Islamic Concepts and Beliefs The Holy Qur'an

Natural, Moral and Spiritual States of Man

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Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), The Promised Messiah (as) & Imam Mahdi

The Promised Messiah (as) wrote over 80 books in Arabic, Urdu, and Persian. Excerpts of his collected works have been translated into English and organised by topic. The Review of Religions is pleased to present these excerpts as part of a monthly feature. Here, the Promised Messiah (as) describes the three moral states of man, in light of the teachings of the Holy Qur’an and explains the methods of reform.

Extracts from The Essence of Islam, Vol. III, 1-13. This is the first part of a multi-part series.

The Holy Qur’an has bestowed a singular favour on the world by distinguishing between the natural state of man and his high moral qualities. It does not rest content with transporting man from the natural state to high moral qualities, but it further opens the doors to pure insight which lead to the stage of spiritual states. Indeed, it has helped millions of people reach that stage.

Islami Usul ki Philosophy (The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam), Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 10, pp. 367-368

The Three Human States

The first question is about the distinction between the natural, moral and spiritual states of man. The Holy Qur’an has so distinguished between them that it has indicated three separate sources for each of them. In other words, it has pointed out the three springs from which these states respectively flow.

The First Source: The Self that Incites to Evil

The first spring, which is the source of all natural states, is designated by the Holy Qur’an as nafs-e-ammarah [the self that incites to evil], as it says [1]:

 إِنَّ ٱلنَّفۡسَ لَأَمَّارَةُۢ بِٱلسُّوٓءِ

This means that it is a characteristic of nafs-e-ammarah that it incites man to evil – which is contrary to his excellence, and goes against his moral condition – and seeks to lead him to undesirable and sinful ways. Thus, to be drawn towards intemperance and evil is the natural state which dominates man until the moral state takes over and he begins to be guided by reason and understanding. Until that happens, he continues to follow his natural instincts in eating, drinking, sleeping, walking, anger and emotion, etc. When, under the direction of reason and understanding, he begins to control his natural states and creates a balance, it is at this point that the three states cease to be natural and come to be known as moral, as we shall elaborate later.

The Second Source: The Self-Reproaching Self

The source of moral state, according to the Holy Qur’an, is nafs-e-lawwamah [the self-reproaching self.] Allah says in the Holy Qur’an [2]:

 وَلَآ أُقۡسِمُ بِٱلنَّفۡسِ ٱللَّوَّامَةِ.

This means that: ‘I call to witness the self which reproaches itself over misdeeds and all acts of intemperance.’

Nafs-e-lawwamah [the self-reproaching self] is the second source of human states; it gives birth to moral conditions and, at this stage, man is emancipated from his resemblance to animals. In the above verse, nafs-e-lawwamah has been called to witness for the purpose of dignifying it. Which means that because of his progress from nafs-e-ammarah to nafs-e-lawwamah, a person becomes worthy of being admitted to divine presence. It is called ‘self-reproaching’ because it rebukes man on vice and does not approve of him following his natural inclinations and leading the life of animals. It desires that he should adopt good conduct, exhibit good morals, display no intemperance and that his natural emotions and desires should be manifested under the direction of reason. As it rebukes man over vice, it is called the self-reproaching self. But although it does not approve of natural desires and rebukes itself, it does not have complete power to do good and is at times overcome by natural passions; hence it is likely to fall and stumble. It is very much like a frail child who does not want to fall, but falls because it is weak, and it is ashamed of its weakness. In short, this is the moral state which seeks to attain high moral qualities and is disgusted with being self-willed, yet it cannot assert itself completely.

The Third Source: The Soul at Rest

Then there is a third source, which signifies the beginning of the spiritual state. The Holy Qur’an describes it as nafs-e-mutma’innah [the soul at rest]; it says [3]:

يَـٰٓأَيَّتُهَا ٱلنَّفۡسُ ٱلۡمُطۡمَئِنَّةُ ٱرۡجِعِيٓ إِلَىٰ رَبِّكِ رَاضِيَةٗ مَّرۡضِيَّةٗ فَٱدۡخُلِي فِي عِبَٰدِي وَٱدۡخُلِي جَنَّتِي

This means that: ‘O tranquil soul that has found peace in God, return to thy Lord well pleased with Him as He is well pleased with thee. Join My chosen servants and enter My Paradise.’

