Man has never been satisfied with his earthly body alone; he had noticed that it has its drawback, and is perishable. He has, therefore, believed in the existence of something higher in him. This something higher has been called a soul.
With the exception of the determinists, all philosophers have believed in the existence of the soul and have speculated about its nature. According to Plato, soul is distinct from our physical body and hence it is not material. The Platonists consider the physical body to be impediment to the progress of the soul. Aristotle, on the other hand, equates the soul with intellect – a property of the physical body. Muslim philosophers have, generally, taken one or the other of these views, with the majority favouring Plato.
The philosophical arguments are, naturally, in very technical language and it will not serve any useful purpose to discuss them here. As an example, however, I am translating one of the simple arguments of Ahmad Ibn Maskuyah, a Muslim philosopher of the 10th century; this is from his book Al Fauz ul Asghar. (The words in the brackets are my own – added to help the reader).
“It seems evident that all parts of the human body, big and small, are mere tools of some power external to them. For example, the information obtained from what the eyes see, the ears hear, the nose smells and the hands touch is of no use to them; this information is utilized by some other power (e.g. the brain). Sometimes, these tools make mistakes in there observations: for instance, a big object appears small from a distance. On such occasions, also, some other power decides that the tool made a mistake. It might be argued that the power which utilizes the information gathered by the “tools” is a part of the material body. There is no reason to believe, however, that this (brain) itself is not a “tool” or a portion of a “tool” (body). Therefore, the “thing” which uses these “tools” must necessarily be non-material. Since it (the “thing” – the soul) is non-material, it can not have physical properties, shape and structure, and hence it must be a fundamental element and not a compound and once it is proved that the soul is a fundamental element and not a compound, it is easy to see that it won’t perish since the perishing of something “merely means the rearrangement of its constituents; but if something is not a compound and has no structure, it can not disintegrate and by synthesized into something else.”
I gave the above “quote” for historical interest and to show more or less typical philosophical argument. In what follows, I will attempt to give a short account of some of the aspects of the problem.
WHAT SOUL IS NOT
It must be emphasized that we cannot talk with complete clarity about things which can not be thoroughly investigated and about which we do not have clear teachings. The nature of the soul is one of these difficult concepts.
“They ask you concerning (the nature of) the soul. Say it is by the command of my Lord and you have been given but a little knowledge of it.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 17, Verse 85.
Thus it is impossible to know the exact nature of the soul. We could, nevertheless, investigate the little knowledge that we have been given and that to clarify the things already said about it. We may not be able to say what the soul is but we can definitely say what it is not.
We can reject out-right those concepts of the soul which consider it either material or linked with the material body in such a way that it will perish with the body.
Some non-scientist Muslims, untrained in theology and confused by atheist philosophers, have tried to give scientific explanations of the soul. It is not surprising that these writers have talked themselves into non-Islamic concepts. These writers end up by calling the soul, “consciousness as a result of the chemical action in the brain.” They claim they believe in the survival of the soul but they still give the above definition even though “if the chemical action stops through some defect in the machinery, consciousness disappears.” They say that the soul is related to the body in the same way in which the mechanical energy of the engine is related to the motor car. They can talk about this consciousness taking form of energy and assuming a separate identity after the death of the body. (See e.g. God, Soul and Universe in Science and Religion by Sir Mohammad Yamin Khan). Needless to say that this line of argument is unsatisfactory and definitely unscientific. It is possible that a small fraction of the mass of the body is transformed into energy but there is no scientific reason to believe that this will assume a separate “identity” and will “control” the rest of the body. (It should be kept in mind that most of the body remains as mass and becomes a part of the other structure).
THE SOUL AND THE BODY CONSTITUTE A SINGLE UNIT
Some early Christian sects (e.g. Gnostics and Marcionites) regarded the world so vile and imperfect that they believed it to be the creation of a “creator” lower than God – They thought this lower creator was Jehovah of the Old Testament. According to these sects, the good God was the creator of the world of Spirits (Jesus was considered to be one of them) and lived with them in a place called son, far above Jehovah and his world. The Christian Church later declared the dogma of two Creators as heretical but retained the idea of man being a composite of two irreconcilably distinct entities: the flesh and the soul. The teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism are quite similar; the only major difference is that according to some Hindu sects the souls are co-eternal with God. All these ideas are in line with Plato’s concept of the soul as being divorced from the body.
Islam rejects the doctrine that the material body is opposed to the soul. It also rejects the ascertion that the material world is vile and imperfect.
