What is the Spirit? An Islamic Perspective

Written by | Religious Concepts, Spirituality


By Mubasher Ahmad, M.A., LL.B.

In the Arabic language in which the Holy Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (sa), there are two words commonly used for human life. The first is ‘Nafs,’ and the second is ‘Ruh.’ Nafs also means ‘self,’ ‘person,’ ‘heart,’ ‘mind,’ and ‘conscience.’ Ruh, on the other hand, can be translated as ‘breath’, ‘divine revelation or inspiration’, ‘joy and happiness’ and ‘the spirit’. Ruh is derived from ‘rah,’ that is, it became cool and pleasant; he was brisk, lively, active, prompt or quick. Ruh connotes the subtle substance that keeps a person alive; it is the principle of vitality and of sensation and of voluntary motion, the breath which a man breathes, and which pervades the whole body; after the exit of which he ceases to breathe. (1)

Therefore, to answer the question: ‘What is the Spirit?’- it can be said that the spirit is the inner self of a person, and we can also say that it is God’s Spirit infused into human beings.

In the Holy Qur’an, God says about the creation of man:

“And remember when your Lord said to the angels, ‘I am about to create man from dry ringing clay, from black mud wrought into shape; so, when I have fashioned him in perfection and have breathed into him My Spirit, then fall down in submission to him.’ So, the angels submitted, all of them together, except Iblis; he refused to be among those who submitted.” (2)

In other words, in addition to a physical body, a human being is given a soul which, at its inception, is the Spirit of God. The ‘ruh’ is created and nurtured inside the womb during embryonic development, and it contains all positive and pure qualities. The natural faculties, also known as the angelic forces, are all made submissive to the ‘ruh’, with the exception of Iblis, namely, the negative urge which is inclined to remain rebellious to God’s commandments.

When referring to the spirituality of pious and holy men and women, this Spirit of God, this Ruh is specifically mentioned in the Holy Qur’an as Ruhul Qudus – the Holy Spirit. For example, the Holy Qur’an states:

“And verily We gave Moses the Book and caused after him Messengers to follow in his footsteps; and to Jesus, son of Mary, We gave manifest Signs, and strengthened him with the Spirit of holiness.” (3)

At another place, it is stated:

“These Messengers have We exalted, some of them above others; among them, there are those to whom Allah spoke (i.e., gave them a new Law); and some of them He exalted by degrees of rank. And We gave Jesus, son of Mary, clear proofs and strengthened him with the Spirit of holiness.” (4)

With reference to the miracles of Jesus, son of Mary (as), it is written in the Holy Qur’an:

“When Allah will say, “O Jesus, son of Mary, remember My favor upon you and upon your mother; when I strengthened you with the Spirit of holiness so that you did speak to the people in the cradle and in middle age; and when I taught you the Book and Wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel; and when you did fashion a creation out of clay, in the likeness of a bird, by My command; then you did breathe into it a new spirit and it became a soaring being by My command; and you did heal the night-blind and leprous by My command; and when I restrained the children of Israel from putting you to death when you did come to them with clear Signs; and those who disbelieved from among them said, ‘This is nothing but clear deception.’” (5)

The term Ruh as the Spirit of God is also mentioned in the Holy Qur’an as being actively engaged with the angels of God. For example, referring to the Night of Destiny (Lailatul Qadr), it is written:

“The Night of Destiny is better than a thousand months. Therein descend angels and the Spirit (Ruh) by the command of their Lord – with every matter.” (6)

Again, it is written in the Holy Qur’an:

“On the day when the Spirit (Ruh) and the angels will stand in rows, they shall not speak, except he whom the Gracious God will permit and who will speak only what is right.” (7)

Referring to the text of the Qur’an, it is stated:

“Say, ‘The Holy Spirit has brought it down from your Lord with truth, that He may strengthen those who believe, and as a guidance and glad tidings for Muslims.” (8)

In the Holy Qur’an, the term Ruh is also used for the life-giving word of God.

