Chapter 10 SURVIVAL: INDIVIDUAL AND COLLECTIVE Islam: A challenge to religion by G A Parwez

1. Man’s Passion for Life

The longing for immortality is deep-rooted in man. He clings to life passionately and recoils with horror from the prospect of extinction. He values life above all things and for its preservation and prolongation is willing to pay the highest price even in terms of pain and misery. For centuries, he has been tirelessly seeking the elixir of life which might enable him to prolong his life indefinitely. Frustration only spurred him on to put forth greater efforts. Man’s passion for life knows no bounds. He wants to live, no matter what the cost may be. At last man realised, and the realisation was extremely painful to him, that death is inevitable and that his earthly career must, sooner or later, come to an end. He realised the futility of his efforts to evade death,  and yet the desire for life burned in him as fiercely as it did in the breast of his remote progenitor. Satan, we are told, exploited Adam’s intense longing for immortality and educed him from the path of virtue. He assured Adam that the moment he tasted the forbidden fruit he would become immortal. Adam could not resist the temptation. In the Qur’an, the story is recounted allegorically in a picturesque style:

But Shaitaan whispered to him, saying: “O Adam! Shall I show thee tree of immortality and power that wasteth not away?” And (Adam and his wife) ate thereof, so that their “shame” became apparent to them and they began to hide by heaping on themselves some of the leaves of the garden. And Adam disobeyed Rabb and went astray (20:120-21).

Adam typifies Man in general, Shaitan (Satan) typifies the forces of debasement and destruction. Tempted by these, man has often sought shortcuts to immortality and has forsaken the path which, though long and wearisome, can alone lead him to the desired end.

Men reacted to the knowledge that death is inevitable in two different ways. A few hard-headed and empirically oriented men, centred all their hopes on this brief earthly life and resolutely refused to look beyond death. Their aim was to make the most of life, to enjoy every moment of it fully, untroubled by the thought of their ultimate fate. Every moment was to be filled with pleasurable experience and the thought that death was round the corner, intensified their joy in life. They lived in the present and refused to turn their thoughts to the future which, they believed, could never be theirs.

For the majority of men, however, the lure of immortality remained as strong as ever. Baulked in their efforts to evade death, they began to speculate on the ways in which life might be possible even after death. Some of them pinned their faith on collective survival – though they might die as individuals, yet they might somehow continue to exist in the lives of their children and children’s children. Their earthly career might come to an end but the career of the life they had transmitted to their children might continue indefinitely. This belief offered them a grain of consolation. This is one of the reasons for man’s pride in his progeny. The Qur’an refers to the joy man feels in those he has begotten:

Beautified for mankind is love of the joys that come from wife and children and stored up heaps of gold and silver and horses of mark and cattle and tilth. That is comfort of the life of this earth, but Allah: with Him is a more excellent abode (3:13).

It is obvious that this is not the immortality which is really desired by man. What he wants is not the preservation of a portion of his body but the continuation of his individuality. In collective survival, the “I” has disappeared. The torch of life that a man has transmitted to his children may be carried through generation to generation for centuries, but the “I” that he prized most and longed to perpetuate, vanished at the moment of his death. Man longs not for collective survival but for the immortality of his individual self. This he cannot claim as his right, nor can he receive it as a gift from a higher being. Only through his personal efforts can man win immortality for his ego. He can conquer death, but only by developing himself to the degree at which he can stand the shock of death. As the Qur’an says:

He has created life and death to prove you, which of you is best in conduct (67:2).

The verse, cited above, enshrines a great truth. To grasp it fully, we must consider it in all its aspects. Death is a natural phenomenon. It is a physical change which overtakes the human body. The body had its origin in the union of parental life-cells. For a number of years it continued to develop through the processes of maturation and exercise. After reaching its peak, it begins to decline and decay. The process of disintegration culminates in death. The crucial question is whether there is anything in man which survives the dissolution of the body. The answer is that the self which grew and developed in the matrix of the body may survive it and may, on the break-up of the body, launch out on a fresh career. We, by no means, suggest that this is true of all selves. We admit that some philosophers of repute have held the view that the self is by its nature imperishable. McTaggart, to mention only one, has developed this view in his writings and has defended it with arguments that are regarded as worthy of attention in philosophical circles. We do not subscribe to this view because it does not harmonize with the Qur’anic view of the destiny of the human self. In taking up this attitude to McTaggart’s position, we have also been influenced by two rational considerations. Firstly, this view entails belief in the pre-existence of the self, for which there is not a shred of evidence: secondly, with the acceptance of this view, emphasis shifts from what the self does to what it is. Moral activity ceases to be of vital importance to the fate of the self. The self, it would seem, is assured of immortality, irrespective of the kind of life, virtuous or vicious, which it led in this world. The Qur’anic view is that immortality cannot be taken for granted. It is the prize which the self can win by right conduct and by its efforts to realise its potentialities. The self may win the prize or it may lose it. The issue depends on the quality and intensity of its effort and on no other factor. For the self which has lived the right kind of life, death has no terror. The Qur’an makes this point clear. “The great horror shall not grieve them” (21:103). The self wins immortality by the proper orientation of will and the performance of right action. This view is not dissimilar to the view of Professor Galloway, as the following passage shows:

