Man’s unique characteristics

On a side note to the current study of ‘Humanity’s need for Religion’, we need to investigate some of Man’s unique characteristics in order to understand his creation more deeply.

The Human being has several unique characteristics that distinguish him from all other animals and creatures in this world, the most important of which are:

a) Man has Free Will – Again this concept has been mentioned in many books and is a common accepted fact amongst many religious and non-religious schools of thought.[1] In summary we can say that Man is given choices and he can use his free will to make decisions based on his knowledge, but within certain predestined limits.

Other schools suggest Man’s life has been completely predestined (Ash’arites), and yet others suggest Man has complete control and absolute free will (Mu’tazilites). Both are easily refuted in the references mentioned below.

And the Qur’anic verses in this regard are numerous in showing that we are between two paths and free to chose between them. Some of these are:

وَلَوْ شَاءَ رَبُّكَ لَآمَنَ مَن فِي الْأَرْضِ كُلُّهُمْ جَمِيعًا ۚ أَفَأَنتَ تُكْرِهُ النَّاسَ حَتَّىٰ يَكُونُوا مُؤْمِنِينَ وَمَا كَانَ لِنَفْسٍ أَن تُؤْمِنَ إِلَّا بِإِذْنِ اللَّـهِ ۚ وَيَجْعَلُ الرِّجْسَ عَلَى الَّذِينَ لَا يَعْقِلُونَ 

And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed – all of them entirely. Then, [O Muhammad], would you compel the people in order that they become believers? And it is not for a soul to believe except by permission of Allah, and He will place defilement upon those who will not use reason.[2]

لَا إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ ۖ قَد تَّبَيَّنَ الرُّشْدُ مِنَ الْغَيِّ ۚ فَمَن يَكْفُرْ بِالطَّاغُوتِ وَيُؤْمِن بِاللَّـهِ فَقَدِ اسْتَمْسَكَ بِالْعُرْوَةِ الْوُثْقَىٰ لَا انفِصَامَ لَهَا ۗ وَاللَّـهُ سَمِيعٌ عَلِيمٌ 

There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error. And he who rejecteth false deities and believeth in Allah hath grasped a firm handhold which will never break. Allah is Hearer, Knower.[3] 

فَإِنْ حَاجُّوكَ فَقُلْ أَسْلَمْتُ وَجْهِيَ لِلَّـهِ وَمَنِ اتَّبَعَنِ ۗ وَقُل لِّلَّذِينَ أُوتُوا الْكِتَابَ وَالْأُمِّيِّينَ أَأَسْلَمْتُمْ ۚ فَإِنْ أَسْلَمُوا فَقَدِ اهْتَدَوا ۖ وَّإِن تَوَلَّوْا فَإِنَّمَا عَلَيْكَ الْبَلَاغُ ۗ وَاللَّـهُ بَصِيرٌ بِالْعِبَادِ

So if they argue with you, say, "I have submitted myself to Allah, and [so have] those who follow me." And say to those who were given the Scripture and [to] the unlearned, "Have you submitted yourselves?" And if they submit, they are rightly guided; but if they turn away – then upon you is only the [duty of] notification. And Allah is Seeing of [His] servants.[4]

وَقُلِ الْحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّكُمْ ۖ فَمَن شَاءَ فَلْيُؤْمِن وَمَن شَاءَ فَلْيَكْفُرْۚ

And say, "The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve."[5]

 فَإِنْ أَعْرَضُوا فَمَا أَرْسَلْنَاكَ عَلَيْهِمْ حَفِيظًا ۖ إِنْ عَلَيْكَ إِلَّا الْبَلَاغُ ۗ وَإِنَّا إِذَا أَذَقْنَا الْإِنسَانَ مِنَّا رَحْمَةً فَرِحَ بِهَا ۖ وَإِن تُصِبْهُمْ سَيِّئَةٌ بِمَا قَدَّمَتْ أَيْدِيهِمْ فَإِنَّ الْإِنسَانَ كَفُورٌ

But if they turn away – then We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], over them as a guardian; upon you is only [the duty of] notification. And indeed, when We let man taste mercy from us, he rejoices in it; but if evil afflicts him for what his hands have put forth, then indeed, man is ungrateful.[6]

فَذَكِّرْ إِنَّمَا أَنتَ مُذَكِّرٌ ﴿٢١﴾ لَّسْتَ عَلَيْهِم بِمُصَيْطِرٍ

So remind, [O Muhammad]; you are only a reminder. (21) You are not over them a controller.[7]

إِنَّا أَنزَلْنَا عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ لِلنَّاسِ بِالْحَقِّ ۖ فَمَنِ اهْتَدَىٰ فَلِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَن ضَلَّ فَإِنَّمَا يَضِلُّ عَلَيْهَا ۖ وَمَا أَنتَ عَلَيْهِم بِوَكِيلٍ

Indeed, We sent down to you the Book for the people in truth. So whoever is guided – it is for [the benefit of] his soul; and whoever goes astray only goes astray to its detriment. And you are not a manager over them.[8]

And all the talk of Prophets and sending down of divine laws would be pointless if we didn’t have free will in what we chose to believe in and adopt as a doctrine for our way of life.

