ISLAMIC CONCEPT OF HUMAN NATURE
by Mohyuddin Hashimi
Physical and biological nature of man is, although, not the main concern of the Holy Qur’an, it does provide significant insight about man and his nature. A brief description of Islamic thought on the subject is mentioned below:
Islam does not presuppose any inherent wickedness of human nature. Any negative representation of man’s basic nature as a source of evil and wickedness is clearly rejected. According to Islam, the human being is born in the state of fitrah, the original inherent nature of the human being. At birth, the baby is totally innocent and is not responsible for the sin of his parents or any of his ancestors.
Environmental and other external influences keep on modifying his blueprint. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) said:
“Every child is created in the state of fitrah, it is the parents, culture, and society that make him a Christian, a Jew, or a fire-worshipper.”
Islam is the first religion to declare man as the most superior of the creatures and the masterpiece of the Creator. According to Islam, man is potentially capable of rising higher than the angels, that is why Allah has commanded angels to bow down before Adam. But, at the same time, he is equally capable of sinking lower than the animals. The Holy Qur’an says:
"We have indeed created man in the best shap, then We reduced him (to be) the lowest of the low, except those who believe and do righteous deeds: for they shall have a reward unfailing." (95:4¬6)
These verses indicate that Allah has given man the purest and best nature while man’s duty is to preserve the pattern on which God has made him. However, when he neglects his duty and goes in the wrong way, he will be reduced to the lowest possible position.
The Holy Qur’an asserts that inclination and attraction towards faith and virtue and repulsion from disobedience and corruption exists in man’s nature.
“But God has endeared to you faith and has beautified it in your hearts and has made disbelief and lewdness and rebellion hateful to you.” (49:7)
To sum up the point, man comes into the world with a pure and wholesome nature. Whereas sin and corruption in human being are merely accidental and violation of his original nature. The role of prophets and the scriptures is just to help human nature to flow in its true channel and to guide human nature to its ultimate goal of eternal felicity. This Qur’anic theory of human nature also implies the fact that if man consciously decides to submit himself to the will of Allah, he experiences no conflict in his personality. (10:62) while, on the other hand, if he misuses his freedom of choice by denying God and not submitting to His will, would be in a state of inner conflict and his personality gets disintegrated.
Man has been given the freedom of choice to do good or evil. This freewill gives him independence of intention, choice and action in various situations of moral conflict. Man is the only creature in this universe who has been given choice and discretion which accompany him through his life span. (The Qur’an, 15:36)
Man has also been granted potentialities to acquire knowledge of how everything else in the universe functions as well as the knowledge required for his felicity. (al-Qur’an, 2:33). This knowledge along with the faculty of reason and intellect, are man’s primary guide that distinguishes him from other animals and help him recognize the path of his ultimate felicity.
Man’s hopes are often related to various comforts and joys of physical and worldly kind while Islam does not deprive him of these. Islam, however, redirects him from false and transitory joys and values to real values and everlasting joys. The Holy Qur’an says:
“This life of the world is just a pastime and a game. And, indeed, the home of the Hereafter is the real life, if they know.” (29:64)
Since the topic of human nature and personality development is the central issue in the sufi thought, it would be unfair to avoid mentioning their views in this regard. According to the Sufi theory, man is the microcosm and a copy made in the image of God. Since man cannot know what is not in him, he could not know God and all the mysteries of the universe unless he founds them in himself. So God-consciousness and self-consciousness are interdependent and a true knowledge of one’s own self necessarily leads to the knowledge of God. According to Ibn Arabi, God’s breathing of His spirit into man, as described by the Holy Qur’an, (15:28-29) is of immense metaphysical significance. He believes that man is the perfect manifestation of divine attributes and names. (Nasr, Sayyed Hossain. (1988). Three Muslim Sages. Lahore: Sohail Academy.) He also refers to the saying of the Prophet (PBUH): “God created Adam in His form.” This conception of human nature reveals that man is inherited with unlimited capacity of development and perfection.
After mentioning the position of human nature in its basic and the pure form, it is necessary to point out how man’s nature gets corrupted.
