There is increasing awareness in modern technological societies that humanity has taken on a new meaning, and is in some ways changing. But if the meaning of humanity has changed, then it may also be possible to say that this has altered the relevance of ideas, practices, ideologies and even religions that depend on a certain understanding of what it means to be human. How can that be? Is it possible to not be human? A good place to start gaining an understanding of this issue is with the work of sociologists and social theorists, as well as historians, who have traced the way that modern bureaucratic and institutional societies have somehow altered the meaning of what it means to be human.
An essential ingredient of being human is having a connection with nature and with the rest of the creation. In the past, human beings lived very close to nature and it was unthinkable to be separate from animals, weather patterns, and other phenomena that are rarely part of “human” life today. Modern humankind has enveloped itself in cities and buildings, living in so many concrete boxes, controlling every feature of temperature and light, in an artificial man-made environment
An essential ingredient of being human is having a connection with nature and with the rest of the creation. In the past, human beings lived very close to nature and it was unthinkable to be separate from animals, weather patterns, and other phenomena that are rarely part of “human” life today. Modern humankind has enveloped itself in cities and buildings, living in so many concrete boxes, controlling every feature of temperature and light, in an artificial man-made environment. Most people no longer have a sense of where their food comes from. If people do have any contact with animals, they are for the most part domesticated animals, living in the same concrete spaces, not in the wild. It is possible to say, from a certain metaphysical perspective, that the Qur’an presumed a kind of human existence that was somehow closer to nature than most people have today. Look at all the many verses that ask human beings to ponder nature, to observe the wonders and signs of creation. Is it still possible to do that today, while living in an air-conditioned house, driving a car, working in an office? Other than using science to “see” nature, which is only seeing it in a limited, quantitative way, many people have lost the ability to see and experience nature for themselves. This is not to say that the Qur’an is irrelevant, or that Islam is somehow arcane. But it is possible to say that many people have in a sense become somehow dehumanized, with respect to their connections to the rest of Allah’s creation, and that without recognizing this possibility, believers may unknowingly alter their understanding of Islam, or any other tradition, to fit this dehumanized condition.
In light of this proposition, one can reflect on where humanity is now, and how things got to be that way. The next logical step would be to ask, where is humanity headed? It seems necessary to clarify something, before proceeding. This discussion is about “humanity,” which is a relatively new and unusual term in human history. It is part of the increasingly global outlook that many people have been adopting in recent decades. In the past, what one can see as humanity today was most often divided, as in, for example, the Muslim categories of darul islam/darul harb, muslim/kaffir/mushrik, ahlul kitab, ahlul sunnah/ahlul shi’ah, not to mention the myriad social realities based on ethnicities and nationalities. But the meta-idea of “humanity” supersedes all these divisions, and is perhaps most closely captured when the Qur’an speaks, in many instances, of “insaan” or “naas,” (which, by the way, is related to the Arabic word “forgetful,” itself a clue to the Qur’anic perspective about human nature). In any case, the concept of humanity today implies a common sense of existence and fellowship, or shared identity and shared habitation on a single planet, which is fairly new in human history. This is not to say that the various historical, ideological or social divisions are wrong or useless – each is relevant in some way and all are needed for understanding – but it is important to recognize that the idea of a common humanity is in many ways a revolutionary idea, and that this idea transcends the usual divisions based on ideology, religion or ethnic identity.
Given this definition of humanity, one can set aside for the moment the various sorts of predictions or prophesies, found in many religions and ideological systems, that say that only a particular group will be elevated to heaven, or wherever that belief system sees as the ideal and eventual goal. In some sense, to talk of humanity and where it is heading means one needs to consider the totality. It is a different discussion than asking where the Muslims are going, or what the future of the ummah is. Humanity is bigger and more complex, but of course Muslims are part of that humanity and are living within its precepts in one way or another. In fact, the idea of humanity is almost so big that it becomes difficult to get one’s mind around it, and even more difficult to predict where it is going.
