The Metaphysics of “I Can’t Breathe”

As George Floyd lay pinned to the ground with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee pressing on the back of his neck, his last words would define the times that we are living in like none other. His tragic murder occurred during a global pandemic that has taken the life of over 400,000 people and whose main symptom is shortness of breath. This is a sign for people who reflect.

“Breath of Life” by Rachel Strohm (https://www.flickr.com/photos/rachelstrohm/38975963380)

The Breath of Life

In Hebrew and Arabic, the words for breath and soul are etymologically related. The words for soul are nephesh (נֶ֫פֶשׁ) and nafs (نًفس) in Hebrew and Arabic respectively. In the Hebrew Bible, nephesh refers to animal and human life or the soul. Throughout the Qur’an, nafs is used to refer to the human spirit or the self. In the Qur’an, it is described as inciting to evil (12:53), reproachable (75:2), at peace (89:27), well-pleased and pleasing (89:28).

Essentially, the nephesh/nafas refers to the breath that every living being possesses as the essence of their life on earth. This breath is sacred as it is passed from parents to child, generation after generation. There exists an unbroken chain of breath going back to our original father and mother, Adam and Eve.

The Human Spirit

When Allah created Adam, He breathed the soul (ruh,روح ) into him, then he sneezed and said: ‘All praise is due to Allah.’ So he praised Allah by His permission. Then His Lord said to him: “May Allah have mercy upon you O Adam.” When its Hebrew cognate, (ruach רוּחַ), was translated into Greek, it was translated to the word that means breath (pneuma πνεῦμα).

Whereas the nafs/nephesh refers to the sacred physical breath that cannot be detached from the body, the ruh/ruach is pure spirit that can exist in the absence of a body. It is from the command of the Most High analogous to a wind (rih ريح) whose source is from something greater and unseen.

When we reflect on the time we are living in we find several analogies to the cutting of our sacred breath. First, the Corona virus is a respiratory disease that makes it extremely difficult to breathe among other symptoms. Secondly, the global pandemic has made the world take a collective gasp of air as businesses and other institutions close as a precaution against spreading the virus. This is at a time when people’s lives were already being strangled by a tenuous economy, degree inflation, and immorality and corruption in high places. In addition to all of this, the world gasped in horror over yet another extrajudicial killing of an African American. As the world holds its breath in anticipation for what is next, we hope that the next breath is one that will revive the human spirit.

 

 

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