Review of Humanism

Category: Featured, World Affairs Views: 11873

In the minds of people, the term "humanism" has certain magic, electric charm - like the "Aladdin's lantern". It bemuses many with its so-called rational, liberating gimmicks. Many Muslims, therefore, have developed false opinions without questioning the origin of western humanism and its effect on modem man. I shall attempt to clarify this subject by borrowing from the writings of a noted Islamic scholar, a sociologist, the late Dr. Ali Shariati.

The pundits of all schools of thought cannot agree upon a precise definition of the term "humanism". A definition of what is human will vary according to the religious belief, scientific perspective, or philosophical school. Despite all the ambiguity as to the proper meaning of human existence, the aggregate of the generally accepted assumptions may be labeled as "humanism". In his book, "Marxism and other western fallacies - an Islamic Critique", Dr. Ali Shariati writes, "By humanism, we refer to the school of thought that proclaim its essential goal to be the liberation and perfection of man, whom it considers a primary being, and principles of which are based on response to those basic needs that form the specificity of man." [1] In today's world there are four intellectual currents who, despite their mutually contradictory natures, claim to represent this humanism. These are: (1) western liberalism, (2) Marxism, (3) existentialism, and (4) religion.

Western humanism is deeply rooted in ancient Greek mythology where we find jealousy, competition and opposition between the forces of heaven and earth, between the worlds of gods and men. Humanity seeks to liberate itself from the yoke of oppression, tyranny and captivity as laid upon it by the gods in attaining self-awareness, freedom, liberty, independence and sovereignty. It struggles to rule over nature to unseat Zeus, who symbolizes the rule of nature over mankind. He wants to be the "only" mentor of his destiny. As such, a bond of enmity between the gods and men was altogether natural and logical to the Greek myths.

However, it was, wrong, and obviously so, on the part of great minds of western humanism - from Diderot and Voltaire to Feuerbach and Marx - to equate the mythical world of ancient Greece, which remains within the bounds of material nature with the spiritual and sacred world of ancient religions of the East (Islam in particular). They have compared and even dared to equate humanity's relation to Zeus with that of Allah, whereas the two sets of relations are in truth antithetical. In the former world, Prometheus steals "the divine fire" from the heavens while the gods were asleep and brings it to earth. For this sin he is punished at the hands of the gods. On the contrary, in Islam, Allah curses Iblis for not prostrating to Adam - the first man. Furthermore, Allah entrusts the "divine fire" in the form of heavenly light of wisdom, of revelation, to His prophets so that it might be brought to humanity for bringing the progeny of Adam out of darkness to light. Man is entrusted to be His vicegerent on earth. Allah, in contrast to mythical Zeus, wants humanity to be free of the yoke of slavery to nature and proclaims, "All the angels have prostrated themselves at the feet of Adam, and land and sea have been made subservient to you." It is, therefore, in the mythic world-view of ancient Greece, quite natural and logical that a humanism should grow in opposition to rule by, and worship of, the gods. And as such, it is easy to see the fallacy of western humanism, which is born out of the Greek myths, and to sense its opposition against theism (or western and eastern polytheism).

It is worth mentioning here that Catholicism as practiced in the Middle Ages, which was at odds to humanity, was further responsible for inducing humanism in the West. It maintained the same opposition between heaven and earth like ancient Greece, and with its Greek-style exegeses of original sin, atonement, and man's expulsion from Paradise, it represented man as helplessly condemned because of divine displeasure and anger, and declared him to be a weak sinner. It exempted only the class of clergy, and held that the only means of salvation for the rest of mankind lay in blindly following them and through the membership in Churches. We, therefore, notice that even the arts of the Middle Ages revolve around the images of super-humans, angels, and even if human figure appears, it is only in the persons of apostles and saints with their faces obscured by a halo of celestial light. Everywhere, thus, in medieval Catholicism, we see a good resemblance between mythical-Christian God and mythical-Greek god Zeus. It is, therefore, easy to visualize how the theory of secularism would eventually influence the minds of western men of learning after the Renaissance as a mere by-product of that very western humanism which wanted to liberate human spirit from the clutches of oppressive Catholicism.

