Page is loading...

Chapter 1: Man Moves Towards Perfection

Every human being that is born in this world, regardless of its individual or social circumstances, aspires to its own perfection in accordance with its innate nature and its inborn intellect. It puts up with all kinds of sufferings and hardships for its hope of a brighter future. Its starting point is deficiency and its movement is directed towards perfection. It grows and develops with every step forward on the path of perfection. Man's intellect and spirit give such a profundity, power and speed to his movement towards perfection that there is no time limit to it except eternity itself.

This innate love for perfection is strong in the human being, but it is also present in the animals. They overcome every hindrance that they encounter in its way, avoid everything that they consider as harmful, and advance towards their instinctive goals. It may be said that all the phenomena that exist in nature, from infinitesimal atomic particles to the magnificent world of the galaxies, all are part of this caravan.

A scholar writes:

The wheat plant has been given a movement that enables it to give a greater yield, and the red rose a motion that gives it beauty and aroma. Man, too, has a motion by mean of which he advances on the path of wisdom and love. So if we observe certain ills that affect the growth of the wheat or the beauty or aroma of the rose or the purity of the human soul, we must not ascribe them to the motion itself but rather to a contrary cause that emerged in the course of motion.

Now we can understand to what extent the word 'purpose' assists us in thinking properly. It makes us understand that the universe, of which we find ourselves to be a small member, is moral and conscious, that we do not live in a dark and disorderly cosmos, that there is certainly a mover behind all this motion and that there exists a great consciousness and intellect behind all things. That is sufficient to convince us that life is something great and glorious, and it is here that we can at least prepare ourselves to co-operate and go along with the world's conscious spirit, knowing that opposing it is harmful for our life.1

Man's physical development lies beyond his will, whereas his spiritual development is voluntary. Hence it is not worthy of him that man should deviate from the general evolutionary trend of the universe and remain deficient in the cosmic system of progression. It is evident that inner development and perfection is something immaterial. Physical experiment and study lead him to make discoveries of a material nature, but he can never place himself on the highway of perfection and attain to the peaks of spiritual ascension with the means of physical methods.

In order that a tree may realize the full potential of its growth it must be freed of such hindrances to its growth as weeds and rocks and be provided the benefit of such agents as water, sun and air, which are essential for its growth. Man, too, in the process of developing the different dimensions of his being (body, spirit, and mind) must equip himself with the potent factors that contribute to his ascent towards eternity and infinitude. That is, he must employ them as the means that help him to achieve his ends and combat such factors that hinder his movement towards that goal.

Man must regulate the dimensions of his being in different directions in such a manner that would enable him to meet all his material and spiritual demands and needs and live worthily by basing his life on a precise and accurately worked-out plan. He must build an orderly society free from conflict, injustice, aggression, ignorance and sin, in which human beings can attain purity, light and intellectual sublimity and reach the high peaks of humanity.

Man's being is a turbulent aggregate of various urges. These urges in their natural and balanced state are not only not useless or harmful, rather each of them plays a vital role in man's spiritual makeup. However, an uncontrolled and unrestrained satisfaction of these urges is contrary to development. Should these urges be left free and uncontrolled in a person, he will become a slave of his savage and primordial urges and desires. Falling down from the high peaks of humanity, excellence and freedom he will sink into the mire of decadence and destruction. An animal is compliant and submissive to its urges, but a human being is loyal to his interests and obedient to his reason. He has the power to oppose his injurious tendencies and to affirm his beneficial and advantageous inclinations. For in the same way as physical instincts spring from man's nature, so do his positive, benign and truth-seeking impulses originate in his being, giving rise to his titanic, effulgent spiritual powers that can give birth to purity, dignity, power and righteousness.

Self-Purification as Agent of Development

There is no doubt that if one wants to follow definite principles in life-whether of a religious or a non-religious character-one must adopt a well-defined approach. In order to adopt a well-defined approach it is essential to select a single goal and move in a single direction. Hence one must avoid desultory involvements that may suit one's passing desires but are contrary to one's principles and goals in life. Hence self-control and self-discipline is essential in life for every man who wants to lead a human and rational existence. Man is a being equipped with the power of intellect and possessing unlimited desires. Should he recognize no restraint in life, he can become a bloodthirsty beast that can cause great destruction.

Man's perfection and greatness does not depend on physical matters, which can affect his experience only on a sensible plane. Scientific advancements do not bring about an improvement in all the aspects of man. Man's real perfection lies in his liberating himself from the straits of illusory lusts and physical pleasures and in advancing on the path of humanity by edifying his sensibilities, disciplining himself and becoming acquainted with higher ideas and a wider horizon.

The idea of a sumum bonum (Highest Good) is deeply rooted in the human spirit, otherwise man would not have been its seeker during his childhood days nor would he have been able to take flights on its vast horizons. The radiance of sublime values is so much attractive that men fall in love with them willingly and voluntarily pursue them. There is an upsurge of passion for strength from one's inner depths which is followed by the endeavour to acquire it. All of these are indications of the fact that love for perfection has deep roots in the human spirit and it begins to reveal itself once there arises a suitable opportunity.

The muscles become strong and powerful as a result of exercise. This is also true of the spiritual faculties, which become strong as a result of exercise and persisting effort, with the difference that the physical energies of the human body are limited and its powers are limited by the capacities of the body's sinews and cells. However, the wonders revealed by man's history are all manifestations of the power of the developed soul, whose growth is the result of a gradual emancipation from the limits and obstacles of material things. The horizons of self-knowledge and self-consciousness expand only when it is realized that the human spirit is a great and wonderful masterpiece of creation. It reveals itself in its show of strength, in its dynamism, its domination over material things, and especially in its capacity to lift man from the depths of decadence, weakness and inadequacy to the heights of communion with the Divine.

