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The Constructive Role of the Intellect and Faith

Islam considers the faculty of the intellect to have a fundamental role in the development of human beings and emphasises its employment for free thought and action throughout life, so that every person may put to use his powers of cognition in order to realise his genuine humanity. Nevertheless, it does not place an excessive reliance on this fundamental element and does not consider it sufficient to extinguish the flames of desires. The intellect should not play an ineffectual role in the transitions of life and it must be capable of raising man from the animal plane to a plane above the rule of instincts and lusts.

From the viewpoint of Islam that which distinguishes man from other animals is not limited to his perceptual and rational faculties. Rather it is faith and a special mode of cognition that makes man superior to all other animals. Here he has been burdened with responsibility by the system of creation and so, in a way fitting his human functions, he must employ his faith and cognitive faculties throughout the ups and downs of life and in the conduct of his individual and social affairs.

For his salvation and happiness man stands in need of a spiritual means that may give him a clear vision of life. That illuminating agent is insight in relation to the sacred Essence of God, which is the sole means that can remove the scales of ignorance and every kind of deviance from the eyes of the soul and bring about spiritual resurrection.

The faith in God produces many results of a positive character in human life. It is the source of the individual's freedom and a change that plays a crucial role in the growth of the human personality- When the effects of faith in God appear in all the vital functions, there is a decisive reduction in the pressure of animal urges that helps liberate the individual from the terrible grip of the carnal self.

That is because faith in the Sustainer makes the individual steadfast in his resistance to passing corporeal pleasures and expands the soul's capacities; whereas turning one's back to God and spirituality and inclining towards such pleasures produces emotional stagnation and the degeneration of one's spiritual personality, bringing man down from the sublime station of humanity and moral excellence to the decadent level of savageness and nescience.

None of the systems of education that are products of the human mind has the power and ability to bring under control man's unbridled greed and psychic deviations, because these new systems of education rely solely on reason and science.

Max Planck, the well-known German physicist, says;

Mankind in its daily life stands in need of a principle, a principle the need for which is more pressing than the thirst for scientific knowledge. It is necessary that man should possess a source of guidance other than that of pure reason. The law of causality is the guide of science. It is here that reason should give way to morality, and scientific knowledge to religious faith. 5

Accordingly, as long as the light of guidance does not illuminate the world's horizons and human hearts are not revived through the growth of the religious motive, human principles and doctrines cannot bring about the vigour and sublimity in society necessary for it to shoulder the burden of civilisation and its crucial responsibilities.

It should be noted that Islam never demands abstinence from the legitimate pleasures that have been created by God for the benefit of His creatures. On the one hand the Noble Qur'an declares that it does not befit the exalted station of humanity that man should get drowned in the fierce waves of lust, sink into neglect and ignorance of the realities of life, and curtail the scope of his thought:

Tempting and pleasing to (short-sighted) people is the love of carnal lusts-women, children, heaped-up piles of gold and silver, horses of mark, cattle and tillage. All that is the enjoyment of the present life, but God-with Him is the fairest resort. (3:14)

On the other hand, it not only acknowledges the role of material things in the life of man, but even condemns the negative kind of asceticism and abstinence from lawful pleasures:

Say (O Prophet): 'Who has forbidden the ornament of God which He brought forth for His servants and the good things of His providing?' Say: 'These in this world are for those who have faith and on the Day of Resurrection they shall have purer and better than these. ' So do We expound Our sings for a people who have a clean perception and knowledge. (7:32)

Submission to transitory materialistic pleasures amounts to degrading the faculty of thought and granting them a fundamental role in life. The glamour of mundane enjoyments draws a veil over the hearts of hollow and misguided persons lacking will that stops the Diving light from shining upon it. As a result, they are deprived of thought and constructive ideas without realising it themselves.

Islam gives to man a wholesome personality, the power of thoughts and a valuable stability, so that the individual may properly fulfil his basic role in the making of himself and society and liberate himself from the bondage of lust without being deprived of bodily pleasures.

The person presented by Islam as a finished product of its education is a thoughtful human being, positive, active and disciplined, a human being whose cognition, thoughts and conduct, and, ultimately, all the aspects of whose life are informed with a peculiar moderation and harmony. His free and well-developed psyche brings about an inner balance that not only gives him the capacity not to get submerged in earthly pleasures and the world of matter but to rise to the sublimest peaks in its ascent towards its sacred ideal by elevating itself to a sphere above the gravity of the mundane.

