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Man and Islam

Ali Shariati


(A translation of Islam va Islam a lecture given at the Petroleum College of Abadan. The introductory Paragraph has been omitted.)

THE QUESTION OF MAN is the most important of all ques­tions. The civilization of today is based upon humanism, the nobility of man and the worship of man. It is believed that the religions of the past crushed the personality of man and compelled him to sacrifice himself to the gods. They forced him to regard his own will as totally powerless when confronted by the will of God. They compelled him always to be seeking something from God by way of prayer, supplication and entreaty. The philosophy of humanism is, then, a philosophy that, since the Renaissance, has opposed religious philosophies ‑philosophies founded on belief in the unseen and supra­-natural realm‑and its aim has allegedly been to restore nobil­ity to man. The roots of humanism lie in Athens, but as a universal philosophy, it has become the basis of the modern civilization of the West. In reality, it arose as a reaction to scho­lastic philosophy and medieval Christianity.

My purpose tonight is to examine‑within the limits of my capability and the present occasion‑the question of man from the viewpoint of our religion, Islam, and to seek an answer to the question: what kind of a phenomenon does Islam see in man? Does it see in man a powerless creature whose ultimate aim and ideal is to stand helpless before God? Does Islam deny man all notion of nobility? Or, on the contrary, does belief in Islam itself impart a form of nobility to man, and make an acknowledgement of his virtues? This is the topic I wish to discuss.

In order to understand the place of "humanism" in different religions, and the concept of man that each of them holds, it is best to Study the philosophy of the creation of man that each has set forth. However, I do not have the opportunity now to examine all the religious of East and West from this point of view. I will speak only of the philosophy of creation that exists in Islam and those pre‑Islamic religions of which Islam is the continuation‑the religions of Moses, Jesus and Abraham.

How is the creation of man explained in Islam or the Abra­hamic scriptures, of which Islam is the culmination and perfec­tion? Can we deduce the status and nature of man from the manner in which the creation of man is described in the Qur'an, the word of God, or in the words of the Prophet of Islam? From examining the story of Adam‑the symbol of man‑in the Qur'an, we can understand what kind of a creature man is in the view of God and therefore in the view of our religion. By way of introduction, let me point out that the language of religion, and particularly the language of the semitic religions, in whose prophets we believe, is a symbolical language. By this we mean a language that expresses meaning through images and symbols‑the most excellent and exalted of all the languages that men have ever evolved. Its value is more profound and eternal than that of expository language, i.e., the clear and explicit language that expresses meaning directly. A simple and straightforward language, one deprived of all symbol and image, may be easier for purposes of instruction, but it has no permanence. For, as the celebrated Egyptian philosopher Abd ar‑Rahman Badawi has pointed out, a religion or philosophy that expounds all of its ideas and teachings in simple, one­ dimensional and straightforward language will not be able to survive. Those addressed by religion or philosophy represent dlifferent human types and classes‑both the common folk and the educated. The audience of a religion is, moreover, not a Single generation or age, but different and successive genera­tions which follow upon each other throughout history. They inevitably differ with each other with respect to way of thought, level of thought, and angle of vision. The language that a religion, chooses in order to convey its concepts must, then, be a versatile and multi-faceted language, each aspect and facet of which addresses itself to a particular generation and class of men. If the language be monofaceted, it will be comprehensible only to a single class, and totally without value for all other classes; accessible to one generation, but beyond the reach of the next. It will be impossible to extract any new meaning from it. It is for this reason that all literary works written in symbolic language are immortal. For example, the poems of Hafiz are immortal, and whenever we read them we deduce a new mean­ing from them, in proportion to the depth of our thought and taste and outlook. But the history of Bayhaqi is something different, as is, too, the Gulistan of Sa'di. When we read the Gulistan, its Meaning is quite apparent to us, and we enjoy its verbal beauty and structure. But many of the ideas it contains are outmoded, precisely because it is clear what Sa'di had to say, and what he had to say is false! But the style of Hafiz is multi­faceted and symbolical; depending on his taste and manner of thought, everyone can interpret its symbols in a certain sense, thus deducing new meanings from the text.