This is the stage at which the soul, having been delivered from all weakness, is filled with spiritual strength and has such a relationship with God Almighty that it cannot live without Him. Just as water flows downwards and rushes forth because of its sheer volume, and removes all obstacles in its way, so does the soul flow towards God. It is to this state that the divine injunction refers: ‘O soul that has found peace in God, return to Him.’ It brings about a great transformation, not only after death, but also in this very life, and is granted a paradise in this world even before the hereafter. As indicated in the above verse, such a soul is directed to return to its Lord the Nourisher, for He nurtures it. His love becomes its sustenance, and it drinks from the same life-giving spring. Thus it is delivered from death, as Almighty Allah says in the Holy Qur’an [4]:

قَدۡ أَفۡلَحَ مَن زَكَّىٰهَا وَقَدۡ خَابَ مَن دَسَّىٰهَا

That is, He who cleanses his self of earthly passions shall be saved and will not perish, but he who is lost in such sensual desires shall lose hope in life.

In short, these are the three states, which may be called the natural, moral and spiritual states. Since natural urges become dangerous when aroused and very often destroy morality and spirituality, they have been described in the Holy Book of God Almighty as nafs-e-ammarah [the self that incites to evil]. If it is asked how the Holy Qur’an affects these natural states of man and what guidance it furnishes about them, and to what extent it seeks to retain them, then let it be known that, according to the Holy Qur’an, the physical states of man are closely related to his moral and spiritual states. Even a man’s habits and his way of eating and drinking affect his moral and spiritual states. If the physical states are exercised under the direction of divine law, then, just as everything becomes salty in a salt mine, these natural states become moral states and have a deep impact on spirituality. That is why the Holy Qur’an has placed so much stress on physical cleanliness, proprieties and temperance in connection with all kinds of worship, as well as on inner purity for the purpose of attaining righteousness and humility. When we ponder over it, it becomes clear that physical conditions deeply affect the soul. We can see that our outward actions, though apparently physical in nature, have a great effect on our spiritual condition. For instance, when our eyes shed tears, even if by way of affectation, the tears immediately affect the heart, which becomes sorrowful. In the same way, when we laugh, even if for show, the heart begins to feel cheerful. It is also observed that physical prostration generates humility in the soul, and when we strut about with our head raised and chest pushed out, this attitude generates a kind of arrogance and vanity. These illustrations demonstrate how physical conditions directly affect spiritual ones.

—Islami Usul ki Philosophy (The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam), Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 10, pp. 316-320

Natural and Moral States of Man

As indicated by the holy word of God Almighty, natural states, the source of which is nafs-e-ammarah [the self that incites to evil] are not something separate from moral states. The holy word of God has placed all physical faculties, desires and urges under the category of natural states. These natural states, when consciously regulated, tempered and employed at the right time and place, become moral. In the same way, moral states are not something entirely distinct from spiritual states. Moral states become spiritual when they are combined with absolute devotion to God, complete purification of the self, cutting asunder from the world, turning wholly to God with perfect love, complete devotion, full serenity, contentment, and complete accord with divine will.

Natural states alone do not make man worthy of praise until they take on a moral complexion, because these states can also be found in other animals and even in physical matter. In the same way, adopting good morals does not bestow spiritual life upon man. A person who denies the existence of God can also exhibit good morals. To be meek or humble or peace-loving or shunning evil or avoiding the evildoer, are all natural states. Even an unworthy person, who is entirely unacquainted with the true source of salvation, can attain these states. Many animals are pliable and through conditioning and training do learn to behave peacefully, so much so that they do not retaliate even after being badly beaten; yet you cannot call them human, let alone humans of a higher order. Likewise, a person who holds the worst of views and is even guilty of misconduct can also exhibit these qualities. It is possible that a person may learn to be merciful to such an extreme that he may not even permit himself to kill the germs that infest his own wounds; or he may be so mindful of preserving life that he may not wish to harm the lice in his hair or the worms that are generated in the stomach, intestines, or the brain. I can even imagine that a person may be moved by pity so much so that he may even give up eating honey because it is obtained by destroying many lives and by driving away the poor bees from their hives. I can also conceive that a person may avoid using musk, as it is the blood of a poor deer and is obtained by killing the animal and separating it from its young. I would also not deny that a person might stop using pearls or wearing silk because they are both obtained by killing innocent worms. I can even concede that a person suffering from pain may choose to avoid using leeches; he may be prepared to suffer rather than kill the leech. Whether others accept it or not, I can also accept that a person might carry pity so far as to spare even the water worms and risk dying of thirst. I can accept all this, but I can never accept that these natural states could be called moral, or that these alone can wash out a person’s inner impurities, the presence of which is an obstacle in the path of meeting God Almighty.

