Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog


Shall Allah Taste Death According to the Qur’an?

By Anthony Rogers

It will come as a shock to many Muslims to discover from the following verse that Allah has a “soul,” i.e. an inner self, according to the Qur’an.

When God asked Jesus, son of Mary "Did you tell men to consider you and your mother as their gods besides God?" he replied, "Glory be to you! How could I say what I have no right to say? Had I ever said it, You would have certainly known about it. You know what is in MY soul, but I do not know what is in YOURS. It is You who has absolute knowledge of the unseen. S. 5:116, Muhammad Sarwar

Another translation expresses it this way:

And (remember) when Allah will say (on the Day of Resurrection): "O Iesa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary)! Did you say unto men: Worship me and my mother as two gods besides Allah?" He will say: "Glory be to You! It was not for me to say what I had no right (to say). Had I said such a thing, You would surely have known it. You know what is in MY inner self though I do not know what is in YOURS, truly, You, only You, are the All Knower of all that is hidden and unseen. S. 5:116, Hilali & Khan

Although Allah having a soul or inner self can be discerned from the above translations, some other translations are more explicit and correspond better to the Arabic text, which actually uses the word for “soul” twice; once for Isa, and once for Allah.  The following translations bring this out more clearly.

And mention when God said: O Jesus son of Mary! Hadst thou said to humanity: Take me and my mother to yourselves other than God? He would say: Glory be to Thee! It is not for me that I say what there is no right for me to say. If I had been saying it, then, surely, Thou wouldst have known it. Thou hast known what is in MY soul (nafsī) and I know not what is in THY Soul (nafsiki). Truly, Thou, Thou alone art Knower of the unseen. S. 5:116, Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar

And God will Say: "O Jesus son of Mary, did you tell the people to take you and your mother as gods instead of God" He said: "Be you glorified, I cannot say what I have no right of. If I had said it then You know it, You know what is in MY soul while I do not know what is in YOUR soul. You are the Knower of the unseen." S. 5:116, Progressive Muslims

And when God said, 'O Jesus son of Mary, didst thou say unto men, "Take me and my mother as gods, apart from God"?' He said, 'To Thee be glory! It is not mine to say what I have no right to. If I indeed said it, Thou knowest it, knowing what is within MY SOUL, and I know not what is within THY SOUL; Thou knowest the things unseen. S. 5:116, A. J. Arberry

And when God said, 'O Jesus, son of Mary! is it thou who didst say to men, take me and my mother for two gods, beside God?' He said, 'I celebrate Thy praise! what ails me that I should say what I have no right to? If I had said it, Thou wouldst have known it; Thou knowest what is in MY SOUL, but I know not what is in THY SOUL; verily, Thou art one who knoweth the unseen. S. 5:116, E. H. Palmer

The same word is used for Allah five other times in the Qur’an as well:

The believers must not establish friendship with the unbelievers in preference to the faithful. Whoever does so has nothing to hope for from God unless he does it out of fear or taqiyah (pious dissimulation). God warns you about Himself (nafsahu). To God do all things return. S. 3:28, Muhammad Sarwar

On the day when every soul (nafsin) will see its good and bad deeds right before its very eyes, it will wish for the longest period of time to separate it from its bad deeds. God warns you about Himself (nafsahu). God is Compassionate to His servants. S. 3:30, Muhammad Sarwar

Say: To whom belongs what is in the heavens and the earth? Say: To Allah; He has ordained mercy on Himself (nafsihi); most certainly He will gather you on the resurrection day—there is no doubt about it. (As for) those who have lost their souls (anfusahum), they will not believe. 6:12, Shakir

And when those who believe in Our communications come to you, say: Peace be on you, your Lord has ordained mercy on Himself (nafsihi), (so) that if any one of you does evil in ignorance, then turns after that and acts aright, then He is Forgiving, Merciful. 6:54, Shakir

And I have chosen you for Myself (linafsī): S. 20:41, Shakir

In the cases of Surah 3:28, 30, 6:12, 54, and 20:41 it is possible to argue that the word “soul” is to be understood as a reflexive pronoun (himself, myself), but this is not so easily argued in the case of Surah 5:116, for in the former passages nafs refers back to the subject, consistent with the possibility of taking it as a reflexive pronoun, while in the latter passage it does not. And even these other passages do not all have to be understood in this way, a fact that in itself raises the question: Why, if Allah does not actually have a soul, did the author(s) of the Qur’an use nafs rather than another word, such as dhat, that would have contributed to the overall clarity of the Qur’an and would have led to less confusion, two things the Qur’an repeatedly claims for itself?