That every creature formed in the semblance of man, however brutish or undeveloped, is destined to immortality, is more than we dare affirm. To do so would require a deeper knowledge of divine economy than we possess. We agree with Lotze, “that every created thing will continue if and so long as its continuance belongs to the meaning of the world: that everything will pass away which had its authorized place only in a transitory phase of the world’s course.” (1)

Lotze’s position is substantially the same as our own. The self which, through the acquisition of absolute values has vitally related itself to the meaning and purpose of the universe, will find death a transition to a higher place.

  2. Life After Death

The Qur’an emphatically asserts that death is not the final end but a gateway to a different kind of life:

We mete out death among you …. that We may transfigure you and make you what you know not. And verily you know the first creation. Why then do you not reflect ? (56:61-63).

The real self, not being a part of the body, is not subject to physical laws. It is dependent on the body for functioning in the physical world, but it may continue to exist after the destruction of the body, its instrument:

And they say, what! When we have become bones and dust shall we indeed be raised up a new creation. Say thou: Be ye stones or iron or a substance still more improbable in your hearts (to be restored to life). But they will say: Who shall bring us back? Say thou: He Who brought you into being for the first time (17:49-51).

We interpret this verse as meaning that the self is not the product of physical forces and is not subject to natural laws. It owes its existence to and is directed by the Divine Amr. In the Hereafter, as in this life, it is sustained and guided by Amr, as it guides the evolutionary process. It may, therefore, be fit or unfit to exist and function on the plane to which it has been carried by evolution.

It is no doubt true that many philosophers and scientists refuse to believe that the self can survive the dissolution of the body. Their argument may be summarised in this way. The identity of the ego depends on memory and memory is a function of the nervous tissue. When the nervous tissue is destroyed, memory ceases to exist and the ego too disappears. We urge that life after death becomes intelligible when it is viewed in relation to the evolutionary progress of the self. The ego takes its origin in and develops dependent on the body. It may, however, attain that stage of development where it can carry on by itself. So too does the imago discard the chrysalis in which it developed and starts on an independent career. It all depends on the degree of development achieved by the ego:

And what has come to you that you hope not for something more weightier from God, when He has developed you by gradual ascents? (71:13-14)

“Gradual ascents” are the keywords in the above verse. The self does not remain stationary but is meant to rise to higher stages of development. When it reaches a particular stage of development, it would mean that it has related itself to the meaning of the world and the world, therefore, cannot afford to throw it overboard.

