The Qur-aanic use of the word "Rooh"

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 Soorah Banee Israaeel[2]:

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.” 17:85

It is claimed 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 has nothing to do with the verse under discussion. People can derive this meaning from the quoted verse only by:  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 itself explains a statement made at one place by relevant statements made at other places.

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 comes this 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.”

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 from the commands 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 angels with the revelation (Rooĥ) by His command to whomsoever of His slaves He wants (16:2).
  • By His command, He places the revelation (Rooĥ) upon any of His slaves He pleases (40:15).
  • Thus We revealed to you revelation (Rooĥ) by Our command; otherwise you did not know what the Book was, nor what the faith was (42:52).

Another possible meaning 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 Basri from the Salf (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. 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.

In addition to the above mentioned use, “Rooh” has also been used in other ways in the Qur-aan. In total, it has been used at 21 places to mean the following five things:

  • 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 capacity to think and reflect, consciousness (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 (4:171, 21:91, 66:12); and
  • Rooh given to Jesus in the form of miraculous life and other abilities such as speaking as an infant – at three places (15:29, 32:9, 38:72).

[1] Rooh or Ruh

[2] Also called Bani Israeel or Al-Israa

[3] While reading our comments on the interpretation of verse 17:85, it should be kept in mind that this view about the human soul is not the subject matter of our discussion. Here, we are challenging the misuse of this verse, not the view about the human soul. In other words, we are not commenting here on the various scholars’ views about Rooh as soul. All we are saying is that Rooh does not represent the human soul in this verse.

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