The Spirit And What Follows

This article covers the Spirit and the Afterlife.

Based on al-Milal wa’n-Nihal (“The True and False Ways of Belief and Thought”) by ash-Shahristani,[1]Tahafut al-Falasifa (“The Incoherence of the Philosophers”) by Imam al-Ghazzali,[2] Mawqif al-‘Aql wa’l-‘Ilm wa’l-‘Alam (“The Place of Reason, Science, and the Created World”) by Mustafa Sabri Efendi,[3] Falsafa-i ‘Ula (“The Ancient Philosophy”) by Şemseddin Günaltay,[4] and al-Ba’th wa’l-Khulud (“The Resurrection and Eternity”) by Ali Arslan,[5] I deem it useful to take a short journey around the Sufi concept of spirit in the “Emerald Hills of the Heart.” I seek refuge in my Lord from and implore forgiveness for any mistake I may make and any disregard of the truths that lie in the essence of the matter that I may unwittingly show. I also seek His forgiveness if I confuse pure, simple minds, and throw them into any ungrounded suspicion.

In the Qur’an, the Qur’an itself—the Divine Revelation—and the angel who brought the Revelation are both called ar-Ruh (the Spirit). However, the spirit which we will study here is the non-material essence of human existence, motion, perception, feelings, and intellectual and “spiritual” development. Throughout human history many have discussed this matter, from philosophers to the sacred Scriptures, and from primitive societies to civilized ones; numerous volumes have been published about it. I think this is partly because humans have a tendency to go into detail without being content with the summarized information given, and partly because of confusing the essence or essential nature of the spirit with its functions. It may also be due to the fact that the horizon of people is usually restricted to the scientific level of the age in which they live. The essential nature of the spirit was taught to humanity via the Prophets in a summarized form, but people have not been content with that and have tended to go into detail. Therefore, the matter has been elaborated. However, both religions and philosophical approaches have generally agreed on the fact that the spirit is the sole source of life, motion, perception, feelings, and consciousness.

Dove represent spirit, soul and freedom

Dove represent spirit, soul and freedom

From the very beginning of its existence, humanity has been concerned with the existence and nature of the spirit, the existence of which it has felt in dreams and certain other experiences, and has tried to understand its real nature. However, not being satisfied with the information given by the Prophets, it has ramified the matter with subjective approaches and considerations, mainly from the perspective of different names—such as “the intellect,” “the soul,” “the speaking soul,” and “the ego”—which it has given to this non-material essence, and it has only made it more confused and incomprehensible.

As God has bestowed a spirit on all living creatures as a manifestation of His Attribute of Life, He has also breathed into the Prophet Adam, who was the first human being on earth, as well as into each of his descendants, a conscious spirit from the Realm of (the Initial Manifestation of) His Commands. This is what the Qur’an and the established Prophetic Traditions say about the spirit. That is, the only information the Qur’an and the established Prophetic Traditions give about the spirit is that it is something breathed into humans by God from the Realm of (the Initial Manifestation of) His Commands. This information has been developed by some philosophers and Sufis to the extent that it has come to cover innumerable volumes. These philosophers and Sufis have attempted to know and describe it in respect of both its essential nature and its functions and its relations with the body.

We will approach the matter from the viewpoint of what the Sufis mean by the spirit and spiritual life. However, since the matter of the spirit has been a matter of lengthy debates, we will summarize how it has been dealt with in different cultures, philosophies, and religious traditions in order to provide the reader with an opportunity to make comparisons. So, let us examine how different trends of philosophy, religious traditions, intellectuals, and scholars from different religious sciences have elaborated on a matter about which the All-Sublime Creator has given only a small piece of information.

Even in the earliest centuries of history, humanity thought and spoke about the spirit, including its origin, nature, and functions. Although it sometimes approached the matter in the light of the guidance brought by Prophets, it frequently erred and suffered contradictions, without being able to understand or correctly explain why or how we come into the world, and why we stay here for some time, and then depart. But it always affirmed the existence of an immaterial or metaphysical power, which is living, conscious, perceiving, and which causes motion.

Some have called this metaphysical power, a power that all agree is a living, conscious, immaterial thing independent of the body, by names that mean soul, psyche, air, life, or liveliness. Sanskrit-speaking people call it Atman, the Greeks, Psyche, the Latin people, Animus, the French, Esprit, the Goths, Saivala, and the Persians, Rawan.

People from different cultures and religious traditions have generally not only agreed on the spirit’s being an immaterial essence independent of the body as the source of life, perception, and motion, but have also shared similar views about its future. The majority have believed that after spirits depart from the world, they continue to live in another realm in accordance with how their owners lived in this world. The spirits of those who have lived a righteous life will receive a hospitable welcome and be rewarded, while the spirits of those who have contaminated them with evil will be punished.

Even in the earliest centuries of history, humans perceived a duality in human existence, but when they tried to work out the details of the nature of what we call the spirit, they came up with many fallacies. We come across some of them in the chapters about animism in books concerned with the history of religions. One of these fallacies is undoubtedly the doctrine of reincarnation in the sense of the rebirth of a spirit in another body or the transmigration of spirits. In order to satisfy their inborn feeling or need for eternity and to lessen the suffering that comes from anxiety about going into eternal non-existence, some have sheltered in a doctrine that is based on the continuous migration of spirits from one body to another.

Reincarnation proposes that bodies are like forms or matrices which the spirits enter to breathe life into them and cause their motion. When one form or matrix of a spirit decays, the spirit simply enters another one. If the body which a spirit enters belongs to a human being, the spirit adds to it also perception, consciousness, and will.

Edward Tylor (1832–1917) dates the origin of the doctrine of reincarnation to the earliest periods of human history, and gives various examples. According to many religious historians, this false belief was born in ancient Egypt as an invention of Hermes Trismegistus and was carried to ancient Greece by Pythagoras. However, the historian Herodotus recorded that reincarnation had been known in Greece before Pythagoras.

Over time, the fantasy of reincarnation came to be adopted by some followers of certain Divine religions. They cited as examples of reincarnation Niobe’s turning into a stone and the Prophet Lot’s wife, into a pillar of salt (Genesis, 19:26). However, neither of these examples is compatible with the theory of reincarnation or continuous transmigration of souls.

We also come across the traces of reincarnation in ancient Hindu texts. We can see some vague references to it in some supplications found in the Vedas. The Vaiseshika School or Philosophy holds that the spirits or souls which are contaminated by evils will live a completely miserable, lower level of life. Vedanta maintains that spirits suffer and move about agitatedly in many bodies until they attain sacred or ultimate knowledge (of the essential non-difference between Brahman and Atman).

Charles Fourier (1772–1837), a French Utopian socialist philosopher, basing his work on the information given above and similar other approaches, embellished the matter with many fantasies and made unimaginable predictions. Unfortunately, some religious people adopted some of his predictions, attempting to support them with some true, religious elements, and propagated the doctrine explicitly or tacitly.

Except for some extremist Shi’as and Hurufis,[6] Muslims have been influenced the least by the fallacy of reincarnation. For if reincarnation is a doctrine founded upon or in pursuit of wisdom, justice, reward, and punishment as a response to the greatest need of humanity for eternity and a remedy for its worries of eternal non-existence—there are many who assert that it is such—then Islam promises humanity, created for and bound to go to eternity, an eternal life after an overall resurrection after a temporary separation; thus it removes all the worries of eternal separation and non-existence of humanity. It promises its followers the eternal happiness of Paradise, for an hour of which thousands of years of worldly happy life cannot be a substitute, and a vision of God Almighty and being honored by His good pleasure, which will provide happiness thousands of times greater than the happiness of Paradise. Thus, there is no need in Islam to search for alternative means of attaining happiness.

Both the Sunnite and Shi’ite scholars categorically reject the kind of reincarnation that is adopted by the extremist Shi’as and Hurufis, which was partly borrowed from Mazdakism and Brahmanism, and which had similarities with the false doctrines of Union and Incarnation. As for the words of some Sufis, which imply incarnation, except for the fallacies of Shaykh Bedreddin,[7] they are either due to the lack of proper words to express the state of “absorption” that some achieved, or were misunderstood and misinterpreted utterances. The words of some Sufis like Muhyi’d-Din ibn al-‘Arabi, who are known to belong to the School of the (Transcendental) Unity of Being, which some interpret as suggesting reincarnation, relate to the assertion of “appearance in another’s form.” That is, they are concerned with the fact that some perfect guides communicate their inspirations into purified, capable spirits and raise them to their horizons, that they reflect their inspirations in the spiritual mirrors of their capable followers. The assertion of “appearance in another’s form” also means that an initiate who follows a perfect guide may sometimes be mistaken for that guide. This is merely confusion, even though it has sometimes caused some imperfect souls to claim to be the Messiah or Mahdi. However, it can never be reconciled with reincarnation, which means that a spirit or soul which has not been able to be perfected enough to complete its earthly journey in a body is reborn and continues to live in another body or a lower or higher level of life.

Now, let us mention what those who have talked about the spirit with its nature and functions have said.

The information of the earliest thinkers and philosophers about the spirit was quite simple, much like their information about and opinions on existence and things. According to them, the earth was flat, the sky was a dome over it, and the sun, the moon and stars were lamps that hung from it. Existence was formed of what they called “the four elements,” namely earth, water, air, and fire. So, the spirit must have been some substance that was more refined than these elements.


Bediüzzaman Said Nursi

Bediuzzaman Said Nursi Quotes

Thales (624–546 BCE), one of the earliest philosophers of Ionia, thought the spirit to be some fluid substance that brought about life in the body. According to Anaximander (610–546 BCE), who succeeded Thales as the second master of the Milesian school, spirit was some boundless substance that was different from the above mentioned four elements. His pupil Anaximenes (585–525 BCE) perceived the spirit as having a relationship with air, as he held that air was the source of all things. Belonging to the same school, Heraclitus (535–475 BCE) considered the spirit to be something like fire that is separate from the body.

We can consider all the Ionian philosophers as hylozoists—philosophers who maintain that the essence of life is inseparable from matter. However, although according to some historians of philosophy, he belonged to the Ionian School of philosophy, Anaxagoras (500–428 BCE) was the first to assert that the spirit, which he called the “universal intellect” was an independent entity, and emphasized the duality of matter and force, and the spirit and body. He clearly described an independent, subtle agent that was possessed of all knowledge and power which caused motion, moving the original form of existence and eventually creating the known universe, and which rules all forms of life. But unfortunately, the thoughts of that genius were misunderstood and misinterpreted, and it was claimed that he regarded the spirit as a subtle, material entity.

The first serious blow to the Ionian philosophers’ considerations of spirit came from Pythagoras (580/572–500/490 BCE), who was born in Samos, one of the eastern Aegean islands; as a young man Pythagoras left for Croton in southern Italy. He saw the “ideas,” images that existed or formed in the mind, as the basis of existence. Pythagoras and his followers destroyed the school of Sensualism and substituted it with what we can call some sort of idealism. The idealism which Pythagoras and his pupil Empedocles (490–430 BCE) laid the foundations to, and which was later elaborated by Plato (428/427–348/347 BCE), entered Muslim thought in later centuries. However, since that idealism lacked a sound doctrine of afterlife, was open to reincarnation, and asserted that individual spirits were the manifestations of what they called the universal spirit, Muslim theologians criticized it severely.

Unlike Pythagoras, who always preserved his line of thought, Empedocles was not consistent in his considerations of the spirit, but wavered between naturalism, skepticism, and mysticism. In the face of the enthusiastic welcome of some people, he even became so arrogant as to claim divinity, and say, “I am an immortal God, I am no longer mortal!” As a result, his ideas lost respect, including those concerning the spirit.

Before passing on to the ideas of Socratic and post-Socratic philosophers about the spirit, the pantheism of the Eleatic school, founded by Parmenides (early fifth century BCE), including particularly Zeno’s (490–430 BCE) philosophy of the immortality of the spirit, and the atomism of Democritus (455–370 BCE) are worth mentioning.

