If we want to understand what Islam posits about morality, good and evil, and how they play into human life, I believe we first need to go a step deeper and understand the metaphysical foundations that underpin Islamic ethics. Why the need to get so philosophical? Because ethics themselves form the underlying building blocks for Islamic ideals of social order and interaction, give rise to private and public law, and inform any consequent theories of governance that may develop. All these aspects of individual and collective life come then together to lay the context in which each human being’s ultimate fate plays out. Hence, it is vital to understand those beliefs that underpin ethics.
The human being is created with two natures: an animalistic nature that calls to base desire and a rational nature. Depending on which one you feed, which one you train, it comes to dominate the person you become. Hence, the Quran talks about people who have “made their desire to be their god,” and gone astray. That is to say, they have pursued their base desires and, in effect, served and worshipped this aspect of themselves as a god even if they weren’t cognizant of it. In other words, every human being worships and serves something; every human has a ‘god’ whether they know it or not (and whether they like that reality or not; it is simply the nature of the human and something the 20th century psychoanalyst Carl Jung also recognised).
The Quran further mentions in more than one place that God has intuitively taught the human soul what is good and evil (e.g. 30:30; 91:8), something called fitrah. Every human being is thus born pure and on this fitrah but then, by way of his surroundings, upbringing, nurture and his actions he can lose touch with parts of this pure primordial knowledge; the fitrah becomes covered like the sun is covered on a cloudy day.
However, the soul isn’t stagnant; the human being has the potential to grow closer or fall further away from God by way of his or her actions. The Quran specifically mentions three levels of the soul- or states – that it can achieve: “The Soul that calls to Evil,” “The Self-Reprimanding Soul,” and “The Content Soul” [Lit. The Soul at Peace/Tranquility].
Most human beings are at the second stage where they still have some level of connection with their fitrah: they are able to recognise something is bad when they’ve done it (or when they see it) and their soul feels guilt or regret. The inverse is also true. If the person persists in evil deeds however, and becomes accustomed to this bad, the fitrah eventually becomes covered to the degree that the person doesn’t consider his actions bad or evil (one of the words for evil in Arabic comes from the word ugly– which can be understood to mean that the fitrah inherently associates beauty with good and ugliness with evil). If a person reaches this stage of indifference towards bad, then his soul has become “The Soul that calls to Evil;” the person has been overwhelmed by his animalistic self; the rational faculties have been dominated by the base potential. I use the word “base” quite intentionally because if one were rather to pursue the rational self and “deny the soul its desires” (79:40), one would achieve the highest rank: proximity to the divine.
The ultimate goal is to achieve the rank of “The Content Soul” where one is pleased with God and God is pleased with him (89:27-30). In other words, one has obeyed God’s commands for so long and to such a degree that he or she has come to see the benefit in it; he has witnessed God’s innumerable favours so many times that the soul reaches a state of complete trust in God, his command and his decree and is willing to submit without objection. Hence, the soul is “content” and “pleased” with all that befalls it and all that it is commanded to do. This is “success” in Islam and this is the ultimate end: absolute faith, trust and love of God and longing for his eternal presence based not on blind faith, but rather on endless experiences that show time and time again that God is the only entity worthy of absolute devotion, submission, and longing.
Raahim Zafar is a co-founder of Interfaith Exchange. He is a recent graduate of the University of St. Andrews where he studied International Relations, Arabic and French.
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