Of course, in the same way as the body is forced to endure a certain amount of hardship in order to fulfil its vital functions, so also the spirit must put up with pain and toil in the course of moral development. All the various concepts and principles in the field of character building revolve around the axis of the soul or the spirit. It is spirit which is capable of reform and discipline. It is spirit which is capable of attaining sublimity and acquiring higher human qualities and excellences, loving as it does spiritual perfection. And finally, it is spirit which generates a series of ethical laws for the human being that the animal neither possesses nor requires.

Dr. Alexis Carrel, a French scholar, says:

We must habituate ourselves to distinguish between good and evil with the same perspicacity that we distinguish between light and darkness and between noise and silence, and then commit ourselves to avoid vice and embrace virtue. However, abstinence from vice requires a healthy physical and psychological makeup. The purposive growth of the body and the soul is not possible except with the help of self-purification.
For those seeking spiritual edification, no kind of extravagance is permissible. The inner order always takes its own requital. The physiological and psychological state makes up the essential basis of personality and is like a spring-board from which the soul can take its flight.

The path of edification is directed upwards in time and the travellers mostly slide into swamps or fall into ravines in the course of the journey, or stay behind by the side of riverside gardens and go into an endless sleep, whether in happiness or suffering, in affluence or poverty, health or sickness. Nevertheless, one must carry on his endeavour and rise to his feet after every fall and, little by little, acquire the zeal, faith and the will to aspire and the spirit of mutual help, the capacity to love and, ultimately, salvation.2

There is an absence of a precise equilibrium, order and balance in the world today between individual and society and between the body and the spirit. When man allows his human specialties to remain idle and suppresses the subtle, critical and vital aspects of his own being, which are a necessary part of his unique vicegerency of God on the world stage, when he repudiates his human dignity although created as a human being, flouts his God-given nature and, ultimately, programs his life on the basis of hedonism and pursuit of desires, that amounts to a negation of his own being and his raison d'être. When that happens, it is inevitable that the God-given nature should exact severe damages for his unprincipled thinking and foolish conduct and wreck its revenge upon him.

Right now humanity is paying a heavy compensation for its conduct in terms of peace, happiness and its essential human characteristics. The effect of this disorder and misconduct emerges in the shape of various kinds of crimes and perversions. In the societies of today perhaps no minute passes without there occurring a heinous crime and such crimes as adultery, rape, theft and so on. This is one of the biggest problems of the world's nations today and it must be considered a great human crisis of world-wide dimensions. The yearly expenditure incurred for the purpose of preventing crime or on the search, prosecution, trial and punishment of criminals makes up a stupendous sum.

One of the factors responsible for the prevalence of callousness in human relations, widespread cruelty, and the daily increasing moral insensitivity in Western society lies in the way of thinking of some of its teachers and philosophers. Nietzsche, the well-known German philosopher, based his philosophy on pitilessness and racial superiority, which became a motive that lay behind the savage bloodshed and destructive wars of the last century. Such is the logic of this Western philosopher:

Pity stands opposed to the tonic emotions which heighten our vitality; it has a depressing effect. We are deprived of strength when we feel pity...

Quite in general, pity crosses the law of development, which is the law of selection. It preserves what is ripe for destruction, it defends those who have been disinherited and condemned by life, and by the abundance of the failures of all kinds which it keeps alive, it gives life itself a gloomy and questionable aspect....

Pity is the practice of nihilism. To repeat: this depressive and contagious instinct arouses those instincts which aim at the preservation of life and at the enhancement of its value. It multiplies misery and conserves all that is miserable, and thus is a prime instrument of the advancement of decadence....3 An "altruistic" morality-a morality in which self-interest wilts away-remains a bad sign under all circumstances. This is true of individuals; it is particularly true of nations. The best is lacking when self-interest begins to be lacking. Instinctively to choose what is harmful for oneself, to feel attracted by "disinterested" motives, that is virtually the formula of decadence... Strong ages, noble cultures, consider pity, "neighbour-love" and the lack of self and self-assurance something contemptible...4

Sensual pleasure, lust for power, selfishness: these three have hitherto been cursed the most and held in the worst and most unjust repute-these three will I weigh well and humanly.5

The Causes of Crime

The causes behind the commission of crimes as well as the character of criminals must be studied to see whether they are such by nature and birth. Those who are polluted by various moral vices and commit crime, are they born with such tendencies or does their criminality originate in some spiritual disease? If it does, then how can they be treated?

Some experts in the field believe that a group of criminals are basically born such; criminality is inherent in their nature. This kind of individuals have even certain apparent abnormal characteristics which differentiate them from other people. They are, so to say, criminals by nature. Lombroso, the well-known Italian criminologist, was a strong defender of this theory of his own. His theory found many followers and was received with great interest by his contemporary writers.

Without doubt man is a being susceptible to moral instruction. He performs a part of his actions out of his own free will, and voluntarily refrains from certain acts. Such a being is necessarily endowed with free will, otherwise it would be futile to admonish and instruct a creature whose actions are completely determined and which has no will of its own and no control over its own destiny. Competent thinkers consider man to be free in his actions and responsible for them.

Teachers of morality and ethics base their moral teachings and educative efforts meant to bring welfare to man on the same approach that is on a prescription consisting of certain do and don'ts and bidding one to learn certain points and to abstain from certain actions in order to achieve his personal welfare.

If one were to study the plight of juvenile delinquents in reformatories, prisons and mental hospitals, it would be found that they are those who have grown up in morally polluted or negligent families and had no personal experience of moral rectitude and purity.

