The Quranic Concept of the Human Self

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According to the Quran [1] there are two concepts of life according to which human beings live:

Concept 1

According to this concept there is only a physical life, and when the body dies everything dies with it and there is no accountability of the Self in this system. The body follows physical laws, goes through various stages of development and ultimately dies with a physical death. In today’s world this is the concept which is propagated and supported by developed nations and is known as the ‘Materialistic Concept’ of life. The meaning of what is good or right is that which benefits an individual or the society and nation. A nation may declare something as good for itself; whether it is good in the wider sense for other nations is not an issue. Similarly what is considered as bad or wrong is that which is not beneficial to the individual or society and which a nation declares as being bad for its own interests. There are no universal external criteria which can be used to differentiate what is right or wrong. Thus no authority is recognised as being above the national law-making institutions such as a parliament or government. According to this concept of life belief in God is meaningless and indeed there is no need for a God. Individuals living with this concept of life may believe in a limited concept of god to the extent of recognising that the universe is created by a superior being called God or a Creator and that there are laws working in the universe. However, such a belief will have no impact on their day to day living. For example, if one individual believes that there is a God who created this universe and another individual denies the existence of God altogether – both these concepts will have no effect on their day to day living. The Quran does not recognise the significance of such a belief in an individual as it has no actual impact on daily living.

For example:

‘If indeed thou ask them Who has created the heavens and the earth and subjected the sun and the moon they will certainly say, God; how are they then deluded away from the truth………But most of them understand not’ (29:61-63)

‘Say: To whom belong the earth and all beings therein? If ye know! They will say ‘ To God’ Say ‘yet will ye not think and pay attention [2] ( 23:84-85)

 
See also (31:25); (39:38); (43:9).

In such cases the personal desires of an individual take precedence and he/she will essentially live their lives in order to satisfy their own emotional needs. According to the Quran the consequences of following such a path in life are:

‘Then see the one who takes as his god his own desires. God knowing him as such has left him astray (as per His law) and as a consequence of this his hearing and understanding are sealed and his sight is covered (from the real purpose of the creation – (45:22)…….. Will ye not then think and understand?’ (45:23-24)

‘This is an admonition for those who wish to be alive’ [3] (36:70)

This first concept of life is declared as being a life equivalent to that of animals who simply follow basic instincts, and eat, drink, procreate and die.


Concept 2

The alternative concept of life introduces the idea of a human Self which is not governed by physical laws and which continues to exist beyond the physical death of the human body. If this Self is properly developed during the lifetime of a human being, then that individual will as a consequence be ‘happy, contented and free from fear and grief’. (2:38). This individual is able to ascend the ladder of further development of his/her Self beyond the physical death of the human body. The Self can only develop within the remit of a number of permanent values which have been revealed to mankind through the revelation provided to the messengers of God. These values are now preserved forever within the Quran. This means that belief in God, belief in the existence of a human Self, belief in the hereafter and belief in the Quran are intertwined and inseparable concepts.


The human Self is not a material entity and cannot be explained in terms of its constitution. However, the human Self displays itself through the use of our choices in life. One may define it as something which is not material, but which possesses a free will and the ability to choose. The ultimate Self with infinite choice is that of God. A degree of limited choice has been made available to the human Self bestowed by God. Other than the human Self no other creature has been endowed with this ability to choose. God has related this ability to the ‘divine energy’ as stated in the Quran:


‘Then He fashioned him in due proportion, and breathed into him Divine Energy. And he gave you the faculties of …….’ (32:9) .


This Divine Energy provides a human being with the power of free will and thus the ability to make choices in life. Note in this verse that after breathing divine energy into man, the Quran then refers to the man using the term ‘you’ which points to the human Self coming into existence and which now has responsibility for its choices and consequent accountability for these choices.


If an individual follows the permanent values as given in the Quran, then his/her self can develop towards the divine attributes within finite limits [4] due to the human state. An individual displays the level of attainment of these characteristics through the use of his thoughts and actions within the society that he/she lives in. Since every human action is based on intention (i.e. thought) it therefore has an impact on the human self. The precision of this impact is so refined that even a passing thought [5] leaves an impact on the self.


‘He knows the tricks that deceive the eyes and all that hearts conceal’. (40:19).