The Unrefined Human Nature
Although man has been created with a natural tendency towards the righteousness, he (excluding the prophets) cannot be free from all sins and mistakes since his declared enemy, Satan, tries to divert his attention by all possible ways and means. He always encourages man to satisfy his urges and desires in an uncontrolled way, like animals, and to become submissive and a slave to these urges. Therefore, the human instinctive tendencies, unless refined and trained, could easily overwhelm any humanely cultivated qualities conducive to spiritual enhancement. This is because the uncontrolled and unrefined urges within him would weaken and subjugate the forces of reason and conscience.
Describing some aspects of the unrefined human nature, the Holy Qur’an says:
“Surely man was created anxious, fretful when evil visits him, and grudging when (some thing) good visits him, except the worshippers.” (70:19-21)
In another surah it says:
“As for man, whenever his Lord tries him by honouring and blessing him, he says: ‘My Lord has honoured me.’ But whenever he tries him by straitening his provision, he says: ‘My Lord has humiliated me.’ (89:15-16)
The Qur’an explains another weakness in human nature which impedes self development, is the weakness of will. While narrating the story of Adam, Allah informs:
And, indeed, long ago We made Our covenant with Adam; but he forgot and We found no firmness of purpose in him. ( 20:115]
God tells us in the Qur’an that the most honorable trust, that of knowledge of Allah the all Mighty, was offered to the heavens, the earth and the mountains but they refused it, recognizing that they could not take up such a weighty truth (33:72). Mankind, however, took it on, but since weakness and forgetfulness are part of the spectrum of human being, he sees himself at all times and forgets his source. This weakness which Allah has placed within human being is to make him remember Him who is Strong (al-Qawi).
Today it has been established, scientifically as well as philosophically that there does not exist an evil human being; there exist only sick human being. This is extremely a significant discovery in the history of humankind which has already been introduced by Islam. According to this theory, bad manners like injustice, stinginess, cunning, jealousy, greed, ingratitude and so on are considered as spiritual illness and should be treated exactly like any other disease. The Holy Qur’an considers the hypocrites as sick persons saying:
There is a sickness in their hearts. (2:10)
This Qur’anic theory requires people not to consider any one as evil person or show any hostility or resentment towards them. Instead, they should look upon them as sick human beings who deserve their sympathy.
The Components of Human Nature
While speaking about the nature of man, Qur’an uses words like nafs, ruh, Qalb etc. Spirit is transcendent and the center of man’s being. Whereas soul (nafs), in its downward or corporeal tendency, is attached to the body and in its upward or spiritual tendency, is attached to the spirit (al-ruh).
In order to understand the Islamic concept of human psyche and nature, one must understand these terms and their relationship to each other. These basic terms are explained here.
Nafs and its levels :
Nafs (pl. Anfus or Nufus) lexically means soul, the psyche, the ego, self, life, person, heart or mind. Tajul Uroos writes that this word is used normally to denote the total personality of a person. It also means knowledge and intellect. (Taj: Ibn-i-Faris). It is used for a person as well. It is further used to express greatness, superiority, courage, resolution, and punishment. (Taj and Lisanul Arab).
The term Nafs has different uses in the Holy Qur’an as well, and in most cases, it means the human being in reality, his self and his person. (see 3: 61; 12:54) It also means the human soul (see 6:93; 50:16 etc.)
The nafs is a basic element in the cosmology of existence. Al-Ghazali mentions the two dimensions of al-nafs: the upward dimension and the downward dimension. The upward dimension is the uppermost limit of psyche which connects it the spirit, whereas the downward dimension is represented by the sensory faculties which connect it to the body.
According to the Sufi understanding, nafs is the source the negative power of anger and sexual appetite in a human being which blinds his intellect. Sufis take "nafs" as the comprehensive word for all the evil attributes of a person. That is why they emphasize on doing battle with it and to break and inactivate it as it is referred to in the Hadith of the Holy Prophet (PBUH):
“Your worst enemy is your nafs which lies between your sides.”
The nafs needs to be nourished and developed in the Divine guidance. The nafs starts its career in an undeveloped form but equipped with immense potentialities of corruption as well as the development and getting closer to the Most Perfect Self, Allah (SWT), Whose attributes serve as an objective standard for the human self.
