Islam: A Manifesto of Human Liberation
July 3, 2008
In the minds of people, the term "humanism" has a certain magic,
electric charm - like the "Aladdin's lantern." It bemuses many with
its so-called rational, liberating gimmicks. Many Muslims, therefore, have
developed false opinions without questioning the origin of western humanism and
its effect on modern man. I shall attempt to clarify this subject by borrowing
from the writings of a noted Islamic scholar, a sociologist, Dr. Ali Shariati.
The pundits of all schools of thought cannot agree upon a precise definition of
the term "humanism." A definition of what is human will vary according
to the religious belief, scientific perspective, or philosophical school.
Despite all the ambiguity as to the proper meaning of human existence, the
aggregate of the generally accepted assumptions may be labelled as
"humanism." In his book, "Marxism and other western fallacies
- an Islamic critique," Dr. Ali Shariati writes, "By humanism,
we refer to a school of thought that proclaims its essential goal to be the
liberation and perfection of man, whom it considers a primary being, and
principles of which are based on response to those basic needs that form the
specificity of man." In today's world there are four intellectual
currents which, despite their mutually contradictory nature, claim to represent
this humanism. These are: (1) western liberalism; (2) Marxism; (3)
existentialism; and (4) religion.
Western humanism is deeply rooted in ancient Greek mythology where we find
jealousy, competition and opposition between the forces of heaven and earth,
between the world of gods and men. Humanity seeks to liberate itself from the
yoke of oppression, tyranny and captivity as laid upon it by the gods in
attaining self-awareness, freedom, liberty, independence and sovereignty. It
struggles to rule over nature to unseat Zeus, who symbolises the rule of nature
over mankind. He wants to be the 'only' mentor of his destiny. As such, a bond
of enmity between the gods and men was altogether natural and logical to the
However, it was wrong, and obviously so, on the part of great minds of western
humanism - from Diderot and Voltaire to Feuerbach and Marx - to equate the
mythical world of ancient Greece, which remains within the bounds of material
nature with the spiritual and sacred world of ancient religions of the East
(Islam in particular). They have compared and even dared to equate humanity's
relation to Zeus with that of Allah, whereas the two sets of relations are in
truth antithetical. In the former world, Prometheus steals "the divine
fire" from the heavens while the gods were asleep and brings it to earth.
For this sin he is punished at the hands of the gods. On the contrary, in
Islam, Allah curses Iblis for not prostrating to Adam - the first man.
Furthermore, Allah entrusts the "divine fire" in the form of heavenly
light of wisdom, of revelation, to His prophets so that it might be brought to
humanity for bringing the progeny of Adam out of darkness to light. Man is
entrusted to be his viceregent on earth. Allah, in contrast to mythical Zeus,
wants humanity to be free of the yoke of slavery to nature and proclaims: "All
the angels have prostrated themselves at the feet of Adam, and land and sea
have been made subservient to you." It is, therefore, in the mythical
world-view of ancient Greece, quite natural and logical that a humanism should
grow in opposition to rule by, and worship of, the gods. And as such, it is
easy to see the fallacy of western humanism, which is born out of the Greek
myths, and to sense its opposition against theism (or western and eastern
It is worth mentioning here that Catholicisim as practiced in the Middle Ages,
which was at odds to humanity, was further responsible for inducing humanism in
the West. It maintained the same opposition between heaven and earth like
ancient Greece, and with its Greek-style exegeses of original sin, atonement,
and man's expulsion from Paradise, it represented man as helplessly condemned
because of divine displeasure and anger, and declared him to be a weak sinner.
It exempted only the class of clergy, and held that the only means of salvation
for the rest of mankind lay in blindly following them and through membership in
the Churches. We therefore notice that even the arts in the Middle Ages revolve
around the images of super-humans, angels, and even if human figure appears, it
is only in the persons of apostles and saints with their faces obscured by a
halo of celestial light. Everywhere, thus, in medieval Catholicism, we see a
good resemblance between mythical-Christian God and mythical-Greek god Zeus. It
is therefore easy to visualise how the theory of secularism would eventually
influence the minds of western men of learning after the Renaissance as a mere
by-product of that very western humanism which wanted to liberate the human
spirit from the clutches of oppressive Catholicism.