There is a record of our thoughts and deeds which stays with the human Self and keeps accumulating as we continue to live our lives. This is noted in the following verses:


‘Every man’s deeds ( and their effects), We have fastened around his own neck and on the day of establishment of the results We shall bring out for him a scroll which he will see spread open. Read thine record – sufficient is thy self (nafs) this day to make out an account against thee(17:13-14)


‘and to proclaim the Koran and if any accept guidance, they do it for the good of their own selves …..[6] (27:92)


When the results of our deeds manifest themselves, then we will find that each and every detail is there and each one of us will admit that the precision and detail is immaculate and completely accurate:


‘Nay’ man will be evidence against himself (nafs), even though he were to put up his excuses’ (75:14-15)


The wording used is ‘self’ which will be a witness against him. This is what defines our individuality and integrity.


‘And behold! Ye come to us alone as We created you for the first time …….’ (6:94)


‘And everyone of them will come to Him individually on the day of judgement’ (19:95)


Since every Self is unique, no-one can have access to another Self. As individuals we may allow others to influence us and our choices, and in this way allow ‘access’ to the influence of others on our (inner) Self and this is part of the process of making choices [7].


When a Self through its own efforts works towards developing the divine attributes (within human constraints), it progresses to the higher planes of development which is termed as the life of ‘paradise’ [8]. This journey of self- development is within our potential and capability and in this aspect none can share another’s burden:


‘…. Every self draws the meed of its acts on none but itself: no bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another…’ (6:164)


‘Now have come to you from your Rabb, proofs for everyone to see: If any will see, it will be for the good of his own self (nafs) and if any will be blind, it will be to his own detriment…..’ (6:105)


‘Say: O mankind! Now truth hath reached you from your Rabb; those who receive guidance do so for the good of their own selves; those who stray, do so to their own loss…….’ (10:108)


Also see (17:7)


The Self which does not acquire those traits which can help it progress in the hereafter does not develop any further and this is called the state of status quo/stagnation i.e. no further development [9].  For a human Self to develop it is important to live a life within the permanent values as defined and explained in the Quran and to strive to establish a society [10] which is based on these permanent values. There is an important point to note here: the human body is sustained through eating and drinking, while the human self develops through giving and helping others to develop. For example:


‘Those who spend their wealth for increase in self purification’ (92:18)


‘….. and those saved from the covetousness of their own self (nafs) – they are the ones that achieve success’ (59:9)


‘….and spend in charity for the benefit of your own selves; and those saved from the covetousness of their own selves – they are the ones that achieve success’ (64:16)

 
This is part of the righteousness on which the Quran has repeatedly put emphasis.


The human Self is a potential, an ability, an opportunity, an attribute, and an energy which is intrinsically neither good nor bad. Like any power, it is the way we use it which makes it evil or virtuous. When we use it for the promotion and strengthening of the permanent (or higher) values, then it manifests itself as righteous [11]. However, when a person uses his Self for his/her own ends and ignores the permanent values, then it manifests itself as an evil i.e. it does not produce good results for others. In order to differentiate between the two states we can call this latter form an ‘Ego’. Ego exists and manifests itself at the animal level of desires (base or materialistic), while the Self exists at a higher level beyond the physical body and promotes values for the good of others.


When emotions are under the control of the Ego, then individuals follow their own desires for self-gratification, and in such a state the Ego also uses the human intellect to exploit fellow human beings. In contrast, when the emotions and intellect remain within the control of the Self, the highest and finest human behaviour is demonstrated. A society based on this second group of individuals is the model of an earthly paradise.


When the Ego denies the permanent values and decides to follow its own desires the term used in the Quran for this state is ‘Nafs e Amara’ as quoted in verse (12:53). It is our choice whether to operate as an Ego or as a Self, as is explained later in the same verse (12:53).


‘Nor do I absolve my own self: the human self is certainly prone to evil’ unless my Lord (Rabb) do bestow His Mercy .. ‘ (12:53)


‘O mankind! There hath come to you a direction from your Lord ….. and for those who believe a guidance and a mercy’ (10:57)


The term ‘mercy’ covers all those aspects of sustenance which human beings require for self -development.


Sometimes there is another state experienced by an individual when a mistake has been made and regret expressed. This essentially defines the struggle between the human Self and Ego. The Quran has defined it as ‘Nafs e Lawamah’:


‘I do call to witness the resurrection day (The day or period when the result of human deeds are made apparent); And I do call to witness the self-reproaching self’ (75:1-2)


This is the state of feeling which one has after committing an act which one considers as being wrong. The Self does not have any inbuilt criteria which can guide humans to differentiate between what is right and what is wrong. In the absence of any external standard [12] of guidance, the definition of good or bad may not be what we consider it to be.


