God’s Spirit

Surah 5 (Al-Ma’idah/ The Table Spread): 73

He sends the angels with the Spirit to carry His orders to whichever of His servants He wants, so that they would warn people that He is the only God and that people must have fear of Him.

[‘The Holy Qur’an’ Shayk Muhammad Sarwar, 1981 (Pakistani-US, Shia)]


The Spirit of the Command

There are multiple references throughout the Qur’an to ‘God’s Spirit’, ‘the Holy Spirit’ and in one verse, ‘the Trustworthy Spirit’.


In five places – {16.2}, {17.85}, {40.15}, {42.52} and {97.4} – the Qur’an describes a ‘Spirit from God’s Command’ (‘ruh min amr Rabbi/Allah’) acting in the role of a messenger or warner. Islamic commentators often treat the term as simply an epithet for an angel, probably Gabriel 〈6.〉 who is also generally held to be the ‘Trustworthy Spirit‘ of {26.192-3} who ‘brings down a revelation’. But in each of {16.2}, {97.4}, {70.4} and {78.38}, a phrase such as ‘the angels and the Spirit’ is used that would seem to unambiguously establish that the Spirit and angels referred to in those verses belong to two different orders of being. {78.38} describes ‘the Spirit and the angels standing in rows, none speaking save one whom the Compassionate (al-Raḥmān) permits and who speaks aright’, possibly suggesting that the Spirit is a unique being that has been granted a unique power to speak in God’s presence – either to God or, more likely, to others on His behalf.


Furthermore, the animation of Adam is expressed as his having had ‘life breathed into him of His (God’s) Spirit’, {15.29}, {32.9} and {38.72}; and in {21.91} and {66.12} an almost identical expression is used to describe the conception of Jesus in the Virgin Mary. These two instances of the miraculous creation of human life one might have expected to lie within the power of God alone, rather than be delegated to any intermediary such as an angel, and it makes no sense that God should talk of ‘breathing’ an angel into Adam and Mary.


If the ‘breathing of God’s Spirit’ into Adam and Mary might be regarded merely as a poetic turn of phrase by which to express God’s ultimate responsibility for the gift of life, a different account of the conception of Jesus in {19.17-20} puts beyond any doubt that God’s Spirit has its own persona, independent to God:

{19.17}  And she (Mary) veiled herself from them (her family). Then We sent unto her Our Spirit, and it assumed for her the likeness of a perfect man.

{19.18}  She said: ‘I seek refuge from thee in the Compassionate if you are reverent!’

{19.19}  He said: ‘I am but a messenger of thy Lord, to bestow upon thee a pure boy’.


The combination of God’s Spirit taking the form of a perfect man and the account of Jesus’s conception given in {21.91} and {66.12} in particular:

(Mary the daughter of Imran) ‘who preserved her chastity (‘farjaha’: literally ‘her vagina’). Then We breathed therein of Our Spirit…’

seems far too intimate to leave any room for an angel to have been involved in the process.


The ‘Holy Spirit

It has been seen 〈5.〉 that in {61.6} the Qur’an alludes to the promise of Jesus in the gospel of St John, to send a helper, the Paraclete, which the Qur’an refers to with the word ‘aḥmad’ meaning ‘blessed’ or ‘desired’. In Christianity, this promise of help is associated with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The phrase ‘rūḥ al-qudus’, which is often rendered in translations using the familiar Christian term ‘the Holy Spirit’, appears in the Qur’an four times {2.87 & 253}, {5.110} and {16.102} and it can be no coincidence that three of these four references relate specifically to God’s strengthening of Jesus.

{2.87 & 253}  ‘And we gave Jesus son of Mary clear proofs and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit …’

{5.110} Then God will say: ‘O Jesus son of Mary, remember … when I strengthened thee with the Holy Spirit ...’


In the Qur’an the Christian theology of a Holy Trinity is twice explicitly rejected, at:

{5.73} They certainly disbelieve who say: ‘Truly God is the third of three.’

If they refrain not from what they say, a painful punishment will befall those among them who disbelieved.


