Friday, May 29, 2015

The Pronoun Perspective

A’uzu Billahi Min ash-Shaitain ir-Rajeem.

Bismillah ir-rahman ir-raheem.

Al Hamdu Lillahi Rabbil ‘Alameen.

Wasa’atu Wassalamu ‘Ala Muhammad wa ‘Ala Alihi was Sabhihi was Sallim
Ahmaduhu Subbhanahu wa Ta’ala wa Ashkuru, wa Huwa Ahlul-Hamdi wath-thana. I praise Him, the Exalted One and the High, and I thank him. It is He Who deserves the praise and gratitude.

Man Yahdillahu Fa Huwal Muhtad, wa man yudlill falan tajida lahu waliyan murshida. Anyone who has been guided by Allah, he is indeed guided; and anyone who has been misguided, you will never find a guardian to guide him.

The title of my khutbah today is “The Pronoun Perspective”

I recently completed a free online class called “How Writers Write Poetry” from the Iowa Writers Workshop. One of the lessons was on political poetry, and this lesson, out of all the other lessons, reminded me of the Quran. The Quran is, to me, a classic example of political poetry, it is an attempt to convey a political and philosophical message to the reader. Consider these questions that one of the instructors asked us about political poetry, and try to answer this from the perspective of a Quran reader.

If a poem creates a world, how will the reader view that world? – The Quran definitely creates a different kind of world for the reader, and  I think Muslims all over the world are debating this one!

What do you notice about how different perspectives create either immediacy or distance for the reader? – this is a topic I will get back to later in this khutbah.

What are the benefits or freedoms each perspective offers for revealing political or philosophical thought in poems? –Think about this in the Quran in terms of re-telling of Old Testament stories. What lessons can be drawn from the Quranic example in contrast to the Biblical examples? From Adam and Eve, to Joseph, Moses, and Mary and Jesus, the Quran offers a unique perspective to these narratives.

 What are examples of when it might be a good idea to approach a topic “sideways” and when direct address might be appropriate in your poems?
What are other techniques for coming at an issue from an angle, and not head on? – These last two questions relate to metaphor, analogy, and using imagery and narrative ; all techniques used in Quran.

I’d like to get back to question #2, how do different perspectives create either immediacy or distance for the reader. To illustrate one example, I’d like to read a poem by Claudine Rankine. She is a Jamaican born woman who now lives and writes in the United States. This poem is from her collection “Citizen: an American Lyric”.

“When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, 
you remain behind the wheel another ten minutes. 
You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and 
want time to function as a power wash. 
Sitting there staring at the closed garage door 
you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists a medical term- John Henryism- 
for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. 
They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the build up of erasure. 
Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, 
claimed the physiological costs were high. 
You hope by sitting in silence 
you are bucking the trend.”

This poem is written in the second person, using the pronoun, “you”. Now, most of us are not mixed race women from Jamaica, some of us have never dealt with racism, although many of us have taken on projects that consumed way too much of our time and everyone fears erasure. By using the pronoun “you”, Rankine is dissolving the border between the reader and the speaker. When the reader becomes the “you” of the poem, it allows the reader the freedom to represent the broader experiences of many.

The use of different perspectives creates immediacy or distance for the reader. In the Quran, there is an Arabic rhetorical trick, called iltifat or balagha, that allows a pronoun shift within a sentence. In the Qur’an the most common pronoun shifts are third person going into first person. For example in 42:38 “…and those who hearken to their Lord, and practice regular prayer, and conduct their business by mutual consultation, and give of what We have provided them...;”. The shift is from “their Lord” to “We have provided them”.  Also, in the Quran, God is never referred to in the second person (you), God is typically referred to as Allah, Your Lord, or Your Creator. God prefers to use the royal “we”  instead of “I”.The “we” is a plural and thus has the implication of more power than the singular ‘I’.

