Chapter 18: Islam A Challenge to Religion
MAN AND HIS ENVIRONMENT
By Allama Ghulam Ahmad Parwez
I. Man and the Universe
Only that endures which is beneficial for mankind (13: 17).
THIS verse, which was quoted at the end of the last chapter, is thought-provoking, and we will find an attempt to probe into and explore its implications, highly rewarding. Here is a reliable criterion for judging man's activities. Only those activities have intrinsic worth which lead to the production of something beneficial to mankind. The criterion, however, goes much farther than that. In the course of evolution, only those variations were preserved which were serviceable to the species in their struggle for survival. The physical world too, through the same process, has, in the course of countless ages, become a place fit for man to live in and pursue truly human ends. Had the earth grown increasingly hotter or colder, man would have long ago made his hurried exit. As it is, he prospers and flourishes on it and his efforts to understand and control it have been richly rewarded. Now, he even takes a hand in changing his physical environment in a way that helps him to rise higher in the scale of existence.
This challenging attitude towards the physical environment is, however, of recent origin. For long ages, man felt ill at ease in the world. Primitive man believed himself to be surrounded by hostile forces bent on destroying him. He believed that his only chance of survival lay in placating and appeasing those forces, and, consequently, he personified and deified them. Tormented by a sense of utter helplessness, he thought he could save himself only by arousing the pity of the gods. He sought to appease the raging storm, the turbulent river or crashing thunder by methods which had proved effective in pacifying an enraged neighbour or a furious enemy. With the increase in knowledge and experience, this primitive view of the world was replaced by paganism. The pagans felt more secure in the world and thought it even possible to control it. Man's first crude attempts to control physical nature took the form of magic and witchcraft. Later, more advanced pagans outgrew magic and relied on their intellect to understand nature. However, the ancient belief that physical nature was unfriendly and alien to man lingered on and coloured the thinking of the greatest pagan thinkers. Plato pinned his faith on human reason and finding that the world of matter fell far short of the perfection of ideas and forms that reason apprehends, he regarded it as a poor and faint copy of the real world. He looked upon the physical world with utter contempt as a mere shadow of Reality. The philosopher, he believed, should be absorbed in the contemplation of eternal ideas and forms. The other worldly strain in Platonism appeared in a fully developed form in Neo-Platonism, the source, of all types of mysticism. The true mystic regards the physical environment as essentially evil and his chief concern is to shun it and take all precautions against being contaminated by it. He seeks salvation not with the help of the physical world but by avoiding all contact with it. The mystics also subscribe to Plato's theory of knowledge. Plato held that the senses are deceptive and knowledge gained through them is unreliable. Sense-perception cannot yield true knowledge; at best it can yield only opinion. Reason is the only source of true knowledge. Instead of observing nature, we should fix our gaze on the transcendental Reality. The mystic sought seclusion where he could devote himself to meditation and contemplation. Absorbed in himself, he was as indifferent to human society as he was to nature. He took little or no interest in the problems of social life. One social system was as good or rather as bad for him as another. The goal of making life more enjoyable and agreeable for the common man did not appeal to him. The ideal life for him was that of the hermit. He desired communion,with the Absolute, oblivious to both the physical and the social world. With the extreme subjectivism, it was distasteful to him to mix with people and work with them for improving the conditions of life. Schemes of social uplift failed to kindle a spark of interest in his mind,,engrossed as it was with other-worldly matters. It did not occur to him that by understanding nature and learning to control its forces, he could make far better progress in self-development and self-realisation. He failed to see that by acquiring knowledge of nature he would gain knowledge of himself too. Human organism and its potentialities cannot be understood when man is studied in isolation. To understand him, we have to study him in the context of his physical environment. It is in the intimate interaction with the world of nature and society that human self reveals itself in all its glory. The potentialities latent in man can be actualised only by struggling with and overcoming the forces of nature. The so-called "spiritual" development which is divorced from physical and mental development and which is the aim of all religions has no meaning. Man is an organism and one side of organism cannot be developed at the expense of other sides. He must develop as a whole. He pays a heavy price if his development is lop-sided. He must make progress on all fronts-physical, mental and moral-and this is how his personality will develop. He can open the way to progress only by making the world a better place to live in and by creating a social organisation which gives full scope for freedom and development. This is where the mystics failed. They had only a narrow vision. Preoccupied with purely "spiritual" matters of their own imagination, which do not exist in reality, they failed to apprehend a dynamic relationship with their environment. They ought to have aimed at the knowledge of man in the universe and in relationship to the universe. Man in isolation is hardly human. Only when he is in contact with his physical environment and with his fellow-beings that he rises to: his full stature.
