Man and Islam: "The free man and freedom of man"
By: Dr. Ali Shariati, 1933 - 1977
Ladies and Gentlemen: Tonight, as long as time permits, I would like to investigate the following questions:
I. Does Islam recognize man as a helpless creature whose ultimate goal and ideal is to stand powerless in front of God?
II. Does Islam recognize humanness as a nobility?
III. Is helplessness in man a pre-requisite of belief in Islam, or on the contrary, is belief in Islam enough to bestow originality upon man and a respect for his virtues?
The issue of man is an extremely important one. Today's civilization has based its religion upon humanism; that is, the originality and worship of man. It is assumed that various religions in the past shattered man's personality, and forced him to sacrifice himself for his gods, admit his powerlessness, and forced him to ask favors from them through prayer, supplication and begging. Humanism is a post-renaissance religion which set itself across the providential orders and those religions which were based upon the supernatural and the unseen, which aimed to bestow nobility upon man. The roots of humanism go back to Athens, and as a universal religion it has become the foundation of today's Western culture. As a matter of fact humanism is a reaction against the scholastic creed and Christianity of the Middle Ages.
In order to find out how man was interpreted in various religions of the past, or to understand the role of humanism in religions, one should study the philosophy of creation. Since I do not have time to survey all the Eastern and Western religions relative to the philosophy of man's creation, I will only emphasize the philosophy of man's creation in Islam (and the religions of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus of which Islam is a sequel and culmination).
How does Islam interpret and recognize the creation of man? Is it possible to realize man's position from the quality of his creation narrated in the Qur'an or the sayings of prophet Mohammad (PBUH)? By investigating the quality of Adam's creation, which stands as the symbol of man in the Qur'an, we can infer the kind of status he occupies in the sight of God in Islam, as well as in other religions.
As a preface I should say that the language of religions, especially the Semitic ones, whose prophets we believe in, are all symbolic. This is the finest language accessible to man and it is superior to expository language which is lucid and straightforward. An expository language may be more suited and simpler to utilize in instruction, but it is not lasting. Why? Abd-Alrahman Badawi, the contemporary Egyptian philosopher, states that:
A school or a religion which expresses all its facts and connotations in direct, clear-cut, and one-dimensional sentences will not last long, since it is addressing diverse individuals from all walks of life. Further, these people include various strata and classes who vary in thinking, viewpoint, and outlook. And so, a language which is selected for a religion must be multi layered and multi-dimensional so that each generation can decipher one layer and each group can understand one dimension at a time.
This is why all the literary symbolic works are immortal. Hafiz's poems are everlasting due to the fact that the more we read them, depending upon our tastes, the more new areas we can infer and discover. But such is not true for the History of Bayhaghi or Golestan of Saadi, their meanings are relatively obvious. We enjoy their dialects, but from a spiritual point of view most of their contents are obsolete. But Hafiz's words, being multi-dimensional and symbolic, allow each one of us, depending on our tastes and mentality, to infer a new meaning and a new outlook from them. And since religions were brought for various types of peoples and generations, it was necessary that they contained symbolic languages. Most of the meanings existing in religions were not clear at the time they emerged. However, since such meanings had to be explained to people, they had to be in plain language so the masses could comprehend them. On the other hand, if the concepts were plain enough, such religions would contain no new meanings. This is why languages were symbolic so that future generations, relative to their mental and scientific maturity, could discover new meanings and concepts. This is why in European literature symbol- ism is the finest style. Thus, the story of Adam's creation was told in symbolic language so that now, after fourteen centuries in the midst of scientific progress in all areas, it remains worthy of study.
Mans's Creation from the Islamic Viewpoint
In the beginning the Lord addresses all the angels: "I want to create a vicegerent on earth," (Pay attention to the worth of man in Islam. Even the Post-Renaissance European humanism has not been able to bestow such an exalting sanctity upon man.). God, being the greatest and most exalting from a faithful Muslim point of view, addresses the angels to introduce His vicegerent. Thus, with this providential address the mission of man on earth is clarified. That is, man's mission on earth is to fulfill God's creative work in the universe. Therefore, man's first superiority is that he represents God on earth. The angels objected, "Do you want to create a revengeful and vindictive creature to commit crime and bloodshed on earth again?" But God responds, "I know something you know not."
And so, God became engaged in creating man. And this is the point which symbols, loaded with profound anthropological connotations, come into being. Since God wants to create a vicegerent for Himself on earth, He must, as a rule, choose the most valuable and sacred material. Yet He selects the basest matter. In the Qur'an there are three references relative to the material that man was made of: from a sounding clay, like unto pottery, and from mud. Finally, the Lord breathed His spirit into the dry mud and man came into being.