In addition to these verses, there are also hadith narrations that use this word for Allah. For example:

Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, "Allah says: ‘I am just as My slave thinks I am, (i.e. I am able to do for him what he thinks I can do for him) and I am with him if He remembers Me. If he remembers Me in himself, I too, remember him in Myself; and if he remembers Me in a group of people, I remember him in a group that is better than they; and if he comes one span nearer to Me, I go one cubit nearer to him; and if he comes one cubit nearer to Me, I go a distance of two outstretched arms nearer to him; and if he comes to Me walking, I go to him running.’" (Sahih Bukhari, 9.93.502; see also 9.93.501)

And also:

On the authority of Abu Dharr al-Ghifari (may Allah be pleased with him) from the Prophet (peace be upon him) is that among the sayings he relates from his Lord (may He be glorified) is that He said:

O My servants, I have forbidden oppression for Myself and have made it forbidden amongst you, so do not oppress one another. O My servants, all of you are astray except for those I have guided, so seek guidance of Me and I shall guide you, O My servants, all of you are hungry except for those I have fed, so seek food of Me and I shall feed you. O My servants, all of you are naked except for those I have clothed, so seek clothing of Me and I shall clothe you. O My servants, you sin by night and by day, and I forgive all sins, so seek forgiveness of Me and I shall forgive you. O My servants, you will not attain harming Me so as to harm Me, and will not attain benefitting Me so as to benefit Me. O My servants, were the first of you and the last of you, the human of you and the jinn of you to be as pious as the most pious heart of any one man of you, that would not increase My kingdom in anything. O My servants, were the first of you and the last of you, the human of you and the jinn of you to be as wicked as the most wicked heart of any one man of you, that would not decrease My kingdom in anything. O My servants, were the first of you and the last of you, the human of you and the jinn of you to rise up in one place and make a request of Me, and were I to give everyone what he requested, that would not decrease what I have, any more that a needle decreases the sea if put into it. O My servants, it is but your deeds that I reckon up for you and then recompense you for, so let him finds good praise Allah and let him who finds other that blame no one but himself. It was related by Muslim (also by at-Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah). (Hadith Qudsi, 17)

On the basis of such things, a number of Muslims have forthrightly granted the point. For example, in his Al-Fikh Al-Akbar, Imam Abu Hanifah An-Nu^man, the founder of one of the four madhabs, said:

He is a Thing unlike other things. The meaning of a Thing is that His existence is confirmed-- clear of bodily attributes, a jawhar-atom of a body, an ^arad-quality of a body, a limit, an opposite, a rival, a similar. He is Attributed with Yad, Wajh, and Nafs. What Allah mentioned in the Qur'an about the Yad, Wajh, Nafs refer to that they are His Attributes without a manner of being. His Yad is His Attribute without a manner of being. His Ghadab and Rida are two of His Attributes without a manner of being. (Online source)

And al-Qadi Abū Ya‘alā, a prominent jurisprudence scholar of the Hanbali school, said:

If it is said, “He is a corporeal person (shakhs207) or form (sūra),” it [should be] said: “The report from different routes on the night the Mi‘rāj mentioned, “I saw my Lord in the most beautiful form”... And the application of that is not to be refused. Just as “soul” (nafs) not like souls and essence (dhāt) not like essences were not denied Him. Likewise form unlike forms, for the Shari‘a [uses it in this manner].208 Abū Ya‘alā, Kitāb al-Mu‘amad fī usūl al-dīn, ed. W. Z. Haddad (Beirut, 1974), 58. Cited in Dr. Wesley Williams, “A Body Unlike Bodies: Transcendent Anthropomorphism in Ancient Semitic Tradition and Early Islam”, Journal of the American Oriental Society 129.1 (2009), p. 43


207 This designation is based on a hadith from the Prophet on the authority of the Companion al-Mughira b. Shu‘ba: “No person (shakhs) is more jealous than Allah; no shakhs is more pleased to grant pardon than He; no shakhs loves praiseworthy conduct more than He.” al-Bukhari, Sahih (tawhid), 20:512; Muslim, Sahih (li‘an), 17; Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 4:248; al-Nisa’I, al-Sunan (nikah), 37,3. The term shakhs is usually translated as “corporeal person.” It connotes “the bodily or corporeal form or figure or substance (suwad) of a man,” or “something possessing height (irtifa‘) and visibility (zuhur),” Ibn Manzur, Lisan al-‘arab (7: 45. 4-11). See also Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon, 2: 1517

