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The Nature of Soul: Islamic and Scientific Views

 by Ibrahim B. Syed, Ph. D. 
Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.
7102 W. Shefford Lane
Louisville, KY 40242-6462, USA




 Soul is regarded as an immaterial aspect within the body of the human person.  Some consider the soul to be an integral part of life and functions and also the source of the highest mental activities. Soul is almost synonymous with self, spirit or mind.  The basic conception of soul in the ancient civilizations was life. Life of the body is regarded as the soul. Breath, life and movement are associated with the soul. At death all bodily functions stop and the soul departs from the body. The location of the soul could be any part of the body or function.  The ancient Hebrews and Greeks viewed that the soul also ceases on death of the body.  Greek philosophers Plato and Plotoinus believed that soul pre-exists the body and at death it separates from the body to attain its full and perfect state.  Hindus and Buddhists believe that the soul is reincarnated through recurrent life cycles until it is relieved through moral, intellectual or spiritual perfection.   The Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that the souls are held to rejoin their bodies on the day of Judgment/ Resurrection (1). 

The basic Western concepts of the soul were shaped by the traditional Western Philosophy, which started with the ancient Greeks.  Plato emphasized that the soul achieves a pure state only after release from its prison house in the body.  On the other hand Aristotle championed the inseparability of the soul from the living organism  (body). Aristotle connected the soul to the vegetative and animal functions.  But Rene Descartes, the 17th century French Philosopher emphasized the thinking aspect of the soul and identified it with mind or understanding. He referred the soul to the vital forces in the animal bodies and called them mind or spirit.  Many including Plato, Descartes, and George Berkeley hold the view that the soul is immortal, Bhagavad-Gita says that the soul is immortal and it changes bodies like human beings change their clothes.   The 18th century German Philosopher Immanuel Kant said that no human has the knowledge of the soul, but he argued that for practical purposes to establish morals and ethics the existence and immortality of the soul must be postulated.  U.S. empirical psychologist and philosopher, William James, maintained that the soul is an unnecessary concept, which could not be verified. The concept of soul is not required for personal identification or for purposes of moral responsibility. Modern scientists and philosophers generally follow James' views.  They further say that one can understand man without any recourse to the notion of soul. Distinguished thinkers such as the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel pointed out that soul is a nonmaterial and immortal principle or aspect of the human person. 

The spiritual groups believe man has three elements: spirit, soul arid body. The body encases the soul, and the soul encases the spirit.  At death the body dies, but the soul and the spirit live on. Animals are believed to have souls but not spirits.  Spiritualists believe that the human spirit exists eternally as a part of the Universal Spirit.  The spiritualists hold that the    soul    enters    the    body    at conception; some hold that this entry happens a few months after conception. 


 The   Islamic   views presented here are solely based on the following   Qur'anic   revelations   and commentaries given by Allama Yusuf Ali. Mankind created from single soul:

 "0 mankind reverence your Lord, who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain hath scattered countless men and women." 4:1

"0 ye who believe Guard your own souls, if ye follow  (right) guidance, no hurt can come to you from those who stray. The goal of you all is to God: it is He that will show you the truth of all that ye do."  ---5: 105


 "Whoever works righteousness benefits his own soul, whoever works evil, it is against his own soul."   --41:46 


 "Every soul earneth only on its own account, no bearer of burdens   can   bear   the   burden   of another.  Your goal   in  the  end  is towards  God:  He  will  tell  you  the truth  of  things  wherein  ye  disputed (differed)."    6:164

 "On no soul does God place a burden greater than it can bear (in terms of material  wealth  or   spiritual duty)."   ---2:28623:62

 "But   those   who   believe   and   work righteousness, - no burden do We place on any soul, but that which it can bear."    7:42

 "On the day when every soul will be confronted with all the good it has done, and all the evil it has done, it will wish there were a great distance between it and its evil." -3:30

 "Every soul will be  (held) in pledge for its deeds."  74:38  

 [Man cannot shift his responsibility to vicarious saviors   or   saints.   His   redemption depends upon the grace of God, for which he should constantly and  whole-heartedly  strive  by  means  of  right conduct.  If he does so he will be redeemed. ]

"One day every soul will come up struggling for itself, and every soul will be recompensed  (fully) for all its actions, and none will be unjustly dealt with." 16:111  

 [When the reckoning comes, each soul will stand on its own personal responsibility. No one else can help it.  Full justice will be done, and all the seeming inequalities of this world will be redressed]. 


