The Recovery of Human Nature
In the view of the Islamic intellectual tradition, any solution to the crises of our times can only be found in the recovery of our true human nature. By “intellectual tradition” I mean the more sophisticated expositions of Islamic teachings found in the books of Muslim scholars known to modern historians as “philosophers” and “mystics.” This nature, however, cannot be grasped with the tools at the disposal of the modern sciences and academic disciplines, but rather by way of a process self-discovery within the context of an overarching anthropocosmic vision. Perhaps a review of the specifically Islamic reading of the significance of human embodiment can throw some light on our contemporary predicament.
By using the word intellectual I have in mind the distinction often drawn in Islamic texts between two sorts of knowledge—`aqlī and naqlī, “intellectual” and “transmitted.” By making this distinction, Muslim scholars want to remind us that people come to know things in two basic ways: Either they learn from others, or they recover what they already know. Most knowledge is transmitted sort, which is to say that we have it by hearsay. We have learned practically everything we know—language, history, law, scripture, science—from others. In contrast, intellectual knowledge cannot be learned by transmission. What is at issue is not information, facts, or theory, but rather the actuality of knowing that accrues to the self when it awakens to the root of its own awareness and intelligence (`aql).1
In trying to express the nature of intellectual knowledge, Muslim scholars commonly cite mathematical understanding as an example, and they consider true mathematical insight as a halfway house on the road to intellectual vision. A real knowledge of mathematics does not derive from rote learning or rational argumentation, but rather from the discovery of the logic and clarity of mathematics within one’s own self-awareness. When one perceives the truth of a mathematical statement, one cannot deny it, because it is self-evident to the intelligence.
In short, transmitted knowledge is acquired from society, teachers, books, and study. Intellectual knowledge is found when intelligence awakens to its own nature. Discussion of these two sorts of knowledge is common in pre-modern worldviews, though a great variety of terminology is employed. Buddhist texts, for example, frequently refer to the difference between conventional knowledge and supreme or ultimate knowledge. Thus we have the famous Zen analogy of the finger pointing at the moon. Transmitted knowledge can at best be the finger. Intellectual knowledge is the moon, and seeing the moon demands a transformed and transmuted selfhood. In the final analysis, intellectual understanding occurs when no distinction can be drawn between the knowing self and the illuminating moon. In Islamic texts this ultimate stage of knowledge is commonly called “the unification of the intellecter, the intellected, and the intelligence” (ittihād al-`āqil wa’l-ma`qūl wa’l-`aql).
As with other traditional civilizations, Islam has always given an honored place to transmitted knowledge. Clearly, specifically “Islamic” knowledge—such as the Koran and the sayings of Muhammad—has been received by way of transmission. These two sources provide the foundations for Islamic law and belief, that is, for jurisprudence and dogmatics, the two sciences that attempt to rationalize and codify Islamic practice and thought. Nonetheless, throughout Islamic history, various great teachers have reminded the community that transmitted knowledge is not an end in itself. Its real function is to serve as a framework for self-realization, that is, for the awakening of the intelligence that is innate to the human soul.
Two traditions of Islamic learning have considered intellectual understanding the goal of human life. One of these is philosophy, which took inspiration from the Greek legacy and is typified by figures such as Avicenna (d. 1037) and Mulla Sadra (d. 1640). The other is Sufism, which was based on the Koran and the model of Muhammad and is typified by people like Ibn Arabi (d. 1240).
It is not difficult to see why philosophy should be called an “intellectual” approach, but many people would object to putting Sufism into the same category. Most scholars understand Sufism to mean Islamic “mysticism,” and, for various reasons, mysticism is commonly considered irrational. Denying that Sufism offers an “intellectual” approach to knowledge, however, rests largely on current meanings of the word. The point I want to make is that Sufi teachers, like the Muslim philosophers, have never considered transmitted learning as anything other than a finger pointing at the moon.
