Sunday, April 19, 2009

Are We Human?

Before we can speak of human responsibilities or rights, one must answer the basic religious and philosophical question, “What does it mean to be human?” In today’s world everyone speaks of human rights and the sacred character of human life, and many secularists even claim that they are the true champions of human rights as against those who accept various religious worldviews. But strangely enough, often those same champions of humanity believe that human beings are nothing more than evolved apes, who in turn evolved from lower life forms and ultimately from various compounds of molecules. If the human being is nothing but the result of ‘blind forces’ acting upon the original cosmic soup of molecules, then is not the very statement of the sacredness of human life intellectually meaningless and nothing but a hollow sentimental expression? Is not human dignity nothing more than a conveniently contrived notion without basis in reality? And if we are nothing but highly organized inanimate particles, what is the basis for claims to “human rights?” These basic questions know no geographic boundaries and are asked by thinking people everywhere.

Christianity in the West has sought to answer them on the firm theological basis that “human beings were created in the image of God” and it is the immortal soul and the spark of the Spirit within men and women that constitutes the basis for human dignity, the sacredness of human life, and ultimately human rights. In fact, many Christian thinkers, both Catholic and Protestant, as well as Jewish thinkers insist that human dignity is based on the Divine Imprint upon the human soul and that historically in the West the idea of human rights, even in its secularized version, is derived from the religious conception of the human state.

For Islam, likewise, human beings are defined in their relation to God, and both their responsibilities and rights derive from that relationship. As we all know, Islam believes that God breathed His Spirit into Adam and according to the famous hadith, “God created Adam in His form.” The word ‘form’ means the reflection of God’s Names and Qualities. Human being, therefore, reflect the Divine Attributes like a mirror, which reflect the light of the Sun. By the virtue of being created as this central being in the terrestrial realm, the human being was chosen by God as His vicegerent (khalīfat Allāh) as well as His servant (‘abd Allāh). As servants human beings must remain in total obedience to God and in perfect receptivity before what their Creator wills for them. As vicegerent they must be active in the world to do God’s Will here on earth.

The Islamic conception of insān, or man, as the anthropos encompassing both male and female sates, can be summed up as the wedding of these two qualities in him. But God has also given human beings free will, in which it means that they can rebel against their own primordial nature and become active against Heaven and passive to their own lower nature and the world of senses, so that not all human beings remain God’s servants and vicegerents. In fact, the perfection of these passive and active modes belongs to the prophets and saints alone. Nevertheless all human beings possess dignity, and their lives are sacred because of that primordial nature, which all the progeny of Adam and Eve carry deep within themselves.

Throughout Islamic history many philosophical, theological and mystical discussions have taken place about this issue, but one basic element with which all schools of Islamic thought and ordinary believers agree is the truth that God is our Creator, or, philosophically speaking, the ontological cause of our existence. It is therefore we who owe everything to Him and our rights derive from fulfilling our responsibilities towards Him and obeying His Will.

To understand our relation to God, we must first ask what God wants of us. The Quran makes this demand clear when it states, “I have not created the jinn and humanity except to worship Me” (51: 56); also “Verily I, I am God. There is no God save Me. So worship Me and establish prayers for My remembrance” (20: 14). The word “worship” (‘ibādah) in Arabic also means ‘service.’ To worship God is also to serve Him. Many interpretations have been given of the term ‘ibādah by commentators; its meaning ranges from ordinary acts of worship to loving and knowing God. The purpose of human existence is considered by Islam to be the worship and service of God, and only in carrying out the aim and purpose of our existence are we fully human. Otherwise, although we carry the human reality within ourselves, we fall short of it and live beneath the fully human state.