Everytime I heard someone preach about Ismailism or Islam, they always say that it’s “logical” or “intuitive”. You can have your own opinions on that sentiment but for me, that means what I believe has to make sense, scientifically. So, I was initially skeptical of the idea of straddling two worlds: the outside (ظاهر “zahir” in Arabic) and the inside (باطن “batin” in Arabic). I was skeptical, of course because there was no way of detecting or measuring the “inner world”, and I never got an explanation that satisfied me; it always comes down to “you just have to believe”. But I ain’t about that life.
It wasn’t until I started reading medieval Ismaili texts that I got a definition of hidden aspects of our world that I found personally acceptable. Over the course of this entire blog, I hope to explore some of those ideas, starting here, with the soul.
is the soul a thing?
Before, when I thought about what the soul was, I imagined it was just myself, but in white clothes, like how they depict heaven on TV. But then I watched Harry Potter and that (along with everything else in my life changed).
It was that image that I combined with the idea that our soul is a part of God, who was at that time described as a light (نور “noor” in Arabic) that He “breathed” into us. So, we just had a chunk of light from a bigger light inside of us, making sure that we made the right choices, like an internal Navi from the Legend of Zelda.
My only descriptions up to this point had been of things. But the issue with things is that you kind of have to prove them. In the 1930s, psychologist Dr RA Watters tried to find evidence of this kind of soul. While he said he was successful, no one else could replicate it, which in the science community means:
But Nasir adDin Tusi (the OG) introduced me to the the idea that the soul isn’t a thing at all; he defined it not by what it is, but by what it does.
what does the soul do?
According to Tusi, the soul takes in information through our bodily senses, and then tells our limbs what to do. It’s essentially the thinking that we do. Physical objects, says Tusi, are subject to things like quantity, division, collision, and the laws of physics, all of which Tusi says don’t apply to the soul (i.e. it cannot be counted or divided, nor does it interact following the laws of physics. For now, it still seems a little New-Agey, but stick with me.
Tusi then goes on to describe a sort of “taxonomy” of the soul. He says that each organism has a soul with different functions based on its biological capacity. These capacities came about, according to Tusi, by natural selection.
- No Soul: completely subject to the laws of physics
- Vegetable Soul: the ability to consume nutrients, grow, and reproduce.
- Animal Soul: the ability to perceive surroundings and move voluntarily.
- Human Soul: the ability to speculate and overcome instincts.
While the abilities exist on a spectrum, and Tusi lists countless examples in within each of these segments with varying degrees of ability. But it was this part of the book (Nasirean Ethics, if you want to check it out) that I realized that the soul isn’t some otherworldly magical thing at all. As I understand it, soul is just a word to describe the capacity of various living things. Your ability to think is proof that you have a soul.
Obviously there were some things Tusi wrote that I don’t agree with. For example he still personified God (something I’ll touch on later) and he classified Africans on the same level as dogs saying that they can’t think for themselves and only take orders, and he said that date trees were the greatest of all plants. He also appointed a value hierarchy to each of these levels, saying that the more complicated organisms are better than the less complicated ones. He listed these in relation to what described as “divine perfection”, where Prophets are at the top (above angels, even). It’s important to understand that while this was a scientific book, Tusi was a still huge fan of Islamic mythology.
what does this mean?
Growing up, one of the debates I often heard revolved around who had souls and who didn’t. Do animals have souls? What about plants? What about rocks? What about unborn babies? With Tusi’s explanation, we can delineate what has a soul and what doesn’t, scientifically. There’s an obvious overlap between what Tusi classifies as “having a soul” and what biologists would classify as an “organism”, and we can figure out the different levels based on study of the organisms themselves.
Also, it’s important to remember that, in this definition, what the soul actually is. Your memories aren’t your soul, your personality isn’t your soul, your instincts and preferences aren’t either. Your soul would be the summation of all those things, conscious and unconscious. This is also why the soul is imperceptible, because although it’s contained within us, it also expands beyond our understanding. We don’t know how we work, or why, and that’s the beauty of it.