Many people believe that the word Rooĥ (1) in the Qur-aan is used for the human soul. In support of this meaning, they usually quote the following verse of a Makkan soorah, Banee Israaeel (2) 17:85:
They question you about Rooĥ; say, “The Rooĥ is one of the Divine Affairs of my Lord; and you have not been granted anything from knowledge except a little.” (Banee Israaeel 17:85)
1 Rooh or Ruh
2 Also called Bani Israeel or Al-Israa
It is claimed that Rooĥ means human soul and that some people, especially the Jews, were asking the Prophet about the nature of the human soul, so they have been told that the understanding of its nature is beyond human knowledge because it is by special command of Allaah SWT (3). But in reality, this statement about human soul has nothing to do with the verse under discussion. People can derive this meaning from the quoted verse only by violating two basic rules of Tafseer: not considering the context of this verse altogether, which is a misleading way of interpreting any verse of the Qur-aan; and/or disregarding the rule that the Qur-aan explains itself – a word or statement made at one place is explained by relevant statements made at other places.
3 While reading our comments on the interpretation of verse 17:85, it should be kept in mind that the human soul itself is not the subject matter of our discussion. Here, we are challenging the misuse and misinterpretation of this verse, not the view about the human soul. In other words, we are not commenting here on the various scholars’ views about human soul. All we are saying is that the word Rooh does not represent the human soul in this verse.
Let us look at the context of the verse first:
Allaah SWT is talking about the Qur-aan, its relationship with the mission of the Prophet and the attitude of opponents towards the said mission. He commands the Prophet to recite the Qur-aan in five-time daily Salaah, especially the dawn Salaah (Fajr). In addition, he is commanded to get up in the last part of the night and recite the Qur-aan in Tahajjud Salaah. He is also directed to supplicate to Allaah for his successful Hijrah to a new centre of the Islamic mission and to let people know that eventually the Qur-aanic truth is going to prevail, because falsehood is destined to perish. The revelation of the Qur-aan is actually a healing and a mercy of Allaah for the believers, but the wrong-doers only add to their losses by opposing it. People keep their minds closed to the Qur-aan because of their world-centred attitude: when enjoying good times, they turn away with arrogance because they are too busy and disinclined to pay attention to its message; and when bad times are encountered, they are too depressed to think about it. Everyone continues to behave the way they like, but Allaah knows exactly who is on the straight path. Then, Allaah SWT says in verse 85:
They ask you about Rooĥ; say, “Rooĥ is from the commands of my Lord; and you have not been granted anything from knowledge except a little.” (Banee Israaeel 17:85)
Then, the message about the Qur-aan continues wherein Allaah SWT indicates that the revelation is not in the Prophet’s control, and if Allaah wants, He can withhold it, which the Prophet would not be able to do anything about, unless Allaah Himself shows the Prophet His great mercy and bounty. Otherwise, no amount of human and jinn efforts can produce anything similar to the Qur-aan.
Now, ask yourselves, why would Allaah interrupt all His comments related to the revelation of the Qur-aan to make a comment about the human soul out of nowhere? Is that the style of the Qur-aan which impressed entire Arabia?
The reality is that the opponents of the Prophet were unable to grasp the reality of Allaah revealing His exact words to the Prophet. Thus, they were questioning the veracity of the Prophet’s claim, for which they were told that this matter is beyond human understanding. Therefore, the verse means:
They question you as to how the revelation of the Qur-aan is possible; say, “The revelation of the Qur-aan is one of the Divine Affairs of my Lord; and you have not been granted anything from knowledge except a little.”
Amin Ahsan Islahi, the author of Taddabarul Qur-aan, has adopted this meaning, which is strongly corroborated by the Qur-aan itself in the following verses:
- He sends down the angels with revelation by His Decree to any of His slaves He wishes, (instructing them), “Warn the public that there is no deity except Me, therefore live by My Taqwa.” (16:2).