In the human tongue God is the most sacred and exalted being, while mud stands as a symbol of the meanest and the basest thing.
And the spirit of God is the most sacred, exalting, and the noblest "part" of His being. Accordingly, in creating man, God did not use His "breath, "blood," or "flesh"; rather He blew His own Soul into man. God is the most sublime being and His spirit is the finest entity for which man can possibly have an epithet in his language. Thus, man who was formed from mud and God's spirit is a two- dimensional being. For unlike all other beings which are one dimensional, man is two-dimensional; one dimension tends towards mud, lowliness, sedimentation, and stagnation while the other aspires to the loftiest imaginable point possible. So man is composed of two contradictions-mud and God's spirit. Thus man's significance and grandeur lie in the fact that he possesses two poles (mud and the spirit of the Lord). It is up to man to choose where to go, towards mud or providence. And as long as he has not selected either of the poles as his fate, struggle will perpetually rage within him.
Once man was created, God taught him the names. It is not yet clear what these names were, but every commentator has said something that leaves no doubt that God was talking about education and instruction. In any case, when the creation of man ended, God taught all the names. Man became a possessor of names. At this point the angels protested: "We are made from smokeless fire but man was made from mud. Why should he have superiority over us?" Whereby the Lord responded: "I know something you know not. Bow down to man." The angels of all ranks prostrated themselves before man. This is what humanism is all about. Do you see the extent of man's grandeur? So lofty is his position that the angels, in spite of their natural and racial superiority (light vs mud), adored Adam. How- ever, since the angels protested, the Lord, in order to test them, asked them to recite the names but they could not answer. In this test the angels were defeated and the superiority and virtue of Adam was established. Superiority depends upon knowledge of the names. Man knows things which angels do not know. This is indicative of the fact that nobility depends upon knowledge and intelligence rather than upon racial superiority.
Another issue is the woman who is believed to have been created from Adam's rib. This is the result of a wrong translation of the Arabic word 'rib' into Persian. In Arabic and Hebrew 'rib' has an additional meaning which is 'nature.' Thus, instead of "Eve was created from Adam's nature," it came to mean "Eve was created from Adam's rib."
A great man like Nietzsche believed that man and woman were two different creatures. By and by they evolved and came to resemble each other. So they are thought of as two different races. Mind you that even those philosophers and scientists who believe that Adam and Eve are of the same race have always despised the female's nature. However, the position of the Qur'an is that man and woman are of the same nature.
Another surprising point in man's creation in the Qur'an is that God calls upon the whole creation-skies, seas, plants, mountains, animals and so forth-and informs them: "I have a trust to offer you." But all of them refused to accept except man. This is indicative of the fact that man possesses another virtue; that is, his acceptance of a trust that everyone else refused. This means that man is a representative of God in the universe as well as His trustee. As to what the 'trust' is, everyone mentions something. Mawlavi believes that it is will and choice. So do I.
The only superiority that man has over all other beings in the universe is his will. He is the only being that can act contrary to his nature, while no animal or plant is capable of doing so. It is impossible to find an animal which can fast for two days. And no plant has ever committed suicide due to grief or has done a great service. Man is the only one who rebels against his physical, spiritual, and material needs, and turns his back against goodness and virtue. Further, he is free to behave irrationally, to be bad or good, to be mudlike or Divine. The point is that possession of "will" is the greatest characteristic of man and it throws light upon the kinship between man and God.
Is it not true that God breathed His spirit into man and appointed him as His trustee? Then man is a vicegerent and "relative" of God on earth and the spirit of both quench their thirst from the same fountain of virtue-possession of will. God, the only being in the universe who possesses an absolute will and can do whatever He wishes, even to work contrary to the laws of nature, breathed His spirit in man. And so, man is capable of working like God (not on par with Him, only resembling God), or acting against the physiological laws of his own nature. Therefore, what can be inferred from man's nature and the philosophy of creation are as follows:
A. Not only are all men equal, they are brothers. The disparity between equality and brotherhood is quite obvious; equality is a legal term while brotherhood is an announcement of the identical nature of all men who have, despite their colors, emerged from a single source.
B. Contrary to all the past philosophies, male and female are of the same nature, and were created simultaneously by God. They are of the same race, they are brothers and sisters.
C. The superiority of man over angels and the whole universe is scientific, due to the fact that man has learned the names. And angels, despite their superiority in race and nature, bowed down to Adam.
