Differences Between Ilham, Waswasa And Nafs

Allahu ta'ala has appointed an angel for the heart of each human being. This angel inspires good thoughts (ilham) to that human being. The devil on the other hand insinuates evil suggestions (waswasa [1]) to a person's heart. Anyone who consumes permissible (halal [2]) food stuff can discriminate between good inspirations and evil suggestions. Conversely, anyone who consumes forbidden (haram [3]) food stuff will not be able to distinguish between the two.

A person's nafs [4] also insinuates evil thoughts or suggestions or desires into his heart. These thoughts or desires are called "hawa". Inspirations and evil suggestions are not continuous but the desires (hawa) are continuous, and they increase as time passes. Evil suggestions diminish and finally disappear as you pray and make (dhikr [5] ). The desires of the nafs could only decrease and finally disappear through strong self-fight (mujahada [6] ).

The devil is like a dog. It runs away when it is chased but comes back later from another direction. The nafs is like a tiger. Its attacks could only be stopped by moderating it. If a human being does not follow an evil suggestion of the devil, the devil gives up that suggestion and starts with another one. The nafs always wishes to do destructive and evil things. In order to prevent the accomplishment of a very useful and beneficial deed, the devil will insinuate a person into doing a less useful deed. In order to coax him into a grave sin, it will infuse into him the wish to do a trivial good deed. The trivial good deed which is accomplished upon the suggestion of the devil will taste very sweet to that man and he will wish to do it in a hurry. For this reason, Rasulullah 'sall-Allahu 'alaihi wa sal-lam' said "Hurry is ignited by the devil. Following five things are exceptions to this rule: hurry to marry off one's daughter, hurry to pay back one's debt, hurry to make preparation for the burial of the deceased, hurry to feed a guest, and hurry in repentance upon committing a sin."

The good things that are inspired by an angel must be done with the fear of Allahu ta'ala without rushing, or contemplating the results. Rasulullah 'sall-Allahu 'alaihi wa sallam' states as follows in a hadith-i sharif [7]: "An inspiration which comes through an angel will be compatible with Islam. The evil suggestions 'waswasa' which are insinuated by the devil will cause one to depart from Islam."

A person who follows the advice of his nafs also follows the evil suggestions of the devil. Alternately, it becomes very easy to carry out the good thoughts inspired by an angel for those who do not follow the desires of their nafs. Rasulullah 'sall-Allahu 'alaihi wa sal-lam' states in a hadith-i sharif: "The devil gives evil suggestions 'waswasa' to the heart. When the name of Allah is made dhikr of, (i.e. when Allahu ta'ala is remembered and His Name is mentioned,) the devil runs away. Otherwise, it continues with its suggestions."

[1] waswasa Evil suggestions insinuated by the devil.
[2] halal: (act, thing) permitted in Islam.
[3] haram: an action, word or thought prohibited by Allahu ta'ala.
[4] nafs: a force in man which wants him to harm himself religiously; an-nafs al-ammara. A negative force within man prompting him to do evil. (Nafs-i ammara). Nafs is ammara by creation, that is, it always wishes evil and harmful deeds to be done. It is reluctant to obey the Shari'at. The nafs of a man who obeys the Shari'at and makes progress in the way of tasawwuf becomes mutmainna. It wishes to obey the Shari'at.
[5] dhikr: (phrase of) remembering, keeping in mind, Allahu ta'ala every moment.
[6] mujahada: striving' to do what the nafs does not like; see riyada.
[7] hadith (sharif): i) a saying of the Prophet ('alaihi 's-salam).; al-Hadith ash-sharif: all the hadiths as a whole; ii) 'ilm al-hadith; iii) Books of the hadith ash-sharif. iv) Al-hadith al-qudsi, as-sahih, al-hasan: kinds of hadiths (for which, see Endless Bliss, II).