Qur’anic Sura 39, verse 42 reads as follows:
“God takes the souls (al-anfus) at the time of their death, and those that die not during their sleep; then He withholds those on whom He has passed the decree of death and sends the others back till an appointed term; most surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect.” (Qur’an 39:42)
Verses such as these are not easily susceptible to an analytical approach since they hint at realities that are not readily amenable to scientific, experimental, or discursive knowledge. They point at metaphysical truths which we can attempt to unravel through various means but which ultimately we cannot know with certainty except through actual experience, whether that experience is gifted to someone while they are still alive or whether we experience it, as we all ultimately will, after our physical death when metaphysical realities which we only fuzzily and abstractly understood while alive will become piercingly clear to us.
“…But now We have removed from you your veil, so your perception today is piercing….” (Qur’an 50:22)
Of course, at that point we will not be able to return to describe what we learn. So we are left with revelation, the guidance of the Prophets and awliya, the various writings of those who have wrestled with such questions, and our own struggle to understand and attempt to discern possible meanings. And our understanding is subject to many limitations – we are restricted to seeking analogies and likenesses that may provide only a partial conceptual understanding of realities that remain largely unseen and unknown.
To unfurl the possible meanings requires interpretation and interpretation is dependent on the type, level, and depth of knowledge and understanding – which is why it is prudent and realistic to indicate that any given interpretation (of such verses) is only a possible meaning and not a certainty – since all understanding is hemmed in by our many limitations (and complete certainty was only in the experiential knowledge of the Prophet and the Imams).
In the verse “God takes the souls (al-anfus)…”, ‘taking the souls’ at the time of sleep does not necessarily refer to any displacement in space. In other words it is not necessary to think of it in terms of some mysterious force or ghostlike substance leaving the physical body and then later returning to it.
During wakefulness, our face is turned towards this world and experiences a particular mode of existence and during sleep it is turned inwards and experiences another enigmatic mode of existence.
When we sleep our consciousness fades and we are no longer in charge of our own selves – our hold on our self becomes very tenuous – automatic regulating processes step in and maintain us while our consciousness sublimates to a different level. Our nafs (our self) is no longer in “our” charge but is held in a different alternate state. God has set up a system by which our nafs (our individual self) is held intact in some manner until we wake – He “takes” and holds our nafs.
“And He it is Who takes your souls at night (in sleep), and He knows what you acquire in the day, then He raises you up therein that certain conditions may be fulfilled….” (Qur’an 6:60)
As well, “taking” can have the sense of bringing something close to oneself. Proximity, in relation to God, cannot however be conceived of in any physical sense.
Nearness to God is not dependent on any kind of spatial or temporal motion since concepts like place and time are not applicable to the One who created space and time and through Whom these qualities of the material world subsist. Rather the nafs may be said to have extension into different levels of reality than the one of which we are consciously aware. It has a simultaneous existence and presence in this world and others (in this level of reality and others). In sleep, we may have flashes and glimpses of these other levels – of a realm in which traits, tendencies, and knowledge can take on forms and shapes not dependent on the physical matter of this world (much as desires, fears, anxieties etc. can take on symbolic forms and images in dreams). This is possibly why sleep is said to be a likeness of death – it can provide a glimpse into another mode of the nafs existence (one in which our internal knowledge and character traits manifest as external forms and events).
In sleep we lose consciousness of the material world and we may receive a glimpse (through consciousness turning inwards) of other realms as well as fitful and fleeting symbolic indicators (of the state of our own souls) in the form of dreams. We enter into the world of our nafs which manifests its contents in varying ways during sleep. So our consciousness moves from one modality to another. It has a simultaneous existence on multiple planes although in wakefulness we are only aware of one of these. In sleep our awareness of one level weakens and recedes and we enter into a different modality and different awareness.
This occurs in regular sleep and it also happens in the permanent sleep of death – where one suffers illness or injury which causes suspension of consciousness. In sleep or on the road to death (no matter what form that death takes or how slowly or swiftly it arrives) there will be a transition (even if only a momentary instance) during which consciousness withdraws from its awareness and perception of this world. If this withdrawal is only caused by sleep then the consciousness is able to later transition back to wakefulness in this world – otherwise (if caused by death) it will remain intact in the other.
