Thursday, October 11, 2012

Reading the Quran: People of the Spirit

That the Quran doesn't present a critique of the actual Christian Trinity is not surprising.   The odds of the Prophet Muhammad actually encountering the orthodox Trinity in the popular Christianity around him were slender.

How slender?  I put it at roughly the same odds as encountering a discourse on the social location of the Cappadocian Fathers in Joel Osteen's sermon this Sunday.  So like all good prophetic literature, the Quran is a critique of what it encounters.

But that the Quran explicitly challenges Mary as the de facto third person of the Trinity means that the third person of the Trinity isn't really part of that particular conversation in Quran.   What is that?  Within Christianity, the third person is understood as the Holy Spirit.

What is that?  Well, honestly, many Christians would struggle to tell you.  Oh, sure, maybe they'd quote you snippets of that Yoda speech about the Force.  But Christian popular theology doesn't really deal effectively with the Spirit.

This is unfortunate, because the Holy Spirit is absolutely vital to Christian faith.   The Holy Spirit features prominently in two of the four Gospel accounts.  Its arrival in the Luke/Acts cycle provides the cohesion between the story of Christ and the story of the church.  It is a central theme in the Gospel of John.   It is also a vital and central theme in the seven authentic Pauline letters.

In both its essence and its effect, the Holy Spirit is God's generous, creative, transforming love.  That love is the essence of what binds us together as an authentic community of the Way.  It is what allows us to truly encounter the Holy in the reading of our sacred texts.  It is present with us as a source of strength, and a source of comfort.  It provides us with the single governing purpose of our existence, because it understood within the dynamics of the Trinity...both present with us and fully and completely God.   Without the Spirit, you just can't follow the Way that Jesus taught.  You also can't be in covenant relationship with God, because what is the first of the Ten Commandments but the command to let nothing come between us and our Creator?

Although the Quran describes Christians as People of the Book, we aren't, not really.  We are, first and foremost, People of the Spirit.

While not directly addressing the role of the Spirit in the Christian understanding of God, the Quran does talk about the Spirit.   Where it's discussed, it is described as Ruh, which I will take to be etymologically related to the Hebrew term Ruach.   In the Hebrew, that word means "breath" and "spirit" and "wind. "  In the Greek of the Gospels and Epistles, the term is pneuma, which bears almost identical polyvalent meaning.  It forms and shapes the structures of created time and space.  It provides the animating ground of all life.  The essential lifegiving and shaping power of God, it is.

Dang, now I'm sounding like Yoda.

In the Quran, ruh surfaces with less frequency that in the texts of Torah and the Gospels/Epistles, but it is there.    How is it presented?  It is the source of the Quran, and the foundation of Quranic authority.  As such, it can be neither human nor djinn.  If it is to be authoritative, it must be inseparable from the authority of God.  (An-Nahl 2)   It is what permits the Prophet Muhammad to receive Quran (Ash-Shu'ara 192-194) as an unmediated revelation directly from God.

As noted in prior posts, the ruh also appears in the context of Jesus, in both his life and his conception.  In his conception, the Quran preserves the chastity of Mary by having her conceive through the Spirit, which continues to be fascinatingly orthodox to this liberal Christian.   In his life, it is the Ruh-ul-Qudus that gives Jesus the ability to teach with authority.

The role of the ruh in the life of Muslims isn't deeply explored in the Quran.  The Quran seems to waffle a bit on whether or not the ruh can even be described, (Al Isra 85) a verse that seems to place connection with the Spirit of God outside of the boundaries of day to day obedience to God's commands.  Don't ask, it's beyond you, says the Quran.  In that, this sura appears to present a view of the ruh that bears little resemblance to the accounts in the Johannine literature, Paul, and the Lukan story of the early church, none of which seem to struggle at all with describing the role, place, and nature of the Spirit.  If that was the only answer of Islam to the place of the Spirit, my view of the faith would be significantly diminished.