Socrates (470-399 BCE)

The matter of spirit entered a new phase with Socrates, who proved to be a turning point in ancient Greek philosophy. Socrates freed the spirit from the narrow frame of matter and physicality, and adopted a much wider approach to it. His pupil Plato explains the views of his master in his book Phaidon as follows:

God is the source of wisdom Who encompasses all things, and the Spirit and Intellect of the whole universe. The human body is composed of material elements, while the spirit is an individual manifestation of the Universal Spirit. The spirit controls the body in a way similar to God, being invisible, and ruling the whole universe. When one day the body decomposes, the spirit remains eternally.

God alone knows whether these considerations totally belong to Socrates or if Plato added his ideas to them.

Plato (428/427–348/347 BCE)

Although it was Anaxagoras who, being a spiritualist philosopher, discussed the physical and metaphysical dimensions of human existence under the titles of the spirit, intellect, and carnal soul for the first time in the history of philosophy, Socrates and his pupil Plato developed this philosophy and made it known worldwide. Their works were translated into many languages, including Arabic, and came to be known by Muslim scholars at a very early period in the history of Islam, being widely discussed among Muslim philosophers and theologians. Therefore, based partly on Shahristani and partly on Şemseddin Günaltay, a twentieth-century Turkish researcher, I will provide a summary of Plato’s considerations concerning the spirit, which in fact are a developed amalgamation of the ideas of Anaxagoras, Pythagoras, and Socrates.

Plato mentions a third soul, which he calls “the speaking soul,” in addition to “the soul of lusts” and “the soul of anger.” He regards the soul of lusts as the source of carnal desires and appetites, and the soul of anger as that of the feelings and attitudes like wrath, violence, and aggression. As for the speaking soul, which Plato also calls the spirit, it is the origin or center of perception, reasoning, and understanding. Being a simple, invisible, and indivisible substance which causes movement, it has been created directly by God Almighty, and inserted in the mold of the body. Since it is from God, it does not die or cease to exist. Having been created before the creation of the body, it continues to exist after its death. The intellect and intelligence are thus two profound dimensions of the spirit, which itself is the source of the body’s movement.

According to what Shahristani writes, Plato divided the universe into two worlds: (1) the world of ideas, which comprises “ideas” or metaphysical entities, and (2) the sensed world of bodies. Before coming to this sensed, corporeal world, humans were honored with the observation of truths in the world of ideas. When humans were sent to this narrow world of physical bodies, they were engulfed in the darkness of corporeality.

We can summarize Plato’s considerations of the speaking soul as follows:

  • The spirit is an immaterial, immortal element of perception and reflection. It thinks, reflects, perceives, judges, and decides.
  • The spirit sets the body into motion and it was created before the body.
  • The spirit is the source of all good and virtues. Its worst enemy is moral corruption, which extinguishes it.

Neo-Platonism, which appeared in later centuries, would be based on these thoughts of Plato’s.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE)

Aristotle is the most renowned figure of ancient philosophy after Plato and Socrates. He continued, and still continues, to be connected to the Peripatetic School, which he founded based on deductive and inductive thought. Unlike his master Plato, he followed the way of deducing conclusions from premises and analogy. With this rationalism, he both secured a long life for his philosophy and struck great blows at mechanistic and helical thoughts. According to Aristotle, life depends on the spirit. If life is a movement, it is the spirit that sets it in motion. The spirit is neither of the same essence and nature as the body nor completely separate from it. The body is something akin to an instrument of the spirit, and life develops based on the spirit.

Like his teacher Plato, Aristotle places the spirit in different categories. However, according to him, the spirit is created with the body and returns to its origin after the death of the body. It experiences a process of perfection during the life of the body, and on reaching perfection, it gains resemblance to the Divine Being, continuing to live in pleasures that are particular to itself.

With such thoughts, Aristotle gave both Muslim scholars and Christian thinkers much to occupy themselves with over long centuries. But today he is no more than a subject of philosophical study.

After Aristotle, neither Epicurus (341–270 BCE) nor Zeno of Citium (333–264 BCE) were able to offer considerable thoughts about the spirit. Following Democritus’ way of thought, Epicurus confined himself within the narrow frame of sensations, while Zeno, who founded the School of Stoic Pantheism, spent his life approaching everything through the window of some sort of skepticism and repeating the thoughts of his predecessors. He asserted that it was the duty of researchers and people of knowledge to study things and events, and they should keep themselves within this frame, not imagining that they can arrive at the absolute truth by merely reading. Thus, he blocked the way of research to some extent.

Philo (20 BCE–50 CE)

Alexandria’s repertoire of the spirit, like that of the Greeks, is very rich. While the early philosophers of the Alexandrian school usually tended toward Stoic pantheism and peripatetic thought, over time they turned to Platonism under the influence of Jewish teachings. This philosophy was re-interpreted by Philo and reconciled and harmonized with the Jewish conceptions of the spirit and life.

The two basic elements in Philo’s philosophy were “God” and “matter.” According to Philo, God is the original light, and all the intellects, spirits, and souls dependent on Him are illuminated by Him. The intellectual forms of things are contained in the Divine Being, and whatever we perceive with our external senses has been created according to these intellectual forms.

Philo defended the idea that the human spirit is a Divine emanation and, therefore, eternal. However, despite being a unitary entity, the spirit is composed of two dimensions: one intellectual or rational, the other, emotive. When one of these two dimensions gains strength, the other is weakened. Philo sometimes adopted the triad of vegetative, emotive, and rational spirits or souls.

Philo was a forerunner of Neoplatonism. The actual founder or expounder of this philosophy was Plotinus (205–270 CE). Based on Plato’s philosophy, Plotinus tried to establish a somewhat eclectic school of thought, but he arrived at some sort of mysticism.

Plotinus taught the existence of an ineffable, transcendent God, from Whom emanated the Intellect; from the Intellect a Universal Spirit emanated. Both the Intellect and the Universal Spirit are included in the Divine Being.

Neoplatonism also teaches that all people return to the Source. The Source is where all things spring from and is where all things return. The human spirit or soul is a part of the Universal Spirit, and its perfection means its final union with the spirit. Some compare this conception to the “annihilation in the Divine Being” which Muslim Sufism teaches. According to Neoplatonism, the human spirit accomplishes this union by contemplation and acts of spiritual refinement. A spirit turning to God obtains love with these acts and contemplation and is immersed in spiritual pleasures, forgetting all pain and suffering.

According to Plotinus, the spirit is eternal in the sense that it is lost in the Divine Being. This teaching resembles Aristotle’s conception of the spirit’s returning to its origin.

Almost all philosophers—except materialists, who naturally have no right to talk about the spirit—from India to Egypt and Greece have accepted the existence of God and the spirit. They have not denied the metaphysical dimension of existence. Like them, Christian saints and philosophers and Muslim thinkers, although sometimes having displayed some sort of deviance under the influence of certain local cultures, ancient thinkers, or scientific developments, have also accepted the existence of the spirit and expressed views about it and its future.

Toward the Present Time

Ancient philosophies have been re-evaluated and criticized in recent centuries. Free thinking has gained ascendancy. Even Divinely revealed religious texts have received their share of criticism. Love of truth and a zeal for knowledge and research have broadened the horizon of perception. New methods of thought have been developed and scholastic thought has been replaced with new considerations. Despite all these developments, the spirit has continued to attract the attention of circles of philosophy and thought. During and following the Renaissance, many scientists and thinkers from almost all trends of thought discussed the matter of the spirit. Some of these were: Gherardo da Cremona (1114–1187), Roger Bacon (1220–1292), Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), René Descartes (1596–1650), Jacob Moleschott (1822–-1893), Nicolas Malebranche (1638–1715), J. Stuart Mill (1806–1873), Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), John Locke (1632–1704), Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716), David Hume (1711–1776), Thomas Reid (1710–1796), Hamilton, Voltaire (1694–1778), Auguste Comte (1798–1857), Luis Büchner (1824–1899), Hegel (1770–1831), and Henri Bergson (1859–1941). In their discussion of the spirit, some denied the existence of the spirit and claimed that what we call the spirit was the name we gave to the activities of some bodily organs, while others asserted that existence essentially consisted of the spirit and all that we sensed was its manifestations; others regarded the spirit as something like matter, and still others maintained that it was a substance separate from the body. Except for a few materialists, they accepted the existence of the spirit and expressed their views about its nature and functions. Thus, numerous volumes consisting of ideas about the spirit took their places in libraries.

Materialists see existence as consisting of matter, and thus regard the human being as a body formed of bones, flesh, a nervous system, and a brain, attributing all human intellectual activities, feelings, and emotions to the brain. Tutil claimed that we have risen through the brain to the rank of animate beings from inanimate ones; Carl Foht compared the relationship between the brain and thought to that between liver and bile, as reflected in the famous formula of Moleschott: “The brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile.” Büchner asserted that human intellectual activities were impressions of events and movements in nature on the human nervous system. He attributed everything to matter and the human organism, and denied the existence and functions of the spirit.

Materialists based their claims on theories and concepts such as transformism, Darwinism, evolution, mutation, coincidence, and necessity, and so on. Within the scope of this book, I will discuss neither their claims nor these theories and concepts.

The way adopted by the idealists from the beginning is contrary to that of the materialists. While matter is the sole source of existence for materialists, idealists base all their theories on ideas. Descartes’ famous adage, “I think, therefore I am,” can be considered to be the summary and basis of this trend of thought.

The basic assertions of idealism have also not been found to be sound. George Berkeley (1685–1753) summarizes one of these assertions as follows: “There is nothing substantial other than the thinking soul. Things exist because souls think that they exist; we do not know the existence of things in a dark room. Without thinking or ideas in our minds, we cannot assert the existence of things. This can be described as things and events being identical with the mental concepts of them.”

Another approach of ideals can be summarized as follows: The things we assert that we see and feel are nothing more than mental images. If there is a world around us, it is a mental world. Materialists, who reduce everything to matter and physical activities of the brain, and idealists, who see existence as consisting of mental objects, are agreed about the non-existence of the spirit or the “speaking soul.”

Henri Bergson (1859–1941)

Bergson’s philosophy is based on in determinism. That is, according to determinism, the state of things at any given moment is the necessary result of its state just prior to that moment. What this signifies is that the same things or causes in the universe always produce the same results. Bergson rejects this attitude and asserts that there is no certain necessity in the universe. His approach to the matter of the spirit is similar to that of Berkeley. He maintains that something material cannot be the real origin of our feelings; the source can only be the soul. According to Bergson, being existent means perceiving, therefore, something that has no perception cannot be regarded as existing. What perceives is the spirit, which is always active and effective. What the spirit perceives are ideas. Therefore, it is only the spirit and ideas that really exist. Like idealists, Bergson also sees things as consisting of mental images. While materialists attribute “mental images” or thoughts to the activities of the brain and, therefore, see them as posterior to it, Bergson considers mental activities to be the results of mental images, which are, according to him, the real motives or motors of these activities.

Pantheism and/or Monism

The approach of pantheists to the spirit is different from the approaches that have so far been discussed. Despite some minor differences of viewpoint among them, pantheists maintain that the spirit and body are the same entity, both being a single manifestation. Being one of the foremost representatives of this trend, Spinoza claims that the Divine Being is identical with the universe—God is absolutely exalted above all that they assert! There is nothing of substantial reality other than the Self-Existing and Self-Subsisting One. The real existence is infinite and eternal, having infinite attributes and forms or reflections. This is the reality of what we call existence. The spirit and body are a combination that forms the absolute essence or being.