As one brief example of a Sufi whose teachings are focused on the achievement of intellectual understanding, let me quote from someone who would not be considered an “intellectual” in any modern sense. This is Shams-i Tabrizi, whose name is associated with the famous Persian poet Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273). Those familiar with Rumi’s teachings know that, far from being a mere poet, he was an outstanding seer, sage, and guide on the path to awakening and enlightenment. They will have heard that Shams-i Tabrizi’s intervention transformed Rumi from a conventional scholar of the religious (i.e., transmitted) sciences into an enlightened sage. Here are some of Shams’s remarks about the scholarship of his age:
The reason these people study in the universities is, they think, “We’ll become teachers, we’ll get employment in schools.” They say, “One should do good deeds and act properly!” They talk of these things in assemblies in order to get jobs.
Why do you study knowledge for the sake of worldly mouthfuls? This rope is for coming out of the well, not so you can go from this well into that well.
It would hardly be possible to summarize the issues addressed by the intellectual tradition more succinctly than Shams has done here. Those who have seriously engaged in this tradition have always focused on solving the mystery of their own selfhood. The goal has been to answer the perennial question of the meaning of human life. Seekers in this path have been striving to emerge from the well of ignorance, forgetfulness, self-centeredness, hatred, and narrowness that is the common lot of mankind. In their view, any knowledge that does not aid in the quest to escape from the well of ignorance is a hindrance on the path of achieving the full potential of human embodiment. This understanding of the human situation is most famously captured in the Western tradition by Plato’s myth of the cave, but it has parallels in most religious traditions.
In the process of attempting to answer the questions highlighted by Shams-i Tabrizi, philosophers and Sufis have addressed a wide variety of issues, not least notions of subject, self, soul, and personhood. Indeed, it is not difficult to argue that the whole point of the theoretical expositions of both philosophy and Sufism is to provide a “spiritual psychology” whereby one may come to discern the nature of the human self in the global context of reality.3 The goal of these authors, however, has not simply been to provide psychological theories, and certainly not to tell people who they really are. Rather, the goal has been to point seekers in the right direction. The authors knew perfectly well that no one can achieve self-understanding by listening to the explanations of others. Teachers can provide the finger, but seekers have to find the moon within themselves.
The overall perspective of Islamic civilization is summarized in the double testimony of faith: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is God’s messenger.” As traditionally understood, this formula distinguishes between intellectual knowledge and transmitted knowledge, though this is not obvious until one has a good grasp of their differing nature.
In Arabic, the statement “There is no god but God” is called kalimat al-tawhīd, “the sentence asserting unity,” that is, the unity of God. The Koran presents tawhīd as a self-evident truth lying at the heart of every prophetic message. The first of the 124,000 prophets sent by God was Adam, and the last, Muhammad. The Koran tells us that the function of all prophets is to “remind” (dhikr, tadhkira) people of tawhīd. To speak of “reminder” is to say that there is nothing new or innovative about tawhīd. People already know that God is one, which is to say that they have an innate intuition that reality is coherent, integrated, and whole. In Koranic terms, this knowledge pertains to the original human nature (fitra), that is, to the intelligence and self-awareness that distinguish human beings from other creatures. Hence, the first function of the prophets is to help people recognize—that is, to re-cognize—what they already know. Here again, Plato provides a parallel with his notion of reminiscence.
Tawhīd is utterly basic to the Islamic worldview and is the constant point of reference for the intellectual tradition. Philosophers take it for granted, even if they devote many volumes to explaining why it must be so and why it underlies all true knowledge. For their part, Sufis also take tawhīd for granted and, in their theoretical works, speak incessantly of the manner in which God’s unity determines the nature of things.
When we look at the traditional understanding of the formula of tawhīd, “There is no god but God,” we realize that there is nothing specifically “Islamic” about it. It is an unremarkable statement about the universe, much as if we were to say, “The sky is up and the earth is down.” Any rational person knows that reality is coherent, ordered, and somehow unified, and this knowledge lies behind every attempt to make sense of the world and the human situation. This is to say that the truth of tawhīd is universal. It has nothing to do with the historical or cosmic situation. Reality is at is; the “universe” is in fact unified, as the word itself reminds us.
