Lecture 25, 26 & 27 in the Ramadaan series:
REFLECTIONS ON SURAH ISRAA’
27 May, 10 June & 17 June 2021
Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town
By Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider
We have now reached a verse that is one of the key pointers in this chapter, with plenty to analyse and reflect upon.
وَيَسْأَلُونَكَ عَنِ الرُّوحِ قُلِ الرُّوحُ مِنْ أَمْرِ رَبّـِي وَمَآ اُوتِيتُم مّـِنَ الْعِلْمِ إِلاَّ قَلِيلاً
“And they ask you about the spirit, say: ‘The spirit is of the command of my Lord, and you are not given of the knowledge but a little’.”
Verse 85 of Surah of Israa has been translated with two variations.
Certain scholars have translated the last section meaning that few individuals have been given knowledge, while others have said that that all people, as a collective, have been given a minute amount of knowledge.
This verse has had a plethora of arguments surrounding it. The understanding we derive from this will determine many aspects of our worldview.
I would say that the reality of the ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ is one of the principles of our fundamental beliefs. If one does not believe in the independence of the soul from the material body, then there is no causal reason for one to believe in the hereafter. Once you die, you come to an end that has no meaning nor any significance.
The Quran itself mentions the word ‘Ruh’ approximately 21 times. This is enough evidence to show the importance of ascertaining what exactly it constitutes of.
The literal meaning of ‘Ruh’ is self. As with many words in the Arabic language, it has multiple translations depending on the context.
In some instances, it means to run, while other times it refers to the wind.
Considering these literal meanings, linguists have applied this meaning onto our soul/spirit. The wind is continuously dynamic and moving, and never remains stagnant. At the same time, wind is not something one can physically pinpoint.
Similarly, the soul cannot be seen, and is progressing as we move from life towards death.
USAGE OF RUH IN QURAN
Sometimes the word Ruh is used in the sense of the Holy Spirit which assists/supports the Ambiyaa (as) in conveying the message.
Surah Baqarah, verse 87:
وَآتَيْنَا عِيسَى ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ الْبَيِّنَاتِ وَأَيَّدْنَاهُ بِرُوحِ الْقُدُسِ
“.. and We gave Jesus, son of Mary, clear Signs, and confirmed him with the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes it is used in a sense of the believers receiving special divine assistance. Surah Mujadilah, verse 22:
أُولَٰئِكَ كَتَبَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمُ الْإِيمَانَ وَأَيَّدَهُم بِرُوحٍ مِّنْهُ ۖ وَيُدْخِلُهُمْ جَنَّاتٍ تَجْرِي مِن تَحْتِهَا الْأَنْهَارُ خَالِدِينَ فِيهَا ۚ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُمْ وَرَضُوا عَنْهُ ۚ أُولَٰئِكَ حِزْبُ اللَّهِ ۚ أَلَا إِنَّ حِزْبَ اللَّهِ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ
“…For such He has strengthened faith in their hearts and strengthened them with true guidance from Himself. And He will admit them to Gardens under which rivers flow to dwell therein forever. Allah is pleased with them and they with Him. They are the Party of Allah. Indeed, it is the Party of Allah that will be the triumphant and saved.”
In other cases, the word Ruh refers to Angel Jibraeel (as):
Surah Shu’araah, verse 193 & 194:
وإِنَّهُ لَتَنزِيلُ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ
نَزَلَ بِهِ الرُّوحُ الأَمِينُ
“And verily this (Qur’an) is from the Lord of the Worlds.”
“The Faithful Spirit has descended with it.”
Surah Qadr, verse 4:
تَنَزَّلُ الْمَلَائِكَةُ وَالرُّوحُ فِيهَا بِإِذْنِ رَبِّهِم مِّن كُلِّ أَمْرٍ
“The Angels and the Spirit descend therein by their Lord’s leave for every affair.”
The discussion of the verse from Surah Qadr has a difference of opinion. Certain exegetes believe that Ruh refers to Jibra’eel especially coming down, despite the “angels” already being mentioned previously.
