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Dignity of Mankind

by Zahid Aziz

(The Light & Islamic Review : Vol.69; No. 1; Jan-Feb 1992; p. 4-6)

Introduction / Mankind's position / Human beings given power of reason / Freedom of belief / Individual responsibility / Blind following / Group following / Principle of consultation / Value of the least individual /
I wish to discuss the teachings of Islam regarding the place and status of human beings, and also of the individual, in this world. There are many ideologies which regard the human being as merely a cog in a machine, and his purpose is just to serve a particular system of society or type of state. The individual as well as groups of people are simply subservient to that ideology and its institutions. Even in what is claimed to be a free society, people feel as if they don't count as individuals, what they do or do not do is of little consequence. Given the impression of Islam which prevails generally, most people would believe that this religion too is one of these ideologies which has little regard for the human being and reduces its followers to the position of just serving the interests of the system.

Mankind's position

On the contrary, Islam teaches that mankind, as well as the individual, holds a very high position indeed. According to the Holy Quran, when God created man, He said: 

"I am going to make in the earth a khalifa." (2:30.)

that is to say, a ruler or empowered authority from God. As khalifa, mankind can acquire power over physical nature, and in the spiritual domain human beings can acquire a semblance of those great, good and noble qualities which are the attributes of God. So the potential given to mankind, and the goal set for it, is the highest imaginable. It is said in the Quran that God has breathed into every human being, at the time of his creation, His own Divine spirit. (32:9.) This gives each person the capability of attaining nearness to God.

Again, the Quran repeatedly says that everything in this world has been made subservient to man, for his advantage and benefit: things on the earth, in the sea, in the sky, etc. For instance: 

"Do you not see that Allah has made subservient to you whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth, and granted to you His favours complete, outwardly and inwardly?" (31:20.)

So God has dignified mankind by giving it the power to rule the physical world, i.e. outwardly, and his own self, i.e. inwardly. Human beings have, especially in the last century or so, developed very greatly their power over the physical world by means of acquiring physical knowledge, but they have neglected to be able to rule over their own desires, emotions and passions. How dignified man looks when you see his magnificent achievements and feats of the conquest of nature, and how disgraced and humiliated he looks when you see his failure to control his own desires! But the Quran says that God has granted man His favour inwardly as well, that is, the spiritual guidance with which to conquer himself.

Human beings given power of reason

Another way in which mankind has been dignified is the giving to human beings of their senses and understanding. The Quran refers to this repeatedly: 

"He gave you ears and eyes and hearts; little it is that you give thanks!" (32:9.)

"Thanking" here means to use your senses to acquire knowledge and to use your mind to draw conclusions from it. The Quran emphasises that human beings must use their senses and reason to understand things, including matters of religious belief. Blind belief and following are condemned in the Quran. Those who don't use these faculties are referred to as cattle, and indeed as going astray even more.

Belief is something which should enter into your heart on the basis of your observation and knowledge. The Quran describes believers as those who: 

"remember Allah while standing or sitting or lying, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: Our Lord, You have not created this in vain." (3:191.)

It is by reflecting on the creation of the universe that one is meant to discover that there is a purpose in creation. The Quran repeatedly refers to signs in nature from which man can deduce the existence of God, the need for revelation from Him, and the truth of His revelation in the Quran. It says that these signs can be read only by people who reflect, who have knowledge, who hear, and who use their reason.(30:21-24.)

The Quran asks man again and again: Don't you use your sense and reason? This expression occurs about a dozen times throughout the Quran at places where the Quran presents an argument. At one place, it quotes those who suffer punishment for their sins as saying that if they had listened or if they had used their sense, they would not have found themselves in that predicament. Similarly, the Quran again and again asks the reader to ponder and reflect, on different things, and in various ways. So Islam does not expect a person to just obey a set of orders and rules that he is given, without understanding or thinking. I am sure many people mistakenly believe that this is what Islam does require of its followers. On the contrary, a person is not only encouraged but required to use his God-given faculty of reason and reflection.

Freedom of belief

Man's dignity, according to Islam, is far above that he should be forced to accept some belief. The Quran says: 

"The truth is from your Lord; so let him who pleases believe and let him who pleases disbelieve." (18:29.)

Belief is something which must convince a human being's heart and enter it. When some Arab tribes newly joined Islam, and used the expression "We believe," the Quran told them not to say "We believe," but rather that "We have become Muslims" or "We have submitted" because, says the Quran, "faith has not yet entered into your hearts". Therefore Islam does not consider it sufficient to merely follow the precepts of the religion in the outward, mechanical sense, but your hearts must become convinced of the truth of the faith.