“Who made all things, which He created, good and He began the creation of man from clay. Then He made his progeny from an extract of insignificant fluid. Then He fashioned him properly and breathed into him of His spirit.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 32 Verse 7-9.
Thus the material body is good and properly fashioned and the man is completed only after the soul enters it.
The post-philosopher Dr. Mohamma Iqbal, the most prominent of modern Muslim philosophers is the strongest opponent of Plato’s philosophy. “(Plato) was so fascinated by the invisible that the made hands, eyes and ears of no account…..the thought of Plato regarded loss as profit…..He slumbered and took no delight in deeds and action.” Iqbal in Asrar-I-Khudi
That the soul and the body are considered, in Islam, to be intimately linked can be seen from the fact that Al Qur’aan uses the words ‘man’ and ‘soul’ as more or less interchangeable when it talks of actions.
“On the Day when every soul will come pleading for itself and every soul will be repaid what it did.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 316 Verse 111.
“And there is naught for man but his endeavour.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 53 Verse 39.
“Every soul is a pledge for its own deeds.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 74 Verse 38.
This concept of the body and soul as one unit is kept in view in the Islamic form of worship, which consists not only of contemplation and “spiritual” exercise, but also of the participation and intellectual activity are combined to complete the picture of worship in Islam. Notice all the three in the following saying of Allaah:
“Men of understanding are) those who remember Allaah, standing, sitting and reclining and contemplate the creation of the heavens and the earth.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 3 Verse 191
CREATION OF THE SOULS
We all know about the formation and birth of the material body. When is the soul created and “mixed” with the body to complete the creation of man? All Muslim scholars seem to agree that the soul is “mixed” with body when it becomes capable of receiving it (each soul is created for a specific body and never enters any other body). They base their argument on the saying of Al Qur’aan.
“Then He fashioned him properly and breathed into him of His spirit.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 74 Verse 38.
The majority of the scholars believe that all the souls were created millions of years before the creation of the material world.
The assertion is based on the saying of Al Qur’aan.
“And (remember) when your Lord brought forth from the children of Adamm, from their reins, their descendants and made them testify concerning themselves (saying): ‘Am I not your Lord?’ They said: ‘Yes, Verily we testify’ ”. Al Qur’aan: Chapter 7 Verse 172.
The scholars argue that the above wording indicates that the pledge was taken from all the humans at the same time and, therefore, must have been from their souls.
The major objection to this is: if we all have such a pledge why don’t we remember it? One only has to recognize the fact that we only remember what is in our conscious mind; the things not in the conscious mind, even though factual, will not necessarily be “remembered” – they are of course “felt”, they are in our “nature.”
This “feeling” of the Godness of Allaah is present in all humans and it is this that the prophets appeal to. The appeals of the prophets bring this “feeling” to surface in a fashion similar to the one in which “memories” in the subconscious mind are triggered to come into the conscious mind.
THE PROGRESS OF THE SOUL
Islam does not agree with the theory that man is created in sin that he is saved only by denouncing himself. On the contrary, Islam asserts that man is created with the highest potentialities and it is only when he does not use these faculties that he is degraded.
“Surely We created man of the best mould, then We reduced him to the lowest of the low, except those who believe and do good works, for them is a reward unfailing.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 95 Verse 4-6.
The soul is the most basic constituent element in man and is thus considered to be responsible for all the activities of man. The success of the soul depends upon its ability to control and direct the intellect and the body in the proper direction. The “sins” of the body and the Intellect, therefore, will be considered a disease of the soul.
Since the first and the only basic pledge taken from the soul was regarding the Godness of Allaah, the greatest impediment in the path of its progress will be the neglect of the fact and accepting other deities besides Him.
“Verily those who deny Our revelations and scorn them, for them the gates of Heaven will not be opened nor will they enter the Garden until the camel goes through the needle’s eye.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 7 Verse 40.
“And whoso ascribes partners unto Allaah, it is as if he had fallen from the sky.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 22 Verse 31.
“And it has been revealed to you as unto those before you that if you ascribe a partner to Allaah, your work will fail (to bear fruit) and you will be among the losers.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 39 Verse 65.
Success of the soul is in having a clear “vision” of this and basing everything on it; its failure is in deviation from the basic concept of one Allaah and His Path.
“And don’t follow your base desires for they will mislead you from the Way of Allaah. Indeed those who wander astray from the Way of Allaah have an awful doom for as much as they forgot the Day of Reckoning.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 38 Verse 26.
