The Spirit and Its Identity
The spirit is from the world of Divine Commands. There are many other worlds than those we commonly think of, such as those of plants, animals, human beings, and of the world of jinn. 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 its phenomena.
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 much paper we have. In the case of a tree, the essence of life and the law of germination and growth (with which it is endowed) stimulate its seed to germinate underground and grow into a tree. We can observe the entire growth process with our own eyes. If this invisible essence and these unobservable laws did not exist, there would be no plants.
Similarly, menstruation prepares a womb every month for insemination. This process is dictated by a (biological) law. Out of the millions of sperms heading for the womb, only one reaches and fertilizes the ovum. After this, another (biological) law takes over: menstruation stops until birth. An embryo’s multi-stage development into a new individual 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. (23:12–15)
The Quran says that this is process takes place 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 decidua’s three regions: 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 derive the existence of many other laws, such as gravitation and repulsion, and the freezing and vaporization of water.
Like these laws, the spirit is also a law issuing from the world of Divine Laws or Commands. This is stated in the Qur’an:
Say:”The spirit is of my Lord’s Command” (17:85)
But it is unique in one way: It is a living, conscious law. If the spirit were stripped of life and consciousness, it would be “regular” law; if “regular” laws were given life and consciousness, each one would become a spirit.
Science cannot define or perceive the spirit. 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, non-compound entity. We cannot see it, 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 our instruments of sight. 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 character, nature, or identity. As a result, although all human begins are substantially made of the same elements, each individual is unique.
The spirit commands our inner faculties. According to the Qur’an, 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 a thing’s or a creature’s God-given primordial nature.
The primordial nature of things does not deceive. For example, since God orders the Earth to revolve around its own axis as well as the sun, it always does so. A seed says in the tongue of its being or primordial nature: “I will germinate underground 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, as 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 came, 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 with the past and the 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 for their own sakes or for that of the carnal self alone, such things only increase its dissatisfaction and unhappiness, for it finds rest only through belief, worship, and remembrance of God.
Every person feels a 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, it originates in the eternal dimension of our existence, which is inhabited by our spirit. 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.”
The spirit needs our body. The spirit, a non-compound entity issuing from the world of Divine Commands, must use material means to be manifested and function in this world. As the body cannot contact the world of symbols or immaterial forms, the spirit cannot contact this world if there is no human heart, brain, or other bodily organs and limbs to mediate. The spirit functions through the body’s nerves, cells, and other elements. Therefore, if one or more bodily systems or organs goes awry, the spirit’s relation with them is disconnected and no longer commanded by it. If the failure or “illness” causing this disconnection severs the spirit’s relation with the entire body, what we call death occurs.
Although some coarse, meaningless hand or finger movements can be produced by stimulating certain areas of the brain, such movements are like confused, meaningless sounds produced by pressing piano keys at random. They are automatic bodily responses to stimulation, and are produced by the body’s automatic functioning. Therefore, the body needs the spirit, which is conscious and has free will, to produce meaningful movements.
Although such psychoanalysists as Freud offered various explanations for dreams, dreams cannot be said to consist of the subconscious mind’s jumbled activities. Almost everyone has had dreams that have come true. Many scientific or technological discoveries have been made because of true dreams. So, as will be discussed later, dreams point to the existence of something within us that can see in a different way while we are sleeping. This something is the spirit.
Although the spirit sees with our eyes, smells with our nose, hears with our ears and so on, there are many examples of people who somehow manage to see with their fingers or the tips of their noses, and smell with their heels.
The spirit manifests itself mostly on a person’s face. Truly, our face is a window opened on our inner world, for its features disclose our character. Psychologists assert that almost all of our movements, even coughing, reveal our character. The face’s ability to reveal one’s character, abilities, and personality resulted in physiognomy, the art of judging character from facial features. The spirit determines these features.
Our body’s cells are renewed continuously. Every day, millions of cells die and are replaced. Biologists say that all bodily cells are renewed every 6 months. Despite this continuous renewal, the face’s main features remain unchanged. We recognize individuals through their unchanging facial features and fingerprints. The cells of a finger change, due to such renewal or injury and bruise, but their prints never change. Each individual’s unique spirit makes these distinguishing features stable.
Our spirit makes us unique. Our body experiences uninterrupted change throughout its existence. This change is directed toward physical growth and development until a certain period, gradually becoming stronger and more perfect. When this growth stops at a certain point, decay begins. Unlike our body, we can grow continuously in learning and development, decay spiritually and intellectually, or stop and change direction while developing or decaying. Our moral, spiritual, and intellectual education does not depend on our bodily changes.
Furthermore, our moral, spiritual, and intellectual differences have nothing to do with our physical structure. Although we are composed of the same substantial, physical or material elements, we are morally and intellectually unique. Which part of us receives this moral and intellectual education, and which part is trained physically? Does physical training have any relation to learning or moral and intellectual education? Are physically well-developed people smarter and more moral than others?
