The sense of the self

The self in western culture generally espouses an understanding of the person as being an autonomous, separate individual, with strong boundaries and ‘inner’, private region of experience. Landrine (1992) describes this as being referential. The self is an inner ‘thing’ or area of experience: ‘the separated, encapsulated self of western culture is presumed to be the originator, creator and controller of behaviour’. Landrine (1992) contrasts this with the indexical experience of self-found in non-western cultures. Sampson (1988) highlighted between the individualistic concept of self that dominates in western societies, and the collectivist approach that is part of the traditional cultures. This distinction is similar to the concepts of agency and communion used by Bakan (1966).

From the Islamic perspective, the human being consists of at least five domains/aspects living on the earth. The five aspects are, Ruh - the spirit aspect, Qalb - the heart aspect, Aql, the jasd, the physical aspect and Nafs - the totality of the human self/human psyche. The spirit (Ruh) is described as the Qalb when it functions from the perspective of free will and emotion, and it is described as the mind (Aql) when it functions from the perspective of intellect and decision making. In reality, there is only one entity and the terms ruh, Qalb, and Aql can be used to describe the one entity, I,e the human self. At the subatomic level there is a point where all things exist beyond space and time, I,e the quantum non-locality phenomenon.

Contrary to the understanding of some, nafs should not be translated as the only entity to describe the self or the ‘human personality’. The nafs, qalb, ruh, Aql etc constitute the holistic human-self.

The person in a collectivist community is likely to regard himself or herself as a member of a family, clan or other social and religious group. They will make decisions based on those collective values and needs. So for example, a concept such as self-actualisation does not make much sense in the context of collectivists culture. Conversely, notions of honour, integrity, duty and virtue can seem archaic within modern individualistic cultures and societies.

The Islamic ‘self’ exists both in the physical and metaphysical domains. It is holistic and comprehensive.


Abdullah Hasan, Islamic Psychology department, Alif Institute, UK

Suggested Posts

The WHO of Islamic Counselling