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Chapter 1: Islamic Perspective On Humanity And The World

Questions addressed in this chapter:

Three basic questions:

High worth and great potential of man

The unlimited essence of man – an eternal soul

The basic needs of man

Superficial needs

Profound needs

Why is the world filled with war and egoism when we could live in peace and be well?

The human belief

Three Basic Questions Every Person Tussle With

Who Am I?

Who am I? Most likely, the most basic human question of all time!

You have probably, just like every other person, asked this question to yourself in one instance or another, throughout your life. A universal question, which every person, consciously or subconsciously, deliberately or not, is confronted with some time during their lifetime. An existential question that in periods of life, not least in the teenage years, becomes more evident and a foundation in the identification of the self. So, who are you?

What Am I Doing Here?

What am I doing here? The accompanying natural question, which man often asks after the prior question.

Have you ever, for example, as a result of a shocking event or when tiresome of the same routine of existence, questioned the meaning of life? This can be the foundation of which a revaluation of your whole life comes into place, one that can encourage positive change. However, in the moment of questioning, oftentimes regretful, many things lose colour and meaning. This often leads man to seek the real meaning of life; the meaning of which, if without, man would lose motivation to live. It is also then that man realizes the meaning of life to be more than the material and worldly matters that surround him and that surrounds him, none of which can satisfy him.

The purpose of which I have come to this world and live here, the goal of life or the meaning of life, are just some ways to express it. Something man, in her nature, needs as a drive and motivational power to live consciously. So, what are you doing here? And what is the meaning of your life?

Where Am I Headed?

Where am I headed? This is the third naturally followed question and also the most neglected.

What are the goal and the meaning of life? What happens after death? Every human may ask those questions at some point during their lifetime, especially in relation to major changes in life, like the loss of someone close or an eye-opening experience. For many people, these questions are extreme and frightening, something they would rather not think of and cast-off. However, the question remains, can one run away from the inevitable by not thinking of it? For many, these questions disappear in an aimless day-to-day existence, and one day one wakes up and realizes that many years have passed by, with no guarantee of how much life one has left. Then a question echoes; what have I done in my life and how much of it is worth it in the end? But instead of waking up with a crisis and be panicked, to then be filled with regret or push aside and keep on neglecting the question, is it not an alternative to start thinking of an essential question of your life now?

So, what is the meaning of your life? And how are you going to meet death, which is, without a doubt, what we all face?

Man – With An Enormous Inner Potential To Fulfil

Man – An Unlimited Soul In A Limited World

Why even when you have fulfilled your wishes do your excitement not last, and you do not feel lasting peace? Why is it that you can have everything, or in a moment achieve one of your goals, to then feel empty the next and then keep seeking? What can explain that even once you have reached the peak of your success, which you have strived for many years, you are still left unsatisfied? And the real question: what is it that constantly drives the human being to seek for more and get tired of monotony, even in the adequate existence? Why is it that the human being is never satisfied?

Throughout life, it is natural and desirable that we all evaluate ourselves to see where we are headed. In such an evaluation, not seldom do we reflect back and examine ourselves to then discover what we have spent years of our lives on and how we have worked and strived to achieve different goals. Shortly after the achievement of those goals, we realize the lack of satisfaction and still wish for more, or even for something else. Not long after that, a new goal is set and yearned for, to then again be achieved and yet again do we realize, it is not enough. We further recognize that there is something else that we are yearning and searching for. And so, the journey continues… What is it with this continuous quest? Why is it that the human is never content, and what does it indicate?

This continuous quest is based on an inner longing every human has; a longing for eternity and perfection. As a matter of fact, the human has a deeply rooted tendency to love perfection and seek it, and also not be content with the transient and imperfect.

For some, a modern car can come to be the highest aim, but only for a period of time. Soon after, a better car takes the former's place and thereafter, a newer one. For others, education or another kind of knowledge define their highest goals for happiness and perfection; however, this kind of happiness is not infinite and lasts only for a short time. For some, it is the property and other fortunes, a certain position of power or plain money. But after reaching those aims, still, one does not feel satisfied, even in that moment of success, why? The resulting consistent question, which echoes within oneself after every achievement, is: “What next…?”