One of the problems I have with translations of the Quran is that there is often an ayah that will refer to the reader as “you”, but the translators will immediately add (Prophet Muhammad).This is done selectively. For instance in Surah 93 “Thy Sustainer has not forsaken thee, not does He scorn thee.” Or Surah 94 “Have We not opened up thy heart, and lifted thee from the burden that had weighed so heavily on thy back? And raised thee high in dignity.” The you or thee/thou does not have the (Prophet Muhammad) insertion, and the use of the second person is asking the reader to partake in the Prophet’s breadth of experience. However, the translators don’t want everyone to feel they have a share in every prophetic experience.  I can understand why they do this, they don’t want everyone thinking that they are a prophet, this would create chaos, schisms and increased admissions to psychiatric wards. But, I think it is very important to remember that  (Prophet Muhammad) was NOT how the ayah was revealed nor how it is recited. The Quran is using “you”, and I think the purpose of using the ”you” is to invite to reader to move closer into the text.

I decided to take a look at one of my least favorite ayah, “Today I have perfected your religion for you.”  5: 3. No (Prophet Muhammad) – this ‘you’ is supposed to be the reader. I have a hard time with this ayah because a) it is usually said by particularly obnoxious prostelytizers and b) the philosophical pursuit of perfection is, in my opinion, a thorny issue.

The first thing to note about this ayah is even though it was revealed towards the end of the Prophet’s time on earth (more about that in the second part), it is embedded in the context of food restriction laws. Now there are few things to keep in mind about food preparation in 7th century Arabia. First, there was no refrigeration at that time. Second, in polytheistic cultures which had routine animal sacrifices, butchers would often sell extra animals that didn’t make it to the altar. Butchers were associated with polytheistic temple practice and surroundings. We live in a culture that frowns on any form of animal sacrifice, voudon culture notwithstanding, and so our butchers are associated with commercial agribusiness.

This is the textual context of “Today I have perfected your religion for you.”, from 5:3
“Forbidden to you is carrion, and blood, and the flesh of swine, and that over which any name other than God’s has been invoked, and the animal that has been strangled, or beaten to death, or killed by a fall, or gored to death, or savaged by a beast of prey, save that which you (yourselves) may have slaughter while it was still alive, and all that has been slaughtered on idolatrous altars. And (forbidden) is to seek to learn through divination what the future may hold in store for you, this is sinful conduct. Today, those who are bent on denying the truth have lost all hope of (your ever forsaking) your religion; do not, then, hold them in awe, but stand in awe of Me! Today I have perfected your religious law for you, and have bestowed upon you the full measure of My blessings, and willed that self-surrender unto Me shall be your religion. As for him, however, who is driven (to what is forbidden) by dire necessity and not by an inclination of sinning- behold, God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace.” (Muhammad Asad translation.)

This translator uses “religious law”, but other translators use “religion”. He also uses “perfected” for the verb akmaltu, but other translators use “completion”. Akmaltu has the connotation of perfection, but also of being complete.  Also, this translator uses “self surrender unto Me shall be your religion” for – “wa radita takumul- Islamia Dina”, other translators just use “Islam”.  And notice, that even though this religion or religious law is ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’, there is still a caveat at the end “if anyone is compelled by dire necessity and not be an inclination of sinning, God is much forgiving, a dispenser of grace.”


Al-hamdu lillahi rabbil ‘alameen was-salutu was-salamu ‘ala khairil mursaleen. Muhammadin al-nabiyil ummiyee, wa  ‘ala alihi wa sahbihi ajma’een.
Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the universe. May the greeting and the peace be upon the best messenger, Muhammad, the unlettered prophet, and upon his family and upon all of his companions.

When the ayah “I have perfected/completed your religion for you” was revealed is a matter of sectarian divide.

Most commentators agree it was certainly in the Median period, probably sometime during the Prophet’s hajj to Mecca. According to the Shia, the Prophet introduced Ali as his successor at the Eid celebration, and after everyone cheered and pledged their loyalty to Ali, this ayah came down to the Prophet, “Today I have perfected your religion for you’. In the Sunni tradition, there is no mention of loyalty pledges to Ali. Instead, Omer hears this ayah and starts to cry. When the prophet asks Omer why he is crying, he replies, “Because everything that is perfect in this world is destined, over time, to be destroyed. “

And Prophet Muhammad replied, “You speak the truth.”