This group argues that while Jibraeel (as) certainly falls under the category of angels, he was mentioned as Ruh separately to emphasise his special status.
Another group of scholars believe that Ruh refers to a special creation of Almighty Allah (swt). The argument used in this case is that if Ruh was meant as Jibraeel (as), it would be an unnecessary repetitive mention as he is already included in the angels mentioned in the verse.
Thus – according to their opinion – the Ruh is a special creation of Allah (swt) that is higher in rank above the angels. The same discussion would be invoked when looking at verse 38 of Surah Naba, as both the Ruh and angels are mentioned separately.
Surah Naba verse 38:
يَوْمَ يَقُومُ الرُّوحُ وَالْمَلَائِكَةُ صَفًّا ۖ لَا يَتَكَلَّمُونَ إِلَّا مَنْ أَذِنَ لَهُ الرَّحْمَٰنُ وَقَالَ صَوَابًا
“The Day on which the Spirit and the angels shall stand arrayed, they shall speak not except whom the All merciful gives leave, and (who) speak what is right”.
In certain instances, Ruh means the Quran itself. This is seen in Surah Shurah, verse 52:
وَكَذَلِكَ أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْكَ رُوحاً مِنْ أَمْرِنَا
“And thus We have sent to you a Revelation of Our Command [the Holy Qur’an]…”
Alternatively, the Quran has also used Ruh to mean the human spirit or soul.
Surah Sajdah, verse 9:
ثُمَّ سَوَّاهُ وَنَفَخَ فِيهِ مِن رُوحِهِ وَجَعَلَ لَكُمُ السَّمْعَ وَالاَبْصَارَ وَالاَفْئِدَةَ قَلِيلاً مَّا تَشْكُرُونَ
“Then He fashioned him, and breathed into him of His spirit and appointed for you hearing, and sight, and hearts (but) little is it that you give thanks.”
Surah Hijr, verse 29:
فَإِذَا سَوَّيْتُهُ وَنَفَخْتُ فِيهِ مِن رُّوحِي فَقَعُوا لَهُ سَاجِدِينَ
“So when I have completed him and I have breathed into him of My Spirit, fall you down, prostrating yourselves unto him.
In identifying which specific Ruh Surah Israa is speaking about, it is most likely this option – the human soul. The inhabitants of Makkah were most probably not asking about the spirit that assisted Nabi Isa (as) or about Jibra’eel (as).
WHAT IS THE HUMAN SPIRIT?
There are so many creations of Allah (swt), but it is only humanity that has been blessed with a spirit or soul with such immense capacity.
In principle, nobody can dispute that the human existence has two aspects. A physical, outward nature and an inner spirit. The nature of each aspect as well as its relationship with each other is often contested, but the mere existence is typically accepted.
We refer to this inner self when we use the pronouns “I” and “My”. Everything is related to oneself. It indicates a relationship which denotes ownership. We are all ascribing these belongings to the soul in reality. This is who is truly meant when the terms of “I” and “My” are used.
The personality of the human being is established by the soul and not by the physical body. If God forbid an accident occurs and your limbs were to be amputated, would you still be the same person?
If all your limbs were removed, and physically you were half of what you were previously – are you half of the person you were before?
These are questions to really ponder about if one desires to understand the essence of this discussion.
This shows that the material body is not who we truly are. There is something which rules over this form. That is what is referred to as the “I” and “My.” Every other material existent that we may ascribe to ourselves surrounds that metaphysical reality known as the soul.
Academic debates have raged on for centuries about the nature of the soul.
Consequently, there have been incredibly diverse discussions amongst philosophers.
In a nutshell, there are two opinions:
- Materialist approach regarding Ruh.
- Metaphysical opinion.
Materialists claim that the soul or consciousness is basically a material reality. While it is different from the normal material we are used to, it is still a physical being.
When our body dies, the spirit dies too. The spirit is a consequence of the nerve cells and arises from synapses firing in the brain.
This group of scholars also emphasise on the field of psychology, as understanding the brain is a means to understanding the soul.
On the contrary, is the school of metaphysics. Their belief is that the soul is not material based. It believes in the independence of the soul from the physical body.
