The Qur'an and the Voice of Nature
Today many scientists reject Freud's view and consider the conscience to be an innate part of man's nature. The thinkers who have employed the powers of sound and active intellect for acquiring the knowledge of man and the universe have affirmed the innate phenomenon of conscience. They have been led to the conviction that inclination toward virtue and repulsion from vice has natural roots in our being, that the system of creation has placed this blessed asset in the innate nature of every human being.
Here, along with some relevant verses of the Glorious Qur'an, we shall cite the views of some Western thinkers and scholars concerning this matter.
The Holy Qur'an considers man's inner faculty of discrimination between good and evil, virtue and vice as a Divine inspiration invested in his being.
By the soul, and That which shaped it and inspired it to lewdness and godfearing! (91:7-8)
Jean Jacques Rousseau writes:
Cast your eyes over every nation of the world; peruse every volume of its history; in the midst of all these strange and cruel forms of worship, among this amazing variety of manners and customs, you will everywhere find the same ideas of right and justice, everywhere the same principles of morality, the same ideas of good and evil.... There is therefore at the bottom of our hearts an innate principle of justice and virtue, by which, in spite of our maxims, we judge our own actions or those of others to be good or evil, and it is this principle that I call conscience ...
Self-interest, so they say, induces each of us to agree for the common good. But how is it that the good man consents to this to his own hurt? Does a man go to death from self-interest? No doubt each man acts for his own good, but if there is no such thing as moral good to be taken into consideration, self-interest will only enable you to account for the deeds of the wicked; possibly you will not attempt to do more. A philosophy which could find no place for good deeds would be too detestable.... If such doctrines ever took root among us, the voice of nature, together with the voice of reason, would constantly protest against them, till no adherent of such teaching would plead an honest excuse for his partisanship ...
The decrees of conscience are not judgements but feelings. Although all our ideas come from without, the feelings by which they are weighed are within us, and it is by these feelings alone that we perceive fitness or unfitness of things in relation to ourselves, which lead us to seek or shun these things.... To know good is not to love it; this knowledge is not innate in man, but as soon as his reason leads him to perceive it, his conscience impels him to love it, and it is this feeling which is innate ...
Conscience! Conscience! Divine instinct, immortal voice from heaven, sure guide for a creature ignorant and finite indeed, yet intelligent and free; infallible judge of good and evil, making man like to God! In thee consists the excellence of man's nature and the morality of his actions; apart from thee, I find nothing in myself to raise me above the beasts- nothing but the sad privilege of wandering from one error to another, by the help of an unbridled understanding and a reason which knows no principle.
Thanks heaven we have got rid of all that alarming show of philosophy; we may be men without being scholars; now that we need not spend our life in the study of morality, we have found a less costly and surer guide through this vast labyrinth of human thought. But it is not enough to be aware that there is such a guide. We must know her and follow her. If she speaks to all hearts, how is it that so few give heed to her voice? She speaks to us in the language of nature, and everything leads us to forget that tongue. Conscience is timid, she loves peace and retirement; she is startled by noise and numbers; the prejudices from which she is said to arise are her worst enemies. She flees before them or she is silent; their noisy voices drown her words so that she cannot get a hearing; fanaticism dares to counterfeit her voice and to inspire crimes in her name. She is discouraged by ill-treatment; she no longer speaks to us, no longer answers to our call; when she has been scorned so long, it is hard to recall her as it was to banish her. 8
Prof. Friedman says:
The voice of conscience is not a product of education or training or some other agency; rather, it is a part of the human personality. Whoever that rises to a high and distinguished position in society or becomes a standard-bearer of humanity, it is the voice of his conscience that guides him towards virtue and piety. 9
A psychologist says:
Conscience is not a contrived reaction but a most profound agent inherent in the human nature. Despite various kinds of repressive efforts, men cannot silence or expunge the conscience. Moreover, the stability and extraordinary persistence of conscience, even in severe illnesses and in the course of madness and psychic disorders, and its survival even after the dimming of the light of intelligence, bear testimony, as said earlier, to its greatly significant and prominent position in the human psyche.