Beyond the fatalistic  tone of Omer’s response- everything is going downhill, I think we need to look a little deeper at his response. It is true, that someone or something might attain perfection for a bit on this planet. But it is the nature of our world to change. People change, circumstances change, technology and civilizations and culture change. What was once perfect in one set of circumstances, may not be so perfect, or may be outright deleterious, in other circumstances. God also completed the favors, and yes I look at religion as a favor, to Abraham, Joseph (12:6), and Moses (6:154). But as we all know, circumstances for the ensuing generations changed.

In my personal analysis, I think it rather strange that such an ‘important’ ayah is embedded in a series of food injunctions, most of which do not involve how we currently slaughter animals for meat. There is another hadith tradition in which a Jewish man asked Omer when the ayah was revealed and when Omer says it was in the context of Eid and the animal sacrifice, the Jewish man replies, “Oh, if the Jews had known this, we would have converted.” To me, this sounds like the Jewish man felt the butchering laws were good enough for kosher laws- conversion by diet similarity?

Why is such a complete/perfect religious law implanted in a series of slaughtering practices that now seem outdated. We do not use hunting falcons, we do not drive animals off cliffs and feast on their remains, we do not stop by the Aphrodite temple to see what the goddess didn't want that day. Our circumstances have changed. Perfection and completion are states that are eroded by time, wrecked by the winds of change. We must be sensitive to the changes around us and learn to analyze, think critically, and perhaps even de-emphasize or put aside certain aspects of the Quranic text that are maladaptive to our current situation. Am I saying go out and eat a pork sausage? No. But, perhaps it is a good thing if meat is not so readily available to us. There are many health studies which suggest humans would do much better from a long term health benefit point of view to not eat a meat heavy diet. More green leafy vegetables are good for you! If you really want to get into it, you can take a look at the agribusiness of meat production, the quality of life for these animals, and the carbon footprint that stems from these practices. Are we being good caretakers of the earth, vice-regents,  in our farming and diet practices? I’m not going to tell you what to eat or why, that is something you need to research and decide for yourself. I realize that much of what we eat is culture dependent, and in some social circumstances it can be difficult to assert one’s personal preferences. The end of this ayah reminds us it is the intention which is what counts in God’s mercy, “.,,who is driven by dire necessity and not by an inclination of sinning- behold, God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace.”

Closing dua is from 7:23, This is what Adam and Eve said to God after they had tasted the apple. “Our Lord! We have been done wrong to ourselves, and if You do not forgive us, and have mercy on us, we shall certainly be lost.”

Rabbana zalamna anfusana, wa in lam taghfir lana wa tarhamna la-nakunanna minal-khasirin. Ameen

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Beauty of Quran

Surah 20:  Ta Ha (O Man):
Ta Ha.  Maa anzalna alaykal-Qurana litashqa. [1-2]
O Man!  We did not bestow the Quran on thee from on high to make thee unhappy,
Illa tadhkiratal-limany-yakhsha. [3]
but only as an exhortation to all who stand in awe [of God]:
Tanzilam-mimman khalaqal-arda was-samawatil-ula. [4]
A revelation from Him who has created the earth and the high heavens
Ar-Rahmani alal-arshis-tawa.  [5]
the Most Gracious, established on the throne of his almightiness.
Lahu ma fi-samawati wa ma fil-ardi wa ma baynahuma wa ma tahtath-thara. [6]
Unto Him belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is on earth, as well as all that is between them and all that is beneath the sod.
Wa in-tajhar bilqawli fa’innahu ya lamus-sirra wa akhfa. [7]
And if thou say anything aloud, [He hears it] since, behold, He knows [even] the secret [thoughts of man] as well as all that is yet more hidden [within him].
Allahu laa iliha illa Huwa lahul-Asmaa ul-Husna [8]
God – there is no deity save Him; His [alone] are the attributes of perfection!