So let’s look at this in a different way. The future is not there to predict, and only Allah knows the future for certain. For mere humans, the most constructive way to look at this issue is to ask the question: what kind of world do you want to live in and what can you do to bring that about? This question needs to be asked in ever-widening circles, culminating in humanity as noted above, to avoid heading in the wrong direction, since what happens in one part of humanity does have an impact on other parts. Muslims did not build the cities or develop the technologies with which they live today, but certainly those forms of living and working are having a great impact on what it means to be a Muslim – and a human being – today. This is a way of addressing the question of humanity that is different from that of the usual global slogans, such as “information age,” or those various ways of undermining humanity that are at bottom cruel or exclusive.
Muslims often see Islam as the true way of humanity, and think that the crisis of humanity in the modern world is simply a matter of “being far from Islam.” This sentiment can be expressed from a variety of sectarian perspectives, both within Islam and within other religions. Everyone believes that the problems of humanity are caused by straying from their own presumed ideal. Christians can say the same as Muslims, that the problems of humanity are caused by not living the “true” Christianity. All these positions can lead only to interminable debates and circular arguments. While such debates are not useless, it can be instructive to put aside these differences for the moment, and reflect on what it means to be human, and how the human identity has changed as a result of living the modern technological lifestyle. This is not to advocate going back to living in caves or the desert, a silly and specious argument even if its inevitable result today were not that most people would die of starvation and exposure. In any event, before thinking about solutions, it is important to really understand the nature of the problem. The problem, from a certain perspective, is that the life many people live today is a dehumanizing life. This has been most forcefully argued by some of those most deeply embedded in the modern bureaucratic mega-technic society; but that sort of society is spreading globally, like a virus, so it is only a matter of time before everyone is in a similar situation. So the question of humanity is paramount.
The discussion of what makes us human is found in many different areas. The American secular humanist Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998), argues that the concept of humanity was not really fully developed until the advent of Shakespeare’s writings. Although it is an oft-cited and respected work in some Western intellectual circles, Bloom is Eurocentric and even somehow pompous in his definition of humanity, and his work is generally dismissive of the social construction of such broad concepts. But that is the point: all peoples like to think that their particular tradition is the one that best defines humanity. So, rather than muster one or another proof or opinion, it is important to suspend that impulse for a moment, and reflect on the idea of common humanity as it stands today. Only when that is understood, can one go back to the great classics of any tradition and realize that they may have had a very different understanding of being human. It is not that those traditions are irrelevant, but without understanding where people are coming from or where they are now, the risk is run of altering those traditions to suit the present dehumanized state. For example, technological futurists are taking the idea of human “progress” to an absurd conclusion, opining in fantasies of the Star Trek sort that people will one day be able to transcend death or the earth, or be able to upload themselves into orbs and transverse the universe. In a way, these sorts of fantasies are the strongest indication that some people have already become severely dehumanized.
Muslims living in the West sometimes wonder whether they have a chance of developing a truly Islamic humanistic mindset, given the complexities of living and growing up in modern technological societies. Imam Khomeini once said that becoming Adam – in the sense of being born human – is easy, but becoming a full human being is difficult. Like many religions, Islam is profoundly humanistic, not in the sense of secular humanism, but in the sense of learning to live the way humans lived for thousands of years, before the modern period. That way of life supposed close contact with nature and time to contemplate one’s existence. Many people have neither today. They have jobs, cars, TVs, computers, more books than they know what to do with, but do they really know who they are? If that question can be answered, then it may be possible to see traditions in an entirely different light. Without pondering this question of what it means to be human, there is a danger of somehow normalizing a state of dis-humanity or pre-humanity, which means altering the way religions and traditions are understood, whatever they may be, to fit the peculiar conventions of the present age.