Some scientists ask themselves whether conscience is not a product of education and upbringing or that of religion. But it must be pointed out that salient features of this conscience have been found in primitive rituals. The expression of awe and dismay accompanying the seeking of forgiveness in these primitive tribes and also in many idol-worshipping peoples bear witness to the ancient character of conscience which has been with man since his beginnings. A denial of this fact is tantamount to utter failure in understanding the human psyche. 10
The Holy Qur'an declares:
Have We not appointed to him two eyes, and a tongue, and two lips, and guided him concerning the two highways (of goodness and virtue and of evil and vice) ? (90:8-10)
We created man of a sperm-drop, a mingling, trying him; and We made him hearing, seeing. (76:2)
Samuel Smiles writes:
Conscience is that peculiar faculty of the soul which may be called the religious instinct. It first reveals itself when we become aware of the strife between a higher and a lower nature within us-of spirit warring against flesh-of good striving for the mastery over evil... To enjoy spiritual freedom of the highest kind, the mind must have been awakened by knowledge. As the mind has become enlightened, and conscience shows its power, the responsibility of man is increased ...
Conscience is permanent and universal. It is the very essence of individual character. It gives a man self-control- the power of resisting temptations and defying them.... The only comprehensive and SUst;0ined exercise of self-control is to be attained through the ascendancy of conscience-in the sense of duty performed. It is; conscience alone which sets a man on his feet, frees him from the dominions of his own passions an propensities. It places him in relation to the best interests of his kind. The truest source of enjoyment is found in the paths of duty alone. Enjoyment will come as the unbidden sweetener of labour, and crown every right work. At its fullest growth, conscience bids men to whatever makes them happy in the highest sense, and forbear whatever makes them unhappy.... Without conscience, a man can have no higher principle of action than pleasure.... A race so constituted, with intellect and 1passions such as man possesses, and without the paramount influence of conscience to govern their deeds, would soon be consigned to utter anarchy, and terminate in mutual destruction. The greatest intellectual power may exist without a particle of magnanimity. The later comes from the highest power in mans mind-conscience, and from the highest faculty, reason, and capacity for faith- that by which man is capable of apprehending more than the senses supply.... The great lesson to be learnt is, that man must strengthen himself to perform his duty and do what is right, seeking his happiness and inward peace in objects that cannot be taken away from his. Conscience is the conflict by which we get the mastery over our own failings. It is a silent working of the inner man, bat which he proves his peculiar power of the will and spirit of God. 11
The Qur'an declares:
I swear by the Day of Resurrection I swear by the reproachful soul. (75:1-2)
In this verse the inner cry of reproach and blame that arises from the depths of man's conscience has been called 'the reproachful soul' (al-nafs al-lawwamah). This is the same inner faculty which the psychologists called 'conscience'.
Prof. Otto Friedman writes:
Someone may spend many hours drinking wine in a bar or while away his time on the gambling table or engage in playing tennis. In any case, while he is occupied with all such diversions he might have an inner feeling of disquiet which continuously torments him and deprives him from drawing any pleasure from his pastime. An inner voice reproaches him that you are wasting away the hours of your life. This voice constantly echoes in his conscience.
On the other hand, instead of engagement in such pastimes the thought may occur to one that it would be much better if he engages in the training of his children or tending his garden and plants. It is here that his conscience guides him towards good actions which are useful for himself as well as beneficial for others. It is here that one always keeps on comparing himself with others and his conscience keeps on reproaching him. The greater and the steadier one's obedience to the voice of conscience, the proportionately greater will be his creative power and spiritual strength and the greater his zeal and vigour in life. And the lesser is one's attention to the voice of conscience, to the same extent he will be more violent and unrestrained. 12
The Holy Prophet, may God bless him and his Household,
One who is overwhelmed by self-reproach loses all peace. 13
It may happen that one loses his equilibrium in a moment of carelessness and his base impulses get the better of him. As a consequence he is rendered wretched and miserable and its regret and shame remains with him for a lifetime. Imam 'Ali, may peace be upon him, said:
How often does an hour of pleasure leave behind a long-lasting misery. 14
Human societies in all ages have benefited from the inner agency of conscience in times of need. Individuals who are devoid of the moral feeling, for whom virtue and vice have no significance and who see pursuit of pleasure, food and lust as the purpose of life are like pieces of straw carried away by the flood of animal instincts and have no credibility or standing in any society, nation or community. When someone is trusted with a job, the presence of conscience is the presumed guarantee of its being carried out. There should be a good measure of confidence that he will act according to his duty. Otherwise it is unwise to delegate a task to someone whose conduct is suspect from the viewpoint of conscience or opposed to conscientious behaviour.