Man, tragically, continues on this hunt for something that, in the end, will not satisfy his inner longing to eternal happiness. The problem is the human tendency to set defected goals that do not last, and defects are not what one wants. We do not want the imperfect, the faulty or the incomplete and that which does not last. We want eternity. We want infinity and perfection. For these reasons and many more, the human being’s ultimate goal can never be something materialistic. That is due to the fact that that which is materialistic is limited and lacks in that regard, which will never satisfy us and always have us looking for the next goal. The human being’s deep longing after that which is eternal and absolute, will therefore never be quenched by such goals, something our experiences have witnessed.

The inner tendency of the human being for perfection and complete happiness drives her to be in constant search of it. However, in lack of better judgment, most run after illusions, for example, money, fame or power, in the hope that those bring long lasting joy. That leads most people up entangled in their day-to-day lives and lost in wordy slough, which at the end of the day leaves them unhappy. If anything, they feel, particularly those more conscious, distress and experience themselves imprisoned in life, like one stuck in a treadmill. The reaction of some would be to bury one’s head in the sand, like an ostrich, to not see reality and to spare oneself the thought of it to avoid feeling bad. Some may numb the pain by seeking out fleeting and false raptures in intoxicants, or sex and plays, of which all are addictive.

Others, however, turn to more sound alternatives like their jobs, sports or diverse hobbies. And then there are some who look for a higher aim and try to dedicate their lives to a higher purpose, such as helping others, devoting themselves to research or run public utility campaigns. In one way or another, one needs to give one’s life a meaning to not lose one’s senses and be destroyed by hopelessness.

Islam indicates that the human being is a creature with many aspects, and her reality is her soul. The human has a material body in this world, working as a ship for the soul, and with the help of, the human being can manoeuvre and manage in this world. However, the human’s essence is her soul, and when the body decays and perishes with death, the soul lives on forever.

Islam also points out that the human being, like the world, is constantly evolving and is headed towards perfection. Life is a gift, and the world is filled with goodness and hope, which makes out the breeding ground for the human’s fulfilling of her potential and humankind growth and maturing.

Islam also says that there is already a great, beautiful and noble meaning of life, that every human is unique and can achieve greatness, and that all people, who together form an interlacing unity, can flourish side by side. The world could simply look different from what it looks like today, and everyone could live with peace, joy, happiness and hope. One must only believe and strive for the realization of it together.

The Human Need – The Superficially Evident And The Profoundly Veiled

Man has many needs. What are those needs and are all of them of the same kind or are they of different ones? Can one need to be defined differently?

The needs of man can be divided into more superficial evident needs that are easily known and are repeatedly reminded of. Physical needs such as thirst, hunger and sleep, are some examples.

However, man has other more profound and veiled needs, in comparison to the superficial ones. Those are mostly spiritual inclinations such as longing for perfection, eternity and infinity. These are intrinsic needs pushing him and underlie, for example, his insatiable desire to constantly want more and to want better.

The Choice To Be Lower Than Animals Or Higher Than Angels

It is apparent that the human’s ambition is higher than to be limited to this world. Taken by itself explains man’s inner reality and longing of his soul. The question, ‘What is next…?’ that often arises after the accomplishment of goals and originates from the soul’s longing to eternal perfection.

God says regarding man:

“[So mention] when your Lord said to the angels, “Indeed, I am going to create a human being from clay. So when I have proportioned him and breathed into him of My [created] soul, then fall down to him in prostration.” (The Holy Qur’an, 38:71-72).

“And We have certainly created for Hell many of the djinn and mankind. They have hearts with which they do not understand, they have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear. Those are like livestock; rather, they are more astray. It is they who are heedless.” (The Holy Qur’an, 7:179).