II. The Quran on Man and Nature
The Quran puts man in a meaningful relationship with nature. To grasp the significance of the Quranic view, we should compare it with two other views which are stoutly defended by some modern thinkers. According to one of these, nature is definitely hostile to man and takes a fiendish delight in bringing to naught his noblest enterprises. Hardy and Schopenhauer took a gloomy view of life and felt that men could enjoy peace, the peace of insensibility, only when they ceased to exist. The other view is apparently more compatible with the findings of modern thought. According to it, nature is completely indifferent to man and his ideals. It simply does not care whether man succeeds or fails. Human history may well prove to be a brief episode in cosmic evolution. The earth may go on rolling round the sun for ages after man has disappeared from its surface. Opposing both these views the Quran presents nature as friendly to man, responsive to his intellect and sympathetic to his moral endeavour. Both nature and man have been created by a wise and benevolent God and fundamentally there is no conflict between them. Man can develop only with the help of nature. This help he can obtain provided he acquires knowledge of nature and utilises it for the achievement of his moral ends in the light of Divine Guidance. The knowledge referred to is scientific knowledge. The only method by which he can study nature profitably is the scientific method. Equipped with scientific knowledge he can bend nature to his service. Natural forces can be made to serve man. This truth the Quran has expressed in the metaphorical language that the "Malaika (cosmic forces) prostrated themselves before Adam (man)" (2': 34). Man, as the verses quoted below show, occupies a privileged position in the physical world and it is his destiny to become master of it:
God has pressed into the service of man the sun and the moon, to perform their courses, and He has pressed the night and the day into his service (14: 33).
And He hath of service unto you whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth; it is all from Him. Lo! Herein verily are portents for people who reflect (45: 13).
If we reflect on the physical world we find that it is governed by unalterable laws, and by discovering these laws we can subjugate everything in it and make it serve our purposes. The destiny of man lies not in turning away from nature but in making it obey his will.
The physical world, the Quran asserts, is not a shadow or maya. It is real and not merely an appearance. "And We created not the heaven and the earth and all that is between them in vain" (38: 27). They are in error who refuse to ascribe reality to the seen world. "That is the opinion of those who do not believe (in the truth)" (38: 27). It is these people who consider the world to be an illusion. If it is an illusion, it means that it has no meaning. Islam rejects this view as utterly false and Kufr. The Quran says that the universe was created bil Haqq, which means that it is true and has a purpose. "Allah created the heavens and the earth with Haqq" (29: 44). It is the duty of the faithful, Mu’mins, therefore, to observe the truth spread out before their eyes. "Therein is indeed a portent for believers" (29: 44). We are left in no doubt as regards the reality of the universe. It is not (as believed by Hindus) Rama's Leela, a toy with which God amuses Himself for a moment, nor is it Brahma's dream. In either case it would have had no serious purpose and would have vanished as God woke up or turned to some serious work. The Quran rejects these views as false:
And We created not the heavens and the earth and all that is between them in play. We created them not save with Haqq (44: 38-39).
The Quran distinguishes between two kinds of knowledge—perceptual and conceptual. Through perceptual knowledge we become aware of and deal with that portion of the physical environment which happens at the moment to be the centre of our interest. Through conceptual knowledge we rise above the particularity of concrete facts and cognise the unities which underlie the multiplicity of the world. The conceptual framework we build up is far removed from the rich vivid concrete reality of the actual world, yet it gives us an insight into the working of the nature and greater power of control over it. The point to note is that both kinds of knowledge have their source in the senses. In the Platonic theory of knowledge, reason can achieve knowledge of the Real independently of the senses. The Quran accords full recognition to the role of the senses in the "knowing activity." According to the Quran. The mind (fuad) gropes for knowledge from the data provided by the senses.
