What is Life?: The Process of Becoming ‘Insan’ (Human) in Islam*

By Mohammed Hashas

Copenhagen, 26/09/2011.

*This essay was written during my PhD research stay at the University of Copenhagen, Center for European Islamic Thought, from September 2011 to July 2012. I am thankful to Abdelghani Elkhairat (Untrecht University, the Netherlands) and Soumaya Ibn Roshd (Mohamed I University in Oujda, Morocco) for having read and commented on this text. I am sorry not have been able to expand on some of the issues they raised for the simple reason that I did not intend this essay to be lengthy and highly theoretical. The essay is generic and aims to be so at this stage, that is why I prefer to call it “notes” on the issue raised here. I also thank Manohar Kumar (LUISS University, Rome), Shirin Zakeri (Sapienza University of Rome), Mikkel Fonskov (Danish Broadcasting Corporation), Father Piet van Dongen (Tilburg, the Netherlands), and Safet Bektovic (Copenhagen University) with whom I discussed some of the issues of this essay a bit before its writing, a fact which encouraged me to write down these pages when I read about ESSAT conference, to which I at the end could not apply for reasons of time.

The European Society for the Study of Science and Technology (ESSAT) is organizing the 14th European conference on Science and Theology between 24 and 26 April 2012. Reading about this call for papers has tempted me to write down guidelines about what life means from a theological perspective. The theology I am most concerned with here is the Islamic one. These notes are generic, and reflect a project in progress.

What is life? This is just the most fundamental question that busies the human mind, whatsoever be their religion, culture, philosophy or ideology.

In these notes, and I call all my non-fiction, non-academic works “notes,” I will be referring to the way I perceive life from the Islamic perspective. Islam is the religion I speak of because it is the one I am familiar with, and the one I still try to know. As I have grown up, I have come to understand religion as a way of life, and not a mere private matter to keep at home. How can one imprison a worldview within private walls?

More personally, the life I try to capture in these notes is the same life I try to lead myself. I am not claiming that it is the only right way a Muslim should live her/his life. Every Muslim is shaped, besides religion/Islam, by the cultural, social, economic and political situation s/he is born into and in which he grows up. This means that, though Islam has some core pillars that every Muslim should know and think of, it is up to every individual to make his/her efforts to come into terms with this religion, in light of the context s/he is in. And seeing the various contexts a Muslim can be in, geographically, temporality, politically, economically, etc. s/he does experience Islam differently. Depending on how the past or early childhood is lived and how one grows up in or out of touch with religion, she or he may then turn up to be religious, non-religious, semi-religious, indifferent, or ‘socio-culturally Muslim,’ a believer but not an observant, or semi-observant, etc. This just means that if Islam can be defined theologically by its five pillars and what ethics goes with them, a Muslim, as a social agent or subject, does add to these pillars and ethics his or her own interpretation, which corresponds to the context in which he (or she) lives, and depends on his intellectual powers in interpreting them, or maybe just swallowing or adopting them, without questioning them. The non-believers who were born and educated in an Islamic context, do have, a lot or little, of this culture in their worldview, which affects their current look at the world, even in its agnostic or atheist look. The past of the individual does a lot to how he understands religion.

Having broadly contextualized, and thus relativized, religiosity and non-religiosity of the individual, I can make two main points.

First, seeing that they need to attach themselves to “powers” that give them a sense of being and answers in metaphysical ways (metaphysical reasoning) to questions they do not have answer to through science and reason (human reasoning), human beings, generally, tend to be religious, if not much then little. Religion gives them a sense of being, identity, belonging, meaning and values. For a believer in religion, life needs to be based on values that do not have their base in man and human reasoning, since that makes them eligible for corruption and change. There is a need for a power beyond human understanding to give them understanding to certain humanly lived values, like love, peace, forgiveness, solidarity, happiness, etc. These values are valued in themselves before they are valued in a polity. That is why religious parents prefer to teach these values to their children before they go to school. The idea here is that it is the person as such that matters, and not the community and the polity; that is why values are taught from a very early age, by the family institution, before the school and the university which are State institutions. States are not infallible; they teach what makes them States and keeps them in power, at the end. This does not mean there is a weakening of the State, but simply a vaccination of the human against possible corruption later on in age. A good human being is by default a good citizen. And the reverse is not always true. In brief, there is a need of a power that human beings consider to have created them and the world. This power is God, or Allah in Islamic-Arabic common terminology.

