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 Maulana Rum on Human Nature    by Professor A.R. Momin

Maulana Jalaluddin RumiMaulana Jalaluddin Rumi (d. 1230) has been one of the most influential and popular Sufi poets and sages in the Islamic world for nearly eight centuries. He was a disciple of Shams Tabriz, under whose guidance he learnt the mysteries and nuances of the Sufi path. His magnum opus is the Mathnawi, a voluminous collection of 2666 couplets in Persian. The Mathnawi, which is a masterpiece of literature as well as Islamic mysticism, acquired unprecedented fame across the Islamic world from Central Asia to India. A number of commentaries on the Mathnawi were written in Iran, India, Turkey and other countries.

One may discern, in the history of human thought, three distinct and contrasting views on human nature: (i) a benign or romantic view, according to which human nature is seen as inherently good, (ii) a cynical or negative view, which equates human nature with evil and viciousness, (iii) a neutral view, which holds that there is no such thing as original human nature and that it is wholly or largely a product of historical and social conditions. In the fifth century B.C. Socrates held that no man voluntarily pursues evil, because it is not embedded in human nature. Chinese philosophy espouses a benign view of human nature. The eminent historian of ideas Arthur Lovejoy has observed that a pessimistic and cynical attitude towards man and his destiny has been the dominant strain throughout the greater part of history. In Western Christianity, St. Augustine developed the doctrine of original sin and held that all men are by birth tainted by sin. The celebrated philosopher Schopenhauer (d.1860) developed a highly pessimistic and cynical view of man. He regarded man as an evil animal who differs from other animals only in his greater viciousness. The philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (d.1900) contains extreme contempt and hatred for man. Reinhold Niebuhr (d.1971) spoke of evil as being in the centre of human personality. The predominant conception of man in the natural as well as social and behavioural sciences is reductionistic and deterministic. The celebrated biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy has aptly described the scientific view as the robot model of man. This model is still endorsed by a good many scientists. Thus, Francis Crick, who along with two other scientists, won the 1962 Nobel Prize for deciphering the genetic code, said a few years ago: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells.”

The romantic as well as the cynical views of human nature present at best a partial and therefore one-sided and distorted picture of the human condition. A major limitation of the romantic view of human nature is that it offers no satisfactory or realistic explanation for the universal existence of evil and viciousness in human society. The cynical and deterministic view of man, on the other hand, fails to take cognisance of the salience of human agency.

The Islamic view of man offers a balanced and realistic picture of human nature and eschews the reductionism and distortion inherent in the romantic and cynical views. The Islamic perspective on human nature is marked by four distinct characteristics. In the first place,

Islam offers an ennobling view of human nature. Man, according to the Islamic view, has been created in the best of moulds and given dominion over all that is in the universe. Man is not the product of a blind process of evolution, but a being created by God with a purpose. All humans are born innocent, untainted by original sin or guilt. All men have descended from Adam, the primordial man, and are therefore equal in God’s sight. The equality and brotherhood of humankind is one of the cardinal principles of the Islamic faith. Man has been designated as God’s vicegerent on earth.

Thus Islam portrays man as possessing infinite possibilities of being and becoming.

Secondly, human nature is characterised by a certain duality or polarity. On the one hand, man is said to have been created from clay, a lowly substance (Quran 23:12; 32:7). On the other hand, God has breathed His soul into him (Quran 15:29). Thus, man possesses two rather contradictory potentialities: sublime and divine-like, on the one hand, and base and demonic, on the other (Quran 95:4-5). Man tends to be impatient and greedy (Quran 70:19). Furthermore, he has a tendency to be ungrateful, niggardly and contentious. He is prone to acting in an unjust manner and often surrenders to his desires (Quran 45:23). The dual nature of man is illustrated in the story of Abel and Cain mentioned in the Quran as well as the Bible (Quran 5:23-31).