The Qur’an is filled with historic events of how the Prophets and Messengers were all prosecuted, marginalized and demonized, not just for their teachings in divine unity, but for wanting to establish justice and truth within their communities. If Allah (swt) willed to make everyone believe, He could have done so, but He left it up to the Human Being to be responsible for his actions after all the options and tools have been made available to him, and he’s left with no excuse on the day of judgement to claim the contrary.  

إِنَّا هَدَيْنَاهُ السَّبِيلَ إِمَّا شَاكِرًا وَإِمَّا كَفُورًا

Indeed, We guided him to the way, be he grateful or be he ungrateful.[9]

وَنَفْسٍ وَمَا سَوَّاهَا ﴿٧﴾ فَأَلْهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقْوَاهَا ﴿٨﴾ قَدْ أَفْلَحَ مَن زَكَّاهَا ﴿٩﴾ وَقَدْ خَابَ مَن دَسَّاهَا

And [by] the soul and He who proportioned it (7) And inspired it [with discernment of] its wickedness and its righteousness, (8) He has succeeded who purifies it, (9) And he has failed who instills it [with corruption].[10]

So the characteristic of Man’s free will is a fundamental part of his being, but some groups insisted that there are Qur’anic verses to prove the contrary, to propagate their own agendas, like:

أَفَمَن زُيِّنَ لَهُ سُوءُ عَمَلِهِ فَرَآهُ حَسَنًا ۖ فَإِنَّ اللَّـهَ يُضِلُّ مَن يَشَاءُ وَيَهْدِي مَن يَشَاءُ ۖ فَلَا تَذْهَبْ نَفْسُكَ عَلَيْهِمْ حَسَرَاتٍ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّـهَ عَلِيمٌ بِمَا يَصْنَعُونَ

Then is one to whom the evil of his deed has been made attractive so he considers it good [like one rightly guided]? For indeed, Allah sends astray whom He wills and guides whom He wills. So do not let yourself perish over them in regret. Indeed, Allah is Knowing of what they do.[11]

The answer to this ‘proof’ of predestination of our actions has been made clear in the preceding explanation and the associated verses. We have been given the free will within a limited boundary. This boundary is made up of two parts, one of which is, that nothing in this universe occurs without the will of Allah (swt), and secondly we are predestined to things which are out of our control, like our birth and death, who our parents are, our physical composition, etc. Except our actions, these are in our hands. Even if Allah is the All Knower of past present and future, it doesn’t mean He has control over our actions. Just like a teacher knows how well his students will perform in their exams before they attend the exam, since he has seen their performance throughout the year and knows their capabilities and motivations (this example is just to clarify the point and not meant to make a like for like comparison).

وَمَا ظَلَمْنَاهُمْ وَلَـٰكِن ظَلَمُوا أَنفُسَهُمْ ۖ فَمَا أَغْنَتْ عَنْهُمْ آلِهَتُهُمُ الَّتِي يَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِ اللَّـهِ مِن شَيْءٍ لَّمَّا جَاءَ أَمْرُ رَبِّكَ ۖ وَمَا زَادُوهُمْ غَيْرَ تَتْبِيبٍ ﴿١٠١﴾ وَكَذَٰلِكَ أَخْذُ رَبِّكَ إِذَا أَخَذَ الْقُرَىٰ وَهِيَ ظَالِمَةٌ ۚ إِنَّ أَخْذَهُ أَلِيمٌ شَدِيدٌ

And We did not wrong them, but they wronged themselves. And they were not availed at all by their gods which they invoked other than Allah when there came the command of your Lord. And they did not increase them in other than ruin. (101) And thus is the seizure of your Lord when He seizes the cities while they are committing wrong. Indeed, His seizure is painful and severe.[12]

فَإِمَّا يَأْتِيَنَّكُم مِّنِّي هُدًى فَمَن تَبِعَ هُدَايَ فَلَا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ ﴿٣٨﴾ وَالَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا وَكَذَّبُوا بِآيَاتِنَا أُولَـٰئِكَ أَصْحَابُ النَّارِ ۖ هُمْ فِيهَا خَالِدُونَ

