Chapter 3 THE SELF OF MAN AND ITS DESTINY Islam: A challenge to Religion by G A Parwez

  1.  Self and Physical Body

In the previous chapter, we have briefly considered the psychological account of the origin and development of human personality or self. The terms are interchangeable in so far as they refer to the unified and integrated essence of man, and it is immaterial which one is employed. However, the term “self” will be preferred whenever the reference is to the essence of man conceived as an autonomous entity which, though it has developed in a physical matrix, is yet capable of surviving it and continuing its own independent existence. Our main concern, now, will be centred on the nature and destiny of self.

Personality or self is no doubt centred in the physical organism. But there are valid grounds for believing that it is not identical with the body. That man is something more than his physical self, can easily be seen from the fact that whereas his body is continually changing, both in its inner structure as well as in its outward appearance, his self remains unchanged. What, then, is his real self? The answer is, the ego or “I” of whose real nature we know nothing except in so far as it expresses itself in its behaviour or activities which are mediated by the body. Biology tells us that the human body is an organic structure, composed of millions of living cells which are continually changing. The moment a cell passes out of existence, it is replaced by a new one. In technical language, the process of catabolism is counterbalanced by the process of anabolism. Disintegration is quickly followed by reintegration. As a result of this, new cells are being produced and taking the place of older ones. Destruction and construction go side by side. The human body is, therefore, continually changing into a new one, so much so that it does not take more than three years, or seven as some believe, to renew itself completely.

Now, if by “self” we mean the physical self, namely, the body which undergoes a complete change after every period of three or seven years, it necessarily follows that the individual too ceases to exist as often as his body does so. However improbable it may be, if man is equated with his body the conclusion is inescapable that he changes into a new individual every three or seven years. The practical consequences of such a view can be easily imagined. Suppose A lends £ 10 to B. A, being a friend of B, waits patiently for several years, hoping that B will pay back the money as soon as it is convenient for him to do so. When A thinks that he had waited long enough, he demands payment. B, however, tells him that the two individuals between whom the said transaction took place have ceased to exist. A may insist that he remembers the transaction and that B is the same person who borrowed the money, but B may emphatically maintain that he himself is not the person who borrowed the money and so is under no obligation to pay it back. Again, suppose a lady tells her husband one fine morning that the woman he had married ten or twelve years back has now changed into an entirely new woman and, therefore, the marriage contract does not stand and she is no longer his wife. It is obvious that if by “self” we mean the physical self, such absurd conclusions are inescapable. However seriously the scientist may assert that the physical self is transformed in a short period of time and hence we are not responsible for what we did before that period, nobody, not even the scientist himself, can accept this as a right principle of conduct. For, however the body may change, our personal identity is not affected thereby. We continue to be same till the time of our death. The physical self, the body, might change but not the real self, the ego or the “I” which make me what I am. To quote Brightman:

If a person is not a true identical unity through all the changes in his experience, then spiritual development is impossible. Moral growth, for example, rests on the postulate that I am responsible to myself for the past purposes and contracts; yet if I am not the one who entertained those purposes and made those contracts, I experience neither responsibility nor continuous growth.(1)

To this the scientist may retort that science is the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, and truth must be accepted even if it entails unpleasant consequences. He may point out that his interest is in science, not in ethical conduct and social relationships. But is the scientist prepared to admit that, according to his theory, he has changed six or seven times into quite a different individual? Will he disown his entire career and say that it was some other person who went to school and yet another who worked in the laboratory as full fledged scientist a dozen years back? Obviously not. Again, the replacement of the old by the new cells, which results in the complete transformation of the body, is a slow, gradual and orderly process, so much so that we speak of the change as taking place in the same body. Does it not show that there is something which remains constant in the changing body? How are we to account for it? Is it because the dying cells have, somehow, transmitted the physical identity of the body to the new cells? This is certainly not possible. What then is the secret of the identity of the self? The answer, which at the least is not improbable, is that behind the physical self there is a self which is far more real, though far more subtle, which we know as the ego, the “I” or the personality. It is the “I,” or ego, which is at the root of my individuality and in which all change seems to be grounded, for it continues to endure in spite of the changes continually taking place in my mind as well as in my body. Berdyaev has rightly observed that: “Personality is changelessness in change.”(2) All my acts, thoughts, feelings, cognitions and volitions are owned by the ego which enables me to retain my identity in the midst of changes which are transforming my body into something different. Hegel observes: “I have many ideas, a wealth of thoughts in me, and yet I remain, in spite of this variety, one.”(3) In his thought-provoking work On Selfhood and Godhood, Professor A.C. Campbell has devoted a whole chapter to a discussion of the question whether a physical body is essential to the self, and has replied in the negative. “Young children,” says he, “experience organic sensations long before they are aware that they have a body.”(4) He goes on to say, “There seems to be some evidence of pathological conditions in which there is total suspension or organic sensation and in which the patient is self-conscious.” Dr. F.R. Tennant tells us that “when through disease, coenaesthesis is in abeyance, a patient will regard his body as a strange and inimical thing, not belonging to him.”(5) It is obvious, therefore, that the human self is neither identical with the body nor subject to physical laws. The self is independent of the body and remains unchanged throughout the life of the individual. It is the “I,” the ego or my real self, therefore, which makes me take on myself the responsibility of whatever I think, feel or act. As the acts were willed by me, I cannot escape from their consequences, whatever their nature, good or bad. “Without personal identity,” as Bradley said, “responsibility is sheer nonsense.”(6)

