Sufi psychology

There are three central ideas in Sufi Islamic psychology, which are the Nafs (self, ego or psyche), the Qalb (heart) and the Ruh (spirit). The origin and basis of these terms is Qur'anic and they have been expounded upon by centuries of Sufic commentaries.


Nafs is considered to be the lowest principle of man. Higher than the nafs is the Qalb (heart), and the Ruh (spirit). This tripartition forms the foundation of later, more complicated systems; it is found as early as the Koranic commentary by Ja'far al-Sadiq. He holds that the nafs is peculiar to the zalim (tyrant), the qalb to the muqtasid (moderate), and the rūh to the sābiq (preceding one, winner); the zālim loves God for his own sake, the muqtasid loves Him for Himself, and the sābiq annihilates his own will in God's will. Bayezid Bistami, Hakīm at-Tirmidhī, and Junayd have followed this tripartition. Kharrāz, however, inserts between nafs and qalb the element tab', "nature," the natural functions of man. The spiritual body (soul) was created in adult form of the living body.

At almost the same time in history, Nūrī saw in man four different aspects of the heart, which he derived from the Koran:

Sadr (breast) is connected with Islam (Sūra 39:23); qalb (heart) is the seat of īmān (faith) (Sūra 49:7; 16:106); fuad (heart) is connected with marifa (gnosis) (Sūra 53:11); and lubb (innermost heart) is the seat of tauhīd (Sūra 3:190).

The Sufis often add the element of sirr, the innermost part of the heart in which the divine revelation is experienced. Jafar introduced, in an interesting comparison, reason, aql, as the barrier between nafs and qalb -- "the barrier which they both cannot transcend" (Sūra 55:20), so that the dark lower instincts cannot jeopardize the heart's purity. Each of these spiritual centers has its own functions, and Amr al-Makkī has summed up some of the early Sufi ideas in a myth:

God created the hearts seven thousand years before the bodies and kept them in the station of proximity to Himself and He created the spirits seven thousand years before the hearts and kept them in the garden of intimate fellowship (uns) with Himself, and the consciences—the innermost part—He created seven thousand years before the spirits and kept them in the degree of union (waṣl) with Himself. Then he imprisoned the conscience in the spirit and the spirit in the heart and the heart in the body. Then He tested them and sent prophets, and then each began to seek its own station. The body occupied itself with prayer, the heart attained to love, the spirit arrived at proximity to its Lord, and the innermost part found rest in union with Him.[1]