As to the group of criminals who feel no restraint against committing any kind of crime or offence, most of them are those who opened their eyes in families devoid of emotional warmth and moral virtues and polluted with various sorts of vices and indecencies, or they are those who have lived in a decadent social environment. It was family and social factors that caused them to choose crime and vice rather than rectitude and purity.

The Worthiest Duty of Man

The most important, as well as the worthiest, of man's duties is education. Man discovered the value of education at the very dawn of his existence. For the same reason, he laid down certain principles and objectives commensurate with the development of his human environment and in proportion to his perception of his real duties and mission in life, though these objectives were sometimes correct and at times misconceived.

We clearly witness the amazing changes brought about in the course of human history by the various schools of thought that totally altered the features of life. Our study of the world's realities makes us arrive at the conclusion that man has not been created evil and satanic by nature. Were we to accept that man is inherently evil, all the efforts to educate him would be fruitless and futile and the endeavours and efforts of all the divine prophets and world's educators would be an exercise in futility. Had crime, murder and destructiveness been inherent in the nature of the people of the Arabian peninsula, would it have been possible for the Prophet of Islam, may God bless him and his Household, to bring about such a comprehensive revolution in the spirit of individual Arabs and transform their essential nature?

It is true that man is confronted with physical forces and urges at the first stages of his life. From the moment that he opens his eyes on this world, his faculties are realized gradually one after another and thus he begins his activities. However, at the same time, by the side of physical faculties he possesses an immense capacity and potentiality for spiritual development and growth. There are capacities and aspirations more sublime than needs that are latent in his being, and his energies, while they are being utilized, may take various forms and flow in different channels, although the phase of spiritual development generally commences later than the phases of physical growth.

But in any case it is a natural process and man's higher aspirations are capable of taking over and employing his other energies for their own purposes. However, for this objective he stands in need of effective external assistance, care and guidance. Because in the absence of such assistance these aspirations may suffer deviation or misguide.

Of course, such external assistance is not something unnatural or imposed but a part of the human nature. It is similar to helping a child to learn speech although it possesses the natural capacity for speech since the day of its birth. The principle of human development and man's destiny as the noblest of creatures is described in the Holy Qur'an in these words:

O man! Thou art labouring unto thy Lord laboriously, and thou shalt encounter Him. (84:6) And that the final end is unto thy Lord. (53:42)

Man, in the course of his flight on the horizons of being and towards the infinite, must draw inspiration from the teachings of divine prophets, which constitute a genuine and comprehensive program of education. This is necessary in order to release the divine energies latent, in his being and which he needs in order to be able to attain to the ultimate end of his development, success and deliverance.

Gustave Lebon writes:

It was after relentless endeavours that philosophy realised that it cannot make a way to the supernatural. Hence we are forced to follow the prescriptions of the physicians of the spirit who have insight into the peculiarities of the human soul and can be entrusted to take care of his spiritual development. These spiritual physicians are God-sent prophets and seers who propose prescriptions for man's welfare received from the source of revelation and inspiration and aimed to achieve an inner discipline, by means of which they can assist him to attain the perfection of which he is worthy.

The Holy Qur'an refers to both the aspects of man's nature while describing human nature.6 It points out that should man fail to acquire the basic training, the tempestuous urges within him will begin to advance, weakening the forces of reason and conscience and subjugating other impulses within the soul, employing them for their own purposes and ends. The greatest marvel of man's creation is that he possesses a two-sided nature. Therefore, one must not ignore his capacity for taking on different colours and the need to guide him in a definite direction.

'Ali, may peace be upon him, said:
Beings endowed with the faculty of reason require education in the same way as farms need rain.7
If the principles of education are not based on the regulating factors and the human energies be left untended and un-channelled in a state of wild freedom, they will always remain subject to the primary human needs. That is why human character and conduct always stand in need of a formative training through praise and reward and blame and punishment.

The Qur'an declares:

Prosperous is he who purifies the soul and failed has he who soils it with sin and impurity. (91:9-10)

The very concept of punishment is based on man's innate power of discrimination between good and evil, and exoneration from responsibility requires the presence of some physical or mental deficiency in a person. The viewpoint maintained by some modern trends of thought that exonerate the criminal as a victim of social evils or decadent and deviant training and consider the individual, despite his possession of an innate power of discrimination, as a powerless and negative being, cannot be considered as a scientific truth.

Of course, no one can deny the great role of upbringing and training or ignore the momentous responsibility borne by society and environment; for the various factors related to commission of crime share the responsibility for it. But nevertheless it does not mean that the culprit is devoid of responsibility for his act.

There is no doubt that a group of offenders consists of those who can be reformed through a little guidance and direction. They are victims of spiritual illnesses and their crime is a product of certain psychic disorders and afflictions which are not deeply rooted. Or it is a result of company and association with wayward and immoral persons. This kind of sick persons should be identified and treated at the earliest opportunity. On the whole, severity of reaction and intensity of campaign against crime cannot by itself root out criminal conduct.

The punishment meted out to the criminal for the sake of safeguarding social and individual welfare is necessary, because the sanctions against him are a natural result and product of his own conduct and essential for the maintenance of justice and equilibrium in society and security of social life. However, punishment alone is not sufficient and that which is more significant is the re-education of criminals, so that their unhealthy approach to life can be altered through fruitful instruction and so that their unlawful and aggressive spirit does not infect other individuals in society.

Are There Any Born Criminals?

Today the theory of Lombroso and his followers who believed in the existence of born criminals has been rejected by experts in the field. While serving as a doctor in the Italian army, Lombroso had noticed that tattooing was very common among criminals. This led him to conclude that criminals had a lower level of physical sensitivity than normal people and that their lack of moral sensitivity was also a product of the lack of physical sensitivity.

