Man’s Nature and Islam

The last two blogs looked at the compatibility of shari’a and US law from the perspectives of:  (1) the separation of church and state, and (2) the form of governance.  It is clear that shari’a not only contradicts, but that it is also incompatible with our founding principles.  This is simply a matter of fact as previously outlined.  In this post we’ll look at another area, that of the philosophical basis of Islam.  We’ve stated several times that the reasoning and consensus of the Islamic clerics was applied in:  (1) the creation of the Sunna, (2) the creation of the rules limiting the number of variant readings of the Qur’an, and (3) the identification of the trustworthy hadith.  But what were the philosophical and basis of reasoning that were applied, and do they matter?

We can go back to a very early post and Raphael’s painting of the Schools of Athens.  In the center of that painting are the two figures below – Plato and his student Aristotle.  Plato is pointing toward heaven and God while Aristotle has his hand extended over the earth.  They represent two separate threads of thought about existence, morality, and knowledge.

Clement of Alexandria stated that none of the Greek philosophers ever fully understood First Cause, God, but that Plato came closer to it than any of those philosophers.  Aristotle professed a more traditional pagan view that was centered on man and the earth.  We can see the development of each thread through the timeline below.  This timeline, of course, does not cover all of the writings within each of them, but it does cover subject matter relevant to this blog’s topic.

The writings of those following Plato balanced The One and The Many with transcendence and immanence.  In Middle Platonism, to which Clement was responding, the two issues were blended, with single unity being transcendent and complex unity being immanent.  However, within the neo-platonic line of thought represented by Plotinus a single simple unity is supreme.  Any complex unity must have a higher simple unity.  To Plotinus, The One was a transcendent simple unity beyond all being, essence, and thought. 

One relevant concept is that of free-will, the freedom of choice that our society is based upon.  Within the thread of theology/philosophy developed by Clement, Augustine, and Thomas, free-will is a positive.  It is necessary in enabling us to fulfill our purpose of coming to know our Creator and becoming like him to the extent we are able.  We have been given a mind and reason in order to come to know Him.  This is possible because our mind and reason are our likeness to Him.  ‘For it is not possible to attain it (faith) without the exercise of free choice.’  Neither is knowledge without faith, nor faith without knowledge.  As He is Good, we come to know him and become like Him, to the extent we are able, by acquiring and exercising virtue.  And all ‘virtue should be the object of voluntary choice.’

Compare this to the other thread, exemplified by Plotinus.  In his writings, free-will is not a positive, but rather the negation of a negative.  In other words, free-will is what you have when you are not coerced.  This implies that man’s natural state is one of being coerced, that of being controlled - a slave either to another or to one’s own desires.  Augustine spent several chapters in his work, The City of God, refuting the arguments of Plotinus and his student Porphyry. 

Why does all of this matter?  Plotinus philosophy was generally known during Augustine’s lifetime, and as indicated by Goldziher, it had a significant influence on Islam’s development.  As unity is superior to the many, any many must be bound by a single simple unity.  The One is a single absolute power, without being, essence, or thought.  It is pure will and the only power which is capable of creation.  It is inscrutable and extrinsic; it can only be known through those things that it causes – but none of those things are a part of its nature.  Further, it is the only force who can cause anything as it is the source of everything.  This concept became Allah.  And as we can see from the above arguments related to free-will, Islam presents a notion of man’s nature and purpose that is contradictory to the one that our nation was founded upon.

How can one be free if they do not have the ability to make their own choices, if they were created merely a slave?  Our Creator gave the gift of free will to men as it is essential to their purpose.  Through His absolute foreknowledge of the choices each and every one of us would make, and the love He has for each one of us, even our bad choices are turned toward His good.  Clement said the following about Providence.  ‘For the Providence which extends to us form God is not ministerial, as that service which proceeds from inferiors to superiors.  But in pity for our weakness, the continual dispensations of Providence work.  As the care of shepherds towards the sheep, and of a king towards his subjects.’  ‘It is accordingly the greatest achievement of divine Providence, not to allow the evil, which has sprung from voluntary apostasy, to remain useless, and for no good . . . but especially to ensure that what happens through the evils hatched by any, may come to a good and useful issue, and to use to advantage those things which appear to be evils, as also the testimony which accrues from temptation.’

Posted in: Islam


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About Dan Wolf

Dan WolfMy goal is that my writing will help you to get started on your own journey of discovery, or help you along the way on a journey you may have already begun. Our Founders considered education, religion, morality, and virtue to be the cornerstones for any successful society. Being successful requires understanding both the languages of reason and faith; reason alone is insufficient.