The second point to be made at this stage is the following: the power talked about in the first point, God/Allah, is unique and indivisible, in the sense that there is nothing like it (power) and its creation. The world and the way it is ordered and structured, makes this power Unique, hence the idea of Unity, At-Tawhid in Islam, i.e. there is no God but God. God does not have a family and does not have a vicegerent. He is the Absolute and the Omnipresent. His creatures are His family. This makes the first pillar of Islam: Tawhid, or Ash-Shahada. Anyone who bears testimony to this is Muslim. (The more this testimony is reflective, intellectual, the better.) Abraham is seen as a Muslim, and so are seen the other prophets, up to Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Needless to go into details here, but the rest of the testimony is that Muhammad is His Last Prophet, he who believes in the previous prophets and seals the tree of prophethood.

The idea behind these two points is the following: for humans to have a meaning in life they have to believe in a divine power that is Unique, characterized by Unity, otherwise the meaning of life and the meanings that could be given to the various aspects of life could be as various as the number of gods, if there were many. The Oneness of God gives one main meaning to life, despite the diversity one lives and sees, and this is what it all boils down to: humans have to work out their way, with the help of reason, to find how this world is wonderfully created and structured, despite the visible chaos one sees around. The idea is to work out for one meaning, despite the chaos that characterize human politics and management of the world: The beauty of the world should be restored, and that can happen only if human beings are united under this banner of one meaning, Oneness of God and oneness of meaning. This idea leads to many other ones; and it may even seem to contradict other values and meanings, which other religions and cultures and philosophies have.

The challenge is this: how to find Beauty and reach Peace despite all the difference that characterizes the world? I try to argue here that Islam, as a way of life, aims at helping the individual to realize Beauty in creation and Peace in the world. The individual has to work, progressively and gradually to that stage where difference and diversity are part of the harmony of the world. Beauty and Peace are a priori “installed” in the world, but they are realized a poteriori, because human beings take time to realize the good around them. Realizing the beautiful and living peacefully is a process, and as long as this process is not worked on, religion will not be understood as a means of harmony and peace, and the idea of God will be always belittled and misinterpreted. Islam, the religion I know most, is replete with calls for contemplation, reasoning, and thinking for “Islamizing oneself to Peace”, i.e. for “surrendering oneself to Peace.”

When the human being submits to this idea of Tawhid, of Unity, he is then supposed to work in life for the realization of the aim behind it. The idea is to live and restore Beauty and Peace, beauty of the inner soul and beauty in the outer world, and peace inside and outside this soul. Thus the word “Islam” derives from “salam,” (i.e. peace), and from the verb “asslama,” or even “sallama,” i.e. “to surrender or to submit to.” Classical interpretations have often read it as a way of “submission to” or “surrender to” God. I would subscribe to this common interpretation if this submission is not passive. I do not think God likes to have weak servants and worshippers. Rather, I consider Muslim whosoever beholders and raises the message of Beauty and Peace in the world. The interpretation I give here is that “surrender” or “submission” is by no means pejorative or passive. It is a submission to a noble and highly humane message that proclaims Beauty for the finality of Peace, for the self and for the world. Only such a kind of “submission” does service to God and the world.

I am very aware of the many suspicions and questions that may arise out of this worldview, because the political, the social, and the cultural, etc. have all contributed to either adding to or subtracting from this worldview I am trying to picture here. And I am not the first one nor will I be the last one to give such a view from an Islamic perspective. This runs so deep in the history of Islamic philosophy, from the formative years until now. The biography of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) before the Islamic message descended on him is very revealing and descriptive of what I mean by Beauty and Peace; this same worldview was endorsed when revelation descended on him at the age of forty. Mohammad is not only for “Muslims”; his forty years before Islam are years of living beautifully and peacefully in the world. If, for some, Mohammad is a problematic figure in Islamic history, they should just read his biography as a man, not as a prophet, before the advent of Islam. He is the epitome of walking beauty and peace in the world – religion aside for those who interpret religion narrowly.

I am not here to go through the historical era in which Islam appeared, and what went on for and against its advent, and how it evolved, and stagnated in history, and how it still is lived. The heart of the matter is to present the culmination of the idea of Islam as such, and that does not go through small details, though it is they that bring it up. The components of life matter from the smallest to the highest in importance, because they all lead to a picture, a frame of work and life style. The same applies to the details of religion. However, and this is of paramount importance in my mind, despite the contribution of the small detail to the depiction of the larger picture, it is at the end the picture that we see, not the pixels that make it. To understand this point of Beauty and Peace better, I outline three axes of relations that can exemplify what I am trying to depict here: 1) Human Relations, 2) Man, Nature and the World, and 3) Man and the World Beyond.