For example, it is stated:

“He sends down the angels with revelation by His command on whomsoever of His servants He pleases saying, ‘Warn people that there is no God but I, so fear Me alone.’” (9)

“And verily this is a revelation from the Lord of the worlds. The Spirit, Faithful to the Trust, has descended with it on your heart, so that you may be of the Warners in plain and clear Arabic tongue.” (10)

In the Holy Qur’an, the question ‘What is the Soul?’ is answered in the following verse:

“And they ask you concerning the ‘ruh’/spirit. Say, ‘The ‘ruh’ is by the command of my Lord, and the knowledge thereof you have been given but a little.’” (11)

This means that the human spirit has been described as something created by direct command of God, and we human beings have little knowledge of how it is created.

According to the Holy Qur’an, all creation falls under two categories:

[1] The creation which is brought about without the use of any material substance previously created. In other words, something created out of nothing by direct command of God.

[2] The subsequent creation which is brought about through mixing and compounding elements which are already in existence through God’s creation, and forming them into something new.

According to the Holy Qur’an, the creation of the spirit/’ruh’ falls under the first category, the direct command of God. Thus, the Holy Qur’an puts great emphasis on the unequivocal connection that exists between God and the human spirit.

The Holy Qur’an describes three states of the Nafs or three conditions of the ‘self’. The first is called ‘Nafsi Ammarah’- the soul that does wrong to itself, or the soul that is inclined to do evil instead of attaining spiritual and moral perfection by remaining constantly connected with God.

The second condition is called ‘Nafsi Lawwamah’, or the reproving self, that is, after committing anything wrong and immoral the inner self reprimands itself and tries to bring the negative urges under its control, and yet it is not fully successful in practicing virtuous acts needed to pave the spiritual path towards God

The third condition is called ‘Nafsi Mutma’innah’ or the soul/mind/heart at rest, that is, the self which has obtained full contentment and is at peace with God. At this stage, the inner self is delivered from all its weaknesses and is filled with spiritual powers because it has established a firm connection with its Creator. It is as if the human spirit has found its way to its original source – God the Creator. (12)

To better understand what the spirit is, we should know that while the spirit keeps the human body alive, it is not a physical or material entity. When it departs from the human body, it continues to exist, having a spiritual body of its own. That is why when a person dies, and the spirit departs the body, the Holy Qur’an teaches us to say:

“Surely, to God we belong, and to Him we shall return.” (13)

Another important point concerning the human spirit is that based upon how a person lives his or her life; the spirit becomes accountable for that person’s conduct –whether it was a sinful life or a virtuous and pious life. The Holy Qur’an explains that God has revealed to the inner spirit/nafs what is wrong and what is right. Therefore that person indeed prospers in this life and the life to come who purifies his or her self, and the person who corrupts it by living a sinful life is surely ruined in the Hereafter. (14)

In other words, throughout the earthly life of a person, all thoughts, emotions, desires, and actions, both positive and negative, are registered within the nafs/soul/self/spirit and thus, when all is said and done, as it were, his or her ‘nafs’ remains answerable to God with whom rests the ultimate Judgement:

“Then whoso does an atom’s weight of good will see it, and whoso does an atom’s weight of evil will also see it.” (15)


  • Five Volume Commentary on the Holy Qur’an, published by Nazarat Nashro Ishaat, Vol.2, page 590
  • The Holy Qur’an (15:29-32)
  • The Holy Qur’an (2:88)
  • The Holy Qur’an (2:254)
  • The Holy Qur’an (5:111)
  • The Holy Qur’an (97: 4, 5)
  • The Holy Qur’an (78: 39)
  • The Holy Qur’an (16:103)
  • The Holy Qur’an (16:3)
  • The Holy Qur’an (26:193-196)
  • The Holy Qur’an (17:86)
  • For further details of the three types of Soul, read The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as)
  • The Holy Qur’an (2:157)
  • The Holy Qur’an (91:9-11)
  • The Holy Qur’an (99:8,9)

Last modified: April 2018

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