Later on, while dissecting the brain of a robber he noted that it resembled in certain features the brains of lower vertebrae. Those observations formed a prelude to the theory of the appearance of hidden hereditary traits. Lombroso considered certain characteristics as being indicative of a criminal temperament, some of them being: curly hair, slanting eyes, a protruding chin, arching eyebrows, and abnormally big or small head, protruding cheekbones, big ears, a disproportionate relationship between the size of the skull and the face, and a long-drawn forehead.

When several of these characteristics are present in a person, one could ascertain with certainty his criminal nature, he believed. He named these characteristics, 'the marks of decadence.' Dr. Alexis Carrel, a French scholar, says:

The born criminal, invented by Lombroso, does not exist. But there are born defectives who become criminals. In reality, many criminals are normal. They are often more clever than policemen and judges. Sociologists and social workers do not meet them during their survey of prisons. The gangsters and crooks, heroes of the cinema and the daily papers, sometimes display normal and even high mental, affective, and aesthetic activities. But their moral sense has not developed. This disharmony in the world of consciousness is a phenomenon characteristic of our time.

We have succeeded in giving organic health to the inhabitants of the modern city. But, despite the immense sums spent on education, we have failed to develop completely their intellectual and moral activities. Even in the elite of the population, consciousness often lacks harmony and strength. The elementary functions are dispersed, of poor quality, and of low intensity. Some of them may be quite deficient.

The happiest and most useful men consist of a well-integrated whole of intellectual, moral, and organic activities. The quality of these activities, and their equilibrium, gives to such a type its superiority over the others. Their intensity determines the social level of a given individual. It makes of him a tradesman or a bank president, a little physician or a celebrated professor, a village mayor or a president of the United States. The development of complete human beings must be the aim of our efforts. It is only with such thoroughly developed individuals that a real civilization can be constructed.8

A contemporary psychologist writes:

Today it has been conclusively established, scientifically as well as philosophically and beyond any doubt, that there does not exist an 'evil' human being; there exist only sick human beings. The realisation of this matter is so significant that it may be said without any exaggeration that no discovery or invention in the world since the emergence of man until the present has had, not will ever have, an equal impact on human welfare. That is, the day that people truly realise this fact and the organisation of society and its regulating institutions is based on this established truth the major part of human suffering, wretchedness, enmities, conflicts and punishments will undergo a moderation. Why?

Because when everybody comes to know, for instance, that stinginess, envy, fear, cunning, prejudice, capriciousness, injustice and hundreds of other vices of this kind are logical outcomes of spiritual illnesses that are susceptible to treatment exactly like the common cold, sore throat, indigestion and so on, that will yield two definite important and useful results.

Firstly, the sick persons themselves, who are today regarded as 'evil'* will turn to treatment with a full hope and become healthy and good human beings. Secondly, the people will not view them with hostility and resentment as 'evil' persons, but will look upon them as sick human beings deserving sympathy. And it goes without saying that there is a great difference between these two outlooks and their results.

Right now this is the principle that is implemented in most schools in civilised countries, and even in prisons, and this approach is gradually coming to be used with very beneficial results. It is the duty of humanist writers to make all efforts to propagate these extremely beneficial truths, so that all societies throughout the world are benefited by them.9

This scientific and philosophical theory, whose discovery has been ascribed here to the world of modern science, is one which has a history of fourteen centuries in the religious texts of Islam. The Holy Qur'an refers to the hypocrites as sick persons suffering from two-facedness and malice:

There is a sickness in their hearts. (2:10)

Some moralists and adherents of certain faiths consider man's inner nature as evil and sinful. John Dewey writes:

"Give a dog a bad name and hang him." Human nature has been the dog of professional moralists, and consequences accord with the proverb. Man's nature has been regarded with suspicion, with fear, with sour looks, sometimes with enthusiasm for its possibilities but only when these were placed in contrast with its actualities. It has appeared to be so evilly disposed that the business of morality was to prune and curb it; it would be thought better of if it could be replaced by something else.

It has been supposed that morality would be quite superfluous were it not for the inherent weakness, bordering on depravity, of human nature. Some writers with a more genial conception have attributed the current blackening to theologians who have thought to honour the divine by disparaging the human. Theologians have doubtless taken a gloomier view of man than have pagans and secularists. But this explanation doesn't take us far. For after all these theologians are themselves human, and they would have been without influence if the human audience had not somehow responded to them.10

Man's Pure and Immaculate Nature

The Holy Prophet of Islam, may God bless him and his Household, said:

It means that every child is born with a pure and sinless nature. It is its parents that bring him up as a Christian or Jew. The religious creed of the parents and their mode of thinking affects its impressionable mind.11

Imam 'Ali, may peace be upon him, is reported to have said to his son:

A young heart is like virgin soil which accepts whatever kind of seed is sown in it. My son, I took the opportunity offered by your childhood years for training you, before that your impressionable heart should become hardened and before that different things occupy your mind.12

A part from the fact that man is definitely not born with a criminal disposition, there is a force latent in the primordial structure of every human man that draws him towards goodness. This force makes him return to his original state whenever he departs from his true orientation. In the idiom of the philosophers, whenever a certain nature is subject to and extraneous force, there comes into being an inclination to revert it to its original natural state.

Since very ancient times, a group of philosophers has felt that theoretical reason represents the highest faculty of the human soul, although its capacity for comprehension is limited and the surety of its practical effectiveness is not very considerable. Theoretical reason is inadequate in some matters, such as in delivering just judgements, the reproof of the criminal and the sinner, and prescription of a program that may guarantee human happiness. Hence there should exist an independent force in man's being that guides him to most of the virtues and assists him to sacrifice and seek perfection and which explains his moral behaviour.