Just as it was natural for Greek humanism, through the denial of the gods, disbelief in their rule, and cutting off the bond between gods and men, to struggle to arrive at an anthropocentric universe and to tend towards earthly materialism, so is modem western humanism drawn into the same fountain of ancient Greece. Shariati writes, "The history of western culture is the persistence of these two contrasting currents that issue from the same spring, whether we refer to religion or science." [2] Both these divergent streams of today have their root in Greek humanism. Marxism and bourgeois liberalism alike share this human materialism in theory and in practice. Thus, we find Marx and Voltaire both closing their eyes to spiritual dimension of the human essence. It is only natural, thus, that both these philosophies are centered on and around the "physical" man.

The Radicalists of the "new humanism" of Europe - proclaimed in a manifesto that they published in 1800: "Set aside God as the basis of morals and replace Him with Conscience." They held that man is a being that in and of itself possesses a moral conscience, which in their view springs from his original and essential character, and which his human nature requires. This reliance upon human nature, as well as upon moral conscience, forms the fundamental basis of western atheistic humanism of the present age. The modem day humanists have come a long way since 1800 to first doubt and then to outright deny human nature as an outlying principle. Commenting on this Dr. Shariati writes, "Nonetheless, the new humanism - upon which western bourgeois liberalism as a system is based - regards humanity as possessing eternal moral virtues and noble, supramaterial values for which man is the essential focus. It is at this point that it placed its reliance upon man in and of himself, as against nature or the supernatural. ... This humanism arrogates human morals as a whole from religion, but, while denying their religious rationale, it proclaims the possibility of spiritual development and growth in adherence to the moral virtues without belief in God." [3] 

On the subject of existentialism, Shariati remarks, "Just as the bourgeois liberalism of the West sees itself as the heir to historical humanistic culture, and Marxism presents itself as a path for the realization of humanism, of the whole man, so existentialism is a humanism, and of course a more rightful claimant to humanism than its two predecessors." [4] Existentialism speaks of humanity as a separate spun cord loose in the world, a being with no determinative character or quality owed to God or nature, but capable of choice, and thus creating its own reality. This is beautifully articulated by Dr. Shariati when he says, "In comparison with capitalism, which reconstituted man as an economic animal; in comparison with Marxism which found man an object made of organized matter; in comparison with Catholicism, which saw him as the unwitting plaything of an imperious unseen power (the Divine Will); in comparison with dialectical materialism, which saw him as the unwitting plaything of the deterministic evolution of the means of production - existentialism made man a god! It paid him the grandest worship: 'All the beings of this world realize their existence after their essence is determined, except man, who creates his essence subsequent to his existence.' Man, therefore is not God's creation, nor nature's creation, nor is he the offspring of the means of production. Man is a god who creates himself! Given all the disrespect paid man by the Church, capitalism, and communism, it is easy to see what an incentive this call could be to souls believing in the miracle of man!" [5] 

Lastly, we come to the fourth category of humanism, that of religion. Religion proclaims its own world-view, its own mission for the guidance of humanity. While, we have noticed that Christianity (Catholicism in particular) has created a god similar to Zeus, in eastern religions humanity has a unique relationship with the God of the worlds. Especially, in Hinduism, we see the other extreme where we find man and god(s) so much intermingled as to be essentially inseparable. In Islam, however, while the gap from man to God is infinite, that from God to man is altogether eliminated. Man is bestowed with Divine spirit, entrusted with divine trust. Islamic concept of human dignity relies on the theme of oneness of God (Surah al-lkhlas), oneness of our ancestors (Qur'an 49:13), and oneness of our religion (Qur'an 23:51-52). Universal peace in the light of Islam presupposes peace of conscience (that is peace within one's self), peace at home, peace in society and finally peace in the world. Universal brotherhood is one of the cardinal principles of Islam, and this important matter is completely ignored by all other religions. Qur'an describes the Islamic Ummah to be a middle (wasat) nation and the best (khayr) Ummah ever raised on the ground that they believe in one God, enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong. Islam urges its followers to rescue humanity from all man-made bondages and to fight against injustice to dignify man. War is waged only against injustice and despotism and to rescue humanity from oppression.

