Abdullah Takim, „The concept of rûh (spirit) in Koran“, March 3 2018

On March 3 2018, Abdullah Takim, professor for Islamic Theology at the University of Vienna and member of RaT gave a lecture concerning the meaning of the concepts of rûh (Hebraic: ruach; spirit) and nafs (Hebraic: nefesh; soul) in Koran. Rûh is normally translated as ‘wind’ or ‘good smell’ and is considered as most important principle of creation. In contrary to that, nafs concerns the sphere of the created. Originally, nafs had to do with breath and was also used to denote the soul or the appetite. This concept was transformed due to the influence of Neoplatonism, and Islamic philosophers understood it as ‘universal intellect’, as the highest authority. In a reflexive sense, nafs means the human self, the specific person with its inner abilities. Some suras that use nafs in that sense proof a concept of humanity that is founded in the freedom of the individual (see sura 17:14-15; 18:29; 17:84; 19:95). Especially sura 17:14-15 emphasizes the importance of the relationship between god and the individual in its singularity: There is no one who could step between human and god, every individual has its own, original relationship with god. Therefore, the only duty is to strive for righteousness: “Read your record. Sufficient is yourself against you this Day as accountant. Whoever is guided is only guided for [the benefit of] his soul. And whoever errs only errs against it. And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. And never would We punish until we sent a messenger.” (sura 17:14-15, source: Quran.com, 27.11.18)

The concept of person in Koran is not to be regarded in the manners of systematic theology or ethics, but as configuration of an ethos, an attitude. Disciplines of Islamic theology assumed and developed that. Self-knowledge becomes a condition for the knowledge of god, especially in mystics, because man himself is a manifestation of god’s names. As a result, self-reflection is an important part of man’s way to god. The knowledge of god and therefore also the knowledge of oneself is a condition for the love to god. In sura 3:30 and sura 5:116, nafs refers to god and emphasises his singularity. These and similar verses were essential for the development of a philosophy of subjectivity in Islamic thinking. Besides this self-reflexive meaning, nafs also bears the sense of ‘human soul’. In that context, nafs carries seven functions. Three of them shall be mentioned here: as human ego, it commands malignity (sura 12:53; 50:16; 79:40), as conscience, it can criticise and calm down itself (sura 75:2; 9:118; 89:27) and in its perfect form, as an-nafs al-kâmila, it is saturated by love to god.

As in Old Testament, rûh is blown into the first human being by god. God took mud, formed man and inspired him with rûh: “Then He proportioned him and breathed into him from His [created] soul and made for you hearing and vision and hearts; little are you grateful.” (sura 32:9 source: Quran.com, 27.11.18) Rûh is also mentioned in the context of Maria’s conception and can be understood as life-giving principle. (sura 4:171) In Koran, there cannot be found a plural form of rûh, but in the sayings of Mohammed, the hadiths, such forms are used.

Four verses connect rûh to Allahs commandments (amr allahs), but these text passages bear hermeneutical difficulties. Concerning gods commandments, rûh can be interpreted as directed downwards to the level of the created, from where it can rise again as rûh of the individual. Following Koran, the heart (qalb) of the believer is essential for gods manifestation. In this sense, Koran is also inscribed into Mohammeds heart: “And indeed, the Qur’an is the revelation of the Lord of the worlds. The Trustworthy Spirit has brought it down Upon your heart, [O Muhammad]”. (sura 26:192-194, source: Quran.com, 27.11.18) The question of the spirit is also connected to the problem of human’s likeness of god in Islamic theology. In verses that connect it to god’s commandments, rûh can be understood as ‘belief’, ‘light’ and ‘guidance’ that can even revive dead hearts.

Miriam Metze