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What is the Islamic view of Man?


By Ali Unal


Man is a being in three parts

Man is a being in three parts, composed of the spirit, the carnal soul and the body, each needing to be satisfied. These three components are so interrelated with one another, and their needs are so different that neglecting one results in man’s failing to attain ‘perfection’.

As the Qur’an expresses it, “Beautified for mankind is the love of lusts—women, children, stored-up heaps of gold and silver, horses of mark, cattle and tillage.” (3:14) Man’s physical make-up and individual characteristics produce in him certain inclinations, and he can neither avoid satisfying these lusts which have been ingrained in him by the Creator, nor can he be rid of them.

Just as we do not mean that man is free to do whatsoever he wishes to satisfy his lusts when we speak of his being unable to avoid satisfying them, so too, we do not imply that he cannot do anything regarding his inclinations when we speak of his incapacity to get rid of them. On the contrary, he can change his inclinations by using his will, and he can control his lust, anger and other emotions and channel them to propel himself along the path of perfection and wisdom.


Man has to satisfy both his material and spiritual needs

Man, made up of dust, which is the earthly element of his existence, and the spirit, the heavenly element of his existence, has to satisfy both his material and spiritual needs. Just as he is subject to the power of anger and passion, he also can exercise the power of intellect. He is neither a plant nor an animal only, but he is a unique being having both vegetable and animal aspects.

Just as man’s physical body is subject to its own pleasures and diseases, his spirit too has its joys and ailments. What harms the body is sickness, and what gives it pleasure lies in its well-being, health and whatever is in harmony with its nature. As for the pleasures and diseases of the spirit, they depend on whether the carnal soul has been purified or not.


Man’s most important problem is to attain happiness

Man’s most important problem inseparable from his existence and the ultimate aim of his life is to attain felicity and happiness. The most consummate happiness for man is to become the embodiment and manifestation of Divine Attributes and the characteristics. The soul of a truly happy man is developed by the knowledge and love of God, and it is illuminated by effulgence emanating from the Godhead. When that happens, nothing but beauty emanates from him, since beauty can emanate only from what is beautiful.


Man’s happiness lies in reformation of the three faculties of his soul

It should be kept in mind that true felicity cannot be reached or retained unless all the faculties and powers of the soul are purified and reformed. By reforming some faculties of the soul, or all of them, for a short period of time only, happiness will not be attained. Its case is similar to physical health. A body can be said to be healthy only when all its limbs and organs are lastingly healthy. Therefore, the individual who seeks to attain ultimate and perfect happiness must free himself or herself from the clutches of the demonic and animal forces and step onto the ladder to ascend to higher realms.

When we speak of man’s purifying his faculties and powers, we do not mean that he should eliminate his desires and anger, and destroy his reproductive instincts, or capacity for self-defense. Man could not exist without these instincts, so he must preserve them. If he did not possess the power of intellect, it would be impossible for him to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong, true and false, and if he did not possess the faculty of anger, he would not be able to defend himself against attacks which threaten his life. If the force of sexual attraction and desire did not exist in man, the continued existence of the human species would be threatened. It is for man to avoid extremes in expressing his powers and faculties and to maintain a balance and moderation so that they may perform their functions properly. The purification and training of each one of these faculties results in the emergence of a particular ability in the human being.

The purification and training of the intellect results in the acquiring of knowledge, and ultimately of wisdom, in the human being. The purification of the power of anger results in the emergence of the faculty of courage, and subsequently of forbearance. The purification of passion and desire results in the development of the virtue of chastity. Those moral virtues, which a man attains as he rises towards perfection and realizes true happiness are wisdom, courage, and chastity.

If every virtue is thought of as the center of a circle, and any movement away from the center is considered a vice, the farther away the movement from the center is, the greater the vice is. For every virtue, therefore, there are innumerable vices; since there is only one center in a circle, whereas points all around it are infinite in number. With regard to deviation, it does not make any difference in which direction the deviation occurs; deviation from the center, in whatever direction, is a vice.

There are two extreme points related to each moral virtue, one is a deficiency, the other an excess. The two extremities connected with wisdom are stupidity and cunning. As to courage, they are cowardice and rashness; concerning chastity, they are lethargy and uncontrolled lust.


