Is There an Islamic Humanism?

In pursuit of the affirmation of Islamic humanism, man needs to strike a balance between matter and spirit, body and soul, and between the exigencies of this world and the hereafter (photo: iStock by Getty Images).


There is no humanism in Islam in the mould of either Greco-Roman or Renaissance traditions. Those moulds are blasphemous. Similarly, they are offensive to the religious sentiment of Islam, and are unreasonable. Despite maintaining otherwise, Western humanism is unnatural and impractical. It is dehumanizing and exemplifies a manner of idealistic extremism. The whole thing backfired spectacularly.

Such humanism is anticlimactic as well, in that several centuries later most of its salient ideals proved to be mere illusions. They were fantasies that yielded very little, yet, in the long run, delivered more harm than benefit. As harsh as it may seem, humanism made man an avaricious wolf, an immoral wretch, and a cultural as well as civilizational hypocrite.

Humanism engendered and actively encouraged a corpus of vices the most important of which were haughtiness, egocentricity, greed, pleasure-seeking, corruption and violence. It is not an understatement to say that most evils of the modern and post-modern world are attributable, by hook or by crook, to the dark sides of humanism as the lifeblood of modern West-dominant civilization. And since the planet earth is the playground of the modern humanism-driven man, consequently the only home of the human race has been pushed to the brink of destruction.

However, there is a comprehensively unique Islamic philosophy of man that accounts for what could be described as the humanism of Islam. In any case, the term of Islamic humanism should be supported in order to provide an alternative to the former, functioning as its antithesis.

Based on that philosophy, man has been created as the vicegerent of Almighty Allah on earth. His creation is in the most beautiful form, consisting of body and soul. Yet, man has been created in the image of his Creator, as disclosed by Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) (Sahih Muslim). Man stands for the culmination of the divine creativity act, with the other tiers of creation, somehow or other, being associated with the honourable status and role of man.

For example, everything in the heavens and on the earth has been subjected to man; angels have been asked to prostrate before Adam, the father and symbol of humankind; the movement of the jinn had been restricted and closely watched due to the revelation of the Holy Qur’an; and Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) has been sent as the final messenger of Allah both to mankind and the jinn.

In addition, man has been created free and innocent. Of his own accord, he is to surrender to and worship his Creator and Master: Allah. His is to be a life of conscious servitude and gratitude. His spiritual, physical and rational abilities notwithstanding, man is not to live his life solely according to his own will, but according to the will of the Creator of all life who at the same time is the Sustainer of man and existence taken as a whole.

Nobody denies that man is given enough talents to execute his vicegerency mission on earth. However, observing man against the background of the total existential reality, he all of a sudden comes into view as an insignificant, weak and vulnerable being. He is disadvantaged and needy. Without the Creator and His revealed guidance on-board, man will be destined to wander from one gamble to another, and from one mirage to another, repeatedly mistaking error for guidance, and untruth for truth. His inherent shortcomings will fail him eventually, and his professed strengths turn into the causes of a downfall. On a civilizational scale, man’s life adventures will come to a standstill and prove suicidal.

Not a soul wants to take anything from man’s arsenal. However, he is admittedly mighty, but not almighty; his intellectual capacities are immense, but he can never become omniscient; he is ambitious, but still trapped in the confines of matter, time and space. To understand his smallness and helplessness, man should not look far. He should only look around himself and inside himself. Both humanism and Islam agree that man is a microcosm, albeit cast in diametrically opposite moulds and serving diametrically opposite aims.

Hence, Islam teaches that man should be pragmatic. He should recognize both his fortes and weaknesses, optimizing the former and mitigating the latter. Whatever condition he may find himself in, man should neither get carried away, nor become crestfallen. The Creator and His divine teachings are there for him, helping him to genuinely enjoy success and happiness, and to overcome the snags of failure. Both characterize the inevitabilities of life.

Come rain or shine, man is to stay true to himself, without compromising any feature of his life calling. He is to live and die with honour and dignity. This life is nothing except a prelude to the hereafter. The terrestrial context is an estate to be cultivated for the benefit of the after-world. Life is a serious business. It is the only opportunity for procuring salvation and eternal delight. For man to be thrust in the heart of everything just goes to show how serious life is and how serious man’s role in it is.

