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Understanding the Concept of Spirit in Islam

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The concept of spirit in Islam has been mentioned in several verses. The Quran introduces the term ‘spirit’ (al-ruh) to encompass a set of non-material truths that have not been created in this world but instead originate from a higher realm and a more sublime universe. Among these matters is the human spirit, as God Almighty says:

وَنَفَخْتُ فِيهِ مِنْ رُوحِي

And I breathed into him of My Spirit” (1).

The human spirit is also referred to as the ‘soul‘ (al-nafs). The soul of something is its essence and its very being. This term is used to emphasize that the spirit is the genuine reality of a person and their true personality, their essence, and their being (2). In contrast, the body represents something akin to a machine or clothing for the spirit.

The reality of the spirit remains alive even after the body perishes. This is evident in the Quran when it speaks about the remains and dissolution of the body, only to then refer to its owner as being alive. This alludes to the underlying truth that animates the body, the aspect of the spirit that transcends the physical form and continues to exist even after the body turns to dust.

The Quran also explicitly states:

مَا عِندَكُمْ يَنفَدُ ۖ وَمَا عِندَ اللَّهِ بَاقٍ ۗ

What is with you shall perish, and what is with Allah shall last” (3).

The phrase “What is with you” refers to what we see in the ever-changing natural world, which is constantly subjected to wear and tear. On the other hand, “what is with Allah” and anything related to the divine realm is everlasting, never perishing or fading away.

Affirmation of the Spirit (al-Ruh) in Nahj al-Balagha

We will examine three sermons that explicitly address this topic:

1- The spirit remaining as a hostage: This is discussed in the eloquent sermon (al-Gharra’), where Imam Ali (peace be upon him) says:

فهل دفعت الأقارب أو نفعت النواحب، وقد غودر في محلّة الأموات رهيناً،(…)، وصارت الأجساد شحبة بعد بضّتها، والعظام نخرةً بعد قوّتها، والأرواح مرتهنة بثقل أعبائها، موقنة بغيب أنبائها(4)

 “Did the relatives protect or the lamenters benefit while the deceased was left as a hostage among the dead? (…) Their bodies have become pale after their freshness, their bones rotten after their strength, and their spirits encumbered by the weight of their deeds, now certain of the unseen news…”

Imam Ali (peace be upon him) contrasts the fate of bodies and spirits, showing that bones become brittle and decay in the grave, while spirits remain bound by their deeds and become certain of the unseen world that they were once reminded of but never fully grasped. The body disintegrates and decomposes, while the spirit endures in another realm.

2- The agonies of death: Imam Ali (peace be upon him) speaks about the dying person surrounded by their family:

يردّد طرفه بالنظر في وجوههم، يرى حركات ألسنتهم، ولا يسمع رجع كلامهم، ثمّ ازداد الموت التياطاً، فقبض بصره كما قبض سمعه، وخرجت الروح من جسده، فصار جيفةً بين أهله (5)

 “He glances at their faces, sees the movements of their tongues but does not hear their words. Then death intensifies, seizing his sight just as it seized his hearing, and his spirit departs from his body, leaving a corpse among his family.”

In this text, Imam Ali (peace be upon him) explains that the reality of death is the separation of the spirit from the body.

3- The Angel of Death: Imam Ali (peace be upon him) describes the Angel of Death and refers to the process of a fetus’s death in its mother’s womb, saying:

بل، كيف يتوفّى ملكُ الموت الجنينَ في بطن أمّه؟! أيلجُ عليه من بعض جوارحها؟! أم الروح أجابته بإذن ربّها! 6

“Rather, how does the Angel of Death take the life of the fetus in its mother’s womb? Does he enter through some part of her body? Or does the spirit respond to him by the permission of its Lord!”

This text confirms that Imam Ali views death as the separation of the spirit from the body.

Conclusion

These three texts from Nahj al-Balagha affirm the spirit as a genuine reality. They serve as examples of the many references to the spirit found throughout Nahj al-Balagha, as well as in hadiths and supplications (7), not to mention the Quran itself.

The Spirit in the Quran

The Quran uses the term “spirit” in various contexts. We will mention these instances and then demonstrate that they ultimately refer to a single reality applicable to several aspects.

1- The Spirit Distinct from Angels

Some verses of the Holy Quran speak of the spirit as a distinct entity from angels. This distinction appears in several verses, such as:

يَوْمَ يَقُومُ الرُّوحُ وَالْمَلائِكَةُ صَفّاً

 “The Day when the Spirit and the angels will stand in rows” (8)

and in Surah Al-Qadr:

تَنَزَّلُ الْمَلائِكَةُ وَالرُّوحُ فِيهَا

“The angels and the Spirit descend therein” (9).