Surah Ta Ha opens by reminding us that the Quran was not revealed to make us unhappy.  And yet, of late, I have found myself troubled by some of what I read of it in it in English translation. 
I envy the speakers of Arabic – those who can actually read and understand Quran in it’s revealed language.  My husband is one of those.  He recites Quran as a meditative exercise, because it feeds his soul.  Not necessarily the meanings of each individual ayah – those are at times difficult to relate to, even for Arabic speakers.  He reads it for the beauty of the language.  I wish I could do that - master the beauty of the language.  Instead I must read translations that contain none of the integrity, musicality, and nuance of the Arabic.  But instead of continuing to lament about this, I decided to do something different this week.  I decided to find the ways I can connect with the beauty of Quran. 

First, I tried listening to beautiful recitations.  My favorite so far is this one, by the young Saudi actress who played Wadjda in the film by Haifa Al Mansour.    Wadjda, from Surat Al-Baqara, 7-12.  

The other way I found to connect to the beauty of Quran has been a little more surprising, and liberating.  In his book, “The Search for Beauty in Islam,”  legal scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl creates an imaginary conversation with the Quran.  He writes “throughout history we debated you – created or uncreated, literal or symbolic, rational or mystical.  We debated the principles, the history, the ethics, the laws.  In reality, through you, we were constructing ourselves and we were debating who we are and what we are.  Then debates stopped and the dynamism of the process stagnated …”  El Fadl then enjoins us to follow the edict contained in Surat Ar-Rahman 55, ayat 1-4:
            Arrahman.  Allamal-Quran.  Khalaqal-Insan.
The Most Gracious has imparted this Quran
Has created humans:  He has imparted unto them articulate thought and speech. [1-4]

In other words, God created us with the power to discern.  El Fadl quotes Imam Ali (who died just 29 years after the Prophet) who said, “The Quran is but a book between two covers – it is humans who read it, understand it, and implement it.”

“Hundreds of scholars approached the text of the Quran,” El Fadl writes, “absorbing it, and becoming absorbed by it.  It transformed them, but they transformed it as well.  I read none of them for an inherent truth, but for the truth of the transformation, and I search for my own transformation.  In a word, when I read you, I read myself.” 

Muhammad Asad reminds us that Quran uses allegory and parables to convey meaning that is beyond the range of human experience.  that gives us another clue to finding our own beauty in Quran.  In an Appendix on Symbolism and Allegory in the Quran, he writes:
“There is one fundamental statement in the Quran which occurs only once, and which may be qualified as “the key phrase of all key phrases”:  the statement in verse 7 of Al Imran to the effect that the Quran “contains messages that are clear in and by themselves (ayat muhkamat) as well as others that are allegorical (mutashabihat)”.  It is this verse which represents, in an absolute sense, a key to the understanding of the Quranic message and makes the whole of it accessible to “people who think” (li-qawmin yatafakkarun).”

Understanding the use of allegory – symbolic representation - in Quran, Asad contends, is contingent upon two concepts, 1/ the existence of a “realm which is beyond the reach of human perception,” and 2/ “the human mind can only operate on the basis of perceptions previously experienced by that very mind either in their entirety or in some of their constituent elements:  that is to say, it cannot visualize, or form an idea of, something that lies entirely outside the realm of previously realized experiences.”
“Thus, the Quran tells us clearly that many of its passages and expressions must be understood in an allegorical sense for the simple reason that, being intended for human understanding, they could not have been conveyed to us in any other way.  It follows, therefore, that if we were to take every Quranic passage, statement or expression in its outward, literal sense and disregard the possibility of its being an allegory, a metaphor or a parable, we would be offending against the very spirit of the divine writ.” 

There is another ayah in Quran that tells us clearly that Quran is using parables to teach us what cannot be described beyond our frame of reference:  Ayah 35 from Surah An-Nur.