There is so much at stake. Life is too short to be wasted on baselessly suspecting and conjecturing things. The trial and error procedures are as unproductive as any other form of ideological mix-up. Almighty Allah’s is the only way. All innate goodness ought to function as a subsidiary to the heavenly goodness, leading to and establishing its legitimacy on it. Isma’il al-Faruqi thus concluded that Allah is the final end, i.e., the end at which all finalistic nexuses aim and come to rest. Allah is an end for all other ends. He is the ultimate object of all desire (Isma’il al-Faruqi, Al Tawhid: Its Implications for Thought and Life).

In pursuit of the affirmation of Islamic humanism, man needs to strike a balance between matter and spirit, body and soul, and between the exigencies of this world and the hereafter. Neither is to be sought out for its own sake, or at the expense of the others. Instead, they are to be nurtured as parts of a harmonious whole. They are to be nurtured also as parts of an ultimately consequential order of meanings and experiences.

By way of example, if pursued for their own ends, in isolation from the areas of spirituality and ethics, neither matter, nor body, nor this world in its totality, will be able to establish its validity. On the contrary, each of them will be doomed to become insufficient, distorted and, at the end of the day, detrimental force. Despite the fact that autonomously they are not saintly, neither matter, nor body, nor this life, is intrinsically evil either. Their utilities as means and carriers of the spiritual realm are to be duly acknowledged and made the most of. What is good and what bad depends on the degree of harmony between the two: physical and metaphysical, orbs.

Man is a small-scale version of this view point. His one dimension represents the lowliness of the material and the other the pre-eminence of the immaterial levels of existence. Man’s assignments boil down to overcoming the advances of the former and, allied with the latter, to rise through the ranks towards spiritual fulfilment. The hereafter is the final destination and paradise the targeted eternal abode. In the process, neither the advantageous nor disadvantageous sides of life should impede man in his progress. So as to succeed, those sides are to be considered and dealt with exactly as they are, without exaggerating or devaluing either one of the two. Positively, both sides are required for the success.

In short, Islamic humanism celebrates man in its own way and paves the way for his triumph. It elevates the status of man to the level of Allah’s vicegerent or representative on earth. It recognizes man’s rights and responsibilities across the spectrum of the multifaceted idea and marvel of life, furnishing him with workable ways and means to prosper.

Islamic humanism acclaims man as the honourable creation, servant and the dependent one, and places him against the backdrop of the idea that Allah is the only Creator, Master and the Self-Sufficient One. Man is great and can see it through exclusively because of the implications of these reciprocal relationships. It is only owing to those relationships and godsends originating therefrom that man can think of the biggest prizes: eternity, immortality and everlasting bliss. These await in the hereafter those who succeed in this world, evading on the other hand those whose humanism patterns espoused and threaded flawed paths.

Nevertheless, regardless of what man’s achievements or failures in this world may be, under no circumstances can there be an exchange of titles. The servant remains servant and the Master Master; the creation remains creation and the Creator Creator; and the dependent one remains so, and the Self-Sufficient One remains also so forever. It follows that Islamic humanism is possible only due to the impetus of Islamic spirituality, and its actual results can be achieved and fruits tasted only in collaboration with the hereafter. By no means can man be deified in any way and any degree, nor can Almighty God be anthropomorphized in any way and any degree. This is the singularity of Islamic humanism which stems from the Islamic tawhidic (God’s Oneness) worldview. This is also what sets Islamic humanism apart from other types of humanism.

Isma’il al-Faruqi encapsulated the meaning and fundamental traits of Islamic humanism when he said: “A world of difference separates this humanism of Islam from other humanisms. Greek civilization, for instance, developed a strong humanism which the West has taken as a model since the Renaissance. Founded upon an exaggerated naturalism, Greek humanism deified man - as well as his vices…The humanism of tawhid alone is genuine. It alone respects man and creaturely, without either deification or vilification. It alone defines the worth of man in terms of his virtues, and begins its assessment of him with a positive mark for the innate endowment God has given all men in preparation for their noble task. It alone defines the virtues and ideals of human life in terms of the very contents of natural life, rather than denying them, thus making its humanism life-affirmative as well as moral” (Isma’il al-Faruqi, Al Tawhid: Its Implications for Thought and Life)


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