What is the Ontological Nature of Man?
The universe, an integral, composite entity all of whose parts are interrelated, interlinked with one another, may be likened to a tree. Particularly in Oriental traditions, it has been so likened and some Muslim sages such as Muhy al-Din ibn al-’Arabi have even written books on it under the title of ‘The Tree of Creation’.
As everybody knows, a tree is grown from its seed or stone. The whole future life of the tree, the program of its life, is pre-recorded, compacted in the seed. The laws, such as the law of germination and the law of growth, which the Creator has established for the seed to germinate in propitious land and climate and grow into a tree, have the same meaning for the tree as his spirit has for a man. With the sowing of the seed in earth, the life of the tree proceeds through certain stages to yield its fruit and, having begun in a seed, ultimately ends in another seed which is almost identical with the original one and includes the whole past life of that tree.
Consider this: In order for a book to come into being, it must first exist in meaning in the mind of its author. If that author does not put that meaning in his mind into words on a page, it does not mean that the book does not really exist. By putting the meaning in his mind into words on a page, the author ‘materializes’ that meaning so that it takes a form visible to others. What we intend to conclude from this is that the origin, the real existence, of something is not its material, visible form. Rather, it is the meaning, which is invisible and whose existence is not material and does not need matter to subsist, which constitutes the essence of existence or creation. Thus, the real existence of the universe, which we have preferred to call the tree of creation, is in its primordial form in the Knowledge of God as a meaning. It is by the action of the Divine Power on the primordial forms of things in the Knowledge of God in accordance with the measures of the Divine Destiny, that things come into existence in different worlds, one surrounding the other like concentric circles. Like things reflected in different forms and dimensions in different mirrors facing each other, all things or beings have different forms of existence in those worlds according to the particular conditions of each. Muslim sages call some of those worlds ‘the high empyrean world’, where God Almighty manifests His Names almost without veil and therefore things exist in almost pure forms, ‘the world of unconditioned existence’, ‘the world of symbols or immaterial forms’, ‘the visible, material world’, ‘the intermediate world between this and and the next’, and ‘the other or eternal world’. In the material world, things or beings exist in a hierarchy formed by elements, plants, animals, certain unseen creatures like jinn, and human beings.
Any work points to the one who does it. A book shows its writer. similarly, all creatures which come into existence by the manifestations of the Divine Names—they exist because there is One Who eternally exists and makes them exist; they have relative powers of seeing and hearing because there is One Who absolutely sees and hears and makes them see and hear; they have relative powers of acting and speaking because there is One Who never rests, nor sleeps, nor dozes, and Who has the absolute power of speech; they may have certain knowledge because there is One Who is the All-Knowing and enables them to learn; they have relative power to do some things because there is One Who is the All-Powerful and gives them power—function as signs to demonstrate the Almighty Creator or signposts to lead to Him and make Him known. So, this naturally requires that there should be one equipped with certain faculties like intellect, consciousness and heart, who will recognize God and serve as a most comprehensive mirror to reflect Him. There are other creatures like angels who have a certain knowledge of God, but since they are devoid of free will, they cannot be such comprehensive mirrors as to reflect God with all His Names and Attributes. Also, they are not so perfect as to be able to acquire perfect knowledge of things and use them as steps to reach God. For this reason, the Divine Wisdom in the creation of the universe required that a being that would manifest all of the Divine Names and Attributes, primarily including Knowledge and Will, should appear in the realm of existence as the furthest and most perfect fruit of the tree of creation. This being is man.
The existential reality is almost the same in the whole of the universe as macro-cosmos, in man as normocosmos and in an atom as microcosmos. Whatever God has included in the universe, He has compacted it in man’s nature. So, being a specimen of creation, as Muslim sages tend to describe him, man, with his pure spiritual aspect, corresponds to angels, with his memory and power of conception, to the Supreme Guarded Tablet where all things and events are pre-recorded and preserved both before and after they appear in the universe, with his bodily composition, to the main elements in nature, with his evil-commanding self, to devils, and with his power, lusts and certain negative feelings and qualities requiring to be disciplined (like vindictiveness, cunning, deception, greed, rapaciousness, etc.) to certain animals each of which is distinguished with one of these qualities.
Thus, man mainly has two aspects: one angelic, pure and spiritual; the other, turned to elements, plants and animals, as he is the ‘child of the world’. He has been equipped with lusts to maintain his worldly life—lusts for the opposite sex, offspring, money, earning, and the comforts of life—with wrath or the power of anger to protect himself and his values; and with intellect. Besides, he is, by nature, fallible, forgetful, neglectful, fond of disputing, obstinate, selfish, and jealous, etc. Since man is distinguished from other conscious beings like angels by his being endowed with free will, these powers, faculties and negative-seeming feelings of his have not been restricted in creation. However, in order to attain happiness as a social being, both in his individual and social life, in the world and in the Hereafter, and climb the steps of elevation to higher and higher ranks of humanity, he should either restrict them according to certain precepts or channel them into virtues. For example, obstinacy can be channeled into steadfastness in right and truth, and jealousy into a feeling of competition in doing good things. Humanity lies in man’s struggling against the negative aspects of his nature and restricting them or channeling them into virtues, and in his acquiring distinction with his good qualities, thus becoming a good, worshipping servant of God and useful member of society. The Last Prophet of God, upon him be peace and blessings, said: I have been sent to perfect the standards and beauties of good morals.
This article has been adapted from Risale- i Nur Collection.