Allahu nurus-samawati wal ‘ard.
Mathalu nurihi ka-mishkatin-fiha misbah.
Almisbahu fi zujajah.
Azzujajtu ka ‘annaha kawkabun-durriyyuny-yuqadu
min-shajaratim-mubarakatin-zaytunatil-la sharqiyyatinw-wa la gharbiyyatiny-yakadu zaytuha yudil’u wa law lam tamsas-hu nar.
Nurun ‘ala nur. 
Yahdil-lahu linurihi many-yashaa.
Wa yadribulahul-amthala linnas.
Wal-lahu bikulli shay’in Alim. [35]

God is the light of the heavens and the earth. 
The parable of His light is, as it were,
that of a niche containing a lamp;
 the lamp is enclosed in glass, the glass shining like a radiant star;
[a lamp] lit from a blessed tree –
an olive tree that is neither of the east nor of the west –
the oil whereof [is so bright that it] would well-nigh give light
[of itself] even though fire had not touched it:  light upon light!
God guides unto His light whoever wills [to be guided];
and to this end] God propounds parables unto men,
since God [alone] has full knowledge of all things. [35]

Of course, our interpretations of the allegories and parables in Quran reflect the “previously realized experiences” of the interpreters.  Our own interpretations - separated as we are from the revelation to the Prophet’s community by 1400 years of evolution in human perception, scientific, literary, and intellectual achievement - are going to be different from those of his followers and close successors.  I imagine Allah and the messages quite differently than someone whose imagination was formed and thoroughly embedded in a tribal, patriarchal, and anthropo-centric worldview.   

But the beauty of Quran, as El Fadl reminds us, lies precisely in the fact that it must be interpreted, and re-interpreted – even if you understand Arabic – and that the interpretation is in itself a transformative process.   Like a mandela painting, the beauty of interpretation lies in the process itself, not in the final product.   Interpretation and transformation never cease.  Meaning cannot be fixed for all time.  The beauty of Quran lies in our ability to return to it time and again, and each time see something new.

I am liberated, to read and hear Quran, and let it’s meaning touch me where it will.  I can experience it, without being intimidated by it.  With all this in mind, let’s experience together, one of the most beautiful, allegorical surahs in Quran, # 55:  Surat Ar-Rahman – The Most Glorious – in Arabic and in English. 

Arrahman.  Allamal-Quran.  Khalaqal-Insan.
The Most Gracious has imparted this Quran
Has created humans:  He has imparted unto them articulate thought and speech. [1-4]

Ashshamsu wal-qamaru bihusban.
            Wan-najmu wash-shajaru yas-judan.
The sun and the moon run their appointed courses;
            [before Him] The stars and the trees prostrate themselves. [5-6]
            Was-samaa a rafa’aha wa wada al-mizan. [7]
And the skies has He raised high, and has devised [for all things] a measure.
Alla tatghaw fil-mizan. [8]
So that you [too, O people], might never transgress the measure [of what is right]:

Wa aqimul-wazna bilqisti wa la tukhsirul-mizan. [9]
Weigh, therefore, [your deeds] with equity, and cut not the measure short!

Wal-arda wada aha lil anam. [10]
And the earth has He spread out for all living beings,

Fiha fakihatunw-wan-nakhlu dhatul-akmam [11]
With fruit thereon, and palm trees with sheathed clusters [of dates],
Wal-habbu dhul-asfi war-rayhan. [12]
And grain growing tall on its stalks, and sweet-smelling plants.

Fabi ayyi alaa i Rabbikuma tukadh-dhiban. [13]
Which, then of your sustainer’s powers can you disavow?

He has created man out of sounding clay, like pottery. [14]
Whereas the invisible beings He has created out of a confusing [smokeless] flame of fire. [15]

Fabi ayyi alaa i Rabbikuma tukadh-dhiban. [16]
Which, then of your sustainer’s powers can you disavow?

[He is] the Sustainer of the two farthest points of sunrise, and the Sustainer of the two farthest points of sunset. [17]

Fabi ayyi alaa i Rabbikuma tukadh-dhiban. [18]
Which, then of your sustainer’s powers can you disavow?

He has given freedom to the two great bodies of water, so that they might meet: [19]
[yet] between them is a barrier which they may not transgress. [20]

Fabi ayyi alaa i Rabbikuma tukadh-dhiban. [21]
Which, then of your sustainer’s powers can you disavow?

