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Quranic Sciences

The Verse of Surat al‑'Isra

يَسْأَلُونَكَ عَنِ الرُّوحِ قُلِ الرُّوحُ مِنْ أَمْرِ رَبِّي وَمَا أُوتِيتُم مِّنَ الْعِلْمِ إِلَّا قَلِيلًا ﴿٨٥﴾

“They ask you about the soul. Say, `The soul is of the amr [command or affair?] of my Lord, and you have been given of knowledge nothing except a little.'”(17:85)

What purpose lies behind the reply “the soul is of the amr of my Lord ....”, given to answer the questioners? There can be two possible answers to this question: firstly, that the verse throws light on the obscure matter of the soul. Secondly, it may be said that the verse wants to say that the very question about the soul is pointless, because the soul, like many other unknowables, is not known to anybody except God.

The more the human understanding expands, the more it finds itself confronted with greater number of obscurities. “You have been given of knowledge nothing except a little,” would, therefore, imply that man should apply his energies to matters which have not been put beyond the scope of his intellect, cognitive and even imagina­tive faculties, and abstain from indulging in matters beyond their power and range. In such affairs, his share is only to the extent that, he may, through the guidance of his inborn insight, realize that such and such beings do exist in the universe‑ just as he realizes that the Creator exists‑‑though he is unable to fathom their reality.

In the light of the last part of the verse, “You have been given of knowledge nothing except little”, the second view seems more accept­able. Therefore, the meaning of the sentence, “Say, `The soul is of the amr of my Lord',” is, “Say that the soul is one of those affairs that relate to my Lord, and that He has reserved the knowledge of it to Himself. The knowledge which has been put within man's reach is very limited.”

However, the second part of the verse also seems appropriate in the light of the first viewpoint. Seen in its perspective, the meaning of the verse shall be: “Say, `The soul is by the command of my God. and O Jews, who want to test Our Prophet by raising these questions and want to judge his sayings with what you find in your Book, know that not much share of knowledge had been provided for you.' “ Nevertheless, the two parts of the verse seem more coherent when interpreted according to the second viewpoint.

Well, what is the meaning of the sentence, “The ruh (spirit or soul) is by the command (amr) of my Lord,” according to the first viewpoint? Does it mean that the ruh is the work and creation of God? Or that the ruh is by the command of God? Or that the ruh is from the World of Command? None of these meanings can be clearly derived from the verse itself.

What is here meant by ruh? The human “spirit” or “soul”, the “Spirit” meaning Ruh al‑Qudus (the Holy Spirit or Angel Gabriel), “spirit” in its common unspecified sense, “ruh” when used for the Qur’an, “ruh” to mean Jesus (A) who is also called Ruh Allah or the “Spirit of God”‑are the various instances in regard to which the word “ruh” has been employed by the Qur’an. Now which of these meanings the questioners had in view, is not clear.

Perhaps, the purpose was to ask the same generally understood meaning of human soul. But if the Jews or the idolaters (mushrikun) under the influence of Jewish no­tions, had raised this question, it is possible that all or some of these meanings of the word ruh were in view. Therefore, can the notion of the World of Command, or the theory of creation and command, be considered as being validly supported by the Qur’an? Not at all. Follow­ing are the reasons behind this unwarranted and baseless transference of an extraneous notion to the Qur’an:

A study of the books of exegesis and a comparison of various commentaries written under the influence of ideas expounded by the scholastic theologians (mutakallimun), philosophers, mystics and gnostics, with other commentaries .written by others who have escaped such influence, show that the correspondence contrived between the Qur’anic verse أَلَا لَهُ الْخَلْقُ وَالْأَمْرُ (His, verily, is all khalq and amr) and the theory of creation and command, originated from the controversies of mutakallimun.

With the beginning of `ilm al‑kalam (Islamic scholastic philosophy), following the discussion about the Essence and Attributes of God, the question arose whether the Qur’an, being the Word of God, was pre‑eternal (qadim) or of temporal original (hadith). This problem was, for centuries, the subject of heated controversies between many thinkers during the distinguished epoch of Islamic culture and civilization.