None of this requires any physical displacement as the nafs may be likened to a configuration (relating to the individuality of the person) rather than a thing in and of itself – a configuration which overlaps lower and higher worlds. Along with its existence in this world it has a simultaneous presence in higher (deeper) worlds even though in most cases it may be intellectually and consciously unaware of this. If the physical form is destroyed in this world (through injury, age, illness, accident etc.), the nafs continues its existence in the other higher realm – it’s configuration, it’s form is maintained in that realm –
“…then He withholds those on whom He has passed the decree of death….” (Qur’an 39:42)
Note: Existence has a unitary but hierarchic quality that is suggested by the Qur’anic verses which describe the various gradations of existence as a hierarchy in which the higher levels envelop and subsume the lower levels (see sidebar text). “He regulates the affair from the heaven to the earth…” (Qur’an 32:5) So the configuration of our world is congruent with the levels which envelop it although these other levels remain unseen to us. So nearness and remoteness in reference to these other levels is not a reference to physical distance since the levels envelop one another (from higher to lower).
If the nafs is the psychic (not physical) form (configuration) that has a concurrent presence in multiple worlds then the destruction of the physical form only means that the physical matter which held that configuration is no longer capable of holding it – but the configuration continues it’s existence in another higher modality – a modality which encompasses and overlaps the lower modality.
The nafs has an essential connection (and presence) with these higher modalities.
The first trace, the first characteristic that was laid down for every human nafs is the reality of our acknowledgment of God and the recognition of His Lordship. This is the covenant mentioned in verse 7:172 of the Qur’an.
“And when your Lord brought forth from the children of Adam…all their descendants, and made them bear witness against their own souls: Am I not your Lord? They said: Yes! we bear witness. Lest you should say on the day of resurrection: Surely we had no knowledge of this.” (Qur’an 7:172)
This represents the first key characteristic of the nafs – one that represents a foundational experience and one which defines it’s essential quality, since it occurs above space and time and thus is free of the limitations of space and time that characterize and delimit our existence in this world. Verse 7:172 concludes by stating that this experience removes human excuses that they were unaware of the reality of the human situation – this is because the nafs is pervaded with the ability to know the reality of God’s Lordship since this reality was shown to it at a higher (deeper) and more substantial level of reality than this material world we are currently in.
As the Qur’an asks: “Certainly you have known the first state of being. Why, then, do you not recollect (the higher/deeper reality)?” (Qur’an 56:62)
God unfolded all human beings (in a realm above time and place) from Adam in a pure unexperienced state and took a covenant from them – the taking of the covenant was to allow them to later recognize what he had woven into their essential, unclouded nature (that, at root their nafs was connected and bonded to Him – that their existence had a real presence and connection beyond the material world in higher worlds) – this covenant and our ability to recognize it is encoded in our nature. Then He allows human beings to emerge in various times and places in the world of matter and within each one a nafs unfolds that is a combination of many varying and different knowledges, influences, abilties, and restrictions. But at its root, each nafs has a connection to it’s point of origin and through this connection it has a simultaneous, vertically connected existence rising through many levels. The physical matter of the body is perishable but the nafs is the root through which individual human existence persists after death.
“Every son of Adam will decay and be eaten by the dust, except for his root. With this he was created and with this he will be recomposed.” (Prophetic hadith)
Note: The Qur’an is said to have descended in an instant in it’s entirety upon the Prophet’s (spiritual) heart – it was then subsequently gradually revealed to him and manifested in individual sections and fragments over a period of 23 years. In a similar way all of Adam’s descendants were simultaneously in their entirety brought before God (in a spiritual realm and made to understand God’s Lordship) and then folded back into Adam to be subsequently born in different times and places throughout the entirety of human history.
Because of this first substantial relation of our nafs to God, our knowledge of God in this world is, in large part, predicated upon gaining knowledge of the essence of our own nafs. God shows us His signs
“…on the horizons and within our own selves” (Qur’an 41:53).
External existence is a sign of God but in order to become aware of the relevance of the signs we have to have an internal configuration attuned to seeing the world with a particular level of awareness and sincerity. It is not only the thing seen that is of importance but the vision and the perspicacity of the one doing the seeing. God always has a relation of nearness to us –
“He is nearer to you than your life-vein” (Qur’an 50:16)
But for us to draw nearer to Him, we have to embark on a journey of knowledge of what is configured within our own selves.
This becomes possible through the substantive bond we have with God through our nafs. To draw near to God we unfold the capability and the knowledge that is at the root of our own nafs – a process which is tied, to a great extent, to our self-knowledge – to understanding and mastery of our nafs. This relation and connection between knowledge of God and the nafs is indicated in the famous hadith “He who knows his self (his nafs) knows his Lord.” It is a journey from unawareness towards awareness and a movement of sincere and profound transformation of one’s internal configuration – a transformation that emerges from an understanding of the true state of affairs.
“(The distance) from the place of my feet to my Lord’s Throne, is that a person sincerely says ‘There is no god but God’“. (Imam Ali)