In closing let me say that Islam is a manifesto of human liberation. It frees man from worship of others; sovereignty belongs truly to the Creator. Its first summons, "Say, There is no god but Allah, and prosper", propounds tauhid as the necessary means to that end.


Op. Cit., p. 17.
Op. Cit., p. 21.
Op. cit., p. 22-23.
Op. cit., p. 21.
Op. cit., p. 44.

Dr. Habib Siddiqui lives in suburban Philadelphia, PA, and is the author of the book Islamic Wisdom. He can be reached at [email protected].  The above essay was delivered as a speech at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1983.

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Views: 11873
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Older Comments:
Aslam o alikum to the reader. after reading comments of different people about different islamic topics as a doctor i would like to give you an examle that when u buy any medicine you can find on it that how to use it but u will also see there is always written that use it only with the prescription of doctor.the procedure of using is written on medicine so way use with the prescription of doctor bcz he know how it acts and what are its side same is case here when we read any islamic book or Quran it always need teacher to clear us every thing otherwise we make our own concept that can remove us from right path.

Sad to see many Musilms who give no value to their own thinkers. Shariati was a true thinker and as usual our system either murders them or imprisons them. Ony those who toe the political line are given high mantle.

Shariati wanted to break the yoke of Western 'ism' and lead us back to the light of true Islam which puts God as the Creator of this universe and man as HIS representative (khalifah) on earth.

Sister you need to read wider and understand your own beliefs which is much more encampassing than the village mentality. Shariati took this village mentality and gave it universal exposure.

Yes, we need thinkers like him, who after years of studying Western/Eastern philosophies, he ventured into explaining to us why we should all respect human beings - not because of wealth or maquam (status) but because of man's association with his Creator. If we hurt the creature we hurt the Creator.

If we insomuch, understood this relationship, we would never dare utter a bad word to our brothers/sisters in creation, let alone all this mayhem, rape, pillaging, and killing of Allah's creatures.

It takes people like Shariati to open our eyes thro knowledge not just blind faith.

Thank you Dr. Siddiqui for sharing your views with us. May the Lord lead us to HIS true path.

I want to respond to the comments made by Rafia Sultana. It is sad to see people in the ummah who make comments like "whoever heard of an Ali Shariati" and this in my opinion shows the lack of variety in your Islamic readings. Those who read a wide variety of Islamic books or is involved in Islamic studies will definitely know who Dr Shariati is. Briefly, he is the Iranian Dr.who was assasinated by SAVAK intelligence, an offshoot of Mossad in the UK for being the mastermind of the Iranian revolution in 1979. Although i have read very little of his work, from what i have read, his writings can be hard to grasp due to the sociological and philosophical terminology but he clearly reveals the sicknesses of the current age which many moslems have been struck by and the majority of the world as a matter of fact and they dont even know that they have this sickness. These diseases ranging from Capitalism to Socialism, Humanism, Secularism,'democracy', freedom, egalitarianism etc which all stem from so called Enlightened ideas/ideals in 18th century Europe have very covertly entered the hearts and minds of moslems yet they dont even know of it and on top even think they are true moslems. When someone is ill, first, what ever that illness is, it needs to be diagnosed in order for treatment to start on it. In relation to your comment about presenting verses from the quran and hadeeths by rasulullah s.a.w. no moslems can deny this but at the same token, moslems must read commentaries of the quran as well in order to better understand the quran and its meanings e.g Tafseer Ibn Katheer, Fi Zilalil Quran by Sayyid Qutb or Tafhimul Quran by Maududi. Supplementing the quran with tafseers, biography of the prophet and hadeeths is vital if we want to get the most out of the quran and improve our understanding of it. Is this being done? Finally the purpose of a moslem writing an islamic article or book is not for "convincing audiences" as this is apologetic and Islam is never apologeti

Well - this was going to be an article for which I had submitted no comments. Alas, it looks as if I shall simply have to keep trying. After seeing how positive some of the other readers' comments were, I willed myself (?) to read it.

