Leading American evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr (d. 2005) held that intelligence is a lethal mutation; the more intelligent a species appears to be on the scale of evolution, the less successful it has been in its race for survival. Cockroaches, frogs, and beetles have been around for millions of years and there are many more such species still around; mammals, on the other hand, are few and short-lived. Humans, on this scale, fare the worst — the most intelligent and, therefore, also most destructive. But the destructiveness of the human species is unprecedented, as in its search for power and abundance, it has nearly destroyed the planet for the rest of the species. Furthermore, in their search for dominating each other, humans have produced weapons capable of incinerating the entire planet many times over. The dilemma of progress, as captured neatly by the authors of The Axemaker’s Gift (1995), is that the human species’ very success in exploiting its natural environment and dominating others of their kind (the two go hand in hand), and generally fulfilling its aspirations (and its aspirations, unlike those of all other animals, seem to have no limits) has directly led to its self-destruction. The linear march of progress, on this view, has been from human life in caves only minimally taxing its environment, to life as tribes and agriculturalists exploiting it just a bit more, to modern life. And what is modernity but the triangle of secular science, corporate-capitalism, and nation-states – all made possible by the human ability to create large, secular, result-oriented organizations? In this inexorable story of progress, nature (as well as human lifestyles friendlier to it) have been the losers.
This way of telling the human story as the story of progress and its metaphysical assumptions today appear to be irrefutable and self-evident. Yet, there is something unfathomably tragic about it that leaves one cold, feeling utterly meaningless and nihilistic. Intelligence, as it culminates from the pharaohs and their pyramids to the masters of the modern military-industrial complex, is self-destructive for the species. We are in the infernal quicksand of human progress; the more we think and strive to make progress, the faster we go down, dragging the planet along with us. If survival were the criterion of success for a species, which it must be for the materialist mind, we might as well resign to this ignoble fate: make money before the next ice-age hits! The hope has been that as humans develop more and more power, they will develop moral compass commensurate with their material progress. Rarely can a sustained observer of the trajectory of modernity entertain such a hope. A leading British philosopher, John Gray, in his influential Straw Dogs (2007) argues that the myth of moral progress of humanity that lies at the heart of enlightened western modernity has been the most misleading of all human religions. Scientific knowledge is surely cumulative, but moral progress is certainly not. While most religions, says the irreverent, atheist philosopher, seem to serve some fruitful purpose, the religion of modernity with its founding myth of progress has been singularly destructive.
If the story told by the modern man, armed with modern-science-turned-into-religion, is the only story, then Gray’s conclusion — that humans are little more than straw dogs, and Mayr’s observation, that intelligence is lethal, appear to be irrefutable.
Is this the only story possible? Modern thought begins its inquiry with the givenness the material world, and considers the question of its moral purpose (who created it and for what purpose?) a separate question that is, for all practical purposes, avoidable. Thus, to conquer this inert matter for the purpose of one’s own benefit has seemed to the modern man a self-evident goal regardless of how the question of human moral purpose is answered. Believers (or former believers) of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and now, Islam, have eagerly come together in this blissfully unifying religion of secularity.
But this is not the story humans told themselves before the onset of modernity which is fast erasing all other stories. And there is no story that has resisted more than the story told by the Qur’an and other Books aspiring to monotheism.
The Qur’anic story begins with an unflinching commitment not to material progress but to the truth, the moral truth, the answer to which quest is the Truth, the Creator, the Ever-living, the Caretaker of all existence. This perspective insists that the intelligence of the human mind should never turn away from the first questions: who created life and death, and why?, even while exploring the secondary questions of what matter is and how it could be exploited. The renting asunder of facts from truths, ‘is’ from ‘ought’, turns us into straw dogs, or worse. Consider the short and intense chapter of the Quran called The Fig, which helps us meditate on the story of humans:
“By the Fig, and the Olive, and the Mount Sinai, and this town of the Trustworthy.” The reference in each case is to the birthplace of a prophet of God who brought the Truth to humanity. “We have created man in the best state.” Ah, humans as God’s caliphs? “Then We rejected him as the lowest of the low.” Humans could be lower than straw dogs. “Save those who believe and act righteously: for them is an unending recompense. Is God not the ultimate judge?” (Q, 95).
