By Zahid Aziz
I wish to discuss the teachings of Islam regarding the place and status of human beings, and also of the individual, in this world.
There are many ideologies which regard the human being as merely a cog in a machine, and his purpose is just to serve a particular system of society or type of state. The individual as well as groups of people are simply subservient to that ideology and its institutions. Even in what is claimed to be a free society, people feel as if they don’t count as individuals, what they do or do not do is of little consequence.
Given the impression of Islam which prevails generally, most people would believe that this religion too is one of these ideologies which has little regard for the human being and reduces its followers to the position of just serving the interests of the system.
On the contrary, Islam teaches that mankind, as well as the individual, holds a very high position indeed. According to the Holy Qur’an, when God created man, He said:
I am going to make in the earth a khalifah (vicegerent). (Al-Baqarah 2:30)
That is to say, a ruler or empowered authority from God. As khalifah, mankind can acquire power over physical nature, and in the spiritual domain human beings can acquire a semblance of those great, good and noble qualities which are the attributes of God. So the potential given to mankind, and the goal set for it, is the highest imaginable. It is said in the Quran that God has breathed into every human being, at the time of his creation, His own Divine spirit:
Then He fashioned him and breathed into him of His Spirit, (As-Sajdah 32:9)
This gives each person the capability of attaining nearness to God.
Again, the Qur’an repeatedly says that everything in this world has been made subservient to man, for his advantage and benefit: things on the earth, in the sea, in the sky, etc. For instance:
Do you not see that Allah has made subservient to you whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth, and granted to you His favours complete, outwardly and inwardly? (Luqman 31:20)
So God has dignified mankind by giving it the power to rule the physical world, i.e. outwardly, and his own self, i.e. inwardly. Human beings have, especially in the last century or so, developed very greatly their power over the physical world by means of acquiring physical knowledge, but they have neglected to be able to rule over their own desires, emotions and passions. How dignified man looks when you see his magnificent achievements and feats of the conquest of nature, and how disgraced and humiliated he looks when you see his failure to control his own desires!
But the Qur’an says that God has granted man His favour inwardly as well, that is, the spiritual guidance with which to conquer himself.
Human Beings Given Power of Reason
Another way in which mankind has been dignified is the giving to human beings of their senses and understanding. The Qur’an refers to this repeatedly:
He gave you ears and eyes and hearts; little it is that you give thanks! (As-Sajdah 32:9)
‘Thanking’ here means to use your senses to acquire knowledge and to use your mind to draw conclusions from it. The Qur’an emphasises that human beings must use their senses and reason to understand things, including matters of religious belief. Blind belief and following are condemned in the Quran. Those who don’t use these faculties are referred to as cattle, and indeed as going astray even more.
Belief is something which should enter into your heart on the basis of your observation and knowledge. The Qur’an describes believers as those who:
Remember Allah while standing or sitting or lying, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: Our Lord, You have not created this in vain. (Aal `Imran 3:191)
It is by reflecting on the creation of the universe that one is meant to discover that there is a purpose in creation. The Qur’an repeatedly refers to signs in nature from which man can deduce the existence of God, the need for revelation from Him, and the truth of His revelation in the Qur’an. It says that these signs can be read only by people who reflect, who have knowledge, who hear, and who use their reason.
And of His signs is this: He created for you helpmeets from yourselves that you might find rest in them, and He ordained between you love and mercy. Lo! herein indeed are portents for folk who reflect. And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of your languages and colours. Lo! herein indeed are portents for men of knowledge. And of His signs is your slumber by night and by day, and your seeking of His bounty. Lo! herein indeed are portents for folk who heed. And of His signs is this: He shows you the lightning for a fear and for a hope, and sends down water from the sky, and thereby quickens the earth after her death. Lo! herein indeed are portents for folk who understand. (Ar-Rum 30:21-24)
The Qur’an asks man again and again: Don’t you use your sense and reason? This expression occurs about a dozen times throughout the Qur’an at places where the Quran presents an argument. At one place, it quotes those who suffer punishment for their sins as saying that if they had listened or if they had used their sense, they would not have found themselves in that predicament.
Similarly, the Qur’an again and again asks the reader to ponder and reflect, on different things, and in various ways.
So Islam does not expect a person to just obey a set of orders and rules that he is given, without understanding or thinking. I am sure many people mistakenly believe that this is what Islam does require of its followers. On the contrary, a person is not only encouraged but required to use his God-given faculty of reason and reflection.
Freedom of Belief
Man’s dignity, according to Islam, is far above that he should be forced to accept some belief. The Qur’an says:
The truth is from your Lord; so let him who pleases believe and let him who pleases disbelieve. (Al-Kahf 18:29)
Belief is something which must convince a human being’s heart and enter it. When some Arab tribes newly joined Islam, and used the expression ‘We believe’, the Qur’an told them not to say ‘We believe’, but rather that ‘We have become Muslims’ or ‘We have submitted’ because, says the Qur’an, “faith has not yet entered into your hearts” (Al-Hujurat 49:14).
Therefore Islam does not consider it sufficient to merely follow the precepts of the religion in the outward, mechanical sense, but your hearts must become convinced of the truth of the faith.