This view of Spinoza’s superficially resembles some of the utterances which certain Muslim Sufis asserted about the Unity of Being while in a state of spiritual absorption or intoxication. But these two approaches are radically different from one another. Asserting the unity of existence or claiming that the Divine Being is identical with the universe is one thing, while absorption in the Existence of the Divine Being in utter neglect of the universe is yet another. Monism, particularly Hegelian monism, never considers the metaphysical dimension of existence but accepts bodily existence as being identical with spiritual manifestations. According to Hegel, God is contained in the external, observable world—God forbid such a thought! Our spirit is a part of what he calls the universal spirit, and our bodily existence is an inseparable part of God’s Existence. Matter and force are no more than the manifestations of the same substance. In short, like materialists, Hegel gives priority to matter and attributes the functions of the spirit to it.


Spiritualism accepts the existence of both the body and the spirit, and while attributing all physiological activities to the body, perceives that the functions of the soul are under the control and disposition of the spirit. According to spiritualists, it is the substance which is called the spirit and on which ideas are based. This substance, which we call “ana (the ego),” has a separate, independent existence from the body. Compared to others schools, spiritualists are clearer in their consideration of the spirit. Plato stressed the existence and permanence of the spirit, although his words are associated with reincarnation; Aristotle regarded the spirit as the most essential element of human existence, that which separates humankind from other kinds of beings. Even though they use different concepts or descriptions, Descartes, Berkeley, and Leibniz expressed almost the same considerations. All of them admitted the existence of a substance in human existence which is other than the body and which thinks, wills, and perceives.

Humans undergo constant physical changes from the time they come into the world, but every person remains himself or herself. Therefore, there must be an essence in every human being which determines his or her identity and nature, and this is what we call the spirit. Malebranche adds to this consideration: The spirit and the body have interactive relations and reciprocal effects upon each other. In accordance with the laws God has established, when the spirit manifests will or wills something, some movements occur in the body; any movement in the body produces effects on the spirit. The real or ultimate cause of both interactions is the Divine Will (this seems to have been inspired by the approach of the Muslim Ash’aris[8]). The apparent interactions of the spirit and body are normal human activities which occur within the framework of the Divine unchanging laws of life and which never ignore human free will. Since both the spirit and body act in accordance with these Divine laws, there is an exact order and harmony in human “natural” existence and life or in the activities of the spirit and body.

Approaches from the Muslim World

Now, let us see how Muslim sages and scholars have approached the matter of spirit.

We do not have exact knowledge about how God informed the previous Prophets of the identity of the spirit. However, the Qur’an contains a specific declaration concerning it:

They ask you about the spirit. Say: “The spirit is of my Lord’s Command” (17: 85).

That is, the spirit is a conscious entity that issues from the Realm of Pure Divine Commands or the Realm of the Transcendental Manifestation of Divine Commands.[9]

The earliest Muslim scholars were content with the information given in the Qur’an and avoided going into details concerning the identity of the spirit. The considerations of such Western thinkers as Claude Bernard (1813–1878), Raymond, Spencer, and Hamilton are similar to that declaration from the Qur’an.

The attitudes of the earliest Muslim scholars were free from taking any risks. Just as with the spirit, they did not attempt to make any comments on other allegorical statements of the Qur’an. However, when the legacy of ancient philosophy began to be translated into Arabic and found its way into Muslim minds, “the scholars of later periods”—as they are called in Muslim sources—felt obliged to make explanations and interpretations concerning these statements, including the existence, nature, and functions of the spirit, and what awaits it after the death of its owner in the grave and Hereafter. They tried to correct the wrong concepts that originate from the legacy of ancient philosophy and other trends of thought and religions.

There were differences of views among those Muslim scholars concerning the spirit. A few approached it from the viewpoint of the atomism of Democritus (455–370 BCE), and there were some among them who thought like hylozoists. Some dealt with the matter like modern physiologists, while others discussed the existence of three souls and three varieties of soul, namely the animal (vital or natural) soul, the vegetable soul, and the human soul, seeming to be followers of Aristotle. There were some theologians who thought that the spirit was a fundamental dimension of the human form; while physicians regarded it, like Galen (129–200/216), as the manifestation of the balance of the four elements or fluids—blood, bile, phlegm, and black bile. Yet others considered it to be a “subtle entity” which is related to the body, like the relation of oil to olives, or the rose oil in roses; some avoided making any comparison or explanation and were content with describing it as “a sensitive, perceiving substance.”

However, the overwhelming majority of Muslim theologians and Sufis have regarded the spirit as a basic, immaterial substance of human existence and nature, attributing human value to its perfection and stressing that while the body decomposes and rots away after death, the spirit remains alive and awaits the Resurrection, to meet either eternal happiness or punishment after the Resurrection. Thus, they have adopted a unique way, different from that of materialists, spiritualists, monists, and followers of reincarnation.

Except for a few who were influenced by Platonic thought, Muslim scholars believe that the spirit was created in time. But there is a difference of views concerning whether the spirit of every person is created before they come into the world, or whether it is created at the time when life is breathed into the embryo in the mother’s womb. This difference of opinion has caused some to argue about whether the Resurrection will be only spiritual or both spiritual and bodily. Despite these differences, all Muslim scholars, philosophers, and Sufis agree on the existence of the spirit, and that it will remain alive after the death of the person by God’s Self-Subsistence causing it to subsist.

Despite following different schools of thought in Islam, philosophers and thinkers such as al-Kindi,[10] Ibn Sina,[11] Ibn Bajja,[12] Ibn Rushd,[13] and Nasiru’d-Din at-Tusi,[14] and verifying scholars such as Raghib al-Isfahani,[15] Sadr ash-Shirazi,[16] Abu Zayd ad-Dabusi,[17] Imam al-Haramayn Juwayni,[18] Imam al-Ghazzali, Fakhru’d-Din ar-Razi,[19] Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Sa’du’d-Din at-Taftazani,[20] Jalalu’d-Din ad-Dawwani,[21] and Imam Sharani unanimously accept that the spirit is the essence of human existence. Now let us examine the ideas of the spirit of the most famous among these thinkers.

Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980–1037 CE)

Being one of the most famous Muslim philosophers and scientists, Abu ‘Ali ibn Sina influenced almost all thinkers and Sufis who came after him. With his great genius, extraordinary love of science, resolution, and endeavor, he understood ancient philosophers well, and he had sufficient knowledge of the thoughts of such philosophers as al-Kindi and al-Farabi.[22] In his works, he quoted from the philosophers of Ionian, Italy, and Elea, and made references to the thoughts of al-Kindi and al-Farabi as well. Therefore, knowing his ideas also means having knowledge of those of these two philosophers.

According to Ibn Sina, life is the result of feeling, motion, and the spirit. All activities related to consciousness and perception originate in the spirit and life. Nevertheless, the continuous and healthy manifestation of life requires the healthy operation of the physical system or mechanism.

Ibn Sina also discusses three souls or three varieties of the soul. They are the vegetable, animal, and human souls. The vegetable soul has two powers: the power of nourishment and the power of growth. There is also another power which he calls “the power of reproduction,” which serves the continuation of every species. The animal soul has the powers of motion and perception, or the powers that cause motion and perception. The power of motion has sub-powers of cause and agent. We can describe these as the power that causes something to happen and the power of doing it. The power of cause has two faculties: the faculty of desire, or of attractive and repulsive passions, and the faculty of anger, or of defensive passions. He sees the power of the agent, or the power that performs an action, as the origin of physical movements under the influence of the faculties of desire and anger.

Ibn Sina also mentions certain internal senses in addition to the five external ones. They are the common sense (sensus communis: the mental sense or faculty of general perception),[23] which he calls “bantasya,” as well as the powers of supposition, imagination, recollection, and conceptualization. He offers detailed explanations concerning the duties and activities of these senses.

Ibn Sina assigns the most important place to the power of reason or intellect in his explanations of the soul. According to him, the human soul is not something material, nor does it subsist through the subsistence of the body. It is something immaterial and essentially independent of the body, but it needs the body in the fulfillment of its functions. It is a single substance, but it has many powers or faculties. These powers or faculties serve as means in the soul’s relationship with the body. In addition to these, each human being has two other powers, namely the power of knowing and the power of acting. The latter is related to the lower realms and makes them subservient to it, while the former builds relationships with the higher realms and tries to realize true humanity. In one respect, the power of knowing in Ibn Sina’s thought can be considered to be human reason or intellect, and the power of acting is the origin of human secondary or physical actions.

The power of reason has categories or abilities. It has the capacity or ability to reason and reflect; it can perceive self-evident facts and realities and indispensable truths which are necessary to know; and it has the rank of deduction in theoretical matters; and more particularly, in certain exceptional people, there is a level of extraordinary perception and reasoning. According to Ibn Sina, this last level of human reason or intellect is a sacred power endowed with the capacity to make contact with the Spirit of Holiness. Prophets have this power at the highest level, and then there are those who succeed them in continuing their mission, (but they do not receive Revelation). Ibn Sina accepts both Prophethood and the contact of the Prophets with the highest realms, and, unlike al-Farabi, acknowledges that the Prophets were endowed with the capacity to have some knowledge of the Unseen.

Ibn Sina maintains that the Prophets, who are those most knowledgeable of Divine truths, are able to make a powerful contact with the Active Intellect due to the full purification of their hearts, and to gain a sacred power through which they obtain knowledge of the metaphysical realm and truths. Knowledge pours into their hearts, either directly or through some means. If this knowledge comes not only as a meaning but also in the form of words, it is a manifest Revelation. But if it comes only as a meaning and its wording or expression is left to the Prophet himself, it is a Revelation that is not manifest. Ibn Sina also affirms that a soul which has attained this level of perfection can exert an influence on things. Therefore, he believes in both the miracles of the Prophets and the wonder-working of saints. He offers powerful arguments to prove these acts, many of which He based on the Qur’anic verse,

God is the Light of the heavens and earth. The example of His Light is like a niche wherein is a lamp…. (24: 35).

Following him, many other scholars such as Imam al-Ghazzali and Elmalili Hamdi Yazir[24] primarily, have made extensive interpretations of this profound source (the verse mentioned).

Ibn Sina stresses the spiritual nature of the speaking soul, and in his works titled an-Najat (“Salvation”) and al-Ishara (“The Indication”), he offers many arguments to support his idea, some of which are as follows:

  1. The speaking soul is aware of its existence without needing any external means or causes. It never doubts its existence, and is always conscious of it even during sleep or while in a state of intoxication or spiritual absorption. More than that, even at times when there is no contact with the outer world, the soul is aware of its existence. So, such a substance, the existence and functions of which everyone feels in himself or herself, and which perceives itself as itself, cannot be of a material nature, nor can it be the brain or nervous system. This sensitive, perceiving power, which is the cause of motion, is the spirit or the speaking soul. It is such a substance that, like a tree being related to its entire environment, through which it expands with its roots and branches, it affects all the organs and limbs of the human being.
  2. According to Ibn Sina, the human soul, which we call the spirit, is created together with the body. But it does not perish when the body dies; rather, it continues to live in another realm after death. The body is a system or mechanism employed by the spirit. When its period of employment ends, it is destroyed; but the human soul, which is a spiritual entity, continues to live eternally in another realm.
  3. The relation of the spirit with the body, and its control of it, is not of the nature of incarnation or union. It is a relationship of direction and administration, whether through the direct contact or not. As the existence of the spirit does not depend on the body, it does not perish through the death of the body. The spirit is a simple, indivisible entity and is not composed of atomic particles. Therefore, the spirit, which leaves the body through death—these are also Plato’s opinions about the spirit, but we are told that Plato explains the spirit’s further, permanent life as a cycle of transmigrations—continues its life in another realm, either in indescribable pleasure or in pain and suffering. The spirit which believed and did good, righteous deeds while in the world will live an eternal, happy life, while the other which spent its worldly life in unbelief and dissipation will suffer eternal misery. Although some claim that Ibn Sina, whose belief in the other, eternal world is indisputable, did not believe in the bodily resurrection, this might have come from a misunderstanding of his assertion that the bodily resurrection cannot be rationally proven.