Right and wrong can only be differentiated as per the guidance provided through the revelation (the Quran) which is an external standard. By living within the guidance of the permanent values, the conflict between the Self and Ego disappears and the Self can then overcome the temptations which can restrict and affect the Self’s development.


‘Allah puts forth a parable- a man belonging to many partners at variance with each other (many inconsistent laws), and a man solely following one law: are those two equal in comparison? …..’ (39:29)

 

This state of the Self is defined by the Quran as a ‘contented’ existence. Such a life is defined as living in ‘paradise’.


‘O thou self, in complete peace and contentment, come back thou to thy Rabb – well pleased thyself and well pleasing unto Him…..’ (89:27-29)


In modern terminology this is called ‘Integrated Personality’. In contrast to this, the opposite is called ‘Disintegrated Personality’. Both these states are defined in the Quran:


‘And its enlightenment as to its wrong and its right – truly he succeeds that does deeds of self purification’ (91:8-9)


The purpose of creation is to promote the development of the Self and this is the criterion for success in this life:


‘And he fails that corrupts it’ (91:10)


Every human child is born with a Self which is in a ‘Realisable Form’, therefore on the basis of this fact, every child is equal and a right to be respected:


‘We have honoured (all) the children of Adam …..’ (17:70)

Respect means that due to being equal, no human being has the right to enslave another human being. Since free will is the fundamental attribute of the human Self, anyone trying to impose limitations on this ability to make choices is going against this right to be respected. This is proclaimed as slavery by the Quran. According to the Quran, life should be lived within the permanent values and this is not equivalent to following the laws of a human ruler or governor or a man-made system. It is within the capability of every human being to live according to the permanent values:

‘On no self does Allah place a burden (responsibility) greater than it can bear, it gets every good that it earns and it suffers every harm that it earns….’ (2:286).

Any constraints in human behaviour which appear to be imposed on human beings in following the permanent values, are indeed for our own Self development. They are part of the procedure which has been devised by God to help us on a path of perpetual self -development to develop these attributes to limitless heights, and this self development will continue forward beyond the physical death. Thus the next life is a continuum with this life. In a society which has been established based on these values, no human being will be the slave of another human being. This is the society which the Quran invites us to establish here on earth which will be ‘free from fear and from grief’ (2:38).

‘Enter thou, then, among My followers; yea, enter thou My paradise’ (89:29-30).

 

References

[1] This is also supported by the evidence.

[2] The term used here in Arabic has a much wider significance and the verse (21:10) throws more light on this by stating that this is the book which is for the development of your own self.

[3] The Quran does not consider it to be’ living’ in the real sense, if we exist solely at the physical level and just eat, drink, procreate and die, as we have not then developed our Self to move on to the next stage of our lives. For example in verse (8:24) God invites us through the use of our free will to something which gives life - obviously this is more than the life which they are already living. The rest of the Quran is an explanation of how to understand this life to which the invitation is being extended.

[4] One should remember that the human Self is not part of God Himself as one of the characters of a self is its ‘Indivisible Whole’. The self has this attribute that it cannot be sub-divided.

[5] The examples of passing thoughts are many. For example saw a person in a need and thought of helping or saw someone doing wrong and thought to prevent it or heard of someone’s success and felt jealousy or happy, thought to gamble or thought to get away with something by telling a lie. If we analyse our thought processes closely we will see that we go through countless thoughts (and counter thoughts) during a day.

[6] Verses like these are repeated throughout the Quran.

[7] This allows us to recognise the potentials of our self and to develop mechanisms to avoid being influenced by others. This is only possible within the functioning of the permanent values.

[8] This is the internal state of development of a self. Paradise is not an external abode or place, but the state of development of a self at a point in time as it progresses through this life or the next life. Life is dynamic and a developed self is on a continuous journey which is going forward as well as ascending.

[9] The inability to go forward due to not having a developed self and having an infinite life explains the state of helplessness one will be facing in the hereafter. The Quran has called it the state in which one will wish to be dead but can’t.

[10] The society develops from individual to collective.

[11] This is how the self develops and strengthens itself and qualifies to enter the next stage of life.

[12] Human beings have free will and have no internal guidance inbuilt. The concept of ‘conscience’ is merely internalised society i.e. the values which are the accepted norm of the particular society you find yourself in at any particular time. Therefore ‘conscience’ is variable and cannot guide us.

by

Dr Ejaz Rasool

Glasgow, UK


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