Out of these two [bodies of water] come forth pearls, both great and small. [22]

Fabi ayyi alaa i Rabbikuma tukadh-dhiban. [23]
Which, then of your sustainer’s powers can you disavow?

And His are the lofty ships that sail like [floating] mountains through the seas. [24]

Fabi ayyi alaa i Rabbikuma tukadh-dhiban. [25]
Which, then of your sustainer’s powers can you disavow?

All that lives on earth or in the heavens is bound to pass away: [26]
But forever will abide thy Sustainer’s Self, full of majesty and glory. [27]

Fabi ayyi alaa i Rabbikuma tukadh-dhiban. [28]
Which, then of your sustainer’s powers can you disavow?

On Him depend all creatures in the heavens and on earth: [and] every day He manifests Himself in yet another [wondrous] way [29]

Fabi ayyi alaa i Rabbikuma tukadh-dhiban. [30]
Which, then of your sustainer’s powers can you disavow?

            Surah 20:  Ta Ha (O Man):
Wa kadhalika anzalnahu Quranan arabiyyanw-wa sarrafna
fihi mina-wa idi la’allahum yattaquna aq yuhdithu lahum dhikra. 

And thus have We bestowed from on high this [divine writ] as a discourse in the Arabic tongue, and have given therein many facets to all manner of warnings, so that people might remain conscious of Us, or that it give rise to a new awareness in them.  [113]

Fata ‘ala-lahu-Malikul-Haqq.  Wa la ta ‘jal bilQurani min-qabli
any-yuqdaa ilayka wahyuhu wa qur-Rabbi zidni ilma.

[Know] then [that] God is sublimely exalted, the Ultimate Sovereign, the Ultimate Truth:  and [knowing this], do not approach the Quran in haste, ere it has been revealed to thee in full, but [always] say:  “O my Sustainer, cause me to grow in knowledge!” [114]

Friday, May 1, 2015

Methodical Soul Imaging

Al-Hamdu Lillahli-lathi Anzala Ala ‘abdihil kitaba wa lam yaj’al lahu ‘iwaja.
Praise be to the One (Allah) Who revealed the book to His servant and did not make any distortion to it.
 Ahmaduhu subhanahu wa Ta’ala wa ashkurhu wa Huwa Ahlul-Hamdi wath-thana.
I praise Him (Allah) the Exalted One and the High and I thank Him. It is He who deserves the praise and gratitude.
Wa ash-hadu an la ilaha Illal lahu, wahdahu la sharika lahu, wa ash-hadu anna Muhammadin ‘abduhu was rasooluhu al-Mustafa.
I bear witness that there is no deity except Allah; the One who has no partner. And I bear witness that Muhammad is the servant of Allah and His messenger who was chosen by Allah.

The Title of my khutbah today is Methodical Soul Imaging.

I have been having very bad writers block for the past year. One contributing factor to this block was my frustration with how readers would misinterpret or not “get” my intended meaning. I felt like what I was saying was not getting through. Then I read this from Marcel Proust in Le temps retrouv√© ,
"In reality, every reader, while he is reading, is the reader of his own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument, which he offers to the reader to permit him to discern what, without the book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself. The reader's recognition in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its truth."

I’m not the only one with this problem. Readers interpret texts through the lens of their own experiences, memories, knowledge, emotions, cultural perspectives and historical position. The book as an imaging device, something that shows us something about our own selves, our own soul, makes it a powerful tool for introspection. This interpretation is not limited to works of literary fiction, it extends to every text, including our spiritual texts, and the Qur’an is no exception to this rule. Qur’an says of itself in 3:7

“He it is who has bestowed upon thee from on high this divine writ, containing messages that are clear in an by themselves- and these are the essence of the divine writ- as well as others that are allegorical. Now those whose hearts are given to swerving from the truth go after that part of the divine writ which has been expressed in allegory, seeking out confusion, and seeking to arrive at its final meaning in an arbitrary manner. But none save God knows its final meaning. Hence, those who are deeply rooted in knowledge say: ‘We believe it; the whole is from the Sustainer – albeit none takes this to heart save those who are endowed with insight.”