In Islamic teaching, self-purification is the first stage in man's ascent towards human merit and excellence. The Noble Qur'an mentions it as the preparatory stage for instruction in knowledge and science-

It is He Who raised up from among the unlettered Arabs a Messenger from among them, to recite His signs to them and to purify them (from the filth of vices and corrupt morals), and to teach them the Book and the Wisdom, though before that they were all in manifest error. (62:2)

This basic principle is a criterion and measure for gauging man's reality. Knowledge and material power are not worthy criteria for measuring man's reality, because they are not comprehensive and take into consideration only a single aspect of that reality.

Obviously the results of any measurement are erroneous to the extent of the error in the measuring standard. Of course, knowledge is man's distinctive characteristic, a genuine human product and achievement, and the foundations of his life rest upon knowledge. But if man should be rich in respect of the genuine human aspect that lifts him over the world of the corporeal to a higher realm, he is easily capable of compensating what he lacks from the viewpoint of knowledge and learning, whereas knowledge alone cannot compensate for a lack of humanity.

Whenever man has been able to make an ascent through self-purification and in respect of the human criterion while also benefiting from the results of science, he has been truly capable of making an all-round progress on an extensive level.

'Ali, the Commander of the Faithful, may peace be upon him, says concerning the value of self-purification and acquisition of moral virtues:

If, supposedly, we did not have to hope for paradise and fear from hell and had there been no promise of reward or any threat of punishment, it would still behove us to seek moral virtues and excellences, because the acquisition of desirable qualities and the practice of virtue leads to happiness and felicity in life and is one of the important means of salvation. 6

He also says:

Dominate your desires before they become violent and defiant, because if rebellious urges are allowed to grow in their aggressiveness and obstinacy, they will come to dominate you and pull you in whatever direction they like. In that case you will lose the power to resist them. 7

One who is a slave of his lust is many times more abject than an actual slave. 8

One who dominates his desires preserves his human dignity and worth. 9

Will Durant says:

Our urges and motives are like the wind that drives a sailing ship. However, the ship's sails should not be left to themselves, in which case they will carry us like slaves wherever they wish. Everyone in his lifetime has come across one of those who are caught in the bondage of greed, lust, or bellicosity.

Unrestrained freedom of each qualities is self-destructive. You have heard the story of the sons of Cyrus left free by their nurses to do anything they wished and who as a result grew up to be base and corrupt persons. Hence the domination of reason over desires and urges is the real essence of wisdom and the instrument of self-restraint. Self-control is the most significant thing necessary for self-development. 10

The locus and criterion of responsibility throughout the Islamic system is free will. Man has been given the freedom of thought and the freedom to translate it into action, which is his distinctive characteristic1 so that he may direct his effort, which is the real driving force behind progress, in the way of attaining true humanity.

Although man is not free in respect of the urges and drives that motivate him, he is completely free in regard to the manner In which they are satisfied. By the means of the will, which governs his acts and faculties of perception, he can turn to the higher plane of psychological and intellectual activity and develop an outstanding and worthy personality for himself, and with a constancy of effort, advance further each day towards human felicity and a respectable station in society. Or, on the contrary, he can corrupt and destroy his personality by nurturing his personal qualities on the basis of conformity to destructive urges.

Imam al-Sadiq, may peace be upon him, said:

If two days of someone's life are equal in respect of the development of higher human qualities, he is a loser in the bargain of his life. The person whose today is better spent than his yesterday is one who is worthy of being envied by others. But the one whose every day passes in the condition of perpetual retrogression is one who is deprived of God's mercy and favour. And the one who does not find a progress within himself in respect of spirituality and moral virtues and merits. such a person is prone to loss and retrogression, and death is better that life for a person who treads the path of retrogression. 11

Paul Clement Jagot writes :

In order to avoid mental dispersion and the division of personality, which easily put out the idea of self-control, one must resort to a scrupulous division of one's time. On the other hand, the ordering of life according to a premeditated programme diminishes impressionability and prepares the unconscious mind for balanced thought.

For this purpose, it is sufficient to let one's imagination delve for some moments upon the foreseeable tasks of the next day. This can be done just before going to bed or at some other appropriate time. This action leads to the formation of an invaluable habit, which is orderliness.

Those who lack this order but do not imagine that they would achieve it the very first day in a miraculous manner, when they make some kind of plans to achieve it, observe from the beginning that their habitual disorderliness vanishes in certain respects in the course of the very first sessions. As progress follows, it alternately follows a rising and falling curve.

