I’ve been thinking about a model of the heart and soul for awhile, and as I learn I develop my understanding. Here’s where my current understanding is, subject to change as my knowledge grows and I ponder things, insha’Allah. Anything written here could very well be wrong.

Qalb, Nafs, Waswasah, and Ruh

The qalb, or heart, refers to the spiritual organ from which our intentions originate. It does not necessarily include the piece of flesh in our chests that pumps blood, though it may include this in a spiritual way.

The nafs is the lower self. It may call us to our base desires: food, drink, pleasure, entertainment, etc. There’s three main stages:

  1. the nafs that commands to evil (النفس الأمارة) and base instincts. In Surat Yusuf, nabi Yusuf ﷺ says: “Yet I claim not that my nafs was innocent: Verily the nafs incites to evil.” (Quran 12:53) The prophet ﷺ described in a hadith that the jihad al-akbar is struggling against the nafs (‘Ali al-Qari, al-Asrar al-marfu`a (Beirut 1985 ed.) p. 127 source).
  2. The self-accusing nafs (النفس اللوامة). The conscience is awakened and the self accuses one for listening to one’s ego. One repents and asks for forgiveness. Here the nafs is inspired by your heart, sees the results of your actions, agrees with your brain, sees your weaknesses, and aspires to perfection.
  3. The nafs at peace (النفس المطمئنة) as mentioned in surat al-Fajr. The soul is firm in one’s faith and leaves bad manners behind, and may Allah ﷻ grant this to us amin. One relieves himself of all materialism and worldly problems and is contented with the Will of Allah ﷻ.

One way we gain control of our nafs is by silencing it through samt.

In imam Nawawi’s (رحمه الله) 40 hadith collection, number 27 uses this same word as the nafs at peace:

الْبِرُّ مَا اطْمَأَنَّتْ إلَيْهِ النَّفْسُ، وَاطْمَأَنَّ إلَيْهِ الْقَلْبُ، وَالْإِثْمُ مَا حَاكَ فِي النَّفْسِ وَتَرَدَّدَ فِي الصَّدْرِ
“…Righteousness is that about which the soul (nafs) feels at ease and the heart feels tranquil (اطْمَأَنَّ). And wrongdoing is that which wavers in the soul and causes uneasiness in the breast…”

When both the nafs and qalb are in itmi’naan, which has several meanings: ease, calm, serene, peace of mind, composure, reassurance, confidence, trust. From my own reflections, and Allah ta’ala knows best, it sounds like when your nafs and qalb are in full submission to Allah ta’ala and fully trust Him in whatever He decrees. The heart is now quieted from the lower suggestions and now it’s truly listening–to the higher suggestions (detailed below).

Wrongdoing wavers the nafs and causes uneasiness in the chest (sadr). It’s interesting how the chest is used here rather than the heart–which is where waswasah is injected. It’s up to you to let it take root in the heart or evict it. If wrongdoing gets us further from Allah ta’ala and righteousness (birr) brings us closer to Him, then we may surmise that they have effects on our hearts as well. Wrongdoing puts the heart to work and piety gives it ease. This can kick the nafs at peace back to a self-accusing nafs. So birr brings us closer to the nafs at peace and ithm (sin) causes us to backslide into self-accusation and perhaps even the nafs that commands to evil.

In the Qur’an 13:28 we have an ayah with the same word as well:

ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ وَتَطْمَئِنُّ قُلُوبُهُم بِذِكْرِ ٱللَّهِ ۗ أَلَا بِذِكْرِ ٱللَّهِ تَطْمَئِنُّ ٱلْقُلُوبُ
“Such are the ones who believe (in the message of the Prophet) and whose hearts find rest in the remembrance of Allah. Surely in Allah’s remembrance do hearts find rest (تَطْمَئِنُّ).”

There are higher levels of the nafs than this, but these three are the basics.

Waswasah, as we know, are the whisperings of the shayatin. A way to differ between wasawasah and nafs is that the nafs is more of a slow, suffocating desire. Waswasah is weird and sudden, like a strange thought out of nowhere. The key is don’t play with the thought, move on and think of something else. Notice as well how waswasah only enters the sudur, the chests, of men, not necessarily the heart. The goal, it seems, is to influence the qalb with it, which comes from your own volition and thus, the result is your own responsibility on qiyama.

The ruh is your pure spirit. From here is the secret conversation with our Lord, once we silence our foolish nafs through samt. When we silence our nafs, the doorway to our ruh opens up. It is the part of the soul where God’s imprint resides within the fitrah, unchanging and pure.

The Four Sources of Suggestions

There are four sources of suggestions to your qalb (heart):

  1. Allah ﷻ: khawatir al-Haqq (خواطر الحف). Suggestions of reality, of God The Real.
  2. The angels. This is ilhaam (إلهام), inspiration.
  3. Your psyche. Hawajis (هواجس). The thoughts that occur to you which do not come from Shaytan, but you yourself. They are usually no good, as they are embedded in self-interest. That’s what your nafs wants.
  4. Shaytan. Waswaas (وسواس). They never have any benefit. They may not always be evil, but it will always be devoid of benefit. It contains no good. Often, it will be evil, but not always. It’s trying to get you to do things that are of no benefit to you, if not harmful to yourself and/or others.

When there is no role for waswaas and hawajis, then everything such a wali does and says is based on knowledge of the Shari’a and aqida, informed by inspiration from the angels and khawatir al-Haqq, these overpowering suggestions that come from God Himself. And can you go wrong with that? No. Believe, then, in these people, and submit yourself to them. Because you will not go wrong. And do not be veiled by their bashariyyah.

والله أعلم


Further Reading & Sources:

Toward a Framework for Islamic Psychology and Psychotherapy: An Islamic Model of the Soul

NAWAWI ON JIHAD AL-NAFS [FIGHTING THE EGO]

The Path to Spiritual Excellence

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