     2. Self and Memory

It may be contended, however, that our identity does not depend on the ego, which is only the sum total of our states of consciousness. It is memory which, by linking our experiences to each other, serves as the basis of our self-identity. If memory is taken away, we would lose our sense of identity. The inadequacy of this view can easily be demonstrated. It is true that the self cannot be conceived as existing outside the course of mental phenomena, as the body cannot be said to be something other than the organs of which it is composed. But just as the living body is something more than the sum of its parts, so the self is more than the mental acts taken together. Both the mind and body are wholes and must be regarded as such. To analyse them into parts, as if the parts were real and not the wholes, is to miss their real nature. The self as a whole, possesses a reality of its own. It is the “I” or the self which wills, thinks and feels. It expresses itself in various ways. To affirm the self is to affirm its identity. The point may be easily elucidated. Suppose a man whose hand has been paralysed wants to seize something. He wills to catch it but his hand remains inert. It is obvious that the hand could not have been the willing agent as willing occurs even when the hand has been incapacitated. The willing agent remains although the instrument is usually employed is no longer of any use. Again, the self recalls its past by means of the brain tissues which retain traces of past experiences. If the brain is seriously injured, the self has lost an instrument which was essential for recalling the past. If our radio set is out of order, we cannot listen to the days’ broadcast programme, but we do not believe that the broadcasting has been stopped. Again, suppose I am looking at my image in a mirror. If by chance the mirror is shattered, the image too disappears. However, the person who was reflected in the mirror does not disappear. The medium was destroyed but not that which is mediated. The brain is such a medium on which the self impresses its states. The brain does not secrete memory as some physiologists seem to believe. It is the self which has the power to recall the past, though for this it needs the brain. Bergson’s observations on this point deserve careful consideration. He says:

We understand then why a remembrance cannot be the result of a state of the brain. The state of the brain continues the remembrance, it gives it a hold on the present by the materiality which it confers on it but pure memory is a spiritual manifestation. With memory we are in very truth in the domain of spirit.(7)

Dr. Galloway, in the course of an interesting discussion of the problem of immortality, has attempted to answer the question, “Is memory a function of the brain?” As his view has a direct bearing on the question we are considering, it is quoted in full:

It may, however, be objected that memory has its basis in neural traces and so cannot survive dissolution of the body. Certainly we are not entitled to say that memory is purely an affair of the mind, for many mental habits appear to be rooted in the structure of the nervous system. And the failure of memory under pathological conditions, or when in old age degeneration of tissue reaches the association areas of the cortex, is positive evidence of some dependence of memory on cerebral traces or processes. The problem turns on the character and degree of this dependence. Now, neural traces are not the sole, nor even the most important, condition of remembering; for if so, memory would depend directly on repetition. But this is plainly not the case. The truth is that memory depends far more on the presence of meaning in the things remembered; and meaning must be referred for its maintenance in the mind to psychical not to cerebral dispositions. It is, therefore, possible that the soul, which includes within it the psychical dispositions formed during this life, may carry with it the means of preserving a continuity between the present order and a higher order of existence. If a world of meanings can be maintained by the soul despite the physiological changes of the body in a lifetime, it is conceivable it might be maintained through a more radical transformation. At all events a group of memories might remain, sufficient to give the sense of personal continuity.(8)

In a footnote he has put the matter in a clearer light:

For instance it is vastly easier to remember a rational sentence after a single hearing than the same number of nonsense words repeated several times.

