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The Perfectibility of Man
Apr 1, 1997

A book exists first of all in its author’s mind as meaning. To have this immaterially existing book known by others, the author must put it into words, shaped into sentences, organized into paragraphs, chapters, and so on. Subsequently, comes the stage of physically producing the book, giving it material form as sequences of letters on sequentially arranged pages, bound together as a book.

As this simple example shows, the existence of something has different stages or degrees. The stages through which a book passes might be called ‘worlds’: the ‘world’ of knowledge or meaning, the world of arranging and organizing, the world of matter or material forms. In the same way the universe has different kinds of existence in different ‘worlds. In oriental philosophy generally and in Islamic philosophy particularly, these worlds are usually referred to as the high empyrean heaven, the world of unconditioned existence, the world of the spirits, the world of the immaterial forms or symbols the visible or material world and the eternal world. And there are still other worlds between these.

Creation passes through these worlds and in the material world takes on a completely new, different form. In this world, the one in which we presently live, meaning or knowledge needs matter to come into material existence in order to be seen or known. Since the earth is a place where all of the Creator’s Names are manifested and His Works exhibited, it has a very important place in existence and, despite its small size, it is mentioned in the Qur’an together with heavens. Earthly existence is commonly divided into three or four ‘kingdoms’: the kingdom of elements, the vegetable kingdom, the animal kingdom and the human kingdom. These ‘kingdoms’ are obviously interconnected: man’s body is made up of elements and has some features in common with vegetable and animal forms. With regard to the worldly aspect of his being, as Ali, the fourth Caliph, said, man is the child of the earth.

The materialistic point of view restricts man’s existence to his physical aspect only and regards all the metaphysical aspects of his existence as derivative from his physical aspect. However, it is plainly seen that man is so complex a being with such comprehensive faculties, desires and feelings, that it is impossible to attribute the metaphysical dimension of his existence to deaf, blind, ignorant, unconscious and inert matter. In imagination he can traverse in a few seconds the whole realm of material existence and go beyond it. His feelings and desires are not restricted to the physical world; they extend beyond it. He loves and hates, pities and cherishes enmity and vengeance, is pleased and dissatisfied, rejoices and is grieved, etc. These and other similar feelings which encompass the whole of existence all have different and lasting effects on him. The pains coming from past misfortunes and the anxieties he feels about his future never leave him. His needs are infinite, so are his desires and ambitions. So, it is impossible that this basic dimension of man’s existence which distinguishes him from all other creatures and which gives each individual human being a particular character, potential, countenance and temperament, originates in matter. It comes from the worlds far beyond the material world. God Almighty directly ‘breathes’ it into man, thus making him a mainly metaphysical being in the physical world. Thus, man has two dimensions in his being, one the worldly dimension composed of his physical structure, and vegetable and animal aspects, the other, the heavenly, metaphysical dimension comprising his inner faculties such as intellect, memory, imagination and ‘heart’, etc. and his metaphysical needs and desires, morality, spiritual questing and lofty ideals. This complexity in the essential being and character of man is the origin of certain general consequences, among which are:

a. Man has a special relation with his environment, his relatives, other human beings, animals and the whole of nature. Just as the whole life-history and features of a tree end or are included in its fruit, so too man, as the fruit of the tree of creation, contains in his being all the principal aspects or features of existence. This essential feature of his being must be considered in man’s relations with his natural environment; the neglect of it in modem times is the basic reason for modern environmental problems.

b. Since man is endowed with free will and great potentialities which can be continually expanded through learning and practice, the Creator did not restrict his drives or faculties. For example, the Creator put no limits upon man’s powers of anger, lust and reason. The power of anger is the origin of his instincts of defence: the power of lust is the source of his animal appetites, among them the urge to have relations wýth the opposite sex; the power of reason is the centre of his activities of intelligence and intellect. We may note also that man carries in his being the main characteristics of every animal. For example, he can be as rapacious as a wolf, and as cunning and deceiving as a fox. ‘Decked out for mankind is the passionate love of desires for the opposite sex and offspring, for hoarded treasures of gold and silver, for branded horses, cattle and plantations, for all kinds of worldly things.’

If man lets his powers drive him and obeys their demands, and if he does not discipline his animal characteristics, then these powers and characteristics can become the source of innumerable vices. If undisciplined, his power of anger can cause great crimes such as murder, all kinds of injustices and violations of others’ rights; the power of lust can lead man to consume whatever he finds, to earn in any way he finds convenient, to commit many crimes such as theft, usurpation, to have illicit sexual relations and seek to hide the consequences with abortion and infanticide. The power of reason, if it is not used according to certain standards, can be a means for such deceitful practices as demagogy, lying and sophistry. This power which has enabled man to realize admirable scientific and technological successes and developments in recent centuries, has also brought to mankind many disasters unparalleled in human history such as continual wars, machines for killing and destruction on an unbelievable scale, and increasing environmental pollution. In short, because of his unrestricted powers, man, if undisciplined, can be an agent of destruction and make life and the world into a dungeon for himself.

Man is a social being, compelled to live together with his fellow-beings. Harmonious social life requires justice and mutual helping which is only possible by man’s conformity to certain rules or standards of conduct. Necessarily, these rules restrict his powers. Since man’s essential needs and character have remained stable since his appearance on the earth, these rules and standards must be universal and stable and applicable to all men in all times and places. It is highly questionable whether man can know what and of what character these rules and standards must be. It is a plain fact that it is almost impossible for even two men to agree on all points. If the task of establishing the rules and standards were given to one individual or to one family or to one class or to one nation or to those with enough power to put them into effect (i.e. force others to obey), the consequence must inevitably be injustice and inequality among people. Therefore, a universal or transcendent intellect is necessary. Such an intellect can only be derived from God, as manifested in religion revealed by the Creator of all existence, Who knows all things, internally and externally, from the largest to the smallest, and all their interconnections from before to after time. However, since it is impossible for every human being individually to receive Divine revelation, God choose some persons among human beings (the Prophets and Messengers) and charged them to convey His religion to people. After the Last Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, no one and no institution has the right to be an intermediary between God and human beings. Only those who are well-versed in religious sciences can offer authoritative guidance for others concerning the problems people may encounter. By obeying God-established rules or standards, a man can restrict his powers in a way that results in justice and equity among people.