Islam has paid special attention to conscience and it bases the efforts at the improvement and betterment of social conduct on the individual's conscience. Islam tries to convince individuals to place a watchman in their inner souls which may restrain them from committing aggression and offence against others even in conditions of hostility and anger. The Qur'an warns human being in these words:
Let not detestation for a people move you to commit in justice. Be equitable-that is nearer to god-fearing. (5:8)
Accordingly no one has the right to aggress against others or violate the rights of others in any circumstances whatsoever. Positive law with the limited means at its disposal tries to restrain the human being from outside from committing acts of offence. But Islam lays great importance on cultivating and nurturing the conscience of individuals. With a developed conscience individuals themselves perceive the necessity of refraining from certain actions so that they may achieve spiritual edification and salvation. Without doubt, this kind of self-restraint motivated by religious faith and moral sense offers a surer means and a shorter way to the goal.
In the view of Islam the attainment of the higher goals of life is possible only through co-operation and mutual love between individual human beings. It invites the people to these virtues and asks them to base their relations on co-operation and love. In the light of such a teaching, every one feels that his existence as a human being is like a lamp that lights up the horizons of humanity when he, happily and without any reservations, extends his co-operation and love to others.
Imam al-Sadiq, may peace be upon him, reports the Noble Prophet, may God bless him and his Household, as having said:
It is the duty of every person to observe the seven rights of his brother in faith: (1) that one should not fail to show him respect and reverence; (2) one should really love him from the bottom of one's heart; (3) one should share one's belongings with him equally; (4) one must refrain from backbiting him and mentioning unseemly things about him in his absence; (5) one should visit him when he falls ill; (6) one should attend his funeral on his death; (7) one should not mention him except kindly after his death. 15
Man listens to the summons of nature and discriminates virtue from vice when there isn't anything to obstruct the course of nature. A conscience in bondage and deprived of its free movement by the weighty chains of lust and position and power seeking impulses, cannot manifest its real character and be a trustworthy judge. Thus during crises of war and revolution and such extraordinary conditions conscience suffers terrible blows and its activity comes to a standstill. In such circumstances perverse ideas and doctrines emerge as the most potent dynamic force and the suppression of the collective conscience results in irremediable losses and harms for mankind.
There is a great difference between a conscientious person and an unconscientious one; this difference is even greater than the one that separates man from other creatures. If fire with its quality, which is to burn, burns a human body, it is a consequence of its essential nature. It has no consciousness that which it burns is a living creature, a human being that intensely feels the torment of burning. But whatever an unconscientious person does is done with knowledge and consciousness. Cruelty, injustice and suffering inflicted by men on other human beings are acts performed consciously.
One of the things alters man's primordial nature and casts dark shadows on the luminous face of pure nature is repetition of sin. A brutal criminal commits many terrible crimes without feeling any psychic torment for his ugly conduct. Such a sadistic condition is something quite exceptional.
Society can attain social justice only when individuals accept an inner agent that may act as a judge and invigilator over their acts and comply with its commands. If all people in a real social unit that gives meaning to their humanity possess a common and identical ethos, that not only brings about a perfect condition of coexistence, but makes them like parts of an organism and links of a mechanism.
8. Rousseau, Jean Jacques, Emile, trans. by Babara Foxley (Everyman's Library, 1969), pp. 251-254.
9. Friedman, Otto, Pers. trans., Rawanshi nasi dar khidmat-e siyasat, p. 32.
10. Baruk, op. cit., pp. 67-68.
11. Smiles, Samuel, Duty (London: John Murray, 1926), pp. 19, 20, 21.
12. Friedman, Otto, op. cit., pp. 31-32.
13. Nahj al-fasahah, p. 621.
14. Al-Kulayni, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 451.
15. Al-Majlisi, Bihar al-anwar, vol. 15, "kitab al-ishrah," p. 61.
Adapted from: "Ethics and Spiritual Growth" by: "Sayyid Mujtaba Musawi Lari"
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