208 Abu Ya‘la, Kitab al-Mu‘tamad fi usul al-din, ed. W. Z. Haddad (Beirut, 1974), 58

As well, Ibn Khuzayma, the famed hadith scholar and an implacable anthropomorphist, also acknowledged the like in responding to the charge that affirming such things means he is guilty of tashbih, i.e. likening Allah to his creation simply because he affirms for Allah what Allah, according to the Qur’an, affirmed for himself:

"And if it was incumbent upon Ahl As-Sunnah wal-Athar that if they affirm for their lord two hands (yadayn), as Allah affirmed for Himself; and they affirm for Him a self (Nafs), and that He is Hearing and Seeing, He Hears and Sees, that they be mushabbihah (i.e. One's who liken Allah to his creation), as those ignorants claim, then it would be incumbent that everyone who calls Allah a King, or Great, or Kind/Compassionate, or Compeller or Supreme, that he has likened Allah -Azza wa Jal- to His creation; God forbid that whoever describes Allah -Jalla wa `Ala - with what He described Himself with in His book, and upon the tongue of His chosen Prophet -sallallahu alayhi wa sallam - that he be likening Allah to His creation." (Ibn Khuzaimah: 223 – 311 Hijri)

The following Salafi source readily acknowledges this as well, noting along the way something pointed out above, namely that Bukhari contains authentic narrations that attribute a nafs to Allah:

Chapter: The Statement of Allaah, “Everything shall perish save His Face".

Narrated Jabir bin Abdullaah, "When this verse, ‘Say (O Muhammad) He has power to send punishment on you from above’ [6:65], was revealed, the Prophet (sallallaahu alaihi wasallam) said, ‘I seek refuge with Your Face’. Allaah revealed, ‘Or from underneath your feet’ [6:65], the Prophet (sallallaahu alaihi wasallam) said, ‘I seek refuge with Your Face’. Then Allaah revealed ‘Or to cover you with confusion or party strife!’ [6:65], then the Prophet (sallallaahu alaihi wasallaam) said, ‘This is easier’."

And here Imaam Bukhaaree affirms, without doubt, the Attribute of Face, just as he brought narrations in affirmation of Hand, Eyes, Self (Nafs), His Speech, His being above the Throne and many of the other attributes that the Jahmiyyah denied. So this puts an end to the argument adduced from his Kitaab ut-Tafseer. (“Affirmation of the Attribute of Face for Allaah”; online source.)

Speaking of anthropomorphism, it is even admitted by some that the word nafs always has the connotation of a soul with a body, as in the following where the author, perhaps unmindful of the fact that the passage uses the word nafs for both Jesus and Allah, immediately goes on to cite Surah 5:116:

There is some difference in the way the words 'Ruh' and 'Nafs' are used. The 'Ruh' is the subtle spirit which resides in the heavens and needs a physical body to carry it on the earth. When this spirit is given a body, life begins and it is described as 'Nafs'. The word 'Nafs' is used in a number of ways by the Qur'aan, all of which imply the meaning of a soul with a body.

1. 'Nafs' meaning "Self."

“You know what is in my self but I do not know what is in Your self”

(Soorah Al-Ma’ida (5):116)

(Sheikh Suhaib Hassan Abdul Gaffar, “The Journey of the Soul”)

No doubt many modern Muslims will object to this on the grounds that Allah does not have a body, but this is to give a dogmatic answer that reflects what such Muslims want to believe and have been taught about Allah rather than what the Qur’an and hadith say. For example, the reader will observe that the above quotes admitting the attribution of a soul to Allah also admit that Allah is a “thing” (shayin), a “person” (shakhs), and that he has a “form” (soorah), a “face” (wajh), and “hand/hands” (yad; aydin), all of which, all protestations and fanciful interpretations to the contrary, clearly point to Allah’s divine anatomy.