It is for this reason that religions must employ a symbolic language; they are addressed to different human types and different generations of men. There are numerous concepts in religion that were not clearly understood at the time of their appearance. If religion had not, on the one hand, expressed its ideas in common, familiar language, it would have been incomprehensible to the people of that age; but if it had expressed its ideas in common language, religion would have had no meaning in later times. It was therefore necessary that religion should speak in images and symbols that would become comprehensible with the development of human thought and science. Symbolism represents the highest of styles in European literature‑symbolism, which is the art of speak­ing in symbols and images and concealing profound ideas in images that apparently mean something else but have an inner significance that man can discover in accordance with his own degree of profundity.

It was necessary, then, that the story of the creation of Adam, of man, be told in symbolic fashion, so that today, after fourteen centuries of progress in the human and natural sciences, it should still be readable and comprehensible.

How was man created, in the view of Islam?

First God addresses the angels, saying, “I wish to create a viceregent for Myself upon earth." See how great is the value of man according to Islam! Even the post‑Renaissance humanism of Europe has never been able to conceive of such exalted sanctity for man. God, Who in the view of Islam and all believ­ers, is the greatest and most exalted of all entities, the creator of Adam and the master of the cosmos, addresses the angels and presents man to them as His viceregent. The whole mission of man according to Islam becomes evident from this divine address. The same mission that God has in the cosmos, man must perform on earth as God's viceregent. The first excellence that man possesses is, then, being God's representative on earth.

'I'he angels cry out saying, "You wish to create one who will engage in bloodshed, crime, hatred and vengeance." (Since before Adam, there had been other men who, like the man of today, busied themselves in bloodshed, crime, corruption and sin, and the angels wished to remind God that if He were to create man again and grant him a second opportunity on earth, man would again engage in bloodshed and sin.) But God replies, A know something that you do not know," and then sets about the task of creating man.

It is at this point that the symbolic aspect of the narrative begins. See what profound truths concerning man are hidden beneath these symbols! God desires to create a viceregent for Himself out of earth, the face of the globe. One might expect that the most sacred and valuable of materials would have been selected, but God chose, on the contrary, the lowest of sub­stances. The Qur'an mentions on three occasions the substance from which man was fashioned. First it uses the expression ''like potter's clay" (55:14); that is, dry, sedimentary clay. Then the Qu’an says, A created man from putrid clay" (15:26), foul and evil‑smelling earth; and finally it uses the term tin, also meaning clay (6:2, 23:12). So God set to work, and willed to create a viceregent for Himself; this precious viceregent He created out of dry clay, and then He inhaled some of his own spirit into the clay, and man was created.

In human language, the lowest symbol of wretchedness and baseness is mud. No creature exists in nature lowlier than mud.

Again in human language, the most exalted and sacred of beings is God, and the most exalted, sacred and noble part of every being is its spirit. Man, the representative of God, was created from mud, from sedimentary clay, from the lowliest substance in the world, and then God inhaled into him not His blood or His body‑so to speak‑but His spirit, the most exalted entity for which human languages possess a name. God is the most exalted of beings, and His spirit is the most exalted entity conceivable, the most exalted concept that could ever arise in the human mind.

Thus man is a compound of mud and divine spirit, a bi­-dimensional being, a creature with a dual nature, as opposed to all other beings which are one‑dimensional. One dimension inclines to mud and lowliness, to stagnation and immobility. When a river overflows, it leaves behind a certain muddy sedi­ment that lacks all motion and life, and the nature of man, in one of its dimensions, aspires to precisely this state of sedimen­tary tranquility. But the other dimension, that of the divine spirit, as it is called in the Qur'an, aspires to ascend and to mount up to the highest summit conceivable‑to God and the spirit of God.

