Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

Pre-Mortality in Mystical Islam and the Cosmic Journey of the Soul

Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

Pre-Mortality in Mystical Islam and the Cosmic Journey of the Soul

Article excerpt

On the Origin of the Soul

Across centuries and cultures, the origin of the human soul has been a subject of deep interest and yearning, often finding wondrous expression in theology, philosophy, science, and art. Ruminating on the profound mystery of earthly existence, the noted medieval Sūri mystic Jalāluddin Rūmī (d. 1273 CE) pondered:

All day I think about it, then at night I say it.

Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?

I have no idea.

My soul is from elsewhere, I'm sure of that,

and I intend to end up there.1

Implicit in Rūmī's meditation is an impulse that there might be heavenly antecedents of the soul, and that the soul perhaps not only extends into an eternal future from birth, but also into a spiritual past. Rūmī imagines that his birth and his beginning are perhaps two distinct things. The soul, as conceptualized by Rūmī and others, is the intelligent, individuated, and immortal essence of humankind-a self with a long history that precedes and transcends mortal embodiment.2 The notion of a disembodied, self-conscious moral agent having its own history prior to joining the body is not unique to Rūmī's time period or region, but one that is traceable across millennia and across cultures. The idea of preexistence in a variety of forms is easily discernable in classical settings of Greek, Egyptian, and Persian strands of thought, and, in turn, vestiges of the notion found their way into early Jewish and Christian thinking.3 However, it is a concept that has long been obscured by history due to its usually belonging to more mystical and esoteric strands of wisdom. A modern exception to this obscurantism, at least within the Christian tradition, occurred in the 1830s when Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, claimed to receive revelation emphatically affirming a doctrine of human preexistence.4 The LDS doctrine of pre-mortality, or premortal existence, continues to be one of many theological concepts differentiating Mormonism from conventional Christianity.

Islam has had its own intellectual, religious, and emotional interaction with the idea, but the concept of pre-mortality was ultimately consigned by mainstream Islam to the fringes of theological idiosyncrasy. Even so, the explanatory power of pre-mortality has provided a remarkably durable ontological coherence and symmetry for many Muslims across time.

Mainstream Interpretations

Before exploring the notion of the preexistent soul, it is necessary to understand the more widely accepted theological narrative of the soul's origin as found within mainstream Sunnī and Shī'ī Islam.5 Immortality, by most monotheistic orthodox derivatives, is unidirectional, assuming the soul originates at birth and extends into an infinite future.6 The human soul comes into existence as a direct creative act of God at the time of birth as a composite of physicality and spirit. On the human soul generally, and pre-mortality more specifically, the primary texts of Islam provide very little insight. Qur'ān 17:85 reads: "they ask you about the soul (rūh). Say: The soul is one of the commands of my Lord, and you are not given aught of knowledge but a little."7 Indeed for mainline Sunnī and Shī'ī Islam, the nature of the spirit or soul is presumed to be a mystery that God reserves to himself, and humans cannot and should not try to grasp its secrets or unravel its mysteries. All that mortals are intended to understand is the timing of when the rüh is breathed into the body when life begins. In Islam, the spirit is usually believed to be breathed or blown into the fetus sometime between 40-120 days after conception.8 Foundational to this conventional position on life beginning at birth is Qur'ān 32:9, which reads: "Then He made him complete and breathed into him of His spirit, and made for your ears and the eyes and the hearts." God, in other words, animates the body by breathing the spirit of life into it. …

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