1) Human Relations: Respect and Equality

In my understanding of the Islamic tradition, two key words can cover this relational stage, a basic relation for the continuity of life: respect and equality. Respect for the non-Muslims, and equality among the Muslims.

One may wonder: but why is this difference between Muslims and non-Muslims at all? This deserves more space than allowed here. Suffice it here to say that it is the Unity aspect of God in Islam that establishes this distinction. Without it, different approaches could be followed in life. Islam has a particular worldview which it tries to teach to its followers first, and to the non-Muslims as well, since the same worldview applies to them as creatures of the same God/Allah even though they are not “officially Muslim.” Islam exerts non-Muslims to challenge their own worldviews to understand what life is, either through their own means or through conversion to Islam if they want to. (I think one can be Muslim without converting to Islam. The essence of the message is more important than the name of religion itself). There is no compulsion in conversion. You either like and follow it or don’t. Whether you do or do not, you are still accountable for your deeds in life, from an Islamic perspective, even though you are not Muslim by faith. This difference in faith does not encroach upon the core value of the human being, that is why respecting the non-Muslims is fundamental. It is part of being human, and also part of being Muslim. To be a Muslim among Muslims is easy. To understand God and contemplate the meanings of Islam, one has to be also a Zoroastrian, a Hindu, a Sikh, a Jew, a Christian, atheist, etc. One misses something if he does without having thought of himself as all of these. These religions and philosophies are part of the Wills of God. Not accepting them means not accepting the Will of God. It is only respecting the other that one elevates his comprehension of life from his own particular religion. One’s particular religion is just one path among others. One’s religion is one truth among other truths. Diversity is willed by God Himself, and denying this diversity is like acting against this divine Will. To hate or to kill someone in the name of religion and God contradicts the essence of God, which is Greatness, Omniscience, and Ability to create diversity. God’s greatness can only be seen in diversity. I can keep my religion, but still consider other religions are also part of my religion. I keep my religion because it is the best one I know and understand better. It is through it that I look at the world. And such a look should be inclusive if I want to elevate my understanding of life from divine perspectives.

En passant I note to an issue from political Islam perspectives, an issue that has been exaggerated, and which still needs to be revisited by theologians and politicians alike. Because Islam aims at stability and peace, it in no way considers the non-Muslim as enemy to be hated or to be suspected, except in the case of war waged on Muslims, and the Muslims have to respond as a way of defense. And the war is only against the ones who take part in the war, i.e. soldiers, and not women, children, elders, nature, and the infrastructure. There is a whole etiquette on the war, but the basic idea is that no war is allowed unless entered into by force, i.e. when attacked without reason. There is also the etiquette of how to treat the prisoners of war. The non-Muslim others in the Muslim community have the right to practice their rituals amidst the Muslim community; the dhimmis (Jews and Christians in particular) are an example of believers who enjoyed such rights amidst the Islamic community in history. Dhimmitude was actually not for all non-Muslims but only for the non-Muslims who participated or assisted in war against the Muslim community in which they lived. It had its historical and political as well as economic reasons, which cannot be applied now. Briefly, respect for the other is ordained in the Book, the Quran, whatsoever be his religion, if he believes in one; if s/he does not, he still has respect to side with him/her. Note that I use the term respect and not tolerance, which means that the latter has a pejorative meaning and denotes that a community or a person condescends on the other, the non-believer in this case. If toleration was a practice in classical Islam towards the non-Muslims, respect now is more important and has more validity, beyond time and space. Islamic political history has to be historicized and contextualized, otherwise the essence of religion is missed. I close this note, which I do not want to dominate my notes here.