I can never believe that to be meek and harmless in this manner, in which even some animals and birds excel, could become the means of acquiring a high degree of humanity. In my view, this is opposed to the cardinal virtue of seeking God’s pleasure and it amounts to fighting the law of nature and rejecting the bounties that nature has bestowed upon us. Spirituality can be attained only through the exercise of each moral quality at its proper time and place, treading faithfully in the way of God, and being wholly devoted to Him. He who truly becomes God’s cannot exist without Him. A person who truly understands God is like a fish offered unto the Hand of God. Its water is the love of God.

Islami Usul ki Philosophy (The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam), Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 10, pp. 325-327

Three Methods of Reform

I have mentioned that there are three sources of human states, namely, nafs-e-ammarah [the self that incites to evil], nafs-e-lawwamah [the self-reproaching self] and nafs-e-mutma’innah [the soul at rest]. Similarly, there are three methods of reform.

The first method of reform is that savages should be trained in rudimentary morals so that they follow the etiquette pertaining to social matters like eating, drinking, marriage, etc. They should not go about naked, nor eat carrion, nor exhibit any other ill manners. This is the elementary stage of reform of the natural state. It is the type of reform that should be adopted, for example, when teaching proper manners to a wild savage of Port Blair [capital of the Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Bay of Bengal] whom one should start instructing in basic morals and manners.

The second method of reform is that, after a person has acquired basic human manners, he should be instructed in higher moral qualities and taught to exercise all human faculties on their proper occasion and place.

The third method of reform is that those who have formally learned to exercise morals should be taught to relish the taste of true love and communion. These are the three reforms mentioned in the Holy Qur’an.

—Islami Usul ki Philosophy (The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam), Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 10, pp. 327-328

Khalq [Creation] and Khulq [Morals]

People commonly take khulq [morals] to means meekness, courtesy and humility. They are wrong. The truth is that corresponding to every physical action there is an inner quality which is called khulq [moral]. For instance, a person sheds tears through the eyes and, corresponding to this action, there is an inner quality called tenderness which takes on the character of a moral quality when exercised on its proper occasion and under the control of God-given wisdom. In the same way, a person defends himself against the attack of an enemy with his hands, and corresponding to this physical action there is an inner quality called bravery. When a person shows bravery on its proper occasion, it becomes a moral quality. In the same way, sometimes a person tries to save the oppressed from the oppressors, wishes to make some provisions for the indigent and the hungry, or seeks to serve humanity in some other way, and corresponding to such an action there is an inner quality called mercy. Sometimes a person punishes a wrongdoer, and corresponding to this action there is an inner quality called retribution. Sometimes a person is attacked, but he does not want to retaliate in kind and condones the wrong of a wrongdoer, and corresponding to this action there is an inner quality called forgiveness and forbearance. Sometimes a person uses his hands or feet, or employs his head or heart or his wealth to promote the welfare of his fellow beings, and corresponding to this action there is an inner quality called generosity. When a person exercises all these qualities at their proper time and place, they are called moral qualities. Addressing our Holy Prophetsa, Allah the Glorious, says [5]:

إِنَّكَ لَعَلَىٰ خُلُقٍ عَظِيمٖ

That is, ‘Yours is indeed the most exalted moral station.’

