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What Does Islam Say About the Spirit and its Identity?


The spirit is from the world of Divine Commands

Although science is not yet ready to accept it, there are, besides the usual subdivisions (e.g., the worlds of plants, animals, and human beings) and the world of jinn, many other worlds located one within the other or above or enveloping the other. Of these worlds, our visible, material world addresses itself to our senses. From tiny particles to galaxies, this world is the realm where God Almighty gives life, fashions, renews, changes, and causes things to die. Science concerns itself with the phenomena of this world.

Above this visible, material world is the immaterial world of Divine Laws or Commands. To learn something about this world, consider how a book, a tree, or a human being comes into existence. The main part of a book’s existence is its meaning. A book cannot exist without meaning, regardless of how excellent the printing machine is or how many sheets we have. In the case of a tree, what stimulates its seed to germinate in the soil and grow into a tree is the essence of life and the law of germination and growth with which it is endowed. We can observe the entire process, from seed to tree, with our own eyes. In the absence of the essence of life and the laws of germination and growth that, although invisible or unobservable, govern a new living thing’ birth and growth, there would be no plants.

Similarly, menstruation prepares a woman’s womb every month for insemination. This process is dictated by a (biological) law. Out of the millions of male sperms heading for the womb, one reaches the ovum to fertilize it. After this, another (biological) law takes over: menstruation stops until birth. An embryo’s development into a new individual through many stages is a third process governed by other (biological or embryological) laws. This process is mentioned in the Qur’an quite explicitly:

We created man from a quintessence of clay. We then placed him as a drop in a place of rest firmly fixed. Then We made the drop into a leech-like structure suspended on the wall of the womb, and then of that leech-like structure We made a chewed-like substance. Then We made out of that chewed-like substance bones (skeletal system). Then We clothed the bones with flesh (muscles). Then We developed out of it another creation. So blessed be God the best to create (23:12–5).

This process takes place, according to the Qur’an, within three veils of darkness: He created you in the wombs of your mothers, in stages, one after another, in three veils of darkness (39:6). These three veils of darkness are the belly, the womb, and the caul or membrane; the constituents of the fetal membranes; or the three regions of the decidua: decidua basalis, decidua capsularis, and the decidua parietalis. Or rather, the verse includes all of these meanings.

We derive the existence of such laws from the almost never-changing repetition of all these processes. Likewise, by observing the (natural) phenomena around us, we also derive the existence of many other laws, such as gravitation and repulsion, and the freezing and vaporization of water.

Thus, like the laws we have thus mentioned and many others, the spirit is a law issuing from the world of Divine Laws or Commands. Nevertheless, unlike the others, the human spirit is a living, conscious law. The verse: Say: “The spirit is of my Lord’s Command” (17:85) states that the spirit is from the world of Divine Commands, not from the visible, material world. If the spirit were stripped of life and consciousness, it would become a law; if the laws were to be given life and consciousness, they would become each a spirit.


The spirit cannot be defined, nor can it be perceived through scientific information

While matter or anything in the material world is composed of atoms, and atoms are made up of more minute particles, the spirit is a simple entity. Since it is simple, it does not disintegrate. We cannot see it as we see a material thing, but we can know it through its manifestations in this world. Although we accept its existence and observe its manifestations, we cannot know its nature. Such ignorance, however, does not mean that it does not exist.

We see with our eyes, as they are instruments with which to see. The main center of sight is located in the brain. But the brain does not see. You do not say: “My brain sees”; rather, you say: “I see.” It is the individual who sees or hears or senses. But what is this “I”? Is it something composed of a brain, a heart, and other organs and limbs? Why can we not move when we die, although all our organs and limbs are there? Does a factory operate by itself, or does something else (i.e., electrical energy) cause it to work? Any defect or error in a factory that causes a disconnect between it and its electrical energy can reduce a once highly productive and invaluable factory to a heap of junk. Is such a relation at all comparable to that between the spirit and the body?

When the body’s connection with the spirit is cut by death, the body is reduced to something that must be disposed of quickly, before it begins to rot and decompose.

The spirit is not an electrical power, but rather a conscious, powerful thing that learns and thinks, senses and reasons. It develops continually, usually in parallel with the body’s physical development, as well as mentally and spiritually, through learning and reflection, belief and worship. The spirit determines each individual’s different character, nature, or identity. As a result, although all human begins are substantially made of the same elements, they are totally distinct from each other.


The spirit commands a person’s inner faculties

God has given a particular nature to each creature:

All that is in the heavens and Earth submits to Him, willingly or unwillingly, and they will be returned to Him (3:83); and Glorify the Name of your Lord, the Most High, Who has created (all things) and well proportioned (them); Who has assigned for each a particular form and a particular way to follow and ordained their destinies, and guided (them) (87:1-3).

Whatever exists in the universe, including the human body, acts according to the primordial nature God Almighty assigned to it. This is why we observe a strict determinism in the universe’s operation. What we call “natural laws” are no more than names we give to the ways of acting or the attributes of the primordial nature God determined for creatures.

The primordial nature of things does not deceive. For example, as God orders the Earth to revolve around its own axis as well as the sun, it always revolves. A seed says in the tongue of its being or primordial nature: “I will germinate under the soil in proper conditions and grow into a plant,” and it does what it says. Water declares that it freezes at 0ºC and vaporizes at 100ºC, and does what it declares.

Similarly, the human conscience, so long as it remains sound, does not lie. If it is not deluded by the carnal self or desires, it deeply feels the existence of God and finds peace through believing in and worshipping Him. Thus, the spirit directs or commands our conscience and other faculties. It seeks the world from which it has come, and yearns for its Creator. Unless it is stunted and spoiled by sin, it will find the Creator and attain true happiness in Him.


The spirit has deep relations to the past and future

Animals have no conception of time, for their God-given primordial nature causes them to live only for the present, without feeling any pain for the past or anxiety for the future. On the other hand, we are deeply influenced by such pain and anxiety, for our spirit is a conscious, sentient entity. The spirit is never satisfied with this mortal, fleeting world, and our accomplishments or possessions (e.g., money, high position, satisfied desires) cannot make it happy. Rather, especially when considered only for their own sakes or for the sake of the carnal self, such things only increase its dissatisfaction and unhappiness, for it finds rest only through belief, worship, and remembrance of God.

Every person feels a very strong desire for eternity. This desire cannot come from the physical dimension of our existence, for our mortality precludes any feeling of and desire for eternity. Rather, this desire or feeling originates in the eternal dimension of our existence, and it is our spirit that inhabits this dimension. Our spirit causes us to lament: “I am mortal but do not desire what is mortal. I am impotent but do not desire what is impotent. What I desire is an eternal beloved (who will never desert me), and I yearn for an eternal world.”


This article has been adapted from Risale- i Nur Collection.