We see that the Quranic view is close to, if not identical with, the empirical theory of knowledge. The Quran exhorts man to use his senses and observe nature sagaciously. This is the first step in getting to know nature and its way:
And follow not that whereof thou hast no knowledge. Lo! the hearing and the sight and the fuad (heart) of each of these it will be asked (17: 36).
Those who do not make proper use of their senses and mental powers sink to the animal level. "Many of the people, both civilised and nomads, live a life which dooms them to hell" (7: 179). The reason for this is that "they have hearts wherewith they understand not, have eyes wherewith they see not, and have ears wherewith they hear not" (7: 179). The result is that they cease to be rational beings. "These are like cattle: nay, but they are worse. These are the neglectful" (7: 179).
In sharp contrast to such people are those who ponder over God's creation, for they know that "In the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of night and day, are surely signs to men of understanding" (3: 189). They are the men "who keep in their mind (the laws of) Allah standing and sitting and reclining, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth" (3: 1.90). When they reflect on the grandeur of nature, they are deeply moved and exclaim: "Our Rabb! Thou hast not created this in vain" (7: 190). When they approach nature with the attitude of the believers (Mu’mins) they feel it in their bones that it has a meaning and a purpose. With their intellectual honesty, they cannot but admit that certain things in it are incomprehensible to them at the present level of their knowledge. With humility they confess that they do not know, but they have a conviction that if they persist in seeking more knowledge, one day they will perceive the meaning of these as well. Men who lack this conviction live "in a sort of hell" (7: 191), and the pity is that no one can help them" (7: 191).
The Quran speaks of those who study nature and try to discover the laws that govern it as "men of knowledge and insight"; because, says the Quran: "Lo! in the heavens and the earth are portents for believers" (45: 3). In seeking knowledge, the believers are spurred on by their Iman. "And in your creation and of all the beasts that He scattereth in the earth, are portents for a folk Whose Iman is sure" (45: 4). They know that
The alternation of night and day and the provision that Allah sendeth down from the sky and thereby quickeneth the earth after her death, and the ordering of the winds, are portents for a people who have sense (45: 5).
The Rasool is told: These are the portents of Allah which We recite unto thee with Haqq (45: 6).
Iman in God may not follow from purely logical arguments: it springs from the direct experience of order, harmony and beauty in nature. The Quran says that these are the visible signs of the invisible Being:
Then in what besides Allah and His portents will they believe? (45: 6).
According to the Quran, Iman in God has a dual source. Contemplation of the outer world of nature and of man himself guides us to the power that manifests itself in both. By insisting that nature provides a pathway to God, the Quran concedes the validity of the so-called natural religion." It adds, however that Iman induced by the contemplation of nature, should be reinforced by Revelation. It is the confluence of the two streams of influence that produces the Iman of a true believer, the Mu’min. The unbeliever, the Kafir, is one whose mind is arid because it has not been irrigated by either stream. Iman is not a passive assent to a dogma. It is the vivid sense of God's laws which set every fibre in the body vibrating in unison with the infinite power immanent in the universe. When Iman is actually expressed in a way of life, and when it inspires and informs the conduct of man it is called Taqwa, in the language of the Quran. The Mu’min, armed with Iman and Taqwa, can defy every destructive power:
Verily, in the alternation of night and day and in what God has created in the heavens and the earth, are surely signs to people who abide by Allah's laws and wish to be protected against destructive powers (10: 6).
Drawing our attention to the starry firmament above, the Quran kindles in our mind a sense of its infinitude. In contemplating the heavens we are contemplating the infinite. Therein we have a value experience of a high order, composed of curiosity,. Wonder, awe, reverence, and feelings of sublimity and beauty. Who knows but there may be life and reason in some of the countless galaxies in the infinity of space:
And of His signs is the creation of the heaven and the earth, and what He has spread abroad in both of them of living things; and He has the power to gather them together (according to His plans) (42: 29).
IV. Men of Knowledge
We have seen that the Quran attaches prime importance to the acquisition of knowledge. We have also noted that the Quran applies the term "knowledge" neither to something which mere intellect produces out of itself nor to the sense-data collectively, but to the product of the interaction of the senses and intellect. We can now ask whom does the Quran regard as men of knowledge—Ulama. A clue is provided by the verses quoted below:
Hast thou seen that Allah causeth water to fall from the sky and produces therewith fruit of diverse hues, and among the hills are streaks white and red, of diverse hues and others raven-black.