Having insight, having knowledge as well as understanding of one’s own self- these are vital tools in the work of introspection. What does the Islamic tradition have to say about introspection?  
“He who knows himself, knows his Lord” is weak hadith attributed to Prophet, actually conveyed by Aisha in a Q & A format. Since the next transmitter is al-Mawardi  and no one else reported it, plus al-Mawardi  was a Mu’tazalite and in the Islamic tradition the Mu’tazalites had far too much Greek influence, the hadith is assigned to the ‘weak’ category. Nevertheless, because this hadith has no legal ramifications, most people are ok with it.

How does the Quran define a “self”. What does the Quran say about the self? This is a somewhat complicated question, which I will go into greater detail in the second part of my khutba.  The Quran uses two words when talking about “self”; nafs and ruh. Nafs, with the Arabic root of nun-fa-seen is associated with self, person, soul, breath, and heart-felt desire. Ruh, Arabic root of ra-waw-ha, has the connotations of soul, spirit, evening breeze, something done at evening, evening journey, mercy, revelation, and the angel Jibreel.

The nafs are thought to constitute the human soul. In 4:1 where God “created humans from one soul”, the word used is “nafs”. In 50:16 Allah states, “We created man- We know what his soul whispers to him: We are closer to him than his jugular vein…” and the word used for soul is ‘nafs’.  We can think of the nafs as containing the divine energy that ensures your survival. However, this energy is also something that should be “tamed”. When we fast, we are sending our nafs to obedience school i.e. abstaining from food and drink and sexual intercourse and anger. Nafs are not bad in and of themselves, we need them to survive in this world, but they must not be allowed to dominate one’s heart.  So, when Hazrat Ali said, “Araftu Rabi bi Rabi” or “He knows his Lord by His Lord”, he’s you need to understand what your soul worships in order to understand what is your master. Are you dominated by your fear or greed or need for power? If you let these desires become the focus of your life, then you will be enslaved by them. These desires are your Lord.  We have plenty of examples in the Quran and in other literary works and real life of people who do just this. But if the soul that resides within your heart is nourished by Allah, remembers Allah and yearns for Allah, then Allah is your Lord.

Allahumma salli wa sallim wa barik ‘ala ‘abdika wa rasoolika Muhammadin sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, wa ‘ala alihi wa sabhibi ajma’een.
O Allah! Let Your prayer, Your peace, and Your blessings be upon Your servant and Your messenger Muhammad, and upon his family and all his companions.
Innal-la ha was malaaikatahu yussalloona Alan-nabiy.  Yaa aiyuhal latheena aamanoo, salloo alaihi, wa sallimoo tassleema.
Lo! Allah and His angels shower blessings on the prophet. O you who believe! Ask blessing on him and salute him with a worthy greeting.

I said that there were two words used for “soul” in the Quran, nafs and ruh. Ruh is one of the earliest uses, it is found in the early Meccan surahs. The first time it is mentioned is in Surah 97:3-4 in reference to revelation that Prophet Muhammad has recently received. The surah states: “The Night of Glory is better than a thousand months, on that night the angels and the spirit descend again and again with their Lord’s permission on every task…”

Ruh is used in another early Mecca surah, 78:38, describing the line up for God’s judgment on the Last Day. “On the Day when the spirit and the angels stand in rows, they will not speak except for those to whom the Lord of Mercy gives permission, who will say only what is right.”

In surah 91:7-10, revealed soon after 97, the word nafs is used in reference to purifying oneself: “…by the soul and how He formed it and inspired it (to know) its own rebellion and piety! The one who purifies his soul succeeds and the one who corrupts it fails.”

In these contexts, it is hard to distinguish if ruh is interchangeable with nafs, or if the ruh is something different- revelation or contact with the Divine. There are also commentators who will insist that ruh is a metaphor for the angel Jibril.