Muslims often wonder how the prophecies of the beloved Messenger (upon whom be peace) about the future can offer an intelligent way to discuss the direction in which humanity is heading. It is possible to look at prophecies, and all traditions have them, often conflicting with one another, but this endeavor may not be fruitful at this point in time, since like any tradition, prophecies can also be pressed into service to suit the particular ideological constructs of the age in which they are invoked. In addition, this opens up sectarian ways of claiming and disclaiming the Messenger of Islam (saw). Often, people who invoke prophecies of one sort or another have not read all the traditions of the Prophet in all the various schools of thought, claiming and counterclaiming that some or another is false or the work of a rafidi sect. If that be the case, then it is not yet the right time to talk about humanity, since the idea being developed here suspends – for the moment – any sort of sectarian bias and is trying to make room for reflection outside of the boxes in which we usually think and live. Many prophecies come and go, depending on the human condition of the people that see a need to turn to those prophecies. Looking at history, one is amazed at how often people have been convinced that they have witnessed the signs of the day of judgment. They were wrong then and might be wrong now, too. In the mean time, mankind marches on. But in a sense, then, the time is ripe to have some serious discussions of a different sort, to ponder the sense of common humanity, and what it means to be a human being outside the particular understanding of any one tradition or its various subdivisions. Again, this is not to say those traditions are irrelevant; it is only a call for opening minds.
In another part of trying to understand what it means to be human, one can look at present-day humanitarian efforts, such as charitable work, and Muslims, like others in the world today, have their sectors of society that are truly humanitarian and others that are not. But that is not the question here. The question is, can one live as a human being in today’s world? Or, more fundamentally, what does it mean to be human, and can one be a good Muslim if one is a bad human being? In this vein, it is not entirely accurate to lay all the blame for our current condition and difficulties on Western society. Yes, some of the problems of modern technological societies began in the West, but the pathologies of dis-humanity are going global fast, and that is why it is necessary to step back and ask how the meanings of being human have been altered, not by “the West” or any geographical or ideological entity, but by the lifestyles that people have adopted, especially the sort of lifestyle that separates them from those essential features of being human, namely a connection to nature, a connection to the world of the unseen, and a connection to one’s fellow humans.
Modern life is, in many ways, about disconnection. Sure, people are connected in a limited sort of way through communication technologies, but there is a huge difference between communication and connection; computers can communicate but only humans can connect.
Modern life is, in many ways, about disconnection. Sure, people are connected in a limited sort of way through communication technologies, but there is a huge difference between communication and connection; computers can communicate but only humans can connect. Yet the lives that many people live – the clock dictates, the boss dictates what the clock dictates, the money decides what the boss dictates – consist of little more than a cruel and dehumanizing cycle in which connection is impossible. It is possible to say that if one truly reflects on life, the meaning can be clearer. And this is not to claim despair in feeling inhuman, because anyone can start right now to recapture their humanity, in even small ways, to discover, for example, the beauty of existence, the spiritual significance of the natural world, and then ponder the riddle of human mortality.
Returning to the issue of humanitarian efforts for a moment, some Muslims living in the West may wish to participate in humanitarian activities, while holding true to their traditions, by, for example, not mixing men and women in social settings. It is certainly admirable that Muslims in big cities are organizing shelters and feeding people in need, but at the same time many feel that they cannot do so while keeping men and women separate, or working with non-Muslim members of the opposite sex (in particular Muslim women with a non-Muslim men), common in such situations where it is difficult to avoid intermixing. Many Muslims in these communities want to be more involved with helping the poor, but wonder how they can, in view of the requirements of Islam about avoiding unnecessary intermixing. In some sense, these concerns are for the doctors of the law to rule, to seek a fatwa for such activities, but in general it might be possible to find some kind of way of living that allows Muslims to survive in and contribute to the society in which they live. If that’s not at all possible while maintaining a sense of being a good Muslim, then it might be the wrong society to live in. In any event, feeding the poor and sheltering the homeless are noble and humane activities, and if Muslims can find ways to expand efforts with the sense of humanity being suggested here, then maybe there can be some successes. The alternative is to leave those activities to other groups without such concerns, which fuels propaganda on behalf of, for example, Christian missionaries or secular activists, who often hijack such initiatives. For now, it has to start with small-scale local activities, and in that context serious discussions can be held on finding ways to balance the concerns of practising religion and contributing to humanitarian efforts. In another sense, however, this is not only about humanitarian activities like charities and feeding the poor, since it is important to reflect on those deeper questions of what it means to be human in today’s technological societies.