In another verse:

يُنَزِّلُ الْمَلائِكَةَ بِالرُّوحِ مِنْ أَمْرِهِ

 “He sends down the angels, with the inspiration of His command” (10).

These verses indicate that the spirit is not an angel, as it would not be appropriate to mention it alongside them. A narration attributed to Imam Ali (AS) supports the argument that the spirit is distinct from angels, based on the third verse mentioned (11).

2- The Trustworthy Spirit or the Holy Spirit

In other instances, the Quran describes the spirit (al-Ruh) as “trustworthy” and “holy.” Allah says:

نَزَلَ بِهِ الرُّوحُ الْأَمِينُ عَلَى قَلْبِكَ

The Trustworthy Spirit has brought it down upon your heart” (12)

In another verse, Allah says:

قُلْ نَزَّلَهُ رُوحُ الْقُدُسِ مِنْ رَبِّكَ

Say, the Holy Spirit has brought it down from your Lord” (13).

Some scholars have argued that the Holy Spirit and the Trustworthy Spirit refer to the angel Gabriel, as he is the one who brought the Quran to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

However, Allama Tabatabai, the author of the Tafsir al-Mizan, believes that what can be understood from the Quran is that there exists a creature or being that carries the Quran alongside Gabriel. Although Gabriel brought the revelation, he is not the one who carries it.

This bearer of revelation is referred to in the Quran as the Trustworthy Holy Spirit. It is also among the angels but is not one of them.

3- The Spirit as a Twin of Revelation

Other verses mention the spirit as a twin to the term “revelation.” Allah says:

وَكَذَلِكَ أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْكَ رُوحاً مِنْ أَمْرِنَا مَا كُنْتَ تَدْرِي مَا الْكِتَابُ وَلا الْأِيمَانُ

“And thus, We have sent to you a spirit from Our command. You did not know what the Book or faith was” (14).

The Quran describes its verses as a spirit that was revealed to the Prophet (PBUH).

Here, it can be said that the verses of the Quran are a type of that reality whose name is “spirit,” descending upon the heart of the Prophet (PBUH) in that abstract reality first and then taking on a verbal form in the verses that follow.

However, the scholar also suggests that it means the carrier of revelation and not the revelation itself, with the intended meaning of “We have sent” (أوحينا) being “We have sent down” (نزّلنا). Thus, these verses would be similar to the previous verses.

4- The Spirit as a Title for Jesus

Among the instances where the Quran refers to the spirit is the title given to Jesus, son of Mary (AS):

إِنَّمَا الْمَسِيحُ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ رَسُولُ الله وَكَلِمَتُهُ أَلْقَاهَا إِلَى مَرْيَمَ وَرُوحٌ مِنْهُ

“Indeed, the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, is the Messenger of Allah, and His Word which He cast to Mary, and a spirit from Him” (15).

5- The Spirit as Support for the Believers

The term “spirit” is also used in the context of supporting the believers, as in the verse:

أُوْلَئِكَ كَتَبَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمُ الْإِيمَانَ وَأَيَّدَهُم بِرُوحٍ مِّنْهُ

“Those, He has inscribed faith upon their hearts, and strengthened them with a spirit from Him” (16).

Here, the spirit could either refer to the reality that exists alongside angels sent to support believers as it supported the angels, or it could mean the spiritual state, inspiration, and strength instilled in the hearts of believers, which is also plausible.

6- The Spirit With Lady Mary

The Quran also employs the term “spirit” in the incident involving Lady Mary (AS):

فَأَرْسَلْنَا إِلَيْهَا رُوحَنَا فَتَمَثَّلَ لَهَا بَشَراً سَوِيّاً

“So We sent to her Our spirit, and he appeared to her as a well-proportioned man” (17).

Allah Almighty sent the spirit in the form of a human, and life was given to Jesus without a father.

It is not far-fetched that this spirit is the same reality mentioned alongside angels.

7- The Human Spirit

Another instance of the Quran mentioning the spirit is in relation to humans in general when they are given life. Regarding Adam, the verse says:

ثُمَّ سَوَّاهُ وَنَفَخَ فِيهِ مِنْ رُوحِهِ

“Then He formed him and breathed into him of His spirit” (18).

Likewise, in Surah Al-Hijr, we read:

فَإِذَا سَوَّيْتُهُ وَنَفَخْتُ فِيهِ مِنْ رُوحِي فَقَعُوا لَهُ سَاجِدِينَ

“So when I have formed him and breathed into him of My spirit, fall down in prostration to him” (19).

