The Meaning of Humanism

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The following is an excerpt from Islam Between East and West by ‘Alija ‘Ali Izetbegović (1925–2003), which was first published in 1984. The best remark that can be made about this book is one that I came across in a review posted on Amazon in 2011 by Julia Simpson: “This is a heady distillation of intellectual Muslim thought, demonstrating the kind of man Izetbegovic was. I once gave this book to my father (an agnostic) who said, ‘He’s so intelligent it’s scary.’ Islam Between East and West is a modern treatise on cultures and civilization which attempts to show how so many philosophies have failed to give human beings what they need.” I really can’t recommend this book highly enough.


Man is not tailored according to Darwin, nor is the universe tailored to Newton.

To strive for enjoyment and to flee from pain — with this lapidary sentence, two great materialistic thinkers, Epicurus in antiquity and Holbach in modern times, defined the basic principles of life, not only of human life but also than of animals. Materialism always stresses what is common to animals and humans, while religion stresses what makes them different. The meaning of some cults and religious prohibitions is only to underline these differences.

In its effort to emphasize the animal nature of human beings, materialism sometimes shows more than a common concern for truth. A good example of this is the stubborn insistence that sexual relations were completely free during a great part of prehistory. Every woman belonged to every man and every man to every woman. Engels openly admitted that there is no direct proof that it was really so, but still he continued to insist upon it in his The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the StateNot scientific truth but ideological decision is the decisive factor here.

Darwin did not make man an animal, but he made him aware of his animal origin. Out of this “awareness,” the others continued to draw the “appropriate conclusions,” both moral and political: a human society is a flock in civilized form, and civilization is the human awakening which goes accompanied with the rejection of prohibitions, power over nature, living with the senses instead of the spirit, and so forth.

By establishing the unity (or continuation) between animal and man, evolution abolished the difference between nature and culture. Starting from a quite different point, religion reestablished this difference. Therefore, from the act of creation, man — and all culture with him — inexorably has opposed the whole development of human history. The divergence between culture and civilization began here. While Camus indicated that “Man is an animal which refuses to be so,” Whitehead saw in this negation the essence of the religious attitude, “this great rejection.” Religion seems to say: look what the animals do, and do the opposite; they devour — you should fast; they mate — you should abstain; they live in flocks — you should try to live alone; they strive for enjoyment and flee from pain — you should expose yourself to difficulties. In a word, they live with their bodies, but you should live with your spirit.

Rejection of this zoological position, this “negative desire” which cannot be explained by Darwinian and rational theories, is the crucial fact of human life on this planet. This fact may be the human damnation or privilege, but is the only specific quality which makes one a human being.

In reality, there exist both a complete parallelism and an absolute incongruity between man and animal. We find conformity in the biological, constitutional — that is, the mechanical aspect, but on the other hand, there is actually no parallel since an animal is innocent, sinless, and morally neutral like a thing. Man is never so and from the moment “animal became humanized,” from the dramatic “prologue in heaven,” or from the famous “fall to earth,” man cannot choose to be an innocent animal. Man was set “free without the option to return,” and so every Freudian solution is excluded. From that moment on, he could no longer be an animal or a man; he could only be man or non-man.

If man was simply the most perfect animal, his life would be simple and without mysteries. Still, since is not so because he is a “worm of the earth and a child of heaven” and because he was created, he is a disharmonious being, and Euclid’s harmony is not possible. Not only our fundamental truth but also our sins and vices are based on the fact of the creation.

There we find our human dignity, moral striving, and tragedies as well as our dilemmas, dissatisfaction, damnation, cruelty, and malice. An animal knows none of them and in this lies the meaning of this epoch-making moment.

The question of creation is really the question of human freedom. If one accepts that man has no freedom, that all his action are predetermined — either by what is inside or what is outside him — one may consider that God is not necessary for an explanation and understanding of the world. However, if one gives man freedom, if one considers him responsible, one recognizes the existence of God, tacitly or openly. Only God was able to create a free creature, and freedom could only arise by the act of creation. Freedom is not the result of product of evolution. Freedom and product are disparate ideas. God does not product or construct. He creates. We used to say the same for artists, for the artist who constructs does not create a personality but rather a poster of man. A personality cannot be constructed. I do not know what a portrait could mean without God. Maybe, sooner or later, during this century or after a million years of continued civilization, man will succeed in constructing an imitation of himself, a kind of robot or monster, something very similar to its constructor. This human-looking monster may look very much like a man, but one this is certain: it will not have freedom, it will be able to do only what it has been programmed to do. In this lies the greatness of God’s creation which cannot be repeated or compared with anything that has happened before or after the cosmos. In one eon of eternity, a free bing started to exist. Without a divine touch, the result of evolution would not have been man, but rather a more developed animal, a super-animal, a creature with a human body and intelligence but without a heart and personality. Its intelligence without moral scruples might even be more efficient but, at the same time, more cruel. Some people imagine this type of creature as coming from a far planet; others see it as a product of our civilization on some high level of development. There is such a creature in Goethe’s Faust, but it is a quasi-man — a homunculus. It should be noted that there is no analogy between this cruelly indifferent creature, homunculus, and the worst criminal. Man can choose to go against the moral laws, but he cannot, as a monster, stay out of the moral sphere, beyond good and evil. He cannot “switch off” himself.

Practical moral experience shows man’s greater inclination to sin than his striving to do good. His ability to fall deep into sin seems to be greater than to soar up into the heights of virtue. Negative personalities always seem truer than positive ones, and the poet who describes negative characters has an advantage over the one who describes heroes.

