How do we talk about the Holy Spirit to Muslims? We can explain Christian teaching to them pure and simple, and that is good if they are ready to listen. But maybe they are not open to Christian teaching, and even if they are it is important in talking with them to realize what they already hold concerning the Holy Spirit or his work.

The Holy Spirit as a person of the Trinity is an idea alien to Islam. Yet there are some bridges between Christian pneumatology and Islam. The Qur'ān has many intriguing hints of the Spirit as a divine force, as in the Old Testament, even though the classic commentators reduce all such passages to refer to some creature of God. The term used in the Qur'ān literally is "Spirit of Holiness" (rūh al-qudus), just as in Hebrew. Like several other Biblical terms taken into the Qur'ān (e.g. "Messiah"), the force of the original term is lost and reduced simply to a proper name.

Apart from this, much of the activity attributed to the Spirit in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is attributed in the Qur'ān to Allāh. A comparison at this level can be more fruitful.

The word "Spirit" in the Qur'ān

"What is the Spirit?" That is the question addressed by Qur'ān 17:85: "They are asking you about the Spirit." The answer is not all that clear: " Say: 'The Spirit is from the amr of my Lord'" (17:85). The word amr can mean "command" or it can mean "affair". This gives rise to two very different interpretations. If the word means "command" the answer means that God commands the Spirit to exist or to act in some way. If the word means "affair", then the answer is dodging the question, refusing to say what the Spirit is, and affirming that only God has knowledge of this.

Of the classic commentators, ar-Rāzī (1) gives the "command" interpretation, taking the Spirit as the human soul that gives life to the body; it comes into being by God's command. He notes that the Spirit can also mean Gabriel (cf. Q 26:192-4), who is sent by the command of God, or it can mean the Qur'ān itself, which is commanded in the sense of being revealed by God. Az-Zamakhsharī (2) and al-Baydāwī (3) repeat ar-Rāzī's interpretations. Taking the "affair" interpretation, al-Qurtubī accepts that the Spirit can mean either an angel or the human soul, while at-Tabarī sticks to "Gabriel" and the Jalālān opt for the human soul; all of these read amr as "affair", and say that only God can know the true essence of any of these.

Of modern interpreters, Sayyid Qutb (4) waxes lyrical and gives the impression that the Spirit is something divine: "Only God knows what the Spirit is... The Spirit is one of God's mysteries which no one else understands; it is one of his holy secrets which he entrusted to human creatures. Man does not know what He is, how he comes or goes, or where he was or is [an echo of John 3:8?], except what God reveals to him." Tantāwī, the present Shaykh al-Azhar, (5) quotes this passage of Sayyid Qutb, but is careful to insist that the Spirit does not pertain to God's being but is a creature. He quotes Qur'ān verses pointing to five different meanings of the Spirit:

Yet Tantāwī acknowledges that in verse 17:85 ("What is the Spirit?") the majority of commentators take the Spirit as meaning the human soul that gives life to the body.

Regarding the identification of Jesus with the Spirit, Tantāwī similarly offers a variety of possible reasons for this name: (1) because he was created by a breath, when Gabriel breathed into the sleave of Mary [according to Hādīth], (2) because he came to be by God's command, and not from a human father, just as God shaped Adam from clay "and I breathed into him from my Spirit" [15:21], (3) because God created him in the way he created other spirits, (4) because he is elsewhere called a "mercy" [19:21], "whom we confirmed with the Spirit of Holiness" [2:87,253; 5:110; cf. 25:22 above], (5) because, like other men, he lived and grew up with a spirit or soul sent from God.

A passage which looks at first sight to point to the divinity of the Spirit are the words of Jacob to his sons telling them to look for Joseph:

Do not despair of the Spirit of God; only the unbelievers despair of God's Spirit (12:87).

Ar-Rāzī mentions this reading as a variant, on the authority of al-Hasan and al-Qatāda and takes "Spirit" to mean "mercy", (6) but the common edition of the Qur'ān, followed by most commentators, vocalizes the word "rawh" instead of "rūh", giving the meaning of "relief" or "comfort" and thus avoiding a possible theological embarassment.

Activities the Bible attributes to the Spirit, and the Qur'ān to Allāh


The creation of the universe and bringing from chaos to order is much akin to Genesis 1 and other passages of the Old Testament. Several Qur'ān passages present this picture:


For all the Qur'ān's emphasis on good works, it is just as insistent as St. Paul or St. Augustine that faith comes as a gift of God.

On the other hand the possibility of apostasy is acknowledged:

Healing and general care

Besides the healing power of honey referred to above (16:69), a speech put in Abraham's mouth says of God:

He is the one who created me and guides me, who feeds me and gives me to drink, and if I am sick he heals me, who will make me die and then make me live, the one who I hope will forgive me my sins on the Day of Judgement. (26:78-82)

Furthermore, the Qur'ān itself is presented as a mercy, guidance and healing for the mind (10:57; 17:82; 41:44).


We often get the impression that the Qur'ān focuses God's favur on Muslims, leaving only threats of woe for unbelievers, however rich they may be in this life. Yet there are some passages with a wider perspective, normal consequences of the ever repeated title Rabb al-`ālamīn:


A major problem with Sunnī Islam is that it has no magisterium. The only authority is the Qur'ān and the Hadīth. Hadīth is viewed as revelation because it reports what Muhammad said or did apart from proclaiming the Qur'ān; the reasoning is that a prophet, and especially the "seal of prophets" must be free from all sin and error; thus his whole life is a divinely provided model for imitation.