—Islami Usul ki Philosophy (The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam), Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 10, pp. 332-333

Natural States Become Moral by Proper Regulation

Natural states are not something apart from moral states. When employed temperately on their proper place and occasion, and regulated by reason, natural states acquire the character of moral states. When exercised without the control and advice of reason and understanding, they are not truly moral; however much they may resemble them, they are no more than the involuntary exercise of natural impulses. For instance, if a dog or a goat shows love or docility towards its master, the dog will not be considered moral nor will the goat be called civilised, nor, for that matter, will we describe a wolf or a tiger as immoral on account of its savage nature. As we have already said, a moral quality emerges only when reflection and regard for the appropriate time and occasion come into play. A person who does not exercise reason and prudence is like the suckling whose mind and intellect are not yet governed by reason, or like the insane who have lost their reason and intelligence.

Sometimes a suckling or an insane person does appear to act in a manner which looks ethical, but no sensible person would call them moral as such behaviour does not spring from discretion and propriety but is a natural response to stimuli. For example, a human baby seeks its mother’s breast immediately after it is born; a chicken runs to pick up grain as soon as it is hatched; a newly hatched leech behaves like a leech; a baby snake acts like a snake; and a tiger cub conducts itself like a tiger. Particularly, one should carefully observe a human baby to see how, immediately after it is born, it begins to behave like humans, and these natural habits become more pronounced after a year or so. For instance, its crying becomes louder, its smile turns into laughter, and its vision becomes more volitional. At this stage, it reveals another natural trait by displaying its pleasure or displeasure through gestures and tries to strike someone or desires to give something to someone. But all these movements are natural impulses. Indeed a savage too is like a child whose share of human reason is very meagre. He too displays natural impulses in his words, actions and movements, and is subject to his natural drives. But nothing proceeds from him in consequence of reflection and deliberation. Whatever takes place inside him continues to issue forth in response to the external stimuli. It is quite possible that his natural impulses, which are exhibited as a reaction to the external stimuli, may not be all bad. Some may look like moral actions, but they are devoid of rational reflection and choice and, even if they seem to some degree so motivated, they cannot be relied upon on account of the domination of natural impulses.

True Morals

In short, we cannot truly attribute morals to a person who is subject to natural impulses like animals or infants or the insane, and who lives more or less like savages. In the true sense, the time of morals, whether good or bad, begins when a person’s God-given reason ripens and he is able to distinguish between good and bad and the degree of good and evil. And he begins to feel sorry when he misses an opportunity of doing good and is remorseful when he has done something wrong. This is the second stage of man’s life, which is designated as nafs-e-lawwamah [the self-reproaching self] in God’s holy word. It should, however, be remembered that mere advice is not enough to lead a savage to the stage of the self-reproaching self. It is necessary that he should become conscious of the existence of God to a degree at which he should not consider his own creation as meaningless and without purpose, so that an understanding of the divine should create true morals in him. That is why God Almighty has drawn attention to the need of understanding the True God and has given the assurance that every action and moral quality has a consequence, which becomes the source of spiritual comfort or spiritual torment in this life and the consequences of which would be fully apparent in the hereafter. In short, at the stage of the self-reproaching self, a person partakes so much of reason and understanding and good conscience that he reproaches himself over evil and is willing and eager to do good. That is the stage at which a person acquires high moral qualities.

—Islami Usul ki Philosophy (The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam), Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 10, pp. 330-332

Addressing the Holy Prophetsa, God, the Glorious, says [6]:

إِنَّكَ لَعَلَىٰ خُلُقٍ عَظِيمٖ

That is, ‘Yours is indeed the most exalted moral station.’ This means that all high moral qualities, such as generosity, bravery, justice, mercy, benevolence, sincerity, courage, etc., were combined in the Holy Prophetsa.

In short, all modes of behaviour found in the human person, like courtesy, modesty, integrity, politeness, righteous indignation, steadfastness, chastity, temperance, moderation, sympathy, bravery, generosity, forgiveness, patience, benevolence, sincerity, loyalty, etc., when they find expression at their proper time and place, under the guidance of reason and reflection, are designated moral. All such qualities are in reality the natural states and emotions of the human person and they are designated as such only when exercised at their proper time and place.

—Islami Usul ki Philosophy (The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam), Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 10, p. 333


[1] The Holy Qur’an, 12:54.

[2] The Holy Qur’an, 75:3.

[3] The Holy Qur’an, 89:28-31.

[4] The Holy Qur’an, 91:10-11.

[5] The Holy Qur’an, 68:5.

[6] The Holy Qur’an, 68:5.