Galloway has also cited McDougall in his support. No one who is interested in the subject can afford to disregard Professor Erwin Schrodinger’s illuminating and valuable discussion of the point. It is to be found in his small, but highly important book, What is Life. Summing up his ideas at the end of the book, he writes:

Yet each of us has the undisputable impression that the sum total of his own experience and memory forms a unity, quite distinct from that of any other person. He refers to it as “I”. What is this “I”?

If you analyse it closely you will, I think, find that it is just a little bit more than a collection of single data (experiences and memories) namely the canvas upon which they are collected. And you will, on close introspection, find what you really mean by “I” is that ground stuff upon which they are collected. You may come to a distant country, lose sight of all your friends, may all but forget them; you acquire new friends, you share life with them as intensely as you ever did with your old ones. Less and less important will become the fact that, while living your new life, you still recollect the old one. “The youth that was I,” you may come to speak of him in the third person, indeed the protagonist of the novel you are reading is probably nearer to your heart, certainly more intensely alive and better known to you. Yet there has been no intermediate break, no death. And even if a skilled hypnotist succeeded in blotting out entirely all your earlier reminiscences, you would not find that he had killed you. In no case is there a loss of personal existence to deplore.

Nor will there ever be.(9)

It seems highly probable, therefore, that bodily changes cannot radically alter the self. It continues to endure even after the limbs have been amputated, nay it should remain even after the death of whole body. Such, in short, is the “I” or ego – changelessness in change – which itself is the source of its identity.

 3. Survival of the Self

The facts cited in the foregoing pages support the view that the Ego or the real self remains unaltered by any changes in the condition of the body, and that it retains its form even after the worst physical injuries. If so, is it not highly probable that the self can withstand even the shock of death? The self’s immense capacity for development would be purposeless if it comes to an abrupt end after a brief span of life. It would be logical to believe that the self continues to exist and develop after death, and empirical evidence, though not conclusive, tends to support the view. At least this would be true for the individual who has not neglected the opportunities for development which this life offers. A self which has been sufficiently strengthened in life will be fit to enter on higher planes of existence. Islam holds the individual responsible for equipping himself for a higher life after death. He can do so by realising the powers that are latent in him. Of course, Islam insists that this can properly be done only in a social environment. In short it is the duty of society to provide opportunities of self-development to its members and it is their duty severally to turn such opportunities to the full account. To the fully developed personality, death opens out a vista of further development. The following excerpt from Ouspensky’s book will serve to clarify this point. Ouspensky has cited Gurdjieff in support of his view:

If a man is changing every minute, if there is nothing in him that can withstand external influences, it means that there is nothing in him that can withstand death. But if he becomes independent of external influences, if there appears in him something that can live by itself; this something may not die. In ordinary circumstances we die every moment.

External influences change and we change with them, i.e., many of our “Is” die. If a man develops in himself a permanent “I” that can survive a change in external conditions, it can survive the death of the physical body.(10)

Professor Campbell, quoted below, writes to the same effect:

There can be no ground for asserting that our self expresses all that it is, in the different forms of self-manifestation disclosed by human experience. The self as an ontological entity, as a spiritual substance, may be, for all we can say to the contrary, a being of far richer potency than is, or even can be, revealed under the conditions of human life, in the guise, that is to say of the “empirical self”.(11)

He goes on to say:

I refer to the mind’s power of retaining within it, in some form, its past experiences, and utilising them, on receipt of appropriate stimuli, in the course of its future experience.(12)

The following quotation from Dixon also bears on the same point:

If in the denial of any renewal of life beyond the grave, we do not virtually deny all life’s present values, I know not where to find a more resolute denial of them.(13)

Let us now turn to the question of the relation of the human self to the Divine Self which is, no doubt, the perfect self. “He alone is the Eternal, the Living and the Self-Subsistent” (The Qur’an, 2:255).

The human self has the capacity to develop itself on the model of the Divine attributes. It then rises higher and higher in the scale of existence. It is a hard task and man should be perpetually on his guard against all that threatens, from within or without, to weaken and emasculate his self. Only the strong self can forge ahead towards the goal of self-realisation. A weak self can easily deviate from the right path. The restrictions which the Qur’an imposes on the individual are not designed to curb his freedom but to strengthen him and to stiffen his resistance to destructive forces, so that he may form a strong character and build up an enduring personality. Men of weak character often make good resolutions but seldom carry them out. A man may resolve to get up early in the morning; but when the time comes, he lacks the will to leave his comfortable bed. Another man may be determined to keep an appointment; but at the last moment his resolve weakens and he fails to turn up. In both cases the men failed because of a fatal weakness in their character. The discipline of the Qur’anic way of life is intended to strengthen the self, so that it may successfully resist all forces which threaten its integrity, and remain steadfast in the pursuit of the good. The Qur’an is explicit on this point:

Verily, those who say: Our Rabb is Allah, and then keep straight on, Malaa’ikah shall descend on them (41:30)

Discipline hardens the ego. Rebuffs and disappointments call forth the best in it. Obstacles spur it on to more vigorous efforts. Such strong personalities can never suffer dissolution. Iqbal has expressed the idea in felicitous language:

Life is like unto a shell and the self is the pearl drop (concretion) therein:

What is the shell worth if it cannot transform the pearl drop into a pearl.