Imam al-Ghazzali (1058–1111 CE)

As with many other subjects, Imam al-Ghazzali fundamentally shook the opinions of both ancient philosophers and renowned Muslim philosophers such as al-Kindi, al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, and the Mu’tazilite thinkers, all of whom may be regarded as students of ancient philosophy, about the spirit as well, and opened a brand new field of study for the Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jama’a along the way of the Ash’aris. While he expounded his objections to and counter-arguments against all the ancient and new thoughts and philosophies which he saw as erroneous in Nafhu’r-Ruh wa’t-Taswiya (“The Breathing of the Spirit and the Full Formation”), al-Madnun bih ‘ala Ahlih (“Addressing the Specialists”), Usulu’l-Arba’in (“Forty Principles”), and Tahafutu’l-Falasifa (“The Incoherence of the Philosophers”), he explained the way of the Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jama’a in Ihyau ‘Ulumi’d-Din (“Reviving the Religious Sciences”) in the style of his time. In this last work of his, rather than theoretical matters, the Imam concentrates on religious life, worship, sincerity, avoidance of forbidden things, the purification of the soul, and the refinement of the heart.

In the works mentioned, Imam al-Ghazzali assigns extensive room to psychology under the of “The Science of the Spirit.” Based on the verses,

We will show them Our manifest signs (proofs) in the horizons of the universe and within their own selves, until it will become manifest to them that it (the Qur’an or the truths it preaches) is indeed the truth (41: 53);


On the earth there are (clear) signs (of God’s Oneness as Lord and Sovereign) for those who seek certainty, and also in your own selves. Will you then not see (the truth)? (51: 20–21),

and on relevant Prophetic Traditions, he draws attention to the human soul and makes extensive explanations concerning it.

The Imam is an important advocate of the Sunni scholars regarding their views of the spirit. He frequently reminds his audience that human nature contains a spirit separate from the body. Though he refers to it sometimes as “the speaking soul,” sometimes as “the spirit,” sometimes as “the soul,” and sometimes as “the heart,” he points out the nuances among these, and he emphasizes the spirit as the essential reality of humanity.

Due to the views which he put forward when he discussed the duality of the spirit and the body, those who lack sufficient knowledge of Imam al-Ghazzali may suppose that he thinks like the spiritualists. While others, who primarily consider his reiterations on the body as having no essential value, but that we should rather concentrate on “the essence of humanity,” may think that he is a pantheist. The truth is that the illustrious Imam is neither a spiritualist nor a pantheist. He affirms that the spirit is a substance separate from the body but one which controls it. While doing so, he also insistently emphasizes that the spirit is not something material or corporeal, and that its relationship with the body is not of a nature of either incarnation or separation, but of control and direction. In his al-Madnun bihi ‘ala Ghayr-i Ahlihi (“Addressing the Non-Specialists”), the Imam stresses that the spirit is neither a part of the body nor detached from it. For joining or attachment, and detachment are actions peculiar to material things. The spirit is not something material. As for its effect on and control of the body, we should only point out that it is a mystery known only to God. Its explanation in human language may cause confusion in minds such that particularly common people may liken it to God’s control of things and events. The Imam also points out that we may make similar mistakes and cause confusions in dealing with the spirit’s relationship with time and space, and is very careful about God’s having no resemblance at all to the created.

According to al-Ghazzali, the spirit is something created, and therefore it has no eternity in the past. Its being brought into existence is like an effusion or diffusion from a limitless source into the frame of the body. God sometimes forms a body out of clay and endows it with the capacity to receive a spirit as in the case of the Prophet Adam, upon him be peace; sometimes He creates a body out of a human seed—a few drops of fluid coming from a male and female—and causes it to develop so that it can receive the spirit. We should not understand the effusion mentioned as a part detaching from a whole. In accordance with the rule, if we should present Divine truths using parables, we should present them with the most sublime parables—this effusion can be likened to reflections in mirrors. We should point out here that although the Imam, like others who discuss spiritual matters, cannot avoid using comparisons and parables associated with corporeality, the spirit is from the Immaterial Realm of (the Initial Manifestation of) Divine Commands, and it is therefore almost impossible to explain it in terms of corporeality.

Imam al-Ghazzali also discusses the permanence of the spirit after the death of the body. Based on the Qur’anic verses concerning life after death, such as:

Do not think at all of those killed in God’s cause as dead. Rather, they are alive; with their Lord they have their sustenance (3: 169),

and the Prophetic Traditions that mention life in the grave and beyond, he emphasizes life in the grave and rejects any considerations that oppose this. Saying, “A human being is human due to their spirit, not their body,” the Imam considers the other-worldly existence as a new creation and existence.

Fakhru’d-Din ar-Razi (1149–1209 CE)

Fakhru’d-Din ar-Razi, one of the great interpreters of the Qur’an, holds the same opinions about the spirit as other Sunni scholars. However, when he goes into detail, he can be seen to have different, individual views. Even though some think that Imam ar-Razi, like Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni, and Imam an-Nawawi,[25] maintains that the spirit is a refined, transparent substance, like the rose oil in roses, he actually always avoids describing the spirit as something corporeal, no matter how refined and transparent it is, and he stresses its freedom from corporeality. In Ma’alimu Usuli’d-Din (“The Sciences of Religious Methodology”) and Mafatihu’l-Ghayb (“Keys of the Unseen”), he, like Imam al-Ghazzali, emphatically argues that the spirit is the essential reality of humanity, opposing those who claim that the reality of humanity lies in its corporeal existence; he criticizes materialists, spiritualists, and some theologians who were not able to find a proper style in expressing the truths. Razi’s arguments can be summarized as follows:

  1. Despite continuous change in the body, the individual nature and identity remain unchanged. Although the body, like a military barracks, is continuously filled, emptied, and refilled, and the particles or atoms that leave it are replaced with new ones, thus undergoing a constant change and renewal, the individuals remain as themselves and, at every instant, perceive themselves as they have always been. This clearly demonstrates that the essential reality of humanity lies in something other than the body, and which does not change through bodily changes.
  2. Like Ibn Sina and Imam al-Ghazzali, Imam Fakhru’d-Din ar-Razi argues that even at times when people are lost in something, or completely indifferent to or oblivious of their bodies, they never become oblivious of their identity. This state is described as “something known being different from what is unknown.” This is a self-evident reality, demonstrating that the essential reality of humanity lies in the spirit, not the body.
  3. Humanity involves the existence of learning and knowing. Knowledge can neither be obtained nor preserved by the body. Therefore, it is the spirit which forms the essence of humanity.
  4. The Qur’an and Prophetic sayings declare that the essence of humanity is the spirit. In the holy Qur’an, God declares,

“O you soul at rest! Return to your Lord, well-pleased (with Him and His treatment of you), and well-pleasing to Him!” (89: 27–28),

and reminds us that human identity does not consist of only the body. For the address “Return!” is made to the soul at rest, which is dying. This shows that the human identity has an essential element which can receive the Divine address and will return to God after the death of the body.

  1. We also read in the Clear Criterion (the Qur’an):

He is the All-Omnipotent over His servants; and He sends to you (angel) guardians (who watch over and keep a record of whatever you do). When death finally approaches any of you, Our envoys (the angels assigned to this duty) take his soul, and they do not neglect (any part of their tasks) (6: 61).

This means that every person has an essential substance which will be taken and submitted to God following death.

Based on these and other verses, such as

Do not think at all of those killed in God’s cause as dead. Rather, they are alive; with their Lord they have their sustenance (3: 161),

which is about the martyrs, and

The Fire: they are exposed to it morning and evening (40: 46),

which describes the state of the Clan of Pharaoh in the intermediate world of the grave, as well as Prophetic declarations like “The Prophets do not really die; they are transferred from one realm to another,”[26] and “The grave is either a garden from among the gardens of Paradise, or a pit from among the pits of Hell,”[27] Fakhru’d-Din ar-Razi, like earlier scholars who were of the same opinion, confirms both the existence of the spirit and the truth of the life of the grave. According to him, the intermediate realm of the grave is like a waiting room on the way to the Hereafter.

Stressing, like all other Muslim scholars, the existence and immaterial nature of the spirit, ar-Razi is severely opposed to the notion of reincarnation, something which all leading Muslim scholars decisively reject. He regards the arguments of Ibn Sina in its refutation to be insufficient and sets forth new arguments.

Again, like the overwhelming majority of Muslim scholars, ar-Razi believes in the bodily resurrection. That is, all human beings will be resurrected in body and soul in the Hereafter. The following quotation from his illustrious, voluminous commentary on the Qur’an, entitled Mafatihu’l-Ghayb (“Keys of the Unseen”), clearly shows his view:

God Almighty has equipped humankind with an intellect that is able to distinguish good from evil and the willpower to choose between them. He also has warned humankind, which He has created with this nature because of His Justice and Wisdom, against heresy, unbelief, and misguidance. He calls on them to refrain from harming the Prophets, saints, and indeed, all existent beings, and encourages them to do good deeds and attain virtues. A warning and encouragement can be fruitful with the promise of rewards for good deeds and the threat of punishment for evil. However, virtues and good deeds cannot receive their full reward in the world, nor can sins and evils be punished adequately and justly. This concludes that there must be, and is, another realm for the just, sufficient reward and punishment. That realm is the Hereafter.

The human carnal soul continuously drives human beings to satisfy their lusts and desires. This causes a constant conflict between human intellect or reason and the carnal soul. Reason or intellect should be supported in this conflict. Only the Divine promise of reward and the threat of punishment can lead human beings to give such support. But this promise of reward or threat is not completely fulfilled in this world. Therefore, there must be another realm where this Divine pledge will be completely fulfilled. In fact, the Divine pledge is essentially made with respect to that other realm, which is the Hereafter.

Both human reason and the Wisdom of God, the All-Wise, perceive it as necessary for good and evil to be treated differently. However, we cannot observe that this different treatment is fully made in this world. Many an evil person lives happily and comfortably, while numerous virtuous people suffer great hardship and deprivation. The Justice and Wisdom of God, the All-Just and All-Wise, require that there must be another realm where good and evil will receive their due fully. This realm is the Hereafter. It is also a requirement of Divine Justice and Wisdom that the right of the oppressed must be restored from oppressors and rights must be established. However, many oppressors depart from this world without their oppression being punished. Therefore, there must be, and is, another realm where everyone will get their just deserts. This realm is the other world, of which the Qur’an frequently reminds us.

But for the other world, human beings would be more wretched and miserable than animals. Animals have no consciousness or conception of definite time divisions, so therefore they suffer neither pains that arise from past misfortunes nor anxiety for the future. They live only for the moment. If they can find or are offered food, they eat and go; if they cannot find it, they continue to search for it or are content with the amount they have found. But humanity experiences the pains that come from past and present misfortunes, as well as anxieties about the future, all intermingled. Particularly if one’s belief and degree of submission are not strong enough to struggle against these pains and anxieties, one writhes with constant, unbearable suffering. Therefore, there must be another realm where humanity, which has been favored with feelings, consciousness, and the faculty of perception, will find absolute, eternal happiness. Otherwise, its faculties, such as reason and consciousness, on account of which it has been given a rank superior to other existent beings, would each be a source of torment for it.

Fakhru’d-Din ar-Razi sets forth other arguments for the other, eternal world, thus emphasizing the particular end which awaits humanity. He also provides answers based on the Qur’an to the human desire for eternity, and severely and categorically rejects considering good and evil, and the idea of reward and punishment in connection with the false notion of reincarnation. The bodily resurrection is absolutely certain to take place, and there is no reason to drive the souls to different adventures in our imaginations. Just as God Almighty created the world in the beginning, returning or restoring it after its destruction is easier in the view of reason, a fact which the Qur’an emphasizes. More than that, God is absolutely able to create from nothing, so why can He not restore creation? Thinking and asserting otherwise means attributing a limit to His infinite Power. In addition, if God were not to create the other world, this would mean His breaking His promise to reward and punish. God Almighty is absolutely above being powerless and not fulfilling His promise.