Regarding the issue of secular humanism, which came about in the West during the Renaissance period, it has displaced the centrality of God with the centrality of humanity, “to celebrate our humanity,” as it is often put today. Given the inversion of reality imposed by the narrow secular view of humanity, it may be asked how Muslims can contribute to the discussion of humanism from an Islamic perspective. While this is an important point, it refers primarily to what has become the institutionalized ideology of “humanism.” That is something entirely different from asking the simple question, are we still human? Humanism invites a never-ending evolution of humanity toward wherever the imagination leads, including pathological and dehumanized technological fantasies and dystopias of the type with which Hollywood and the entertainment industries seem to be obsessed. The question is more simple, and one does not need a degree in the humanities to think about it. Many of the defining features of being human in the past – one of which is living close to nature – have been radically altered in the modern technological period. That means it is possible to say, in a sense, that people are no longer human. While it is important to ask this question locally, such as within the narrow confines of the Western academic tradition, it is also necessary to address it on a global scale. And Muslims ought to search broadly for dialogue partners outside the West, because people all over the world in a variety of traditions have ways of addressing this. Why get mired in interfaith dialogues or debates on secular humanism? What do indigenous peoples who live close to nature have to add to this? What do people of Eastern religions, like Buddhism and Hinduism, have to add to this discussion? Part of the problem is that Muslims are in a love-hate embrace with the West. Breaking out of that might well reveal entirely new ways of understanding the world and those who share it with us.
Sometimes Muslims in the West ask how to best show that Islam is a religion of compassion and humanity, especially by way of specific acts and conduct, and many believe that Muslims do not do enough to show the humanity of their religion. This often leads to calls for public relations sorts of activities. But the real question here is, show who? And why is it important to show the humanity of Islam to others when Muslims often cannot show it to one another? This begs the larger question of whether or not it is really known what it means to be human. While public relations and da’wah have their place in such situations, they also have a way of reducing complex realities into simplistic slogans, which is detrimental to the type of reflection that is necessary to understand the crisis of humanity. In any case, if others want to see compassion and humanity, they will see them, and if they want to see cruelty and selfishness, they will see those too. It is like reading the poetry of Rumi and Hafez: readers can apprehend the poem wherever their nafs is, in, for example, understanding the frequent references to love and intoxication in different and conflicting ways. But this question has at root an important point. What matters is how people live, and this point can be expanded a bit more to include the idea of living as a member of humanity, in light of the points made above, and then reflecting on how that new-found sense of humanity translates within the Islamic tradition. To help reflection on this point, questions must be asked such as, how is it that Muslims feel they do not show their humanity? What does that mean? What is an example of some one who does or does not show their humanity? In other words, how is what it means to show compassion and humanity being judged?
One major problem related to the lack of humanity in modern technological societies is selfishness. Many people, including Muslims, don’t seem to have time to help others, or they use various restrictions as excuses to keep them in their own worlds rather than being out helping others – they want to ignore the other people around them.
