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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 4    Issue 13   16-30 November 2009

Human Nature in Islamic Perspective

Professor A R Momin

Ever since the dawn of history, man has speculated on his origins, his destiny and his place in the universe. These speculations are reflected in literature, folklore and mythology, religious traditions and philosophy. Some of the most insightful reflections on human nature are to be found in ancient Greek philosophy. On the temple of Apollo at Delphi is inscribed the maxim that the knowledge one needs the most is the knowledge of himself. Greek philosophy described man as animal rationale or rational animal.

In the history of human thought, one can discern three distinctive views on human nature: (i) a benign or romantic view, according to which man is seen as inherently good (ii) a cynical, pessimistic view, which equates human nature with evil and viciousness (iii) a neutral view, which holds that human nature is inherently neither good nor evil. Socrates (469-399 BCE) stated that man is not the product of a cosmic accident, but has a destiny on this planet. He emphasized the role of reason and freedom in the unfolding of the human mind. Chinese philosophy also espouses a benign view of human nature. According to Confucius (551-479 BCE), the crucial difference between man and animals is that man is a moral being who is capable of exercising a moral choice between alternatives, whereas animals do not possess this ability. Zoroastrianism posits an ethical dualism between benign spirits and evil spirits. However, the two spirits have no autonomous existence; they are the twin children of Ahura Mazda, the creator of heaven and earth. According to Zarathustra (d. circa 551 BCE), every man is faced with an ethical choice and it is left to him to either follow the path of truth or of evil. In the final outcome, he said, the forces of goodness will triumph over the forces of evil.

Buddhism is founded on four cardinal principles or ‘noble truths’: (i) suffering is the fundamental fact of human existence (ii) desires are the wellspring of suffering (iii) the path to salvation lies in the renunciation of desires (iv) freedom from the wheel of rebirth can be attained by following the eight-fold path. Buddhism sees the world as full of suffering and evil and emphasizes that one who gains control over his desires frees himself from the shackles of delusions and suffering.

The sages and philosophers of ancient India speculated on the paradoxical nature of man. They observed that, on the one hand, man’s rational and spiritual capacities enable him to merge with the divine. On the other, his material and physical existence can lead to his resolution into matter. The Upanishads—Hinduism’s sacred texts—emphasise man’s integral nature, composed of his spirit, soul, mind and his physical organism. They point out that a deep spiritual consciousness is inherent in man’s nature and that man can become fully human only when his spiritual potentialities are actualized. The knowledge and recognition of ultimate reality, according to the Upanishads, can be gained only through a unity of the absolute cosmic power and the individual self.

In Judaeo-Christian thought, human nature is seen as a combination of good and evil forces. The Old Testament describes man as “a little lower than the angels and a little higher than the beasts” (Psalm 8: 4-5). The Bible describes the creation of man in two ways. In the Book of Genesis, man is said to have been created in the image and likeness of God. Later, when he is commanded by God not to eat the forbidden fruit, he is described as having been formed from the dust of the earth. “Dust thou art and unto dust thou shall return,” says the Book of Genesis. In other words, man is formed of an inferior substance in the most sublime image. The Bible views history as an arena in which good is invariably intertwined with evil. Man’s moral responsibility, according to the Bible, is to differentiate the good from the evil and to strive for the fulfillment of his benign potentialities. In Christianity, Christ epitomizes man’s guilt and suffering and final atonement through crucifixion. St Augustine (d. 430) developed the doctrine of original sin or man’s fall from grace and held that all humans are born sinful.

The celebrated 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. The English philosopher and political theorist Thomas Hobbes wrote in 1651 that in the beginning man had been like Cain, a wanderer in the wilderness, whose life was one of ‘continual fear and danger of violent death…..solitary, nasty, brutish and short’. Voltaire (d. 1778) wrote that “men in general are foolish, ungrateful, jealous, covetous of their neighbours’ goods, abusing their superiority when they are strong, and tricksters when they are weak”. Arthur Schopenhauer (d. 1860) regarded man as an evil animal who differs from other animals only in his greater viciousness. The German philosopher Heinrich Nietzsche (d. 1900) held man in utter contempt. Sigmund Freud (d. 1939) held that the most powerful innate drives in man include destructiveness and incest. He argued that “the primitive, savage and evil impulses of mankind have not vanished in any individual, but continue their existence…..in the unconscious”. In an exchange of letters with Einstein on the prevention of war, Freud asserted the existence of a destructive or aggressive instinct in human beings which could not be suppressed.

