Man and Islam, By Ali Shariati part(I)
Posted by Parsin on April 8, 2008
Ladies and Gentlemen: Tonight, as long as time permits, I would like to investigate the following questions:
I. Does Islam recognize man as a helpless creature whose ultimate goal and ideal is to stand powerless in front of God?
II. Does Islam recognize humanness as a nobility?
III. Is helpiessness in man a pre-requisite of belief in Islam, or on the contrary, is belief in Islam enough to bestow originality upon man and a respect for his virtues?
The issue of man is an extremely important one. Today’s civiliza- tion has based its religion upon humanism; that is, the originality and worship of man. It is assumed that various religions in the past shattered man’s personality, and forced him to sacrifice himself for his gods, admit his powerlessness, and forced him to ask favors from them through prayer, supplication and begging. Humanism is a post-renaissance religion which set itself across the providential orders and those religions which were based upon the supernatural and the unseen, which aimed to bestow nobility upon man. The roots of humanism go back to Athens, and as a universal religion it has become the foundation of today’s Western culture. As a matter of fact humanism is a reaction against the scholastic creed and Christianity of the Middle Ages.
In order to find out how man was interpreted in various religions of the past, or to understand the role of humanism in religions, one should study the philosophy of creation. Since I do not have time to survey all the Eastern and Western religions relative to the philoso- phy of man’s creation, I will only emphasize the philosophy of man’s creation in Islam (and the religions of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus of which Islam is a sequel and culmination).
How does Islam interpret and recognize the creation of man? Is it possible to realize man’s position from the quality of his creation narrated in the Qur’an or the sayings of prophet Muhammad (PBUH)? By investigating the quality of Adam’s creation, which stands as the symbol of man in the Qur’an, we can infer the kind of status he occupies in the sight of God in Islam, as well as in other religions.
As a preface I should say that the language of religions, especially the semitic ones, whose prophets we believe in, are all symbolic. This is the finest language accessible to man and it is superior to expository language which is lucid and straightforward. An expository language may be more suited and simpler to utilize in instruction, but it is not lasting. Why? Abd-Alrahman Badawi, the contemporary Egyptian philosopher, states that
A school or a religion which expresses all its facts and connotations in direct, clear-cut, and one-dimensional sentences will not last long, since it is addressing diverse individuals from all walks of life. Further, these people include various strata and classes who vary in thinking, viewpoint, and outlook. And so, a language which is selected for a religion must be multi layered and multi-dimensional so that each generation can decipher one layer and each group can understand one dimension at a time.
This is why all the literary symbolic works are immortal. Hafiz’s poems are everlasting due to the fact that the more we read them, depending upon our tastes, the more new areas we can infer and discover. But such is not true for the History of Bayhaghi or Golestan of Saadi, their meanings are relatively obvious. We enjoy their dialects, but from a spiritual point of view most of their contents are obsolete. But Hafiz’s words, being multi-dimensional and symbolic, allow each one of us, depend- ing on our tastes and mentality, to infer a new meaning and a new outlook from them. And since religions were brought for various types of peoples and generations, it was necessary that they contained symbolic languages. Most of the meanings existing in religions were not clear at the time they emerged. However, since such meanings had to be explained to people, they had to be in plain language so the masses could comprehend them. On the other hand, if the concepts were plain enough, such religions would contain no new meanings. This is why languages were symbolic so that future generations, relative to their mental and scientific maturity, could discover new meanings and concepts. This is why in European literature symbol- ism is the finest style. Thus, the story of Adam’s creation was told in symbolic language so that now, after fourteen centuries in the midst of scientific progress in all areas, it remains worthy of study.
Mans’s Creation from the Islamic Viewpoint
In the beginning the Lord addresses all the angels: “I want to create a vicegerent on earth,” (Pay attention to the worth of man in Islam. Even the Post-Renaissance European humanism has not been able to bestow such an exalting sanctity upon man.). God, being the greatest and most exalting from a faithful Muslim point of view, addresses the angels to introduce His vicegerent. Thus, with this providential address the mission of man on earth is clarified. That is, man’s mission on earth is to fulfill God’s creative work in the universe. Therefore, man’s first superiority is that he represents God on earth. The angels objected, “Do you want to create a revengeful and vindictive creature to commit crime and bloodshed on earth again?” But God responds, “I know something you know not.” And so, God became engaged in creating man. And this is the point which symbols, loaded with profound anthropological connotations, come into being. Since God wants to create a vicegerent for Himself on earth, He must, as a rule, choose the most valuable and sacred material. Yet He selects the basest matter. In the Qur’an there are three references relative to the material that man was made of: from a sounding clay, like unto pottery, and from mud. Finally, the Lord breathed His spirit into the dry mud and man came into being.
In the human tongue God is the most sacred and exalted being, while mud stands as a symbol of the meanest and the basest thing.
And the spirit of God is the most sacred, exalting, and the noblest “part” of His being. Accordingly, in creating man, God did not use His “breath, “blood,” or “flesh”; rather He blew His own Soul into man. God is the most sublime being and His spirit is the finest entity for which man can possibly have an epithet in his language. Thus, man who was formed from mud and God’s spirit is a two- dimensional being. For unlike all other beings which are one dimensional, man is two-dimensional; one dimension tends towards mud, lowliness, sedimentation, and stagnation while the other aspires to the loftiest imaginable point possible. So man is composed of two contradictions-mud and God’s spirit. Thus man’s signifi- cance and grandeur lie in the fact that he possesses two poles (mud and the spirit of the Lord). It is up to man to choose where to go, towards mud or providence. And as long as he has not selected either of the poles as his fate, struggle will perpetually rage within him.
Once man was created, God taught him the names. It is not yet clear what these names were, but every commentator has said something that leaves no doubt that God was talking about education and instruction. In any case, when the creation of man ended, God taught all the names. Man became a possessor of names. At this point the angels protested: “We are made from smokeless fire but man was made from mud. Why should he have superiority over us?” Whereby the Lord responded: “I know something you know not. Bow down to man.” The angels of all ranks prostrated themselves before man. This is what humanism is all about. Do you see the extent of man’s grandeur? So lofty is his position that the angels, in spite of their natural and racial superiority (light vs mud), adored Adam. How- ever, since the angels protested, the Lord, in order to test them, asked them to recite the names but they could not answer. In this test the angels were defeated and the superiority and virtue of Adam was established. Superiority depends upon knowledge of the names. Man knows things which angels do not know. This is indicative of the fact that nobility depends upon knowledge and intelligence rather than upon racial superiority.