يُنَزِّلُ الۡمَلٰۤٮِٕكَةَ بِالرُّوۡحِ مِنۡ اَمۡرِهٖ عَلٰى مَنۡ يَّشَآءُ مِنۡ عِبَادِهٖۤ اَنۡ اَنۡذِرُوۡۤا اَنَّهٗ لَاۤ اِلٰهَ اِلَّاۤ اَنَا فَاتَّقُوۡنِ
- He is Possessor of the highest ranks, Owner of the Throne; He sends down the revelation, as one of His Divine affairs, upon whichever of His slaves He wants, to warn people of the Day of Meeting. (40:15).
رَفِيۡعُ الدَّرَجٰتِ ذُو الۡعَرۡشِ ۚ يُلۡقِى الرُّوۡحَ مِنۡ اَمۡرِهٖ عَلٰى مَنۡ يَّشَآءُ مِنۡ عِبَادِهٖ لِيُنۡذِرَ يَوۡمَ التَّلَاقِ
- It is beyond the capacity of any human being that Allaah speaks to him except by inspiration, or from behind a veil or that He sends a messenger to reveal, by His edict, whatever He wants. Indeed, He is Most High, Most Wise. Accordingly, We revealed the Qur-aanic revelation to you as one of our Divine affairs; otherwise, you did not know what the Book was, nor what the faith was; but We have made it a light by which We guide whom We want from among Our slaves; and indeed, (O Muĥammad), you do guide to a straight path. (42:52). وَمَا كَانَ لِبَشَرٍ اَنۡ يُّكَلِّمَهُ اللّٰهُ اِلَّا وَحۡيًا اَوۡ مِنۡ وَّرَآىٴِ حِجَابٍ اَوۡ يُرۡسِلَ رَسُوۡلًا فَيُوۡحِىَ بِاِذۡنِهٖ مَا يَشَآءُؕ اِنَّهٗ عَلِىٌّ حَكِيۡمٌ وَكَذٰلِكَ اَوۡحَيۡنَاۤ اِلَيۡكَ رُوۡحًا مِّنۡ اَمۡرِنَا ؕ مَا كُنۡتَ تَدۡرِىۡ مَا الۡكِتٰبُ وَلَا الۡاِيۡمَانُ وَلٰـكِنۡ جَعَلۡنٰهُ نُوۡرًا نَّهۡدِىۡ بِهٖ مَنۡ نَّشَآءُ مِنۡ عِبَادِنَا ؕ وَاِنَّكَ لَتَهۡدِىۡۤ اِلٰى صِرَاطٍ مُّسۡتَقِيۡمٍۙ
Another possible meaning of this verse is:
They question you about the coming of the Spirit (Jibreel); say, “The Spirit comes as per the command of my Lord; and you have not been granted anything from knowledge except a little.”
This meaning is also supported by the Qur-aan because Jibreel’s title in the Qur-aan is “Rooĥ”.
Both of these meanings have been adopted by major Muffassireen (exegetes) such as Ibn ‘Abbas, Qataadah and Hasan Baŝri from the Salaf (earlier generations) and Syed Maududi from the recent scholars. The reality is that, in essence, both meanings are the same whether it refers to the revelation itself or the means of bringing the revelation, Jibreel. However, its meaning as “revelation” is more fitting in this context, especially considering its clear usage in that sense at other places in the Qur-aan.
Those who apply this verse to human soul based their opinion on the following Ahadeeth:
‘Abdullah bin Mas`ud said, "While I was walking with the Prophet on a farm, and he was resting on a palm-leaf stalk, some Jews passed by. Some of them said to the others, ‘Ask him about the Ruh.’ Some of them said, ‘What urges you to ask him about that’ Others said, ‘Do not ask him, lest he gives you a reply which you do not like.’ But they said, ‘Ask him.’ So, they asked him about the Ruh. The Prophet kept quiet and did not give them an answer, and I knew that he was receiving revelation, so I stayed where I was. When the revelation was complete, the Prophet recited Yas’aloonaka…” (Bukhari).