On the other hand, the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers were imbued with a deep sense of humanism. Jean Jacques Rousseau (d. 1778) held that human nature is basically good and that it is debased and corrupted by society. Karl Marx (d. 1883) held that there is no such thing as an immutable and abstract human nature. He described human nature as the totality of historically determined social relations.

The romantic as well as the cynical view of man’s nature present only a partial and therefore inadequate picture of the human condition. A major limitation of the romantic view is that it offers no satisfactory explanation for the universal existence of evil and viciousness in human society. The cynical view of human nature, on the other hand, fails to take cognizance of human agency and of the universality of kindness, compassion, altruism and self-sacrifice.

Homo Natura—Natural or Biological Man

The Cartesian-Newtonian cosmology saw the universe as a huge clockwork, governed by determinate and inexorable laws. The scientific worldview reduced man to an insignificant spectator of the drama of existence. As Kenneth Boulding has observed, “In the scientific image man is an occupant of a minute planet revolving around a minor sun in an insignificant and remote arm of a commonplace galaxy in a billion-galaxied universe”. In the 18th century the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (d.1778) formulated a scheme of classification or taxonomy, in which he placed man in the animal kingdom. The Darwinian theory of evolution posited a structural continuity between animals and man and thereby denied him a position of uniqueness in the cosmic scheme of things.

The debate over how far man is a product of his genetic make-up and how far of his environment has engaged the minds of philosophers and scientists for centuries. Philosophers like Hippocrates, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau regarded the new-born child as a blank slate--tabula rasa—on which are inscribed experiences in later life, as a result of learning and interaction with the environment. On the other hand, Thomas Hobbes, Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin argued that the biological make up largely determines a person’s nature.

Under the influence of the scientific worldview, the social and human sciences sought to reduce man’s nature and his behaviour to biological and mechanical laws. In psychology, for example, the behaviour of animals such as rats and monkeys came to be seen as the model for the explanation of human behaviour. Psychology constructed what the eminent biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy has aptly characterized as the robot model of man. Behaviourism, in both its classical and contemporary forms, considers man as an automaton whose movements are conditioned by environmental stimuli. Psychoanalysis looks upon man as a plaything of unconscious drives and instincts. Jacques Barzun speaks of “three great hurts” inflicted by science on the dignity of man: “Copernicus dislodged him from the centre of the universe; Darwin thrust him back into the animal kingdom, and Freud put him at the mercy of his unconscious”.

Ethology and Sociobiology

In recent years Darwinian naturalism has found a forceful expression in ethology and sociobiology. Konrad Lorenz, a co-winner of the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine in 1973 and the most influential figure in ethology, defined ethology as a discipline based on the application of the principles of natural selection to the social behaviour of animals and humans. Specifically, it is concerned with the influence of genetic, physiological and ecological variables on social behaviour. The basic assumption of ethology is that the largest part of animal behaviour is instinctive and is determined by genetic factors. A key area in ethological researches is the existence of a universal aggressive drive in animals and humans. In his influential and controversial book On Aggression (1966), Lorenz argued that aggressiveness is a basic and innate drive in all animal species, including humans.

Lorenz’s view of aggressiveness as a genetically-programmed universal drive in animals and humans has evoked a sharp controversy among biologists, anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists. The critics point out that, in most cases, aggressive behaviour is situational in that it is provoked by circumstantial factors. Lorenz, according to them, ignores the role of learning and individual experience in the shaping of human behaviour. A comparative study of aggressive behaviour in chimpanzees and humans brings to light certain interesting facts. Biochemically, the chimpanzees are the closest to humans in respect of amino-acid sequences in the haemoglobin molecule, the anatomy of the brain, the number and forms of chromosomes, the proteins of the blood and the structure of the DNA. Jane Goodall has reported that the chimpanzees in the wild rarely display aggressive behaviour. They do engage in threatening behaviour at times, but she never saw them fight to death. Gorillas in the wild are even more pacific than the chimpanzees.