Through self-knowledge, self-control and self-development,

The self can even conquer death. (Darb-e-Kaleem, p. 25).

A weak and undeveloped personality, on the other hand, succumbs to the slightest shock, It is in constant danger of disintegration. A personality, hardened through self-discipline and sustained by a steadfast purposes, remains identical with itself through the vicissitudes of life and emerges refulgent from the shadows of death.

Some of the Divine attributes, mentioned in the Qur’an, are such as can belong only to God. No finite being can acquire them. For example, the Qur’an says of God that “He is the First and the Last” (57:3). Others, such as knowledge, wisdom, power, etc., can be shared by man, though only to some extent, i.e., within human limits. The description of these is at the same time a description of the ideals self:

Verily We have sent down to you a Book which mentions your own eminence (21:10).

Some of these attributes, which are within the reach of man, are fundamental, while others may be said to be of a contingent character. The short chapter of the Qur’an entitled Ikhlaas presents them in a compendious form. We should bear in mind that these attributes appertain to God as the Absolute Self, but, by virtue of possessing a self, man too can acquire them within human limits. A close study of the four verses will be found to be highly rewarding. Let us take the first verse: “Say that He God, is one” (112:1). The word “One” (Ahad) is exceptionally rich in meaning. It connotes unity, uniqueness and wholeness. It implies self-identity, self-consistency and integrity. Nothing from outside can secure a lodgment in it. Its unity is not paralleled anywhere in the universe. Of course, only a strong personality possesses unity of this kind. A weak personality, with its ever-changing attitudes, cannot lay claim to such oneness. Through development the unity of the self is strengthened. It is in the direction of development that all changes take place, but they do not in any way affect its essential nature. In its essence it knows no change. As the Qur’an says:

All that dwells upon the earth is undergoing change, yet still endures the countenance of the Rabb, majestic, splendid (55:26-27).

A man of strong character never deviates from the path he has chosen to follow, and a strong character goes with a strong personality. As Berdyaev says: “A strong personality is an expressed character.”(14) Such a personality really is what it appears to be, for it is self-consistent. As Professor Whitehead remarks:

Truth is the conformation of Appearance to Reality.(15)

Because the self enjoys real and not illusory freedom, it is responsible for all that it does, feels or thinks. It has to bear the consequences of its acts and it has to carry its own burden. The Qur’an is clear on this point:

For every self is that which it has earned, and against it only that which it has worked (2:286).


No self will in aught avail another, nor will intercession be accepted from it, nor any counterpoise be taken, neither shall they be helped (2:48).

This, in brief, is the Law of Requital. If a man achieves success, it is not because luck favoured him, but because he had acted in the right way. If he fails, he cannot put the blame for it on Fate, for failure is the direct result of his own wrongdoing.

Reverting to the Qur’anic chapter Ikhlaas, the first verse, as has been shown, emphasises the attributes of Ahadiyyah or Oneness. The second verse refers to the Divine attribute of Samadiyyah or self-dependence. The term connotes independence, self-reliance and self-sufficiency. “Samad” is the being which depends only on its own self and on nothing else, a being which is eternally enduring and absolutely free. God possesses this attribute in the highest degree, but man, with a self of his own, can also acquire it in some measure. He can exercise free choice and can become independent of external circumstances. “Do what ye will,” says the Qur’an (41:40). Again: “Whosoever will, let him believe and whosoever will, let him reject” (18:29).