As for equality, I chose the term on purpose to designate the relationship between the Muslim man and woman. The Quran states clearly in a number of verses that there is no difference between man and woman, but at a certain point, namely the one on inheritance, woman seems generally receives less than man from the heritage. The testimony of man also equals that of two women. These two examples have been the practice in the Islamic world for centuries, and though change occurred in some other sanctions which are no longer practiced (like stoning for adultery or cutting off the hand of the thief) except in some cases in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Northern Soudan, Afghanistan-Taliban, no change occurred when it comes to these issues of women. The idea of equality and social justice which are at the heart of Islamic ethics have been neglected with the focus on sanctions that had to do with a particular historical era when a community was in the making, and when the new religion has to teach its disciples to distance themselves from tribalism and pre-Islamic practices, and form themselves in a more disciplined political community. Importantly, it is amazing how the Islamic penal code, or hudud sanctions, were barely practiced during the Formative years of Islam and during the Prophet’s life time. Some historians refer to two cases only in which the sanction on adultery, for example, was implemented. More importantly, the Prophet is said to have avoided implementing the sanction, and it was the repentant adulterers who insisted on the Prophet the rule of conduct on them. For the inheritance, though the philosophy of the time was that man was the bred-winner and the household manager, so it was he who got more shares of the heritage so that he can manage the household demands. Now, while man is no longer the only bred-winner, and women are in many cases found the household manager, the classical division of inheritance, however, is kept the same. The cultural and social abuse of this custom made it work against the subject of equality, social justice, and good treatment of women in society. The patriarchal society used these Quranic divisions for its male elite dominance. With time, it became quite normal that women became mere household keepers, illiterate most times, and subjugated in others. It has to be remembered that this is not only an Arabian or Islamic practice. Most religions and cultures have gone through the same practice, and many still keep the same practices. Look at Asia, Latin America, and some conservative enclaves in Europe.

God that orders justice would not accept that injustice prevails amidst the community that is said to be the last community of believers. God that orders literacy and urges the human mind to ‘read/learn’ (iqra’) would not be happy to see that illiteracy is what distinguishes the Muslim community from the others! It seems that the Islamic discourse of social justice that would end up in the realization of Beauty and Peace ended long time ago, before its aim became true. One should not be naïve and say that Islam still lives, though its people have gone through stagnation in history for centuries! The point here is at the end not Islam as such but the way it has been interpreted ever since its advent. I have seen so many “Muslim non-Muslims”; I have seen so many “non-Muslim Muslims,” as it were. Of course Islam will last because it carries high values. What goes ups and downs is the carrier of those values, i.e. the Muslims. When the latter opened themselves for science and philosophy especially between the ninth and 14th centuries, their light reached the world and enlightened it, and the same thing when darkness prevailed; their darkness reached the world and terrorized it. I do not see any divinity in ignorance and injustice! If I had to judge God in light of the injustices I see in religious communities, I could have denied God a long time ago. I know of no God who rides tanks and proclaims greatness. The God I believe in is invisible, is within me. No need to say there are always external factors that push either side of the edge to extremes.

In light of the message of Islam, which targets the happiness of the human body and soul here and in the hereafter, there is a crying need to go back to the tradition and see what went wrong in its making. The value of values in a religious discourse like the Islamic one is universal, and its universality is supposed to make it updated and in the service of wo/man. The particularity of Islam, with its worldview, remains, and is supposed to remain to mark its difference, but at the same time, its practices and the way they are practiced are supposed to elevate the human mind to the historical phase in which one is.

2) Man, Nature and the World: Beauty and Peace

As much as there is supposed to be more harmony between the body and soul, there is equally supposed to be harmony between wo/man (Man) and nature. Man is supposed to take from nature just what he needs, as if it were his breath, to the point that he cannot inhale more that he needs to survive. Nature is in the service of man as much as man is in the service of nature. It is an approach that is based on the idea that it is not wealth that you take with you after you are no longer here; it is your good work that counts.

Nature, animate (animals, insects, birds, plants, etc.) and inanimate (mountains, rocks, the sky, the starts, the wind, plants, etc.) are actually all animate, and they are on the move, if not physically, then religiously speaking. What distinguishes natural life is that, like humans, it is also under the reign of the Only Power, God. And since they are created, their purpose is dual: first, they, too, worship God, indirectly, and without us being aware of that, and second, they do help the human mind in cogitating and pondering about the order of nature and the manifestations of this Power. Nature and its elements are signs on the way towards Beauty and towards Peace with the Self and with the cosmos.

The obsession of man with nature is not based on the idea of mastery but on the ideal of beautiful harmony for peace.

The elements of nature are signs for man to study them, with science, and to live with them, to understand what man is, how able and unable he can be, with and without God. Nature is a large laboratory to control the possession syndrome man has inside him. Man is greedy and possessive. He can attain peace only if he realizes the beauty in not possessing. What is aimed is not at possessing the materials nature bestows on man but at possessing the ability to enjoy these materials with the rest of mankind, selflessly. How can one realize the beauty of the world if he enjoys the riches of nature while his neighbors are in abject poverty? Can that scene be beautiful?