Although some scholars have classified the Nafs up to 7 stages, the Qur’an has described 3 main types of nafs which are:
Nafs ammarah bi al-su’, (the self urging evil)
This nafs surrenders itself to lusts and allows itself to be seduced by the devil. This is the raw self of an untrained person. Al-Nafs al-Ammarah has Shaytan as its ally who falsely promises him great rewards and gains and always invites him and attracts the soul to do evil. He presents falsehood to him in a form that he accepts and admires it.
By its very nature, Al-Nafs al-Ammarah directs its owner towards every wrong action. Allah says:
“Surely the human self urges evil.” (12:53)
Al-Nafs al-Ammara paralyzes the cognitive process of human being. Describing this fatal effect of Al-Nafs al-Ammarah, the Holy Qur’an says:
“They have hearts wherewith they do not understand; have eyes wherewith they do not see; have ears wherewith they do not hear. These are like cattle – no, but they are worse! These are the neglectful.” (7-179)
Al-Ghazali has mentioned the following negative tendencies of this nafs naming tem with ‘spiritual diseases’:
1- Nifaq (hypocrisy)
2- Pride and arrogance
3- Hawa or desire
These are the most harmful tendencies of al-nafs and greatest barriers to the growth of man. When these dominate the self, man loses his insight and his total energies are diverted towards unnecessary activities. As a result, he starts believing deception as truth, fiction as reality and self-glorification as his highest goal in life.
Nafs al-lawwama, (the blaming self)
The second level of nafs is nafs al-lawwama, the blameworthy self which blames its owner for his own shortcomings. At this level, nafs is in a state of constant awareness, self-observation and self-criticism. It recognises his shortcomings, his wrong actions, his disobedience and the neglect of his duties. It is referred to it in Sura Al¬-Qiyamah when Allah says:
"And I do call to witness the Nafs that blames" (75:2).
Nafs al-lawwama is the one which cannot rest in one state. It often changes and alters, remembers and forgets, submits and withdraws, loves and hates, rejoices and becomes sad, accepts and rejects, obeys and rebels. Actually nafs, at this stage, is in the mid of its journey towards its growth and perfection.
Nafs al-mutma’inna, (the Self at Peace)
Nafs al-mutma’inna is the third and the highest stage of nafs. A person when advanced to this stage, he achieves full rest and satisfaction while his personality gets equipped with the qualities of quietness, mildness, tolerance, forgiveness, and understanding of all beings. This stage of nafs ultimately leads to resolution of one’s inner conflicts and attainment of harmony with God. His personality is now dyed with His universal Colour while his behavior reflects the Absolute being and the Ultimate Reality. (Haq, Manzurul. (1984). Concept of personality development in the light of Islamic thoughts. The Bangladesh journal of Psychology, 7, 118-128.) (An abridged quotation)
This is the soul to whom it is said at the time of death:
“O soul at peace, return to your Lord, well pleased and well-pleasing. Enter with My servants, enter into My Garden.” (89:27-30)
Al-Qatadah says abut this stage of nafs: "It is the soul of the believer, made calm by what Allah has promised. Its owner is at rest and content with his knowledge of Allah’s Names and Attributes, and with what He has said about Himself and His Messenger (PBUH), and with what He has said about the Hereafter…. So much so that a believer can almost see them with his own eyes. So he submits to the will of Allah and surrenders to Him contentedly, never dissatisfied or complaining, and with his faith never wavering. He does not rejoice at his gains, nor do his sufferings make him despair." (Al-Tabari: Jami’ al-Bayan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an, vol. 13, Bulaq 1323)
Muslim theologians are divided on the issue that whether the terms “nafs” and “ruh” signify one and the same thing or are they two different entities and whether they are interchangeable?” (Ibn Al-Ālusi’s Jala’ al-‘Aynayn, pp. 142-143) Although these terms may be used interchangeably in relation to their essence, each one has clearly separate and restricted applications in certain contexts.
While the ruh spans the entire spectrum of existence - the seen as well as the unseen - the nafs is restricted to only that which may be experienced in the creational world. We may speak of the nafs as being greedy or unjust in some situations only because the light of the ruh highlights these qualities within the nafs. Indeed the nafs only exists because of the ruh which energizes it.