Lorenz and his associates commit the basic mistake of generalizing and extrapolating from the behaviour of lower animals, such as fish, ducks and birds, to that of humans. The basic question is whether we should take the behaviour of fish, rats and birds as a model for human behaviour. Furthermore, the view that the aggressive drive is embedded in human nature raises serious moral questions. If man’s behaviour is determined by an innate, inevitable aggressive instinct, why blame him for his inhuman and brutal actions? If we accept the doctrine of man’s innate aggressive drive, we will have to justify war, genocide and all other acts of man’s inhumanity to man. The propensity for aggressive behaviour may be inherent in human nature, but the important point is that man has the unique capacity to keep his aggressive impulses under check and to sublimate it. The sensible view of human aggression is that it has no phylogenetic basis and that it is conditioned and provoked by socio-cultural, circumstantial and psychological factors.

Sociobiology is defined as the systematic study of the biological basis of the social behaviour of organisms, including humans. It deals with the application of the principles of natural selection to the whole range of social behaviour in all species of animals. The Harvard zoologist E. O. Wilson, who laid the foundations of sociobiology, argues in his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, that social behaviour is similar across the animal kingdom from termites to humans and that it is genetically determined. The basic assumption in sociobiology is the Darwinian proposition that the difference between humans and other species of animals is simply one of degree. Sociobiologists argue that all custom is the outcome of a process of Darwinian adaptation to the environment which serves to ensure that an individual’s genetic endowment will be perpetuated in the gene pool of the collective society. They have argued that such phenomena as aggression, incest taboos, altruism, cooperation, sexual preferences, adoption, female infanticide, matrilineal descent and conformity are genetically determined.

Human sociobiologists regard genetic evolution and cultural evolution as two independent, autonomous processes, each responding to different mechanisms of selection and transmission. This is contested not only by sociologists and anthropologists but also by many biologists. Several critics of sociobiology point out that it is inherently deterministic and reductionistic. This deterministic and reductionistic strain is reflected in a statement of Lumsden and Wilson: “Moral judgement is a physiological product of the brain”. Lunsden and Wilson maintain that mind and matter are reducible, in equal measure, to the genetic structure, that all domains of life, including ethics, are a part of human biology. Sociobiology has also been criticized for its implicit anthropomorphism. Sociobiologists employ a language which derives from the context of contemporary Western societies. They speak, for example, of gang rape in mallards, adultery in bluebirds, divorce and lesbian pairing in gulls, prostitution in hummingbirds and homosexual rape in parasitic worms. Wilson speaks of infanticide and cannibalism in bees and wasps, harem formation in mammalian societies, “soldier” termites, and castes and slavery in ant colonies. The critics of sociobiology point out that all these terms have distinctively human and cultural connotations and hence their application to the behaviour of non-humans is questionable. Sociobiologists regularly employ a vocabulary which derives directly from the ideology of twentieth-century capitalism: investment, costs, benefits. Sociobiology leaves out the most important dimension of human existence: the unique, richly textured dynamics of human personality and behaviour, which is a product of his self-reflective mind. Sociobiology not only disregards man’s distinctive capacity for freedom and moral choice but also fails to explain the enormous variations in cultural patterns in different human groups.

Homo Economicus

Since the time the Scottish social philosopher and political economist Adam Smith laid the foundations of modern economics with his monumental work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), the Western world has single-mindedly pursued the goal of economic growth and considered it the only key to human progress and prosperity. Smith’s ideas paved the way for the emergence of a distinctive perspective on man’s nature and behaviour, known as Homo economicus or Economic Man. The term Homo economicus was first used in the late 19th century in critical responses to John Stuart Mill’s treatise Principles of Political Economy (1848), and later elaborated by the Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto in the early part of the 20th century. The term Economic Man enshrines a model of man who acts rationally out of self-interest and a desire to maximise his happiness and well-being through material possessions. His actions, according to this model, are motivated purely by self-interest. Economic Man is essentially an amoral being, devoid of all social values and ethical norms, except when they serve his material interests.