But verily there cometh unto you from Me a guidance; and whoso followeth My guidance, there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve. (38) But they who disbelieve, and deny Our revelations, such are rightful Peoples of the Fire. They will abide therein.[13]

Without this free will in choosing right from wrong, nobody can be blamed or held accountable for their actions. This proves that there exists within us the readiness to either believe or to not, and this is down to the two dimensions of our essence, soul and body, or intellect and desires. So the dimension of the body is related to the desires and material lusts of this world, pushing him towards animalistic and base actions, even though the desire itself is not considered bad.

Whereas the spiritual dimension is a power that pushes Man towards avoiding these base desires and living by moderation, as well as wise and honourable actions, whereby he is elevated to the highest levels of perfection, which is true humanity. So by using his intellect he can put those desires and lusts under his control and use them as needed in an appropriate manner, and the more knowledgeable he is in his actions and relations with the external world, the closer he will be to that perfection. 

This is where the science of ethics talks about the fight between the soul and the intellect, where one overcomes the other in a never ending duel of the two powers to take Man to the perfections of justice and truth and honour, or to the depths of love of this world and greed and injustice.

b) Man’s humanity is defined by his soul –

If we did not consider the humanity and the reality of Man’s existence to be defined by his soul, then his humanity ends by the death of his body, since a thing that is composed of two parts seizes to be once one of the parts is removed, as water is no longer water if you removed the oxygen molecule for example.

Whereas in reality, we see our body cells dying and reforming continuously throughout our life, yet our humanity remains intact. Likewise, when a body decomposes after death, the humanity remains and doesn’t end or change. That is why we say that there exists two dimensions to our existence, one that is material and temporary, and one that is immaterial and eternal, which is the soul.

1. One of the characteristics of bodies is that whenever new forms and shapes are imposed upon them, they renounce and abandon their previous forms or shapes. In the human soul, however, new forms, whether of the sensible or of the intellectual nature, enter continuously without wiping out the previously existing forms. In fact, the more impressions and intellectual forms enter the mind, the stronger does the soul become.

2. When three elements of colour, smell, and taste, appear in an object, it is transformed. The human soul however, perceives all of these conditions without being materially affected by them.

3. The pleasures that man experiences from intellectual cognition can belong only to the soul, since man’s body plays no role in it.

4. Abstract forms and concepts which are perceived by the mind, are undoubtedly non-material and indivisible. Accordingly, their vehicle, which is the soul, must also be indivisible, and therefore immaterial.

5. The physical faculties of man receive their input through the senses, while the human soul perceives certain things without the help of the senses. Among the things that the human soul comprehends without relying on the senses, are the law of contradiction, the idea that the whole is always greater than one of its parts, and other such universal principles. The negation of the errors made by the senses on the part of the soul, such as optical illusions, is done with the aid of these abstract concepts, even though the raw material required for making corrections is provided by the senses.

Now that the independent existence of the soul has been proved, let us see what are the things responsible for its well-being and delight, and what are the things that make it sick and unhappy. The health and perfection of the soul lies in its grasp of the real nature of things , and this understanding can liberate it from the narrow prison of lust and greed and all other fetters which inhibit its evolution and edification towards that ultimate stage of human perfection which lies in man’s nearness to God. This is the goal of `speculative wisdom’ (al-hikmat al-nadariyyah). At the same time, the human soul must purge itself of any evil habits and traits it may have, and replace them with ethical and virtuous modes of thought and conduct. This is the goal of `practical wisdom’ (al-hikmat al-`amaliyyah). Speculative and practical wisdom are related like matter and form; they cannot exist without each other.

As a matter of principle, the term "philosophy" refers to `speculative wisdom’ and "ethics" refers to `.practical wisdom’. A man who has mastered both speculative wisdom and practical wisdom is a microcosmic mirror of the larger universe: the macrocosm.[14]




[1] A detailed discussion of this subject can be found in Seyyed Kamal Al Haydari’s books ‘Divine Unity’ and ‘Divine Justice’ in arabic, and in many of Martyr Mutahhari’s writings available in English.

[2] 10:99

[3] 2:256

[4] 3:20

[5] 18:29

[6] 42:48

[7] 88:21

[8] 39:41

[9] 76:3

[10] 91:7-9

[11] 35:8

[12] 11:101-102

[13] 2:38-39

[14] This introduction is taken from the book ‘Collection of Felicities’ (Jami’ Al-Sa’adat) , by Al Naraqi


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