However, this should not be a cause for surprise, for the leading thoughts, after alternate variations, lead to realisation of the purpose and create a background of order, which leads to an increase in the level of daily activity. This increase, together with greater means of action, broaden one's possibilities with greater fruitfulness, continuous acquisition of knowledge and more profitable opportunities. 12

The struggle against one's destructive urges and the carnal self is without doubt a very difficult task. Victory over such inner inclinations has been considered in the Islamic school of thought as the most salient sign of an individual's superiority and capability. It is a matter of great pride for man to be able to begin the programme of his self-development by subjugating his inner urges in order to raise his personality to the highest levels of sublimity.

Imam al-Sadiq, may peace be upon him, said:

Before death approaches you and brings about a separation between your soul and body, restrain your soul from such desires as are harmful for it. Strive to liberate your soul in the same way as you toil for your livelihood, for without doubt your soul is entirely depended for its welfare on your conduct and character. 13

Dr. Alexis Carrel says:

Spontaneous mental growth is always inadequate. Man does not attain complete mental growth without the intervention of the will. Everyone knows that the development of muscles and bodily members depends on conscious effort and one cannot become a champion without regular exercises.

Similarly, one must make efforts to develop his mental faculties. If the pupil has no will to learn, the most capable of teachers cannot teach him anything. The study of a set of morals does not make anyone righteous, nor does our spirit yield to compulsion.

Like one's character, the formation of personality, as Bergson says, depends upon one's own efforts. To this end, one must draw upon all one's physical and spiritual capacities and order one's inner life in an ideal manner, developing a powerful spirit within himself.

This marvel occurs everyday in the course of human history, and it is mostly from humble families that great men arise, but everyone, learned or illiterate, poor or rich, young or old, can, if he will, draw upon the spiritual energy that lies in the depths of his being. 14

'Ali, may peace be upon him, said:

The worst kind of poverty and inadequacy is the deficiency of one's psyche and personality. 15

That is because spiritual inadequacies lead man more often to wretchedness and misery than material shortcomings. When the soul becomes sick and darkness is cast upon it, a wrong mode of thinking and an unhealthy state of feelings and emotions lead the person into wrong conduct and behaviour. When that happens, he loses his sense of reality as well as his inner spiritual vision and abuses his inner creative powers as well as the available material means.

The development of personality is subject to the criteria of values in life. The development of personal qualities and merits is also based on values. Should man pursue purity and moral excellence in a resolute and steadfast manner, his mind is prepared to accept the qualities of spiritual purity, and should he be after impurities and moral defilement, he will advance towards the precipice of destruction. It is inconceivable that someone who is in pursuit of vice should turn out to be clean and pure in the end.

If man does not confine his freedom within certain reasonable limits and keep the arena of his rebellious urges confined within certain bounds, he will yield to their slavery and they will carry him off in every direction. Obviously, that means self-abasement and debasing one's human dignity. This indignity and humiliation keeps him from attaining the perfection worthy of him, and his spirit and thought will never be able to make their ascent towards wider and more expansive horizons. He will, then, lose even the inclination to rise over the plane of corporeal matters although he may have the sufficient power to make such an ascent.

The only way to bring about a balance and equilibrium between the ascent of the soul and the pressure and heaviness that pulls the soul down towards decadence and fall is establishment of a steady and enduring bond between God and man, for the greater the degree of one's separation from God, the stronger is the inclination towards deviance in his being.

Islam sows the seeds of godfearing and piety in the heart of every person. At the same time it does not permit within its realm any separation between faith and conduct so that he may always keep God in view, in his thought, perception and conduct-a God aware of all the secrets of his heart. Moreover, it stirs up the love of God within his being and the desire to seek His good pleasure.

As long as human virtues lack a firm and stable basis, they can have no firm foothold. Faith is the natural companion of virtue, into which it breaths life and gives it sincerity and steadiness. In this way everyone is made to feel that purity and rectitude are things that must be established within his inner self, not some abstract ideals relating to human merit and a positive personality that exists only in the imagination while one's conduct continues in some other course without realising any spiritual benefits in actual life.

In order to keep the waves of desires in check, Islam always makes use of the power of self-restraint. This orderly, aware and purposive restraint involves the soul's accounting of itself on the basis of acknowledged principles based on wisdom and design. By this means it brings about a state of harmony among the divergent urges of the individual, as an independent personality as well as a member of society, and imposes such limits upon them as to stabilise the individual's position vis-à-vis society and the society's in relation to the individual, whereas man himself has always given precedence to one of these over the other, sacrificing the individual for social ends or neglecting society for the sake of individual benefit.

