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"God takes the souls (al-anfus) at the
time of their death, and those that die not during their sleep; then He
withholds those on whom He has passed the decree of death and sends the
others back till an appointed term; most surely there are signs in this
for a people who reflect."
Verses such as these are
not easily susceptible to an analytical approach since they hint at
realities that are not readily amenable to scientific, experimental, or
discursive knowledge. They point at metaphysical truths which we can
attempt to unravel through various means but which ultimately we cannot
know with certainty except through actual experience, whether that
experience is gifted to someone while they are still alive or whether
we experience it, as we all ultimately will, after our physical death
when metaphysical realities which we only fuzzily and abstractly
understood while alive will become piercingly clear to us. "...But now
We have removed from you your veil, so your perception today is
piercing...." (Qur'an 50:22) Of course, at that point we will
able to return to describe what we learn. So we are left with
revelation, the guidance of the Prophets and awliya, the various
writings of those who have wrestled with such questions, and our own
struggle to understand and attempt to discern possible meanings. And
our understanding is subject to many limitations - we are restricted to
seeking analogies and likenesses that may provide only a partial
conceptual understanding of realities that remain largely unseen and
To unfurl the possible meanings requires interpretation and interpretation is dependent on the type, level, and depth of knowledge and understanding - which is why it is prudent and realistic to indicate that any given interpretation (of such verses) is only a possible meaning and not a certainty - since all understanding is hemmed in by our many limitations (and complete certainty was only in the experiential knowledge of the Prophet and the Imams).
In the verse "God takes the souls (al-anfus)...", 'taking the souls' at the time of sleep does not necessarily refer to any displacement in space. In other words it is not necessary to think of it in terms of some mysterious force or ghostlike substance leaving the physical body and then later returning to it.
During wakefulness, our face is turned towards this world and experiences a particular mode of existence and during sleep it is turned inwards and experiences another enigmatic mode of existence.
When we sleep our consciousness fades and we are no longer in charge of our own selves - our hold on our self becomes very tenuous - automatic regulating processes step in and maintain us while our consciousness sublimates to a different level. Our nafs (our self) is no longer in "our" charge but is held in a different alternate state. God has set up a system by which our nafs (our individual self) is held intact in some manner until we wake - He "takes" and holds our nafs.
"And He it is Who takes your souls at night (in sleep), and He knows what you acquire in the day, then He raises you up therein that certain conditions may be fulfilled...." (Qur'an 6:60)
As well, "taking" can have the sense of bringing something close to oneself. Proximity, in relation to God, cannot however be conceived of in any physical sense.
Nearness to God is not dependent on any kind of spatial or
temporal motion since concepts like place and time are not applicable
to the One who created space and time and through Whom these qualities
of the material world subsist.
Rather the nafs may be said to have extension into different levels of
reality than the one of which we are consciously aware. It has a
simultaneous existence and presence in this world and others (in this
level of reality and others). In sleep, we may
have flashes and glimpses of these other levels - of a realm in which
traits, tendencies, and knowledge can take on forms and shapes not
dependent on the physical matter of this world (much as desires, fears,
anxieties etc. can take on symbolic forms and images in dreams). This
is possibly why
sleep is said to be a likeness of death - it can provide a glimpse into
another mode of the nafs existence (one in which our internal knowledge
character traits manifest as external forms and events).
In sleep we lose consciousness of the material world and we may receive
a glimpse (through consciousness turning inwards) of other realms as
well as fitful and fleeting symbolic indicators (of the state of our
own souls) in the form of dreams. We enter into the world of our nafs
which manifests its contents in varying ways during sleep. So our
consciousness moves from one modality to another. It has a simultaneous
existence on multiple planes although in wakefulness we are only aware
of one of these. In sleep our awareness of one level weakens and
recedes and we enter into a different modality and different awareness.
This occurs in regular sleep and it also happens in the permanent
sleep of death - where one
suffers illness or injury which causes suspension of consciousness. In
sleep or on the road to death (no matter what form that death takes or
how slowly or swiftly it arrives) there will be a transition (even if
only a momentary instance) during which consciousness withdraws from
its awareness and perception of this world. If this withdrawal is only
caused by sleep then the consciousness is able to later transition back
wakefulness in this world - otherwise (if caused by death) it will
remain intact in the other.