And of men and beasts and cattle in like manner diverse hues. It is the Ulama—men of knowledge—among His servants who (reflecting upon the magnitude of the creation and the Divine laws governing it) feel awe and are wonder struck (35: 27-28).
We find in these verses a clear reference to generic sciences. The men of knowledge are, therefore, those who have acquired knowledge of these natural phenomena, that is, they are the men whom we now call scientists. The sphere of work of the ’Ulama is the science of man and nature. It is obvious that the "Muslim ’Ulama" have since long, relinquished their proper object of study and have applied their keen intellect to matters of far less importance. Absorbed in matters relating to ritual and ceremonial, which are the adjuncts of institutional religion, they could not spare the time to observe and study nature as they had been commanded to do by God. Instead of ranging over the wide expanse of the world of nature., their mind moved in a narrow circle with the result that it has lost its vigour and flexibility. It is high time they turned their attention to the proper object of study-the signs and portents of God, the varied phenomena of nature and the human mind:
And We shall show them Our portents on the horizons and within their own selves, until it will be manifest unto them that it is Haqq (41: 53).
Our Iman grows pari passu with our knowledge. As the hidden order and harmony of nature are revealed to us, we believe that the Quran enshrines truth. We believe that "He has sent it (the Quran) Who knows the secrets in the heavens and the earth" (25: 6). We should therefore, reflect on "His signs as manifested in the Anfus (human selves) and Afaq (the physical world)" (41: 53), in order to have a clear vision of the manifestation of His law of creation. The more intimate our contact with nature, the deeper is our insight into the working of the Divine Law that guides the universe in its progress towards its goal.
The objection may be raised at this point that the view we have been expounding is nothing but a brand of naturalism with theism grafted into it. By calling on the’ Ulama, who are "divines," to engage in scientific research, we are making them mere men of science and asking them to relinquish their proper field which is a "religion" We agree that in the context of what goes as "religion" it would be sacrilegious to ask the "divines" to turn to scientific research. But Islam is not a "religion," it is din, and din is a balanced worldly and godly affairs. To conquer the forces of nature and utilise them for the benefit of mankind in accordance with permanent values as laid down by Revelation, is din. You have to master the forces of nature first before you can make any good use of them. Science is not only an ally but a prerequisite of din. If persons who claim to be scholars of din are strangers to its spirit and are content in their ignorance of scientific knowledge, they can serve no, interest of din. They should allow the winds of science. to blow freely over their minds. Scientific knowledge will deepen their" insight into din as it is the knowledge of "the signs and portents of God." This pregnant Quranic phrase means that the knowledge of the sign-nature-is prelude to the knowledge of God to whom it points.
This will be possible only if the basic (prevalent) concept of Islam is changed and it is taken out of the realm of "religion." This, unfortunately, our’Ulama consider Irtidad (Apostasy.) So let us proceed further. As regards nations who have gained mastery over the forces of nature but who do not utilise them in the light of the Divine Law—permanent values—they too cannot evade the doom that awaits them. Says the Quran:
And verily We had empowered them (nations of the past) with that wherewith We have not empowered you, and had assigned them ears and eyes and hearts, but their cars and eyes and hearts availed them not since they rejected the revelations of Allah, and what they used to mock befell them (46: 26).
The main points to note are:
(1) People engaged in understanding and controlling the forces of nature and shaping their lives according to the Divine Law are Mu’mins and Muttaqis. They enjoy happiness in this world and will enjoy it in the next stage of life.
(2) Those who achieve the conquest of nature but use their power for purposes opposed to the Divine Order are rewarded with success in this world for the time being, but have nothing to hope for in the future.
(3) Those who turn away from nature and make no attempt to understand and conquer it, cannot, attain human stature. They live a life of hardship and misery in this world and will find the way to, progress blocked in the next world, for:
Who is blind here, will be blind in the Hereafter, and yet farther away from the true path (17: 72).
Conquering the forces of nature and utilising them for the benefit of mankind in accordance with the Laws of God as revealed by Him and thereby developing one's own self, is the essence of Islam. This, and this alone, can ensure a beautiful heavenly life in this as well as in the Hereafter. This way of life is called din.