Nature, being the first cosmic feature close to man, is part of a whole, the world, the cosmos. Man is invited to be ready to think over both the possible, the close in distance, and the seemingly impossible, the far in the cosmos, which with time, with thinking, and science can become close to the understanding of man. As man interacts with earth, the land and the animals, he also has to interact with the sky and the stars, and the other planets, as much as he can. Exploring the land and the world are very encouraged, because they give another dimension to man, beyond the common realities lived. Man has to move from being imprisoned in his vision of horizontal life but opening up pathways for a vertical life that adds mysteries and beauties to one’s view.

New discoveries and explorations east and west, north and south, on land and in the vast cosmos, should be in the service of man as much as man is in their service. It is not a question of abuse, but of use, within limits, and as much as that helps in elevating the intellect of man and his understanding of life. The world is a laboratory opened by God, and it is up to man to learn how to inspect it, and manage it now. If well used, it will just expand the horizons of thought of the human kind. Otherwise, it ends in the opposite, which does disservice solely to man himself and harms God in nothing.

We enter here the zone of reason, science, philosophy, and ethics.

Nowhere in the Islamic tradition (Quran and Sunnah) can one find statements or prescriptions that ban reasoning. So much of the Islamic tradition is unread. The early philosophers of Islam tried to go beyond the orthodoxy limitations, and entered the world of philosophy from their own understanding of reason and religion. Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Averroes are some names among others. The rationalist Mu’tazila school is an example of marrying reason with religion, despite the complexities of the two. The mystics and Sufis have not to be neglected as dervishes who escape to the mountains, and abolish reason from politics. They can still teach a lot about life and diversity within Islam. However one tries now to rationalize religion to satisfy political obligations and modern challenges, one should not forget Al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiya, Al-Rumi, Ibn Arabi, etc. There is yet a lot of work to be done to understand how these scholars interpreted God for the sake of a Beautiful and Peaceful life. Certainly there was a lot of politics that entered into play and levels of interpretations got fused and intertwined. That is part of the complexities of life. Life cannot be understood without working one’s way out. I come to the point of politics again later.

The way of life ordained in Islam has more freedoms than restrictions. Like any system of thought, life from an Islamic perspective is supposed to have both physical or visible boundaries and metaphysical or invisible boundaries. The Tawhid pillar, Oneness of God, started with earlier, is that around which the other traits move. Belief in Muhammad as His last Prophet, as the second half of the first pillar, Prayers, Ramadan, Zakat, and Pilgrimage are the other four pillars of Islam. As they stand alone, they make no sense. If you read into what they stand for, only then can you get a picture of what worldview is being framed. Even when these five pillars are respected and followed daily, they remain incapable of giving a clear worldview. To judge them from an ordinary rational perspective, most of them are irrational. The ethics that goes with them, the behavior supposed to accompany them, the openness necessary to guide them, and the active intellect vital for their activation and update are the remaining sub-pillars in the worldview regarded here. If the pillars and the rituals are the only ordinances one observes, then the worldview is temporal, narrow, weak, isolationist, supremacist, arrogant, and at the end dogmatic. A universal and pluralist worldview cannot and should not cloth itself with such descriptions. The pillars and daily rituals of Islam aim at disciplining the self and giving it a sense, before leaving it go travel in the world and share in the responsibility of social justice, beauty and peace. If the ritual does not contribute to this worldview, then it is not the problem of the ritual nor that of the worldview, but it is the problem of the viewer and practitioner who does not see harmony in that structure and religion he confesses, and does not elevate himself to that stage that makes him prevail as a human (‘insan’ in Arabic) on this earth, and not as a mere body that submits without thought and exertion of intellect. I clarify this point when I talk about the individual, the community, and the State in a while.

I say few more words on the issue of reason, science, and ethics. In the World Laboratory, it is up to the individual and his conscience to work out their way to science. In a world that is replete with diverse philosophies and religions, there is no way that the Muslim mind can find it easy to operate solely ethically. There is the social, the cultural, and the economic that intervene and influence the individual, whatsoever be his religion or philosophy in life. But because the Muslim mind is pluralist and open, instead of being blindly and ignorantly submissive, it does find ways for “good science” or “ethical science.” The Muslim mind in this sense is not the only sane or wise mind. Most religions and humanist philosophies do call for the good against the evil or the bad, though differences in details occur. The Muslim mind is not the only mind that should save the world simply because it is not the only habitat in this world. Everyone is responsible for what he does, so the Muslim mind should not think in supremacist manner and appoint itself as the savior of the world and its best solution. The Muslim mind is one among many. The mind is shared and universal, because reason is universal, and the Muslim part is the only difference, for its worldview is different in certain issues. Apart from that, the Muslim mind is like any other mind; it can err and can do justice. So, when people speak of Islamic science or Islamic knowledge, what they (should) mean is the reference, the worldview, and not the details and mechanisms of that science and its reasoning.