Ruh or spirit is the core of man’s being, yet it remains hidden. During human life on earth, the spirit and the body are united but then there is a temporary separation during death with the final union to take place in the life thereafter.
According to Muslim scholars, Ruh is the reflection of the Divine presence in man. The Holy Qur’an declares that Allah (SWT) has blown His spirit into human body:
“When I have made him and have breathed into him of My spirit, (I ordered the angles to) bow down, prostrating yourself before him. (15:29 also see 38:72 and 32:8)
The status of being the recipient of Divine spirit elevated man from his humble origin, enabled him to overcome the baser part of his nature, and made him worthy of being the vicegerent of God.
Since human body is from the earth while the spirit is from the heaven and Divine, it always longs to be united with Whom it was separated from. It is stated in Qur’an “to God we belong, to Him is our return.”
Rumi says in his book, Masnavi that the reason why a child cries the first moment after it is born on earth is because it realizes its exile from the higher place. It is unhappy because it seems captive in this worldly body. Explaining the idea of the captivity of the spirit, Rumi narrates a Qur’anic story. It says that God made a statue of Adam and asked the Ruh to enter into the body but it refused saying, ‘Lord, I do not want to be imprisoned in this physical body’. Then God told the angels to sing and dance, and on hearing their song and with the rhythm of the dance the soul went into delight, and in that condition it entered the body. Rumi says that the reason why every soul is longing to attain something is that it is in exile and a captive in this physical body.
Due to the captivity of the spirit and limitation of his physical body, man’s vision remains small and narrow. Man’s innermost being can not be satisfied except for a short time by outside factors. There always comes a time when every one finds that nothing pleases him even if he possesses all what he wants. His lack of freedom causes a continual longing for spiritual achievements. And when man reaches the stage of spiritual attainment and gets closer to its origin, he gets inner satisfaction, he develops the outlook of God and his manners become the manners of God.
The qalb (heart) is an immaterial and formless spiritual entity or basic subtle element which has got connection with the material heart. The qalb has the capacities to acquire comprehensive intuition, to retain real knowledge, the gnosis (ma’rifa) of God and the Divine mysteries, (‘ilm al-batin) and to gain far greater insight than that of human intellect. The Qur’an considers al-Qalb as the seat of wisdom and intellect. It says:
“Do they not travel trough the land, so that their hearts may learn wisdom and their ears may learn to hear? Truly it is not their eyes, rather it is their hearts which are in their chests are blind.” (22:46)
The qalb is nourished by dhikr (remembrance of God). Its health also depends on its purity and freedom. It is the organ of a perception which is both an experience and a taste (dhawq). Al-qalb is also the master of human body which controls its organic and physical functions. All external behavioral acts of man are actually the reflection of states and conditions of al-qalb.
According to a Hadith of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) the heart is owned mutually by an angel and a shaytan:
"There are two impulses in the soul, one from an angel which calls towards good and confirms truth; whoever finds this let him know it is from God and praise Him. Another impulse comes from the enemy which leads to doubt and denies truth and forbids good; whoever finds this, let him seek refuge in God from the accursed devil." Then he recited the verse: "The devil shows you fear of poverty and enjoins evil upon you" (2:268) (Sahih Tirmidhi)
The mutual resistance of the angels and the devils remains constant in the battle over the qalb, until it is conquered by one of the two.
The same position of al-qalb and its relationship with al-ruh and al-nafs has been interestingly explained by Maulana Thanwi:
“The spirit (al-ruh) and the soul (al-nafs) engage in the battle for the possession of their common son, the heart (al-qalb). This is a symbolical way of expressing the nature of the spirit, which is masculine and the nature of soul, which is feminine.” (Thanvi, Ashraf Ali, al-sihhat hukm al-waswasah, (Deoband 1365 A.H.), 225)
According to another writer, if the spirit wins the battle, the heart will be transformed into spirit and, at the same time, transmutes its soul, engulfing her with spiritual light. Then the heart reveals itself; it becomes the lamp (mishkat) of Divine Mystery (sirr) in man. (T. Burckhardt, An introduction to Sufi Doctrine, trans. D. M. Matheson (Lahore: M. Ashraf, 1983) 27.)
