I’ve been feeling curious, recently, about the term, “Rational Soul.” In the Baha’i teachings it seems to define the distinction that separates humans from animals:
The reality of man is his thought, not his material body. The thought force and the animal force are partners. Although man is part of the animal creation, he possesses a power of thought superior to all other created beings. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 17.
The Qur’an says, “The Merciful One has taught the Qur’an, has created man, and has taught him articulate speech.” – Surah 55:1-4.
Human language—articulate speech—does form the foundation, in a sense, of all our knowledge, all thinking and rationality. So the capacity for language seems to be a key aspect to this distinction between humanity and other animals, as well.
I researched the term “Rational Soul” a little online. I found that in English, the concept seems to come from Greek philosophy, specifically the dialogues of Plato:
… Sometimes, as in the ‘Phaedrus’, Plato teaches the doctrine of plurality of souls (cf. the well-known allegory of the charioteer and the two steeds in that dialogue). The rational soul was located in the head, the passionate or spirited soul in the breast, the appetitive soul in the abdomen. In the ‘Republic’, instead of the triple soul, we find the doctrine of three elements within the complex unity of the single soul. – newadvent.org/cathen/14153a
I found later that Baha’u’llah had high praise for Plato and other Greek philosophers: “After Socrates came the divine Plato who was a pupil of the former and occupied the chair of philosophy as his successor.” – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 146.
This Platonic idea reminded me immediately of the Hindu belief in chakras—the seven spiritual energy centers, from the base of the spine up to the crown of the head, associated with the eternal soul. To my mind, Plato’s idea of the rational soul seemed more or less to correspond to the Hindu crown, third eye and throat chakras; his passionate or spirited soul to the heart and solar plexus chakras; and his appetitive soul to the sacral and base chakras.
This possible connection to Hinduism excited me, but I was also interested in learning what term or terms meaning “Rational Soul” were used in the original Baha’i writings in Farsi or Arabic. I emailed a knowledgeable Persian Baha’i friend, and received a reply that the Arabic word for rational soul is ‘aql.
I found the following at the top of the Wikipedia article on ‘aql:
Imām Mūsà al-Kāżim (d. 799), expanded [his father’s] exegesis by defining ‘aql as the “faculty for apprehending the divine, a faculty of metaphysical perception, a light in the heart, through which one can discern and recognize signs from God.”FY
I also learned that Baha’u’llah once quoted the Imam Ali, who said this about the eternal soul, of which ‘aql seems to be the rational faculty: “… the soul … is divine and celestial. It is a divine energy, a substance, simple, and self-subsistent.” – Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, pp. 111-112.
I believe that these represent transcendental realities my mind can never fully conceptualize. However, reflecting on Imam Ali’s definition, and the explanation of more or less what those two realms are about, seems to be helping me.
From my studies of Sufism, I can imagine the rational soul as an emanation of divine intelligence. According to Shoghi Effendi, the “rays of the sun of the soul towards the body” form a subtle mental aspect of our eternal being. Perhaps these rays can effect some kind of reflection in the electrical neural activity of the brain, and also in the rest of the human nervous system—including around the heart, gut, etc., which we often end up experiencing as our thoughts and feelings.
As Baha’u’llah says, only a heart cleansed of every defilement—in other words, detached from all things—can be receptive to this kind of emanation from God, to this spiritual light:
O my brother, when a true seeker determineth to take the step of search in the path leading to the knowledge of the Ancient of Days, he must, before all else, cleanse and purify his heart, which is the seat of the revelation of the inner mysteries of God, from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge, and the allusions of the embodiments of satanic fancy. He must purge his breast, which is the sanctuary of the abiding love of the Beloved, of every defilement, and sanctify his soul from all that pertaineth to water and clay, from all shadowy and ephemeral attachments. He must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 192.
I took a Philosophy of Mysticism class several years ago, and one of the books on the reading list was Sufism and Taoism: A Comparative Study of Key Philosophical Concepts by Toshihiko Izutsu. This is where, from Sufism, I learned about the metaphysical concept of the emanation of God’s names and attributes from higher realms down to lower ones. It was very remarkable to me how similar the metaphysical models about this kind of thing in the two traditions seem to be, even though they use different terms.
This framework could also apply to the other “gifts of the Spirit,” besides the gift of the word of knowledge, mentioned in First Corinthians chapter 12, in the Christian Bible:
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant. Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led. Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.
Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all.
But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. – 12:1-11.
I always enjoy looking into things like this—probing a little into the mysteries of existence, comparing what the Baha’i teachings say about them, and realizing how that same wisdom appears in many different traditions around the world.