3) Man and the Other World: One World in Two Phases

The worldly life is important from the Islamic perspective, because it is a passage towards a longer life, the eternal one, the here-after, the After World. The Muslim is supposed to work in this life, and enjoy it within the ordained limits, which are very few actually to the extent that one can say that there are no limits, for the sake of a good life afterwards, a beautiful and peaceful life in paradise. Again, it is not important here in these lines to say how many paradises there are, how many angels and prophets, and how things will run during the Day of Judgment or even after burial and before the Day of Judgment, the time of waiting in the tomb, etc.

The point I want to focus on is that which links the earthly life with the eternal one. It is of course just sensible that the goodness planted and lived in life can be rewarded afterwards. God is Just. You reap what you plant. The problem is that while working on earth for good rewards afterwards, many believers end up doing the opposite; this concerns, I would say, all believers and religions. Each religion according to its “official” Book says that the other religion(s) cannot enjoy paradise because ‘our Book’ says so and so about ‘them.’ People tend to forget that the God that created them is (and for some ‘may be’) the same God that created the different other human groups. And though each Book says something about the other believers or nonbelievers, it is only God that knows what He will do them and how to treat them. The idea that there is no compulsion in faith also runs for the rest. There is no one but Him who can judge the faith and goodness or badness of a person. Of course in life people can see and judge the good from the bad, but the idea is not to disregard the other from the here-after, for that world is so mysterious; we have not solved even the human problems we create, how can we jump and explore the mysterious life of the After World! Let’s leave God’s work for God. He can handle it!

More, there is a kind of selection in the way people treat the other in the sense that people tend to forget the respect and equality aspects the divine and religious Books ordain. The religious discourse needed to make a difference between this religion and earlier ones and the other humanist religions, and referring to them in the Quran is part of building up for a framework of difference, seeing that Islam came at a certain time when paganism and other faiths went through crises and changes, etc. Henceforth, as a way of urging people to adopt this worldview, certain differences had to be drawn. This should not be over-read and misunderstood if one grasps the whole message, and the whole worldview.

Importantly, the idea of paradise should not be the catalyst for abhorring the different other. One should not enjoy paradise after having lived a life of hatred! First, Paradise is supposed to be for the clean-hearted, the patient, the merciful, the generous, the uncorrupt, i.e. the good – and what does good mean is another story, but humans of all faiths and cultures have ways of distinguishing the good from the distasteful. This means that being unjust in this life to enjoy the hereafter does not make sense. All creatures are from the same God, from the Islamic perspective always, and they all deserve respect and appreciation, despite their difference, whatsoever be it. Second, and notably, there is a faulty projection on how a good life looks like in paradise with the one lived on earth, and there is a kind of fear that paradise is small and limited and it is just few that can squeeze in, as if God and His Greatness is limited and His Mercy and Beauty are limited and tied to human antagonisms. This is a dangerous limitation of the scope of the Greatness of God. God is Just and He judges justly. There should be no fear or doubt that God will judge unfairly. So, the believer should develop a different way of approaching the idea of Paradise, a more open, pluralist, and beautiful one.

I am going to venture a different understanding of the good and of Paradise, which is not new in the Islamic tradition, though ostensibly absented from current debates. I consider this the primal point in understanding Beauty and Peace in Life. Though the reward of Paradise, and belief in the ‘ghayb’ (Absent World, After World) are part of the worldview of Islam, its understanding should not be what separates the Muslim from the non-Muslim, nor should it be the only and prime concern of the believer. Obsession with reward in the hereafter diminishes the humane merits of good work and behavior in life, and makes them more materialist than human or religious. Islam underpins the idea of beauty and peace, and that cannot be achieved if obsession with the reward is the only stimulus one has in mind. Care for the world, with is natural and human components, and contribution to the building or restoration of damage are among the main tasks the human being is expected to attend to. Even in their noblest actions human beings expect gratitude, thanks, and rewards, though they try to convince themselves, their egos, that they do not want that. My point is just that. Reward from God should remain an abstract idea for mere incitement for good deeds. It should not be the guiding reason behind good actions. The best reward is already received: acting good is the best reward one gives himself! For internal Peace, one has to consider that any good act that brings a smile or happiness to the other is already the reward one envisages to see in the After Life. That moment of bringing a smile to yourself and to others is the reward. It may look small or not enough, but it is not. It changes the world. It changes the self, the other, and makes the world, slowly, beautiful and peaceful. Paradise is in that shape, beautiful and peaceful. Human beings can already start making and living paradise here!