In the entire creation, man alone enjoys real freedom. Freedom is the indispensable condition of moral life. Morality is irrelevant to a being whose actions are completely determined by forces outside itself. Man is capable of taking the initiative. He can freely choose any one of two or more alternative courses of action. He can bend his efforts to the attainment of any goal on which he has set his heart. For these reasons, he responds to the call of duty and engages in moral endeavour. Of course, man does enjoy God-like freedom: his freedom is subjected to various stresses and limitations. Nevertheless, he is free in the sense that his actions are self-determined, that they flow from his rational nature. This is the true interpretation of the freedom man enjoys. Man is responsible for his actions because they reflect his basic motivational pattern and reveal his essential characteristic. Hence he is the subject of moral judgment. The verse, “There is no compulsion in deen (2:256), bears witness to the immense importance that the Qur’an attaches to human freedom. This view of freedom has been admirably expressed by Iqbal:

Thus the element of guidance and directive control in the ego’s activity clearly shows that the ego is a free personal causality. He shares in the life and freedom of the Ultimate Ego who, by permitting the emergence of a finite ego, capable of private initiative, has limited this freedom of His own free will. This freedom of conscious behaviour follows from the view of ego-activity which the Qur’an takes. There are verses which are unmistakably clear on this point:

‘And say: The truth is from your Lord: Let him, then, who will, believe: and let him who will, be an unbeliever’ (18:29).

‘If ye do well to your own behoof will ye do well: and if ye do evil against yourselves will ye do it’ (17:7).(16)

Of course, God alone is absolutely free. But God, exercising His free will, has granted man, the finite self, a measure of freedom. If it implies a restriction on God’s power, it is, as is obvious, a self-imposed restriction, and as such does in no way detract from God’s omnipotence. As a verse in the Qur’an puts it, “God has prescribed for Himself Rahmah (i.e. the responsibility of His creature’s development and growth)” (6:54). It means that Rahmah flows from God’s self. It is not imposed on Him by any external agency. God is Raheem because Rahmah is an essential Divine attribute. We too feel really free when our actions are in full accord with the basic characteristics of our self. When we impose restrictions on our freedom, it is for the sole purpose of turning it to the best account. These restrictions do not detract from our freedom, nor are they derogatory to our status as free agents. Freedom, properly channelised, is the necessary condition of human development, both individual and social. This freedom is the basic postulate of the Qur’anic social order, which will be described later on.

The third verse, “He begetteth no one nor was He begotten,” refers to another important Divine attribute. God, as the Absolute Self, is self-subsistent. The self, qua self, does not come into being through the natural process of procreation. Man, of course, is a living organism and, as such, like other animals, is begotten by his parents and, in his turn, begets children. But this is true only as far as his body is concerned. The body, whether human or animal, is a part of the parent body which, having separated itself, develops into a new organism. From the biological point of view, man is on the same level as the animals. His body is subject to natural laws, and the natural processes of growth, decay, procreation and regeneration occur in it. Man’s self, however, exists and functions on a higher plane. It is not subject to natural laws and is untouched by natural division. It is an indivisible unity and can suffer no processes. It is not a part of the parents’ self, nor can it donate a part of itself to the offspring. It obeys its own inner laws and develops on its own lines. Its activity is creative but not procreative. It creates new qualities and powers which, however, enrich and expand its own nature. Procreation is a bodily function, and creation is the function of the self. The verse we are considering makes it clear that personality is not the product of physical or biological laws which cannot go beyond procreation or reproduction.

The fourth and last verse, “There is none comparable to Him,” refers to another Divine attribute which man, owning a self, can also share. Every self is unique. No self is the exact copy or replica of any other self. In the realm of self, there is no room for duplication. No general laws are applicable to any self, which is a law unto itself. Similarly, a society composed of free individuals is unique. No other kind of society is comparable to it. Man lives by developing and the same is true for human society.

4. Man

Since the entire edifice of deen, as expounded in the Qur’an, is firmly based on the view which it takes of human personality, its account of the creation of man deserves careful study. Significant references to the origin of man are dispersed over the pages of the Qur’an. In the course of evolution, a stage was reached when living creatures began to multiply by means of reproduction. Man too, like the animals, is first conceived in the mother’s womb. The Qur’an puts it in a picturesque way:

Verily We created man from a production of wet earth, then placed him as a drop (of seed) in a safe lodging; then fashioned We the drop into a clot; then fashioned We the bones; then clothed the bones with flesh, and then gave it another creation (23:12-14)

The term “another creation” is specially significant. It implies that at this stage man is born anew and emerges as a responsible and fully self-determining individual. Through this new birth man is elevated to a plane above the animal world. He is now endowed with a “self” and faces the world as an autonomous being. This happens when the Creator has “breathed into him His Ruh” (32:9). Then the malaa’ikah – the forces of nature – are commanded to submit to him and prostrate themselves before him. Man’s dominion over nature is set forth in the symbolical language of the Qur’an:

When Allah said to the malaa’ikha, Lo! I am about to create a man out of mire. And when I have fashioned him and have breathed into him My Ruh, then fall down before him, prostrate (38:71-72)

It is this Ruh of Divine Energy which confers on man the power to choose and act freely. He has now received the inestimable gift of real freedom. In this connection, a passage from Simpson’s The Meaning of Evolution, may aptly be quoted:

To say that man is nothing but an animal is to deny, by implication, that he has essential attributes other than those of all animals…. It is important to realise that the essence of his unique nature lies precisely in those characteristics that are not shared with any other animal. His place in nature and its supreme significance to man are not defined by his animality but his humanity. Man has certain basic diagnostic features which set him off most sharply from any other animal and which have involved other developments not only increasing this sharp distinction but also making it an absolute difference in kind and not only a relative difference of degree.(17)

What, then, is Ruh? The answer is that it is neither intellect, nor psyche, nor spirit, nor soul. It is the human self or personality, an entity unique in the world. The point, being important, must be elucidated further.

Let us take intellect first. Intellect is a faculty of the mind, termed qalb or fu’ad in the Qur’an. We know it through its manifestations – fikr (thought), shu’ur (consciousness), tadabbur (deliberation), and ta’aqqul (intellection). To some extent, animals too possess it. The animal is conscious but man is self-conscious. Self-awareness distinguishes man from other living beings. Besides, human intelligence is far superior to the animal intelligence in its range and capacity. Intellect is the chief instrument for acquiring knowledge. In the Qur’an man is, again and again, exhorted to use his intellect to understand himself and the world. Men who fail to make use of their intellect are said to be worse than cattle. Animals have a sure guide in instinct but man can rely only on his intellect.

The term “psyche,” originally introduced by Freud, is in vogue at present, especially among the psychologists. It is a comprehensive term which denotes all the mental drives and functions, both conscious and unconscious. However, the important question whether the psyche is an entity in its own right or is only a label for the totality of mental processes is still unanswered. The psychologists have not made any definite pronouncement on this point.

The term “spirit” has a long history behind it. It played an important role in the scholastic philosophy of the Medieval Age. The scholastic philosophers held that there were two independent substances in the world, spirit or soul and matter. This naturally led to the theory of dualism. It was believed that spirit and matter had nothing in common; that, in fact, they were opposed to each other. The body, being material, was regarded as an impediment to the soul’s progress. Spirit was the sole concern of religion. The soul could achieve salvation only by subduing and crushing the body. This view inevitably resulted in other-worldliness, asceticism and self-abnegation. All pleasure came to be regarded as evil. Devout men and saints gloried in self-mortification. Men who were interested in this-worldly life were naturally repelled by this extreme view. They tended to react favourably to materialism which would not prevent them from tasting the joys of life and appreciating the beauty of nature. In this way the extreme type of spiritualism was opposed by an equally extreme type of materialism. Modern science, however, has exposed the errors of both spiritualism and materialism. The older materialistic theory is now quite untenable. The older conception of matter, as composed of indivisible and ultimately real atoms, has been totally discarded and the same fate has overtaken the theory of dualism. Modern science has divested matter of the very attributes which formerly were regarded as essential to it, namely, extensity and solidity. We will give a few examples to show how matter is conceived by the thinkers of the modern age. Sir James Jeans defines matter as “bottled-up waves,” and Bertrand Russell as “a system of interrelated events.” Einstein defines it as “condensed thought” and Ouspensky as “a mere condition.” The dualism of spirit and matter has, therefore, no place either in modern science or in modern philosophy. However, the distinction between the functions of the Church and State is still maintained in the West. The Church is concerned only with spiritual matters and has nothing to do with secular affairs. Its sphere of activity is strictly circumscribed. In this way, the dualism of spirit and matter is a built-in part of the modern States in the countries of Western Europe.

Islam, however, has never lent support to the view that spirit and matter are separate and opposed to each other. As a matter of fact, these terms do not occur in the Qur’an, which regards man as a unitary being and not as the combination of two radically different elements. The concept of soul, too, as a spiritual entity inhabiting a material body, does not harmonise with the Qur’anic view that man is one and indivisible. According to the Qur’an, the process of creation was set going by the Divine fiat (amr). What it is, is known only to God. We cannot presume to probe into the transcendental reality. We can only believe that it is one and indivisible, although it discloses itself in an infinity of forms. To conclude, the Ruh is neither spirit nor soul, neither intellect nor mind. It is the transcendental ground of all these.