If not, and if physical training or development do not affect our scientific, moral, and intellectual level, why should we not accept the spirit’s existence? How can we attribute learning and moral and intellectual education to some biochemical processes in the brain? Are those processes quicker in some than in others? Are some smarter because they have quicker processes, or are the processes quicker because some study and are thus become smarter? What relation do these processes have with our spiritual and moral education and development? How can we explain the differences regular worship makes to one’s face? Why are believers’ faces more radiant than those of nonbelievers?
Our physical changes engender no parallel changes in our character, morality, or thinking. How can we explain this, other than by admitting that the spirit exists and is the center of thinking and feeling, choosing and deciding, learning and forming opinions and preferences, and causing differences in characters?
Our spirit feels and believes or denies. All people have innumerable, complex feelings: love and hate, happiness and sadness, hope and despair, ambition and the ability to imagine, relief and boredom, and so on. We like and dislike, appreciate and disregard, experience fear and timidity as well as encouragement and enthusiasm. We repent, become excited, and long for various things. If we look through a dictionary, we find hundreds of words that express human feelings. Moreover, we do not all “feel” the same way. We may reflect on what is going on around us, the beauty of creation, develop ourselves through learning, compare and reason, and thus believe in the Creator of all things. Worshipping and following His Commandments causes us to develop morally and spiritually, until finally we are perfected. How can we explain such phenomena other than by admitting that each human being has a conscious spirit? Can we attribute them to chemical processes in the brain?
Are we only physical bodies? If we are only a physical entity of blood and bones, flesh and tissues, and attribute all our movements to biochemical processes in the brain, why should we obey any laws? We have established that our physical body is renewed every 6 months. If we were tried for a murder we committed a year ago, would not the following conversation be entirely logical, given the above understanding?
Judge: When did you commit the crime?
Defendant: One year ago.
The judge announces the verdict: Since the murder was committed a year ago and the defendant’s cells, including those of his trigger finger, have been completely replaced, and since it is therefore impossible to punish the actual murderer, the jury has voted for acquittal.
How can anyone be no more than a physical entity, just their movements, feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and decisions the results of the brain’s biochemical processes? Such assertions are untenable. The main part of our being is our living and conscious spirit. This part of our body feels, thinks, believes, wills, decides, and uses the body to enact its decisions.
The spirit is the basis of human life. God acts in this world through causes. However, there are many other worlds or realms: the world of ideas, symbols or immaterial forms, the inner dimensions of things, and spirits, where God acts directly and where matter and causes do not exist. The spirit is breathed into the embryo directly, making it a direct manifestation of the Divine Name the All-Living, and therefore the basis of human life. Like natural laws, which issue from the same realm as the spirit, the spirit is invisible and known through its manifestations.
In this world, matter is refined in favor of life. A lifeless body, regardless of size, such as a mountain, is lonely, passive, and static. But life enables a bee to interact with almost the entire world so that it can say: “This world is my garden, and flowers are my business partners.” The smaller a living body is, the more active, astonishing, and powerful life is. Compare a bee, a fly, or even a micro-organism with an elephant. The more refined matter is, the more active and powerful a body. For example, wood produces flame and carbon when it burns, and water vaporizes when heated. We come across electrical energy in the atomic and subatomic worlds. We cannot see it, but we are aware of its presence and power though its manifestations. This means that existence is not limited only to this world; rather, this world is only the apparent, mutable, and unstable dimension of existence. Behind it lies the pure, invisible dimension that uses matter to be seen and known. As the spirit belongs to that dimension, it is therefore pure and invisible.
The arguments for the spirit’s existence also point to the Creator’s existence. They are as follows:
- Just as our body, which God creates from elements, needs the spirit to command and govern it, the universe (and what it contains) needs God to bring it into existence and to command and govern it.
- Each body has one spirit that makes it alive and governs it. So, there must be a single Lord, without partner, to create and govern the universe. Otherwise, disaster and confusion is inevitable.
- The spirit is not located in any specific place or part of the body. It may even leave the body and, as in the case of dreams, continue its relation with the body by means of a specific cord attached to the body. Likewise, God Almighty is not contained by time or space. He is always present everywhere and nowhere, whereas the spirit is in the body and is contained by time and space.
- There is only one sun, and the world is very far from it. However, the sun is present everywhere through its heat and light, and via reflection can even be in every transparent thing. Therefore, we can say that the sun is nearer to things than things are to themselves. The spirit has the same relation with the body, as well as with all of its separate cells. This analogy may help us to understand God’s relation with existence. He controls and directs all things at the same time like a single thing, and although we are infinitely distant from Him, He is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.
- The spirit is invisible, and its nature is unknown. In the same way, we cannot think of or imagine God as He really is, for His Essence cannot be known. Like the spirit, God Almighty is known via the manifestations of His Names, Attributes, and Essence.
Our spirit has its own cover. When the spirit leaves the body at death, it retains this cover, which is like a body’s “negative” It is called by many names: the envelope of light, the person’s ethereal figure, energetic form, second body, astral body, double (of that person), and phantom.
By M. Fethullah Gulen