The Considerations of the Scholars of Sufism about the Spirit

The scholars of Sufism regard the considerations of philosophers and some theologians about the spirit to be a futile exercise. How ever, we see the traces of the doctrine of the Unity of Being in many Sufis’ views of the spirit.

The respectable scholar, Mustafa Sabri Efendi, quoting from Sa’du’d-Din at-Taftazani, divides the scholars of Sufism into two categories with respect to their views on existence. This division gives us distinct knowledge about the difference between their views on the spirit. For this reason, it would be useful to summarize the two different approaches of the Sufis to the matter of existence before proceeding to give their views on the spirit.

According to Sa’du’d-Din at-Taftazani, the scholars of Sufism are divided into two groups with respect to their views on existence: the Sufis and those who pretend to be Sufis. In their approach to the matter of existence, the Sufis are grounded in the fact that things have essential, established realities. Just as there is more than one existent thing, so too is existence multiple. That is, God’s Existence is different from the existence of other existent things and beings. However, when some initiates reach the rank of what they call “annihilation in and subsistence with or by God,” in which they are utterly absorbed, they are surrounded by the waves of the manifestations of Divine Oneness. They feel their beings are lost in the Being or Existence of God, and their attributes are absorbed in the light of His Attributes. They no longer feel anything other than the Divine Being, or His Existence. A perfected initiate who has reached this point of what they call “annihilation in God’s Oneness” may sometimes utter words that are apparently incompatible with the Shari’a, and thus cause confusion, such as, “I did not know myself to be so,” or “I wonder whether I am Him or He is me.” But the true successors of the cause of Prophethood never utter such things. Even if there may appear some who utter such phrases, they correct them according to the basic commandments of the Shari’a when they recover sobriety.

As for those who pretend to be Sufis, they adopt the doctrine of the Unity of Being as a philosophy. They affirm and defend it. According to them, there is a single existent being. This consideration of the Muslim pretenders of Sufism is, as Mustafa Sabri Efendi points out, based on the thought that God’s Attribute of Existence is identical with the Divine Being Himself. It is the Divine Being Who exists, and the whole universe is something imaginary or an illusion, or, according to some among them, is a manifestation or reflection of the Divine Being.

Even if the Unity of Being voiced by the Sufis is an inner experience or an instance of absorption or spiritual intoxication, the philosophical Unity of Being defended by the pretenders cannot be regarded as such. Verifying scholars consider Khallaj al-Mansur, Ibn al-Farid,[28] as-Suhrawardi, Jalalu’d-Din ad-Dawwani, Muhyi’d-Din ibn al-‘Arabi, and Mulla Jami’[29] to be among the genuine Sufis. Although there are some who include Shaykh Bedreddin, who said that the archetypes had not experienced the scent of existence, nor would they, to be in the same category, his main book, al-Waridat (“The Divine Gifts”) makes it impossible to regard him as such.

The considerations of the pretenders about the spirit are in line with their views on existence. According to them, like existence, the spirit is a manifestation or reflection. Just as humanity does not really exist, neither is the spirit something that exists independently. It is a manifestation or reflection of the All-Holy Creator or the Universal Spirit. The concepts of “the vegetable spirit,” “the animal spirit,” “the human spirit,” and “the speaking soul,” which philosophers and some scholars mention, are only designations given by humanity to certain shadows of this reflection. However, Muhyi’d-Din ibn al-‘Arabi has a somewhat different consideration about the matter with respect to the Hereafter. According to him, the final destruction of the world will not be a complete destruction or annihilation. This destruction and the Resurrection that follows will be a different picture of the same reality. When God takes a person to Him through death, He makes a new form for his or her spirit and human identity, which is different from his or her worldly body. This new form will be of the same sort as or suited to the station to which the dead will be transferred. In other words, a person will respectively take on a new form and nature in the intermediate world of the grave, the Place of Supreme Gathering, and Paradise or Hell that is in keeping with their spiritual state and each of these places.

Some among the scholars of Sufism have adopted the Sufis’ views on the spirit, while some others have accepted that of the pretenders. There are also many among them who think like theologians; in turn, among these there are some who use a language similar to that of philosophers, following the line of the asserters of the Unity of Being, and those who, like the earliest, righteous scholars, are content with the concise knowledge the Qur’an gives about the spirit and do not go into detail. However, the majority of those scholars strictly follow the Qur’an and the Sunna in their considerations.

Bediüzzaman Said Nursi’s views on the Spirit

Before proceeding to conclude this long discussion with the views of the Sufis of sobriety and wakefulness, I should present the considerations of Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, who is regarded as one of the most outstanding and effective minds of the modern age.

Bediüzzaman Said Nursi

Bediuzzaman Said Nursi Quotes

In several of his treatises, Bediüzzaman Said Nursi emphasizes the meaning and importance of life, and expresses what should be expressed concerning the spirit according to the Qur’an and the Sunna. He also deals with the matter of the spirit together with the existence of angels and other spirit beings, and voices the Sunni line of thought and belief by explaining the future of the spirit after death with the reality of revival after death (the Resurrection). He discusses the satisfaction of the perennial aspirations of humanity, which has been created for eternity and therefore passionately aspires to eternal happiness—but not searching for that satisfaction in the consolations sought in theories of a drop’s returning to the sea from which it has departed, nor in difficult journeys offered by the false assumption of reincarnation or transmigrations of the soul. He breathes relief into hearts provided by the Divine promise of both bodily and spiritual eternal happiness, and shows those who are in hopeful expectation to the eternal happiness that shines on the horizon of the Qur’an and the Sunna.

Bediüzzaman makes frequent references to life. According to him, just as life is a gift of God Almighty as a direct operation of His Names the All-Living and the Giver of Life, so too does the human spirit, which is something that has been “breathed” by God, originate in the same source. Let me summarize his considerations:

Life is the most important aim pursued in the creation of the universe, and its greatest result, it is its most radiant light, its most delicate essence, its distilled extract, its most perfect fruit, its most sublime perfection, its finest beauty and its most brilliant adornment. In addition, life is the axis of the unity of existence, the source of its perfection—and in regard to art and nature, it is its most wonderful aspect endowed with spirit and its miraculous reality which makes the minutest creature like the universe itself. Also, life is a miracle of the Divine Power, which makes each living being an index or sample of the whole universe in relationship with most other creatures. Again, life is a work of Divine Art, which makes a tiny part as great or comprehensive as the huge whole, and an individual living entity as encompassing as the universal one which contains it. With regard to the Lordship of God, life demonstrates that the universe is an indivisible and inseparable whole. Moreover, it is the most decisive and perfect of the proofs in the universe for the absolutely necessary existence of the All-Living, Self-Subsisting Being; it is the most subtle and yet the most apparent of the Divine artifacts, the most valuable yet the most abundant and the purest, most radiant, and most meaningful of them.[30]

After these definitions of life, Bediüzzaman explains life’s relationship with the six pillars of belief, and he concludes his remarks with a discussion of servanthood to God. His explanations about the spirit, which he regards as the pure essence of life, or even as life itself, are original. He says:

The spirit is a law with consciousness and has a real, sensible existence. Like the enduring laws of creation, the spirit also issues from the World of (the Initial Manifestation of) Divine Commands and the Divine Attribute of Will. Divine Power clothes it in an energetic envelope within a body of sensory organs. This spirit, which exists in each human being, is a counterpart of the laws of nature. Both are unchanging and permanent, and come from the World of (the Initial Manifestation of) Divine Commands. If Eternal Power had clothed laws with external existence, each would have been a spirit; if the human spirit were stripped of consciousness, it would become an immaterial law.[31]

In another work where he discusses the spirit and life together, Bediüzzaman writes as follows:

The perfection of existence is through life. Life is the real basis and light of existence. Consciousness, in turn, is the light of life. Life constitutes the foundation of everything and appropriates everything for each living thing. Only through life can a living creature claim that everything belongs to it, that the world is its home, and that the universe is its property, conferred by the Owner. Just as light causes (concrete) things to be seen and, according to one theory, is the real cause of color, life unveils creation. Life causes qualities to be realized and archetypes to gain material existence. It makes the particular universal and the universal concentrated in a particular. Life is the manifestation of oneness in multiplicity, the reflection of unity in plurality. See how lonely even a mountain-sized object is without life. Its interactions are restricted to its location, and all that exists in the universe means nothing to it, for it is unconscious of other existents. But as such a minute living being as a honeybee can have close interactions with the universe, particularly with plants and flowers, it can say, “The earth is my garden, my marketplace where I do business.”[32]

Where he expresses his considerations about the physical and metaphysical dimensions, Bediüzzaman remarks, “The corporeal world is only a lace veil over the World of Spirits and the World (Realm) of the Transcendental Manifestation of Divine Commands.”[33] Further, he makes the following explanations about the spirit and life:

Matter is not the essence of existence, so that existence should be restricted to it. Rather, matter exists and subsists through something immaterial, which is life and the spirit. Matter is also not something served so that everything should depend on it; rather, it serves the perfection of something substantial, which is life. And the spirit is the essence of life. Again, matter is not something dominating, so that things should be referred to it; rather, it is something dominated, subject to the decree of something which has a fundamental place in existence. That thing is life, the spirit, and consciousness.[34]

Elsewhere, after offering many rational and reported proofs—those based on the Qur’an and the Sunna—concerning the existence of angels and other spirit beings, Bediüzzaman draws the following conclusion:

Since the people of wisdom and religion and philosophers and religious scholars are agreed that existence is not restricted to the witnessed, corporeal realm, and since this apparent, corporeal realm has been inhabited by innumerable beings that possess spirit, although it is material and not suitable for the origination of spirits, for sure, existence cannot be restricted to it. Rather, there should be many other realms of existence in relation to which the witnessed, corporeal realm is an embroidered veil.[35]

Bediüzzaman also emphasizes the existence of angels and other kinds of spiritual beings, and whenever occasion appears, he stresses the permanence of the spirit. In “The Treatise of Resurrection” (The Tenth Word) and “The Second Aim” of The Twenty-Ninth Word, he convincingly proves the bodily resurrection based on many reported and rational arguments and by referring to Divine Attributes and Names. Afterwards, Bediüzzaman draws attention to the benefits of belief in the revival after death for human individual and social life. He offers readers highly significant clues in line with Sunni belief and thought about the reality of life, the spirit and its permanence, and the reward and punishment that await us in the other world.

Lord of the dance-Rumi

Lord of the dance-Rumi

The Sufis and the Spirit

The Sufis have defined the spirit as a manifestation or shadow of Divine life, and an immaterial substance; God Almighty has not enabled anybody to have perfect knowledge about its exact identity. While philosophers tend to call it “the speaking soul,” the Sufis prefer designating it as “the spirit breathed,” based on God’s declaration in the Qur’an,

“I have breathed into it (the body) out of My Spirit” (15:29).

According to them, in addition to the spirit’s being the essence of human existence and nature, the perfection of humanity is possible through spiritual perfection, which one can realize by journeying in the heart on the way to God. The spirit is also an important means for the human relationship with God. It is only through the spirit that a human being can travel toward and through the metaphysical realms, feel a relationship with God Almighty, and observe on the horizon of the heart and other inner faculties numerous marvels which are impossible for the body to observe.

The body is the mount of the spirit, and the physical heart is the base of what we call the (spiritual) heart. A person knows and perceives through the spirit, and it is also through the spirit that they become aware of and experience themselves. In sleep or other similar situations, for example, when one is unconscious, the spirit partially cuts its relationship with the body and begins traveling in its own horizon. When death comes, the spirit departs from the body completely, and lives a transitional form of life between this world and the next until the new creation in the other world. It never suffers complete annihilation.

The spirit essentially belongs to the Realm of the Transcendental Manifestation of Divine Commands. The Qur’an declares,

All that is on the earth is perishable (55: 26).