None of this requires any physical displacement as the nafs may be likened to a configuration (relating to the individuality of the person) rather than a thing in and of itself - a configuration which overlaps lower and higher worlds. Along with its existence in this world it has a simultaneous presence in higher (deeper) worlds even though in most cases it may be intellectually and consciously unaware of this. If the physical form is destroyed in this world (through injury, age, illness, accident etc.), the nafs continues its existence in the other higher realm – it’s configuration, it’s form is maintained in that realm - "...then He withholds those on whom He has passed the decree of death...." (Qur'an 39:42)
Note: Existence has a unitary but hierarchic quality that is suggested by the Qur'anic verses which describe the various gradations of existence as a hierarchy in which the higher levels envelop and subsume the lower levels (see sidebar text). “He regulates the affair from the heaven to the earth…” (Qur'an 32:5) So the configuration of our world is congruent with the levels which envelop it although these other levels remain unseen to us. So nearness and remoteness in reference to these other levels is not a reference to physical distance since the levels envelop one another (from higher to lower).
If the nafs is the psychic (not physical) form (configuration) that has a concurrent presence in multiple worlds then the destruction of the physical form only means that the physical matter which held that configuration is no longer capable of holding it - but the configuration continues it's existence in another higher modality - a modality which encompasses and overlaps the lower modality.
The nafs has an essential connection (and presence) with these higher modalities.
The first trace, the first characteristic that was laid down for every human nafs is the reality of our acknowledgment of God and the recognition of His Lordship. This is the covenant mentioned in verse 7:172 of the Qur'an.
“And when your Lord brought forth from the children of Adam...all their descendants, and made them bear witness against their own souls: Am I not your Lord? They said: Yes! we bear witness. Lest you should say on the day of resurrection: Surely we had no knowledge of this.” (Qur’an 7:172)
This represents the first key characteristic of the nafs - one that represents a foundational experience and one which defines it's essential quality, since it occurs above space and time and thus is free of the limitations of space and time that characterize and delimit our existence in this world. Verse 7:172 concludes by stating that this experience removes human excuses that they were unaware of the reality of the human situation - this is because the nafs is pervaded with the ability to know the reality of God's Lordship since this reality was shown to it at a higher (deeper) and more substantial level of reality than this material world we are currently in.
As the Qur'an asks: "Certainly you have known the first state of being. Why, then, do you not recollect (the higher/deeper reality)?" (Qur'an 56:62)
God unfolded all human beings (in a realm above time and place) from Adam in a pure unexperienced state and took a covenant from them - the taking of the covenant was to allow them to later recognize what he had woven into their essential, unclouded nature (that, at root their nafs was connected and bonded to Him - that their existence had a real presence and connection beyond the material world in higher worlds) - this covenant and our ability to recognize it is encoded in our nature. Then He allows human beings to emerge in various times and places in the world of matter and within each one a nafs unfolds that is a combination of many varying and different knowledges, influences, abilties, and restrictions. But at its root, each nafs has a connection to it's point of origin and through this connection it has a simultaneous, vertically connected existence rising through many levels. The physical matter of the body is perishable but the nafs is the root through which individual human existence persists after death.
"Every son of Adam will decay and be eaten by the dust, except for his root. With this he was created and with this he will be recomposed." (Prophetic hadith)
Note: The Qur'an is said to have descended in an instant in it's entirety upon the Prophet's (spiritual) heart - it was then subsequently gradually revealed to him and manifested in individual sections and fragments over a period of 23 years. In a similar way all of Adam's descendants were simultaneously in their entirety brought before God (in a spiritual realm and made to understand God's Lordship) and then folded back into Adam to be subsequently born in different times and places throughout the entirety of human history.
Because of this first substantial relation of our nafs to God, our knowledge of God in this world is, in large part, predicated upon gaining knowledge of the essence of our own nafs. God shows us His signs "...on the horizons and within our own selves" (Qur’an 41:53). External existence is a sign of God but in order to become aware of the relevance of the signs we have to have an internal configuration attuned to seeing the world with a particular level of awareness and sincerity. It is not only the thing seen that is of importance but the vision and the perspicacity of the one doing the seeing. God always has a relation of nearness to us - "He is nearer to you than your life-vein" (Qur’an 50:16) But for us to draw nearer to Him, we have to embark on a journey of knowledge of what is configured within our own selves.
