Ruh and nafs, ruach and nefesh
October 22, 2008
I just wrote a paper for my Qur'an class on the Arabic terms ruh and nafs. Ruh is usually translated as "spirit," and nafs as "soul" (or "self.") I was drawn to them because I suspected they would parallel their Hebrew cognates ruach and nefesh. And wow, do they ever! I have no idea how many people will be interested in this, but I figure at least a few of y'all might be fascinated, as I am, so I'm going to share some of what I've learned. If you've been reading VR for a while, you know I'm always looking for interreligious common ground...
Some background: the word nafs appears 276 times in the Qur'an; the word ruh, only 21 times. (The related term rih, wind or power or scent, appears 29 times; but even taken together, rih and ruh don't match the ubiquity of nafs.) Clearly nafs is the more frequent term, and seems also to be the more general term. According to the Encyclopedia Islamica, in early Arabic poetry ruh is used to mean breath and wind, while nafs connotes the self or person but relates to breath and wind too.
Five of the times ruh appears in the Qur'an it's in conjunction with al-quds, forming the phrase "holy spirit" -- which in Hebrew would be ruach ha-kodesh. (Same word-roots. The similarity is even more visible if you transliterate the letter kuf with a q, which some systems do, so: qodesh.)
A couple of notable instances of ruh al-quds: in verse 87 of sûrat Al-Baqarah (The Cow), we read, "We have indeed given Moses the Book, and after him we sent one Messenger after another. We also gave Jesus, son of Mary, clear signs and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit." (The same line appears again in verse 253 of the same sura.) And in sûrat Al-Ma'îdah (5:110) Allah reminds Jesus of having breathed holy spirit into him. This sense of Jesus as infused with holy spirit seems to me like a borrowing from the Christian Scriptures.
The Christian sense of holy spirit is echoed in a different way in sûrat Maryam (Mary): "She screened herself away from them, and We sent to her Our spirit and it appeared to her in the form of a well-shaped human being." (19:17) Here, the divine spirit takes the form of the angel Gabriel who brings Mary tidings of the Annunciation (and who is also understood to have facilitated the revelation of the Qur'an.) Ruh seems to parallel 'amr (God’s decree from on high), which is also connected with Gabriel.
Those uses of ruh are interesting to me conceptually, but the ones that really fascinate me are the places where ruh is used in descriptions of the creation of humanity, because those are the places where the Qur'an mirrors or draws on the Hebrew Scriptures most strongly.
In sûrat As-Sajdah (The Prostration), we read that God "originated the creation of man from clay" (32:7) and "shaped him well and breathed into him of His spirit" (23:9.) The sense that ruh is breathed into humanity by God seems to link ruh with rih, wind: God breathes something into man, a kind of divine wind, which transforms the clay into a living being.
The resonance between this Qur'anic usage of ruh and parallel Biblical usage of the Hebrew term ruach is dazzling. In Genesis 1:2 we read that ruach elohim m'rachefet al pnei tahom (a divine wind, or holy spirit, or wind of God, or God's breath -- the Hebrew term suggests all of these simultaneously -- hovered over the face of the waters.) In Genesis 2:7, we read that God breathed into the nostrils of the adam, thereby animating the living being. (Adam here means a creature formed from adamah, earth or clay. Everett Fox renders the term initially as "earthling," which I love.)
In sûrat Sâd (38:72), we see ruh in a similar context: Allah tells the angels about his intention to create a mortal out of clay and to breathe his spirit into that mortal. Intriguingly, in Genesis 2:7 after God has breathed into the nostrils of the adam, it becomes a nefesh chaya, a living being or living soul -- nefesh being, of course, a cognate to the Arabic nafs. Already nefesh and ruach are intertwined, as are nafs and ruh.
Nafs appears in the Qur'an thirteen more times than does ruh. Often it is used as a reflexive ("themselves," "yourselves;" e.g. "remember your Lord within yourself, in humility and awe," 7:205.) Sometimes it denotes a living being (in "when you slew a man," 2:72, "man" translates nafs; in "each soul shall be paid in full," 3:161, nafs is rendered "soul.")
One of the sources I read (citing Abu 'l-Hayyan al-Tawhidi) suggested that nafs refers to lower nature, while ruh means a kind of substance diffused through our material bodies.This is a subject we'll delve into more deeply when we spend some time readin the Qur'an through the lens of Sufi commentary.
All of this makes me want to learn more about the Hasidic and kabbalistic notion of the five levels of soul (nefesh, ruach, neshama, chaya, and yechida.) I know that nefesh is often mapped to body, and ruach to emotions. But that's fairly esoteric stuff. In a big-picture sense, the Hebrew nefesh -- usually translated "spirit" -- means "the complete life of a being," though is often used in the sense of "living being."
Each of these pairs of terms (ruh and nafs, ruach and nefesh) is frequently rendered in English as "spirit" and "soul." But these English terms are loaded in their own ways, and may not necessarily be the right way to render either the Arabic or the Hebrew concepts implied by the original terms.
The mainstream Western notion of spirit and selfhood is closely tied to Greek thinking, whereas (Hebrew) Biblical and Qur'anic thinking are steeped in a Semitic worldview rather than a Greek one. It seems to me that the Hebrew notion is more like the Arabic one (and vice versa) than either is like the Greek.
I'm following the The Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an here, which says, "[o]pinion has varied [in Islam] regarding the soul's nature and its relationship to the body, though most Muslim scholars have envisioned the soul as a subtle form or substance infused within or inhabiting a physical body." But the encyclopedia notes that while belief in the soul's existence is bolstered by Qur'anic references, "such readings appear indebted more to Aristotle, neo-Platonism and Christianity than to the Qur'an, with its holistic view of the human being."
Both the Qur'an and the Hebrew Scriptures presume the ultimate resurrection of the body, which means they don't subscribe to the same kind of dualism (body vs. spirit/soul) and concomitant privileging of the "spiritual" which characterizes Greek and Christian thought. (I'm thinking especially of Plato's insistence on the immortality of spirit, and Paul's demonization of the physical, both of which differ from Jewish understandings.)
Both Judaism and Islam subscribe to narratives of longtime conflict between Muslims and Jews -- from the power struggles within Ibrahim/Abraham's nuclear family, to tensions in Medina during the lifetime of the prophet (pbuh), to contemporary geopolitical Middle Eastern realities. But I see in these conceptual and theological similarities the grounds for conversations that could be fruitful for both communities.
Related posts: Sufism: beyond the veil, 2005; The fatiha in Hebrew; thoughts on poetry, scripture, translation, 2008.