Being human in the 21st century

IN the last several annual meetings of the World Economic Forum, an influential platform for the shaping of the global agenda, one of the biggest questions that has been raised and discussed is about being and staying human in light of emerging trends and technological developments in the 21st century.

It is interesting that despite the world’s sophistication and advances, especially in the West, people still ponder upon these basic questions that had come up as far back as over 2,000 years ago during the time of the ancient Greek philosophers, chiefly Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Consider this fact: in 2016, close to US$1.7 trillion was spent worldwide on arms, but a United Nations appeal for funds to support refugees from the Syrian crisis fell short of its target by less than US$1.7bil.

This says a lot about our state of being human.

It was reported in The New York Times on July 12, 2017 that hundreds of millions of people in China have in recent years turned to religions like Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, seeking a sense of purpose and an escape from the consumerist culture, recognising that the decadence of human beings has destroyed the environment.

This corroborates the important argument by Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, the contemporary Muslim thinker from Malaysia, that despite the positive contributions of science and technology, the modern man does not understand his true self better, and is unable to attain a state of peace and tranquility within himself and in relation to the others.

In the intellectual tradition of Islam – as represented by luminaries such as Ibn Sina, Al-Ghazali, Ibn ‘Arabi and many others whose insights contemporary Muslims can still benefit from – the understanding of being “human” is not the same as that of the contemporary Western world, which is derived from the Enlightenment.

In the time of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Western civilisation started to imply that man does not have a spiritual nature in the “soul”, and thus gradually the conception of being human changed as the idea of the soul was suppressed.

Having evolved over centuries, Western thinking and consciousness have impinged on and surreptitiously infused the Muslims’ thinking and consciousness, causing confusion in how they see the nature of man, which is a key element in the worldview of Islam.

This creates a situation whereby, for instance, a Muslim today may be learned in the modern science of behavioural psychology but completely ignorant about the science of the soul as discussed by the early Muslim luminaries in history who sought to treat psychological problems at its roots.

The nature of man, as understood in Islam, postulates that man is both physical and spiritual – that is, he possesses a soul – and the physical is embedded in and serves the spiritual.

Therefore, a man who is true to his natural inclination (fitrah) will voluntarily limit his material desire through the cultivation of virtues and self-discipline in order to realise his higher and truer spiritual aspirations by which he finds his true self and place in the larger order of creation and being.

This is in contradistinction to the psychological assumption of modern economics that man has “unlimited wants”, which assumes that man is restricted to his physical self and materialistic ambition without deeper spiritual substance and higher transcendent aspiration.

It was for this reason that Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al- Razi remarked in his al-Tibb al-Ruhani (The Spiritual Physic), “To rein and suppress the passion is an obligation according to every opinion, in the view of every reasoning man, and according to every religion.”

In the past, when the worldview of Islam was intact, the Muslims as exemplified by men and women of spiritual discernment, understood the idea of being human as the subduing the animal aspect of man (nafs al-hayyawwaniyah) with the rational aspect (nafs al-natiqah), through ascending the stations of spiritual perfections to be a man of adab (a good man), that is, a man who knows his place in relation to others and ultimately his Creator.

Such conception of being human in Islam has seen tremendous success in history. It must be allowed to flourish in the 21st century if we wish to see the virtuous circulation of wealth; the harmonious way of living between man and his environment; the development of creative and innovative technologies that are in harmony with man and nature; and most importantly, conviction about man’s purpose and place in this world.

By Muhammad Syafiq Borhannuddin
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