One major problem related to the lack of humanity in modern technological societies is selfishness. Many people, including Muslims, don’t seem to have time to help others, or they use various restrictions as excuses to keep them in their own worlds rather than being out helping others – they want to ignore the other people around them. Such people seem to be too self-focused, forgetting that this is just the dunya, that what is important, for Muslims at least, is remembering Allah and performing good deeds, as a prerequisite for being a good human being. While it may be difficult with a busy and distracting lifestyle, especially in the West, at the same time people can find time to play sports, watch TV or take vacations. Part of the problem here is what has been referred to above as “dis-humanity,” a factor of which is selfishness and greed. And it seems that the “global economy” and the “information age” are normalizing that even more. If one expands the idea a little bit further, to make room for people who are not necessarily Muslims, but who may be good human beings, then the idea of humanity being posited here can be better apprehended. Part of being human, in one way of thinking, is to accept that on some level people are all related. Retreating into self-focused ways of living is, in a sense, a cop-out, but it is also a survival strategy. So then the question becomes, why are such survival strategies somehow becoming more inhuman? This is a question of priorities. Part of being selfish and greedy is making prioritized decisions to seek wealth, fame, fortune or whatever, rather than the favor of Allah, for Muslims, or rather than finding a sense of true humanity, which is being developed here. The busy lifestyle of modern technological societies (which is ironic, since technology was supposed to give humans more time for reflection) is not limited to the West but it is part of the problem. That lifestyle, in the way of understanding humanity developed above, is responsible in part for creating a sense of dis-humanity among everyone, Muslims included.
In the end, this essay is suggesting an open dialogue on the meaning of humanity. Given the possibility of different ways of seeing, how can the question, “what is the meaning of being human,” be usefully answered? At the moment, there are no concrete answers to this question, and it is even doubtful that most people really understand that there is a crisis of humanity. But for those who want to learn about this issue, and then try to understand their own society and the way they and those around them live, such questions need deep pondering and a requirement to really listen to one’s heart, and think about how life really feels. Most people can recognize the condition of dis-humanity if they open their hearts to it, but this is often painful and so they retreat back into sectarian, ideological or other sorts of boxes.
Since this discussion is taking place among English-speaking people, and primarily among those living in some way or another the modern technological lifestyle, then some useful books in English can be recommended that might further help gain a better understanding of the points made above. Further, to see different perspectives on this question, for the time being, it might been useful to recommend books written by those maverick or dissenting voices from deep within the technological societies before going into one or another traditional outlook for answers. In this vein, a good place to start is with Ivan Illich’s books, Deschooling Society and Medical Nemesis, in which he talks about the effects of educational and medical bureaucracies. In these and other books, Illich makes a good case that modern education, health care, transportation and urban life have become dehumanizing, and that modern bureaucracies and institutions are distorting people’s humanity. After that, in order to gain some historical perspective, one can move on to The Pentagon of Power and The Myth of the Machine by Lewis Mumford, both of which trace the roots and development of what he calls “mega-technic society” from Pharaonic Egypt to modern America, making startling parallels between the two. This course of reading can be rounded out be looking at works that develop the environmental perspective, such as Nature and Madness and Thinking Animals by Paul Shepard, which argue that the further from nature and animals that modern man has travelled, the more insane he has become. These people are not Muslims, but they have tapped into something deeper than any surface understanding many religions can claim today, and their works are widely read by English-speaking people in variety of contexts, which can form a basis for common discussion. For those more eager to move on to Muslim writers who have reflected on these issues, one can recommend The Machine in Captivity of Machinism by Ali Shariati and Occidentosis by Jalal Ale-Ahmed, both of which discuss the impact of “machinism” and addictions to technology on humanity. To gain a sense of the metaphysical dimension of this discussion, one can consult Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. There are many other works, of course, but the above list is a good general introduction, and some of these readings are currently available online in the Multiversity Group (http://groups.msn.com/multiversity).
While embarking on this quest, it is important to remember that all religions are deep and profound in their own way and on their own terms, but people’s minds can become too small to really apprehend their depth. One reason for the loss of that depth is the normalization of the current state of dis-humanity. In order to reverse that, it first has to be recognized. The works mentioned above can help open a way of understanding the crisis of humanity, and after reading them Muslim seekers can then go back into the Islamic tradition, in whatever shape or form they prefer – or any tradition for that matter – and look at it anew, and ask fresh questions, with new eyes, and, insha’Allah, develop a deeper sense of humanity.