We all need to move beyond this world, because it is constantly passing way. Kullu man alayha fan “Everything on it is passing away.” Jumu’ah provides us with an opportunity to do just that: to be with Allah and not with the creation. To focus on eternity and not on the concerns of the day, the week, or the year. This is the food that our souls need.
But what are our souls. How do we conceive of it, and how does that conception impact out lives? I do not claim to be able to adequately describe the details of the soul, or the practical implications of that knowledge. Rather, I want to stimulate our interest in the soul, and to provide an opportunity for us to begin to reflect, at a deeper level, about who we are and what that means for our life. What I will say is primarily taken from authorities greater than myself, peppered with my own reflections. I learned as a young man that to truly understand something, you need to be able to put it into your own words. So it is important for us to remember that just because someone is capable of quoting a text does not mean that they necessarily understand it. But I will do my best, trusting in al-Hadi (the Guide) to lead us toward that which is beneficial.
It might be good to reflect on the saying attributed to the Prophet (may God grant blessings and peace to him and his family), man ‘arafa nafsah ‘arafa rabbah (whoever knows their own self knows their Lord). While there are debates in our tradition about whether or not the Prophet said this, we know from our scholars that its meaning is sound regardless, for how can we understand the world outside of ourselves, let alone the infinite Majesty and Beauty of God, if we have little understanding of that which is so close at hand that it never leaves us, namely who we are on the inside.
Our souls were created a long time ago. We read in the Qur’an about the day when God brought all of the children of Adam into the Divine presence, and asked them “alastu bi rabbikum (Am I not your Lord)” and we all affirmed that indeed God is our sovereign Lord. We may not have any memories of that experience, but it is something imprinted in our souls. We have always known, and will always know, that God is God, that we are nothing without God’s sustaining power, and that all pleasure and pain that we can experience, in this world or the next, materially or spiritually, is from God. To reflect on our souls is to reflect on the reality of our servitude to God. When we know our selves, we know, more deeply, that we cannot but be God’s servants, and we shed from our selves the grave spiritual disease of seeing ourselves as self-sufficient. Only Allah is al-Qayyum (the Self Subsitent), and it is through Allah’s qayyumiyya, his sustaining of others, that we exist at all.
The material reality that surrounds us forces us to serve something. If we do not serve God, we will serve something else. By being in this world, we must act. And our actions are a reflection of our mental conception of who we are and what this world means. If we, for example, think that our bodies define us, then we will obsess over maintaining our bodies. We will want to spend our money on plastic surgery, gym memberships, and so on. We will constantly focus on our bodies, and exhibit anxiety over their inevitable decay. We will worship youth, and do whatever we can to prolong it. But the person who believes that the body is simply the resting place of the soul, and that God does not inherently care about their outward appearance, this person will work to cultivate that which is unseen. They will spend their time in the remembrance of God, for it polishes the inner reality. They will look for the destructive character traits within (known as al-’uyub or al-amrad or al-muhlikat), and they will seek the means to remedy them. They will know that youth is a passing stage, and look forward to the wisdom that is gained in later years. And if they choose to focus on fitness or a pleasant appearance, they will do it for the sake of God, not for the sake of delusion and vanity.
So it is to our spiritual benefit to reflect on the soul. We must know what is temporary about our selves and what is lasting, so that we may focus our actions on those which have eternal benefit. God reminds of us this reality when the Qur’an states: “When I form him perfect, and blow in him of My spirit, then you must fall down before him in prostration.” (15.29)
Tafsir al-Jalalayn, which is a standard introductory tafsir for the Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l-Jama’ah, states that when God says “My spirit (ruhi),” he is honoring the human soul (the ruh) in the same way that God honors the Ka’ba by calling it “bayt Allah.” Just as we know that the Ka’ba is not actually God’s house, we should know that this verse does not mean that our souls (our arwah, which is the plural of ruh) are a part of God. But our ruh is something unique, and essentially transcendent of this material reality. Qadi Thana’ullah Paanipati, a great Indian scholar who died in 1810 (rahimahullah), said that the ruh is not like the usual creation that comes into existence through the dispersal of matter. Rather, it is created directly through the command “kun.”