{4.171}So believe in God and his Messengers and say not ‘Three’.

Refrain! It is better for you. God is only one God.

Yet, this rejection of the Trinity is rendered consistent with the existence of a Holy Spirit by the fact that, amazingly, in {5.75} and again at {5.116}, the Qur’an’s author appears to have laboured under the misapprehension that Christians believed the third member of the Trinity, after God the Father and God the Son – to be not the Holy Spirit but Jesus’s mother, Mary. Two verses after the condemnation of those who say ‘Truly God is the third of three’, the Qur’an feels it necessary to insist that not only Jesus, but Mary too was a mere human:

{5.75} The Messiah, son of Mary, was naught but a messenger – messengers have passed away before him. And his mother was truthful.

Both of them ate food…

Eating food is, in the Qur’an, a sign of not being supernatural, see {11.73}. The same point is made later in the surah, when God challenges Jesus with the accusation of deifying himself and Mary:

{5.116} O Jesus, son of Mary, did thou say unto mankind: ‘Take me and my mother as gods apart from God’?

It seems barely conceivable that an individual that had such obvious familiarity with a wide range of Christian texts as the author of the Qur’an did might have made such a basic error, and yet a satisfying alternative explanation for these two verses has yet to emerge.


As noted in 〈1.〉 above, at the time of the Qur’an’s composition disputes between different branches of Christianity over arcane issues of Christology preoccupied Christian thought. Each party to the debate was prone to parodying the views of their opponents, so that monophysite (‘one nature’) Christians would accuse their opponents of ‘tritheism’, the belief in three separate Gods, whilst their dyophysite (‘two nature’) Christians mocked the ‘one nature’ Christians in return with the illogicality that a mother could have given birth to her own creator and therefore been like a god herself. It may well be that the Qur’an passages cited above adopt these polemics, attacking both branches of Christianity, using against each the words of their co-religionist opponents. But this does not quite explain the wording of {5.75 & 116} which remain perplexing .


The Sakina

Yet another supernatural emanation of God in the Qur’an is ‘sakinah’, ‘His Tranquillity’ which He sends down upon His Messenger and ‘into the hearts of the believers{48.4}.


The Sakina is referred to in the Qur’an three times:

in {9.26} the Tranquillity descends upon the believers in a battle setting, traditionally the Battle of Hunayn 〈48.〉,

in {9.40} it supported two people sheltering in a cave, traditionally believed to have been Muhammad and Abu Bakr, hiding from pursuing Meccans shortly after setting out upon the hijra 〈37.〉, and

in {48.18} it was sent down ‘with the reward of a victory nigh’ after pledges of allegiance were made under a tree, traditionally associated with Muhammad and his followers at Hudaybiyyah, preparing to storm Mecca, prior to learning that Uthman had negotiated a truce with the Meccans, see 〈45.〉

As well as a state of inner calm – which is contrasted, in {48.26}, with the vain zeal of the disbelievers – in both {9.26 & 40} the Tranquillity is accompanied by ‘hosts whom you saw not‘, in some translations: ‘unseen legions’.


Conclusion on God’s Spirit

The earlier surahs of the Qur’an were richer (if not always completely clear) in their depiction of supernatural entities such as angels, demons, jinn, and God’s ‘Spirits’, possibly reflecting a prophet steeped in the more esoteric Judeo-Christian mystical traditions, possibly impress an early pagan audience with flamboyant imagery. These beings fade from the later surahs which emphasise a stricter monotheism and the role of obedient human beings, rather than angels and demons, as the instruments of God’s will. It is likely that the verses referring to the Holy Spirit, God’s Tranquillity and perhaps all of the references to God’s Spirit, emerge in a middle period and serve as a more or less explicit ‘echo’ of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, notwithstanding the formal condemnation of this doctrine.


However, when, during the lifetime of Muhammad, some of his followers had asked for clarification of the nature of ‘God’s Spirit’, they are unlikely to have found the reply provided at {17.85} very satisfying:

They ask thee about the Spirit.

Say: ‘The Spirit is from the Command of my Lord, and you have not been given knowledge, save a little’.