Man is composed, their, of two contradictory elements, mud and the spirit of God; and his splendor and importance derive precisely from the fact that he is a two‑dimensional creature. The distance between his two dimensions is the distance between clay and the spirit of God. Every man is endowed with these two dimensions, and it is his will that enables him to decide either to descend toward the pole of sedimentary mud that exists in his being, or to ascend toward the pole of exalta­tion, of God and the spirit of God. This constant striving and struggle takes place in man's inner being, until finally he chooses one of the poles as the determinant for his destiny.

After thus creating man, God taught him the names. (As will be apparent to you, I am paraphrasing the verses of the Qur'an as I proceed.) What does this teaching of the names mean? It is not yet certain. Everyone has expressed a certain opinion, and every commentator has suggested his own interpretation. Ev­eryone has interpreted it according to his own outlook and way of thought. But whatever be the correct explanation, there can be no doubt that the verse centers on the notion of teaching and instruction. When the creation of man was completed, God taught His viceregent the names so that man became a possessor of the names. Then the angels cried out in protest, "We were created of smokeless fire and man was created of clay; why do you prefer him to us?" And God replies, "I know something you do not know; fall down at the feet of this two‑dimensional creature of mine." All the angels of God, great and small, are commanded to fall down in prostration before this creature.

This is true humanism. See how great is the dignity and statute of man; so great, indeed, that all the angels, despite their inherent superiority to man and the fact that they are created of light while he is created of mud and clay, are commanded to fall down before him. God tests them because of their protest, and asks the angels concerning the names; they do not know the names, but Adam does know them. The angels are defeated in this test, and the excellence of Adam‑which lies in his knowl­edge of the names‑becomes apparent. This prostration of the angels before Adam serves to clarify the Islamic concept of man. Man knows certain things that the angels do not know, and this knowledge endows man with Superiority to the angels despite the superiority of the angels to man with respect to race and origin. In other words, the nobility and dignity of man derive from knowledge and not from lineage.

Another point to be considered is the creation of woman from the rib of man, at least according to the translations usually made from the Arabic.1 But the translation "rib" is incorrect, and the word so translated has the real meaning, in both Arabic and Hebrew, of "nature, disposition or constitution." Eve­-that is, woman‑was created, then, out of the same nature or disposition as man. Since the word has been mistranslated as “rib," the legend arose that woman was created from the left rib of Adam, and therefore all women are lacking one rib!

A great man like Nietzsche said that man and woman were created as totally separate creatures, and only came to resemble each other because of their constant association through his­tory. The ancestries of man and woman he held to be totally different. Almost all scholars and philosophers have conceded that man and woman are of the same stock, yet they have always tried to belittle the nature of woman and present the nature of man as superior. But the Qur'an says, "We have created Eve from the same nature or disposition as Adam; man and woman proceed from the same substance."

Another remarkable matter concerning the creation of man is that God summons all of His creation, all the phenomena of nature such as inanimate objects, plants, animals, and tells them, I have a trust that I wish to offer to all of you‑earth, heavens, mountains, oceans and beasts." They all refuse to accept it, and instead, man accepts it. It is thus clear that man has another virtue and excellence, deriving from his courageous acceptance of the Trust that God offered to all beings and they rejected. Man is not only the viceregent of God in this world and on this earth, but also‑as the Qur'an makes clear‑the keeper of His Trust. Now what is the meaning of the Trust? Everyone says something different. Maulana Jalal ad‑Din Rumi says that the Trust means man's will, his free will, and this is also my opinion.

It is by means of his will that man attains superiority overall other creatures in the world. He is the only being able to act counter to his own instinctual nature, something no animal or plant can do. For example, you will never encounter an animal voluntarily engaging in a two‑day fast, or a plant committing suicide out of grief. Plants and animals can neither render great services not‑ commit treachery. It is not possible for them to act in a way different from that in which they have been created. It is only man who can rebel against the way in which he was created, who can defy even his spiritual or bodily needs, and act against the dictates of goodness and virtue. He can act either in accordance with his intelligence or in opposition to it. He is free to be good or to be evil, to resemble mud or to resemble God. Will is, their, the greatest property of man, and the affinity between God and man is apparent from this fact.