The “death” of the spirit is of a relative nature and must be in the form of absorption. Humans enter and live in the intermediate world of the grave with their spirits still living, and during their long journey, with the “ups” and “downs” after the grave, their spirits command their bodies. As all their eternal physical and spiritual pleasures in the other world depend on living in this world at the level of the spirit, so too, all sufferings and torments will arise from leading a worldly life at the level of animal appetites. A person enters Paradise in the “patronage” of their developed “spirit breathed,” and the completely refined and illuminated body shares this favor. Such a favor may be enjoyed by God’s chosen, best servants in the world as a miracle. The Ascension of the Master of creation, upon him be peace and blessings, is the brilliant example of such a favor.

The spirit has no need to dwell in a body, but the body is its dwelling place in the world. As a Divine reward for its refinement, the spirit has no need to be in a specific place. But this does not mean that it is like the Divine Being, absolutely above being contained in time or space. The body is a mechanism for the spirit to execute its control over, or an instrument with which it voices its feelings. It is not a part of the body, attached to or contained by it. With its roots in the Realm of (the Initial Manifestation of) Divine Commands, its branches and leaves at its worldly address, and in a certain type of relationship with the body that is unknown to us, it speaks, thinks, loves, pities, and if submitted to God, continuously does good deeds, advancing toward Paradise. But if it is made subservient to the body, then whatever a person does, says, and thinks becomes like a growl or a snarl.

The spirit is a subtle, refined being that resembles the angels. It commands all the physical and immaterial senses and faculties of a person. The mind, which materialists and materialist physiologists see as the source of all human “mental” activities, is like a telephone exchange between the spirit and physical organism, a reservoir for the produce of the faculties that are dependent upon the spirit, the center of connection between the sense organs, a library of the intellect and soul that contains worlds, a set of switches for feelings, motions, and activities of perception, and a laboratory to study, distinguish, analyze, and synthesize Divine gifts. It is a dynamic element of the spirit.

According to the majority of Sufis, the spirit is something created, even though it comes from the Realm of (the Initial Manifestation of) Divine Commands. It is the most subtle, purest, and most refined of creatures. It is a mirror for the reflection of Divine Attributes and Names, one that is able to penetrate the densest of things. It reminds us of the Divine Being. Those equipped with the capacity to see and hear the things unseen and unheard by ordinary humans see and hear by means of either the (spiritual) heart or secret (an innermost faculty more subtle and refined than the heart), which is under its control and guidance. The people who have knowledge of the truths that lie in the essence of existence and the Religion rise to the peaks of (spiritual) discoveries and observations on the wings of the spirit. While we can only see the outer dimension of things with the physical sense of sight, the spirit is honored with penetrating the inner dimension through the windows of the (spiritual) heart, and with the observation of what lies behind the manifestations of Divine Attributes and Names through the windows of the secret. Although all believers will be honored with this favor in the other world, the one who has the greatest capacity to receive it is the Master of creation, upon him be the most perfect of blessings and peace, who says, “The thing which God created first is my light.”[36]

Being a breath from the Realm of (the Initial Manifestation of) Divine Commands, the spirit takes on a form according to each individual. It has an energetic or astral envelope and can appear in the form of the double of the individual to whom it belongs. It departs from its body at death, and by God’s will and leave, it keeps waiting for the union.

Life is a manifestation of the Divine Names the All-Living and One Who Gives Life. With respect to humans, it manifests itself as the spirit that is breathed and which displays multifarious activities in the body into which it has been breathed. In its relation with humans, the spirit is an entity created within time, and it can be said that it is breathed every moment in an ever-renewed cycle through the constant, ever new manifestations of the Divine Names the All-Living, the One Who Gives Life, and the One Self-Subsisting and Causing to Subsist. Those who cannot see this reality behind life either attribute the spirit to the physical composition of the body or to the mind or brain, or in heedlessness of the points or inner senses or faculties of support and seeking help on which it is dependent, regard it as eternal (in the past) and independently self-subsisting. However, it is neither valueless, to be attributed to a decaying physical composition or other material causes, nor too arrogant to claim self-eternality and self-subsistence. It exists because God has made it exist, and subsists because He is the One Self-Subsisting and Causing to Subsist. The Prophetic declaration, “The thing which God created first is my spirit (according to another narration, “my light),” indicates to this fact.

In respect of its body and carnal soul being related to the Physical Realm of Creation, of its spirit relating to the Realm of the Initial Manifestation of Divine Commands, of its (spiritual) heart that is open to the Realm of the Transcendental Manifestation of Divine Commands, and of its secret (its innermost faculty more subtle and refined than the heart) turning toward the Realm of the Transcendental Manifestation of Divine Attributes and Names, humanity—this noble being—is a peerless, most comprehensive copy of creation. However, despite or due to this elevated nature, it has both the qualities of excellence and the attributes of carnality. (This division is made by those who regard the spirit and soul as separate entities.) The effects of both the qualities of excellence and the attributes of carnality relate to the materialization of human acts. Belief, intention, resolution, discipline, determination, and first and foremost, turning to God in faith and obedience, or turning away from Him in disobedience, are each like a seed from which good or evil grows and develops, so that a person either rises to the highest of the high, or falls to the lowest of the low.

Those who regard the soul and the spirit as separate entities see the former as the center of human evil attributes and the latter as the source of praiseworthy qualities and values. They consider reason or intellect to be the tongue of the spirit, and insight its translator. According to this approach, reason is connected with the spirit, not with the soul. According to such thinkers, the spirit is the basis of the mechanism of learning, discernment, inspiration, and conscience, and it is the essence of humanity. It is the spirit which in a healthy body sees with the eyes, tastes with the tongue, hears with the ears, touches with the skin, and smells with the nose.

The spirit has a deep, intimate connection with the body beyond consciousness. This connection is of a nature that the spirit experiences by means of the body itself, all bodily attributes and activities, each of which principally originates in a different manifestation of Divine Names, and is able to penetrate the nature of matter with certainty.

However, some Sufis use the spirit and the soul interchangeably. They categorize the spirit as the vegetable soul or spirit, the animal soul or spirit, and the human soul or spirit. They also categorize the soul according to its degree of spiritual evolution as the carnal, evil-commanding soul, the self-accusing soul, the soul receiving inspiration, and the soul at rest, and so on. According to the majority of scholarly Sufis, a soul that has reached the rank of being at rest avoids all evil and makes doing good, praiseworthy deeds a dimension of its nature. Taking another step upwards, it keeps even involuntary occurrences in its mind under control. Angelic qualities and holiness are observed in a hero of truth who has reached this point, and then the doors of the knowledge of the Unseen are slightly opened onto him or her. Over time, such a soul becomes a pure spirit, and its carnality is totally transformed into spirituality.

This point needs further elaboration, as follows: According to the Sufis, as long as the spirit is supported and strengthened through ever deepening belief, good deeds, the avoidance of sins, and true learning and reflection, the soul begins to display the traces of straightforwardness. When this continues with constant purification of the soul and the “refinement” of the body through regular worship, both the soul and the body can receive the gifts of turning to God Almighty under the guidance of the spirit.

We can also approach this matter from another perspective, as follows: If the animal soul is so powerful as to dominate the body, this causes the “death” of the spirit, while leading a life at the level of the heart and the strengthening of the spirit results in either the “death” or submission of the soul, or even in acquiring an angelic nature in some people of superior spirituality. Seeing the good side of everything, positive thought, sound belief, regular worship, orderly recurring supplications and recitations, and continuous imploring for forgiveness of sins constitute the securest way of strengthening the spirit and compelling the soul into submission. Those who follow this way sincerely have never been witnessed to fall halfway. Far from falling halfway, those who never give up self-supervision on this way and who are always careful of their relationship with God Almighty, continuously advance toward the highest of the high. The scholarly Sufis call them “the people with illuminated and illuminating spirits.” But those who always see the evil side of things and events, who suffer deviances in thought, who spend their lives on worldly ambitions and daydreams, who have never been able to attain truth in belief, who are heedless of worship, who do not strengthen their inclination toward good through prayer, and who cannot overcome their tendency toward evil and sins through asking God for forgiveness inevitably fall to the lowest of the low. Such are called “the bodies of darkness.”

The spirit becomes like a “pigeon” or angel, flying toward the heights of the Hereafter; this is to such an extent that people restrain their carnal desires, fill their heart with knowledge and love of God, and live a life according to the religious rules. If, by contrast, a person lives in dependence on carnal or bodily appetites, then the spirit weakens, the heart fades, feelings become polluted, and the “secret” is silenced. In brief, the dominion of carnality always results in the paralysis of spirituality, and the strengthening of the spirit leads to the submission and purification of the soul. To express this point, some saints say, “Those who care about their bodies cannot care about their spirits, and those who care about their spirits cannot remain as those who care about their bodies.” These saints teach people how to discover their spirits.

An unpurified soul tends to carnality and pursues the satisfaction of bodily desires. Until it becomes a soul at rest and becomes almost identical with the spirit, it displays this characteristic to some extent. But when the spirit reaches the rank of being pleased with God and being pleasing to Him, by God’s help, it begins speaking like the spirit. When a person attains this character, the reason, which is a curious, inquisitive faculty, rises to the horizon of being an analyzer of the proofs and essentials of religious commandments, taking on the “color” of the heart, and begins observing metaphysical realms from the observatory of the spiritual intellect. The heart lies in ambush to hunt the mysteries that pertain to the Realm of the Transcendental Manifestation of Divine Attributes and Names, and the secret breathes with yearning for the Divine Being.

The heart and the secret are like two eyes of the spirit with which we can look on eternity. Along the spiritual journey, the spiritual intellect beats with the dreams of the Realm of the Transcendental Manifestation of Divine Attributes and Names, and the secret with a yearning for the Realm of the Transcendental Manifestation of Divinity. When they have obtained what they are enamored of, each becomes intoxicated with what it observes in its horizon in great amazement. When Divine gifts, flowing from the secret to the heart and taking on the color of the Realm of the Transcendental Manifestation of Divine Commands in the receptors of the heart, are transferred to the spirit in the tongue of the heart, they begin to give voice with angelic accent. This may be analogous—even though imperfect and limited—to the conveyance of Divine mysteries to the Prophets by the angels, whom we may liken to spirits with the depth of their secrets and hearts. Indeed, in the verse,

He conveys the Spirit (the life-giving Revelation, from the immaterial realm) of His command to whom He wills of His servants (40: 15),

the Qur’an sometimes uses the Revelation in the meaning of the spirit. Just as the spirit is the essence of life in the body, so too, the Revelation is the essence and most important means of spiritual life and vitality. The spirit is a Divine breath, direct or indirect, and the Revelation is also a breath issuing from His Attribute of Speech. The most loyal trustees of this Divine secret are the perfect or universal men.[37] The spirit, which the greatest of universal men, the Master of creation, upon him be peace and blessings, received and breathed into his community is the Divine Revelation itself, and the gifts and inspirations that come to relatively universal men following in his footsteps are a means of mercy for the Muslim Community, provided these gifts and inspirations are tested and verified according to the basic standards that are established by the Revelation.

Both of these spirits—the spirit and the Revelation—are of vital importance for humanity. In the same way that the growth, health, and survival of the human body are possible through the spirit, the life and survival of all the worlds depend on the “spirit” that is breathed by the universal man. Before the creation of the first universal man—Adam, the first human being and also a Prophet who would read creation and illuminate reasons and hearts with the breath he conveyed—the world was dark. Especially through the light which the Greatest Spirit and the Spirit of Holiness diffused, the middle part of its history was illuminated. If one day this light disappears, leaving the world in darkness, and things and events begin to be interpreted as playthings of chance, a new way will appear before humanity. That is, like the alternation of night and day, the world, which will have been darkened, will be replaced by the illuminated world of eternity. Let us once more listen to Bediüzzaman:

Just as life is a pure extract distilled from the universe, just as consciousness and sense perception are extracts distilled from life… and just as the spirit is the pure essence of life—indeed, it is life itself stable and autonomous—so too is the physical and spiritual life of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, the most refined extract distilled from the sense perception, consciousness, and intelligence of the universe. The Messengership of Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, is the purest extract distilled from the sense perception, consciousness, and intelligence of the universe. Indeed, as testified to by his works, accomplishments, and legacy, the physical and spiritual life of Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, the very life of the universe’s life, and his Messengership are the light and very consciousness of the universe’s consciousness.