The Qur’an itself guides us to the true understanding of the Ruh which was breathed into man. After it has secured a lodgment in man and has thereby acquired individuality, The Ruh appears as the nafs (self) of man. The following verses leave no room for doubt on this point:

And the nafs and its perfection. He endowed it with the possibilities both of integration and disruption. He will indeed be successful who develops it. And he will indeed fail who stunteth it (91:7-10).

The self is God’s inestimable gift to man. When man receives it, it is inchoate but endowed with immense potentialities. He is under the moral obligation to actualise its latent powers and develop it to the fullest extent. He who shirks this duty fails to qualify for elevation to a higher plane of existence. He recedes from the Real and draws nearer to the unreal. And who assiduously develops the nafs (self), draws “closer to God” (i.e., realises and manifests godly attributes) and partakes more and more of reality. The distinctive qualities of the nafs are intelligence, foresight, courage, the power to take the initiative and the power to choose and act freely. When these are developed, the nafs appears in all its glory. Thus it is obvious that the self which is the essence of man is progressive. To evolve is in its nature. If it is prevented from developing, it becomes stunted and corrupt. Its powers atrophy and it gravitates to a lower level.

It may be pointed out here that term nafs is used in its original Qur’anic sense. In common parlance it has acquired associations and nuances of meaning which are irrelevant to our purpose. It is necessary to restore its original meaning to the word and use it as equivalent to self. We must bear in mind that the Ruh in not part of God. It is not in God’s nature to have parts. The Ruh is His directive energy, as Iqbal has put it. It is, to put it in a different way, from Him but not of Him. The human self in not a part of the Divine Self. We have already explained that every self is unique and indivisible. The human self, by virtue of participating in the Divine Energy, is capable of cultivating the Divine attributes, but only so far as is possible for a finite being.

5. Hereafter

In the foregoing pages we have adduced many reasons for believing that there is something in man, and this something can only be his self, which transcends the laws of nature. If we concede this point, it follows that the self remains untouched by the processes of decay and decomposition which culminate in the dissolution of the body. The self, therefore, survives death as it had survived the many changes, some even drastic, which the body had undergone in this life. The usual objections to survival after death are based on the fact of physical decomposition. The Qur’an points out that this is not applicable to the self:

And they say: What! When we shall have become bones and decayed particles, shall we then certainly be raised up, being a new creation. Say: By ye stones or iron or some other things which are too hard (to receive life) in your minds (17:49-51).

For the Qur’an life after death is a fact, As regards the question how and by whom man gets a new life after death, the Qur’an answers:

They will say: Who shall bring us back? Say: He who brought you into existence the first time (17:51).

The point is that if the second life appears strange, so should be the first. Life is a mystery and, since it once emerged from not-being into being, it may conceivably do so again. If God has the power to create, He certainly has the power to recreate as well. The Qur’an uses the terms “first make” and “second make” in connection with this life and the life after death. The body enables the self to participate in the spatio-temporal system, but is not essential to it. The body may die, but the self lives.

It will be worthwhile to make a distinction between immortality and survival after death. Whereas every human being is assured of survival after death, immortality is reserved only for those who have attained a high stage of self-development. It is these who are capable of continuing their ascent to higher planes. As they enter heaven (jannah) a new vista of development opens before them. Development continues after death, but only for those who have made a start in this life. If man has seized the opportunities for self-realisation that this life offers, he can climb loftier heights in the hereafter. If not, he finds himself in the state termed jahannam (hell) in the Qur’an, where the next step cannot be taken.

6. Immortality

As we have seen, men who are admitted into heaven (jannah) can continue the process of self-realisation, and what is called immortality is conferred on them.

Therein shall they taste no death except the first death (44:56).

They do not die again but this does not mean that they will live eternally. Immortality is not eternity. The Qur’an says of those who have entered jannah, that they “shall dwell therein, so long as the heaven and the earth shall endure except what Allah shall please – a gift unfailing” (11:108). Eternity may not mean an infinity of temporal points. It may designate a state outside time, a scale of timelessness. It would be wiser to abstain from speculating about things which lie beyond our experience. All that we can say on this point is that God alone is eterna