As for the second half of the Muslim testimony of faith—“Muhammad is God’s messenger”—this is by no means self-evident. Knowledge of Muhammad is not innate to human intelligence. No one can believe that Muhammad is God’s messenger without having received knowledge about Muhammad from others. And, in the same way, no one can know anything about the message that Muhammad brought—the Koran—without hearing about it. Once someone believes that Muhammad was in fact God’s messenger, then that person will need to take his message seriously. This is the beginning of Islam as a religion—in the sense that most people understand the word. As for knowledge of tawhīd, that pertains to human nature, irrespective of religion, history, and transmission.
The Metaphysical Background
We can summarize the role that these two sorts of knowledge have played in Islamic civilization in these terms: The goal of transmitted learning has been to provide people with guidance in thinking correctly and acting rightly on the basis of what has been received from the past, namely the Koran, the reports about Muhammad, and the teachings of the pious ancestors. In contrast, the goal of intellectual learning has been to lead people to the path of awakening and self-realization. As the Islamic tradition developed over time, theologians and jurists, who are the guardians of transmitted knowledge, took the position that people must submit to the teachings of the Koran and Muhammad in order to reach salvation after death. Sufis and philosophers, who are the guides to intellectual knowledge, took the position that the very nature of human intelligence calls upon people to strive for self-realization in this world, without waiting for salvation in the afterworld.4
With these two approaches to knowledge in view, we can look at the basic question raised by my title: How can we conceptualize “human nature”? Typically, the intellectual tradition begins any discussion of the human self with a discussion of the source of human beings in the Ultimate Reality, which is understood in terms of tawhīd. Human beings, however, are abysmally ignorant in face of that Reality, so how can they even think about it? The basic answer is, “in terms of names and qualities.” We observe names and qualities in nature and in ourselves, not to mention in scripture. We constantly use these names in everyday language—words like life, knowledge, power, desire, speech, hearing, and seeing. These seven in particular are sometimes called “the seven pillars” of the Divine Reality.
Tawhīd provides a meditative formula with which to grasp the significance of these qualities. When applied to “life,” for example, it means “There is nothing living but the Alive,” which is to say that there is no true life but the divine source of all life. When applied to knowledge, tawhīd teaches that “Nothing knows but the true Knower,” which is to say that real knowledge, awareness, and consciousness belong only to the source of all knowledge, awareness, and consciousness. When applied to power, it means, “There is no power but in God, the All-powerful,” and, in face of God’s infinite power, the power of created things is trivial.
Traditionally, Muslim theologians have said that God has “ninety-nine names,” and they have analyzed each of them in much the same way. Philosophers like Avicenna have often curtailed the discussion by looking at a limited number of fundamental characteristics of Ultimate Reality, in his case unity, eternity, knowledge, desire, power, wisdom, and generosity.
Nowadays, when people talk about “reality,” they commonly take the position of naÔve realism and reduce everything to the physical realm and its epiphenomena. In contrast, when Muslim intellectuals talk about reality (haqq, haqīqa), they have in mind, in the first place, Absolute Reality, which is called “God” in theological language. Philosophers, however, prefer to use abstract terms like wujūd—a word that is usually translated as “being” or “existence” but which also means consciousness and awareness.
The idea that “reality” designates first and foremost the Infinite Reality of Being is rooted in tawhīd: “There is nothing real but the truly Real.” The first corollary of this statement is that everything other than Ultimate Reality must be relatively unreal. The cosmos, which is defined as “everything other than God” (mā siwa’llāh), can only have a conditional reality. It is this conditional reality that allows us to perceive ourselves and to think about our situation.
It is important to note that the definition of cosmos as “everything other than God” includes not only physical things, but also spiritual things, such as angels and souls, which are understood to be more real than physical things, but less real than God. To speak of more and less real is to say that relative reality has degrees. The great issue among the philosophers is not to prove that there is an Absolute Reality called Wujūd or Existence, because that is self-evident, but rather to clarify the distinction between Reality per se and reality as it appears conditionally in things. Avicenna and others distinguish between the Ultimate “Existence” (wujūd) and the “existent things” (mawjūdāt, past participle of wujūd) by saying that the Real Wujūd is Necessary (wājib), which means that it cannot not be, and existent things are contingent (mumkin), which means that they partake of existence in a manner determined by the Necessary Existence.
