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The Nature of Man

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The Nature of Man (1921) by Abu Hamid al-Ghazālī. Translated in 1921 as part of Some Religious and Moral Teachings. [1]

Though man shares with the other animals external and internal senses, he is at the same time also endowed with two qualities peculiar to himself, knowledge and will. By knowledge is meant the power of generalisation, the conception of abstract ideas, and the possession of intellectual truths. By will is meant that strong desire to acquire an object which after due consideration of its consequences has been pronounced by reason to be good. It is quite different from animal desire, nay, it is often the very opposite of it.

In the beginning children also lack these two qualities. They have passion, anger, and all the external and internal senses, but will finds its expression only later. Knowledge differs according to the capacity for it, according to the latent powers in a man. Hence there is a variety of stages amongst Prophets,[2] the Ulamas, the Sufis and the Philosophers. Further progress is possible even beyond these stages, for divine knowledge knows no bounds. The highest stage is reached by one to whom all truths and realities are revealed intuitively, who by virtue of his exalted position enjoys direct communion and close relation with the Most Holy. The real nature of this position is known only to him who enjoys it. We verify it by faith. A child has no knowledge of the attainments of an adult; an adult is not aware of the acquisitions of a learned man. Similarly, a learned man is not cogniscant of the holy communion of the saints and the prophets, and of the favours bestowed on them. Although the divine blessings descend freely, those are fit recipients of them, whose hearts are pure and wholly devoted to Him. “Verily,” says the Hadis, the desire of the virtuous is to hold communion with me, and I long to look at them”. “He who approaches me a span, I approach him an arm”.[3] The divine favours are not withheld, but hearts bedimmed by impurity fail to receive them. “Had it not been that the devils hover round the hearts of men, they would have seen the glories of the Kingdom of the Heaven”.[4]

The superiority of man consists thus in his being cogniscant of divine attributes and actions. Therein lies his perfection; thus he may be worthy of admission to God’s presence.

The body serves as a vehicle for the soul, and the soul is the abode for knowledge which is its fundamental character as well as its ultimate object. The horse and the ass are both beasts of burden, but a superiority of the former is found in its being gracefully adapted for use in battle. If the horse fails in this it is degraded to the rank of mere burden bearing animals. Similarly with man. In certain qualities man resembles a horse and an ass, but his distinguishing trait is his participation in the nature of the angels, for he holds a middle position between the beast and the angel. Considering the mode of his nourishment and growth he is found to belong to the vegetable world. Considering his power of movement and impulses he is a denizen of the animal kingdom. The distinguishing quality of knowledge lifts him up to the celestial world. If he fails to develop this quality and to translate it into action he is no better than a grunting pig, a snarling dog, a prowling wolf, or a crafty fox.

If he wishes for true happiness, let him look upon reason as a monarch sitting on the throne of his heart, imagination as its ambassador, memory as treasurer, speech as interpreter, the limbs as clerks, and the senses as spies in the realms of colour, sound, smell, etc. If all these properly discharge the duties allotted to them, if every faculty does that for which it was created-and such service is the real meaning of thanks giving to God-the ultimate object of his sojourn in this transitory world is realised.

Man’s nature is made up of four elements, which produce in him four attributes, namely, the beastly; the brutal, the satanic, and the divine. In man there is something of the pig, the dog, the devil, and the saint. The pig is the appetite which is repulsive not for its form but for its lust and its gluttony. The dog is passion which barks and bites, causing injury to others. The devil is the attribute which instigates these former two, embellishing them and bedimming the sight of reason which is the divine attribute. Divine reason, if properly attended to, would repel the evil by exposing its character. It would properly control appetite and the passions. But when a man fails to obey the dictates of reason, these three other attributes prevail over him and cause his ruin. Such types of men are many. What a pity it is that these who would find fault with those who worship stones do not see that on their part they worship the pig and the dog in themselves: Let them be ashamed of their deplorable condition and leave no stone unturned for the suppression of these evil attributes. The pig of appetite begets shamelessness, lust, slander, and such like; the dog of passion begets pride, vanity, ridicule, wrath and tyrany. These two, controlled by the satanic power produce deceit, treachery, perfidy, meanness etc. but if divinity in man is uppermost the qualities of knowledge, wisdom, faith, and truth, etc. will be acquired.

