Reflection No. 187 on Q 39:42 – Journey of the Soul during Sleep

اللَّهُ يَتَوَفَّى الْأَنْفُسَ حِينَ مَوْتِهَا وَالَّتِي لَمْ تَمُتْ فِي مَنَامِهَا ۖ فَيُمْسِكُ الَّتِي قَضَىٰ عَلَيْهَا الْمَوْتَ وَيُرْسِلُ الْأُخْرَىٰ إِلَىٰ أَجَلٍ مُسَمًّى
Allāhu yatawffal-ansfusa Hīna mawtihā wallatī lam tamut fī manāmihā, fayumsikul-latī qadhā ‘alayhāl-mawta wayurlsilul-ukhrā ilā ajalin musammā
God takes the souls at the time of their death, and those that do not die during their sleep; then He withholds those on whom He has passed the decree of death and sends the others back till an appointed term;
(Sūratuz Zumar, No. 39, Āyat 42)

When Imam Zaynul Ābidīn (a) was brought to the court of Ibn Ziyād, the tyrant asked who he was. The Imam replied; I am Ali ibn al-Husayn. Ibn Ziyād said: “Did Allah not kill Ali ibn Husayn?” The Imam replied: “I had a brother whose name was also Ali and the people killed him.” Ibn Ziyād said: “It is not so. Allah killed him.” In reply to this the Imam recited the above verse of the Quran. Allah takes the souls when the time of their death comes, but He is not their killer.

At the time of death, the soul departs from the body and is taken by God. This movement of the soul also takes place at the time of sleep, albeit in a weaker form. The soul’s connection to the body is at a minimum during sleep. It rejoins the body when the person wakes up, coming back for an appointed time.  The body-soul connection is a metaphysical reality that is not easy to understand. Perhaps it will only be fully understood once we leave this world, when such truths will become clearer to us. The Holy Quran says in Sūrat Qāf: But now We have removed from you your veil, so your perception today is piercing (Q 50:22).

Sleep has been described as a time for the body to get rid of the poisons it accumulates during the day. It has also been explained as necessary for the body to release its tiredness and rejuvenate itself. However these are physical explanations for the phenomena of sleep. Quran, in this verse, gives us the spiritual understanding of sleep. It is a time when the soul leaves the body and is only partially connected to it for that time.

When we sleep our consciousness fades and we are no longer in charge of ourselves. Our bodily functions are maintained but our consciousness sublimates to a different level. The soul is held in a different alternate state. And He it is Who takes your souls at night (in sleep), and He knows what you acquire in the day, then He raises you up therein that certain conditions may be fulfilled (Q 6:60). The taking of the soul denotes a proximity to God, not of space but of existence. The soul is extended into a different realm of existence, a realm not familiar to the body. Thus in sleep, we sometimes have glimpses of the other realm in which realities are not dependent on the physical world.
Āyatuallāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī in Tafsīre Namune explains that the connection of the body and soul can be in three stages:
a) Complete connection – when the human being is awake. The soul is with the body and performs all actions along with it.
b) Partial connection – when the human being is asleep. The soul leaves the body but there is some connection to it. The person is then in a state between life and death.
c) Complete disconnection – at the time of death. The soul leaves the body and travels to the other world. It joins the body in the grave for questioning and is then sent to the place where it will abide until the Day of Judgment.

This verse is a reminder of our mortality and the transience of this world. Use it to remind yourself as you go to sleep that your soul is embarking on a journey towards God while you sleep. It is a taste of the ultimate journey to come. It also reminds us that we need to be in the state of wudū (minor ablution) when we go to sleep.

Source: Āyatuallāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.); Tafsīre Namūne