At first, the article caused my eyes to glaze over. I apologize - but I personally do not think Greek Mythology requires any effort to expose it as a seriously deficient religion. However - after finishing the article, I would have to admit I felt quite uplifted by it. Nicely done, Dr. Habib Siddiqui.

I agree that the adage 'The end justifies the means' is not part of Islam. But sometimes when you are push to the wall you compromise a bit( no harm in that). Muslims belief has been call "backward", "outdated" etc so when we get the chance, even if it is using this type of philosophical arguments, to presents the facts as they are, there is no harm.

Other religions will make you believe that they worship God, the creator of all, the sustainer of all, the one who makes the impossible, possible they say. But this article by a click of the finger, has expose their hypocracy. An example, if I may give one, is the case where our brethren the christians, keep calling on Jesus for everything knowing fully well that Jesus is nothing but creation of the one and only powerful God, Allah. The only time they mention God is when they want to give command as we often hear at the top of their voice saying 'Father I command you .....' What an irony!.

The fact is Allah is supreme, His creations are His creations and He is up there while we(the weaklings) are down here. He encompasses all and none encompaseth Him. His knowledge is eternal while ours is limited. We are all needy while He is ever-giving. To think we can equate ourselves to Him, or of overcoming Him is a thing most monstrous indeed to even think about.

Its only when we know who we are in relation to God that a true Humanism could begin to take shape now in the world. 1400 years a go when the knowledge was really in practice, weve seen the achievements of those generations. Its upto us now to do or mare our situation.

I liked it, except for the "mythical christian god." There is one god, allah is God, christian God is God, there the same. Other than that, I really enjoyed this article.

This article points out all the weakness of religion and ego, and futher states the oneness of Al-Islam as practiced by r Prophet Muhammad SAWS, by strive'n 2 b the strongest Muslim on your level of understand'n , we can change the world Insha-Allah

Awesome article brother whoever wrote it.. I think that the main foundation of Islam the tawheed really differentiates us between us and humanism.... ok take care salam

Magnificent, as usual.

If you have 800 telephone number,
I would like to give zakat by phone.
Thank All of You.

This article is way too philosophical for an internet posting;it may not even be appropriate. Why? Because it reflects the personal/private opinion of the author's! I do commend the noble effort of the author to portray the true Humanistic nature of Islam as opposed to the dark side we see in the media all the time.
However, for any audience to be convinced of such,we need to present DIRECT QURANIC VERSES AND PROPHETIC HADITHS-and there are thousands of them,noteven mentioning the examples of the Companions of the Prophet(pbuh).
With all due respect to Dr.Siddiqui, whoever heard of an Ali Shariati and pray why do we need his philosophy!
Let your audience hear firsthand the Verses and Hadiths and the gentle and humane nature of Islam and then let them decide for themselves. Kindle forgive me for being critical. Salaam.

An excellent explanation of the impact of Divine teachings and Universal brotherhood upon social behavior and morality.

The author fails to capture the meaning of "Humanism", even from a religious perspective. Statements made about other religion's concept of "humanism" are incorrect or misrepresented. Description of "humanism" from Islamic perspective is missed, instead author focuses on 'belief in one God' as "humanism".

I really don't understand the point of this article. Is it intended to attack the west with poorly researched information? Is it intended to express bias with ignorance?

Sorry, but this article fails to define "humanism". However is represents Shariati's limited understanding of humanity and personal biases.

We can't claim to be good citizens of humanity if we present fallacies for personal gain.