So the a priori assumption that Allah cannot have a soul because he does not have a body simply is not true. In fact, the earliest Muslims believed that Allah was/is an anthropomorphic entity. Current mainstream Muslim belief about Allah represents something of a mediating position on the anthropomorphic teaching of the Qur’an and the later rationalist movement that was anti-anthropomorphic, i.e. it attempted to systematize a view of Allah that was hoped could meet the demands of both the Qur’an and reason in the face of the rationalist onslaught represented in Mu’tazilism, the latter of which was a full scale capitulation on the part of a faction of Muslims to pagan Greek philosophy.  Nöldeke writes in this regard:

Another controversy had reference to the divine attributes. The Koran in its unsophisticated anthropomorphism attributes human qualities to God throughout, speaks also of His hands, of the throne on which He sits, and so forth. The original Moslems took this up simply as it was written; but, later, many were stumbled by it, and sought to put such a construction on the passages as would secure for the Qur’an a purer conception of God. Some denied all divine attributes whatever, inasmuch as, being eternal equally with Himself, they would, if granted, necessarily destroy the divine unity, and establish a real polytheism. Many conceded only certain abstract qualities. On the other hand, some positively maintained the corporeity of God, – in other words, an anthropomorphism of the crassest kind, which even Mohammed would have rejected. The Mutazila maintained their dialectical superiority until Ash‘ari (in the first third of the tenth century), who had been educated in their schools, took the dialectic method into the service of orthodoxy. It was he who created the system of orthodox dogmatic. Of course the later dogmatists did not in all points agree with him, and by some of them, and on account of some remains of rationalism in his teaching, he was even regarded as heterodox. Since Ash’ari’s time the commonly accepted doctrine on the three controverted points just mentioned has been: -- (1) God produces the good as well as the evil deeds of man, although the latter has a certain measure of independence in his appropriation of them. (2) The Koran is eternal and increate. Some maintain this, indeed, only with respect to the original of the sacred book in heaven, but others hold it also of the words and letters of the book as it exists on earth. (3) God really has the attributes which are attributed to Him in the Koran; it is a matter of faith that He has hands and feet, sits on His throne, and so on, but it is profane curiosity to inquire as to how these things can be. Whatever be the exceptions that a man may take to any of these doctrines, the first and the third at least are in entire accord with the Koran – even in respect of their illogicality. (Sketches from Eastern History [trans. by John Sutherland Black, M.A., and revised by the author (London and Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1892], pp. 92-93)

Another scholar makes the same basic observations:

During the eighth to the beginning of the tenth centuries, the Mu’tazila with their numerous branches took an extremely important step toward the development of Islamic dogma. The challenge before them was to find a compromise between the simple pious tradition, as it was centered in Medina from the days of the Prophet, and the exigencies of a refined civilization influenced by Hellenistic traditions. With the expansion of the Islamic empire Muslims were exposed to many cultural, literary, political, and religious traditions in the newly conquered areas, and this posed a good number of problems for scholars. Thus, the formulation of the simple, clear statements of the Koran and hadīth into philosophically acceptable dogmatic forms was required.

The first great theological threat in the Islamic areas, especially in Iraq, now the seat of the caliphate, was Iranian dualism.... To counteract the Iranian dualist tendencies, the Mu‘tazila emphasized the need to formulate the profession of God’s unity, tauhīd, in the most decisive form possible. For them, tauhīd meant that any similarity between God and his creation is absolutely impossible (contrary to the naïve anthropomorphism of the traditionalist school, where Koranic terms such as “God’s face” or “God descends” seem to have been understood literally). Such Koranic anthropomorphism, the Mu‘tazilites insisted, has to be interpreted allegorically. As for the divine attributes, they are identical to the divine essence. Nothing that is co-eternal could exist with God, for that would be an impairment of his Unity and Unicity. Hence it has to be postulated that His hearing, seeing, speaking, etc., cannot be primordial, for then something besides Him would have existed from pre-eternity. Logically, then, the Koran cannot be the uncreated Word of God but must be a created quiddity. It was this very point which led the long, fierce theological battle between the Mu‘tazila and those who upheld the traditional, old fashioned creedal position....

In 827 the Abbasid Caliph Ma’mun accepted the Mu‘tazilite doctrine officially, and it remained in power under the following two caliphs. Those who upheld the traditional position, especially Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, were persecuted; even more, those who did not understand the sophisticated Mu‘tazilite dogmatic definitions or refused to accept them were sometimes treated as infidels. The Mu‘tazilites replaced the warmth of personal religious faith with intellectual speculation. Then in the reign of Mutawakkil, the power of the Mu‘tazilites was broken, and their doctrine that the Koran was created was regarded as heresy.

