26 Oct The Basic Concepts of Islam: Part 6
The Concept of the Universe
In the foreword, we briefly discussed the position of the Muslims and the future of Islam in Western Hemisphere. In this part, we shall discuss the position of man in the contemporary world, the general human situation, and the Islamic concept of the universe or world view. This will reaffirm the concepts that have already been discussed, add some new ideas, and tie together the various dimensions of the subject in a summary recapitulatory fashion.
The present human situation is alarming, to say the least. It demands concern and active response on the part of all people of good will and God – mindedness. But this does not, and should not, lead to despair or resignation. The spirit of hope is, and has always been, an integral part of Islam (see, e. g., Quran 12:87; 65:3) The problems and crises of modern times are not entirely unique or peculiar. It is true that they are difficult, complex, and agonizing. Perhaps this is even more so now than ever before. But the difference, however, between this age and those of yester centuries is basically a difference of degree rather than of kind. The ever-increasing complexity of our contemporary predicaments may be largely due to a similar, proportionate rise in our expectations and capacities.
For many centuries and in numerous regions of the globe, the chief source of the most difficult crises has essentially been a kind of inflexible, exclusive, and intolerant attitude toward the unfamiliar, the different, and the foreign. This orientation fostered racism, elitism, bigotry, prejudice, and a whole host of other equally distasteful attitudes.
Few people can really deny that humanity is facing an unusual crisis. This present human crisis seems to emanate from a serious imbalance between our external, outward, material explorations and our internal, inward, moral gropings. Nothing is simpler than calling for the maintenance of equilibrium, advocating a middle range, or crusading for the golden means. Yet nothing has been harder to attain. In the past, utterances such as man cannot live by bread alone were sometimes so distorted as to connote disregard for man’s material welfare. Similarly, trust in God has been misunderstood; it is often taken to mean helpless fatalism or categorical denial of human free will and self-realization. An overemphasis on spirituality and resignation is bound to give rise to a counter emphasis on materialism, rationalism, free will, and so on. Stressed beyond certain limits, spirituality may become superstition and confusion. Likewise, counter stress may turn materialism into laxity, free will into libertinism, and rationalism into sheer vanity. The intellectual history of the last few centuries demonstrates these tendencies only too well. Over the years of recent decades, the spiritual scale tipped up and down. In the sixties, and now in the seventies, the news-making events are those of the unsurpassed, unprecedented, outer space explorations. Equally sensational are the unprecedented explorations in the inward, internal realms of being, however faddish, cultic, or neurotic they may seem to be.
The rise of these two unprecedented and unbalanced types of exploration is exceptionally alarming. The reason probably lies in the fact that the two types do not seem to relate to each other, let alone converge. There is no apparent reciprocity, mutual reinforcement, or cross-fertilization. Besides, their precarious, unbalanced existence is a constant threat to the majority of people. It may very well drive them into ambivalence and confusion which may, in turn, intensify the problems of society and harden the lot of modern men. But such a precarious course can be changed if the outward scientific explorations and the inward moral gropings are somehow reconciled. Man does not live by bread alone. That is true enough. But neither does he live by prayers only. He is both a political or materialistic animal and a religious explorer of the holy.
As already mentioned, the contemporary world is clearly baffled by numerous problems. But it is equally baffled by the conflicting diagnoses and prescriptions to cope with these problems. Some people sing along with the popular lyric, what the world needs now is love etc. Some call for a human rebirth. Others turn to Marxism, Humanism, Satanism, or Scientism as the ultimate solution. Still, more are awaiting the arrival of some future Savior. Yet this long list does not even include the indifferent, the hopeless, and the apathetic who may, in fact, outnumber the optimist clubs combined. But it seems that the greatest need today is the pressing need for “understanding.” What man needs most of all is to understand himself and his nature, his potentials and limitations, his place in the universe and relationships with its elements.
The question now is how can Islam help man to understand himself, unclog his mind, and clear his blurred vision? To try an answer to this question, it will be necessary to keep in mind the basic concepts of Islam which have been discussed and to elaborate further some elements of its value system. This analysis will hopefully show how they may relate to modern man in his contemporary predicament, and how they may help him to find his way through.