The World Map
In the intellectual tradition, nothing can be understood properly outside the context of tawhīd. In other words, the basic question is this: How does the contingent and relative existence of this specific being tie it back to the Real Being? The cosmos as a whole is contingent upon its Origin, and each being in the cosmos has a unique situation, defined by its own thingness. The thingness of each is the specific collection of attributes, qualities, and characteristics that make it this being rather than that being. Only Real Being itself has no thingness. Its Infinite Reality allows for no specificities that can separate it out and make it distinct, so it is utterly different from all beings and, simultaneously, it displays its own qualities and characteristics in each of them. This is what Muslim theologians mean they say that God is both transcendent and immanent, both utterly absent and omnipresent.
In the world map offered by the intellectual tradition, the cosmos is understood to have come into existence through a process of exteriorization, or sedimentation, or reification. Through its own infinite Being and Consciousness, Ultimate Reality embraces every finite possibility and brings each of them into actualization in its appropriate context. But the contingent existence of the universe does not simply appear from the Necessary Being, it also disappears into the Necessary Being. Any primer of Islamic theology tells us that tawhīd has three basic implications: Everything comes from God, everything is sustained by God, and everything returns to God. In other words, Absolute Reality alone determines the unfolding of things and their ultimate reintegration into the One from which they arose. Among the many implications of this way of looking at things is that “evolution,” however defined, must be the complement of a previous “devolution.” In other words, all efficient causality is determined by a First Cause, and all possibilities of thingness are prefigured in the Infinite Being of that First Cause.
In short, two grand movements can be observed in the cosmos as a whole: One is that of exteriorization, the other that of interiorization; one is that of creation or cosmogenesis, the other that of dissolution or destruction; one is manifestation, the other disappearance. These two movements are given a variety of names. Among the most common are “Origin and Return,” a phrase that was used as a book-title by both Avicenna and Mulla Sadra. The Origin is pictured as centrifugal, dispersing, and devolutionary, and the Return as centripetal, integrating, and evolutionary. The two movements together are depicted as a circle. Beginning at the top, all things come into existence through a gradual process of descent and differentiation, and they appear in a multiplicity of modes. Having reached the bottom of the circle—the realm of visible reality—they reverse their course and ascend back toward the top. The two movements are thus called the Arc of Descent and the Arc of Ascent.
The Arc of Descent passes from the invisibility of Oneness and Indistinction, which characterize the Infinite Being and Consciousness of the Real, into the visibility of manyness and thingness. The unfolding of possibilities is directed and governed by the very nature of Wujūd itself. In terms of the seven attributes of the Necessary Being discussed by Avicenna, that Being is one, eternal, knowing, desiring, powerful, wise, and generous. As he also puts it, it is the Absolute Good (al-khayr al-mahd) and it brings into existence a good and beautiful universe, ordered in a wise, compassionate, and generous way. If we fail to see the wisdom and generosity suffusing the universe, that is our failing, not that of the Absolute Good.
In the world in which we find ourselves, the Ascending Arc of Reality—the evolutionary thrust—is more obvious than the descending, though both are always present. The ascent is observed in what used to be called “the three kingdoms”—the mineral, plant, and animal realms—which designate some of the lower links of the Great Chain of Being. In each successive ascending realm, the attributes of Real Being come to be more manifest. In minerals, most attributes are concealed. In plants, intimations of qualities like knowledge, desire, and power begin to appear. In animals, these qualities are more pronounced and integrated. Their integration and unification allow for greater subjectivity and make possible a greater understanding and control of the environment.
The highest observable link on the Arc of Ascent is human beings. In the human case, however, there is a radical break with the lower levels. In minerals, plants, and animals, the diversity of qualities and attributes is indefinitely dispersed, and the specific qualities of each thing become manifest largely through the external form. The cosmos as a whole is the externalization and differentiation of an infinite variety of attributes and qualities. In contrast, human beings are externally similar, but internally diverse. The outstanding characteristics of human beings are found not in the external appearance of their doings, makings, and accomplishments, but in the invisible realms of consciousness. It is their subjective access to an infinite realm of possibility that allows them to assimilate all ontological qualities and to make these qualities manifest in the world and society through activity, artifacts, cultural productions, and technology.