 7. The God of Life

The Qur’an inspires as fervid faith (conviction) in us that a glorious destiny awaits man and the universe. We believe that the cosmic procession is moving steadily towards a grand goal. Mankind is in the vanguard of this procession. The directive force comes from God. In the case of nature this force acts mostly from outside, while in the case of man, with the emergence of the self, it acts, in the main, from within. It is internalised in man and appears as the urge towards self-realisation. External compulsion is supplanted by the sense of duty. Animals are driven by blind instinct in the right direction. Man has to discover it for himself by using his intelligence and has to follow it freely and voluntarily. He can perceive his goal clearly and can, if he likes, bend his efforts to attain it. It is his duty to act as an intelligent, free and moral being. He must freely choose his goal and he must attain it through his own efforts. The only goal worthy of man, as man, is self-development. It means the full unfolding of the self or the actualisation of all its potentialities. The aim of moral endeavour is to move nearer to this goal. All actions which lead to self-development are good, and immoral actions are those which hamper and impede the process of self-development. This is the criterion by which we can judge the worth of our actions. It can never fail us. This is the criterion which we derive from the Qur’anic view of human life. The entire system of morality set forth in the Qur’an is centred in the human personality. Right and wrong, good and bad are meaningful terms only in relation to the human self. Even political and economic questions can be settled only in the light of their effects on the self. By freedom we mean the individual’s freedom to develop his personality, and subjection implies his inability to do so, for a man may be a member of a politically free society, but he is not free if he has no scope for self-development and self-expression.

There is a significant difference, however, between the way the physical body develops and the manner of self-development. The body grows by receiving substances from outside and incorporating them; in short, by taking. The self, on the other hand, grows by giving of its own abundance to others. The self grows stronger by sharing its knowledge, wisdom and other possessions with others. It is cramped when it keeps its riches to itself. Thus the most rewarding activity in which it can engage is that of giving. Generosity enriches it and niggardliness impoverishes it. We must never lose sight of this truth. The Qur’an leaves no doubt on this point:

He who gives his wealth so that his self may develop (92:18).

Let us see how this principle can be applied in the economic sphere. Even in the most advanced countries of the West the national wealth is not distributed fairly. This has naturally resulted in creating two social classes – the Haves and the Have-nots. The few rich men earn considerably more than they require, while the majority of the people do not earn enough to satisfy their basic needs. The moral fibre of the former becomes loose by luxury and that of the latter by extreme poverty. The causes are different but the result is the same, debasement and corruption of the self. In Western countries two remedies have been proposed – Taxation and Charity. Both have proved to be ineffectual. They are mere palliatives and cannot cure the social malaise. While taxation is opposed and evaded, charity degrades the individual who receives it and undermines his self-respect. In Eastern Europe it is believed that communism can cure the evil. Against this view it may be urged that in a totalitarian society there is little incentive for the individual to put forth the best in him. Initiative and the spirit of enterprise are at a discount in such a society. Besides this, in a collectivised regimented society the individual’s freedom is curbed and hedged round to such an extent that he ceases to be a free autonomous being. Above all, if the concept of life is materialistic, be it in a capitalistic society or communistic, there is no incentive for giving the product of one’s own hard labour for the benefit of others.

For Islam the locus of value is the individual self and not society. Self-development of the individual man is of supreme importance. Everything else must be subordinated to this end. The Qur’an aims at the production of free and good men, and such men spontaneously, and of their own accord, will share their possessions with their fellow beings. A society composed of such men will be free from the evils of luxury in one class and poverty in the other. A powerful incentive to generosity and selfless service of others is provided by the belief in the Hereafter. The man who believes in the Hereafter will naturally attach far greater importance to the values that he can carry over to a higher plane than to the material goods which he will have to leave behind when he dies. Goethe has expressed the idea beautifully thus:

That man is dead even in this life who has no belief in another.(18)

The process of the development of human personality, the Qur’anic economic order and the life hereafter will all be discussed further in subsequent chapters.




  1. E.S. Brightman, A Philosophy of Religion, op, cit., p. 196.
  2. Nicolas Berdyaev, Slavery and Freedom, p. 8.
  3. Quoted by W.M. Dixon in The Human Situation, p. 384.
  4. A.C. Campbell, On Selfhood and Godhood, p. 99.
  5. Philosophical Theology, Vol. I, p. 70; cf. Campbell, p. 120.
  6. Dixon, op. cit., p. 377.
  7. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, p. 320.
  8. George Galloway, The Philosophy of Religion, pp. 565-6.
  9. E. Schrodinger, What is Life, pp. 91-2.
  10. P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, p. 101.
  11. Campbell, op. Cit., p. 109.
  12. Ibid., p. 120
  13. Dixon, op. Cit., p. 425.
  14. Berdyaev, op. Cit., p. 47.
  15. A.N. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p. 309.
  16. M. Iqbal, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, pp. 108-109.
  17. G.G. Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution, pp. 281-4.
  18. Quoted by Dixon, op. Cit., p. 428.

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