This becomes possible through the substantive bond we have with God through our nafs. To draw near to God we unfold the capability and the knowledge that is at the root of our own nafs - a process which is tied, to a great extent, to our self-knowledge - to understanding and mastery of our nafs. This relation and connection between knowledge of God and the nafs is indicated in the famous hadith "He who knows his self (his nafs) knows his Lord.” It is a journey from unawareness towards awareness and a movement of sincere and profound transformation of one's internal configuration - a transformation that emerges from an understanding of the true state of affairs.
"(The distance) from the place of
my feet to my Lord’s Throne, is that a person sincerely says 'There is
no god but God'". (Imam Ali)
"....all existents have descended from God, and all of them return
to Him. In some verses (of the Qur'an) there is talk of the
manifestation, emanation, and descent of the world from the divine
realm. In others, the return of things to Him is spoken of. A third
group of verses mention both these movements, in both a general and
specific way. The verse, “…surely we
are God's and to Him we shall surely return,” (Qur'an 2:156)
mentions in general the origin and destination of the movement of human
beings. The following verse, on the other hand, outlines the descent of
all things, including man:
"And there is not a thing but with Us are the treasures of it, and We do not send it down but in a known measure." (Qur'an 15:21)
The use of the word “thing” in the above verse is such that it includes all the objects of the natural world and everything that can be conceived....
Man and the world pass through several stages in their arc of descent from the highest level (from which the arc of ascent begins) to the lowest, and they continue to traverse the stages of the arc of ascent, back to their origin....
Now, every level or stage is termed “visible” relative to the levels above it and “unseen” in reference to the ones below. In this way, the natural world is absolutely visible and the Divine Essence, which transcends all levels and comprehends them, is the absolute and utterly unseen or inner. The worlds situated anywhere between these two extremes – even the first stage or world of the treasures – are according to their various aspects known as either visible or unseen.
(quoted from Shuja Mirza's translation of "Existence
the Fall" by Hamid
The coming and going of things to and from this world in two arcs of descent and ascent – along with the names that are given to the stages of this movement – can be seen to be a cyclic movement.... The apex would be the Absolute Being; the first stage down would be the treasure house (also called jabarūt, divine decree, guarded tablet, the world of intellects, the world of ideas). The next stage would be the isthmus (also called dominion, measure, imaginal world). The last and bottom stage would be the natural world. In this hierarchal representation of being, all things and realities – both simple and composite – are seen to descend from God. (This includes) the Qur’ān itself, “Surely We sent it down on the Night of Decree.”
Every higher level surrounds, envelops and comprehends the levels lower than it. Subsequently, every lower level falls under the dominion of the level above it. Every dominion – with respect to that which it encompasses and dominates – can be referred to as a “heaven”. Correspondingly, every dominated realm – in comparison to its dominion – can be called an “earth”. In the same way that light and water descend from the sky to the earth of this lower and natural world, Divine Grace and Mercy is showered down from the spiritual skies and heavens to the realms below and the kingdom hereunder. Hence, the affairs of the earth are made and managed (encompassed) by (the higher realms). “He regulates the affair from the heaven to the earth…”
Anyone who reads the Qur'an is likely to be struck by the unique
nature of its construction, its unusual and constantly shifting rhythms
and the sudden transmutations and displacements in its subject matter.
At first this ever changing literary terrain seems an obstacle to
understanding, but the more time one spends with this book, the more
organic, the more natural the flow of its words feel. It is almost
like flying over an ever-changing landscape - rolling valleys
punctuated by jagged rocks, forests and plains giving way to upthrust
mountains, high plateaus broken by deep lakes, deserts sprinkled
with oasis' and cleft by canyons. Despite the variety of the forms,
despite the startling contrast of adjacent features, a complex organic
beauty underlies and unites all the various elements. These "tafsirs"
emerged from numerous brief scattered notes made while reading the
qur'an (along with numerous commentaries and the works of various
scholars whose profound analyses strongly effected my views) and
reflecting on its content. As well, for a number of years
I have participated in a hallakha, a qur'anic study circle, and many of
tafsirs presented here were originally researched for presentation at