The Holy Qur'an asserts that inclination towards faith and repulsion from sin and disobedience exists in man's nature. God has not only placed faith in the Source of Creation in man's nature and bestowed upon him the capacity to know God, but has also created therein a natural attraction towards virtue and a repulsion from vice, sin and indecency, so that the soul is unconsciously attracted towards human merits.

But God has endeared to you faith, decking it fair in your hearts, and He has made detestable to you unbelief and ungodliness and disobedience. (49:7)

According to Khwajah Hafiz of Shiraz:
This love and loyalty between me and thee, I have brought from there, not developed them here.

Bertrand Russell writes:

The old idea was that virtue depends essentially upon will: we were supposed to be full of bad desires, which we controlled by an abstract faculty of volition. It was apparently regarded as impossible to root out bad desires: all we could do was to control them. The situation was exactly analogous to that of the criminal and the police. No one supposed that a society without would-be criminals was possible; the most that could be done was to have such an efficient police force that most people would be afraid to commit crimes, and the few exceptions would be caught and punished. The modern psychological criminologist is not content with this view; he believes that the impulses to crime could, in most cases, be prevented from developing by suitable education. And what applies to society applies to the individual.13

Ralph Waldo Emerson writes;

The simple rise as by specific levity not into a particular virtue, but into the region of all the virtues. They are in the spirit which contains them all. The soul requires purity, but purity is not it; requires justice, but justice is not that; requires beneficence, but is somewhat better; so that there is a kind of descent and accommodation felt when we leave speaking of moral nature to urge a virtue which it enjoins. To the well-born child all the virtues are natural, and not painfully acquired. Speak to his heart, and the man becomes suddenly virtuous.14

Therefore, according to Islam as well as realistic thinkers of the present-day world man comes into the world with a pure and wholesome spiritual nature in accordance with the laws of heredity. The presence of sin and corruption in him is accidental and extraneous to his original nature. It is the violation of original nature or the misguide and retrogression of instincts that leads not only to the emergence of spiritual sickness but blocks the natural flow of the spirit by means of certain complexes Otherwise he has the capacity to advance towards perfection with rapid and sure steps in accordance with his genuine impulses.

Of course, the influence of environment is not the same on different brains with their different neurological makeup, in the same way as environment does not have a similar effect on the growth of different plants and herbs. Every individual lives with his own neurological makeup which he has inherited in accordance with the law of heredity. No two individuals in the world have an identical neurological structure and makeup and they tangibly exhibit a difference from the viewpoint of individual physiology and bodily hormones.

Hence, in the same way as a particular environment affects every seed and plant in a specific manner, so also its effect on everybody's brain's neurones is also specific, in the sense that life in a particular environment has a specific effect on every individual and produces a particular personality which is not comparable with that of another individual.

Even two children of the same parents, who should apparently possess certain common characteristics due to a common heredity and environment, exhibit an amazing difference from the viewpoint of personal qualities. The call of the prophets is based on man's inherent disposition towards monotheism and his innate moral nature. These natural principles, together with reason, constitute the fundamental basis of education.

The great role of the divine prophets, which they seek to fulfil through their mission and teachings, is to awaken the inherent capacities of man latent in his nature. It is possible that the inner light of nature may become dimmed due to certain conditions, circumstance and various factors relating to man's being, but the real nature is never obliterated. The foundations of this nature have remained secure and stable despite all the difficulties and impediments that rose in its way throughout the course of history. Ultimately, deviation from the course of nature is not related to man's innate makeup and reality.

That we can engage in training and self-discipline through reliance on human nature is an extremely significant principle. But we must also not forget that violent passions with their destructive power can weaken our nature, and should we fail to channel them properly and to use them in a balanced manner and prove to be incapable of checking their excesses, our natural powers will be enfeebled and we will fail to utilise fruitfully the potential offered by nature. The creation of balance in passion and behaviour depends on recognition of the point of moderation, on exercise, and on constancy of effort and sacrifice. Aristotle says in this regard:

That moral virtue is a mean, then, and in what sense it is so, and that it is a mean between two vices, the one involving excess, the other deficiency, and that it is such because its character is to aim at what is intermediate in passions and in actions, has been sufficiently stated. Hence also it is no easy task to be good. For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g. to find the middle of a circle is not for everyone but for him who knows; so, too, anyone can get angry-that is easy-or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

Hence he who aims at the intermediate must first depart from what is the more contrary to it, as Calypso advises:Hold the ship out beyond that surf and spray.

For of the extremes one is more erroneous, one less so; therefore, since to hit the mean is hard in the extreme, we must as a second best, as people say, take the least of the evils, and this will be done best in the way we describe.

But we must consider the things towards which we ourselves also are easily carried away, for some of us tend to one thing, some to another; and this will be recognisable from the pleasure and the pain we feel. We must drag ourselves away to the contrary extreme; for we shall get into the intermediate state by drawing well away from error, as people do in straightening sticks that are bent.

Now if everything the pressure or pleasure is that to be guarded against for we do not judge it impartially. We ought, then, to feel towards pressure as the elders of the people felt towards Helen, and in all circumstances repeat their sayings for if we dismiss pleasure thus we are less likely to go astray. It is by doing this, then (to sum the matter up) that we shall best be able to hit the mean.15

Spiritual training and growth should be our highest goal in life. It is our duty to open the windows of our heart and mind to let in virtue, righteousness, love and mercy. These are the things that enlighten and burnish our hearts and make our Creator, unique in His essence, to be pleased with us.

