The Islamic Conception Of Man
by S H Nasr

[A conception which is impossible to harmonize with the modern concept of man]

The Islamic man [1] is at once the slave of God - Allah (al-`abd) and His vice-gerent on earth (khalîfat Allâh fi'l - ard.) [2] He is not an animal which happens [d] to speak and think but a being who possesses a soul and spirit created by God. The Islamic man contains within himself the plant and animal natures [c], as he is the crown of creation (ashraf al-makhlûqât); 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. The 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 hadîth, 'He who knows himself knoweth his Lord' (man `arafa nafsahu faqad `arafa 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. The Islamic man thus remains aware of the eschatological [e] 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 Sharî`ah, but also in its aspect of truth and knowledge (Haqîqah). 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 (`âlam-al-ghayb).

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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.17 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 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 nonanthropomorphic art of Islam.

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In Islam man thinks and makes in his function of homo sapiens and homofaber as the `abd 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 fanâ' 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.

footnotes:
[1] In the original the somewhat awkward term 'homo Islamicus' is used. It is clear that what is meant here is the Perfect Man (insânu-l kâmil), who has - according to the Islamic doctrin - attained spiritual perfection .
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[2] see Knowledge and the Sacred; S H Nasr, ch.5
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[c] Everything is acc to Allah's will, the sun and moon, the cosmos and creation, except for man himself. Sura 55, verses 5/6
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[d] see Qur'an: 23-115: annâ khalaqnâkum `abathan
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[e] eschatological: dealing with the final destiny both of the individual soul and of mankind in general.
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