Man’s powers, desires and faculties are given to him so that he should channel them into virtues. For example, he is not expected to annihilate his lust, but to satisfy it in lawful ways and use it as a means of reproduction. Thus, the happiness of man lies in his restricting his power of lust within the lawful bounds of decency and chastity, without indulgence in debauchery and dissipation. Similarly, his power of anger is given to man so that he may use it in defence of his sacred values - religion, life and property, nation - against attacks. That is, he must not use it unlawfully to exploit and oppress, or injure and kill, others. He must restrict it within the bounds of valour and chivalry and exercise it for the promotion of a sacred value. Again, the virtuous direction in the exercise of reason is understanding, wisdom and truthfulness. Reason must not be used to deceive others for selfish advantage.

Man also has certain feelings which are intrinsic to his nature, such as jealousy, hatred, enmity, hypocrisy and ostentation. If such feelings are not trained and directed to virtue, they consume man. For example, jealousy must be channelled into emulation free of rancour, which inspires man to imitate those who excel him in goodness and good deeds. Hatred and enmity should be directed primarily against his own carnal self and the bad aspects of his character. As for hypocrisy and ostentation, he must try to be rid of them. If that is impossible for him, he should at least try to make show of only the better sides of his character and compete with others in virtuous deeds, rather than virtuous words or gestures.

There is another point to emphasize concerning the happiness or perfectibility of man: Man is not a being composed of only body and intellect. He has also a spirit which requires satisfaction, without which he can never find true happiness. Spiritual satisfaction is possible only through belief in God Almighty and aspiration to ‘reach’ Him and gain eternal happiness in the other world. The physical world, man’s carnal self, time and place are the thick walls of his worldly dungeon. Confined within the walls of this dungeon, man can by no means find happiness or lead a happy life. He can escape or be freed from this dungeon by means of belief and regular worship, and by refraining from all kinds of sins. In short, as Said Nursi writes (The Letters 2, 1995, p.2) the highest aim of creation and its most sublime result is belief in God. The most exalted rank of humanity is the knowledge of God. The most radiant happiness and sweetest bounty for mankind is the love of God issuing from the knowledge of God. The purest joy for the human spirit and the purest delight for mans heart is the spiritual ecstasy contained within the love of God. Indeed, all true happiness, pure joy, sweet bounties and unclouded pleasures are undoubtedly contained within the knowledge and love of God. The one who knows and loves God is either potentially or actually able to receive endless happiness, favours, enlightenment and understanding. While the one who does not truly know and love Him is afflicted spiritually and materially by endless misery, pain and fear. Indeed, even if a man, powerless and miserable, and unprotected amid other purposeless human beings in a world filled with wretchedness, were made the ruler of the whole world, what is this really worth for him? Everyone can understand how miserable and bewildered a condition man endures, if he does not recognize his Owner, discover his Master. If, however, he discovers his Owner and recognizes his Master, then he will seek refuge in His Mercy and rely on His Power, and that desolate world will become for him, a place of rest and felicity, and a place of exchange for the Hereafter.

In sum, man’s real happiness lies in his being a servant to God. This servanthood never reduces man. By contrast, a man who rebels against God relying on himself or the power of science and technology may be a Pharaoh-like tyrant, but he is one who abuses himself so far as to worship before the meanest thing to serve his interest. That man may also be stubborn, misled and misleading: unyielding but so wretched as to accept endless degradation for the sake of a single pleasure:unbending but so mean as to kiss the feet of devilish people for the sake of some base advantage. That man may, again, be conceited and domineering, but since he can lind no point of support in his heart, he reduces himself to an impotent vainglorious tyrant. He may also be a self-centered egoist, who strives to gratify his material, carnal desires and pursues his personal interests after certain national or rational interests. As for a sincere servant of God, he is a worshipping servant, but one who does not degrade himself to bow in adoration or humiliation even before the greatest of the created. He is a dignified servant who does not regard as the goal of worship a thing of even the greatest benefit like Paradise. Also, he is modest, mild and gentle, but he does not lower himself voluntarily before anybody other than his Creator beyond what He has permitted. He may also be weak and in want, and be aware of his weakness and neediness. Yet he is independent of others, owing to the spiritual wealth which his Munificent Owner has provided for him, and he is powerful as he relies on the infinite Power of his Master. He acts and strives purely for Gods sake, for God’s good pleasure, and to be equipped with virtues.

To be a good, virtuous servant of God Almighty and thereby find true happiness, a man must oppose his carnal self and fight against it so as to always use his will in the correct way. Life, which is the arena of this fighting or holy struggle, find its true meaning through this struggle, evolves and is perfected. The pleasure of this struggle lies in itself. It is like climbing an upward path. Walking on levelled surfaces does not give man any pleasure, but when one who continuously climbs hills or walks an uphill road reaches the summit and wipes the sweat from his forehead, he experiences the great pleasure of achievement. But for winter, spring would not be so beautiful. So, man’s true happiness and the real pleasure of life lie in his struggle against the temptations of his carnal self and Satan and becoming victorious against both. This is how a man can rise along the path of perfectibility toward the heavens, toward endless and eternal happiness and pleasures, toward being truly human and recovering his primordial or original state as the best pattern of creation and eternal inhabitant of Paradise.