The Process of Becoming Human (Insan)

These three axes/relations – Human Relations, Man, Nature and the World, Man and the World Beyond – do bring about the question of who is at the center of such a work for a beautiful life and peaceful being: is it the individual, the community, or the State?

It is man that is at the center of the Islamic message. Everyone is endowed with the gift of reasoning, and that makes one responsible for every act he carries out. The community or the State does appear in Islam as assistants to man in the realization of the message of Islam. They do not intrinsically have a place in faith. Their importance stems from the fact that the construct the entity of humanity as a whole, which is primordial for the existence of the individual and the exercise of his beliefs. When I say that the community or the State are not vital to religion I mean their political construction, and not their human features. There should be a distinction between community and the State as political constructions, and between them as a whole, as manifestations of the human species. Only because man is a social being and tends to live in groups, communities, or States, does he need that this context helps him nurture and develop the worldview discussed here. Here again the social, cultural, economic, and political issues can either be helpful or not to the propagation of the basics of such a worldview. The Muslim is accountable to the extent of his awareness and ability to abide by what he knows.

The community or the State is not necessarily supposed to be Muslim or Islamic in the narrow sense of “Muslim/Islamic religion.” Every individual, besides working out the way for himself, is asked to teach his children the message of Islam, and it is up to them, the children, to take it or leave it when they grow up and be responsible for themselves. For those who adopt the same message, they start to make a community of their own, for that helps them remember the message of Allah and helps in making their children aware of it and live it on a daily basis. For such a religious congregation/community, the State is either ruled by a community of believers or not. In the case of being ruled by believers, its rulers, be they Muslims themselves, they do facilitate in stabilizing this worldview, despite the pressures that could face them either from inside or outside. In the case of being ruled by non-believers, the believers’ community can solicit space and means of teaching and propagating the faith. By propagating the faith, I mean passing it on to people of the same faith, to children for example. In both cases of the State or community life, run by a believer or not, it is openness, respect, and equality that do dominate among all the people that compose the community and the State.

It is always challenging to the believer who builds for himself certain limits as proclaimed by religion/God to be in the world with people of different religions, philosophies, and ways of life. This difficulty, and this should be born in the mind of every Muslim, is not his difficulty alone. The same way a Muslim says that there is pressure on him, and he fears to lose his faith, or fears falling into sins or deviation, applies to other people of other faiths and philosophies. They also fear that their philosophy, or way or life, or religion, could be lost or that they fall into what they wish not to fall into. The extra pressure, true, on the believer is when he brings the idea of Heaven and Hell into his mind, as well as the regulations and etiquette of social behavior, etc. This kind of pressure is part of what makes the Islamic worldview. It is part of the challenge that morality has to face. If the Islamic worldview is looked at from a more open and beautiful perspective, the challenge can be overcome, though life, all the way through, is a challenge, and the Muslim is supposed to live with it that way. It is all about self-discipline, ijtihad, exertion of the intellect towards a better understanding of God. It is an intellectual jihad, i.e. exercise towards knowing ways of avoiding the ugly and accommodating the beautiful. The weight of values stems from their ability to trespass time and space. That applies to other religions and philosophies as well.

The individual is the one most concerned and most responsible, and it is up to him to exert his mind to see where he is leading his path. This needs high standards of commitment and responsibility, and high understanding of human dignity, which does not end in material life. With training, physical and intellectual, the Muslim reaches the stage in which he enjoys life, despite its hardships, without being enmeshed or imprisoned in this fear of losing ‘Islamicity.’ The Muslim is asked to ‘seize the moment,’ since he is responsible for it, whether he spends it in right or in wrong. This challenge of measuring life with God, and vice versa, seems the highest intellectual exercise one can think of, for it keeps the mind always thinking and wandering whether such and such an act is human or not, humane or not, good or not. Morality becomes a process, and religion becomes this-worldly oriented, secular in that sense. There is no space for nihilism. There is space for acting within order and within a worldview in mind.