It is understood from the collection of verses that this is not exclusive to the first Adam.

There are still many other verses in which the Quran uses the term “spirit” (20), but what we have mentioned covers all the instances where the verses are found. These are the instances where the term “spirit” has been used in the Quran in a comprehensive manner.

They Ask You About the Spirit (the Reality of the Spirit):

Among the verses in which the word “spirit” is mentioned is in Al-Isra:

وَيَسْأَلونَكَ عَنِ الرُّوحِ قُلِ الرُّوحُ مِنْ أَمْرِ رَبِّي (21)

And they ask you about the spirit. Say, “The spirit is from the affairs of my Lord.”

 This verse is within the context of inquiring about the reality of the spirit and answers that the spirit is “from the command of my Lord” (22).

Initially, it is essential to understand the nature of the spirit in question before explaining its reality according to this verse.

Interpreters Have Differed on the Nature of the Spirit in Question

1- One group believed it to be the spirit mentioned alongside angels in

يَوْمَ يَقُومُ الرُّوحُ وَالْمَلائِكَةُ صَفّاً

“On the Day when the Spirit and the angels stand in rows” and similar verses (23), so the question is about this spirit.

2- Another group believed that the spirit here refers to the Quran itself, as mentioned in another verse:

وَكَذَلِكَ أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْكَ رُوحاً مِنْ أَمْرِنَا

“Thus We have revealed to you a spirit from Our command.”

They argue that the meaning is: when they ask you about the Quran, say it is from the command of my Lord, meaning a command coming from Allah.

3- A group of interpreters suggested that the intended meaning is the angel Gabriel. This group equates the trustworthy spirit, the Holy Spirit, and Gabriel, intending to understand the nature of Gabriel.

4- Another group proposes that the intended meaning of the spirit here is the human spirit, as mentioned in verses like:

وَنَفَخْتُ فِيهِ مِنْ رُوحِي

“And I breathed into him of My spirit.”

5- The last opinion, adopted by the author of Al-Mizan, assumes that the question about the spirit here is not about a specific meaning of the spirit. Instead, when they saw the Quran frequently mentioning the term “spirit,” the meaning was unclear to them, so they asked about it.

In any case, the answer came to them:

قُلِ الرُّوحُ مِنْ أَمْرِ رَبِّي

“Say, ‘The spirit is from the affairs of my Lord.’ ”

It is a realistic answer, so what is its reality, and what is the spirit?

The Reality of the Spirit (al-Ruh)

We have seen that the Quran answers those who ask about the spirit by saying that it is: (from the affairs of my Lord). This definition includes two parts: it is an affair, and it is from Allah. What does that mean?

First: What does it mean to be from Allah (interpreting its attribution to Allah)?

When we want to define something, sometimes we define it by its intrinsic parts, i.e., the components it is made of, such as defining a carpet as a collection of colored threads made of cotton or wool. This definition is called the definition by the internal causes, “i.e., the material cause of the thing and the formal cause.”

Another time, we define this thing by matters external to its essence, such as the purpose and objective for which it exists, by defining the carpet as something spread and used for sitting. We may also define it by its agent, for example, by saying it is a Persian carpet made by the people of Yazd. The definition by the purpose or the agent is called the definition by external causes, “i.e., the final cause and the efficient cause.”

For the definition to be complete, it must include both the internal and external causes, mentioning its parts and clarifying its purpose and agent.

If we return to the definition mentioned for the spirit, we find that it defines it as something arising from Allah:

قُلِ الرُّوحُ مِنْ أَمْرِ رَبِّي

“Say, ‘The spirit is from the affairs of my Lord,’ ”

It does not mention its parts because it is simple and has no parts, and it does not clarify its purpose, as the spirit does not have a purpose that the inquirer can know (24).

Second: What does it mean for the spirit to be a divine command?

The Command in the Quran (25)

Sometimes the Quran speaks of (Allah’s creation), and other times of (Allah’s command).

When the Quran expresses itself by saying (Allah’s creation), it refers to the gradual emergence, which is related to the factors of time and space, as in the creation of the heavens and the earth in six days – whatever the meaning of the six days is – and as in the transformations of the embryo in the womb.

However, when it expresses itself by – Allah’s command (26), it means the impulsive existence, in which there is no place for graduality. It is directly attributed to Allah without the involvement of the factors of time and space,

إِنَّمَا أَمْرُهُ إِذَا أَرَادَ شَيْئاً أَنْ يَقُولَ لَهُ كُنْ فَيَكُونُ

“Verily, when He intends a thing, His command is, “Be,” and it is” (27).

