By Anna-Maria Ramezanzade
Now, I know that writing a contribution for the spirituality section of this blog does not necessitate an in-depth analysis of meditation, or mapping out the paths to the Divine; it is a broad term used to incorporate pieces which address religion, thought, reflection and the like. But as I sat down to write, I realised that I couldn’t put my finger on what the word ‘spirituality’ actually meant. Of course, any dictionary will give you a definition of the word, and whilst we all have a conception, a notion, of what it refers to, just as we do with words such as ‘love’, ‘beauty’ and ‘goodness’, identifying an exact meaning is about as easy as eating soup with a fork.
So I googled. My confusion grew exponentially. From Christian Missionaries to Alcoholics Anonymous, everyone had a view. But none of them answered my question. What is spirituality? After recovering from the barrage of definitions, I decided to take an etymological approach and dig around in the linguistic roots of the term; identify its ingredients before trying to digest it.
Going straight to the heart of the word, I delved into the origins of the term: spirit, and stumbled upon some fascinating results. The word is related to the Latin verb spirare meaning ‘to breathe’. Interestingly the Greek for ‘spirit’, pneuma also meant ‘breath’. A trend was emerging. I dug deeper. In Sanskrit, the word atman is commonly utilised to mean spirit, and shares its roots with the Greek asthma (you can see where this is going) and the German atmen which, surprise surprise, also means ‘to breathe’. Hebrew also employs several terms to refer to the spirit, ruach, nephesh and neshama, all linked to breathing.
It was as if the term was coming alive. I consulted Hans Wehr’s Arabic Dictionary and Ibn Manzur’s Lisan al-‘Arab. The Arabic word for ‘spirit’ is ruh, and its root encompasses an astounding array of meanings, including, once again, ‘to breathe’. According to Hans Wehr the word ruh itself literally means ‘breath of life’. Interestingly when used in the Qur’an to refer the conferring of the spirit upon Adam and Jesus by God, it is used in conjunction with the verb nafakha, meaning ‘to blow’.
It can be no coincidence that across all these languages, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Hebrew and Arabic the word ‘spirit’ is associated with ‘breathing’. If something is breathing, the obvious conclusion is that it is alive and all living beings need sustaining, nourishing. Thus it can be derived, just as we sustain our physical bodies with sustenance from the earth of which man is made, so too must the spirit be sustained with sustenance from its origins: God. Just as the body is afflicted with diseases as a result of what we do or don’t feed it, the places we take it, and the way we treat it, as a living being, so too is the spirit. Spirituality, or at least one dimension of it, therefore, can be seen as nourishing and caring for the spirit.
Reading Al-Ghazali’s description of the spirit as the ‘tenuous vapour in the hollow of the heart’, I was struck by a sudden ‘light-bulb’ moment. A self-confessed sufferer of Professor Brian Cox fever, I had recently watched his documentary series Wonders of the Universe, which shed light on some humbling facts. Human beings are, of course, made from atoms, and most of us envision ourselves as dense beings made of these miniscule particles, compacted together. The word ‘atom’ itself comes from the Greek atomos (this is the last one I promise!) which means ‘indivisible’, and for centuries they were thought to be the smallest thing known to man. And yet modern science tells us that they are divisible; each atom consists of a nucleus surrounded by a cloud of electrons encircling it. In relation to the atom as a whole, the nucleus is so tiny that if it was enlarged to the size of a small rock, on the same scale its outermost electron would be a kilometre away. And between the nucleus and the electrons… is nothing. Nothing. 99.9% of us… is nothing. We are, physically, hollow beings. The spirit wasn’t slotted in, soaked in, hammered in, it was blown into man’s vacant form, and without it we are empty…
Whilst I admit, I am still no further to caging the notion of spirituality between bars of a capital letter and full stop, my journey through the roots of the term had thrown up some incredible concepts, and in my own mind helped my clarify the essence of the term. Man’s spirit is a living, breathing entity, and needs nourishing with the elixir of the divine, for without it we are truly empty, hollow beings in every sense of the word.
Anna-Maria Ramezanzade is a student of Arabic and Persian at the University of Oxford.
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.