Most people engage in all kinds of labour and practise self-denial in order to acquire the material means of life and comfort and go on toiling until death. For this purpose they even deny themselves the comforts that they are after and which they imagine to be the means of happiness. That kind of thinking is erroneous and that is the cause of the failure and wretchedness of most people.

They ought to know that they have lost the way and left the true path of happiness and success. One cannot attain a life of peace, free of anxiety, through the pursuit of passing pleasures and delights or through gathering an immense amount of wealth. Such a program does not sustain life or make it flourish. On the contrary, it quickly dries up the vital resources of life and destroys them.

One who seeks happiness through the pursuit of pleasures will find nothing except anxiety and bafflement. If we fail to keep in check the rebellious passions and infantile inclinations within us, which constantly keep on raising their heads, with the means of reason and sagacity, they will overpower our conscience and make us their own slave. The more that we succeed in subduing our lusts and desires, the closer shall we move to happiness. To sum up, all our misfortunes, afflictions and helplessness, and, in a word, everything that clouds the horizons of our life, is a product of the domination of lusts over our being.

Freedom and Restraint

In all such cases the question is not one of having to make a choice between freedom and bondage, but one between two kinds of bondage. In other words, it is not one of having to weigh freedom against bondage, but of choosing between two kinds of freedom. Man is free to choose between a freedom that is human and another that is bestial. The bondages or restraints applicable to man are those of conviction, morality and human merit. The bondages peculiar to animals are instinct and unrestrained impulse.

One who yields to the call of his carnal desires and follows them obediently without paying heed to the outcome is one who has broken all human restraints and freed himself from the bondage of religion, morality and humanity. He is the one who has failed to resist the temptations of the carnal self and to stand up against the pressure of instincts. Liberation from all restraint for the sake of fulfilment of instinctive urges is not real freedom, for in such a state man unconsciously negates his own being and deviates from his raison d'être. Then his ultimate destiny and end is decadence and inevitable destruction.

However, a human being that has made a firm covenant with God and does not seek to violate it in his life is one who resolutely employs his energies and powers in the course that he has decided upon. The greater the power of his conviction, the firmer is he in holding on to that covenant. He has a sense of real emancipation in his encounter with the tyranny of passions. That is, he is free from the oppression of desires and resistant to their compulsion. When man undertakes to make a dignified effort to obtain freedom and to become an active force in the world of being and to make the ascent towards the sublime station of which he is worthy, he will not accept any logic that violates his genuine humanity.

The major part of the precepts of religion relates to the control and moderation of passions and the development of the higher impulses; for what force other than faith in the heart of the religious person can moderate vital instincts and keep man from deviation by the means of its spiritual power?

An inner sense of responsibility is essential to avert the disruption of social order and the spread of crime and to preserve society from the harms of aggression and violation of law. It is faith which is the source of such an inner sense of responsibility and which has the power to control man's behaviour, character and thought. It is the creation of faith in God amongst people that Islam proposes as the foundation of education as well as the basis of social and economic reform and as the means of preventing crime and offence.

For this purpose it has also adopted the best possible method. On the one hand it holds out a promise of highest reward for the virtuous and, on the other, threatens with severest punishment those who surrender to immoral and indecent conduct under the influence of rebellious passions. This approach has the result that man advances with great eagerness towards moral virtues and the fear of punishment makes him avoid vices resolutely.

Habit and Its Constructive and Destructive Role

The positive and negative aspects of habit play a fundamental role in man's growth and development as well as his corruption and decadence. A study of history can reveal to one that heritage (which in essence consists of collective habits) has been an effective and important factor in determining the destinies of human societies. The spiritual power of steadfastness vis-à-vis adversities, hardships and calamities, a natural resistance to the negative aspects of events, and the capacity to overcome their effects, are results of the positive aspects of social heritage.

However, the harms ensuing from the negative aspects of heritage and habit are very extensive and their damage is irremediable. Thus in the same way as heritage plays an important role in making calamities and their negative aspects bearable, it is also a powerful factor from the viewpoint of destroying the positive and beneficial impact of indubitable truths on the human spirit.

A negative heritage and custom becomes an impediment in the way of perception of the real value of things and many principles and laws pertaining to the world of matter and spirit, as well as to the understanding of many beneficial and illuminating ideas. It does not allow man to perceive facts with a clear vision and to know their significance. In order to understand this matter, it is not necessary to cite the history of some of the subtle and profound problems of science.

The majority of nature's most significant and wonderful phenomena have remained unknown for centuries on account of the habitual familiarity with the apparent character of the laws of nature. It has happened very often that a moment of reflection and attention opposed to the course of habit has been immensely rewarding in opening the path of progress and advancement for man.

It is possible that even knowledge may encounter a spiritual impediment and barrier and lose its value, becoming thereby equal to ignorance form the viewpoint of effectiveness. That is because negative habit causes a distortion in character and becomes an impediment in the way of the fruitfulness of knowledge on the level of action.

There are many learned persons who are so thoroughly entangled in the mysterious tentacles of habit that are rendered incapable in life of implementing their knowledge and understanding either in their character and conduct or for the betterment of others. They somehow lack sufficient power to stop a chain of events which they know for certain to be harmful and detrimental. This blindness and neglect is a result of intellectual habit which results in a resistance to reason and knowledge and stunts man's spiritual growth.

Many are specialists among physicians who possess a remarkable degree of specialised knowledge but whose accumulated knowledge fails to make any spiritual contribution and, on the level of action, is ineffective in improving their conduct. In the view of Islam, merit is not confined to knowledge. Rather knowledge is a means to understanding and one of the essential means of spiritual growth, for this passive virtue, except for introducing difference in the levels of understanding, is by itself incapable of performing an active and effective spiritual function.