Homo Sociologicus

The concept of man in mainstream sociology is that of a being who is almost entirely a product of society, whose behaviour and actions are determined by social institutions and processes, including the family, community and socialization. In sociological thought, people are seen as “things,” which may be treated and controlled in much the same manner as non-human materials are controlled in the natural sciences. The concepts of structure, cultural norms, role, status, social self and conformity highlight the myriad ways in which human personality and character are said to be conditioned by social processes. The American sociologist Dennis Wrong has aptly characterized the portrayal of human nature in mainstream sociological literature as the “over-socialized conception of man”.

However, this presents only a partial picture of human nature. It is unrealistic to conceptualise human beings as mere puppets in the hands of social forces. A balanced view is that human behaviour is a product of a complex interaction between the social and cultural environment in which the individual is born and raised and his/her moral choices and self-conscious decisions, what a growing number of sociologists describe as agency.

Homo Hierarchicus

The renowned French sociologist Louis Dumont has written a thought-provoking book called Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. Dumont argues that the model of human nature underlying India’s caste system is Homo hierarchicus or Hierarchical Man. The caste system is an integral, inseparable part of Hindu ethos, ideology and social structure. It is a closed, hierarchical ascription-based system of social stratification. It is characterised by five distinctive features.

(1) Hierarchy: Broadly, the caste system is based on a four-fold hierarchical division of society. At the top of the ladder are the Brahmans (who are traditionally concerned with religious scholarship and priestcraft), followed by the Kshatriya (who comprise kings and soldiers who are supposed to protect society and sponsor religious rituals), followed by the Vaishyas (who are agriculturists, cattle herders and traders), followed by the Shudras (who are supposed to serve the three higher castes). The first three varnas or castes are called twice-born because their male members undergo an initiatory rebirth. Only the members of the twice-born castes—and only males--are traditionally entitled to study the Vedas or the sacred scriptures of Hinduism and to the performance of Vedic ritual on certain occasions.

(2) Birth: Caste is an ascriptive status group, whose membership is determined by birth. One is born into a caste.

(3) Endogamy: A caste is basically an endogamous unit. One marries not only within one’s varna but, more importantly, into one’s jati. Within the caste system, there are complex rules which prescribe who one can marry. In the north, for example, there are rules about exogamous patrilineal clans (gotras) whereby one is not permitted to marry someone whose gotra is the same over five or seven generations. In some exceptional cases, a man from a higher caste may marry a woman from a slightly lower caste, but not the other way round.

(4) Hereditary occupation: There is a well-defined connection between castes and occupations, which are ranked in a hierarchy and determined by one’s birth in a given caste. In traditional Indian society nearly all occupations are caste-specific. There are, for example, well-defined occupational or caste-based groups of carpenters, washermen, cobblers, potters, goldsmiths, sweepers, etc. Traditionally, it is rare for a person to take up the occupation of a caste other than his own.

(5) Ideological sanction: The caste system is sanctioned by Hindu scriptures and legitimised in terms of the doctrines of karma and dharma. According to the doctrine of karma or retribution, one is born into a high caste because he is believed to have dome good actions in his previous birth. Similarly, one is born into a low caste because of bad deeds in his previous life. Dharma means that which is right or moral. A man who accepts the caste system and the rules of his caste is living according to his dharma, while a man who questions them is violating his dharma. If he observes the rules of dharma, he will be born in his next life in a higher caste.

The ideological sanction of the caste system, which is ingrained in the individual’s consciousness through socialisation and religion, produces an attitude of resignation and fatalism and is reflected in the passive acceptance of their subordination and humiliation on the part of the lower castes.

(6) Purity and Pollution: The concept of purity and pollution is fundamental to the caste system. It defines and governs every type of inter-caste relation. Contact of any kind—touching or dining, for example—with a member of the lower castes will pollute a high-caste person. Food cooked by a member of the lower castes is not accepted by the higher castes because it is considered impure and polluting. Social and inter-personal interaction between members of higher and lower castes (such as inviting a person to dinner or friendship) is peripheral and rare.

The prohibition on contact with lower castes is traditionally reflected in the pattern of spatial segregation of castes in the village. The houses of people belonging to different castes form clusters that are separated from each other. Public spaces (such as wells and temples) are commonly identified as belonging to different castes. Earlier, the lower castes, especially the Untouchables, were prevented from using common wells and temples in the village and even today such restrictions are not uncommon.

