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.
The medieval Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi (d. 1273 CE) thought:
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.
Implicit in his 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. He imagines his birth and his beginning are perhaps two distinct things.
The notion of a disembodied, self-conscious moral agent having its own history prior to joining the body is not unique to Rumi's time period or region, but one that is traceable across millennia and across cultures.
The idea of pre-existence in a variety of forms is easily discernible 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. 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.
And (remember) when your Lord brought forth from the Children of Adam, from their loins, their seed (or from Adam’s loin his offspring) and made them testify as to themselves (saying): “Am I not your Lord?” They said: “Yes! We testify,” lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection: “Verily, we have been unaware of this.” (Qur’an 7:172)
An early interpretation of this event is that of Ubayy bin Ka’b, a scribe of the Prophet (saw):
God gathered all human beings, divided them into different groups, granted them human form and the faculty of speech, made them enter into a covenant, and then making them witnesses against themselves He asked them: ‘Am I not your Lord?’ They replied: ‘Assuredly you are Our Lord.’ Then God told them: ‘I call upon the sky and the earth and your own progenitor, Adam, to be witness against you lest you should say on the Day of Judgement that you were ignorant of this. Know well that no one other than Me deserves to be worshipped and no one other than Me is your Lord. So do not ascribe any partner to Me. I shall send to you My Messengers who will remind you of this covenant which you made with Me. I shall send down to you My Books.’ In reply all said: ‘We witness that You are Our Lord and our God. We have no lord or deity other than You.’ (Musnad)
"Surely We offered the Trust (Amana) to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they refused to be unfaithful to it and feared from it, and man has turned unfaithful to it;surely he is unjust, ignorant." (Qur'an 33:72)
"As He brought you forth in the beginning, so shall you also return..." (Qur'an 7:29)
They ask you about the soul (ruh). Say: The soul is one of the commands of my Lord, and you are not given aught of knowledge but a little. (Qur'an 17:85)
Then He made him complete and breathed into him of His spirit, and made for your ears and the eyes and the hearts. (Qur'an 32:9)
Allah's Messenger (saw), said, "Each one of you collected in the womb of his mother for forty days, and then turns into a clot for an equal period (of forty days) and turns into a piece of flesh for a similar period (of forty days) and then Allah sends an angel and orders him to write four things, i.e., his provision, his age and whether he will be of the wretched or the blessed (in the Hereafter). Then the soul is breathed into him." (Bukhari)
Umar bin Al-Khattab was asked about the ayah: And when your Lord brought forth from the Children of Adam, from their loins, their seed and made them testify as to themselves: "Am I not your Lord?" They said: "Yes! We testify," lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection: 'Verily, we have been unaware of this (7:172).'"
So Umar bin Al-Khattab said: "I heard the Messenger of Allah (saw) being asked about it.
So the Messenger of Allah (saw) said: 'Indeed Allah created Adam, then He wiped his back with His Right Hand, and his offspring came out of him. So he said: "I created these for Paradise, and they will do the deeds of the people of Paradise." Then He wiped his back, and his offspring came out of him. So He said: "I created these for the Fire, and they will do the deeds of the people of the Fire."
A man said: 'Then of what good is doing deeds O Messenger of Allah!'
The Messenger of Allah (saw) said: 'Verily, when Allah created a man for Paradise, He makes him perform the deeds of the people of Paradise, until he dies doing one of the deeds of the people of Paradise. So Allah will admit him into Paradise. And when He created a man for the Fire, He makes him perform the deeds of the people of the Fire until he dies doing the deeds of the people of the Fire. So Allah will enter him into the Fire.'" (Tirmidhi - Daif)
Allah addresses Zachariah unusually by saying:
"Indeed I created you before, when you were nothing." (Qur'an 19:9)
He also says:
"Every soul shall taste of death; then unto Us you shall be returned..." (Qur'an 11:4)
“Return unto thy Lord (‘Irjah’i illa rabbiki)” (Qur'an 89:28)
The hadith scholar Azimabadi (d. 1911 CE) interpreted the following ahadith to mean: "souls meet each other before they get into their bodies" as did Ibn Hajar (d. 1448 CE) commenting:
"People are like mines of gold and silver ... and the souls are troops (al-arwah junud mujannada) collected together and those who had a mutual familiarity amongst themselves in the store of prenatal existence would have affinity amongst them, (in this world also) and those who opposed one of them, would be at variance with one another." (Muslim)
"Ruhs are like conscripted soldiers: those whom they recognize, they get along with, and those whom they do not recognize, they will not get along with."(Bukhari)
"It could be that what is being referred to is the beginning of creation in the realm of the unseen (hal al-ghayb) when, it is reported, souls were created before bodies(al-arwah khuliqat qabl al-jasam), and used to meet one another and express their pessimism about the future. When souls have entered bodies(come to the physical realm)they may
recognize one another from the past, and may be on friendly terms or otherwise based on that past experience." (Fath al-Bari)
Hadith and medieval creation narratives describe an entire epoch and a panoply of created beings with varying degrees of freewill participating in a long and complex drama well before humans arrive on the scene.