Al-`Awfi reported that Ibn `Abbas said, "This was when the Jews said to the Prophet, ‘Tell us about the Ruh and how the Ruh will be punished that is in the body - for the Ruh is something about which only Allah knows, and there was no revelation concerning it.’ He did not answer them at all, then Jibril came to him and said Qul ir-Ruh…”
The first Hadeeth reported by Ibn Mas‘ood does not identify this verse with human soul, it talks only about Rooh. The Jewish question could have been the same as the Makkan question, stemming from the lack of comprehension of the process of revelation through Jibreel. The only point this Hadeeth asserts is that this verse was revealed in Madeenah in answer to the Jewish question, while it is agreed upon that the Soorah Banee Israaeel was revealed at the time of Israa in Makkah. It is possible that it was its second revelation, as was the case for some verses answering frequently asked questions by a variety of people.
But even if it is accepted to have been revealed only once, at that time of the reported dialogue in Madeenah, it gives even more importance to the role of context in determining the meaning of the verse. In that case, it could have been revealed during the Prophet’s initial direct encounter with the Jews in the first year or two after Hijrah, when Soorah Al-Baqarah was being revealed. In that case, the question arises: why did Allaah SWT insert this verse in Soorah Banee Israaeel that was revealed a few years ago, instead of inserting in the current Soorah Al-Baqarah, especially when Al-Baqarah has seven such “Yas’aloonaka” (they ask you) type of questions contained in it? Why was this question exceptionally inserted in a past Soorah instead of keeping it along with other similar questions in Al-Baqarah? The placement of this verse right in the context of verses about the revelation of the Qur-aan becomes a strong evidence in itself that this verse is primarily about the revelation of the Qur-aan and that is why it was placed in the context where that topic was being discussed.
As for the second Hadeeth, it is neither an eyewitness account nor has it been reported from an eyewitness. Also, if the Jews already confessed that it is something which only Allaah knows, then what is the sense of responding to them with “It is by the command of my Lord”. And if the question was “How the Ruh will be punished that is in the body”, then that question was not at all answered.
It is highly inappropriate to use that type of opinions to alter the meaning of a verse that has been established clearly by the Qur-aan itself.
In addition to the above-mentioned two uses, the word “Rooh” has also been used in other ways in the Qur-aan. The following is a complete summary of all uses of this word at 21 places in the Qur-aan:
- Rooh as the title for Angel Jibreel (Gabriel) – at nine (9) places: Four times as “holy spirit” (Rooĥ-ul-Qudus – 2:87, 2:253, 5:110, 16:102), once as “trusted spirit” (Rooĥ-ul-Ameen – 26:193), once as Our spirit (Rooĥanaa – 19:17) and three times as “the spirit” being distinguished from other angels (Ar-Rooĥ – 70:4, 78:38, 97:4);
- Rooh used for the Qur-aanic revelation to the Prophet, as the greatest mercy of Allaah SWT, emphasizing that the revelation of the Qur-aan is a phenomenon arranged by a very special command of Allaah SWT; hence, beyond human understanding and imagination -- at five places (16:2, 40:15, 42:52 and twice in 17:85 mentioned above);
- Rooh to mean the mercy of Allaah SWT in bestowing sincere Muslims with true Islamic spirit and supporting them in that respect – at one place (58:22);
- Rooh granted to Adam in the sense of the intellectual capabilities that differentiate people from animals, such as capacity to think abstractly and ponder rationally, self awareness and evaluation (ability to know and judge one’s own thoughts and actions) and ability to make decisions different from those dictated by instincts – at three places (15:29, 32:9, 38:72); and
- Rooh in the form of Allaah’s command for miraculous conception of Jesus in Maryam’s womb and in the form of miraculous capabilities granted to Him (such as speaking as an infant) – at three places. (4:171, 21:91, 66:12).