It was explained in the third verse, that al-ʿAql al-Awwal achieved enlightenment by comprehending his own self. He became aware of his strengths and recognised his limitations. In this verse, man is directed to comprehend his intellect and his soul so that he too may reach the same conclusion: the omnipotence of the Creator and the impossibility of ever comprehending Him.
Al-ʿAql al-Awwal was able to acknowledge his Creator of his own accord. However, this is not the case for man. The order of these verses posits that man is first instructed to uncover the truths of Creation and then to comprehend the intellect that he has been bestowed with. It has been stated, ‘the one who furthers his understanding of the tangible will be able to further his understanding of the intangible’. Thus for man it is an understanding of the tangible world around him that allows him to understand the intangible intellect and soul within him.
It is important to point out that this process is not linear but iterative. It requires a constant back and forth between Creation and one’s intellect. Man has been described as a microcosm of the universe, and the universe a macrocosm of man. Therefore, in order to learn the truths of the universe one must understand his own intellect and soul. Likewise, in order to be able to understand his intellect and soul a person is required to contemplate the world around him .
The word ʿaql has two meanings. The first referring to the principal creation, a spiritual entity that encompasses all entities. The second, and more familiar meaning is that it is a capability possessed by the soul for contemplation, discernment, speech, differentiation and vocation. Syedna Abu Yʿaqub al-Sijistaani RA states:
Allah has not bestowed upon Creation a blessing greater than the intellect. Therefore, it is incumbent upon them to be grateful to him for it.
True gratefulness for this blessing encompasses two aspects. First, for man to acknowledge that the intellect is indeed a bestowal, not something acquired of his own accord. Second, by employing his intellect as intended for it. The root ʿaqala — which means to confine, restrain — reveals that in the intellect’s context, the purpose and intention behind its bestowal is also for it to realise its capacity and thereby limit itself to the servitude (of Allah) and not attempt to comprehend divinity. In addition, the address ‘O mankind’ shows that only through appreciating and valuing this blessing is true humanity attained. Amirul Mumineen AS has stated that there are those who are seen in the physical form of men; yet are but animals.
In order to ponder over the soul it helps to first attempt to comprehend it. The soul is a self-standing entity which is spiritual, heavenly and radiant. It is in itself living, has the potential to learn, is inclined towards action, accepts knowledge and reveals itself through the body which it uses for a finite period. It then leaves the body, returning to its origins, either in a state of happiness or in one of grief and regret depending on what it chose to learn and act upon during its time in the world. Furthermore, the soul has two capabilities: one mental and the other physical. Through its mental capability it captures impressions of knowledge and embodies them in itself, and then through its physical capability recreates them in a physical form.
It is due to the presence of his soul that man lives and thus has a need for nourishment. He strives to attain it, is delighted by finding it and finds comfort and pleasure in consuming it. This desire is prevalent in order to secure the nourishment of the body, its proper functioning and health and so that the soul can acquire the knowledge required for it to perfect itself and reach its ultimate end. Likewise, it is the soul that possesses an urge to procreate, defend itself and acquire leadership. These three traits have been instilled in it in order for the human race to sustain itself, to protect the body from potential harm and to ensure good governance, defined as the salvation and betterment of all Creation.
In order to further understand the soul and its importance, three allegories are given:
(1) the soul is like a resident of a house which has all the necessities its dweller requires,
(2) the body is like a shop containing all the tools and instruments that the craftsman, the soul, requires and finally,
(3) the body is like a city with all necessary amenities and facilities and the soul its resident.
In other instances, the body is compared to a ship, a steed and a bridge for the soul on its journey to the hereafter.
The emphasis on seeking a thorough and comprehensive understanding of the soul is due to the fact that this knowledge leads to an understanding of spiritual matters: the Start, the Return, the Creator, heavenly beings, resurrection, qiyāma, congregation, reckoning, reward and requital for deeds. This understanding allows a person to clearly distinguish between his body and his soul for otherwise the majority of his endeavours will be geared towards the betterment of his body and the pursuit of worldly pleasures. He will desire to forever remain in this world and subsequently, neglect the hereafter. However, when one apprehends the significance of the soul he will direct his efforts towards its betterment, preparing for his departure from this world and gathering the provisions required for this journey by quickening towards good deeds and refraining from acts of immorality and disobedience. Similarly, an awareness of these matters is a prerequisite for anyone wishing to attain divine knowledge, that which leads to the understanding of the Lord. This feat is only possible through the understanding of one’s soul, for it has been stated, ‘the one who attempts to understand his soul, understands his Lord’.
The final directive of contemplating one’s soul can also be taken as an encouragement of self-reflection, known as muḥāsaba al-nafs (self-reckoning). Just as there are instruments to measure the number, weight and dimensions of tangible objects there are also means to measure the merit and worthiness of one’s acts and deeds. The scales that measure acts and deeds are the Awliyāʾ Allah AS. Thus constructive self-reflection requires one to continually assess the extent to which one’s deeds and actions are in alignment with the directives and deeds of these noble personages.