By Muhammad Asad
Worship of God in the wide sense just explained constitutes, according to Islam, the meaning of human life. And it is this conception alone that shows us the possibility of man’s reaching perfection within his individual, earthly life.
Of all religious systems, Islam alone declares that individual perfection is possible in our earthly existence.
Islam does not postpone this fulfilment until after a suppression of the so called ‘bodily’ desires, as the Christian teaching does; nor does Islam promise a continuous chain of rebirths on a progressively higher plane, as is the case with Hinduism; nor does Islam agree with Buddhism, according to which perfection and salvation can only be obtained through an annihilation of the individual Self and its emotional links with the world.
How Can Man Reach Perfection?
NO: Islam is emphatic in the assertion that man can reach perfection in the earthly, individual life and by making full use of all the worldly possibilities of his life.
To avoid misunderstandings, the term ‘perfection’ will have to be defined in the sense it is used here.
As long as we have to do with human, biologically limited beings, we cannot possibly consider the idea of ‘absolute’ perfection, because everything absolute belongs to the realm of Divine attributes alone.
Human perfection, in its true psychological and moral sense, must necessarily have a relative and purely individual bearing.
It does not imply the possession of all imaginable good qualities, nor even the progressive acquisition of new qualities from outside, but solely the development of the already existing, positive qualities of the individual in such a way as to rouse his innate but otherwise dormant powers.
Owing to the natural variety of the life-phenomena, the inborn qualities of man differ in each individual case. It would be absurd, therefore, to suppose that all human beings should, or even could, strive towards one and the same ‘type’ of perfection – just as it would be absurd to expect a perfect racehorse and a perfect heavy draught horse to possess exactly the same qualities.
Both may be individually perfect and satisfactory, but they will be different, because their original characters are different.
With human beings the case is similar. If perfection were to be standardised in a certain ‘type’ – as Christianity does in the type of the ascetic saint – men would have to give up, or change, or suppress, their individual differentiation.
But this would clearly violate the divine law of individual variety which dominates all life on this earth.
Therefore, Islam, which is not a religion of repression, allows to man a very wide margin in his personal and social existence, so that the various qualities, temperaments and psychological inclinations of different individuals should find their way to positive development according to their individual predisposition.
Thus, a man may be an ascetic, or he may enjoy the full measure of his sensual possibilities within the lawful limits; he may be a nomad roaming through the deserts, without food for tomorrow, or a rich merchant surrounded by his goods.
As long as he sincerely and consciously submits to the laws decreed by God, he is free to shape his personal life to whatever form his nature directs him. His duty is to make the best of himself so that he might honor the life-gift which His Creator has bestowed upon him; and to help his fellow-beings, by means of his own development, in their spiritual, social and material endeavors.
But the form of his individual life is in no way fixed by a standard. He is free to make his choice from among all the limitless lawful possibilities open to him.
The basis of this ‘liberalism’ in Islam, is to be found in the conception that man’s original nature is essentially good.
Contrary to the Christian idea that man is born sinful, or the teachings of Hinduism, that he is originally low and impure and must painfully stagger through a long chain of transmigrations towards the ultimate goal of Perfection, the Islamic teaching contends that man is born pure – and in the sense explained above – potentially perfect.
It is said in the Quran: ‘Surely We created man in the best structure.’
But in the same breath the verse continues: ‘. . . and afterwards We reduced him to the lowest of the low: with the exception of those who have faith and do good works.’ (At-Tin 95:4-5)
In this verse is expressed the doctrine that man is originally good and pure; and, furthermore, that disbelief in God and lack of good actions may destroy his original perfection.
On the other hand, man may retain, or regain, that original, individual perfection if he consciously realises God’s Oneness and submits to His laws.
Thus, according to Islam, evil is never essential or even original; it is an acquisition of man’s later life, and is due to a misuse of the innate, positive qualities with which God has endowed every human being.
Those qualities are, as has been said before, different in every individual, but always potentially perfect in themselves; and their full development is possible within the period of man’s individual life on earth.
We take it for granted that the life after death, owing to its entirely changed conditions of feeling and perception, will confer upon us other, quite new, qualities and faculties which will make a still further progress of the human soul possible; but this concerns our future life alone.
In this earthly life also, the Islamic teaching definitely asserts, we – every one of us – can reach a full measure of perfection by developing the positive, already existing traits of which our individualities are composed.
Of all religions, Islam alone makes it possible for man to enjoy the full range of his earthly life without for a moment losing its spiritual orientation. How entirely different is this from the Christian conception!
According to the Christian dogma, mankind stumbles under a hereditary sin committed by Adam and Eve, and consequently the whole life is looked upon – in dogmatic theory at least – as a gloomy vale of sorrows.
It is the battlefield of two opposing forces: the evil, represented by Satan, and the good, represented by Jesus Christ. Satan tries, by means of bodily temptations, to bar the progress of the human soul towards the light eternal; the soul belongs to Christ, while the body is the playground of satanic influences.
One could express it differently: the world of Matter is essentially satanic, while the world of Spirit is divine and good. Everything in human nature that is material, or ‘carnal’, as Christian theology prefers to call it, is a direct result of Adam’s succumbing to the advice of the hellish Prince of Darkness and Matter.
Therefore, to obtain salvation, man must turn his heart away from this world of the flesh towards the future, spiritual world, where the ‘sin of mankind’ is redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
Even if this dogma is not – and never was – obeyed in practice, the very existence of such a teaching tends to produce a permanent feeling of bad conscience in the religiously inclined man.
He is tossed about between the peremptory call to neglect the world and the natural urge of his heart to live and to enjoy this life.
The very idea of an unavoidable, because inherited, sin, and of its mystical – to the average intellect incomprehensible – redemption through the suffering of Jesus on the cross, erects a barrier between man’s spiritual longing and his legitimate desire to live.
In Islam, we know nothing of Original Sin; we regard it as incongruent with the idea of God’s justice; God does not make the child responsible for the doings of his father: and how could He have made all those numberless generations of mankind responsible for a sin of disobedience committed by a remote ancestor?
It is no doubt possible to construct philosophical explanations of this strange assumption, but for the unsophisticated intellect it will always remain as artificial and as unsatisfactory as the conception of Trinity itself.
And as there is no hereditary sin, there is also no universal redemption of mankind in the teachings of Islam.
Redemption and damnation are individual. Every Muslim is his own redeemer; he bears all possibilities of spiritual success and failure within his heart. It is said in the Quran of the human personality: ‘In its favor is that which it has earned and against it is that which it has become guilty of.’ (Al-Baqarah 2:286)
Another verse says: ‘Nothing shall be reckoned to man but that which he has striven for.’ (An-Najm 53:39)
Source: This article is taken from the book of Islam: Its Meaning and Message, edited by Khurshid Ahmad, and published by the Islamic Foundation, third edition, 1999. The series of ‘The Spirit of Islam’ is taken from Muhammad Asad’s Islam at the Crossroads, Lahore: Arafat Publications, 1969, pp. 7-31.
Read more on this series:
The Spirit of Islam: Introduction
The Spirit of Islam: General Role of Religion in Human Life