It is truly so. If the light of Prophet Muhammad’s Messengership departs from the world, the universe will die. If the Qur’an deserts the universe, the universe will go mad. It will lose its mind and cause the destruction of the world by striking its head on a star.[38]

The spirit breathed into a human being potentially means the same as what Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur’an mean for existence, each as a universal spirit which encompasses the universe, and as its consciousness, life, and light. However, in order to manifest itself in the corporeal realm, the spirit needs a system or a mechanism. Whether transparent or dense, all things are receptors of the universal laws that issue from the Realm of the Initial Manifestation of Divine Commands and which are appointed for their creation and operation or life. All living beings, including humans, with their particular composition and capacities, and the universal men with their distinguished nature and the particular favors accorded to them, are where the spirit particular to each rises.

With respect to humanity, the spirit has some stages of rising or birth, as follows:

  1. Its rise during the initial determination of natures. This stage of its rise has a relation to the truth of Muhammad as Ahmad—his archetypal existence before his coming into the world as Muhammad. This is the view of those who maintain that spirits were created before the bodily existence of humanity.
  2. Its rise during the creation of Adam—and indeed of every person—which is expressed in, I have breathed into him out of My Spirit (15: 29).
  3. The rise of the breathed spirit in the horizon of the heart and the secret. This rise also describes humanity’s actual undertaking of the high status of vicegerency. The one who is the perfect representative of this status is the universal man. The body of the universal man, even if it is inferior to the spirit as a corporeal entity, has spiritual refinement. The Ascension of the Master of creation, upon him be peace and blessings, during which his blessed body accompanied his spirit—which he made with his spirit and body together—is an example of this. Even in its everyday activities and states, such a body manifests the Divine Being’s Attributes of Majesty and Perfection, as stated concerning the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings: “When he is seen, God is remembered and mentioned.”[39]

A universal man displays certain distinctions. He is born with the distinctions particular to him, and lives in awareness of them. He tries to fulfill whatever these distinctions require him to do. He advances into the other world in the way he lives. Even his body enjoys its share in his distinctions. For example, the bodies of the Prophets do not decompose or rot in the earth.[40]

The spirit of the Core of Prophethood, upon him be peace and blessings, was the first to be determined and specified at the beginning of creation. However, he was transferred into material existence in the world as the rhyme of the verse of Prophethood, the fruit of the Tree of Creation, the sun of the sky of Divine Messengership, and the conveyor of the final, decisive judgment in all matters, whose advent had been awaited for centuries with great excitement and joy.

He is both the fruit and the seed; both the first signal and the last sign. He has both the secrets of the Basmala[41] (as the beginning of everything), and the mysteries of the Fatiha (the Opening Chapter of the Qur’an). He can also be regarded as the forerunner coming from behind. He describes himself and his Companions, saying, “We are those who have come the last, but who have outstripped the others.”[42] As the community of every Prophet will follow its Prophet on Judgment Day, it must be a most glad tiding for us regarding the station or rank which will be bestowed on those who follow that Greatest Spirit, upon him be peace and blessings. He is the Greatest Spirit, and his community is the happiest, most fortunate community.

In Sufi terminology, the term the Greatest Spirit is generally used in the meaning of the Truth of Ahmad—the meaning or truth that the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, represented before his coming into the world as Muhammad. Since that most illustrious being is the most polished, purest mirror of Divine Attributes and Names, He is the most radiant “face,” the most resplendent “stature,” of the Visible or Corporeal World and the (invisible) Realm of the Transcendental Manifestation of Divine Commands. By means of the lights he diffused, all things and events have come to be understood as a thoroughly meaningful book to study, and humankind has clearly learned from where it comes and where it goes, while the human spirit, enamored of eternity, has been re-born and saved from the veils of the darkness of corporeality through his promises of eternal happiness.

However, some regard the Greatest Spirit as the manifestation of universal life, some as the universal manifestation of Divine Majesty, and some, based on the Qur’anic verse,

The angels and the Spirit descend in it (the Night of Power and Destiny) by the permission of their Lord with His decrees for every affair (97: 4),

as the Greatest, Universal Spirit Who descends on a blessed day or night as a means of spiritual expansion and elation for believers. There are still others who consider it to be the most comprehensive representation of spiritual journeying toward God from the beginning to the end, while yet others call Him the First Intellect or the Universal Soul. As a matter of fact, like the Spirit of Holiness, who is the unperceivable being regarded as the source of the radiations of the Prophets, the Greatest, Universal Spirit is unknown to us in His real identity.

The spirit of everyone is in fact open to the Realm of the Transcendental Manifestation of Divine Commands, and has a connection with it. Those having expert knowledge of the matter describe the spiritual discernment and perception through this connection as “the near conquest,” the intuitions and impression of a heart open to and connected with the Divine Attributes and the Realm of the Transcendental Manifestation of Divine Attributes and Names, as “the manifest conquest,” and the observations of the secret turning toward the Realm of the Transcendental Manifestation of Divinity, as “the absolute conquest.”

A human being is a candidate for both Paradise and eternity, and for both the “observation” of God in Paradise and gaining His good pleasure, with his or her inner faculties such as the spirit, heart and secret. Since all the favors to be accorded in the other world primarily relate to these faculties, and we are therefore unable to perceive them in our corporeality, they will come as surprises:

“I have prepared for My righteous servants things that no eyes have ever seen, no ears have ever heard of, and that have never occurred to the heart of anyone.”[43] 

Certainly, the Divine favors to come in the Hereafter are impossible to perceive by “worldly reason” or “the reason of worldly life”—the reason busied with worldly affairs only. Who knows what surprises the One Who gives the answer, Therein will be for them everything that they desire, and in Our Presence, there is yet more (50: 35), to those who ask, “Is there yet more?” in pursuit of more knowledge and love of God, will bestow from the source of the promise,

 For those who do good, aware that God is seeing them, is the best (of the rewards), and still more (10: 26).

We think that the infinite Mercy of the One Who has made the contract with humanity, Whoever is for God, God is for him, requires it to be so.

To summarize, life is everything in the universe and it is directly connected to Him, the All-Living and Self-Subsisting (by Whom all subsist). The life of God Almighty is Life Itself, essential to His Being, and eternal in the past and future. His Life is by Itself, not dependent on any spirit. But the spirit of every living being is an immaterial substance and the cause of the life of that being. Being refined, pure bodies, angels continue to exist by means of their spirits, which are almost identical with their lives due to their purity and refinement. For this reason, some scholars maintain that the death of angels is not like the death of corporeal living beings, but like fainting or absorption. According to these scholars, the death of the spirits will be like the death of angels. Since, in their view, the spirits are simple, living, and conscious Divine laws issuing from the Realm of the Initial Manifestation of Divine Commands, they will not decompose or rot like compound or composed entities. However, as declared in the verse,

The Trumpet will be blown, and so all who are in the heavens and all who are on the earth will fall dead (39: 68),

they have also been destined to pass over the bridge of death, even in the form of absorption or fainting.

According to the Sufis, like the three separate but interdependent faculties of a complete entity, the spirit is an immaterial entity that has three dimensions as the object of three separate Divine favors. They are as follows:

The first is what they call “the spirit itself.” It is the first manifestation of the all-encompassing Divine Mercy in the name of bringing the spirit into existence. It appears to be subsisting as the result of the mutual, interdependent relations and positions of the elements that form a living being.

The second is the “spirit breathed.” It is what they call “the speaking soul,” which is favored with reason, willpower, spiritual intellect, certain inner senses, and consciousness, and with the capacity for developing through learning and belief. It is a living, conscious Divine law or command breathed into the embryo in a certain stage of its development in the womb of mother. A hadith says that it is breathed by means of an angel. This spirit was breathed into Adam by God Almighty Himself, as stated in, I have breathed into him out of My Spirit (15: 29); and into the Prophet Jesus, upon him be peace, by means of Archangel Gabriel. These spirits of human beings are called “the spirits particular.” The spirit of every individual human being has particularities of its own that emanate from particular manifestations of Divine Compassion, and is related to his or her own particular nature, character, and capacity. These spirits may be likened to the different reflections of the sun in earthly objects, varying from one another in nature, capacity, and particularities. The almost limitless diversity and multiplicity of the objects are not contrary to the oneness of the sun that is reflected in them. Each receives a reflection according to its particular capacity, nature, and features from a single sun, which has all of the reflections. Without ignoring the inadequacy of the comparison, we can say that just as all the instances of light, heat, and some other features shared by all the objects on the earth and even other planets, are reflections of the sun’s light, heat, and other features, the spirits having particularities according to each human being are reflections of the Life of the One Who has Attributes of Majesty and Grace, and manifestations of His Names the All-Living and the One Who Gives Life. It is for this reason that as some Sufis living in absorption of Divine Existence and who always consider the Real, Essential Existence even while looking on the shadowy existence, and experience annihilation under the lights of the burning manifestations of the Divine “Face,” state that they feel no existence but Him. Some ecstatics among them go so far as to see existence as if it were the dead reflection of a human being in a mirror, and view it as something imaginary.

In fact, this is confusion that arises from being overwhelmed by spiritual intoxication and absorption. Therefore, such considerations of Muslim Sufi ecstatics should not be confused with the philosophical views of pantheists. Even though there seems to be a similarity between the two views or considerations, while Muslim Sufis have concentrated on Divine Existence as the real existence, and have been annihilated in It, regarding contingent existence as something imagined, the others concentrate on the corporeal existence, either ignoring the Divine Existence or viewing the former as the incarnation of the latter.

The third dimension of the spirit is the “biological spirit,” which the Muslim Sufis call the “animal spirit.” It is an element of connection between the breathed spirit or the speaking soul and the body. This may also be regarded as a veil of the spirit’s subtlety, purity, and dignity that is related to the Divine Name the All-Outward.

The spirit breathed by God is an abstract, non-biological substance. The tides of humans between guidance and straying, good and evil, and happiness and misery, occur in relation to the animal spirit. If it were possible to listen to the spirit breathed, we would always hear it singing tunes of happiness. The sufferings and pains of the animal spirit in those whom the real human spirit dominates are means of perfection for the spirit breathed. If, by contrast, they are weak in respect of their spirit breathed—those who are not alive in respect of their conscience, who are dead in their relationship with God—they gain nothing in return for their sufferings and pains. The most important mechanism of the spirit is the conscience, which is an observatory for the “observation” of God.

O God! Show us the truth as the truth, and enable us to observe it, and show us falsehood as falsehood, and enable us to avoid it. Make us die as Muslims and include us among the righteous. Bestow Your blessings and peace on the Light which rose from the Unseen into existence, having the reality of all existence, and subsisting by You for You in the Realm of the Transcendental Manifestation of Divinity, and which was equipped with Your standards of conduct in the Realm of the Transcendental Manifestation of Divine Attributes and Names, and on his Family and Companions, who represent all that the Prophet brought into the Realm of Corporeal Existence.