Just as it was natural for Greek humanism, through the denial of the gods,
disbelief in their rule, and cutting of the bond between gods and men, to
struggle to arrive at an anthopocentric universe and to tend towards earthly
materialism, so is modern western humanism drawn into the same fountain of
ancient Greece. Shariati writes, "The history of western culture is the
persistence of these two contrasting currents that issue from the same spring,
whether we refer to religion or science." Both these divergent streams
of today have their root in Greek humanism. Marxism and bourgeois liberalism
alike share this human materialism in theory and in practice. Thus, we find
Marx and Voltaire both closing their eyes to the spiritual dimension of the
human essence. It is only natural, thus, that both these philosophies are
centred on and around the "physical" man.
The Radicalists of the "new humanism" of Europe - proclaimed in a
manifesto that they published in 1800: "Set aside God as the basis of
morals and replace Him with conscience." They held that man is a being
that in and of itself possesses a moral conscience, which in their view springs
from his original and essential character, and which his human nature requires.
This reliance upon human nature, as well as upon moral conscience, forms the
fundamental basis of western athiestic humanism of the present age. The modern
day humanists have come a long way since 1800 to first doubt and then to
outright deny human nature as an outlying principle. Commenting on this, Dr.
Shariati writes, "Nonetheless, the new humanism - upon which western
bourgeois liberalism as a system is based - regards humanity as possessing
eternal moral virtues and noble, supramaterial values for which man is the
essential focus. It is at this point that it placed its reliance upon man in
and of himself, as against nature or the supernatural... ... This humanism
arrogates human morals as a whole from religion, but, while denying their
religious rationale, it proclaims the possibility of spiritual development and
growth in adherence to the moral virtues without belief in God."
On the subject of existentialism, Shariati remarks, "Just as the
bourgeois liberalism of the West sees itself as the heir to historical
humanistic culture, and Marxism presents itself as a path for the realisation
of humanism, of the whole man, so existentialism is humanism, and of course a
more rightful claimant to humanism than its two predecessors."
Existentialism speaks of humanity as a separate spun cord loose in the world, a
being with no determinative character or quality owed to God or nature, but
capable of choice, and thus creating its own reality. This is beautifully
articulated by Dr. Shariati when he says, "In comparison with
capitalism, which reconstituted man as an economic animal; in comparison with
Marxism which found man an object made of organised matter; in comparison with
Catholicism, which saw him as the unwitting plaything of an imperious unseen
power (the Divine Will); in comparison with dialectical materialism, which saw
him as the unwitting plaything of the deterministic evolution of the means of
production. It paid him the grandest worship: All beings of this world realise
their existence after their essence is determined, except man, who creates his
essence subsequent to his existence."
Lastly, we come to the fourth category of humanism, that of religion. Religion
proclaims its own world-view, with its own mission for the guidance of
humanity. While, we have noticed that Christianity (Catholicism in particular)
has created a god similar to Zeus, in eastern religions humanity has a unique
relationship with the God of the worlds. Especially, in Hinduism, we see the
other extreme where we find man and god(s) so much intermingled as to be
essentially inseparable. In Islam, however, while the gap from man to God is
infinite, that from God to man is altogether eliminated. Man is bestowed with
Divine spirit, entrusted with divine trust.
Islamic concept of human dignity relies upon the theme of oneness of God (Surah
al-Ikhlas), oneness of our ancestors (Qur'an 49:13), and oneness of our
religion (Qur'an 23:51-52). Universal peace in the light of Islam presupposes
peace of conscience (that is peace within one's self), peace at home, peace in
society and finally peace in the world. Universal brotherhood is one of the
cardinal principles of Islam, and this important matter is completely ignored
by all other religions. The Qur'an describes the Islamic ummah to be a middle (wasat)
nation and the best (khayr) ummah ever raised on the ground that they
believe in one God, enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong. Islam urges
its followers to rescue humanity from all man-made bondages and to fight
against injustice to dignify man. War is waged only against injustice and
despotism and to rescue humanity from oppression.
In closing let us say that Islam is a manifesto of human liberation. It frees
man from worship of others; sovereignty belongs truly to the creator. Its first
summons, "Say, there is no god but Allah, and prosper",
propounds Tauhid as the necessary means to that end.
By: Dr. Habib Siddiqui. (The author of the book, Islamic Wisdom)
The above essay was delivered as a speech at the University of
California, Santa Barbara.
The Muslim World League Journal, vol. 36, No. 3, March 2008.
by Prisoner Of Joy at 2:59 PM