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 retrouvé ,
"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.