God is uncreated, and everything we experience is created. But some created things are different than others. For example, a tree is born and dies, and that is it. God manifested it for a short time, according to Divine Will, and then after awhile it no longer exists. But our souls are eternal. We are eternal. But what about us is eternal.? Not our bodies, because we know that it decays. God can recreate our bodies as many times as he wants, and in whatever way that he wants, but our ruh was decreed to last forever since the day it was created by the Divine command. In that way, it is unlike anything else that we know of.
For example, when we learn about some of the punishments of Hell, through the Qur’an or the statements of the Prophets (may peace be upon all of them), we learn that some of them involved the perpetual destruction and recreation of the body. The individual soul which experiences that torment never changes for all eternity, but the body which is the means by which the soul experiences that torment is created and recreated again and again and again, in accordance with the Divine Will and by means of the Divine Power. Similarly, we believe that God will provide us with new bodies fit for the exalted nature of Jannah, but we will still be the same person then. May God provide us all with peace and pleasure in the barzakh, the intermediate world before the ressurrection, and may God grant us all entry into Jannah without any accounting, any hisab, ameen.
It is a truly remarkable thing to reflect on the fact that we are eternal. It is part of our ‘aqida, our belief system, that now that we are created, God will maintain us, in whatever way God chooses, for the rest of eternity. But we know it is not this specific body that he maintains, for I am not now as I was when I was 13. Physically, I am a radically different person. But I am the same, and I will be me forever. But as I grow in awareness of who I am, I will change. When I was 10 years old, I thought I was my body, but now I see a very different person looking back at me in the mirror, but that 10 year old boy and this 33 year old man are the same individual.
The awareness of the ruh should create within us a greater love and respect for all human beings, and see in their presence on the earth a manifestation of God’s Majesty (Jalal) and Beauty (Jamal). Beyond the distinctions of rich and poor, convert and immigrant, white and ethnic, men and women, even Muslim and non-Muslim, we are the same at our core. The ruh transcends these distinctions. All human beings have a ruh, and as such are deserving of our respect. As God said, La qad karramana bani Adam “Truly we have ennobled the descendants of Adam.”
We might not know the details of how the uncreated relates to the created, but what this verse, and Qadi Thana’ullah’s commentary, are getting us to reflect upon is that there is something inside of us which is unlike other created things. There is something inside us that God thinks is so special that God calls it “ruhi (My spirit),” and that should naturally lead us to want to uncover its reality to a greater degree. Mufti Muhammad Shafi’i, a great Pakistani scholar of the 20th century, wrote that the ruh “has a unique ability to accept and absorb the manifestations of Divine light, an ability which does not exist in the spirit of any other living creature other than that of the human person.” We must cherish that and uncover that, by the mercy and grace of al-Hadi, the One who guides us. We have this unique and exalted status as human beings not because of anything that we did to deserve it, but simply out of an act of pure grace from Allah.
Once the Prophet (may God blessings and peace upon him and his family) was asked directly about the ruh, and a verse was revealed in response: “And they ask you about the soul. Say, the soul is something from the command of my Lord, and you are not given from the knowledge but a little.” (17.85)
Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that the ruh belongs to the knowledge of God. God understands it completely, but our knowledge is incomplete. This is a great blow to the human ego, which thinks that it can understand all things, and master its surroundings. But if we don’t even know who we are, beyond the observable physical characteristics, our claims of knowledge and mastery are shallow at best. Qadi Thana’ullah Paanipati said that this verse explains what is sufficient for the common folk (the ‘awamm), who just need to know that the ruh is exalted, i.e. “from the command of my Lord (min amri rabbi),” but do not need to know its details.
Most Muslims just need to know that they are held accountable for their beliefs and actions, and that is it. But others have a longing for a deeper understanding. Mufti Muhammad Shafi’i, a famous Pakistani scholar of the 20th century, explained that this verse neither negates or affirms the human beings ability to know more about the ruh and he explicitly states that if a wali (someone beloved by God) were to come to know this knowledge through kashf (unveiling) or ilham (inspiration), which are two forms of spiritual knowledge from God which are subservient to wahy (which is the revelation given to the Prophets and Messengers) it is not contradictory to this verse. Some Muslims would think that the only authentic information on this subject is that which is in the nass, the texts of revelation, i.e. those based on wahy. But that is incorrect. The nass provides a foundation and a framework which is sufficient, but it does not negate the ability of the human being to elaborate and deepen their understanding of reality.