In earlier times, lower castes were prevented from taking over the customs and habits of higher castes, which was often enforced by caste councils. In Kerala, for example, until 1865, only Brahmans could cover their bodies above the waist, and even the women of lower castes were not allowed to cover their breasts.

In the villages, where nearly 70 per cent of India’s population lives, the economy and division of labour, local-level political organisation, the social organisation of space and locality and the kinship and marriage system are closely intertwined with the caste system. Caste councils effectively control the behaviour of the members of castes and punished aberrant practices, often through ostracism. Caste continues to remain a significant part of an individual’s personal and social identity in a real sense, especially in the villages and small towns.

Homo Islamicus

Islam view of man offers a balanced and realistic picture of human nature. 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 (Quran 2: 30; 6: 165; 14: 32-33; 35:39: 45:13). Man is not the product of a blind process of evolution, but a self-conscious being who has been created by God Almighty with a purpose. All humans are born innocent, untainted by original sin or guilt. All human beings have descended from Adam, the primordial man, and are therefore equal in God’s sight. Furthermore, man has been designated as God’s vicegerent on earth.

The equality and brotherhood of mankind, regardless of the distinctions of birth, class or caste, is one of the cardinal tenets of the Islamic faith. According to the Islamic view, all humans have been created from a single primordial pair and are therefore equal (49:13). The Prophet categorically declared in his Farewell Pilgrimage: “O people! Verily your Lord is One and your father is one. All of you have descended from Adam, and Adam was (created) from dust. The most honoured in the sight of God is the one who fears Him the most. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor is a red-skinned person superior to a dark-skinned person, except in respect of piety”.

Secondly, human nature is characterised by a certain duality or polarity. On the one hand, man has 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 14:34; 17: 100; 18: 15; 33:72; 43:15; 70:19; 95:4-5; 100:6). The polarity of human nature is symbolized in the story of Abel and Cain (Quran 5: 27-31). 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 (Quran 5:23-31).

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.” Some eminent psychologists share the view that human nature is a repository of both good and evil potentialities. Carl Jung (d. 1961) held that some of our unconscious motives are indeed dark and frightening, while others can serve as wellsprings of creativity. Gordon Allport (d. 1967) believed that all humans possess deeply rooted selfish and tendencies, together with the inherent potential to outgrow and overcome them.

Thirdly, Islam eschews a deterministic view of human nature. It takes due cognizance of human agency and emphasizes that man has been endowed with self-consciousness and the capacity for reasoning and moral choice (76: 3; 90: 8-10). 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 the capacity for reasoning, self-reflection and moral choice. Islam strikes a balance between submission to God’s will and human agency. A man came riding his camel to the Prophet and asked him, “O Messenger of God, shall I leave my camel untied and trust in God?” The Prophet replied, “Do both: tie your camel and have trust in God”.

Fourthly, Islam recognizes 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 newborn who is not born in a state of nature. (But) his parents make him a Jew, a Christian or a Magian.” He is also reported to have 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 benign potentialities and to check and control the destructive tendencies in his nature.

The Quran refers to three key dimensions of the human self: (i) nafs ammarah, which acts as the instigator of evil and viciousness (ii) nafs lawwamah, which represents the conscience that castigates man for his waywardness (iii) nafs mutmainnah, which enshrines a state of inner peace and tranquility. The notion of divine vicegerency not only bestows an exalted status on man but also entails certain obligations. As God’s vicegerent on earth, man is responsible to Him for all his actions and deeds. The Prophet is reported to have said: “All of you are (like) shepherds; and all of you are accountable for your sheep”. Man has a moral responsibility to safeguard God’s bounties, including the planet’s resources, its biodiversity and its climate.

The Islamic conception of human nature offers a corrective and alternative to the romantic, cynical and reductionistic views and emphasizes that though both good and evil are embedded in the structure of the human psyche, man has the innate capacity and freedom to overcome his frailties and to actualize his benign potentialities. It focuses on the unfolding and development of the moral person.