In later Meccan surahs, nafs comes to dominate references to the soul. In Surah 12, Joseph, revealed in the last year of the Meccan period, nafs is used to refer to a craving in the soul or longing (12:68 “…and when they entered as their father had told them, it did not help them against the will of God, it merely satisfied a wish of Jacob’s.”) as well as the part of the soul that leads one astray (12:53 “I do not pretend to be blameless, for man’s very soul incited him to evil unless my Lord shows mercy.”). Ruh is not used in this surah, but the word “rawh” is used in 12:87 and is translated as a “life-giving mercy”.

During the last two months of the Prophet’s time in Mecca, ruh is mentioned twice. Once in 16:2 “He sends down angels with inspiration at His command, to whichever of His servants He chooses, to give warning…”, and finally in surah 17:85, again in the context of divine inspiration, “They ask you about the spirit. Say, ‘The spirit is part of my Lord’s domain. You have only been given a little knowledge.’ “ This is the very last time ruh is ever mentioned in the Quran.
In all subsequent references to the soul in Medina, the word ‘nafs’ is used.

2: 48: “Guard yourselves against a Day when no soul will stand in place of another, no intercession will be accepted for it, nor will they be helped.”

2:130: “Who but a fool (would fool his soul) would forsake the religion of Abraham?

2:207 But there is a kind of man who would willingly sell his own self in order to please God.

4:1 People be mindful of your Lord, who created you from a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them spread countless men and women far and wide…

4:79 “Anything good that happens to you is from God; anything bad is from your self…”

There are other uses of ‘self’ in the Quran, but Arabic grammar is such that the verbs can be self-reflexive, you don’t need a “subject” word per se. So in 7:172 “when your Lord took out the offspring from the loins of the Children of Adam and made them bear witness about themselves, He said, ‘Am I not your Lord?’ and they replied, ‘Yes, we bear witness.’, there is no “nafs” or “ruh”, it is essentially “witnessed”. 

Why was there no more mention of ruh in the Medina years? One reason could be is during the prophet’s time in Medina there were other Arab leaders in different towns, rivals to Muhammad, who claimed that they, too, were divinely inspired by a god. Perhaps divine guidance and revelation were proving to be a bit too divisive, and instead the focus was on purifying your own nafs. I don’t know.

What is ruh? I’m not really sure. It is hard to tell from the context of the Quran. At this point, we are left with interpretation, and you have the choice if you want to interpret it yourself, or go by the interpretation of a traditional scholar, sufi master, your spouse, your friends or local community leader. That’s what free will is all about!

In my unabashed opinion, I have always thought of ruh as that part of your soul which has the capability of interacting with the Divine. The ruh has the qualities of receptiveness as well as ability to follow through with action. And not all of this is in our conscious minds! Sometimes, and I have seen it here, we will say or do something that might be done on ‘impulse’, only to find out later that what we said or did had a tremendously good impact on someone else. I’m not sure what ruh is, but I do know that if I can’t keep my own nafs and other assorted demons in check, then I will never have a chance for finding out what it is. God knows best.

My closing du’a is from 3:191-193, Not in vain have You made them (heaven and earth). All praise be to you, O Lord, preserve us from the torment of Hell. Whoever, O Lord, should be cast into Hell shall be verily disgraced; and the sinners shall have none to help them. We have heard, O our Lord, the crier call inviting us to faith (saying) ‘Believe in your Lord’. O our Lord, to faith we have come, so forgive our trespasses, deliver us from sin, and grant us death with the just.

*Rabbana ma khalaqta hadha batilan, subhanaka fa-qina ‘adhaban-nar. Rabbana innaka man tudkhilin-nara fa-qad akhqaytahu, wa ma liz-zalimina min ansar.
Rabbana innana sami’na munadiyan yunadi lil imani an aminu bi-Rabbikum fa-amanna, Rabbana faghfir lanan dhunubana wa kaffir ‘annna sayyiatina wa tawaffana ma’al-abrar. Rabbana wa atina ma wa’adta-na ‘ala russuli-ka wa la tukhzi-na yauma-l-qiyamati innaka latukhlifu-l-mi’ad. Ameen.

 Quran translations are from “The Qur’an: a new translation” by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem as well as “The Message of the Qur’an” translation by Muhammad Asad.