Imam Ali (‘a) has said:

“Most certainly, God the Glorious the Majestic has placed within angels aql (brain, intellect and reason) without shahwa (lust and desire), and placed within animals shahwa without aql, and placed within man both; so the one whose aql masters his shahwa is better [higher] than angels, and the one whose shahwa masters his aql is worse [lower] than animals.”1

Accordingly, man is characterized by his enormous intrinsic potential, which if looked after and fulfilled, can make him reach a higher position than that of angels. That is due to the fact that man has had lower needs and desires he has fought to master, unlike angels who have not needed to undergo such struggle or overcome something. However, if this potential remains undeveloped or is spent on lower ends, the man reaches a state lower than that of animals. Since man is gifted with reason but has chosen not to use it rightly so, but animals do not have it nor do they have the ability to use it, to begin with.

Man is, therefore, the result of his inner struggle between lower needs, drawing him to his earthly aspects, and higher ones, drawing him to his heavenly origin.

Why Do Conflicts Occur?

In this battle occurring within every person, the object is to differentiate between superficial and profound needs as well as defining the profound needs, as in the spiritual inclinations, properly and answer them with the right resources. For example, money could be the highest definition of riches for a person, but another sees knowledge to be such, and a third could see the highest riches to be wisdom, extracted from knowledge. Depending on how each of them defines riches, they will also strive for different things. Even though the spiritual inclinations have the same foundation in all humans, different people define them in various ways and also answer them, more often than not, with wrong resources.

When a spiritual inclination is defined as the lower needs and answered with material resources, unbalance occurs. Because the soul is of another nature than the material body and therefore needs resources of the same nature as itself, so, whilst the earthly body needs earthly food, the soul also needs the right kind of nourishment. Therefore, man cannot quench his thirst for the eternal, the search of his soul, by obtaining more of the material. The material is always limited and is never enough to fill man, that is his soul. The physical body and its lower needs, are however limited so that when a man eats more, even when no longer hungry and the bodily needs are filled, something else drives him to do such. It is, in fact, the profound needs of man’s soul that drive him because his soul has not been filled yet. However, man does mistake his soul’s inclinations and tries to fill it with resources for the body, only so in vain.

If a man does not realize this, he will continue searching for more of the material recourses in vain. But in reality, it does not matter how many of those he gets; he will never have enough. Since many people fall into this trap and due to the limitations of material resources, conflicts occur. Every person, driven by their own unsaturation, wants everything for themselves.

The Human Belief

We All Believe In Something

All humans have beliefs. We all believe in something, even the ones who consider themselves as non-believers. How so?

This question can be looked upon from two aspects. The first one is that even the one who says he is no of no faith has a belief in his disbelief. In other words, to believe that you do not believe it is in itself a way of belief of not believing. This is important because it clarifies how essentially a belief is for man and how it is not something that man can be without.

The other aspect is the actual belief that’s inherent in every man and which is mentioned in The Holy Qur’an, as fitra. In short, fitra infers a spiritual testimony of the realities of the world who constitute a common base for all of mankind.2 The humans common for universal virtues are a part of this aspect.

God urges man to use his reason constantly and to reflect, this by presenting parables and encouraging him to reflect on those who have come before him, their history, actions and destinies.

“If We had sent down this Qur’an upon a mountain, you would have seen it humbled and coming apart from fear of God. And these examples We present to the people that perhaps they will give thought.” (The Holy Qur’an, 59:21).

Simultaneously God says in regard to man’s essence and reality, that is man’s soul:

“And they ask you, [O Muhammad], about the soul. Say, ‘The soul is of the affair of my Lord. And mankind has not been given of knowledge except a little’.” (The Holy Qur’an, 17:85).

Admittedly man has been blessed with aql (reason) and the ability, with the help of his senses and gathering of knowledge and experiences, to distinguish and conclude: but is this enough? Is this enough for man to be able to manoeuvre himself through life’s ups and downs and to reach real happiness?