In the Koran, human beings are given a number of characteristics that separate them out from other creatures. Most salient, perhaps, is the statement that God “taught Adam the names, all of them” (2:30). In Koranic language, the word Adam designates both the progenitor of the human race and the human being per se (insān), that is, man as one sort of creature among others. One of the most basic interpretations of this verse is that God created man by investing him with all of the divine names and qualities. In other words, “God created Adam in His own image”—a saying that was repeated by Muhammad.
Each thing in the cosmos displays some of the characteristics of the Infinite Reality of Being through its own thingness, and this can be observed and deduced by studying and investigating the things. In contrast, the essential characteristic of human beings is that they do not have a specific thingness. In other words, the essential thingness of a human being is to be no thing, because each is made in the image of the Imageless—the Real Being that transcends all beings and all things and that is simultaneously present in all beings and all things. When God instilled human beings with the divine image, he made their essential nature to be without specific description and without designated attribute.
In short, the essential definition of human nature is to be indefinable. The evidence for this is before our eyes, in the bewildering complexity and diversity of human cultures, languages, religions, and artifacts, in the ever-increasing proliferation of the sciences and academic disciplines, and in the ever louder cacophony of voices exclaiming that human beings are simply this or that. Human indefinability goes back to the fact that the Infinite Being has no specific image—or, to put it otherwise, God’s human image is the image that embraces all possible images. For their part, human beings know instinctively, as a corollary of their intuition of tawhīd, that nothing limits them. All the attempts by modern scientists and academicians to answer the great and small questions about the universe, the natural realm, history, society, art, literature, and human nature simply illustrate the unlimited possibilities of the human substance, made in the image of the Imageless.
The important point here is that whole realm of human phenomena pertains essentially to the realm of consciousness and awareness, and only accidentally to external appearances. This inner realm has no intrinsic limits, because it is the unfolding of the Arc of Ascent, which leads inexorably back to the Infinite Origin of all things. What makes the unlimitedness of the human substance especially hard to see in modern times is the de facto assumption of “scientism”—the reductionist ideology of the predominant forms of contemporary thought—that human life ends with death. On the contrary, as traditional religions have always affirmed and as the Islamic intellectual tradition has demonstrated convincingly, death is simply the first major transition in the unfolding of infinite human nature.
Certainly, physical embodiment is a necessary human stage in bringing the divine attributes into manifestation, but the full potentialities of manifestation are held back by the limitations of physicality. This is perfectly obvious to all of us as soon as we recognize, for example, that the realm of imagination is infinitely more vast than that of physical existence. On the outside, we are limited, but on the inside, we are not. This is why Ibn Arabi describes death as a process whereby our perception of reality is turned inside out: The limited realm of physicality is interiorized, and the infinite realm of imagination is externalized, thereby becoming the new landscape of our unfolding selves.5 Mulla Sadra demonstrates philosophically that after death, every human individual, whether of the saved or the damned, will come to possess an entire world, greater than the present world and not congruent with any other world.6
The world as we know it unfolds in a direction that we experience as time. In the intellectual tradition, time is viewed as the visible appearance of the process of manifestation and disappearance that is designated by the words “Origin and Return.” The cosmos—everything other than God—appears in an orderly manner that is rooted in the nature of things. The Necessary Being is good, wise, generous, and just, and these qualities demand that the realm of existence be directed toward the exigencies of goodness and wisdom.
In this approach to understanding, no clear distinction can be drawn between things as mere objects and things as value-laden. Given that Reality itself is good and wise, the human concern with the ethical and moral does not pertain simply to conventions but follows rather on the nature of things. Investigating the realm of objects without recognizing the moral and spiritual obligations that this realm places on the human soul is to falsify reality. This is why Muslim philosophers and scientists considered ethics an essential part of their quest for self-realization, not simply an ancillary discipline or an afterthought. Reality itself calls upon people to transform their character in conformity with its inherent goodness, wisdom, generosity, and justice.