Above all, man is located between mud and providence, he is free to choose either as his will dictates. Possession of will and freedom creates responsibility. And so, from the Islamic point of view, man is the only creature who is responsible not only for his own fate but also has a mission to fulfill the Divine Purpose in the world. Thus, he is a trustee in the universe. He (man) is the only one who knows the names whose meanings, I believe, stand for various scientific facts. Names are symbols for things; that is, the specific aspects of various concepts. Therefore, "having learned the names" is the potential and aptitude for understanding and comprehending the existing scientific facts in the universe. Accordingly, through his primordial education from the Lord, man can grasp the totality of facts existing in the universe, this is the greatest responsibility. Man's fate must be fashioned by himself."
At this point I must refer to a great tragedy in history. Man has not been recognized as a two-dimensional being. Unlike other religions in which God and Satan are in a state of constant war in nature, in Islam there is only one power in nature-the Divine Power.
However, with man being the battlefield, God and Satan are at war with each other. Thus, unlike former religions, the duality in Islam consists of worshiping two deities which exist in the constitution of man rather than in nature. Nature has a single deity and is under the dominance of only one God. This is why in Islam Satan is not standing against God but against the divine-half of man. And since man is a two-dimensional creature who is kneaded of mud and God, he is in need of both. His ideology, religion, life, and civilization must all be capable of satisfying both of these dimensions. The tragedy is that history does not bear witness to this fact.
History shows that all societies in the past chose either asceticism or worldliness. Chinese civilization was worldly first. The lifestyle of her aristocracy gave primacy to pleasures, beauties, and the maxi- mum use of natural resources. In such an atmosphere Lao-Tzu emerged with an ascetic religion that called attention to the spiritual side of man and consequently society was driven towards monasticism, theosophy, and Sufism. Later, Confucius appeared and China swung back towards worldliness. India, under the Vedic influence, was driven towards Sufism and Ascetism. The present Indian mortification of the flesh-lying on nails and living on a single date or almond for extended periods-is a tendency towards the other half and ignores the worldly aspect.
In Europe, Rome went towards committing crime, bloodshed, dominating the world, and accumulating the wealth of Asia and Europe. Later Jesus (PBUH) emerged and oriented Rome towards the hereafter, to such an extent that it led to the Middle Ages. In other words, Rome, the land of bloodshed, power, and militarism turned into the territory of monasticism and seclusion, until the Renaissance was born and the pendulum was then swung back to worldliness. And again today, the European civilization has become so world-minded (by occupying humanity with sensual gratifications) that, as Professor Chandel states:
Today's world has dedicated itself to producing only life's amenities. This shows the asininity of man's philosophy today. It signifies the aimless direction of technology and the ideal-less civilization. That is, humanity has deviated so drastically that it needs another Jesus.
As far as Islam is concerned, man is a two-dimensional creature who must possess a two-dimensional religion which can continually exert a force upon him in the opposite direction-upon his society as well as his soul-so that he can retain his equilibrium. This is what Islam is all about.
In order to understand a religion one must see and familiarize himself with its book, prophet, and its best products. Accordingly, the God of Islam is two-dimensional: 1) a profile of Jehovah, the Jewish God who is worldly, stern, political, a severe punisher, and despotic; and 2) the God of Jesus who is kind, forgiving, and merciful. All such characteristics for Allah, the God of Islam, can be inferred from the Qur'an.
As for the Qur'an, it is a book resembling the Torah (Old Testament) which contains social, political, and military precepts, including instructions for conducting a war and capturing as well as the freeing of captives. It is also a book which emphasizes the purification of nature, the piety of the soul, and the exalting ethics of the individual.
As to the prophet Mohammad (PBUH), he was also a man with two profiles (as we see in the history of celebrities) combined in one spirit. He was a man continuously at war, politically and militarily, with the enemies and the subversive elements of society. His aim was to build a modern society and civilization, while guiding humanity towards a distinct goal. But above all he was devout and virtuous.
Finally, the fruits of the prophet's training are Ali, Abuzar, and Salman. These are among the very few two-dimensional human beings of the world. These were men of politics and war, who struggled for a better existence. They spent a lifetime in the battlefields, military training, scientific inquiry and discussion. They were also virtuous on par with the monks and theosophists of the East. Today, with the information available on his meditations on God, Abuzar is the best guide to knowing the Qur'an. A look at the prophet's companions indicates that all were just, sensitive warriors, and constructive individuals who were concerned with building a better society and establishing justice.
In Islam man is not subjugated by God, since he is the Lord's associate, friend, trustee, and kinsman on earth. God taught man and all the angels prostrated themselves before him. Thus, such a two-dimensional being needs a religion which can protect him from swinging to either asceticism or worldliness, and continually keep him at an equilibrium. Only a two-dimensional religion is able to give reality to man's great responsibility.