Muslim Thinkers on Human Nature

Muslim scholars and thinkers had a great interest 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 beastly, and partly Satanic. He says that man has been viewed in the Islamic tradition as a noble creature because he has been endowed with reason, through which he can attain the recognition of God and transcend his oganismic limitations and frailties. Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), has dwelt at considerable length on the dynamics of human nature in his monumental work Muqaddimah. He says that man is social by nature and that both good and evil are inherent in his nature. He points out that man is distinguished from animals in respect of the following characteristics.

(1) Man’s ability to perceive sets him apart from all animal species. His perception is of two kinds. He can perceive sciences and matters of knowledge and, on the other hand, “states” such as joy and grief, anxiety and relaxation, patience, gratefulness, and similar things. Man’s capacity for reasoning is embedded in perceptions, volition and states. The sciences and crafts which result from the ability to think, which distinguishes man from all other animals, exalts him as a thinking being over all creatures.

(2) Human beings have an innate need for restraining influence and strong authority, since man, alone among all the animals, cannot exist without them. Bees and locusts may possess something similar, but it comes to them through inspiration (or instinct), whereas it is a product of thinking and reflection in humans.

(3) Cooperation is a quintessential feature of human beings. Cooperation enables them to satisfy their basic needs in a highly efficient manner and to protect them from external threats.

(4) Man makes tools and other efforts to secure a livelihood in a wide variety of ways.

(5) Civilization is unique to human society. Human beings have to dwell in common and settle together in cities and hamlets for the comforts of companionship and for the satisfaction of human needs, as a result of the natural disposition of human beings towards cooperation.

Shah Waliullah (d. 1762) has dwelt on the differences between man and animals in his monumental work Hujjat Allah al-Balighah. He points out that though man shares with animals certain characteristics such as procreation and the need for sustenance, there are qualitative differences between them. For one thing, human perception is fundamentally different from that of animals. Second, man is not just content with the satisfaction of his biological needs. He possesses aesthetic sensibility which makes him override his physical needs. Third, man has been endowed with self-consciousness and a reasoning capacity, through which he constructs a world of values, ideals and possibilities. These characteristics, according to him, are universal and trans-cultural in that they are commonly shared by all groups of mankind. Shah Waliullah points out man possesses both good and evil qualities and potentialities, and there is always tension between them. He says that whereas the behaviour of animals is determined by their instincts and drives, human behaviour is influenced by such factors as reason, learning, experience, habit and revelation.

The Sufis or mystics have expatiated on the dynamics of human nature in great detail. 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). They point out that the heart is the mainspring of benign and angelic qualities (such as compassion, sincerity, altruism, selflessness and humility) while the self is the locus and breeding ground of base qualities and traits (such as pride, jealousy, selfishness, deceit and hypocrisy). In Sufi literature the 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 self is considered the locus of evil and wickedness, the Sufis emphasize the need for rigorous and sustained efforts to overcome 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 work Al Risalah that defying the desires and temptations of the lower self is the heart and soul of worship. Abul Qasim Nasrabadi (d. 977) describes the self as a prison and deliverance from it as eternal bliss and tranquility. Sahl al-Tustari (d. 896) says that one who has overpowered the lower self has gained mastery over the whole world.

Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi (d. 1273) describes the dynamics and complexity of human nature and the elusive and enigmatic character of the self through folklore, parables and metaphors, which even the common man could follow. Dwelling on the ennobling view of human nature in the Islamic tradition, Mawlana Rumi says that man is “the astrolabe of the qualities of highness.” In Fih ma Fih, he alludes to the duality of human nature and says that man is caught between the angelic world and the human world. To quote him:

    The situation of man is like this: they took the feathers of an angel and tied them to the tail of an ass, that haply the ass in the ray and society of an angel might become an angel.
Some Sufis have described the lower self as the ‘greater idol.’ Drawing on this simile, Mawlana Rumi says:

Your (lower) self is the mother of all idols,
For they are (like) serpent and this one is like a python.

The domestication and purification of the lower self need not lead one to asceticism, world-renunciation or self-mortification. What is important is to be constantly on one’s guard against the temptations and deception of the self while carrying on with one’s worldly engagements. In other words, the essence of spiritual life is to constantly remain in divine presence, as it were, amidst worldly preoccupations and concerns. Echoing this view, Mawlana Rumi says:

What is worldly life? It is (basically) being oblivious of God.
And not worldly provisions, silver, children and wife.

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