The Healthy Heart
It is a heart purified from any passion that challenges Allah’s commands and safeguarded against the worship of anything other than Him. It seeks the judgement of no one other than him and His Messenger. Its services are exclusively reserved for Allah, willingly and lovingly, with total reliance, relating all matters to Him, in fear, hope and sincere dedication. When it loves, its love is for the sake of Allah. If it hates, its hate is for the sake of Allah. When it gives, it gives for Allah. If it withholds, it withholds for Allah (SWT). The Holy Qur’an uses adjectives such as ‘healthy’, ‘wholesome’ ‘contented’ and so on to describe this kind of heart.
Allah (SWT) has declared that on the Day of Resurrection, only those would be saved who come with a healthy heart:
"The day on which neither wealth nor sons will be of any use, except for whoever brings to Allah a sound heart. (26:88-89)"
According to an authentic saying of the Holy Prophet (PBUH):
“Inside the human body there is a piece of flesh which, if it is healthy, the whole body is healthy and if it becomes unhealthy, the whole body gets unhealthy. That is al-qalb.” (Sahih Bukhari)
The heart can not be healthy i.e. successful, righteous, contented, pleased, assured except by the worship of Allah, love of Him and repentance to Him as it has an inherent need for its Lord. According to the Holy Qur’an, the heart will remain restless until it rests in God:
“For sure it is in the remembrance of God that the heart finds rest,” (13:28)
The Dead Heart
The dead or sealed heart is that which is veiled from higher inspiration for example the hearts of the hypocrites. There is little or nothing one can do to heal such hearts. This is the opposite of the healthy heart. It does not know its Lord and does not worship Him. It clings instead to its lusts and desires, even if these are likely to incur Allah’s displeasure and anger. It worships things other than Allah, and its loves and its hatreds, its giving and its withholding, arise from its whims, which are of paramount importance to it.
The Sick Heart
A large number of Qur’anic verses describe the ‘sick’ heart. The sick hearts are those that find whatever they do, attractive to them. These hearts dislike what turns them away from the course they are on. They are wrapped up in fantasies, they are contemptuous, and they follow routines and old patterns, doing ‘what their forefathers practiced’. The sick heart is also proud and hardened. It lacks real understanding because it is engulfed in desire.
This is a heart with life as well as illness in it. It has love for Allah, faith in Him, sincerity towards Him, and reliance upon Him. These are the qualities that give it life. It also has longing for lust and pleasure; it prefers them and strives to experience them. It is full of self-admiration, which can lead to its own destruction. It listens to two callers: one calling it to Allah and His Prophet; and the other calling it to the momentary pleasures. It responds to whichever one of the two happens to have most influence over it at the time.
A Hadith of the Holy Prophet explain the process of heart getting sickness. It is as follows:
“When a believer commits a sin, a dark spot appears on his heart. If he repents and seeks forgiveness (of Allah), his heart becomes spotless again. But if he persists in sin, the dark spot increases. This is the spot that has been mentioned in the Qur’an: “But on their hearts is the stain of (the ill) which they do.” (83:14) (Ibn Majah)
Other Ahadith mention that if the sinner does not repent, and instead keeps on committing sins, the stain on his heart increases and gets more darkened until it overwhelms the whole heart. Ultimately, the heart of sinner is sealed and he becomes spiritually dead.
For the purpose of simplification, nafs can be thought of as the outer man, ruh as the inner man, and qalb, the composite faculties of reasoning and decision-making, and a bridge between the two.
Man, being the vicegerent of God on earth and the theater wherein the Divine qualities are reflected, can reach felicity only by remaining faithful to his nature or by being truly himself. And this in turn implies that he must become integrated. Man is composed of body, mind, nafs and spirit, and each needs to be integrated on its own level. The integration of man, according to Syyed Hossain Nasr, (Sufi Essays, 51) means the realization of the One and the transmutation of the many in the light of the One. Integration and unity of man himself as well as of the whole humanity has always been the highest goal of Islam. It is also an essential part of basic Islamic belief of Tawhid. The same concept has been highlighted by a sufi poet as:
“See but One, say but One, know but One,
In this, the roots and branches of faith are summed up.”
(source : http://www.hssrd.org/journal/fallsu...)