Even though, admittedly, ‘God’s caliphs’ is a bit of a misnomer, the Qur’an is emphatic that humans have been created in the best of states, ennobled by God (Q, 17:70), and made to be served by other creations in myriad ways (16:14; 22:65; 43:13; etc.), but created for adoring and serving God, who is al-Haqq, the Ultimate Truth (51:56; 98:5; 67:2). Intelligence was not a curse, but a gift. This human being has been made to desire perfection and eternity; the first devilish temptation in the human story was precisely this: “Your Lord has not prohibited you from this tree except to prevent you from becoming angels, eternal” (7:20).
In the modern period, the urge for perfection and eternity, the urge from progress, has turned the human being away from God once again, and once again, there awaits him either a repentance to God based on words He has taught us, as He taught the first human being: “Then Adam received from His Lord some words [of repentance] and He turned to Him: He is Most Forgiving, Ever Merciful” (2:37). In the Judeo-Christian version of the story, God is implacably angry at this and their follows a terrible, irrevocable fall. In the Qur’an, God forgives, always. Speaking of rejuvenation after spiritual decline the Qur’an says: “Know that God quickens the earth after its death. We have made clear to you the signs. Perhaps you will understand” (57:16-17). Perhaps!
The thirst for eternity is real enough, but the eternity that was promised was not to be sought in triumph against our limits, other animals or against nature itself. Hope, in the Qur’an, comes not from the human ingenuity to prolong life on this earth, whether of some individuals or the species itself. That is a doomed project, rife with internal contradictions that have never been as clear as they are today. Rather, hope, both for perfection and eternity, and for redemption after our misguided quest for them has left us in the quicksand of self-destruction, is in God.
Human thirst for perfection and eternity has been often been misdirected, but seldom as potently as it is today. Ferns, cockroaches, and beetles have surely beaten us in survival, and intelligence has become our enemy. The thirst for perfection and eternity that never lets us rest and the intellect that underpins that thirst were given, the Qur’an tells us, for us to recognize divine guidance when it comes and to quench the thirst for the Ultimate Truth.
In our physical form, we are surely animals, but not just that, indeed we are part of a larger category comprising all beings: God’s creation. This fact reminds us that the distinctions that moderns take so seriously, between humans and animals and the living and the non-living, are rather fragile. “There is not a thing except that it exalts Him by His praise, but you do not understand their exalting” (17:44). But we as humans are God’s servants, made noble masters of things around us only conditionally and for a moral purpose. Our “is” and “ought” cannot be separated. There is no inert matter to be exploited: there is only God’s creation to be used for the purpose it was given to us: to worship Him and to act righteously. The subduing (taskhir) of other creation to us, as the Qur’an calls it, is not to make us ultimate masters and judges, but as mere users — for only God is the ultimate master and judge.
If we as humans are important, even sacred, as God’s creation, so is the material environment around us. As the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, put it to someone washing himself for prayer, “Do not waste water…even if you are at the bank of a gushing river” (Musnad Ahmad; Ibn Majah); the ulama are said to have reached consensus on prohibition against wasting water. The Prophet also said, “If anyone of you drops a morsel, he should remove anything harmful from it and then eat it. He should not leave it for the Devil.” He further commanded Muslims to clean out the dish saying, “You do not know in what portion of your food the blessing lies” (Muslim).
Which story of humanity would you rather be a part of? One in which the human being begins by asking “Whose creation and for what purpose?” and embracing his intellect as God’s highest gift, lives in peace, while minding his many limits, with his fellow creatures and searches for perfection and eternity in the Creator? Or the one in which man begins by separating matter from its purpose, “is” from “ought”, setting aside the Creator as “an unnecessary hypothesis,” and after exploiting and conquering it, and finding his thirst for perfection and eternity unquenched, turns occasionally to its meaning and finds nothing but a black hole, a mistake, an impending doom? “But those who disbelieved – their deeds are like a mirage in a lowland which a thirsty one thinks is water until, when he comes to it, he finds it is nothing but finds God before Him, and He will pay him in full his due; and God is swift in account” (24:39).
And yes, the one story has nearly obliterated the other today, but for those whose hope is in the Truth, the Perfect, the Eternal, it isn’t over yet.
Dr. Ovamir Anjum is a guest scholar and contributor. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of ALIM, its scholars, board members and employees.
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