The vehement struggle between the two currents was overcome to a certain extent by al-Ash‘ari (d. 935), who had his roots in the Mu‘tazila and thus was able to fight his old school with its own weapons; that is, he introduced sophisticated scholastic reasoning into traditionalist circles. In the eastern part of the Islamic world Maturidi worked on similar lines. The belief in the uncreated Koran had won the day: whatever is inside the binding (“between the two covers”) of the book is God’s uncreated word, though our pronunciation of the words is created.

Al-Ash‘ari’s doctrine can be called a typical mediating theology. It teaches that God cannot be imagined according to human categories of thought; that His hand, His face, and His movements as mentioned in the Koran are to be understood bila kaifa, “without how”; … (Annemarie Schimmel, Islam: An Introduction [Albany, New York: State University Press, 1992], pp. 78-80)

This compromise with rationalism is what accounts for the paradoxical remarks above, where the very people who admit for Allah a form, face, and hands, which the Islamic sources force them to do, then turn around and say Allah has such attributes “without manner of being,” or “without how,” and that these attributes are “unlike” the form, face, and hands of creatures. This unstable mixture, motivated by the desire to be both Qur’anic [and thus anthropomorphic] and rational [and thus anti-anthropomorphic], shows that these Muslims understood the problem the affirmation of such things creates, and that they want to eat their cake and have it too. That is to say, recognizing that the true God, as the creator of all time, matter, and space, cannot, in His true nature, be said to have a body, body parts and bodily passions, and yet that the Islamic sources do speak of bodily appendages, such Muslims affirm for Allah a form, a face, and the like, and then quickly follow it up with denials that these are bodily features and limbs.

So there is good reason to believe that the Allah of the Qur’an has a soul, and no good reason to deny it, not even the fact that this would entail that he is an embodied being. As disturbing as all this would be to many Muslims, the following problems that this observation generates in light of certain universal affirmative statements made in the Qur’an about nafs (i.e. “every soul”), as well as certain universal negative statements that the Qur’an makes about nafs (i.e. “no soul”), is bound to be even more disturbing, or at least add insult to injury.

As for the universal affirmative statements, the following verses say that every soul shall taste death.

Every soul (kullu nafsin) shall have a taste of death: And only on the Day of Judgment shall you be paid your full recompense. Only he who is saved far from the Fire and admitted to the Garden will have attained the object (of Life): For the life of this world is but goods and chattels of deception. S. 3:185, Yusuf Ali

Every soul (kullu nafsin) shall have a taste of death: and We test you by evil and by good by way of trial. To Us must ye return. S. 21:35, Yusuf Ali

Every soul (kullu nafsin) shall have a taste of death in the end to Us shall ye be brought back. S. 29:57, Yusuf Ali

This yields the following syllogism:

  • P1: All souls will taste death
  • P2: Allah has a soul
  • Therefore, Allah’s soul will taste death

The above is similar to another problem in the Qur’an which results from saying that Allah has a “face” (e.g. S. 2:272), “eyes” (e.g. 52:48), “hands” (e.g. 38:75), a “shin” (68:42), a “side” (39:56), etc., however these are to be understood, since the Qur’an elsewhere says that everything is perishing and will perish except for his face (S. 28:88; 55:27), which means his hands, shin, and side will perish (along with his soul) but his face will remain. (For more on this problem, see here and here.)

A comparison of what other verses in the Qur’an say about ensouled beings, this time by way of universal negative statements, will reveal all sorts of additional problems as well: for example, Surah 10:100 says “no soul” can believe except by the will of Allah; Surah 31:34 says “no soul” will know what it will earn tomorrow; and Surah 86:4 says there is “no soul” that does not have a protector over it. This means that Allah believes by Allah’s will, Allah earns things but does not know what he will earn in the future, and that Allah has a protector over him. It is little wonder therefore that Allah in the Qur’an is said to believe (S. 59:23, Ahmed Ali, M. M. Ghali) and says “if Allah wills” (S. 48:27), just like Muslims are required to do; looks forward to receiving an inheritance (e.g. 21:89); and says he has protectors and helpers (S. 10:62).

This yields the following syllogism:

  • P1: No soul is without a protector over it
  • P2: Allah has a soul
  • Therefore, Allah has a protector over his soul

Either the author of the Qur’an did not teach what the majority of Muslims believe today about the nature of the Islamic “god” and the fact that he has a soul, or he was a sloppy thinker and/or a poor communicator. Or perhaps the Qur’an is a mishmash of sources that were not very well sorted through and harmonized by its compilers. Whatever the case is the above shows that Islam and the Qur’an have some serious problems. And so does (Muhammad’s) Allah.