The discussions regarding pre‑eternity (qidam) and temporality (huduth) became a typical and fundamental issue between the two schools of kalam known as the Mu'tazilites and Ash'arites. Each of these theories, which incorporated many other views, gathered a number of staunch and warring supporters.

The gatherings of the elite, in which the major political and religious personages of the time were present, set the usual stage for a show of debates and controversies of the adept exponents of each school. During these controversies, raged with the tongue or the pen, the rivals tried to avail of every possible means to prove the authenticity of their views. They put all their thinking effort into looking for new tools and fresh arguments in support of their position.

Throughout these efforts, which were aimed at only getting hold of fresh arguments, the spirit of truth‑seeking remained very weak. It is a well‑known fact that the spirit of rivalry and flair for controversy, despite one's intellectual keenness and knowledge, deviate the mind from the path of truth and lead to extreme distor­tion in perception of rational issues and understanding of textual material.

It was in the midst of such tempestuous controversies that the matter relating to Divine verses came under discussion. During these debates, their attention was mainly or totally devoted to finding new `evidence' in the Qur’an to support their preferred viewpoints, thereby arming themselves with lethal weapons to demolish their enemies' positions.

If they came across any faintest literal resemblance of meaning that corresponded with their viewpoints, they endeavoured to forge interpretations that would fit their views. It was not their concern to check the meaning of one verse against other verses on the same subject. Very often, if one portion of a verse seemed to corres­pond with their viewpoint, the fact that the rest of the verse would not affirm such a correspondence did not discourage them.

Novel interpretations and new notions circulated from mouth to mouth and were handed down by ancestors to succeeding generations. In many cases that interpretation was considered as the only interpretation of a certain verse by the later generations.

This is what happened in regard to the sentence أَلَا لَهُ الْخَلْقُ وَالْأَمْرُ in the verse of Surat al‑'A`raf. In early centuries when the Word of God was not considered as created and temporal, the argument was laid out in this manner:

The distinction made between khalq and amrshows that the Word of God is uncreated; because all creatures are temporal (hadith), and amr, in opposition to khalq, means the domain of pre‑eternal (qadim), uncreated things. Therefore, the Word of God, being His amror command is pre‑eternal and not temporal. This mode of interpretation of this Qur’anic sentence was mixed up with what was said in philosophy in regard to material and abstract beings. Thereafter, this interpretation was transferred to the verse of Surat Ya Sin:

إِنَّمَا أَمْرُهُ إِذَا أَرَادَ شَيْئًا أَن يَقُولَ لَهُ كُن فَيَكُونُ ﴿يس: ٨٢﴾

and it was taken to mean creation of abstract beings in the World of Command, and the two commonplace concepts of “material world” and “abstract world” were substituted by the terms “World of Creation” and “World of Command”.

Later, the main purpose, which was to seek justification from the Qur’anic verse for believing in pre-­eternity of the Qur’an, was forgotten. From the view that “khalq” and “amr” inthe verse represent two mutually exclusive things, the conclu­sion was derived that the phrase الْخَلْقُ وَالْأَمْرُ (creation and command) means the “World of Creation and the World of Command.” Subse­quently, even those who considered the Qur’an as temporal and created also accepted this idea.'2

Notes:

  • 2.In order to discover the veracity of what I have said, one should first study the exegeses which were not written under the influence of the notions of `ilm al­ kalam, philosophy and `irfan, and later those which were written under this influence, specially the Mafatih al ghayb of Imam Fakhr al‑Razi, vol. IV, p. 236, ff. vol. V, pp. 446 ff.; the exegesis of Nizam al‑Nishaburi, vol. II, pp. 143, 266; the exegesis of Mulla Sadra, p. 488; also see the introduction to Persian translation of constitutes the Persian translation of the text of al‑Shahristani's speech, numerous instances of the characteristic deviation we have discussed can be found

    In consideration of the common reader, attempt has been made here to keep the text free of specialist jargon to the extent possible. We have also abstained from mentioning all the relevant sources and references. Hopefully, we shall be able to present this discussion to the interested readers in greater elaboration at a more suitable time.

Adapted from: "The Theory of 'Alam al Khalq and 'Alam al-'Amr"