By M. Fethullah Gulen

[1] Abu’l-Fath Muhammad ibn Abdu’l-Karim ash-Shahristani (1079–1153) was perhaps the most famous of medieval Muslim writers on the trends of thought and religious sects. He lived in eastern Iran. Al-Milal wa’n-Nihal (“The True and False Ways of Belief and Thought”) is his most famous work. (Tr.)
[2] Imam Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazzali (1058–1111): A major theologian, jurist, and sage who was considered a reviver (of Islam’s purity and vitality) during his time. Known in Europe as Algazel, he was the architect of Islam’s later development. He wrote many books, the most famous being Ihyau ‘Ulumi’d-Din (“Reviving the Religious Sciences”). (Tr.)
[3] Mustafa Sabri Efendi (1869–1954) was a Turkish scholar and Shaykhu’l-Islam. He lived in Turkey and Egypt. Mawqif al-‘Aql wa’l-‘Ilm is among his most well-known works. (Tr.)
[4] Şemseddin Günaltay (1883–1961) was the eighteenth prime minister of the Republic of Turkey. He studied natural science, Turkish history, and Muslim peoples. Zulmetten Nura (“From Darkness to Light”), Hurafattan Hakikata (“From Superstitions to the Truth”), and Islam Dini Tarihi (“The History of the Religion of Islam”) are his most famous works. (Tr.)
[5] Ali Arslan Aydin is a contemporary Turkish scholar. Islam İnançlari ve Felsefesi (“The Beliefs and Philosophy of Islam”) is his most well-known book. (Tr.)
[6] The Hurufis are the followers of Hurufism, an esoteric heterodox trend—religion, according to some—which attributes sacredness to letters, claims that each letter of the Arabic alphabet has a numerical value, and deduces histories and predictions from the Qur’an based on the numerical values of letters. It was founded by Fadlullah Hurufi (1340–1394), who lived in Iran, and claimed that he was an incarnation of God. (Tr.)
[7] Shaykh Bedreddin Simawi was born in Simavna town in today’s Greece. He is generally known for his materialistic views of existence. He was sentenced to death because of his participation in revolts in the political scene in the Period of Interregnum (1402–1413). His Waridat is famous. (Tr.)
[8] ‘Ash’aris constitute one of the two main branches of Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jama’a. The founder of this branch is Abu’l-Hasan al-‘Ash’ari (d. 936). Although they accept the role of human free will in human actions, the free will consists of an inner tendency. It is God Who creates all human actions. They also maintain that things do not have attributes essential to and originating in them. For example, fire does not burn as an indispensable attribute; rather, God always creates the attribute of burning in fire so long as He wills it to burn, and if He does not will it to burn, fire cannot burn. Therefore, the universe, with whatever is in it, is under God’s direct disposal and control. (Tr.)
[9] Said Nursi writes in explaining this: “The spirit resembles laws (for example, the law of growth in a tree). Both issue from the Realm of Pure Divine Commands and Divine Will. If the law had had consciousness, it would have become a spirit; if the spirit had been without consciousness, it would have become a law.” The Letters, “Epigrams or Seeds of the Truth,” The Light, New Jersey, 2007, p. 447.
[10] Yaqub ibn Ishak al-Kindi (800–873 CE), also known in the West by the Latinized version of his name, Alkindus, was a Muslim Arab philosopher, mathematician, physician, astronomer and musician. He was regarded as the first Muslim peripatetic philosopher, and is particularly known for his efforts to introduce Greek philosophy to the Arab world. (Tr.)
[11] Abu ‘Ali Ibn Sina (980–1037 CE) was a Muslim Persian physician, astronomer, logician, mathematician, metaphysician, philosopher, physicist, scientist, and theologian, known in the West as Avicenna, and the author of some 450 books on a wide range of subjects, many of which concentrated on philosophy and medicine. (Tr.)
[12] Ibn Bajja, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Yahya (1095–1138 CE) was an Andalusian-Muslim astronomer, logician, musician, philosopher, physician, physicist, psychologist, poet and scientist. He was known in the West by his Latinized name, Avempace. He died in Morocco. (Tr.)
[13] Ibn Rushd, Muhammad ibn Ahmad (1126–1198 CE) was a master of early Islamic philosophy, Islamic theology, Maliki law and jurisprudence, logic, psychology, Arabic music theory, and the sciences of medicine, astronomy, geography, mathematics and physics. He lived in Spain, and died in Morocco. He was known in the West by his Latinized name, Averroes. He has been described as the founding father of secular thought in Western Europe. He wrote about seventy works in different fields of science. (Tr.)
[14] Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn al-Hasan Nasiru’d-Din at-Tusi (1201–1274 CE) was born in Tus, in eastern Iran, and died in Baghdad. He was a prolific writer: an astronomer, biologist, chemist, mathematician, philosopher, physician, physicist, scientist, and theologian. (Tr.)
[15] Abul-Qasim Husayn ibn Muhammad ar-Raghib al-Isfahani (d. 1109 CE) was one of the most renowned linguists who appeared during the ‘Abbasid period. He made contributions to Qur’anic commentary, ethics, theology, and Sufism. His fame rests, however, on his Mufradat alfaz al-Qur’an, which reflects his exceptional aptitude for subtle semantic analysis and marks an advance in the systematic studies of the Qur’an. (Tr.)
[16] Sadrud-Din Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ash-Shirazi, known as Mulla Sadra (1571–1640 CE) may be regarded as the most important philosopher in the Muslim world in the last four centuries. The author of over forty works, he revived philosophy in Iran. He constructed a critical philosophy which combined Peripatetic, Illuminationist and gnostic philosophy along with Shi’ite theology within the compass of what he termed a ”metaphilosophy.” (Tr.)
[17] ‘Ubaydullah Ibn ‘Umar Abu Zayd ad-Dabusi (978–1039 CE) was one of the most renowned jurists of his time. He lived in present-day Uzbekistan. He had exceptional knowledge about the different views and approaches among the Muslim schools of law. He also wrote on worship, morality, knowledge of God, and training of the self or the soul. (Tr.)
[18] ‘Abdu’l-Malik ibn ‘Abdullah ibn Yusuf, known as Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni (1028–1065 CE) was al-Ghazzali’s teacher, jurist, scholar of the methodology of jurisprudence, and expert in theology. He was born and lived in Naysabur, eastern Iran, and stayed for some four or five years in Makka and Madina. His authority gained him the titles such as “the Glory of Islam,” and “Imam of Imams.” He was the main figure in the Ash’ari school in his time. (Tr.)
[19] Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn ‘Umar ibn al-Husayn Fakhru’d-Din ar-Razi (1149– 1209 CE) was a very famous Muslim theologian, philosopher, and a commentator on the Qur’an. He was born in Ray, now a district of modern Tehran. He died in Herat, in modern Afghanistan. He also wrote on Islamic law, medicine, physics, astrology, literature, and history. His most famous work is at-Tafsiru’l-Kabir (“The Great Commentary on the Qur’an”) known as Mafatihu’l-Ghayb (“Keys to the Unseen”). (Tr.)
[20] Sa’dud-Din at-Taftazani (d. 1390 CE) was a famous scholar of logic, rhetoric, grammar, theology, and jurisprudence of Samarqand during the rule of Timur. His Sharh al-‘Aqaid an-Nasafiyya (“A Commentary on the Islamic Creed by an-Nasafi”) is among the basic works of Islamic theology. (Tr.)
[21] Jalalu’d-Din Muhammad ibn As’ad ad-Dawwani (1426–1502 CE) was a prominent philosopher and theologian from Shiraz. He combined elements of Illuminationist and Peripatetic philosophy and possibly also interests in Ibn al-‘Arabi. His Lawami’al-Ishraq fi Makarim al-Akhlaq (“Lustres of Illumination on the Noble Virtues”) is famous. (Tr.)
[22] Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn al-Farakh al-Farabi (872–950 CE) was one of the greatest scientists and philosophers of the Islamic world in his time. He was also a cosmologist, logician, musician, psychologist and sociologist. He was born in Farab, modern Uzbekistan, and traveled to Baghdad to pursue higher learning. As a philosopher, al-Farabi was a founder of his own school of early Islamic philosophy known as “Farabism” or “Alfarabism.” Although he introduced Plato and Aristotle to Muslim philosophy, his school of philosophy moved from metaphysics to methodology, a move that anticipates modernity. He also wrote on politics. (Tr.)
[23] The phrase “common sense” was derived from a wrong interpretation of this concept. However, while common sense means the ability to behave in a sensible way, common sense in psychology or sensus communis is the faculty which initially receives and comprehends the perceptions of the five external senses.
[24] Elmalili Muhammed Hamdi Yazir (1878–1942) was one of the most celebrated scholars of the last period of the Ottoman State, as well as of modern Turkey. He had expert knowledge of Fiqh (Muslim jurisprudence) and Qur’anic commentary. His monumental commentary on the Qur’an, Hak Dini Kur’an Dili (“The Qur’an, the Language of the Religion of Truth”) is among the best-sellers in Turkey. (Tr.)
[25] Abu Zakariya Muhyi’d-Din Yahya ibn Sharaf an-Nawawi (1234–1278 CE), popularly known as Imam an-Nawawi, was a Sunni Muslim scholar of Fiqh(jurisprudence) and Hadith. He was born and died at Nawa near Damascus, Syria. During his short life of only forty-five years, he wrote many books on Islamic studies and other topics. He was especially famous for his Forty Hadiths, composed of the hadiths he collected and sourced back to one of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. (Tr.)
[26]Abu Dawud, “Salah” 201; an-Nasa’i, “Jumu’a” 5. (Tr.)
[27]al-Bukhari, “Jana’iz” 68; Muslim, “Janna” 70. (Tr.)
[28] Umar ibn ‘Ali ibn al-Farid (1181–1235 CE) was a Muslim Sufi Arab poet. He was born in Cairo, lived for some time in Makka and died in Cairo. He is regarded as the greatest Sufi poet of the Arab Muslims and called the Prince of Poets. Some of his poems are said to have been written in ecstasies. His most famous works are Hamriyya (“The Wine Ode”), which is on the “wine” of Divine love and spiritual bliss, and Nazmu’s-Suluk (“The Poem of Following the Sufi Path”). (Tr.)
[29] Mawlana Nuru’d-Din ‘Abdu’r-Rahman ibn Ahmad al-Jami’ (1414–1492 CE), commonly called Mulla Jami’, is regarded as the last great classical poet of Persia, and a saint. He composed numerous lyrics and idylls, as well as many works in prose. His Salaman and Absal is an allegory of profane and sacred love. Some of his other works include Haft Awrang, Tuhfatu’l-Ahrar, Layla wu Majnun, Fatihat ash-Shabab, and Lawa’ih. (Tr.)
[30] Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, Sözler (“The Words”), “The Twenty-Ninth Word”, p., 527; Lemalar (“The Gleams”), “The Thirtieth Gleam.” (Tr.)
[31] Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, Mektubat (“The Letters”), “Hakikat Çekirdekleri (The Epigrams or Seeds of Truth),” p. 447. (Tr.)
[32] Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, Sözler (“The Words”), “The Twenty-Ninth Word,” pp. 526–527. (Tr.)
[33] Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, Sözler (“The Words”), “The Twenty-Ninth Word,” p. 530; Mektubat (“The Letters”), “Hakikat Çekirdekleri (The Epigrams or Seeds of Truth),” p. 446. (Tr.)
[34] Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, Sözler (“The Words”), “The Twenty-Ninth Word,” p. 529. (Tr.)
[35] Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, Sözler (“The Words”), “The Twenty-Ninth Word,” p. 530. (Tr.)
[36] al-‘Ajluni, Kashfu’l-Khafa’, 1:311. (Tr.)
[37] For the “Universal Man” see, M. Fethullah Gülen, Emerald Hills of the Heart – Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, The Light, NJ, 2004, vol., 2, pp., 289–305. (Tr.)
[38] Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, Lemalar (“The Gleams”), “The Thirtieth Gleam, The Fifth Part, the Fourth Sign.” (Tr.)
[39] al-Munawi, Faydu’l-Qadir, 2:528; at-Tabari, Jami’u’l-Bayan, 11:132. (Tr.)
[40]Abu Dawud, “Salah” 201; an-Nasa’i, “Jumu’a” 5. (Tr.)
[41]Basmala is the phrase, “In the Name of God, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate,” and mentioned at the beginning of every good, religiously lawful deed. (Tr.)
[42]al-Bukhari, “Wudu'” 68; Muslim, “Jumu’a” 19, 21. (Tr.)
[43]al-Bukhari, “Bad’u’l-Khalq” 8; Muslim, “Iman” 312; at-Tirmidhi, “Janna” 15. (Tr.)

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