“The soul is eternal – so we have been taught, and so I believe. What can Hazrat Inayat Khan mean by ‘the birth of the soul’?”
The discussion was turning around this saying from the Nirtan Suras :
There is no reason
that man should know God because he is born on earth;
it is only the birth of his soul
that makes him entitled to that knowledge.
To make sense of this, we need to consider what ‘birth’ really means. In physical terms, we traditionally count the beginning of life as the moment when a baby is delivered into the world from the body of the mother, but of course this isn’t really the beginning of life. Life is omnipresent and all-pervading, most alive perhaps in the unlimited emptiness of space, and therefore it does not begin or cease in any way that we can understand; it is only forms that appear and depart, giving expression to life but not identical with it, not defining nor limiting it. Nevertheless, for our own convenience, we say that in the physical world a person is born when they become visible, or present.
The same can be said of the soul. In the Sufi understanding, the soul is the divine light that animates the body, and so, logically, it is always present, but for most of the world it is unglimpsed; the soul is a concept, but not yet a reality. When we are privileged to discover our own divine heritage, the soul becomes a present reality, and we could say that it has been ‘born.’ Certainly it is as joyful a moment as the arrival of a baby.
This, by the way, makes clear another phrase that may puzzle some. In the prayer Saum we ask God to ‘illuminate our souls with Divine light.’ It might seem like an odd request, inasmuch as the soul – we are told – is light itself, but it means that we hope to see that light revealed to us, not as a mental construction, but as Truth.
And, as the saying from Nirtan implies, the birth of the soul is not the final step. Awakening to the light of our soul is an important step forward, but there waits, still further, the knowledge, the experience – beyond all names and forms – of Unity, the Source and Goal of All.