Q. "It is God that takes the souls (of men) at death; and those that die not (He takes) during their sleep: those on whom He has passed the decree of death, He keeps back (from returning to life), but the rest He sends (to their bodies) for a term appointed, verily in this are Signs for those who reflect." (Q39:42)
The above verse has been traditionally understood as Allah taking our souls away while we are asleep, and returning the souls of those whom He wills to remain alive. Is this the correct interpretation of this verse?
A. First of all, there is no soul -- that is an importation of Greek philosophy that found its way into Islam through Judeo-Christian teachings, for the old Testament also does not speak of the soul. The entire concept of the word soul in the verse you quoted comes from a presupposition about the existence of such. The very literal translation of the verse is as follows: "Allah it is Who causes death to the persons in their sleep. And those upon whom Allah has decreed death, he keeps them (in the state of death), and He lets the others continue (living) to a term appointed..."
Remember that almost all of the Qur'anic verses are in response to something, some belief, or some law. Islam did not come as an entirely new religion, and since it continued the message of the Prophets, it always had to deal in relation to their messages, or philosophies that were attributed to them, which means that we always have to check the prevailing beliefs on the subject. The traditional belief is that the soul gives life to the body. If the souls left the bodies during the time of sleep, how does one interpret that at the deepest form of sleep, we have dreams. Also, if one is pricked during sleep, that person awakes immediately. Blood flows from a pin prick even though the sleeper may not be awake, thereby dismissing the claim of those who say that the "soul" returns immediately. If we believe that there is a soul, then are we saying that the soul is pre-existent before the body? Are we saying that Allah created all the souls that will be in the world a long time ago? If so, did He do it all at once? If so, when? Do the souls meet each other in this waiting place before entering their respective bodies? All these questions seem stupid because Islam does not allow for them.
The verse functionally classifies sleep as a form of death. "Tawaffa" was used for both, which is what has caused some confusion for the commentators in the verses dealing with Jesus, where God says: "I will cause you to die," they (among them Ibn Taimiyya) interpret it as: "I will cause you to fall into a death-like sleep." The word "yumsiku" also has the connotation of grabbing and holding on to something, meaning that once Allah has decreed this death, then the person dies, and Allah maintains that death. Now the hadith says: "Sleep is the brother of death." When one sleeps, all outwardly visible functions cease, and the person lies as if dead, so he is for all practical purposes dead. It is only Allah's grace and mercy that brings that person back to life. Even before Islam, there was the presumption of death and sleep being closely related -- one knows not if s/he will awake. For this reason, in all of the three Semitic religions, one is supposed to say a lot of prayers "before one sleeps," which ask for you to be blessed if you die during your sleep. That is what the first part of the verse deals with.
It also touches on a question, which the Muslims of the Prophet's time did not ask, but the later ones did: "What happens to a Muslim who dies without the utterance of the shahadah." Here Allah tells us that the death is by His doing, and that outside of death during sleep, that too is His domain. Those who go to sleep, dead for all worldly purposes, if Allah has decreed their death, then Allah keeps them dead. All miracles have ceased, so when you read the verse after, it shows that those who claim that intercession can cause Allah to bring back the dead, etc. are befuddled. This also means that the story of the Prophet bringing the son of Jabir back to life is nonsense.
The Qur'an tells us to provide proof if we are telling the truth -- and so, if we believe in the soul, then we have to show why. Not a single verse in the Qur'an tells us about the soul, which is why Allah tells us about resurrection, for if the souls were there, there would be no need for resurrection. The word "nafs" means "id" or "self," and not soul (as a separate entity) which is the common interpretation. To conclude, the body and soul being two entities has no place in Islam because it has no Qur'anic sanction.
Posted March 6, 1999