Since soul and matter are one unit, they both participate in rewards and punishments. A cursory glance at the Holy Qur’aan will make this quite clear. The rewards and punishments are not only in the Hereafter, they are also here.
“Those who believe and keep their duty (to Allaah), theirs are good tidings n the life of the world and in the Hereafter.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 10 Verse 36-64.
“So Allaah gave them the reward of the world and the good reward of the Hereafter.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 3 Verse 148.
It is emphasized again that the progress of the soul is possible only through the use of all the physical faculties and leading a full life; Islam strongly opposed the monastic life.
“And We caused Jesus, son of Mary, to follow (the other Prophets) and gave him Injil, and placed compassion and mercy in the hearts of those who followed him. But Monasticism they invented – We ordained it not for them – only seeking Allah’s pleasure (was ordained) and they observed it not with right observance.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 57 Verse 27.
All material things tend to a state of the lowest tension, they “flow” in the direction of the greatest ease. The human body is similarly disposed. If the soul does not remain alert, it will be dragged down to the utterly animal level.
“The (human) soul is certainly prone to evil.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 12 Verse 53.
In this state the soul is called Ammarah and the man is nothing more than an animal.
The normal state of the soul, however, is what is called Lawwamdh – the accusing. (See Al Qur’aan: Chapter 75 Verse 2. In this state the soul is constantly on guard, is deeply conscious of the good and evil and accuses itself if it does anything deeply wrong. There are different levels in this stage and towards the end one accuses oneself for not doing enough good.
The final stage of development of the soul in this life, is called Motma-innah – the Satisfied – at peace. At this stage everything is under proper control, every move is properly dissected, there are no more tensions, away from the Way of Allaah (This stage had a number of divisions – The theological divisions based on the Holy Qur’aan and even more finer divisions of the Sufis. A discussion of this will lead us too far). When this stage is reached, one is ready to enter Paradise.
“O you soul at peace! Return unto thy Lord, content in His good Pleasure! Enter among My Bondmen! Enter My Garden.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 89 Verse 27-32.
The final stage can be reached only by full surrender of the soul to the Laws of Allaah. Al Qur’aan: Chapter 13 Verse 28-29.
“And he who feared to stand before his Lord and restrained his soul from lust, indeed the Garden will be his home.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 79 Verse 40-41.
Philosophers, including some Muslims, have assumed that a soul is capable of progress indefinitely without eternal help. They fell into error through following the Aristotelian dogma blindly. The Qur’aanic teachings’ are clearly against this; it considers the progress of the soul impossible without strict adherence not only to the Prophetic code but also to the whole of the Sharia – the whole set of laws derived by the Muslim consensus from the Qur’aan and the Sunnah of the Prophet.
“And obey Allah and the Apostle that you may fine mercy.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 3 Verse 132.
“Obey Allah and obey the Apostle and beware! But if you turn away, then know that the duty of Our Messenger is plain conveyance (of the message).” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 5 Verse 92.
“And whoso takes Allaah and His Apostle and thos who believe for friend (will know that), indeed the party of Allaah are the victorious.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 5 Verse 5-6.
“As We have sent unto you an Apostle from among you, who recites unto you Our revelation and CAUSES YOU TO GROW and teaches you the Book and wisdom and teaches you that which you know.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 2 Verse 151.
THE SOUL AFTER DEATH
After the death of this physical body, the soul survives. It is in a state of rest and peace if it has been successful; and instill more distress if unsuccessful – until the day of Judgement. This state is called Barzakh – literary, a barrier.
“And behind them is a barrier until the day when they are raised.” Al Qur’aan: Chapter 23 Verse 100.
It appears from the saying of the Holy Prophet that while in this state the soul remains in contact with its body, The Holy Prophet uses words like “And the Soul returns to the body” etc.
In Barzakh the soul remembers its friends and relatives. It was said (unto him): Enter Paradise. He said: Would that
The Qur’aan is so clear about the non perishability of the soul that we need not go into that – the words, “they will remain there forever” are used for man in the Hereafter.
Whether this physical body will be revived or another one will be made to accompany the soul in the Hereafter, is a complete problem in itself which we need not discuss here.
References are given to various authors and books in the appropriate places in the text of the article. I am also indebted to Maulana Abu Muhammad Abdul Haque Hoggani whose book ALBAYAN FI ULUM UL QURAN has helped me in getting started in a few places. I have not seen Abu Maskuyah’s AL FAUZ-UL-ASGHAR; I have translated from an extract from an extract given by Maulana Abdussalam Nadvi in his HOKAMA-I-ISLAM.