The Humanity of The Being


The notion of tawhid, the oneness of God (tawhid al-rububiyya), of His names and His attributes (tawhid al-asma wa-al-sifat), determines that the conception of human nature will be “a mirror image” and “a contrario,” one may say. If God is one, everything in creation is in pairs, double, seeking union. Oneness, for the Transcendent, is an expression of the essence of being; union, for created beings, is achieved through marriage, fusion, movement. Created by the One, humans must go in search of the unity of their own being—their heart, their soul, their mind, and their body.

Put thus, it may give the impression that there is nothing to differentiate this from the Greek, Jewish, or Christian traditions. We well know the approach whose most familiar expression is the opposition between the soul and the body. But a careful reading of the scriptural sources reveals that there is nothing in the Islamic tradition that can serve as a basis for the dualistic approach that opposes two constituent elements of humankind, each characterized by a positive or negative ethical quality: the soul would be the expression (explicitly or implicitly) of good, the body the expression (explicitly or implicitly) of evil. Never does the Qur’anic Revelation or the Prophetic tradition suggest anything of the sort. The ethical crux is not in the opposition of two elements that are separate and ethically fixed (which would represent the two poles of morality) but rather in controlling and guiding them toward their necessary merger, their inevitable union. From the beginning, the Islamic tradition rejects this kind of antithetical dualism and bases the measurement of moral categories on the ability of human consciousness to take responsibility for finding balance, establishing harmony, making peace. The human being is, essentially, responsible; awareness of tawhidinvites humanity to set out on the quest, along the divine path (sabil Allah), to control, in the midst of the fluctuations of life, the contradictions within its being, its weaknesses, and its deficiencies. This exercise of responsible control is an education that makes the human being truly human at the heart of a search which is like a virtuous and ascending circle; union, which is at the center of being, brings us toward the oneness of the Being. The opposite here would be an absence of boundaries and morality, a lack of constraint, that would drag the conscience into sleep, into the vicious circle of excess, which may even extend to bestiality.

Thus, there is no moral quality good “in itself” attached to “the soul in the body” (al-nafs), the heart, or the spirit, and there is no moral quality bad “in itself” attached to the body, the senses, or the emotions. It is the human ability to control, to combine, and to guide that determines the ethical quality of individuals, theirnafs, their hearts, their bodies, feelings, each of their emotions, as well as each of their actions. This perception is the basis of the relationship that Muslims are invited to have with the world, which is not evil in itself (as opposed to the next world, which is absolute good). Conversely, motherhood and fatherhood are not good in themselves (as opposed to the solitary life, which is evil). Knowledge is not always positive in itself (in contrast to ignorance, which is by nature negative). Nothing like this is to be found in the Islamic universe of reference. Sexuality may be a prayer  and motherhood may be hell, depending on the moral intention that motivates the person. In other words, the ethical quality of the elements of which we are constituted (nafs, heart, body, and so on), the faculties by which we are characterized (such as perception, intelligence, and imagination) and, of course, the actions we produce are determined only by the guidance our conscience gives them. This teaching reveals a perception of the human that is at once very demanding and very optimistic—demanding because the human conscience must acquire alone (“No one can bear another’s burden”) responsible control in a world where evil is neither an indelible mark on the being-in-the-world (like original sin) nor in itself a constituent part of the being (like the body or the imagination). It is above all optimistic, for it requires us not to reject any part of our being, encouraging in us the confidence that the Only One will give us in every situation the means to meet this ethical challenge. “God only imposes on each soul [human being] what it is able to bear,” and along the way He provides numerous signs, invitations, and supports. Thus a relationship of obligation and trust is established with the divine that is fully achieved only when we cross the threshold of the realm of inner peace.

It remains to discover how to discern the guidance we have spoken of. The Islamic tradition also offers an original conception of humankind that the Sufis (Muslim mystics) have very much emphasized. It contains the idea of movement and dynamism that, as we have seen, characterizes Islamic thought. Awareness of the divine, far from the dualist thinking which opposes “faith” to “reason,” sets in motion, as we shall see, a quest for the original breath that cannot dispense with reason in order successfully to bring to birth a faith that is both confirmation and reconciliation.

The story of creation, as it is told in the Qur’an, is remarkable. It all began, one may say, with a testimony and a covenant. Indeed, Revelation tells us that in the first age of creation the Only One brought together the whole of mankind and made them bear witness: “And when your Sustainer took the offspring of Adam from his loins to bear witness about themselves: ‘Am I not your Lord?,’ they replied, ‘Assuredly, yes. We bear witness to it.’ This is a reminder lest on the day of judgment you say: ‘We did not know!’ ” This original testimony is of fundamental importance for the formation of the Islamic conception of humanity. It teaches us that in the heart and consciousness of each individual there exists an essential and profound intuitive awareness and recognition of the presence of the Transcendent. Just as the sun, the clouds, the winds, the birds, and all the animals express their natural submission, as we have seen, the human being has within it an almost instinctive longing for a dimension that is “beyond.” This is the idea of the fitra, which has given rise to numerous exegetical, mystical, and philosophical commentaries, so central is it to the Islamic conception of the human being, faith, and the sacred. We find it mentioned in the following verse: “Surrender your whole being as a true believer and in accordance with the nature [natural desire] which God gave to human beings when He created them. There is no change in God’s creation. This is the unchangeable religion, but most people do not know,” and confirmed by a Prophetic tradition: “Every newborn child is born in fitra: it is his parents who make of him a Jew, a Christian, or a Zoroastrian.”

