The Quranic Concept Of Self (Dr. Manzoor-ul-Haque)

The term «self» is in closer correspondence with the Qur’anic term, «nafs» than any of the terms which have come into vogue so far. The Qur’an has used this word 255 times – NAFSUN 61 times and in other forms like ANFUSKUM 49 times, NAFSENE 40 times and NAFASUN 14 times. It has numerous meanings. Tajul Uroos writes that this word is used normally to denote the total personality of a person. It also means intellect, knowledge and mind. (Taj: Ibn-i-Faris). It is used for a person as well. It is further used to express greatness, superiority, courage, resolution, and punishment. It also means close relative, brotherly (Taj and Lis’anul Arab). It is also used in the meaning of blood, ‘NIF’ASN’ which pours out after the birth of a child (Taj). NAFASUN also means, ‘breath’ and its plural is AN-FASUN, Ibn-i-Faris says that its basic meanings are light and soft air. It also means a nice thing, which attracts a person.

The Qur’an has also used this word for a specific thing called, “Human Personality” or «Self». It has been used as a special term in the Qur’anic concept of Life which, in fact, is the base of Deen-ul-Islam. It doesn’t extinct with the body’s death. If it is developed, it can flourish in this life and survive even after death. Therefore, it needs to be nourished to enable it to develop according to the evolutionary process. This nourishment has to be according to the laws given from time to time by Allah to mankind through His Anbiya and now are fully contained in the Qur’an. It, therefore, is clear, that if one believes in «SELF» and its growth, one has to believe in Allah, His revelation «WAHI», the NUBU-WAT and life after death.

The following characteristics of the self found in the Qur’an enable to form an adequate idea of the self, a just estimate of its capabilities and a constructive motive-valence for the process of learning:

  1. The self partakes of Reality and consequently enjoys permanence and stability. It retains its identity throughout its career. The trials, which it undergoes and the influences to which it is exposed, change it without transforming it into something different from itself. It starts its career in an undeveloped form but equipped with immense potentialities. It may or may not actualize these potentialities but it never ceases to be itself. It isn’t a passive material, which is moulded by external forces; it is essentially active & dynamic. Its typical activity is «DINI» activity in the highest sense of the term, viz., the development and actualizing of its basic characteristics, & thereby «drawing closer» to the Most Perfect Self, God, Whose attributes serve as an objective standard for the human self, and thus tasting the joy of proximity of Him. Death doesn’t terminate the activity of theself; it is but an episode in its career.
  2. The self, as conceived in the Qur’an, is free. Freedom is an inalienable property of the self. Although it operates in the sphere of nature, its activity flows from its own nature and isn’t determined by natural causes. Dr. Rhine, in his book, New World of the Mind, corroborates this view with the remarks: «There is something operative in the man that transcends the laws of matter.»Of course, the self doesn’t enjoy absolute and unlimited freedom. Its freedom is circumscribed by the conditions under which it lives. The world of fact checks & restrains its activities in various ways and in various degrees. The self chafes under these restraints. It flourishes only in an atmosphere of freedom. In a highly regimented society, its sphere of action may be subjected to increasing shrinkage. Such a society discourages all kinds of self-expression and curbs liberty of action. Under these conditions, the selfbegins to languish. It can regain its vitality only by regaining its freedom. The self burgeons, blossoms and fructifies in lofty thoughts and noble actions only in an atmosphere of freedom. Freedom is the essence of the self and cannot be extinguished under external compulsion. The self, however, feels cramped and frustrated in a regimented and totalitarian society, or an «other-directed conformism». The state, whose power has increased enormously in recent times, poses a serious threat to the integrity of the self. It has been sturdily and relentlessly encroaching on the domain of self. The individual’s freedom has been seriously curtailed by the modern state, armed as it is with scientific techniques of suggestion, propaganda and brainwashing. The government can now influence the individual’s mind to a degree, which was undreamed of in the past. It can control not only man’s overt actions but his inner thoughts as well.
  3. It is because the self is free that it functions as a moral agent. Duties and obligations have no meaning for a being, which is completely determined. If the self were not free, it would be insensitive to the demands of “ought” and would respond only to the demands of «must». Its sense of responsibility springs from its sense of freedom; it is capable of leading a moral life only because it is free. The view implies that the self has a real choice of freedom. It can choose any one of the alternative courses of action open to it, and responsibility for its choice rests squarely on it.
  4. The self, as viewed by the Qur’an isn’t static. It possesses infinite capacity for development. With its own efforts based on the line of permanent values, it rises to higher and higher plans of existence. The Qur’an says: «Verily We will raise you to higher and higher levels.» (84-19). The self fulfils itself by developing and actualizing its potentialities. With death, man doesn’t cease to exist but passes onto a higher plan of existence. The Qur’an has prescribed «din», or the way of life, which enables man to achieve the higher level. When man is elevated to the higher level, he feels as if the gate of Heaven has been thrown open to him. On the other hand when he falls to a lower level he feels that he has been flung into Hell.
  5. The Qur’an opens a vast vista of development to man. No term has been set to his progress. Man’s destiny is marked out of him in symbols. To understand the symbols, true insight is needed. When a glimpse of higher level is caught, the symbol, which represents it, becomes intelligible. It is futile to discuss a symbol when we’ve no inkling of the stage to which it refers. The Qur’an, when studied intelligently, provides us with the insight to understand the true meanings of these symbols.
  6. The self has the capacity for value- experience. It is sensitive to the higher qualities of its experience and appreciates their value. Value-experience is non-existent at the sub-human level. It becomes possible only when the self has emerged. Value-experience may be of a lower or higher order. The higher in the scale an experience is, the more satisfying it is found to be. When the self is fit to rise to a higher plan, it craves for a value-experience higher than that with which it had been content hitherto. An experience of high value enriches and elevates the self.
  7. The self develops mainly through its own efforts. It rises or falls through its moral or immoral actions. The Qur’an says: «The self (NAFS) owns only that which it earns» (74:38), and it changes: through what it assimilates, good or bad. The self is subject to the law of requital. It’s a’mal-ul-hasalah enhance its worth and a’mal-us sayyi’ah degrade it. God never does wrong to the self. The Qur’an is explicit on this point. If the self is degraded, it is its own doing. External forces cannot touch the self and God never deals with it unjustly. So the self is affected by nothing except the results of its own actions. Suffering is the fruit of a’mal-us-sayyi’ah.
  8. The self partakes of Reality and mirrors the Divine attributes, «I breathed My Rooh-Divine Energy – into him (man), say the Qur’an (15:29) The Nabi said: “Cultivate in yourselves those qualities that reflect the Divine attributes”. By cultivating those qualities, the self develops and draws, so to say, closer to God. Through a’mal-us sayyi’ah, it gets further away from God and Reality. A’mal-ul-hasanah strengthen the self and a’mal-us-sayyi’ah weaken it. The distance between God & human self is increased by the latter and is decreased by the former, which cultivate Divine qualities. This is the teaching of the Qur’an. The self becomes more and more real as it develops into itself the attributes of God, and more and more unreal as it does recede from Him. The Divine attributes serve as an objective model after which man can strive to fashion himself.
  9.     (Source: Dr. Manzoor-ul-Haque: The Quran’s Concept of Self Integration, Slamming New Intrusions, Old Obsessions, Islamic University Quarterly Academic Journal, July – September 1994, Vol. (1) No (3), Published by International Colleges of Islamic Science, London)

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