Regarding aqaed (the principles of faith) the emphasise lies on reason and reflection in order to reach a pure conviction. Simply said, the conviction in faith cannot be inherited or imitated. Therefore, it is every human being’s duty, including Muslims by birth, to study the religion and to research its fundamentals to reach their own conviction regarding the principles of faith. When this conviction is reached, it will become the foundation of which faith will be built upon. More detailed aspects of the religion, as for example issues of law, will arise following said conviction. For example, in the question of religious laws and instructions, the starting point for acceptance of these laws is the fact that their origin is the Creator, the One who has a holistic view of what’s best for His creation according to His definite wisdom. This as well as the fact that they are mediated through His infallible Prophet (S).3

Even if all the underlying reasons for every rule and decree aren’t clear for man, the acceptance of them is based upon the fundamental acceptance of God is the Omniscient, the Wise, the Merciful, Creator. In other words, when a conviction is reached regarding the fundamentals, and when the Creator’s Omniscient and Wisdom above his creation becomes self-evident, man will realise that laws and decrees from this Merciful Creator are in man’s best interest as well as being the guidance towards the aim of creation.

Therefore, a man should through his own reason obtain conviction within the usul-e-din (pillars of faith) which make up the fundamentals of faith, unlike the furo-e-din (branches of faith), where the practice of them is based upon following the scholars. Proof of this can clearly be seen in the following verses.

“And when it is said to them, ‘Come to what God has revealed and to the Messenger,’ they say, ‘Sufficient for us is that upon which we found our fathers.’ Even though their fathers knew nothing, nor were they guided?” (The Holy Qur’an, 5:104).

The following verses clearly point toward the Holy Prophet’s (S) role and the fact that God handed over the ruling to him (S), and what is apparent is that the Holy Prophet (S) acts solely in accordance with God’s will.

“O you who have believed, obey God and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to God and the Messenger, if you should believe in God and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in the result.” (The Holy Qur’an, 4:59).

“And what God restored to His Messenger from the people of the towns - it is for God and for the Messenger and for [his] near relatives and orphans and the [stranded] traveller – so that it will not be a perpetual distribution among the rich from among you. And whatever the Messenger has given you – take; and what he has forbidden you – refrain from. And fear God; indeed, God is severe in penalty. (The Holy Qur’an, 59:7).

“Indeed, We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], the Book in truth so you may judge between the people by that which God has shown you. And do not be for the deceitful an advocate.” (The Holy Qur’an, 4:105).

“The only statement of the [true] believers when they are called to God and His Messenger to judge between them is that they say, ‘We hear, and we obey.’ And those are successful.” (The Holy Qur’an, 24:51).

Consequently, it is every human being’s own responsibility to ask the basic questions to themselves, reflect and follow-up to get answers and further research to reach conviction in belief. When this conviction is established man is thereafter imposed to follow the experts, who have had the possibility to devout their lives to studying these directions and have therefore obtained true knowledge in their subjects. Today people seek out experts within various fields when they themselves cannot get absorbed in different subjects. Firstly, they assure themselves that the one they seek out is an expert and is knowledgeable within their field and after that, follow their directions. It can be equated to when a person seeks out a doctor and then follows given instructions, even though the details are not always comprehensible.

Chapter 1 – Summary

Three basic questions every man tussle with are, ‘who am I?’, ‘what am I doing here?’ and ‘Where am I headed?’. These questions are connected to the purpose of life and man’s inner drive to reach the aim of his creation.

Man is valuable and unbounded. He has a soul and an intrinsic longing to true happiness and to that which is perfect. Therefore, man is always setting new goals and strives towards them in hopes of finding true happiness and perfection. This perfection will, in fact, not be achieved while striving for materialistic goals, all of which have defects and miss perfection. Therefore, man is not satisfied whilst achieving them.

Man can get to know himself and his profound needs, to strive for deep goals that give eternal happiness in relation to the goal of his creation.

It is every man’s own responsibility to ask himself the basic questions, reflect and follow-up to reach answers and continue researching to reach conviction in belief.

  • 1. This hadith is reported in, Ilal ash-Sharai’ volume 1 p. 4-5, among others.
  • 2. The topic of fitra is dealt with extensively in the next chapter; see B3.
  • 3. The topic infallibility has been dealt with later in the book; see F3.