So this “original testimony” has impressed each person’s heart with a mark, which is a memory, a spark, a quest for transcendence in a sense very close to Mircea Eliade’s insight when he affirms that religions “play a part in the structure of human consciousness.” This statement from the first age, in which human beings declared their recognition of the Creator, fashions their relationship with God: they are bound by a sort of original covenant to which their consciousness presses them to stay faithful. There is no original sin in Islam: every being is born innocent and then becomes responsible for his or her faithfulness to the covenant. Those who do not believe, the un-faithful (kafir), are those who are not faithful to the original covenant, whose memory is faint and whose sight is veiled. In the notion of kufr in Arabic there is the idea of a veiling that leads to the denial of the Truth. Only God decides whether human beings will be enlightened or veiled. Their responsibility consists in their constant action and personal effort to keep the memory alive.

Little by little, we feel that the outlines of an Islamic conception of human nature are emerging. If none of the elements that make up the human being has, in itself, a positive or negative moral quality, if, on the contrary, it is the awakened, responsible conscience that exerts, through the exercise of control, ethical guidance on one’s way of being in the world, one is naturally entitled to wonder how to comply with the way this guidance is leading, how, in short, to be with God. We find the answer in the second part of the analysis we have just presented: all of us are required to return to ourselves and to rediscover the original breath, to revive it and confirm it. In order for this to be achieved, the Creator has made available to human beings two kinds of Revelation. One is spread out before us in space—the whole universe. The other stands out in history at points in time. These two kinds of revelation “remind” and send the conscious back to itself: “We will show them our signs on the horizons and in themselves so that it will be clear to them that [this message] is the truth.”19 This quest for the Transcendent cannot be undertaken without the mind. There is absolutely no contradiction here between the realm of faith and the realm of reason. On the contrary, the spark of faith, born in the original testimony, needs intellect to confirm that testimony and to be capable of being faithful to the original covenant. The realm of faith necessarily calls on intellect, which, by accepting the two types of revelation, allows faith to be confirmed, deepened, and rooted and to grow to fullness in the heart and in human consciousness. Here again the two must be wedded, and each has a part to play: a living faith makes it possible for the intellect to accept signs beyond simple elements of nature, and active reason makes it possible for faith to understand and also to acquire more self-understanding, and in that way to draw closer to the divine: “Of all the servants, those who know are those who are [fully] open to the intimate awareness of God.” Blaise Pascal had an apt expression: “The heart has reasons that reason does not know,” thus differentiating the two realms of faith and reason (even though this formula has often been [wrongly] reduced to an opposition between the emotional and the rational). From an Islamic point of view, the relationship of the heart (where the first longing, the first breath toward faith takes place) and the intellect (which responds to the call of this breath and takes up the quest) might rather be expressed this way: the heart has reasons that reason will recognize. Apart from the expression, the difference is profound.

At the conclusion of these reflections on the human being, we may sketch two fundamental teachings that clearly have consequences for the lives of Muslims wherever they are, for they are the basic factors that constitute how to be in the world, which is what Muslims have to manage, whether in the West or in the East. The first teaching tells us that humans are not made up of morally antithetical elements: the spirit, the breath (alruh) breathed into the body, which becomes al-nafs, the heart, the reason, the body where the emotions live, are, so to speak, “neutral elements” that invite individuals to the awareness of their responsibilities. One enters into this intimate awareness only by turning back to oneself, looking for the original spark, which is the most immediate expression of the search for meaning. The universe, like the revealed books, calls on reason to find a way to meaning and to try to bring about, through awareness of responsibility and the exercise of control, ethical concords and moral harmonies of being. When all is said and done, it is a wending one’s way toward one’s self, a “going” to make a better returning, as all the mystical traditions teach us simply: we are on our way to the beginning. We come upon the knowledge of God close to our heart “and know that [the knowledge of] God dwells between the human being and his heart.”

The second teaching concerns the different states of human life. In the beginning, one’s innocence is absolute: one is, indwelt by the breath, and is soon inevitably searching. Becoming aware of this state immediately makes one a responsible and in fact free being. Before God, and before their own consciouses, all people must take charge of themselves, knowing that the Only One is expecting them to know Him, to liberate themselves from all objects of adoration and idols (tawhid al-uluhiyya) that would not be He, and to recognize Him, intimately. To accomplish this, He has implanted, with the first spark, “the need of Him” and for “signs” of His presence. It is for humankind to learn to read these signs and to try to satisfy this need: such is the first dimension of human responsibility. In this perspective, the most serious deficiency in a free and responsible being is not moral error as such, but pride—to suffocate the “need of Him” and to think that one’s intellect alone can know and read the universe. By marrying the two states of innocence and responsibility, humility is the state that allows the human being to enter into its humanity. Humility is the source of ethics.

These two teachings are fundamental and have extraordinarily important consequences for the daily life of Muslims. With the awareness of the divine, facing the universe, individuals think of themselves above all as beings with responsibility. The faith and humility that surround this last idea carry persons to an understanding of the meaning of their obligations before any affirmation of their rights. This is the first meaning of the vicegerency in Islam: “It is He who has made you His vicegerents [khalaifa] on earth.”It is the role of humankind to manage the world on the basis of an ethic of respect for creation not only because people do not own it but, more deeply and spiritually, because it is in itself an eternal and continual praise addressed to the Most High. We are speaking here of a true spiritual ecology, an ecology that existed before ecology, which imposes on persons the awareness of limitations so that they may have dignified access to the meaning of their freedom and their rights.

We could pursue reflection on the conception of human rights. Although a statement of the universality of human rights may pose no basic problem, it is rather the way they are formulated and the structure of the statement that is open to discussion. The Muslim consciousness would, of course, add, before the proclamation of universal rights, a series of relevant and constraining articles on the responsibilities and obligations of human beings.

(Reprinted from TariqRamadan.com )


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