For it is God Who inhales into man some of His own spirit and makes of him the bearer of His Trust, and man is not merely the viceregent of God upon earth but also His relative‑if the expression be permitted. The spirits of God and man both possess an excellence deriving from the possession of will. God, the only entity and being possessing an absolute will and capa­ble of doing whatever it wishes, even in contradiction to the laws of the universe, inhales some of His spirit in man. Man can act like God, but only to a certain degree; he can act against the laws of his physiological constitution only to the extent permitted by his similarity to God. 'This is the aspect held in common by men and God, the cause of their affinity‑free will, the freedom for man to be good or evil, to obey or rebel.

The following conclusions can be drawn with regard to the philosophy of the creation of man in Islam:

All men are not simply equal; they are brothers. The differ­ence between equality and brotherhood is quite clear. Equality is a legal concept, while brotherhood proclaims the uniform nature and disposition of all men; all men originate from a single source, whatever their color.

Secondly, man and woman are equal. Contrary to all the philosophies of the ancient world, man and woman were created Out of the same Substance and material at the same time and by the same Creator. They share the same lineage, and are brothers and sisters to each other, descended from the same mother and father.

Thirdly, the superiority of man to the angels and the whole of creation derives from knowledge, since man learned the names and the angels fell in prostration before him; despite the superi­ority of their descent to that of man, they were compelled to humble themselves before him.

More important than all this, man's being stretches out over the distance between mud and God, and since he possesses will, he can choose either of the two opposing poles these represent. Again since he possesses will, a certain responsibility comes into being. From the point of view of Islam, man is the only being responsible not only for his own destiny but also for the fulfillment of a divinely entrusted mission in this world; he is the bearer of God's Trust in the world and in nature. It is he who has learned the names‑and, in my opinion, the proper mean­ing of "names" is the truths of science, since the name of a thing is its symbol, its defined, conceptual form. The teaching of the names by God means, therefore, the bestowal of the ability to perceive and comprehend the scientific truths inherent in the world. Through this primordial instruction by God, man gained access to all the truths existing in the world, and this constitutes a second great responsibility for man. Man must fashion his destiny with his own hands. Human society is responsible for its own fate, and the human individual is responsible for his own fate: "Yours is what you acquire and theirs is what they acquire" (Qur'an, 2:134). The fate of past civilizations is no more and no less than what they brought down on themselves, and your fate will consist exactly of what you are now fashioning with your own hands. Man thus has a great responsibility toward God, since he possesses free will.

Here we must add this observation, that history has witnessed a great tragedy; namely, man has not been recognized as a two‑dimensional being. In contrast with other religions that posit God and the Devil to exist within nature in Mutual combat, Islam teaches that only one force exists in nature‑the force of God. But within man, Satan wages war against God, and man is their battlefield. The dualism of Islam, unlike religious of the past, posits the existence of two "deities," two hypostases, in the inner being and disposition of man, not in nature. Nature knows only of a single hypostasis; it belongs to the realm, and is subject to the will, of a single power, the power of God. In Islam, Satan is not a contestant with God; he is a contestant against man, or rather against the divine half of man. And since man is a two‑dimensional creature composed of God and of clay, he has need of both elements. The religion and ideology that he needs to believe in and to found his life upon must fulfill both kinds of need and pay both of them due attention. The tragedy is that history tells a different tale. His­tory tells us that all societies and civilizations were oriented exclusively either to the hereafter and renunciation of this world, or to this world of dust. The civilization of China began by being oriented to this world, by giving primacy to pleasure and beauty and striving to enjoy the gifts of nature to the full, as the life of the Chinese aristocracy testifies. Then came Lao Tse, bringing a religion exclusively oriented to the hereafter, and emphasizing the spiritual and other‑wordly dimension of man. Indeed, he led the Chinese so far in that direction, that a people who had lived purely for the sake of pleasure became monks, gnostics arid mystics. He was succeeded by Confucius, who reoriented society toward this world and summoned the Chinese to the pleasures of worldly life, causing them to revert to their‑ former Preoccupations.