  3. Will and Action

Will and action are of paramount importance for the development of the self and,  therefore,  for its survival too. Will and action are really aspects of the same process. Action is “will actualised” and will is latent action. It has been truly said “no will, no action,” but the reverse is also true “no action, no will.” Only a free self possesses “will” in this sense,  and only such a self can perform actions which have relevance to survival. Animals act under the compulsion of instinctive urges and without foresight of the results of their actions. They, therefore, cannot be credited with will as we understand it. In the same way, the activities of the animal are not actions. An action is that which has been deliberately chosen by a free self and has been voluntarily performed by it. The free self expresses itself in action and holds itself responsible for it. Without freedom and responsibility, action, in this restricted sense, is not possible. These facts about “will and action” have a direct bearing on the question of survival. Man is the product of a long evolutionary process. This process does not stop at any point, but continues indefinitely. At a certain stage, man becomes an active participant in it and through his free will and purposeful activity determines, within certain limits, both the speed and the direction of evolutionary process. This process which has been at work in the world for untold aeons is now transformed into something far more rational and meaningful. It also becomes more dependent on its material, i.e., humanity, through which it is working. The primitive organisms were moulded and shaped by natural forces, so as to be fit for the next stage in evolution. It was a long and painful process in which the unfit were ruthlessly weeded out and the fit were permitted to flourish. Man cannot now depend on natural forces to mould him and make him fit for the next stage. He must do the moulding himself. He alone can make himself fit for the higher stage, on which he is to enter. His self is not changed by natural forces nor even by random activity. It is changed only by his moral activity, his freely chosen and voluntarily performed actions. If, through right actions, he has rendered himself fit for the next stage in “the gradual ascent,” he enters Jannah or paradise, as each plane of existence must appear to someone coming from a lower one. On the other hand, a man who is unfit,  feels anguish and misery at the sight of good things he cannot enjoy, of opportunities he cannot avail of, of a glorious life just beyond his reach. He is in Hell. As already stated, Heaven and Hell are not localities but states of mind. However, as a state of mind is transitory, it is not a suitable term. Heaven (Jannah) stands for fruition coupled with glowing hope for the future. Hell (Jahannam) is the experience of frustration tinged with remorse and regret. The person who permits his self to weaken, stagnates and becomes perverted. He languishes in a state between life and death. He does not live because life consists of upward movement of which he is incapable: he cannot die because remorse and frustrated desire prevent him from relinquishing his hold on life. Both the pleasure of existence and the insensibility of non-existence are denied him. The Qur’an says about him, “Wherein he neither dies nor lives” (87:13).  All that he can do is to give expression to the remorse that gnaws at his vitals, “Oh! That I had sent something beforehand for my life” (89:24). The inmates of Jannah, on the other hand, will give expression to their happiness in these words: “We shall not die any other than our first death”  (37:57-58). They have successfully stood the test of death and they know that they will not be subjected to the same test again. Their eyes dwell on new vistas of self-development and the path which leads to them is illumined by the. Divine light “running before them and on their right hand” (57:12). The materialists maintain: “There is no other than life in this world. We live and die and nothing destroys us but time” (45:24). The Qur’an,  however,  tells us that we can rise much higher above the plane of earth-rootedness and “pass out of the confines of the heavens and earth” (55:33), provided we develop the powers that are latent in us. These two views are in direct opposition to each other:

Do those who commit ill deeds think that We will make them as those who believe and do the right, equal in their life and death! How ill they judge (45:21).

The Mu’min, who is untiring in the pursuit of the good and keeps his eyes riveted on the eternal verities, is not afraid of death. He welcomes it gladly as he believes that he will pass through the shadow of death to a fuller and richer life. The poet Iqbal says:

Let me tell you by what sign you may recognize the true Mu’min. When the grim spectre of Death approaches, he greets it with a smile.

(Armughaan-e-Hijaaz, p. 165).

It is so because death, for him, is not the end of life but the threshold of a far more glorious life. The Mu’min regards death as a test which gives him the opportunity to prove his fitness for the higher life he is about to enter. The Jews claimed that every member of the Jewish race was predestined for paradise. In that case, says the Qur’an, they should face death with equanimity as they had nothing to fear:

If the abode of the Hereafter with God be for you, exclusive of the (rest of) mankind, then long for death if you are truthful (2 :94).

The Qur’an leaves no doubt on the point that paradise is not reserved for a particular race or community but is open to all who are steadfast in the pursuit of the good as revealed in the Qur’an, and who lay down their lives for the cause of truth.

  4. Immortality and Eternity

It should be noted, however, that immortality does not imply eternity. Eternity belongs to God alone It is also beyond our power to formulate a precise definition of immortality. It refers to stages of existence which transcend human calculation. All we can say, and all we need know is that life has no end. When we attain a higher stage, new vistas are opened up for our ambition. It is the nature of life to move forward unceasingly. The self in which the movement is retarded or arrested, suffers the torments of Hell.*

At this point, we would do well to guard ourselves against a misconception. No doubt, we will reap the harvest of a good life in the Hereafter, but actions which lead to the realisation of higher values are requited in this life as well. The Qur’an’s teaching is not otherworldly alone: it attaches due importance to this world also. Good actions enhance life and confer on us the gift of unalloyed happiness. The full fruition of realised values may be possible only in the Hereafter but we can get a foretaste of the joys of heaven in this life also. Of course, the final success or failure of a life can be known only when that life has run its course. At any stage in life, the next step might be in the right or wrong direction. The balance-sheet of life is possible only when it has ended. Nevertheless, reward is not withheld from the good man during this life. His good deeds bring him peace and happiness. Good action does not benefit the doer alone. Its beneficial effect pervades the world and helps to make it a better place, the home of goodness, beauty and truth. The good man realises himself through serving his fellow beings. He, therefore, contributes his might to the creation of a social environment in which truth and justice prevail and in which each individual enjoys the right to express and develop himself in his own way. To create such a social atmosphere has always been the aim of Islam. Some religions are primarily concerned with the salvation of individual men, while others are preoccupied with the stability and efficiency of human society.  Islam seeks to create a social milieu in which the human personality may function freely and grow to its full stature. In the next chapter, we will try to assess the value of Islam as a cultural force.


1. G. Galloway, The Philosophy of Religion, pp. 672-73.

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