In this understanding, death does not lead to complete non-existence. Rather, death is defined as the complete separation of the soul from the body. Therefore, one remains alive as long as the soul remains.
The key question that arises is therefore: How does this independent entity (soul) connect to the physical body? Is it like air that is blown into a balloon – when busted– escapes into nothingness?
While we will analyse this discussion at a later point, an example used to understand this relationship is between a word and its meaning.
A written word has a physical aspect, while its meaning is abstract!
While the word can be looked upon, its meaning can only be recalled within our minds.
In the materialist school, the brain is the organ that gives the human being soul power to feel, interact, decide, and know. What we recognize as the soul is the by-product of the brain’s activity.
In understanding how exactly this works, an example is given:
When something is eaten, the glands inside the mouth are able to identify the type of food and release certain secretions which digests specific food items.
Similarly, the brain collects information from the ears, eyes, and other senses, processes the data, and thereafter produces outputs.
They claim to have much evidence for their position.
SOUL’S CONNECTION TO THE BRAIN
The materialists put forth that the soul is connected to brain – and since the brain is connected to the body – therefore it must be material.
Simply put, if the brain were to stop working, all the so-called functions of the soul would also collapse. To simplify this issue, an example of an animal is used.
If one were to defect the brain of a pigeon and damage it, the bird may survive but will not be able to function. With its limited cognitive functioning, it will not be able to eat and live.
This shows that the decision-making process of choosing to eat is dependent on the brain.
There are other examples which are applicable to the human anatomy as well – such as memory.
If one suffers from brain damage, they are not capable of remembering or even recognise their most close ones.
Knowledge and memory are actions of the soul, which has deteriorated when the brain was damaged.
Furthermore, when a human being needs to undertake difficult intellectual activities, they require energy.
As knowledge is associated with the soul – and the soul is supposedly immaterial – why would it need food and drink to energise it?
This is another proof that the soul is material in nature.
Throughout history the greatest thinkers have always showed to have larger brain capacities. On the contrary, those that never utilised their thinking abilities have always shown to have smaller brains. This again shows that knowledge is connected to the physical brain.
KNOWLEDGE & DECISION MAKING
The power of knowledge and decision-making is related to the (immaterial) soul. If that was the case, then this ability is also present in animals. Perhaps this does not exist on the same level of human beings, but it certainly exists. Animals also display feelings and emotional reactions to their surroundings, further showing that the soul is an action of the brain.
The arguments put forth by the materialist school of thought indicates that they have misunderstood the metaphysical understanding of the soul.
We do not say that the brain has no role to play. They have confused the ‘tools’ of a doer with the ‘doer’ itself.
The brain in this instance is the tool and not the real actor. It has an incredibly important role to play – this cannot be glossed over.
However, tools when all is said and done – are just tools! They cannot perform anything independently.
Consider the relationship between a carpenter and the tools he uses.
Despite all of the knowledge and prowess he may have, beautiful pieces of furniture cannot be produced due to the lack of available tools.
In contrast, without the carpenter and only tools, absolutely nothing can be produced either.
Alternatively, consider a telescope. Here I would like to pose a question:
Can you see distant stars by the use of naked eye?
Of course not. Only the telescope has made it possible for you to see planetary bodies that exist lightyears away.
What about the case where there is only a telescope? No matter how advanced the telescope, can it see the stars by its own? Not at all!
It still needs the human being to look through it so that the planets can be seen.
The telescope is the tool, not the actor.
While both of these are just examples, they represent an important relationship we need to understand.
The brain has the capacity to provide data and process that information to a certain extent.
However, this processing is still not enough.
There is a need of something immaterial which should be able to interpret and take further decisions and perform further functions.
EVIDENCE OF METAPHYSICAL UNDERSTANDING
The materialists argue everything is a function of the brain and it is material like every other material organ in the body.
There is a substantial problem and a basic difference between other organs and the brain.
Let’s study the stomach as an example to illustrate the point. The stomach functions when it interacts with the external world, such as food entering into the organ. Naturally, it is limited to the material that it encounters.