Anyhow, men are always good or bad but never innocent, and this could be the ultimate meaning of the biblical story about the fall, the original sin. From the moment of the expulsion from paradise, Adam (man) could not rid himself of his freedom, nor escape from the drama, to be as innocent as an animal or an angel. He has to choose, to use his freedom, to be good or evil; in one word, to be man. This ability to choose, regardless of result, is the highest form of existence possible in the universe.

Man has a soul, but psychology is not the science about it. There cannot exist a science about the soul. Psychology deals with some forms of apparent inner life. This is why it is possible to talk about psycho-physiology, psychometry, psycho-hygiene, and the physics of the psyche. The possibility of quantitative psychology confirms the thesis of the outer, mechanical, and quantitative, that is, the soulless nature of thought and feeling. Animal and human psychology may complement each other, for psychology has nothing to do with the soulnly with the psychological manifestations. John Watson writes: “Human psychology, as understood by behaviorism, must be built upon the example of the objective and experimental psychology of animals, borrowing from its way of examining, its method, and its aim. As such, there do not exist two types of psychology (human and animal), separated from each other; by an iron curtain, not knowing each other; having basically different objects, methods, and aims; but only one psychology which takes its place among the natural sciences.” This quotation needs no comment. If we use Islamic terms, we may say that psychology is the science of the nafsand not of the rūh, that is, a science on the biological and not on the personal level. There are three circles (the mechanical, the biological, and the personal) which correspond to the three degrees of reality (matter, life, and personality). This way of thinking leads to the application of the scientific method, which always implies an absolute causality, and this by itself means the negation of freedom which is the essence of the soul. Our attempt to “study” the soul in psychology brings us necessarily to the negation of the “subject of study.” There is no way out of the bewitched circle.

The equality and brotherhood of people is possible only if man is created by God. The equality of man is a spiritual and not a natural, physical, or intellectual fact. It exists as a moral quality of man, as the human dignity, as the equal value of the human personality. On the contrary, as physical, thinking, and social beings; as members of groups, classes, political groupings, and nations; people are always very unequal. If man’s spiritual value is not recognized — this fact of religious character — the only real base of human equality is lost. Equality, then, becomes a mere phrase without a base and content and, as such, it will soon retreat, faced with the evident facts of human inequality or with the natural human desire to rule and to obey and thus to be unequal. As soon as the religious approach is removed, the empty room is filed by different forms of inequality — racial, national, social, or political.

Man’s dignity could not be discovered by biology, psychology, or by any other science. Man’s dignity is a spiritual question. After “objective observations,” it is easier for science to confirm the inequality of man, and so, “scientific racism” is quite possible and even logical.

Humanism is not charity, forgiveness, and tolerance, although that is the necessary result of it. Humanism is primarily the affirmation of man and his freedom, namely, of his value as a man.

Everything that debases man’s personality, that brings him down to a thing, is inhuman. For instance, it is human to state that man is responsible for his deeds and to punish him. It is not human to ask him to regret, to change his mind, to “improve,” and to be pardoned. It is more human to prosecute a man for his beliefs than to force him to renounce them, giving him the well-known chance called “taking into consideration his sincere attitude.” So, there are punishments which are human, and pardonings which are most inhuman. The inquisitors claimed that they burned the body to save the soul. Modern inquisitors do the opposite: they “burn” the soul as the compensation for the body.

To reduce a man to the function of a producer and a consumer, even if every man is give his place in production and consumption, does not signal humanism but dehumanization.

To drill people to produce correct and disciplined citizens is likewise inhuman.

Education, too, can be inhuman: if it is one-sided, directed, and indoctrinated; if it does not teach one to think independently, if it only gives ready-made answers; if it prepares people only for different functions instead of broadening their horizons and thereby their freedom.

Every manipulation of people, even if it is done in their own interest, is inhuman. To think for them and to free them from their responsibilities and obligations is also inhuman. Our quality of man obliges us. When God gave man the ability to choose and threatened him with severe punishments, He confirmed in the highest way the value of man as a man. We have to follow the example set by God: let us leave man to struggle for himself, instead of doing it for him.

Without religion and the concept of man’s ever-striving spirit, as stated in the “prologue in heaven,” there is no authentic belief of man as the highest value. Without it, there is no belief that man as man is at all possible and that he really exists. Atheistic humanism is a contradiction because if there is no God, then there is no man either. Also, if there is no man, humanism is a phrase without essence. The one who does not acknowledge the creation of man does not understand the real meaning of humanism. Since he has lost his basic standard, he will always reduce humanism to the production of goods and their distribution according to need. To make sure that all people are fed is of course a matter of great concern, but knowing affluent societies of today, we cannot be sure that in this way we would get a better and more humane world. It would be even less humane if the ideas of some people about general leveling, uniformity, and depersonification were put into practice. In such a world, as described by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, there would be no social problems, and evenness, uniformity, and stability would reign everywhere. Nonetheless, all of us consciously or instinctively reject this vision as an example of general dehumanization.

“Man is a product of his environment” — this basic postulate of materialism served as the starting point of all subsequent inhuman human beings, which in our time reached monstrous proportions during the time of Nazism and Stalinism. All other similar seductive theories of society’s priority over individuals, of man’s obligation to serve society, and so forth, belong here as well. Man must not serve anybody; he must not be a means. Everything must serve man, and man must serve God only. This is the ultimate meaning of humanism.


For in-depth discussions with Mohamed Ghilan on books such as the one featured in this Vignette through an Islamic perspective, join Andalus Book Club.

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