But elsewhere, Quran articulates a concept of Spirit that is remarkably similar in both concept and language to that of the Gospels and the Prophets.  In Al Mujadila 22,  we hear of a faith not externally obeyed out of fear of coercion, but "written on the hearts" of believers.  That faith is supported by the strengthening presence of the ruh.  Such a faith creates what Quran describes as the Party of Allah.  This, quite frankly, much more like it.  I'm down with that.

Theologizing aside, why does this matter?  Within my own faith, it matters because whenever over the two millennia of Christian history Christians have subordinated the Spirit to ecclesiastical or textual authority, bad things have happened.  When we've given final authority to church doctrines and power and hierarchies, Christianity has looked very little like what Jesus taught.  When we've given final authority to our texts, we've been torn by disputes and debates and hatreds.

Subordinating or dismissing the Spirit has and will always turn human beings away from the love that is God's nature, and towards the hatred and violence that is antithetical to our created purpose.

And from that, it is to violence and war in the Quran that I will turn next.


  1. Check out "God of Love" by Mirabai Starr, a reflection on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam's shared spirituality.

  2. What is interesting about the "Ruh" is that it is a singularity (It does not have a plural) whereas nafs (soul) has plural. The concept also exists in Eastern religions such as the Chinese "Qi"/"Chi" and "Prana" in the Indian religion.

    In Judaism the Nefesh is divided into 2 parts Yetzer Hara and Yetzer hatov
    (egoic and transegoic) The Quran divides the nafs into 3 levels---the two corresponding to Judaism are Nafs amarra and nafs lawamma---the third (or highest) level is nafs mutmainna (peace) and the equivalent in Judaism would be Neshama

  3. @ Paul: I may have to do just that, although my reading list looks like O'Hare during a air traffic controller walkout.

    @ Anonymous: That's a very appropriate cross cultural analogue. And your comment about singularity is interesting, particularly because I note a tension in the translations. Some are clear about the singular nature, presenting "ruh" as simply "spirit" or "inspiration." Others describe it as "a spirit," which, while singular, 1) implies the possibility of others and 2) opens up the interpretive option of viewing it as an angelic being separate from the Divine...which to my eyes could not have been the Quranic intent, as it would mediate/dilute the Prophet's connection with the Creator.

  4. "I note a tension in the translations"----that is an astute observation. There were some early scholars who had particular interpretations of "Ruh"---because the Quran refuses to explain it---Some associated "Ruh" with angel Gabriel---Because of Surah 97 verse 4---this Surah is believed to be speaking about the first revelation that the Prophet received through Angel Gabriel---Yet, it is the
    "Spirit"/Ruh that is mentioned here....a few other scholars feel the Ruh and Nafs (Spirit, soul) are interchangeable---a view influenced by Judaism---where both the soul and the spirit are considered as levels of Spirituality (Connection with the Divine---the ruach being a higher level of spirituality than nefesh). Most Muslim scholars suspend judgement of "ruh" in deference to the Quranic reluctance to define it. Today, with the advent of computer analyses---it is understood that the (Arabic)Quran chooses words with utmost care and precision---therefore (IMO), "ruh" is unlikely to be a word that substitutes for either Angel Gabriel or Soul(nafs) but a concept-word that stands on its own. What complicates the understanding of "ruh' is that there seem to be different nuances to it---for example ruh=arabic ruach=hebrew is used in Quran/Torah but so is Ruh-al-Qudus=arabic and ruach ha Kodesh=hebrew (meaning Holy Spirit).....etc.....

    The Prophet and his connection to the Divine----Though all Prophets are of noble character---they are human beings like you and me. In Islam---all human beings have a direct connection to the Divine---that is, there is no intermediary or obstacle between the Divine and the human. Therefore, the Prophet was used to deliver the message/Guidance/Quran---but this is also a personal message from God to me---the reader/reciter.(and at the same time---a universal message/guidance to all humanity) That is why a Muslim has such care and respect for the Quran.