The Qur'an criticises the learned, who are devoid of character in these words:

O you who believe, wherefore do you say what you do not? Very hateful is it to God, that you say what you do not (61:2-3)

The emphasis of Islam on thought, intellection and contemplation in all situations, reveals the importance of thinking in avoiding the possible dangers of negative habits and in building up the power of resistance against vicious habits and opposition to them. Thought and ideation directed against the force of any kind of habit is a fruitful activity and struggle that broadens one's vision and is an important factor that strengthens will power.

The various kinds of deviations are actually a result of the failure to think soundly and logically. Basically, it is due to negligence and the absence of carefulness in thinking that many people deviate from the highway of guidance to take to deviant paths. From this we realise why Islam has singled out thinking and contemplation as the highest level of worship, preferring an hour of genuine thinking to seventy years of worship.

That is because this kind of thinking is basically responsible for the eradication of ignorance and ignorance. It removes the veils that conceal truth and reality from the human spirit and gives depth and firmness to faith, and thereby does not leave any room for heresies, wrong customs and negative influences that may enter the core of man's being.

When man arrives at a veritable fact and truth as a result of thought and contemplation, he acquires a power of will that is the result of genuine thought and not something based on baseless fancies. This strengthened will enable him to control his own behaviour and conduct.

Thinking transforms inactive reason into a reason that is active with the coming to life of effective ideas and notions which can prove to be very potent.

Good and evil moral traits take roots in man's inner being as a result of repetition and exercise. Although they are acquired characteristics, their influence is as powerful and far-reaching as that of natural and innate qualities. When formed by habit into a stable quality and trait, working like instinct they induce inner reflexes that powerfully direct man's conduct.

Imam Hasan al-'Askari, the Eleventh Imam, may peace be upon him, said:

One's abandoning of a habit is something like a miracle.16

Munn, in his work Psychology, writes:

In an earlier discussion we referred to the fact that some motives developed in relation to physiological needs appear to function without such a linkage in adult life. To quote Allport again, the bond that remains in adult life is "historical, not functional." This concept has also been applied by Allport and others to the persistence of habits even though the motives which originally led to their acquisition are no longer operative.

It appears, at times, that habits have themselves acquired the status of drives. Some possible examples of functional autonomy are persistence of sexual behaviour after the menopause, when estrogens are no longer present, persistence of a vocational activity after the individual has made his fortune and achieved distinction, and living to eat instead of merely eating to live.

In most instances of apparent functional autonomy there is a possibility that new motives have supplanted the original and that the habit in question is not, in reality, operating without extraneous motivation....

In cases of functional autonomy... the habit is freed from at least its original motivation. Force of habit, on the other hand, is persistence of a particular way of satisfying a given motive. For example, if one has regularly satisfied the hunger drive by eating foods prepared in a certain way, there is often resistance to eating foods prepared in some other way.

In other words, habit forces us "into a rut." This phenomenon is often referred to as "force of habit", as though habits once formed act somewhat as drives, impelling us to continue the accustomed ways instead of taking up new ways of satisfying our motives.

James may have exaggerated somewhat the permanency of our habitual modes of behaviour, for people often do change their prejudices and, during war or other emergencies, their ways of living. However, there is usually a very strong resistance to change. Anyone who wishes to change the behaviour of an adult must take into consideration this tendency to resist well-formed habits, even when these have become outmoded or dangerous.17

The Approach of Islam

Though habit is a gift that human nature has been blessed with and which directs a significant part of man's efforts in new and innovative fields, despite its great role, in the absence of awareness it may take the form of a deceptive and deviant tendency that results in the corruption and perversion of the spirit.

When Islam arose on the horizon of pagan Arabia, it was dominated by various harmful customs each of which was alone sufficient to destroy a nation.

In that dark era when human awareness and consciousness were darkened by vicious customs and perverse habits, Islam, with a great leap, which was an unprecedented phenomenon in itself, shook the society out of its state of slumber and neglect and called upon the people to abandon customs and irrational and unreasonable practices.

A society that was sunk in various kinds of superstitions and savage customs emancipated itself from the chains of wrong and absurd practices through the teachings of the Prophet of Islam, may God bless him and his Household. Though it had developed in an environment devoid of any educative or formative influence, it soon abandoned all the customs and ways of its ancestors to begin a new life that was free of the dominance of perverse social customs and which held out t};e promise of felicity and happiness.

The method of the holy founder of Islam in liberating mankind from the bondages of social environment which had rendered incapable its inner and outward sensibilities, suspended its rational faculties and blocked its path of growth, was, to put it simply, to remove the many spiritual curtains that obscured its vision. He called the attention of the people to certain tangible, observable realities and, by relying mainly on their faculty of reason and thought, induced them to resume the interrupted process of thinking with the help of firm arguments and proofs. In this way they were made capable of perceiving realities and rational verities and of discovering facts.

Ultimately it was with the means of this great historical leap that the society was able to free itself from the indignity of superstitions and savage customs and man was emancipated from unmistakable ignorance and misguidance.

In that dark age, there existed no force that could counter injurious customs, break the hold of superstitions, open new vistas beyond the barriers of existing customs, and relate human intellect and insight to realities.

Islam adopted a special strategy prior to the building of a felicitous society, which was to demolish the power of custom. This included those habits which had to do with thought and belief as well as those which related to conduct and behaviour. Those habits which were relatively more harmful and dangerous-such as polytheism-were attacked first and eradicated and dealt a decisive blow.