Individual responsibility

Another way in which Islam has dignified the individual is by making him or her responsible for his or her own beliefs and actions. The Quran says: 

"No bearer of a burden can bear the burden of another." (6:164; 17:15.)

Each individual bears his or her own responsibility and is treated by God as a person in his or her own right. The individual is not treated as just one member of a group, with no identity of his own. Even if you belong to a group or nation whose members are committing wrong, you are not held responsible for their misdeeds if as an individual you do not commit those wrongful acts. Likewise, if you are a wrong-doer you cannot escape responsibility for your actions by claiming to belong to a group of good and righteous people, and no one, however good and holy, can volunteer to bear your responsibility upon his shoulders. This principle means that each one of us matters as an individual.

Blind following

Blind following of leaders is also condemned in the Quran. It says that if a wrong-doer puts forward in his defence the plea that he was only following and obeying orders, that is not an acceptable defence. Although the leaders do bear responsibility for misleading their followers, nonetheless each individual is expected to use his own sense and reason, to the extent of his capacity. Similarly, blind following of one's ancestors and of inherited beliefs and values is condemned by the Quran. It teaches that you should apply sense and reason to test whether your inherited beliefs are right or not. Again, these teachings of the Quran dignify the position of the individual because he is told not to blindly follow his leaders or forefathers.

Group following

Another principle the Quran teaches is that an individual must not join in acts of wrong-doing with his community or his fellow-countrymen or brethren-in-faith. It says: 

"Help one another in righteousness and goodness, and help not one another in sin and aggression." (5:2.)

It is not befitting a human being that he should just follow the crowd, even the crowd of his own people, without thinking about the right or the wrong of the matter. Rather, the individual should stand up for the right, even against his own people.

Principle of consultation

In making decisions in the nation or the community, the Holy Quran has taught the principle of consultation. It says that the affairs of the Muslims must be decided by consul among themselves. (42:38.) Even the Holy Prophet Muhammad was instructed to consult his followers, (3:159.) and he was given this revelation when a decision about a battle which had been made on the basis of majority opinion had proved to be wrong. The Holy Prophet and some of his followers had been in favour of one course of action but the majority had been in favour of another course of action. The majority view was followed but it nearly led to disaster. Nonetheless Allah revealed to the Holy Prophet to pardon his followers, and still consult them in decision-making as before.

The process of consultation dignifies the individual because each person has his or her view taken into account, while autocratic rule degrades the individual because one man's opinion is supreme. Muslims, unfortunately, abandoned this principle both in their governments and in their spiritual and religious movements. In this age, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad again revived this principle of rule by consultation. Before his death, he set up a body of elders to govern the affairs of the movement, and gave written instructions that the decisions of this body, arrived at by majority opinion, would be final and binding over the movement. In previous spiritual orders in Islam, sometime after the death of the original saintly Founder, absolute power would go into the hands of one man, and he would be obeyed blindly. This led to the worst abuse of power by those religious leaders, and to those movements becoming corrupt. The excesses and evils of some of those religious leaders who had absolute power over their followers, and the unscrupulous way in which they used religion to justify their misdeeds, is just undescribable and appalling to say the least. It all happened because of the neglect of the principle of consultation and by the blind-following of the leaders by the ordinary people who had no sense of the dignity of the individual.

Value of the least individual

I will mention now two incidents recorded in the Holy Quran which show the value attached to the most ordinary individual. In the early days of his mission, the Holy Prophet Muhammad was once explaining Islam to some chiefs of his tribe when a blind man came to him and interrupted him with a question. The Holy Prophet frowned and turned away from him, as he was addressing important men. God then sent revelation to the Holy Prophet, which is contained in chapter 80 of the Quran, expressing disapproval and telling him that may be it would be the blind man who would have benefitted from his teaching. The revelation told him that those chiefs whom the Prophet was addressing did not even consider that they had any need to follow Islam, but the blind man had made the effort to come to him and was God-fearing. The blind man, according to the revelation, was more deserving of the Holy Prophet's attention than the assembly of the chiefs of the tribe of Quraish. This shows how much an individual, even the most insignificant individual, is valued.

The other incident is of a woman who complained to the Holy Prophet that her husband, following an Arab custom known as zihar, had broken off all relations with her but still she was not free to leave him. According to that custom, a man would place his wife in a state where she lost her position as wife but was not divorced from him either. The woman pleaded with the Holy Prophet to do something, but he was reluctant to interfere without a revelation. God then revealed to the Holy Prophet, saying that He had heard the plea of the woman, and that He condemned husbands who indulged in that custom and prescribed a punishment of community service for any man maltreating his wife in that way (58:1-4). The complaint of an ordinary woman was heard by God Himself and He sent revelation in her favour to His Prophet.