The brain functions in the complete opposite manner. The brain meets the outside world, but the way it comes into contact with the outside world and the way we know the outside world has a vast difference.
The brain has the unique capability of imagination and memory.
We have all stood in front of Table Mountain and seen it in its totality. But now when you imagine standing in front of it – what do you recall? Is it a miniaturised version that fits in your mind, or the mountain as is? The answer is clearly the latter – which leads to the begging question – how??
How does the brain, a purely material object – capture that image in a manner that when you think about it, you think about as it is!
But how is this possible??
The mountain has material dimensions that span for kilometres, but this has all been retained in your mind. How can a purely material soul comprehend the reality as it is?
It’s not like taking a picture that is limited to the size of a phone. Theres no scaling factor in your memory of what it looks like, as is used in a map.
Our major point is that we do not deny the role of brain in the functioning of the spirit. But we believe that they are tools that are used by the soul. The one who acts upon is the soul.
In order to further elucidate this point, consider this question:
Question 1: Does anything exist outside of us or not?
Sophists of the past used to say that there is no reality – everything is mentally constructed. This is a wrong approach and generally has been rejected by all classes of academics today.
Question 2: Do we have access and are aware of the reality outside of us?
Some accept that there is a reality outside, but we cannot truly access it. Even materialists reject this notion. They believe we can interact and be aware of the outside world.
Question 3: How do we come to know the outside world?
The outside world does not come in its entirety into our mind.
Rather, a picture that represents that reality comes into our mind.
This is a distinguishing characteristic about this image. If this image was purely a product of the physic-chemical reaction of the brain, it would not be able to accurately represent that window of reality to the outside world.
Because if it is action/interaction of the brain cells and the outside world, it will be affected by the outside world – but it will not be able to capture it. Like the stomach, which just interacts with the food and goes through a digestive process.
But this picture is completely something different. It’s not simply a reaction nor a shadow. This picture is somehow taking on the reality in its entirety that is on the outside – this is not possible for the brain to do this on its own.
Partially the brain is certainly involved.
However, the whole picture which is in fact a window into reality is so much more than that.
PERSONALITY DOES NOT CHANGE WITH TIME
We know ourselves by direct knowledge and not something we visualise or conceptualise.
When we think of others that are in our life, it is constructed of an image of different facts that we associate with that individual.
Our knowledge about ourselves, however, is a lived experience and something that is continuously present for us. This relates to the discussion we had surrounding the ‘I’ and ‘My’ and what this truly represents.
This shows that the way we know other material objects in our life is NOT the same way we know true selves. But if our souls were material in nature, our knowledge about it should be exactly the same as other material realities.
Furthermore, if who we are is purely determined by our material nature, the cells of the body are continuously changing.
Science has showed that the somatic cells have completely changed over a 7 or 10-year period.
If the soul was purely material, that means we should also change in the same time!
But we find that our personality remains relatively the same, and we are still held accountable for what we have done in the past.
If the soul was purely material, then crimes committed 10 years ago should no longer matter. This person is no longer the same individual anymore as all the cells of his body changed!
SPIRITUAL VS MATERIAL EXPERIENCES
Our spiritual experiences are very different than our material experiences. Material experiences have three defining attributes that cannot be overlooked.
- Everything that happens in the world of matter is confined to time and has graduality.
- As time goes and passes, they become old, weak and frail.
- Everything which is material can be divided into parts.
When we look at spiritual phenomena, they are not confined to time nor become old and cannot be divided. If you remember something from your childhood, that picture never gets weak or becomes old.
Furthermore, certain concepts which your soul is capable of capturing are also not affected by time. Such an example includes a basic mathematical equation like 2+2=4. While the numbers itself can be separated into parts, equality as a concept cannot be divided.
These notions are present and belong to something which is spiritual in nature.
In conclusion, the key takeaway from this lesson is the importance of separating the tool from the doer. The brain has an immensely important role in surviving, but the soul is the essence. The brain and other tools are preparatory causes (illatun mu’iddah), while the soul is the one that causes us to continue to live – much like the astronomer looking through a telescope.
Please like and share this post.