The fact that human beings can recognize the good and the wise, distinguish between right and wrong, and make moral choices goes back to the fact God created them in his own image. He taught them all the names, not just some of the names, and thereby exposed them to all possibilities, including the possibility of saying “No” to truth, beauty, goodness, justice, generosity, and their own best interest.
Knowing the Unknowable
In order to suggest some of the relevance of this extremely brief review of the teachings of the intellectual tradition, let me come back to the questions posed by Shams-i Tabrizi: “Who am I? What substance am I? Why have I come? Where am I going? From whence is my root? At this time, what am I doing? Toward what have I turned my face?”
Speaking for the intellectual tradition, Shams is saying that the specifically human reason to search for knowledge is to solve the riddle of our own existence. The answers to his questions all circle back to the answer to the first, “Who am I?” The intellectual tradition points out that language and hearsay cannot provide an adequate answer. At best, transmitted learning can suggest who we are not: Each of us is the image of the Imageless, the name of the Nameless, the form of the Formless. It follows that clinging to explications of human nature provided by any sort of transmitted learning—religion, science, philosophy, history, anthropology—is either to miss the point entirely or to cling to the finger and forget the moon.
I will not try to run through typical answers that the intellectual tradition provides for Shams’s questions—in any case, these answers are meant to highlight their own inadequacy and alert people to the fact that they can only know themselves by themselves and in themselves, not by way of information from the outside. Instead, let me quote a few representative verses of Shams’s student Rumi, whose poetry is characterized among other things by the manner in which it catches the urgency of the quest for self-understanding:
Form comes into existence from the Formless,
You dwell in a place, but your root is No-place—
Everyone has turned his face toward a direction—
We and our existences are nonexistent—
You are Absolute Existence showing Yourself as evanescent.
All of us are lions, but lions on a banner—
Fear the existence you have now!
Your imagination is nothing, and you are nothing.
A nothing has fallen in love with a nothing,
a nothing-at-all has waylaid a nothing-at-all.
When these images depart,
The Absolute Being works in nonexistence—
what but nonexistence is the workshop of the Existence-giver?
Does anyone write on a written page?
Does anyone sow in a planted plot?
No, they search for paper free of writing,
they sow their seed in a field unsown.
Be, O friend, a field unsown,
1 I am well aware of the difficulties connected with using the English word “intellectual” in this discussion; many, for example, would say that I mean “intuition,” but that word is too debased to be of much use, nor is it ever used to translate the Arabic word `aql, which is typically rendered as intellect, intelligence, or reason (and, occasionally, as “mind”). If we remember the medieval distinction between intellectus and ratio, however, we can see a perfectly good justification for using the word intellectual here. As S. W. Gaukroger, remarks, the “general thrust” of the distinction in the writings of Aquinas “is to mark out a form of direct intuitive grasp of truth from a limited, piecemeal and often unreliable cognitive activity. . . . Moreover, when it does lead to understanding, ratio annihilates itself: it has served its purpose and disappears in favour of true knowledge” (“Descartes’ Conception of Inference,” in R.S. Woolhouse, ed., Metaphysics and Philosophy of Science in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Springer, 1988, p. 112). This is the point: Transmitted knowledge, no matter how “rational” it may seem, is simply hearsay; its real purpose is to open up the soul to “true knowledge.” For a detailed discussion of the two sorts of knowledge in Islamic sources and the differing methodologies that they entail, see William C. Chittick, Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul: The Pertinence of Islamic Cosmology in the Modern World (Oxford: Oneworld, 2007).
3 I provide this argument in the introduction to my book on a neglected 12th-13th century philosopher. Chittick, The Heart of Islamic Philosophy: The Quest for Self-Knowledge in the Teachings of Afdal al-Dīn Kāshānī (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), Chapter Two.
4 In no way does this imply that philosophers and Sufis denied the afterlife. Quite the contrary, they provided the most sophisticated and coherent explanations of the nature of after-death becoming to be found in the Islamic tradition, though they did so during the period that has been relatively ignored by Western historians, that is, from the thirteenth through the nineteenth century. See Chittick, “Muslim Eschatology,” in The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology, edited by Jerry L. Walls (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 132-50.