Sunnīs reject any human authority after Muhammad who can speak with divine authority; only the Shī`ites claim that the imām (or his representative) is guided by God and is infallible. (Thus Khomeini's oracles could not be questioned.) Sunnīs nevertheless bring in God's guidance through the back door, as it were. He continues to guide each individual and the whole Muslim community, as is expressed by the following hadīth, which is frequently quoted but missing in the standard collections:

My community shall not agree on error.

Philosophers' concepts (7)

The classical Muslim philosophers speculated much about the Spirit in the context of the human soul and the hierarchy of higher spirits that were the moving forces of the heavenly spheres. The two key terms they discussed were "intellect" (`aql) and "soul" (nafs); even the heavenly bodies were believed to be animated.

Regarding particular spirits, the Qur'ānic Spirit of Holiness was identified with Gabriel and with the Agent Intellect (al-`aql al-fa``āl), which al-Fārābī, Ibn-Sīnā and Ibn-Rushd posited as a power separate from individual men, one for the whole world, and the least of non-human spirits.

Regarding the work that Christian Scripture ascribes to the Spirit and the Qur'ān to God, the philosophers developed the concept of divine providence (`ināya), yet they differed as to its extent. Al-Fārābī and Ibn-Rushd maintained that it extended only to the preservation of species, not individuals, but Ibn-Sīnā said it extended to each individual thing, and that everything that happens is determined by God through a chain of causes that are contingent in themselves but necessary in as much as they are moved ultimately by God.

Sūfism (8)

Sūfism has always been controversial in Islam, because in many ways it reaches out to an experience with God that is not permitted in Islam, but is allowed and encouraged in Christianity. For instance, early sūfīs such as al-Hallāj talked of union with God and indwelling, but Muslim religious scholars rejected these concepts as unorthodox.

Al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), however, because he benefited personally from Sūfism in a time of personal crisis, sifted out the unorthodox elements of Sūfism and defended the remainder. The sūfīs could thenceforward claim only:

  1. a love which brings nearness (muqāraba, cf. Q 56:11 etc.) to God, but not union or indwelling (but in fact the term "union" (ittisāl) reappeared in later Sūfism)
  2. an advancement to Tarīqa and Haqīqa which preserves the observance of Sharī`a, and
  3. divinely wrought wonders (karāmāt), but not strict miracles (mu`jizāt) which are worked by God as proof that the person is a prophet.

One of the reasons Sūfism was accepted in Sunnī Islam is that it was an anecdote to the Shī`ite claim of inspiration for the imām alone. Sūfism democratized this prerogative, allowing anyone to have some inspiration (short of prophecy) from God, thus undermining Shī`ite claims.

Sūfism was originally an individual affair between sūfīs and God, but it soon became organized into societies where the influence of a rule first predominated and later the spiritual master or shaykh. (9) Spiritual progress and closeness to God were readily seen as giving access to divine power. Thus history has seen various types of Sūfism: (1) There is a degenerate popular type which is a mere magic racket, with snake charming, swallowing fire, sword tricks etc. and amulets for every purpose. (2) In a better form, Sūfism became a kind of Islamic Pentecostalism, with prayer meetings where the presence of God and Muhammad is invoked through chanting and dancing and people fall into swoons. Lately in Yorubaland these Muslim Pentecostals, such as Mashad Power, advertize for people to come to prayer sessions and get their miracle. (3) There is finally a more spiritual or mystical variety which stresses awareness of the presence of God, contemplation of his goodness and consequently the soul's mirroring of God's attributes.

Sūfic societies, such as the Tijāniyya, are very strong in Nigeria, but they have had to face opposition especially from the Izala, whose leader Abubakr Gumi wrote scathing attacks on Sūfism.


In speaking with Muslims about the Holy Spirit, we have to be aware that this name means something quite different to them and to us. The Muslim idea is even far from the Old Testament idea of the Holy Spirit as a divine force. Yet there are some hints that this term, borrowed from the Hebrew Bible, hides a deeper mystery of God's life.

In the Qur'ān and even more so in Islamic practice we see faith in the active presence of God in the cosmos, in human society and in the lives and souls of individual believers. All this reflects what Scripture and the Church appropriate to the Holy Spirit. Without the term "Holy Spirit", we can still talk with Muslims about what he does even now in our lives.

All this is far from the Christian experience of divine indwelling, the supernatural life of grace (another concept alien to Islam), and the charisms the Spirit distributes to all in the Church, particularly the institutional charisms of sacramental and teaching power. A Muslim may not be ready for this, but dialogue is a matter of taking one step at a time.


1. Mafātīh al-ghayb, 11:30 ff.

2. Al-kashshāf `an haqā'iq at-tanzīl, 2:464.

3. Anwār at-tanzīl wa-asrār at-ta'wīl.

4. Fī zilāl al-Qur'ān, 4:2249 ff.

5. At-tafsīr al-wasīt (Cairo, 1977-86), 8:2:191 ff.

6. 9, p. 159.

7. Cf. J. Kenny, La philosophie du monde arabe, auteurs et thèmes principaux (Kinshasa: Facultés Catholiques, 1994), and a greatly revised and expanded edition yet to be published.

8. Cf. J. Kenny, "Islamic Sufism: Experience and organization," Nigerian Dialogue, n.4 (1982), 11-16.

9. Cf. J.S. Trimingham, The Sūfī orders in Islam (Clarendon, 1971), p. 103.