وَمَا أَمْرُنَا إِلَّا وَاحِدَةٌ كَلَمْحٍ بِالْبَصَر

“Our command is but one, like the twinkling of an eye” (28).

The intended meaning is that there is no place for time, graduality, and their likes in Allah’s command; His saying and doing, i.e., what He desires, is the very existence and the very act of creating it, without there being any delay or waiting period.

Both meanings are combined in His saying:

أَلا لَهُ الْخَلْقُ وَالْأَمْرُ

“To Him belongs the creation and the command” (29).

Thus, we understand the meaning of His saying:

قُلِ الرُّوحُ مِنْ أَمْرِ رَبِّي

“Say, ‘The spirit is from the affairs of my Lord.’ ”

In addition to being attributed to Allah alone, it is of the nature of His command, and not of the nature of His creation like the heavens, the earth, and the rest of the entities in this world.

The Human Being and Their Command-based and Creation-based Aspects

It has become clear in the previous discussion that the spirit we mentioned also includes the human spirit. This means that in a human being, in addition to their body, there is a spirit that is among the entities of (Allah’s command). Therefore, a human being has two aspects and existential dimensions: the creation-based aspect and the command-based aspect.

The Quran expresses the creation-based aspect with the phrase:

فَإِذَا سَوَّيْتُهُ

When I have fashioned him

and the command-based aspect with the saying:

ثُمَّ أَنْشَأْنَاهُ خَلْقاً آخَرَ

“Then We created him as another creation” (30)

or

وَنَفَخْتُ فِيهِ مِنْ رُوحِيَ

“And I breathed into him of My spirit.”

What appears from the verses is that after a human being reaches a certain stage in their gradual creation, something from Allah is bestowed upon them, meaning something with a higher horizon than this horizon.

It remains to be mentioned that certainty is the use of the command-based spirit in the human being without the rest of the entities in the world.

The article is credited to the following source: “* دراسات عقائدية. سلسلة المعارف الإسلامية. نشر جمعية المعارف الإسلامية الثقافية. ظ: الأولى- شباط 2010م- 1431هـ. ص: 389-398″

In English: “* Doctrinal Studies. Islamic Knowledge Series. Published by the Islamic Cultural Knowledge Association. Issue: First – February 2010 AD – 1431 AH. Pages: 389-398”

Translate by Sayeid Abdullah Almusawi

References:

1- Al-Hijr: 29 and Sad: 72.

2- When philosophers use the term “soul,” they generally refer to the material aspects of the spirit, including sensual and physical matters. When they use “spirit” and “spiritual matters,” they mostly mean aspects of the spirit that are independent of the body and the material world.

3- An-Nahl: 96.

4- Nahj al-Balagha, Sermon 81, Fayd al-Islam edition.

5- Nahj al-Balagha, Sermon 107, Fayd al-Islam edition.

6- Nahj al-Balagha, Sermon 110, Fayd al-Islam edition.

7- As in the prayer recited during the funeral prayer before the final takbir: “O Allah, this person lying before us is Your servant and the child of Your servant; he has come to You, and You are the best to be approached by him… O Allah, You have taken his soul to Yourself…”

8- Sad: 38.

9- Al-Qadr: 4.

10- An-Nahl: 2, which refers to the mention of the spirit with the angels, whether the “ba” in “bi al-ruh” means accompaniment (i.e., the angels descend and are accompanied by the spirit) or reliance (i.e., the angels descend by relying on the spirit and seeking its help).

11- Al-Kafi, Vol. 1, p. 274, Hadith 6 (Kitab al-Hujjah).

12- Ash-Shu’ara: 193-194.

13- An-Nahl: 102.

14- Ash-Shura: 52.

15- An-Nisa: 171.

16- Al-Mujadila: 22.

17- Maryam: 17.

18- As-Sajda: 9.

19- Al-Hijr: 29.

20- As in the verse from Al-Isra: “And they ask you about the spirit.”

21- Al-Isra: 85.

22- Not in the context of forbidding inquiry into the nature of the spirit!

23- Like this one from Sad: 38, and verses 4 and 2 from Surahs Al-Qadr and An-Nahl.

24- The ultimate goal of the spirit is to return to Allah, and the inquirer does not understand the meaning of returning to Allah.

25- This statement is made by Allama Tabatabai and is also found in the words of others who preceded him, such as Mulla Sadra.

26- The command in the Quran is sometimes attributed to other than Allah, like those responsible for affairs, as in “Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you” An-Nisa: 59, and it may be attributed to other things.

27- Ya-Sin: 82.

28- Al-Qamar: 50.

29- Al-A’raf: 54.

30- Al-Mu’minun: 14. 31- Al-Qamar: 50.

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