 "And I do call to witness the self-reproaching      Spirit." --75:2. 

 Our scholars postulate three states or stages of the development of the human soul: 

1.  AMMARA:  Which is prone to evil and, if   not   checked   and   controlled will lead to perdition  (total destruction, ruin), 

2.            LAWWAMA:  Which feels conscious of evil, and resists it, asks for God's grace and pardon after repentance and tries to amend; it hopes to reach salvation; 

3.   MUTMAINNA:   the   highest   stage   of all, when it achieves full rest and satisfaction.  The second stage may be compared to conscience, except that in English usage conscience is a faculty and    not    a    stage  in spiritual development. 


"It is God that takes the souls at death, and those that die not during their sleep.  He keeps that (soul) for which He hath ordained death and dismisseth the rest till an appointed term.  Verily in this are signs    for    those  who reflect." --39:42  

 We can see more clearly many spiritual truths: e.g. 

1.            that our bodily life and death  are not  the whole story of our existence;

2.              that  in  our  bodily  life  we  may  be dead  to  the  spiritual  world,  and  in our bodily death, may be our awakening to the spiritual world, 

3.   that   our   nightly   sleep,   besides performing the function of rest to our physical life, gives us a foretaste of what we call death, which does not end our personality; and  

4.            that  the  resurrection  is  not  more wonderful  than  our  daily rising  from sleep, "twin - brother to death". 



"Every soul shall have a taste of death."  21:35;     29:57


The soul does not die but when it separates from the body at the death of the body, the soul gets a taste of death.  In our life of probation on this earth, God tests our virtue and faith, by many things; some are tested by calamities, and some by the good things of this life.  If we prove our true mettle, we pass our probation with success.  In any case all must return to God, and then will our life be appraised at its true value.




(To the righteous soul will be said) "0 (thou) soul, in    (complete) rest    and satisfaction!  Come back thou to thy Lord - well pleased (thyself) and well pleasing unto Him Enter thou, then among My devotees!  Yea enter thou My Heaven '. "     89:27-30


Commenting on   these   verses Allama Yusuf Ali says:  "The righteous enter into their   inheritance and receive their   welcome   with   a   title   that suggests   freedom   from   all   pain, sorrow, doubt, struggle, disappointment, passion, and   even further desire: at rest, in peace; in a state of complete satisfaction. In Muslim theology, this stage of the soul is the final stage of bliss."




The    physical    world    consists    of material objects that occupy space and have properties like mass, electric charge, extension, etc., whereas the mental world   is populated   not by material objects but by thoughts.  The Old Testament presents the soul as synonymous with breath or life. On the other    hand    the    New    Testament identifies soul with the self and mind.    The  Catholic  Encyclopedia defines soul as the "source of thought activity." (2) Paul Davis  (3) says  "the mind  (or soul) is not located inside the brain, or any other part of the body; or indeed anywhere in space at all. Mind is not a physical substance, but a tenuous, elusive, ethereal sort of substance, the stuff that thoughts and dreams   are   made   of, free   and independent   of   ordinary   ponderous matter." The above concept of soul appears to be necessary because soul is neither visible nor its physical presence be detected in any direct way. If soul is not space, then it exists in time. Here the issue 1s more subtle. If soul is the source of the human perception then   this   must   include   the   human perception of time.  If a concept is abstract rather than substantial does not make it unreal or illusory.  For example one's nationality.


    One's nationality does not occupy a space inside one's body. It cannot be measured   or   subjected   to   physical laws. Another example is the number pi (pie), which is immutable and cannot be located in space and time. In computer analogy if body is the hardware then soul or mind could be compared to software. Therefore in principle it is possible for the mind to survive after death of the brain by transferring it to some other mechanism or system.  A deeper and better insight is obtained by   studying   quantum   physics   and mysticism regarding the nature of soul.




1.            Encyclopedia Britannica Vol  .9.  Pp.363, Chicago, 1975


2.     New Catholic Encyclopedia (McGraw-Hill) vol.13, p.460, 1967


3.    Paul   Davis. GOD   AND   THE   NEW PHYSICS. Simon & Schuster,  p.79, 1983. 


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