I was translating a sentence which contained the Arabic word "نفس (nefs)" in an answer to a question. نفس is physical entity of a living thing, that feels and experiences earthly desires and emotions like sleeping, hunger, frightening, and lust. It is the basic animal instincts and desires of a living being. I translated نفس as "physical body", but someone opposed it and said that the word "soul" was more fitting for it.

However, I thought that there was a different word for "soul" in Arabic, which is "روح (rooh)". روح is consciousness, power to decide, ability to think and decide. It is the intelligence of a living being.

So, which meaning is more fitting to "soul"? Nefs or rooh?
What does "soul" actually mean in English? How do you define it?

  • 2
    This is not a constructive question for ELU. Commented Jul 29, 2012 at 0:06
  • ...and so, ELU gets to migrate the first question to Philosophy.se
    – SF.
    Commented Jan 31, 2013 at 20:29

5 Answers 5


The way soul is used in English is usually a bit closer to روح (or the related Hebrew ruach, רוח ). The term نفس (or Hebrew nefesh, נפש) we might call life-force or something similar. However, both are often translated as "soul", with the understating that each term is one part of a multipartite model of the soul which also encompasses the nasama, نَسَمَة (or Hebrew neshamah, נשמה).

Generally, English speakers conceive of the soul as the seat of consciousness, the self that they experience as themselves. For people who would go around talking about this sort of thing, that's going to be a more intellectual, linguistic mode of being, but there are almost always overtones of strong emotional drives and higher purpose as well.

I think the most accurate thing to say is that English speakers conceive of soul as meaning the totality of نفس , روح , and نَسَمَة (nefs, rooh, and nasama; nefesh, ruach, and neshamah; emotion, thought, and higher being).

Also important to note, though, is that the term "soul" has no precise meaning in the general usage, signifying very different things to different speakers and in different contexts, and only attains precision in specialist religious or esoteric usages that vary wildly from the general usage and from each other.


روح seems to express something less tangible than نفس. The former is, after all, derived from a root verb which has the meanings ‘breathe’ and ‘smell’ among its various forms.

I’ve always thought of نفس as meaning ‘self’, but the English edition of Hans Wehr’s ‘A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic’ gives ‘soul’ as its first meaning. So maybe روح = spirit and نفس = soul. We perhaps need a theologian to tell us the difference. (It’s no good asking me: I have neither.)


I believe that out of the two words you described, نفس (nefs) better fits the definition because روح (rooh) seems like it has a lot to do with one's mind. But if you consider it closely, even نفس is mostly associated with the brain. According to me, the intended definition of soul (when it was invented) was the presence of life in a living being. Now, the most evident way of pointing this out is the expression of emotions. For example, we call people 'soulless' because they do not exhibit emotions (mostly sympathy), while 'Soul' music is so called because it has the ability to arouse emotions in the mind of the listener. But it ultimately all melts down to the mind. There obviously isn't really something as soul. It is merely a way of describing a living entity with the capacity to display emotions.


Soul is that which sustains the body. We are the soul. When some one dies, we say he/she is gone or he/she passed away even if we see the body laying down. The same senses (eyes, nose etc) are now non-functional. The body is not conscious; it cannot see, hear or feel. Consciousness is the right word but I do not think power to decide, ability to think and decide adequately describe the word soul or روح (rooh).


In Freudian theory there is the "Id":

The id is the unorganized part of the personality structure that contains a human's basic, instinctual drives

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.