The Difference Between Soul (nafs) and Spirit (ruh)

Please find below an analysis of the terms ruh (spirit) and nafs (soul) in the Quran. You will find that the Quran never uses the word ruh to talk about the human soul. Instead, it uses the term nafs for the human soul - the soul which can do good or evil, commit sins, and is judged in the hereafter and leaves the body upon death. Interestingly, the Quran never speaks about the ruh in this way. Instread, the Ruh in the Quran is described as a singular entity - from which God has breathed into man. Thus, each human being has both a `soul` (nafs) and a `spirit` (ruh) which must be differentiated from each other.

A. What is the "Spirit" (Ruh) in the Qur'an:

The Spirit is a singular entity in the Qur'an as follows:

  1. The Spirit is from God's Command and we know little about it (17:85)
  2. The Spirit brings the revelation to the Prophet's heart (26:192-195)
  3. The Spirit belongs to God and He calls it "My Spirit" (15:28-29)
  4. The angels are all connected to the Spirit; in another sense, the Spirit is the centre of all the angels (78:38)
  5. God helps the Prophets like Jesus with the Spirit (2:87, 2:253, 5:110)
  6. Jesus is called the "Spirit from Him" (4:171)
  7. God inspired the Prophet Muhammad with the Spirit (42:52)
  8. God strengthens the believers with the Spirit (16:102. 58:22)
  9. God sends down the Spirit from His Command upon his Servants (16:2, 40:15)
  10. God breathed into Mary from the Spirit (21:19, 66:12)
  11. The Spirit can take on a human image or form (19:17)
  12. The Spirit both descends from God and ascends to God (70:4, 97:4)
  13. God sent the Qur'an with the Spirit (16:102, 26:193)
  14. God breathed into Adam "from My Spirit" (min ruhee). Note this is different from God breathing the Spirit as a whole into Adam. (15:29, 38:72)

It follows from the above that the Spirit is a single entity which performs functions and tasks on God's behalf. The Holy Imams in the hadiths tell us more about the Holy Spirit. The gist of these say that the Holy Spirit is greater than the Angels and it always remains with the Imams, guiding them on God`s behalf. But each human being has been given a share of this Spirit - evidenced by God breathing into Adam from His Spirit. So there is one Holy Spirit (capital "s") while each person has a "spirit" (small s) which is from the Holy Spirit. Since each person's spirit is from God's Spirit, this individual spirit in each person cannot be corrupted and cannot commit sins. The individual spirit, breathed by God into each person must be differentiated from the human soul which we will discuss below.

B. What is the "Soul" (nafs) in the Qur'an:

  1. The soul has been created and proportioned by God (91:8)
  2. God has inspired the soul with the knowledge of what is right and wrong (91:9)
  3. The one who succeeds is he who has purified and caused his soul to grow (91:8-12)
  4. The soul will be judged in the hereafter and will receive what it has earned (2:281, 3:25, 3:30)
  5. The soul is capable of commanding one to do evil (12:53, 50:16, 79:40)The soul is capable of censoring itself (75:2)
  6. The soul at peace is admitted into Paradise (89:27)Good deeds are done for the soul`s benefit (2:223)
  7. The soul can be strengthened through spending in God`s way (2:265)
  8. The soul will taste and experience death (3:185)
  9. The soul can wrong or or destroy ruin itself, or commit sins and then seek pardon (4:110, 6:12, 6:20, 7:53, 9:42)
  10. The soul has desires (5:70) Allah receives souls when they die (39:42)

From the above we see that the nafs mentioned in the Qur'an is the same as the human soul which God has created and which each person must purify and grow. This soul is capable of inclining towards evil deeds and sins and even ruining itself but it is also capable of censoring itself and also achieving peace whereby it enters Paradise. Thus, the Qur'anic term nafs does mean `soul` and not merely *self*. The nafs according to the Quran, survives death, is judged and can be sent to Paradise or Hell. The ruh barely has an individuality - while each human being has a nafs which is ultimately responsible for its deeds in the world.

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