Where does man’s perfection lie?

So man’s perfection, the ultimate purpose of his existence, lies in maintaining a condition of balance and moderation between the two extremes relating to every virtue. As regard with the result of maintaining a balance and moderation, Ali ibn Abi Talib is reported to have said:

Surely God has characterized the angels by intellect without sexual desire and passions, and anger, and the animals with anger and desire without intellect. He exalted man by bestowing upon him all of these qualities. Accordingly, if man’s intellect dominates his desire and ferocity, he rises to a station above that of angels, because this station is attained by man in spite of the existence of obstacles which do not vex the angels. (Nahj al-Balagha)

One of the important points to mention with regard to man’s earthly existence is that he is a social, civilized being living in co-existence with his fellowmen, so that his earthly life covers social, political, and economic aspects as well as spiritual ones. Man, because of his worldly nature, can be too obedient a servant of his desires. When men who are under the influence of their lusts gain power to rule over their fellows, they light fires of oppression on the earth and reduce the poor and the weak to being their slaves. The human history is full of such instances. God, on the other hand, is All-just and never approves injustice and oppression, so the religion He has revealed must, and does, cover all aspects of human life.


Islam and other ‘religious’ traditions in guiding man

It can be argued that almost all the moral or religious movements of revival prior to Islam arose in reaction to the circumstances then existing in a certain locality. This explains why they were lacking in some principles and failed to give complete guidance for all aspects of life. Taoism, for instance, taught the corrupted community of China which had sunk into all kinds of vices, the complete negligence of material pleasures. The Confucian world-view was opposed to the principles of Taoism, and called the people who had been leading a monastic life based on spiritual purification and individual piety to found a virtuous state, and live a fully social life.

The same is true with the Indian people. The vast, fertile country of Rajahs was the object of several invasions which occurred over the centuries, and the Indian religions developed extreme mysticism and asceticism as a reaction against the luxury and debauchery which had been once prevalent.

As for Christianity, particularly in the beginning, it developed too much as another worldly religion. This was partly because it emerged as a reaction to Jewish hypocrisy and materialism but more particularly, as Jesus Christ himself admitted, because it was not the final and complete Divine message for mankind, but the revelation only for one nation at a certain period:

I have much more to tell you, but now it would be too much for you to bear. When, however, the Spirit of truth comes, who reveals the truth about God, he will lead you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own authority, but he will speak of what he hears and will tell you of things to come. (John, 16:12-13)

Five centuries after Jesus, the Spirit of truth appeared in the person of the Prophet Muhammad (God’s blessings be upon him), bringing the whole truth to mankind. God revealed that He had sent him to the whole of mankind (34:28). He never spoke on his own authority, but he always spoke of what was revealed to him, as foretold by Jesus and also mentioned in the Qur’an (53:3-4). Besides, no prophet other than Muhammad (peace be upon him) emerged after Jesus and no one other than him revealed the truth about God. Almost everyone in the world had been associating partners with God before his advent: “Most part of men believe not in Him, but they associate other gods with Him” (Qur’an, 12:106). As people measured not God with His true measure (6:91), some imputed to Him a son without any knowledge, while some others regarded the angels as His daughters, although He is exalted completely above what they were describing. Thus, Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, came and revealed the truth about God and emphasized His Unity. With him God perfected religion and declared that the true religion with Him is Islam (3:19) and, therefore, whoso desires another religion than Islam, it shall not be accepted of him; in the next world he shall be among the losers. (3:85) As related by Jesus himself (John, 16:14), the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, “acknowledged the true glory of Jesus” by revealing to the world what is important for people to know about his life and teachings. Finally, the message which Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, brought from God is the last and the complete message for mankind because he is the Seal of Prophets.


