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The Islamic Conception Of Man

By S H Nasr

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Islamic man [1] is at once the slave of God - Allah (al-ʿabd) and His vice-gerent on earth (khalīfat Allāh fi'l - ard.) [2] He is not an animal which happens [4] to speak and think but a being who possesses a soul and spirit created by God.

Islamic man contains within himself the plant and animal natures [3], as he is the crown of creation (ashraf al-makhlūqāt); but he has not evolved from the lower forms of life. Man has always been man.

The Islamic Conception Of Man envisages that man is a being who lives on earth and has earthy needs; but he is not earthy and his needs are not limited to the terrestrial. He rules over the earth, but not in his own right; rather he is God's vice-gerent before all creatures. He therefore also bears responsibility for the created order before God and is the channel of grace for God's creatures.

Islamic man posseses the power of reason, of ratio which divides and analyses, but his mental faculties are not limited to reason. He possesses the possibility of inner knowledge : the knowledge of his own inner being, which is in fact the key to the knowledge of God - Allah according to the famous prophetic hadīth, 'He who knows himself knoweth his Lord' (man ʿarafa nafsahu faqad ʿarafa rabbahu).

He is aware of the fact that his conciousness does not have an external, material cause but that it comes from God and is too profound to be affected by the accident of death.

Islamic man thus remains aware of the eschatological [5] realities of the fact that, although he lives on this earth, he is here as a traveller far away from his original abode. He is aware that his guide for this journey is the message which issues from his home of origin, from the Origin, and this message is none other than the revelation to which he remains bound, not only in its aspect of law as embodied in the Sharīʿah, but also in its aspect of truth and knowledge (Haqīqah).

He is also aware that man's faculties are not bound and limited to the senses and reason but that, to the extent that he is able to regain the fullness of his being and bring to actuality all the possibilities that God has placed within him, man's mind and reason can become illuminated by the light of the spiritual world and he is able to gain direct knowledge of that spiritual and intelligible world to which the Noble Quran refers as the Invisible (ʿālam-al-ghayb).

* * *

Obviously such a conception of man differs profoundly from that of modern man, who sees himself as a purely earthly creature, master of nature, but responsible to no one but himself; and no amount of wishy-washy apologies can harmonize the two. The Islamic conception of man removes the possibility of a Promethean revolt against Heaven and brings God into the minutest aspect of human life.

Its effect is therefore the creation of a civilization, an art, a philosophy or a whole manner of thinking and seeing things which are completely theocentric and which stand opposed to the anthropomorphism[6] that is such a salient feature of modernism. Nothing can be more shocking to authentic Muslim sensibilities than the Titanic and Promethean 'religious' art of the late Renaissance and the Baroque, which stand directly opposed to the completely non-anthropomorphic art of Islam.

* * *

In Islam man thinks and makes in his function of homo sapiens and homofaber as the ʿabd of God, and not as a creature who has rebelled against Him. His function remains, not the glorification of himself, but of his Lord, and his greatest aim is to become 'nothing', to undergo the experience of fanā' which would enable him to become the mirror in which God contemplates the reflections of His own Names and Qualities and the channel through which the theophanies of His Names and Qualities are reflected in the world.

"In any case, what Westerners call civilization, the others would call barbarity, because it is precisely lacking in the essential, that is to say, a principle of a higher order."
René Guénon, East And West, 1924

صلّى الله على سيّدنا محمّد و على آله و صحبه و سلّم

The blessings and peace of Allah on the Prophet, his Family, and his Companions, ( sallAllahu `aleihi wa sallam ) .



Related texts
link-in More texts by S. H. Nasr

  1. In the original the somewhat awkward term 'homo Islamicus' is used. It is clear that what is meant here is the Perfect Man (insānu-l kāmil), who has - according to the Islamic doctrin - attained spiritual perfection.

  2. See Knowledge and the Sacred; S H Nasr, ch.5

  3. Everything is according to Allah's will, the sun and moon, the cosmos and creation, except for man himself:
    { The sun and the moon [move] by precise calculation,
    And the stars and trees prostrate.}
    Sura 55, verses 5/6

  4. There is nothing random in man's creation: see Qur'an:
    { annā khalaqnākum ʿabathan }
    { Then did you think that We created you uselessly and that to Us you would not be returned?" } Sura 23-115

  5. Eschatological: dealing with the final destiny both of the individual soul and of mankind in general

  6. anthropomorphism: the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or o


* Living Islam – Islamic Tradition *