While living one’s life, and searching for Beauty and Peace, one find himself trying many paths and ways that he might not have thought of before. It becomes a search for truth. It keeps the mind alive and alert. It is difficult but enjoyable. It is what distinguishes responsible humanity, engaged faith, from indifferent nihilism. The individual is at the heart of the Islamic message. It is he who should work out his way in life, and it is only himself that is to be accountable for his life and deeds. As much as there is liberty there is responsibility.

If humans need religion, which can be divine or man-made, as a model of reality, Islam is both a model of reality and a model for reality. It is not just part of life, but sees itself as a part for life, a part that makes it meaningful. This meaning does not come by force or violence, but by mere intellectual thought that elevates the humankind from the status of ‘bashar’ (“humankind” in Arabic) to the status of ‘insan’ (“human being” in Arabic) – to borrow the terms from the great Iranian sociologist of Islam and philosopher, Ali Shariati (1933-1977). (I note here that Sharia must have developed the idea of “becoming” from his familiarity with the work of the Indian-Pakistani poet-philosopher Mohamad Iqbal (d. 1938)). Shariati’s main thesis in this distinction—given in a lecture “Humanity and Islam” in 1969 – is that man moves from the mere stage of being a human to that of being humane, from the state of basher to the state of insan; bashar in Arabic, as it appears in the Quran, is more general and refers to the human species, while insan refers to a refined human being, the one that has worked out his way, socially and intellectually, and has gained a higher status, not because of wealth or health, but because of the intellect it uses for goodness. Shariati refers to ‘ithar’, i.e. being passionate and especially generous towards the other to the extent of being self-effacing, as the highest stage of goodness. Ithar is the status of giving and love for the sake of elevating the status of the other, instead of being egoist and keeping that love or material thing to oneself. That is the highest stage of love and generosity, without waiting a compensation or pay back. For Shariati, ‘the aim of humanity is to become insan,’ and that happens through the power of ithar, which he defines as follows: ‘it is a love which, beyond rationality and logic, invites us to negate and rebel against ourselves in order to work towards a goal or for the sake of others. It is in this stage that a free human is born, and this is the most exalting level of becoming an insan.’

Man is in the process of becoming all the way through in this life. Those who identify themselves with one thing, pure and simple, give no chance to themselves to understand what it is about to be here. And those who identify themselves with everything on the way give themselves no chance to understand what it means to be here but still be oneself. Man is supposed to be open, in a process of discovering the multifacets life opens to him. Few understand the dilemma and the challenge. Most people go for “Either/Or” (to borrow this title from Søren Kierkegaard), while it should be an “AND” that makes us and our identities.

The Islamic worldview supposes that the Muslim identity changes as time and space changes. It also supposes that the Muslim does not believe and take a neutral or indifferent attitude in the world. The idea is to be active, to work for social justice, and to target the beautiful for “perpetual peace.” The rituals that do not influence the practitioner to elevate her understanding of God and the world are of not much use for humanity at large, though they can be of use just to the concerned believer and his narrow world that seeks paradise. The world as a manifestation of the greatness of God deserves attention, appreciation, and contribution, and the Muslim has to take part in that. It is only through exertion, jihad and ijtihad at work, that man moves towards fulfillment and realization, towards the insan stage. That happens along with the other human beings, also creatures of the same God, despite their difference in belief. Al-insaniya (humanity) turns arelgious if religion is narrow and exclusive. Religion is but a stage to recover the human in humanity, and to perfect its realization.

The Islamic worldview is active and requires dynamism. The Muslim is not a stable entity and identity. He has to move on, as time and space move. He is constantly in the process of becoming insan, and of becoming Muslim in the sense of surrender to the ideals of Beauty and Peace. Whoever works for Beauty of the self and the world, and thus for Peace of the self and the world is a “surrenderer”, a “submitter”, a Muslim. When that stage is realized, small differentiations in names of religions become obsolete. Most influential religions in the world could be schools for a perfect world, a world united in diversity, beautiful and peaceful. If religions are understood otherwise, then they are misunderstood. If they are not an added value to humanity, then the world could be better off without them. The road towards realizing Beauty and living Peace is long. It is a process, not an end in itself. Islam, as I understand it, epitomizes what I have tried to argue for here.


One thought on “What is Life?: The Process of Becoming ‘Insan’ (Human) in Islam*

  1. Pingback: A Letter on My Birthday: Existential Trials and Becoming Plural

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