Speaking about this, Shaykh Abdul Hakim Murad, an ‘alim from the UK, writes: “According to the early Islamic psychologists, the ruh is a non-material reality which pervades the entire human body, but is centred on the heart, the qalb. It represents that part of man which is not of this world, and which connects him with his Creator, and which, if he is fortunate, enables him to see God in the next world. When we are born, this ruh is intact and pure. As we are initiated into the distractions of the world, however, it is covered over with the 'rust' (ran) of which the Quran speaks. This rust is made up of two things: sin and distraction. When, through the process of self-discipline, these are banished, so that the worshipper is preserved from sin and is focusing entirely on the immediate presence and reality of God, the rust is dissolved, and the ruh once again is free. The heart is sound; and salvation, and closeness to God, are achieved.”
This gives us a firm understanding of the basics of the ruh, and why it is important to reflect upon. If our ruh is that which connects us with out Creator, it is imperative that we uncover it. As the shaykh mentioned, there is an internal rust which can cover over the luminosity of the ruh. If the ruh is the means by which the light of God is absorbed in our being, as Mufti Muhammad Shafi stated, then our internal reality needs to be clear and clean so that it can reflect that light. Sin and distraction are what cause the rust to build up, and this is one of the reasons that Shaykh Ibn Ata’illah, a famous scholar from Alexandria who died in 1309 (rahimahullah), stated: “Better to look at the defects hidden within you than to look for the unseen worlds that are veiled from you.”
Why is this so? Our minds can only penetrate the veils of reality so far. When our minds break down, it is our souls that provide the window into the unseen. But just as our mind cannot work properly when it is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, so too can the soul not perform its spiritual function when our internal reality is intoxicated with this world and sick from indulging in what God has prohibited. All of the rituals and rules of Islam are meant to bring us back to our fuller humanity, so that we become people who can reflect the nur of God in our very beings. Our ruh is the most beautiful and amazing part of ourselves. It is “ruhi,” it is “min amr rabbi,” and we owe it to ourselves to protect it through leaving sin, and to enliven it through fighting against the distractions of this world to arrive at the pure meadow of God’s remembrance.
The food of the soul is the remembrance of God. That is what it wants, because the remembrance of God is the very essence of our existence. This is clearly understood from many verses in the Qur’an and statements of the Prophet (may God send blessings and peace upon him and his family). Shaykh Gibril Haddad, a contemporary scholar of hadith, writes, “In countless prophetic traditions, we are told how the remembrance of God is “the best of all deeds,” and how gatherings of dhikr are akin to both the “gardens of paradise” and the “gatherings of angels.” It comes as no surprise that when the Prophet Muhammad (s) was asked, “Which of the servants of God is best in rank before Him on the day of resurrection?” he responded, “The ones who remember Him much.” The heart that pulsates to the testimony of God’s majesty begins to rust through the absence of the remembrance of God, and it is only dhikr that can once again “polish” the hearts. The state of the heart is of utmost importance for the believer, for it is neither the status of man nor his outward form that will be of any benefit to him on the day that all will come to know the fruits of their actions.”
All of this is to say that we are still on a journey. We are still grasping at the reality of who we are, and trying to fill our lives with the Divine Presence. The soul will not rest until it is firmly established in dhikr, until it can be free from the creation through unfettered connection to the Creator. One of the words that we use in the Islamic tradition to describe those who have reached this state is al-ahrar, the free. They are free from fear and worry, because they know that the al-Mu’min (the Guarantor of Security) has undertaken their eternal protection. They are free from want, because they know that al-Razzaq (the Provider of all needs) has undertaken their eternal sustenance. They are free from sadness in any form, because al-Wadud (the Perfect Love) has enveloped them in Ultimate affection for all eternity.
May al-Mujeeb (the One who hears all prayers) and al-Wahhab (the One who grants all things) make us from the ahrar, so that we may be freed from the prison of Creation and live eternally in communion with our soul’s innate desire, which is God alone, One and without Partner.