Thirdly, Islam eschews a deterministic view of the human condition. It takes due cognisance of human agency and emphasizes that man has been endowed with self-consciousness, the capacity for reasoning and discernment, and moral choice. Man has the freedom to choose between good and evil (Quran 8:53; 13:11; 15:29). The Quran says: “We did indeed offer the trust (amanah) to the heavens and the earth and the mountains but, being afraid, they refused to take it up; but man took it up….(Quran 33:72). The commentators of the Quran point out that the word “trust” (amanah) refers to man’s capacity for reasoning, self-reflection and moral choice.

Fourthly, Islam recognises the role of the social environment and education in unfolding, as well as in stifling, human potentialities. The Prophet is reported to have said: “There is not a new born who is not born in a state of nature. His parents make him a Jew, a Christian or a Magian.” He also said: “A man follows the ways of his friend. Therefore you should be watchful about the person you befriend.” The Islamic view of human nature is not confined to an explication of its nature and dynamics; Islam also suggests a normative framework and an ethical code to facilitate the flowering of man’s benign potentialities and to check and control the destructive, harmful tendencies in his nature.

It can readily be appreciated that the Islamic perspective on human nature is eminently reasonable, realistic and balanced, and avoids the pitfalls of the romantic as well as cynical views. Interestingly, one can find an echo of the Islamic view of human nature in the observation of an eminent French philosopher Blaise Pascal (d.1662): “It is dangerous to show man too clearly how much he resembles the beast without at the same time showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to allow him too clear a vision of his greatness without his baseness. It is even more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both. But it is very profitable to show him both.”

The Sufis were greatly interested in understanding the complexities and intricacies of human nature and in unravelling its secrets. Imam al-Ghazali (d.1111) pointed out that man possesses within himself qualities which are partly angelic, partly animal-like, and partly Satanic. He says that man has been described as a noble being because he has been endowed with reason, through which he can recognise God and transcend his organismic limitations and frailties.

Drawing on the Quranic view that good and evil are embedded in the structure of the human psyche, the Sufis make a distinction between the heart (qalb) and the lower, base self (nafs). The heart, according to them, is the mainspring of benign and angelic qualities, including compassion, sincerity, altruism, humility and selflessness. The self, on the other hand, is the locus and breeding ground of base qualities and traits, such as pride, jealousy, selfishness, deceit and hypocrisy.

This distinction is basically derived from the Quran, which describes the self as inciting man to evil (Quran 12:53). On the other hand, the Quran speaks of a ‘sound heart’ (Quran 26:89), and of a heart ‘turned in devotion to God’ (Quran 50:33). In Sufi literature, the base self has been compared to a defiant and wayward woman, who tries to seduce and cheat the poor wayfarer. Sometimes it is likened to a black dog, a disobedient camel, a restive horse or mule, a pig, a snake, and the Pharaoh.

Since the lower self is considered the locus of evil and wickedness, the Sufis underscore the need for rigorous and sustained efforts to resist its temptations and enticements. Overcoming one’s organismic frailties and limitations--‘natural qualities’ as the Sufis describe them—is regarded as the greater jihad or holy war. Imam Qushayri (d. 1072) points out in his celebrated Risalah that defying the desires and temptations of the lower self (nafs) is the heart and soul of worship. Sahl al-Tustari (d. 896) says that one who has overpowered his lower self has gained mastery over the whole world. Abul Qasim Nasrabadi (d. 977) described the lower self as a prison and deliverance from it as eternal bliss and tranquillity.

The Sufis emphasise that though evil is programmed into the structure of the human psyche, it is possible and desirable to domesticate and contain it. They prescribe two complementary methods for this purpose: purging one’s self of base and unworthy qualities—which they describe as takhliya or emptying—and substituting them with by sublime and virtuous qualities, thereby adorning the psyche—described as tahliya or embellishment. This methodology is inspired by a Tradition of the Prophet: ‘Qualify yourselves with the qualities of God.’ Shaykh Shihabuddin Suharwardi (d. 1234) said that if someone gets into conflict with another, the latter should confront his adversary’s lower self with his heart. Confronting someone’s lower self (which is the breeding ground of base qualities) with one’s heart (which is the mainspring of goodness and virtue) will bring an end to viciousness and aggression on the part of the enemy. On the other hand, if one were to confront someone’s lower self with one’s own lower self, there will be no end to viciousness and animosity.

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