Know Thyself: Islamic View of Human Psyche

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In the name of God, the most Compassionate, ever Merciful

At the outset, Adam and Eve settle on earth and begin the human experience. Through them, the process of procreation begins and the human race is born. “O people! Be mindful of God who created you from a single soul, and from it created its mate and from the two spread a multitude of men and women.” (Quran, 4:1)

We find ourselves born into this world with no say in the matter. People have and continue to grapple the question of the self. Who are we? What do we know about ourselves? An important verse in the Quran guides us in the right direction, “O You who believe! Be mindful of God, and let every soul look to what it has sent forth for tomorrow (Day-of-Judgment); and fear God, for God is well aware of everything you do. And do not be like those who forget God, so God made them forget themselves (their souls): they are the rebellious ones.” (59:18,19)

The basic philosophy of the Quran regarding the human individual is that the human personality is a composite of two components; the animal and the spiritual components. Two fully conscious and independent beings, the animal being and the spiritual being, mysteriously joined together to form the human being or the human soul. In other words, man is the composite of a body and a spirit.

On the one hand, we have animal characteristics. All the instincts found in animals are present in the human being. Self-preservation and preservation of the species are common to both animals and humans. Just like animals, humans have the innate desire to stay alive and an instinctive tendency to preserve their own species. Similarly, the innate attraction between the opposite sexes is put in place for the continuation of the human race, i.e. preservation of the species.

In every human being there are animal characteristics and a divine spirit. This concept is explicated in the Quran, “And mention (O Prophet) when your Lord said to the angels, ‘I will create a mortal (bashar) out of dried clay, formed from dark mud.” (15:28) This is the human body or the animal aspect of man. The next verse presents the other aspect, the divine spirit, “And when I have fashioned him and breathed into him of My spirit, fall down before him in prostration!” (15:29) The Quran calls this aspect of the human personality the spirit (ruh). Philosophers call it “the Self” thus “Know Thyself.”

It is this soul people have a tendency to forget, “And do not be like those who forget God, so God made them forget themselves (their souls).” The entire philosophy of the self of Sir Muhammad Iqbal (Philosopher/Poet of Islam) is based on this verse.

One may ask, does anyone forget his own body? Does anyone forget to eat? The requirements of the body are always fulfilled. When the body falls ill, we seek treatment. In truth, no one is unmindful of his or her animal existence. It is the inner self or the spirit (ruh) within them that they have forgotten. It is the spiritual aspect of our being that is ignored.

Man’s essential nature is divine. It is lost due to his animal inclinations and ignorance. As described by ancient philosophers and sages, “Man in his ignorance is wrapped in the material sheaths that encompasses the true self.” It is on the basis of this reality that Adam became the vicegerent of God and the angels were commanded to prostrate before him. They prostrated before him due to the divine spirit that was breathed into him. All angels, including archangels Gabriel, Israfil, Michael and Azrael, fell down in prostration honoring this unique creature that possessed the divine spirit.

As mentioned above, both the human spirit and the human body make the human soul. The Quran identifies three types of souls: 1) The inciting soul; 2) The self-accusing soul; and 3) The contented soul.

Modern psychology concurs with the fourteen-century-old concept of the human psyche or human personality. Sigmund Freud, who is regarded as the father of psychoanalysis, articulated the above mentioned three types of souls as the id, ego and super ego, all developing at different stages of our lives. According to Freud, “The personality of the newborn child is all id and only later does it develop an ego and super-ego.”

According to the Quran, the lowest of these souls is the inciting soul, the soul that incites us to commit evil. This type of soul is directly related to the lower baser self of the human personality. It requires immediate sensual gratification. The instincts for survival are blind and demand instant fulfillment and satisfaction. This is what modern psychology calls the id. The id is the impulsive (and unconscious) part of our psyche that responds directly and immediately to the instincts.1

An example of the id in action is the story of Joseph when he encountered the wife of al-Aziz, the chief minister of Egypt. According to the Quranic account, she, upon first sight of Joseph, immediately fell in love with him and ultimately seduced him, although her attempts at seduction were thwarted. The Quran describes the intense lust the wife of al-Aziz had for Joseph, “And she, in whose house he was (living), sought to seduce him. She closed the doors and said, ‘Come to me.’ He replied, ‘God forbid! He (your husband) is my master who has made my stay honorable. Truly, wrongdoers will never prosper.’” (12:23)