Islam contains complete guidance for all aspects of human relationships, and for all nations and ages

Unlike any other religion, which, because it was confined to one nation, and to a certain period only, lacks the principles to control the whole of life, Islam contains complete guidance for all aspects of human relationships, and for all nations and ages. Islam is a system of faith related to behavior which combines action, intention, and faith, and takes the totality of life of the complete man into consideration. Although it gives much emphasis to the spiritual aspect of man’s existence, yet it never neglects the social, administrative and economic aspects of life. Thus, the Qur’an expresses the qualifications of the guides appointed to educate men, and describes the foundations of a perfect community as follows:

Thus, We appointed for you a Messenger from amongst you so that he will recite to you Our signs, purify you, and teach you the Book, wisdom and teach you what you know not. (2:151)

Islam is the way of love, knowledge and action, therefore, as expressed in the verses quoted above, man needs signs. Every event in the universe and human life is a sign, on which man is to contemplate and through which he can find ways to the Sublime Creator.


Islam weds sciences and spiritual purification and morality

Man, by contemplating these signs, under the guidance of the Holy Scripture, can attain to the knowledge of God and faith, and can lead a virtuous life based upon this faith, thus purifying his soul of evils and sins. Again by means of the same signs, man has been able to found modern sciences, which have their origin in the ‘signs’, which are the ‘Divine laws of nature’. It should be pointed out that only a soul which has been purified can bring benefit to mankind through the sciences. Otherwise, as witnessed in the last phase of human history, science and technology can be so deadly to mankind that millions of people lose their lives, and other millions of them are left homeless as orphans and widows. Only when purified souls are endowed with sciences and enabled to employ them, does this lead to true felicity and salvation for mankind.

Man, although purified and endowed with the sciences, has to share his life with his fellowmen. That is why the Last Messenger of God, as stated in the Qur’an, was sent together with the Book, which contains the Divine principles of social life, and with the Balance so that human beings could follow absolute justice. The Balance is the Divine standard in conformity with which Authority puts the Book into practice in order to secure justice in the society. Thus, any religion or system which lacks the principles of spiritual purity or the conditions of a virtuous social life is far from providing true felicity for mankind. As will be explained, and as witnessed by history, Islam has been able to give complete guidance for the life of this world and the next, with nothing essential omitted. The Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace and blessings) having been sent as “the blessing for all the worlds”, and with the Quran, which will last forever without being corrupted, there is no requirement for any renewal of the Divine message through another Prophet.


Does Islam have to change with the passage of time?

Some people, however, argue that the passage of time itself is a sufficient ground for the need of new guidance and, hence, a religion which was revealed some fourteen centuries ago must necessarily grow obsolete and become a thing of the past, not suited to the needs of the new age. This objection is totally unfounded. Islam’s teachings, first of all, are eternal, because they have been revealed by God, Who knows all about the past, present and future and Who Himself is eternal. It is the human knowledge which is limited. It is the human eye which cannot see the vista of future, not God Whose knowledge is above all the limitations of time and space.

Second, Islam is based on essential human nature, which is constant and not subject to change according to time and space. It is a modern illusion which sees everything subject to change. In human life and in nature there is a beautiful balance between elements of permanence and change. It is the outward forms which change while the fundamental principles, the basic values and the essential human nature together with men’s basic needs remain unchanged. The Qur’an and the Sunna propound the eternal principles of Islam, while through Ijtihad particular needs of every age are deduced from them. Ijtihad, however, is neither independent reasoning as thought of by Schacht nor free-thinking as defined by Gibb, but it is a technical term in Muslim jurisprudence. It is a legal principle which has been defined by Muslim scholars as “the competency or legal ability to deduce rules of law through juristic speculation from original sources where definite authentic decisive texts are not specific.” To cite an example, Islam has no objection to making laws to control the modern traffic, but murder will remain as a capital sin and a grave crime which deserves a heavy punishment even if it is committed by a driver.

A man comes to a famous Muslim jurist and says to him: “You argue that the Qur’an contains every principle to cater for modern needs. If so, can you show me whether the Qur’an teaches us how many loaves of bread can be made from a kilo of flour?” The jurist’s answer is very significant to understanding the essence of the matter: “Yes, the Qur’an teaches us how many loaves of bread can be made from a kilo of flour. It enjoins us to refer to the people of expert knowledge for what we do not know ourselves. (16:43) So, go and ask a baker about it. ”

Islam is the only religion which has established machinery for the perennial evolution of human society in accordance with the fundamental principles and permanent values of life.



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