Nafs:Ego, Self – Personality – How the Quranic concept of nafs contrasts with Freud’s theory of personality development and Nietzsche’s Superman By M. Basheer Ahmed

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In comparison to Freud and Nietzsche, the Quran gives a clear understanding of concept of nafs and its role in developing a person’s character in such a way that it can reach the level of al-nafs al-mutma’inna (the soul at peace).

The Quran uses nafs to indicate our inner self or personality, the seat of our desires, anger, love, passion, and awareness of right and wrong; our consciousness; and the ability to achieve peace and self-satisfaction by controlling our self-centered desires. The Quran proclaims that each individual is responsible for choosing the appropriate behavior based on its guidelines: “O you who have believed, upon you is [responsibility for] yourselves” (5:105).

There are three types of nafsal-nafs al-ammaraal-nafs al-lawwama and al-nafs al-mutma’inna.

The nafs al-ammara is dominated by inner desires, self-satisfaction and immediate gratification — “The human soul is certainly prone to evil” (12:53) — namely, greed, power and dominance without regard for right or wrong, justice or inequity. It seeks the pleasures of this world and embraces such characteristics as self-admiration and self-praise, arrogance and pride, lying, gossip and backbiting, envy and jealousy, criticism, dissatisfaction, selfishness, greed and love of self. Muslims are urged to control such desires by treating others with humility, respect, dignity and similar qualities.

The Prophet (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) once noted this struggle’s importance after returning from a battle, “We now return from the lesser struggle (al-jihad al-asghar) to the greater struggle (al-jihad al-akbar). Ali (radi Allahu ‘anh) said, “The nafs al-ammara is like a wild horse upon which you are riding. If you move your attention for one second, he will throw you off.”

The nafs al-lawwama enables people to be conscious of their own imperfections by blaming themselves for following their insatiable desires and demanding instant gratification. It desires what is good, is aware of the excellence of good actions and keeps the self away from wrong actions and bad deeds: “I swear by the self-reproaching soul” (75:2). Engaging in wrong actions produces guilt, which increases so much that the person begins to correct or avoid such actions so that he//she will stop feeling shame, embarrassment and regret.

At this stage, the person’s conscience is awakened; the self begins to accuse him/her for obeying the id’s commands; and his/her consciousness, rationality and aspirations inspire the nafs al-lawwama to be perfect: “By the One who brought the self to equilibrium inspiring it with its transgression and its consciousness” (7:8). Anas ibn Malik reported: “The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, ‘All of the children of Adam [and Eve] are sinners, and the best sinners are those who repent” (“Sunan al-Tirmidhi,” hadith no. 2499).

The nafs al-mutma’inna is a state of serenity, tranquility and peace, for one has reached the stage where he/she no longer commits wrong actions and bad deeds: “As for you, O content soul, return to your Lord, pleased and pleasing” (89:27-28). Having lived a disciplined life, such people have finally become selfless and humble by abandoning false pride, greed and dominance. Their only desire is to serve humanity for the rest of their life, which should be everyone’s ultimate goal.

As we can see, the Quranic concept of nafs has an extremely modernistic undertone, much like Freud’s and Nietzsche’s Superman (Übermensch).


Freud’s personality development theories

Freud postulated that the personality (human psyche) is structured into three parts — the id, the ego and the superego — all of which develop at different life stages. Humans are born with the id, the primitive and instinctual part of the mind that generates the desire for immediate gratification. The ego is the realistic part that mediates between the id and the superego, and the superego operates as a moral conscience.

These purely psychological concepts, which do not correspond to brain’s structures, constantly interact among themselves. Ultimately, the ego must determine how to meet the id’s needs while upholding social reality and the superego’s moral standards.

The id drives newborns’ behavior, as they are concerned only with meeting their needs, and thus remains infantile. As it is the source of an infant’s bodily needs, wants, desires and impulses, it never considers reality and thus remains illogical, selfish and focused on obtaining pleasure.

The ego engages in secondary process thinking and uses this rational, realistic and problem-solving orientation to satisfy the id’s desires in realistic and socially appropriate ways. In many cases, this can be accomplished by delaying the desired gratification until the appropriate time and place. Freud compared the id to a horse and the ego to its rider. The horse provides the power and motion, while the rider provides the direction and guidance. Without its rider, the horse may simply wander aimlessly. Ali used a similar image to describe the nafs al-ammara.

Freud’s “ego ideal” (“ideal self” includes the rules and standards of good behavior to which one should adhere. If one manages to do so, he/she will eventually experience feelings of pride.

The superego, which consists of the conscience and the ideal self, develops when children are around 3 to 5 years old. Incorporating the surrounding society’s values and morals via one’s parents, it continues to grow over time so that children can adopt moral standards from people they admire, like teachers. The superego controls the id’s impulses, especially those that society forbids (e.g., non-marital sexual relationships and immediate gratification); acts to perfect and civilize our behavior; works to suppress the id’s unacceptable urges; struggles to make the ego act upon idealistic standards; and tries to persuade the ego to turn to moralistic goals and strive for perfection.

If the ego gives in to the id’s demands, the superego may make the person feel bad by giving rise to feelings of guilt. For example, an individual with an overly dominant id might become impulsive, uncontrollable or even a criminal, as immediate gratification is his/her only concern. On the other hand, an overly dominant superego might lead one to become extremely moralistic and judgmental and thus unable to accept whatever he/she deems “bad” or “immoral.”

Those who have a strong ego can manage these pressures effectively, while those whose ego is too strong or too weak can become too unyielding or disruptive. One can only acquire a healthy personality by striking the correct balance among the id, the ego and the superego.


Nietzsche’s Superman

Nietzsche’s presented his Superman as a man who possesses his own independent values and is therefore able to affect and dominates others. He therefore lives with pleasure and happiness in the present, but with the purpose of leading humanity. A biological product, as opposed to a product of moral and spiritual forces, this individual creates his own morality based on his own experiences, which are grounded in the secular physical world.

The poet, scholar and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), who published his “Asrar-i-Khudi” in Persian in 1915 (“The Secrets of the Self,” trans. Reynold A. Nicholson; noted, “It is probable that Nietzsche borrowed it (Übermensch) from the literature of Islam or of the East and degraded it by his materialism.” In footnote number 8, S. A. Vahid states that Iqbal dictated this note to Sayyid Ivazir Niyazi during the summer of 1937) (

In comparison to Freud and Nietzsche, the Quran gives a clear understanding of concept of nafs and its role in developing a person’s character in such a way that it can reach the level of al-nafs al-mutma’inna (the soul at peace).


Dr. Basheer Ahmed is a former professor of psychiatry, South Western Medical School, Dallas, Texas, and chairman emeritus of the MCC for Human Services, North Texas.

M. Basheer  Ahmed M.D
Chairman Emeritus – MCC for Human Services
President IMPMS – Institute of Medieval and Post-Medieval Studies
President Emeritus IQRA – A Dallas/ Fort Worth peace initiative
Education, Research and Service to the Humanity is the Greatest Worship
Never Doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead
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Disclaimer: Nafs:Ego, Self - Personality - How the Quranic concept of nafs contrasts with Freud’s theory of personality development and Nietzsche’s Superman By M. Basheer Ahmed - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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