Know then that mind is like a mirror which reflects images. But just as the mirror, the image, and the mode of reflection are three different things so mind, objects, and the way of knowing are also distinct. There are five reasons which may prevent the object from being reflected in the mirror

  1. There may be something wrong with the mirror.
  2. Something other than the mirror may prevent the reflection.
  3. The object may not be in front of it.
  4. Something may come between the object and the mirror.
  5. The position of the object may not be known, so that the mirror may be properly placed.

Similarly, for five reasons, the mind fails to receive knowledge.

  1. The mind may be imperfect, like the child’s.
  2. Sin and guilt may bedim the mind and throw a veil over it.
  3. The mind may be diverted from the real object. For example, a man may be obedient and good, but instead of rising higher to the acquisition of truth and contemplation of God is contented with bodily devotions and acquirement of means of living. Such a mind, though pure, will not reflect the divine image for his objects of thought are other than this If this is the condition of such mind, think what will be the state of those minds which are absorbed in the gratification of their inordinate passions.
  4. An external screen, may as it were, come before the objects. Sometimes a man who has subjugated his passions still through blind imitation or prejudice fails to know the truth. Such types are found amongst the votaries of the Kalam. Even many virtuous men also fall a prey to it and blindly stick to their dogmas.
  5. There may be ignorance of the means for the acquisition of truth. Thus for illustration, a man wants to see his back in a mirror: if he places the mirror before his eyes he fails to see his back; if he keeps it facing his back it will still be out of sight. Let him then take another mirror and place one before his eyes and the other facing his back in such a position that the image of the latter is reflected in the former. Thus he will be able to see his back. Similarly the knowledge of the proper means is a key to the knowledge of the unknown from the known.

The divine dispensation is liberal in the distribution of its bounties, but for reasons mentioned above, minds fail to profit by them. For human minds partake of the nature of the divine and the capacity to apprehend truth is innate. The Quran says: “Surely we offered the trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they declined to bear it up and were afraid of it and man took it up. Surely he is not just (to himself) and is ignorant”.[5] In this passage the innate capacity of man is hinted at and refers to the secret power of knowing God, latent in human minds by virtue of which they have preference over other objects and the universe. The Prophet says: Every child is born in the right state (Fitrat) but his parents make him a Jew, a Christian, or a Magian.” And again: “Had it not been that evil spirits hover round the hearts of the sons of Adam they would have seen the kingdom of heaven”. Ibn Umar reports that the Prophet was once asked as to where God is found either on earth or in heaven. “He is in the hearts of his faithful servants” replied the Prophet.

Original footnotes

It will not be out of place to throw some light here on the following terms which are often vaguely applied while dealing with the question of human nature.

  1. Qalb (heart) has two meanings. (a) a conical shaped piece of flesh on the left side of the chest, circulating blood, the source of animal spirits. It is found in all animals. The heart thus belongs to the external world and can be seen with the material eyes. (b) A mysterious divine substance which is related to the material heart like the relation between the dweller and the house or the artisan and his implements. It alone is sentient and responsible.
  2. Ruh (spirit) means (a) a vapoury substance which issues from the material heart, and quickens every part of the body. It is like a lamp which is placed in a house and sheds its light on all sides. (b) The soul which is expressed in the Quran as “divine commandment”6 and is used in the same sense as the second meaning of Qalb, mentioned above.
  3. Nafs (self) which means (a) the substratum for appetite and passion. The Sufis call it the embodiment of vices. (b) The ego which receives different names in accordance with the qualities acquired from changes in its conditions. When in subjugating passions it acquires mastery over them and feels undisturbed, it is called the peaceful self (Nafsi mutmainna). The Quran says: “Nafs that art at rest. Return to thy Lord well pleased with Him, well pleasing.” When it upbraids man for his actions it is called conscience (Nafsi lauwama). When it freely indulges in the gratification of his passions, it is called the inordinate self (Nafsi ammara).
  4. Reported by Abuhuraira in Ahmad’s Masnav. Egypt 1300 A. H.
  5. Quran xxxiii. 72.
This page uses content from the English Wikisource. The original article was at The Nature of Man. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with the Religion wiki, the text of Wikisource is available under the CC-BY-SA.
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