Nafs Lawwamah – A Khutbah

God the Exalted, in two short verses, ties the fate of humanity to “a day” and the means to salvation on that day by swearing by them both:

لَا أُقْسِمُ بِيَوْمِ الْقِيَامَةِ – وَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِالنَّفْسِ اللَّوَّامَةِ

There is, by God’s oath, no doubt as to the truth of the Day of Judgment as well as the kind of soul that will find clemency there. The self-reproaching soul (نفس لوامة). As many commentators have pointed out, the term lawwamah (لوّامة) is an inflection that gives the sense of one who does such an action habitually that it comes to define that person. For example, the word for blacksmith, haddad (حدّاد) is also derived from this same form, giving the meaning that one who works with iron (hadid – حديد) to such an extent that that person becomes defined by that action. Similarly, the nafs lawwamah is that soul which calls itself into account with such frequency that God the Exalted defines that soul by this action and swears by it. Similarly, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, in his Tafsir al-Kabir, explains this term:

أنها هي النفوس الشريفة التي لا تزال تلوم نفسها وإن اجتهدت في الطاعة وعن الحسن

“It (nafs lawwamah) is that noble soul which does not refrain from rebuking itself and thus strives in obedience and doing good.”

Similarly, al-Mahalli and his student, Imam al-Suyuti, may God have mercy on them both, state something similar:

النفس اللوامة التي تلوم نفسها وإن اجتهدت في الإحسان

“The nafs lawwamah is that which criticizes itself and strives for perfection (ihsan).

It should be noted that this form of self-criticism is not criticism for the sake of criticism nor is it to be taken to extreme lengths. The Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم admonished his Community against inveighing against oneself to extremes:

لاَ يَقُلْ أَحَدُكُمْ خَبُثَتْ نَفْسِي ‏.‏ وَلْيَقُلْ لَقِسَتْ نَفْسِي

“None of you should say, ‘my soul has become evil or tainted’, but rather one should say my soul has become covetous.”Sahih Muslim.

At any rate, we can see a strong connection between the Day of Judgment and the self-criticizing soul. We are warned against taking this to the extreme. And lastly, I leave some words for contemplation, advice, from the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم on how we might develop the habit of reproaching ourselves:

الكيسُ منْ دانَ نفسَهُ، و عملَ لمَا بعدَ الموتِ، و العاجزُ منْ أَتْبَعَ نفسَهُ هواهَا، و تمنَّى على اللهِ الأمانيَّ

“The intelligent person is the one who indicts his own soul and works for what comes after death while the imbecile is he that, having fallen under the authority of his passions, asks God for frivolities.”Tirmidhi amongst others.

Listen to the khutbah here.

3 Replies to “Nafs Lawwamah – A Khutbah”

  1. Marc, you wrote, “The nafs lawwamah is that which criticizes itself and strives for perfection.” This same sentiment is held by many others. Do you think that it is possible for a person to critically self-examine and strive for perfection who is not a Muslim? Would it have the same efficacy?

  2. Greetings, Mike. Thanks for the questions. My answer, as I understand you asking it, would be no. I will attempt to explain:

    The context that I wrote the article is self-criticism as it relates to the Day of Judgment – the first verse I quote in the artile (لا أقسم بيوم القيامة). As a Muslim, I am bound by what the Qur’an says:

    إِنَّ الدِّينَ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ الْإِسْلَامُ

    “Surely, the religion with God is Islam.” 3:19.

    So the perfection (ihsan) I spoke of is in relation to the particular hadith (and thus, the overarching definition in Islam of ihsan/perfection descends from this hadith) in which the angel Gabriel comes and converses with the Prophet عليه الصلوات والسلام about the definition of ihsan:

    الإحسان أن تعبد الله كأنك تراه فإن لم تكن تراه فإنه يراك

    Ihsan (striving for perfection) is that you worship God as if you really see Him. Yet you are surely unable to see Him though without a doubt He sees you.”

    So my definition of perfection (ihsan) is indebted and tied to the intra-Qur’anic and intra-Prophetic narrative that states salvation of the soul is predicated on being Muslim:

    إِنَّ اللَّهَ اصْطَفَىٰ لَكُمُ الدِّينَ فَلَا تَمُوتُنَّ إِلَّا وَأَنْتُمْ مُسْلِمُونَ

    “Surely God has chosen your religion for you therefore do not die except as Muslims.” 2: 132.

    يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اتَّقُوا اللَّهَ حَقَّ تُقَاتِهِ وَلَا تَمُوتُنَّ إِلَّا وَأَنْتُمْ مُسْلِمُونَ

    “O’ you who profess faith, protect yourselves against God’s chastisement, as it is His right, and do not die except as Muslims.” 3: 102.

    I hope that clarifies my point. Can a non-Muslim strive for perfection? Yes, of course. One of my favorite documentaries is Jiro Dreams of Sushi. This is a moving and incredible example of what it means to strive for perfection as it relates to worldly matters. So to answer in summary, “is it possible for a person to critically self-examine and strive for perfection who is not Muslim?” my answer is no, because of the context of what I was writing about (one’s salvation on the Day of Judgment). If you are asking on worldly matters, I’d recommend watching Jiro!

  3. Assalamu alaikum, Jazak Allahu khairan for this most insightful and excellent khutbah.
    I was thinking of giving a khutbah based on the hadeeth of Handhalah approaching Abu Bakr with “Handhalah is lost” and ending with the prophet reminding them “ساعة لك و ساعة لدينك” inshallah.

    If it’s OK with you, I would like to incorporate some of these points into my khutbah, I’ll be referencing you during the khutbah as well.

    Jazak Allahu khairan agian

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