When such a harmony comes to exist in the human being, both the individual and society are set in order and all people become balanced in their thoughts and conduct and everyone will carry out his duties in accordance with his God-given nature.

But when the vision is obstructed and thought stagnates, man is kept from perceiving realities. Then he can no longer realise the defects of his personality and his inadequacies, to the extent that if he were to come to know them he would be struck with amazement or even recoil in disdain.

'Ali, may peace be upon him, said:

If one were to realise the defects and shortcomings of his personality, he would regard them with disdain and aversion. 16

Schopenhauer says:

In the same way as man does not feel the weight of his own body, he does not notice his own ugly habits, unseemly acts, and unworthy conduct. On the contrary he is always attentive to the defects and shortcomings of others. Others, like a mirror, reflect our defects and shortcomings, but we don't notice them and imagine that the image we observe in the mirror belongs to someone else. 17

Hence one must awaken one's soul from its slumber so that it may open its eyes and see facts. This awakening makes a most wonderful impact on the being of man and in this state he feels as if he has found a new life and his being has undergone a renewal. That is because the opening of the soul's eyes affects one's entire life with all its great expanse and sets a decadent personality back on the course of development.

'Ali, may peace be upon him, describes the significant role of thought and contemplation in these words:

Accustom yourself to thought and contemplation, because that will deliver you from misguidance and reform your character and conduct. 18

The contemplation of good actions leads man to perform good acts. 19

The people's immersion in thought concerning some thing is the preparatory stage for that thing's coming into existence. 20

Dr. Marden, writing about thought and its beneficial results, says:

In this world thought is the regulator of everything. This fact did not come to light for a long time and was hidden from common view. When people realised the significance of thought, they regarded it with veneration and acclaim.

However, they imagined it to be a fixed and unchanging power exclusively possessed by exceptional and rare minds. It was only in recent years that the art of thinking has been subjected to study and research and attracted the attention of the populace. These studies have shown that we can modify our moral characteristics with the help of thought, alter the external factors of our life-or at least the influence of these factors on ourselves-and, as a result, attain happiness and success. In any case, the educative possibilities of thought are unlimited and its results are inexhaustible.

Every thought is a stroke of the chisel that carves out the marble of life. Hence we must decide to focus our thinking on nobler ends, utilise it for worthy goals, and muster all our will power to implement this resolution.

With all your conscious faculties you must be convinced that thought has absolute sovereignty over your fortunes, and that every thought has its own share in shaping your destiny. You must believe that if you direct your thoughts in a worthy direction, good fortune will come to you in a very natural and easy manner.

The role played by thought in the material and spiritual flow of life is gradually becoming ever more evident, and those who disagree with one another on various issues are unanimous on this matter. The results of practical experience have convinced the most sceptical of persons of the truth of this matter and technical experiments have further reinforced the views of thinkers in this regard. 21

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5. Planck, Max, 'Ilm beh kuja mi ravad, p. 234.

6. Adab al-nafs, vol. 1, p. 26.

7. Al-Amidi, Ghurar al-hikam, p. 498.

8. Ibid., p.510.

9. Al-Nuri, Mustadrak al-Wasa'il, vol. 2, p. 287.

10. Durant, Will, The Pleasures of Philosophy, Persian trans. Ladhdhat-e falsafeh, p. 228.

11. Al-Saduq, Ma'ani al-akhbar, p. 342.

12. Jagot, Paul Clement, Theories et procedes de l'hypnotisme course d 'entainement experimental, Pers. trans. Talqin bi nafs by Mahmud Nawa'i (Tehran, 1362), p. 96.

13. Al-Nuri, Mustadrak, vol. 2, p. 310.

14. Carrel, Alexis, Reflexions sur la conduite de la vie. Pers. trans., Rah wa rasm-e zindagi, pp. 61.

15. Al-Amidi, Ghurar, p. 446.

16. Ibid. p. 604.

17. Schopenhauer, op. cit., p. 93.

18. Al-Amidi, Ghurar, p. 481.

19. Ibid. p. 396

20. Ibid. p. 51.

21. Marden, Orison Swett, The Victorious Attitude, Pers. trans. Piruzi-ye fikr, pp. 7, 8, 10.

Adapted from: "Ethics and Spiritual Growth" by: "Sayyid Mujtaba Musawi Lari"

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