India, the land of rajas and legends, was oriented to the other world by the teachings of the Vedas and the Buddha, devoting itself to abstemiousness, monasticism and mysticism. It is for this reason that India is now famous for men sleeping on beds of nails, or subsisting for forty days on a single date or almond, for remaining behind the progress of civilization.

In Europe, ancient Rome devoted itself to murder and bloodshed, to establishing political mastery of the world, to accumulating all the wealth of Europe and Asia; it immersed itself in enjoyment arid pleasure, in gladiator fights and the like. Then came Jesus, who directed society to concentrate on the hereafter, so that Rome changed its orientation from plea­sure and worldliness to asceticism and contemplation of the hereafter, the ultimate result of this being the Middle Ages. The medieval world was one of war and bloodshed and military ascendance on the one hand; and one of monasteries, nunneries arid retreats, on the other. Europe was delivered from this orientation only by the Renaissance, which caused the pendulum to swing in the other direction. Today we see that Euro­pean civilization is so worldly in its orientation, and so exclusively defines the purpose of man's life as pleasure and enjoyment, that, as Professor Chandel has put it, the life of contemporary man consists only of making the tools of life. This is the idiocy of the contemporary philosophy of man, the result of a purpose‑free technology. The whole meaning of civilization has been robbed of any ideal, and the world has gone so far in the direction of worldliness that it almost seems as if another Jesus were needed.

As is apparent from the philosophy of man in Islam, lie is a two‑dimensional being and needs, therefore, a religion which will also be two‑dimensional and exert its force in the two different and opposing directions that exist in man's spirit and human society. Only their will man be able to maintain his equilibrium. The religion needed is Islam.

Why Islam?

In order to understand any religion, one must study its God, its Book, its Prophet, and the best individuals whom it has nurtured and raised.

First, the God of Islam is a two‑dimensional God. He has the aspect of Yahwa, the god of the Jews, who interests himself in human society, in the affairs of this world, who is stern, severe in punishment, and tyrannical, and also the aspect of the god of Jesus, who is compassionate, Merciful and forgiving. All of these divine attributes can be found in the Qur'an.

As for the book of Islam, the Qur'an, it is a book that like the Torah contains social, political and military provisions, even instructions for the conduct of warfare, the taking and setting free of prisoners; that is interested in life, in building, in prosperity, in struggling against enemies and negative elements; but it is also a book that concerns itself with the refinement of the soul, the piety of the spirit, and the ethical improvement of the individual.

The Prophet of Islam also possesses two contrasting aspects, aspects which would be contradictory in other men, but in him have been joined in a single spirit. For he was a man constantly engaged in political struggle against his enemies and the dis­ruptive forces in society, concerned with building a new society and a new civilization in this world; and also a guide leading men to a particular goal; that is, also a man of prayer, piety and devotion.

And then three men trained by him‑Ali, Abu Dharr and Salman‑were supreme examples of two‑dimensional men. They were both men of politics and battle, struggling for a better life and constantly present in circles of discussion and learning, and also men of piety and purity, not less than the great monks and mystics of the East. Abu Dharr was a man of politics and piety; the reflections of Abu Dharr concerning the nature of God can serve as a key to the understanding of the Qur'an. Look at all the Companions of the Prophet; they were, ill men of the sword, concerned with improving their society, men of justice, and at the same time, great men of thought and feeling.

'I'he conclusion I wish to draw is this: in Islam man is not humbled before God, for he is the partner of God, His friend, the bearer of His trust upon earth. He enjoys affinity with God, has been instructed by Him, and seen all of God's angels fall prostrate before him. Two‑dimensional man, bearing the burden of such responsibility, needs a religion that transcends exclusive orientation to this world or the next, and permits him to maintain a state of equilibrium. It is only such a religion that enables man to fulfill his great responsibility.


1. The creation of Eve is not directly mentioned in the Qur'an, so the author is presumably referring to accounts such as that given in Kisa’i’s Qisasal‑Anbiya, Cairo, 1312, pp. 18 ff. JR.)


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