Muslims now face the dilemma of whether to continue with the status quo and thereby place greater impediments upon the development of humanity or to reinterpret the teachings of Islam in such a way that its fundamental values and ideals will be able to assist in the realisation of humanity, wrote the late Abdurrahman Wahid.
There are two perspectives to the topic ‘Aids and impediments to the realisation of humanity in Islam’. One, the aids and impediments in the teachings of Islam, and two, the aids and impediments existing within the Muslim community.
The teachings of Islam demand that there must be humanity. As the Qur’an says, God had bestowed upon human beings the highest station. Compared to all other creatures, human beings are the noblest. Since the human being possesses the capacity not found in any other creature, it is natural that Man be also given the noblest task, i.e. to create goodness and welfare on earth.
The term used in Islam to denote welfare is rahmah, meaning brotherly or familial affiliation. This shows the existence of human beings in a particular social setting, primarily in familial affiliation. This affiliation bonds a human being to other human beings. The last prophet of Islam, Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) was entrusted with the task of bringing happiness and welfare to everything that is in the heavens and on earth. But his main concern was with fellow human beings.
Welfare as espoused by Islam, refers not only to the eternal happiness that is to succeed this earthly existence, but also the realisation of a meaningful life on this earth. Therefore, earthly welfare goes together with the subsequent eternal happiness in the hereafter. In fact, earthly welfare is a preparation for eternal happiness. The term used in Islam for this state of welfare and happiness is hassanah which literally means ‘happiness’. Thus, in their daily prayers, the believers implore God to ‘give us goodness on earth, and goodness in the hereafter’.
This sense of well-being, which cannot be separated from other types of goodness like the performance of noble deeds, denotes the qualitative dimension of the existence of human beings. By asking its followers to realise goodness or well-being in this world as well as in the hereafter, Islam tries to link humanity to the goal of fulfilling both material as well as spiritual needs. Thus the spiritual aspect of every deed is tied to this well-being or goodness. This is the main point about humanity in Islam.
The uniqueness of the human being
What differentiates human beings from all other creatures? Man has been endowed with a distinct personality that is absent in any other creature. Firstly, man’s personality has the composite elements of the absolute truth. Thus, a human being has the capacity to fight till death for a cause he or she believes in. The second element is that rational or calculated way of doing things, which is related to the advances made in science and technology. The third element is the capacity for aesthetic appreciation. The fourth is his inherent solidarity with fellow human beings. The composition of these elements is different in infinite ways from man to man, from an individual member of society to another. This then creates the necessity of preserving the individuality of a human being.
The essence of humanity as described by Islam and as reflected in the well-being of man thus has a direct bearing upon the question of individuality. As long as a human being is given the opportunity to develop his or her unique individuality, there exists a way or realising humanity. Each person has the freedom to pursue whatever cause that may appear to be correct and imperative.
Seen from this perspective, the impediments to the realisation of humanity are those traits and weaknessnesss which obstruct the realisation of individuality. Greed, is, one example of such weakness. Through his greed, a man may deprive others of the opportunity to realise his own capacity or potential. This may happen when he accumulates wealth for himself and deprives others of their share.
Thus, negative traits like greed, lust for power and the like are impediments to the realisation of humanity. A hedonistic attitude towards life and the inability to control one’s desires, are impediments to the realisation of humanity. There should be a balance in the relationships between members of a community, where each person will be able to fully realise his or her capacity, or potential.
In order to achieve goodness and to help realise the unique individuality of each person, Islam enjoins the individual to uphold values such as truthfulness, honesty and humility and to generate an ever increasing well-spring of God-consciousness. It is therefore natural that Islam spells out several rules and norms in the form of religous laws and codes of morality. By following the moral code and adhering strictly to religious laws, a member of society will be able to preserve the balance between himself as a unique individual and the interests of others individuals in the same society. It is for this reason that religious laws and moral codes were prescribed even at the beginning of the revelation of the Qur’an.
However, in the wide space of historical time, these religious laws and rigid moral codes which are time-bound have not only failed to aid the individual in the development of his distinctive character, but has had the counter effect of hampering him from realising his own individuality and creativity. The present development of a rigidly normative and legal formalistic outlook among Islam’a own establishment curtails the expression of individuality and creativity. Through time, this has hampered the realisation of humanity in Islam. If everything in human life is subjected to the filtering effects of religious laws, then, when these laws become ossified, the evolution towards the realisation of creativity and individuality faces many constraints.
After 1,400 years of religious laws, it is no wonder now that Muslims are facing many impediments from their own religious teachings rather than from external pressures. Thus, Muslims now face the dilemma of whether to continue with the status quo, which upholds the dominance of religious laws and a rigid moral code accepted by Muslim communities everywhere, and thereby place greater impediments upon the development of humanity and individuality, or reinterpret the teachings of Islam in such a way that its fundamental values and ideals will be able to assist in the realisation of humanity.
As there has been no fundamental reinterpretation of the laws, the teachings of Islam have so far failed to find solutions to many of the problems facing mankind. Wrong interpretation has instead compounded some of these problems. Muslims, and mankind as a whole, must realise the importance of the interdependence of humanity in solving global problems. They can only be solved by the joint efforts of all the different sectors of mankind, sectors unconnected and unrelated to each other.
The human race is now faced with grave problems that must be solved not within a single framework but within different frameworks related to each other. Thus, we have to establish co-operation and full understanding. We have to develop respect for each other. This necessitates human beings everywhere to forget past conflicts and to re-examine every aspect of life.
This article first appeared in The Human Being: Perspectives from Different Spiritual Traditions, (Penang: Aliran, 1991). This article was presented in an Aliran conference which Gus Dur attended.
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