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Dr. Shabir Ally addresses this question in the video below:
Aisha Khaja: Dr. Shabir, welcome back. So, the question is about the concept of the soul in various religions and science. It’s a two-part question. What is the concept of soul according to various religions and science? Sorry, it’s a three-part question. Does science prove that the soul exists? And what is the Islamic perspective on the soul?
So, maybe, let’s start with the first one. What’s the concept of the soul according to various religions and science?
Dr. Shabir Ally: Well, to answer about the various religions, I have to confess my ignorance here. But let me speak specifically to the religion of Islam, and then maybe we can make some comparative comments. In the religion of Islam, we speak of the soul—ruh. We also speak of nafs which means something like person.
But, we could be speaking, and using the word nafs, we could be speaking about the person as a whole, like flesh, body, and spirit as well. Or we could be speaking just about the spirit of the person and it’s not so clear sometimes.
What’s the difference between spirit and soul? Are they two different things? And how does mind fit in? Is the mind the same as the spirit or the soul? So, these we can see are mysterious things. And they’re not so very clearly defined in the tradition.
Now, what happens [to] that at death? Often it is said that what happens at death is that the Angel of Death comes and then takes the soul out of the body, or the spirit out of the body. So, this is either the nafs or the ruh which is taken out. And the lifeless body remains dead.
Something that is by this very fact of taking out this soul that the body becomes dead at this time.
Now, what happens during sleep, according to Ibn al-Qayyim al Jawziyya’s Kitab al-Ruh, his book of the soul, at the time of sleep, the soul is taken out of the body as well, or exits the body.
But this exit is not the kind of permanent exit that results in death. This is a temporary one so that the soul is still somewhat attached to the body, though it is free to roam around and meet with other souls.
This, of course, is a concept which is difficult to maintain today. But this is how we account for dreams. So, you know …
Aisha Khaja: So, the soul, does, is taken out of our bodies in some ways when we sleep?
Dr. Shabir Ally: … during sleep … In fact, the Quran seems to make mention of this, when it says:
Allahu yatawaffa al-anfusa heena mawtiha waallatee lam tamut fee manamiha : God is the one who takes the soul at the time of death. And as for the souls that did not die, but are asleep. [Quran 39:42]
He takes them during the sleep. And then He returns the soul to the body so that the person wakes up.
So, these are obviously mysterious concepts. And how does that relate to mind? Now what is the scientific view? In terms of science—science only describes what we can see, feel, hear, and touch, and smell. What can be examined in the laboratory.
And the soul or spirit cannot be so examined. But scientists can speak about the mind. And they think that the mind is related to the brain activity. But philosophers like Dr. Keith Ward, for example, he has a book on the soul.
And they ask—well, how can you really be sure that the mind is really only connected to the brain? And that there isn’t another subtle influence on the mind itself? How can you discount utterly the concept of the soul?
Perhaps human beings do have something that we can identify as the soul, even if that is so closely connected with the mind, and even if that soul and mind is actually based on brain activity.
Now the important thing for Muslims–I believe–and maybe for followers of other religions as well, like Christianity, for example, that holds to the belief in the spirit or soul; then, the important thing for us is—is there something that survives us after our human flesh and blood dies?
And the answer for this from our religion is, yes. And that’s all we need to affirm here. We don’t need to get into all of the mysteries and solve that in terms of modern science. And this is something I believe that modern science cannot discount.
And in fact, by holding to the belief that this mind that we’re cultivating—call it a soul, or spirit, or what you will—that by holding to the belief that this mind remains after the death of our bodies, this helps us to make better sense of our world.
Otherwise, all of the injustice in the world would remain unaccounted for. But the belief that we survive with our minds and with the memories of what we have done, this I believe is an important principle.
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