The principle of moderation is most characteristic of Islam. It is probably best expressed in the way Islam views human nature, the meaning of life, and the idea of God. Islam does not subscribe to the one-sided humanistic philosophy, which almost deifies man and recognizes nothing beyond. Neither does Islam endorse the equally one-sided verdict that human nature is inherently vicious, wicked, or sinful, Islam rejects the idea that life is nasty, brutal, short, and miserable. But it equally rejects the idea that life is an end in itself, pleasurable, and carefree. Islam does give life a positive meaning, a purpose. It would devalue life on earth only relative to the Hereafter. It is not concerned exclusively with the here and now, the instant hedonism, and the immediate pleasures. Nor does it completely bypass the here and now in pursuit of a future paradise in a hereafter. It addresses itself to both the human condition here on earth and the human destiny in the Hereafter. Such concern is, of course, proportionate; it values each phase of existence according to its relative effect on the general well-being of man (Quran 7:33; 17:18-21; 28:77; 57:20-21).
In the Quran, there is a passage (2: 27-39) which is typical of so many others. This passage contains some of the fundamental principles of Islam and represents the foundations of the world view of Islam. Outstanding among these principles are the following:
1. The world is a becoming entity, created by the will of a Designer and sustained by Him for meaningful purposes. Historical currents take place in accordance with His will and follow established laws. They are not directed by blind chance, nor are they random and disorderly incidents.
2. Man also is created by God and is commissioned to be Gods viceroy on earth. He is so chosen to cultivate the land and enrich life with knowledge, virtue, purpose, and meaning. And to achieve this goal, everything in the earth and the heavens are created for him and is made subservient to him. Life on this planet is not a prison for man; his coming into the world was not an arbitrary punishment for previously committed sins. Nor was he expelled from another world and cast out into this one. His existence was no mere chance or undesigned occurrence.
3. Knowledge is the unique faculty of man and is an integral part of his personality and his being. It is the knowledge that qualifies a man to be the viceroy of his Creator and entitles him to command the respect and allegiance even of the angels of God.
4. The first phase of life on earth began not in sin or rebellion against the Creator. The Fall from the Garden of Eden and what followed thereafter – the remorse of Adam and Eve, their repentance, God’s forgiveness of and compassion for them, the enmity between man and Satan – all this was no surprise to the Creator. Nor was it an accident in the course of events. It was too meaningful to be accidental. Rather, it seems to have been designed to discipline the first man, to give him an actual experience of fall and rise, moral defeat and triumph, straying from and reconciliation with the Creator. In this way, man would become better prepared for life and more enlightened to face its uncertainties and trying moments.
5. Eve was not the weaker party of the first human couple. She neither tempted Adam to eat of the forbidden tree nor was she alone responsible for the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Both Adam and Eve were equally tempted and equally responsible; both were remorseful, repented, and were blessed with the forgiveness and compassion of God. This is significant as it liberates Eve from the curse that followed her and her sex throughout the ages, and acquits her of the charge that she alone bears all or most of the responsibility for the Fall. Furthermore, it declares in no uncertain terms that the belief in the moral inferiority of women is unfounded and the double standard is totally unjustifiable. Here, as elsewhere, the Quran makes it very clear that both man and women are equally capable of virtue and weakness, equally sensitive, and equally meritorious.
6. Man is a free agent endowed with a free will. This is the essence of his humanity and the basis of his responsibility to his Creator. Without man’s relative free will life would be meaningless and Gods covenant with man would be in vain. Without human free will, God would be defeating His own purpose and man would be completely incapable of bearing any responsibility. This, of course, is unthinkable.
7. Life emanates from God. It is neither eternal nor an end in itself, but a transitional phase, after which all shall return to the Creator.
8. Man is a responsible agent. But responsibility for sin is borne by the actual offender alone. Sin is not hereditary, transferable, or communal in nature. Every individual is responsible for his own deeds. And while man is susceptible to corruption, he is also capable of redemption and reform. This does not mean that Islam prefers the individual to the group. Individualism means little or nothing when severed from social context. What it means is that the individual has different sets of roles to play. He must play them in such a way as to guard his moral integrity, preserve his identity, observe the rights of God, and fulfill his social obligations.
9. Man is a dignified honorable being. His dignity derives from the fact that he is infused with the spirit of his Creator. What is more important is that such dignity is not confined to any special race, color, or class of people. It is the natural right of man, every man, the most honorable being on earth.
10. The passage, finally, points to the deep-seated roots of the Oneness of God and the unity of mankind. It shows, further, that man’s highest virtues are piety and knowledge, that when such knowledge is acquired and invested according to the divine guidance, man’s blissful destiny will be assured and his life will be serene.