The lustful desire and sexual appetite is so compelling that it spares no one except those upon whom God bestows His Grace, “And indeed she did desire him and he would have inclined to her desire had he not seen the evidence of his Lord. Thus (it was), that We might turn away evil and fornication from him. Surely, he was one of Our sincere slaves.” (12:24)

A prophet of God who was spared from such an act does, however, admit how potent the sexual urge is. He confessed, “I do not claim to be innocent myself. Verily, the human soul is inclined towards evil, save those upon whom my Lord bestows His grace. Verily, my Lord is Forgiving, Merciful.” (12: 53) The human “self” is not invincible against temptation. It certainly inclines to commit evil.

We must not forget that prophets are also humans. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was asked to explain this fact, “Say (O Prophet) I am a human being like you, (but) revelation has come to me that your God is One God.” (18:110) The strong connection and constant communication with their Lord enabled them to curb their carnal desires.

The second type of soul is the self-accusing soul. This is the soul that is conscious of its imperfections. At this stage the conscience is awakened. The giant spirit within is stimulated and the self accuses the soul of its intended evil actions. The soul is reproached and scolded when an evil act is committed. God, in chapter 75 of the Quran entitled, “The Resurrection,” swore, “Nay, I swear by the Day of Resurrection; and nay! I swear by the self-reproaching soul.” (75:1,2)

This is the stage wherein the self is fully aware and cognizant of its reality. The knowledge of good and evil is infused in the human soul from inception, “(Consider) the human self, and how it is formed. And how it is inspired with (the consciousness of) its evil and its self-righteousness.” (91:7,8) The soul recognizes its weaknesses and desires perfection. At this stage there is an inner struggle between the lowest soul and the self-accusing soul. It is that inner battle against all evil forces that prevent one from achieving the higher goal.

It is through individual development and purification of the soul as well as frequent remembrance of God that one may reach the next and final stage, the soul that is at peace.

The third type of soul is the self-contented soul. This is the stage of maturity in belief. At this level, one is firm in their faith and one’s entire life is dedicated to serving God. They are in total control of their animal instincts. They are beyond the world of matter, focused on the next world to come and are absolutely satisfied with the Will of God. The soul is at peace even at times of hardship and adversity. In praising such people, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) says, “How amazing is the affair of the believer. There is good for him in everything and that is for no one but the believer. If good times come his way, he expresses gratitude to God and that is good for him, and if hardship comes his way, he endures it patiently and that is better for him.”

The soul is no longer in search of the Truth. It finds Him and longs for departure, “O you tranquil soul! Return to your Lord, well-pleased (with Him), well-pleasing (to Him). Enter, then, with my (true) servants, enter My Paradise.” (89:27-30)

There can be three possibilities concerning the animal and the spiritual being of man. Either the body overtakes the spirit fulfilling only the demands of the carnal desires allowing the soul to commit evil, or the body and the spirit are at war with one another. The soul is in a tug of war between the body and the spirit and is in a constant struggle between fulfilling the demands of the body and the demands of the spirit. The third possibility is that the spirit overwhelms the body and rises above the animalistic nature of man. The process of purification of the soul continues until it reaches the status of the self-contented soul.

In the end, one only suffers when falling prey to one’s carnal desires for temporary worldly pleasure through illicit means. According to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), “An intelligent and wise person is the one who subdues his soul and does noble deeds to benefit him after death.”

Salvation in the hereafter is reserved for those who purify their soul, as God revealed, “Successful indeed is the one who purifies his whole self.” (91:9)

( Source: )

Imam Steve Mustapha Elturk was born in Beirut, Lebanon. He immigrated to America in 1976 amid the start of the Lebanese civil war. Imam Elturk is the Imam and President of the Islamic Organization of North America (IONA) in Warren, Michigan. He is active in the Muslim community of North America, both as a leader and a speaker. He is a publicly engaged Muslim leader and a leading interfaith activist in the Detroit Area. Imam Elturk is the treasurer of the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit (IFLC) and member of the Religious Leaders Forum. He serves on the executive board of the Interfaith Center for Racial Justice (ICRJ) and the Michigan Muslim Community Council (MMCC). He is the Co-Chair of the Imams’ Council of MMCC.

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