Those who are acquainted to a certain extent with the Islamic sciences know that within the teachings of the Holy Book and the traditions of the Prophet there are many references to spirit and corpus, or soul and body. Although it is relatively easy to conceive of the body and what is corporeal, or that which can be known through the senses, to conceive of spirit and soul is difficult and complicated.
People given to intellectual discussions, such as the theologians and philosophers, Shi'ite and Sunni alike, have presented different views concerning the reality of the spirit (ruh). Yet, what is to some extent certain is that Islam considers spirit and body to be two realities opposed to each other. The body through death loses the characteristics of life and gradually disintegrates, but it is not so with the spirit. When the spirit is joined to the body, the body also derives life from it, and when the spirit separates from the body and cuts its bond to the body – the event that is called death – the body ceases to function while the spirit continues to live.
From what can be learned through deliberation upon the verses of the Holy Quran and the sayings of the Imams of the Household of the Prophet, the spirit of man is something immaterial which has some kind of relation and connection with the material body. God the Almighty in His Book says, "Verily We created man from a product of wet earth ; Then placed him as a drop (of seed) in a safe lodging ; Then fashioned We the drop a clot, then fashioned We the clot a little lump, then fashioned We the little lump bones, Then clothed the bones with flesh, and then produced it as another creation" (Quran, XXIII, 12-14). From the order of these verses it is clear that at the beginning the gradual creation of matter is described and then, when reference is made to the appearance of the spirit, consciousness, and will, another kind of creation is mentioned which is different from the previous form of creation.
In another place it is said, in answer to skeptics who ask how it is possible for the body of man, which after death becomes disintegrated and whose elements become dispersed and lost, to have a new creation and become the original man, "Say : The angel of death, who hath charge concerning you, will gather you, and afterwards unto your Lord ye will be returned" (Quran, XXXII, 11). This means that your bodies disintegrate after death and are lost amidst the particles of the earth, but you yourselves, namely your spirits, have been taken from your bodies by the angel of death and remain protected with Us.
Besides such verses the Holy Quran in a comprehensive explanation expresses the immateriality of the spirit in itself when it asserts, "They will ask thee concerning the Spirit. Say : The Spirit is by command of my Lord" (Quran, XVII, 85).
In another place in explaining His command (amr) He says, "But His command, when He intendeth a thing, is only that He saith unto it : Be! and it is. Therefore glory be to Him in Whose hand is the dominion over all things!" (Quran, XXXVI, 81-82). The meaning of these verses is that the command of God in the creation of things is not gradual nor is it bound to the conditions of time and space. Therefore, the spirit which has no reality other than the command of God is not material and in its being does not have material characteristics ; that is, it does not have the characteristics of divisibility, change, and situation in time and space.
A Discussion of Spirit from Another Perspective
Intellectual investigation confirms the view of the Holy Quran about the spirit. Each of us is aware of a reality within himself which he interprets as "I" and this awareness exists continuously within man. Sometimes man even forgets his head, hands, feet and other members or the whole body. But as long as his self exists, the consciousness of "I" does not leave his awareness. This perception cannot be divided or analyzed. Although the body of man is continuously undergoing change and transformation and chooses different locations in space for itself and passes through different moments of time, the reality of "I" remains fixed. It does not undergo any change or transformation. It is clear that if the "I" were material it would accept the characteristics of matter which are divisibility, change, and situation in time and space.
The body accepts all the characteristics of matter and, because of the relation of the spirit and the body, these characteristics are also considered to belong to the spirit. But if we pay the least attention, it becomes evident to man that this moment in time and the next, this point in space or another, this shape or another shape, this direction of motion or any other, are all characteristics of the body. The spirit is free from them; rather each of these determinations reaches the spirit through the body. This same reasoning can be applied in reverse to the power of consciousness and apprehension or knowledge which is one of the characteristics of the spirit. Obviously if knowledge were a material quality, according to the conditions of matter it would accept divisibility and analysis, and be determined by time and space.
Needless to say, this intellectual discussion could go on at length and there are many questions and answers related to it which cannot be considered in the present context. The brief discussion presented here is only an indication of the Islamic belief concerning body and spirit. A complete discussion will be found in works of Islamic philosophy.
Death from the Islamic Point of View
Although a superficial view would regard death as the annihilation of man and see human life as consisting of only the few days that stand between birth and death, Islam interprets death as the transfer of man from one stage of life to another. According to Islam man possesses eternal life which knows no end. Death, which is the separation of the spirit from the body, introduces man to another stage of life in which felicity or disappointment depends upon good or evil deeds in the stage of life before death. The Holy Prophet has said: "You have been created for subsistence, not annihilation. What happens is that you will be transferred from one house to another."