Other vicious social customs, which aside from their hold over the public mind were linked to economic conditions-such as slavery, usury, consumption of alcoholic drinks-were dealt with a gradual and milder approach. In this case, it adopted a step-by-step strategy. As a result, the people became gradually trained in self-control and the ground was fully prepared for spiritual purification and edification; and this is the most productive approach for the making of individuals in a society.

Prof. Carrel, the well-known French scientist, writes:

Before everything we must remove the impediments in the way of spiritual growth. Before we move ahead on the road of edification we must drop these habits and vices that paralyse spiritual growth. But what should we do once these impediments have been removed? Thereafter we should begin spiritual development in accordance with the genuine proclivities of life.

Man has the amazing advantage that he can, if he wants to, form his body and soul with the help of his consciousness. However, such a task requires a special tactic.

One can learn to control oneself in the same way as one can learn to pilot an airplane. Only those who are masters of their own selves can take up this training. It is not necessary to be learned or intelligent in order to acquire psychic growth. All that is needed is that one should really want it. Without doubt no one can carry out this task alone and everyone stands in need of guidance and counsel at some moment in life. But in developing and organising one's intellectual and emotional activities, which are the essence of personality, one cannot benefit from the help of others.

The first principle is not the development of rational faculties but the building of one's emotional infrastructure on which all other psychic factors are based. The need for better conduct is no lesser than the need for the visual and auditory senses.18

'Ali, may peace be upon him, said:

At the beginning obtain self control through abstention from sins and vices. Then it will be easier for you to habituate yourself of the obedience and service of God.19

Acquire control over yourself by abandoning (bad) habits and fight your desires so that they become subject to the power of your will.20

Islam makes use of the force of habit as an effective means for man's spiritual training and for implementing its program for the creation of happiness. Once it has created living ties between God and human hearts and sown in them the seeds of virtue and human merit, it transforms them into habit and custom. All religious customs spring from inner yearning and the core of the human soul. Then this inner yearning is converted into a specific conduct and practice with clearly defined features and characteristics. Gradually it takes the form of a conscious habit based on full consciousness. At the same time this change and transformation saves the human being from what would otherwise be an unbearable and exhausting exercise.

Childhood and Habit

The recommendation of Islam concerning making children gradually used to religious duties and higher virtues and restraining them from sinful conduct constitute a powerful means for creating a firm and stable foundation of faith and piety in their spiritual personality. The implementation of such an educational program to a substantial degree will neutralise the harmful effects of environment in later years.

The Noble Prophet, may God bless him and his Household, said:

Accustom your children to prayer when they reach the age of seven.21

Imam al-Sajjad, may peace be upon him, while counselling his children said to them:

Refrain from Lying in big and small matters and in jest and serious talk; for when a man lies in petty matters he will be emboldened to lie in bigger matters also.22

Imam al-Sadiq, may peace be upon him, used to say:

Impart religious education to your children as soon as you can and before your opponents take a lead over you and plant wrong and false ideas in their minds.23

Bertrand Russell writes:

Every bad habit acquired is a barrier to better habits later, that is why the first formation of habits in early infancy is so important. If the first habits are good, endless trouble is saved later. Moreover, habits acquired very early feel, in later life, just like instincts; they have the same profound grip. New contrary habits acquired afterwards cannot have the same force; for this reason, also, the first habits should be a matter of grave concern.24

  • 1. Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  • 2. Carrel, Alexis, Reflections sur la conduite de la vie, Persian translation. Rah wa rasm-e zindagi, pp. 99-100.
  • 3. Nietzsche, The Antichrist, in Walter Kaufmann, The Portable Neitzsche (New York: The Viking Press, 1970) pp. 572-573.
  • 4. Idem. Twilight of the Idols, in Kaufmann, op. cit., pp. 535-536.
  • 5. Idem. Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Penguin Books, 1975), trans. by R. Hollingdale J., p. 206.
  • 6. The Qur'an, 43:14, 14:33, 95:4, 17:69.
  • 7. Al-Amidi, Ghurar al-hikam, p. 224.
  • 8. Carrel, Alexis, Man, the Unknown (Bombay: Wilco Publishing House), p. 137.
  • 9. Ravankawi (Psychoanalysis), p. 7.
  • 10. John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1928), p. 1.
  • 11. Al-Majlisi, Bihar al-anwar, vol. 2, p. 87.
  • 12. Nahj al-balaghah, trans. by Fayd al-lslam, p. 93.
  • 13. Russell, Bertrand, On Education (London: Unwin Books, 1966), pp. 25-26.
  • 14. Emerson, Ralph Waldo, "The Over-Soul," in Man and Man: The Social Philosophers (New York: Modern Pocket Library, 1954), ed. by Commins, Saxe, & Linscott, Robert N., p. 423.
  • 15. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, in Commins & Linscott, o p. cit., pp. 38-39.
  • 16. Al-Majlisi, Biharal-anwar, vol. 17, p. 217.
  • 17. Munn, Norman Leslie, Psychology: The Fundamentals of Human Ad justment.
  • 18. Carrei, Alexis, Reflexions sur to conduite de la vie, Pers. trans., pp. 98-99. (London: George G. Harrap & Co., 1966), pp. 185-186.
  • 19. Al-Amidi, Ghuraral-hikam, p. 508.
  • 20. Ibid.
  • 21. Al-Nurri, Mustadrak al-Wasa'il, vol. 1, p. 171.
  • 22. Al-'Amili, al-Hurr, Wasa'il al-Shi'ah, vol. 3, p. 232.
  • 23. al-Kulayni, al-Kafi, vol. 6 p. 47.
  • 24. Russell, Bertrand, op. cit., p. 50

Share this page