Al-Kisa‘i (c. 1100 CE) in his Qisas al-Anbiya describes one such creation myth. According to Al-Kisa‘i, prior to the creation of Adam, God created “seven heavens and seven earths,” each with its own nations and inhabitants. Al-Kisa‘i also lays out an angelology of the heavens prior to the advent of humanity, the seventh heaven is described as being occupied with angelic inhabitants “in the form of men.” After God created time and the natural phenomena found in the heavens and various earths, he then created “the Soul Rational (aql).” Speaking to the yet unembodied but rational, responsive soul, God said:
“Draw nigh!” And it drew nigh. Then he said to it, “Draw back!” and it drew back. “By My Majesty and Splendor,” God said, “I have not created anything so beloved to me as you. Through you I shall take away and through you shall I give. Through you I shall reward and through you I shall punish.”
This account of the creation of an independent soul is situated in an epoch preceding human history. Ibn Sina or Avicenna (d. 1037 CE), the Persian polymath, argues it is this first intelligence (al-aql al-awwal) from which human souls emanate. Ibn Sina contends what differentiates humans from other sentient creation is humans possess a soul with rational faculties and an independent free will pre-existing the body. In poetry he writes of the grief of the soul’s descent from the heavens to its temporary rendezvous with the material world. Depicting the spirit/body duality of the human being, he writes:
There descended upon you from that lofty realm,
A dove, glorious and inaccessible.
Concealed from the eye of every seeker,
Although openly disclosed and unveiled.
Reluctantly she came to you,
And reluctantly, in her affection, will she depart.
She resisted, untamed; then upon her arrival
She grew accustomed to this desolate waste.
She forgot, I think, promises of sanctuary and
Abodes from which she had been unwilling to leave. (Al-Qasida Al-Ainiyya - Ode on the Soul)
Shahrastani (d. 1153 CE), a Persian historian, in his book Kitab al-Milal wa al-Nihal, describes a creation narrative as held by certain heretical sects (in particular the Khabitiya and Hadathiya sects) within the Mu’tazilah traditions in this way:
They hold that God created men healthy,sound in body and intelligent, in an adult state, and in a world other than this one in which they now live. He created in them the full knowledge of himself and showered on them blessings. It is impossible for the first of God’s creatures to be anything but intelligent and thinking beings, able to draw lessons from experience, whom, from the beginning, God placed under an obligation to show gratitude to him. Some of them obeyed in all things God allowed to remain in heaven where he had placed them from the beginning. Those who were disobedient in all things God cast out of heaven and put in a place of punishment, namely hell. Those who were partly obedient and partly disobedient God sent to this world and clothed them in these gross bodies.
In another influential compilation on the creation narrative is by Tabari (d. 923 CE), who wrote Ta’rikh al-Rusul wa’ al-Muluk (The History of Prophets and Rulers). Tabari carefully documents various traditions regarding early Islamic cosmology where God created other categories of intelligent, sentient beings preceding the creation of Adam.
Creation myths like these, adapted from the Qur‘an and other Islamic literature, underscore the myriad trans-historic beings found in the cosmos prior to human corporeal creation. These stories are iconic in Islamic culture and, to a degree, establish a scaffolding in which various actors, including disembodied human souls, might exist and exercise free will prior to mortality. Even if these narratives are considered fanciful, some Muslims still believe these stories to contain profound and sacred truths, and they remain cultural manifestations of pre-mortality’s
appeal. Through the wide range of the Qisas al-Anbiya genre, preexistent realms serve as powerful interpretative tools in making sense of humanity’s relationship to the heavens and situating the human soul in a divine drama prior to life on earth.
Without an a priori conception of pre-mortality as an operational framework, many texts are rendered less intelligible and become strained for consistency. The story thus begins with "Once upon a time, Allah created the universe... gathered the souls, offered an amana, and entered into a trust..." and ends with "happily ever after in jannah or unhappily ever after in jahanam."
In spite of more orthodox interdictions against it, the claim that the human soul has premortal origins doggedly persists. It has resurfaced at varying times and places in myriad forms and genres. The notion of a pre-existence, like any enduring doctrine or idea, perseveres possibly because of its inherently deep, explanatory power. This version of the cosmic journey of the soul sheds light on some of the weightier problems of existence and has been invoked to answer such universal questions as:
The history of pre-mortality in Islam is far from linear or consistent and assumes form in a variety of combinations, whether in crude myth, literal belief, or metaphorical abstraction. The idea’s allure can easily be developed beyond the modest set of themes selected here, and certainly the ones chosen have permeable boundaries.
There is, however, enough recurrence of the pre-mortality motif in segments of Islam to suggest that over the centuries it has powerfully met various important spiritual, emotional, and political needs of certain adherents.In the final analysis, this enduring but subsurface conception of the soul, as originating on the other side of birth, is a testament to the vast and universal human longing to fathom the depth and mystery of existence.
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