Our Humanness: Unalterable Essence and Changeable Actuality
Developments in the science of genetics have aroused the interest of
scientists, as well as the rest of us in some fundamental questions of
our life and given them some urgency.
What does our humanity consist in?
Do we have an unalterable nature in virtue of which we can be considered the humans we are, or is our nature a tabula rasa on which culture, the environment and now genetic engineering dictate what they want?
Do we have a soul, and if so what is the difference between it and our bodies? What is its relationship with the body?
It was natural for believers in God to be more concerned with such
questions, and to give answers to them based on the teachings of their
religions. I am glad to be given the honor of participating in this
vital discussion and to be given the opportunity to present what I
consider to be an authentic Islamic view on these important issues.
I am concerned here mainly with the question of human nature.
If the nature of a thing is the collection of qualities which make it
the thing that it is, then everything must necessarily have a nature. We
might differ about some of the qualities of a thing, whether they can
be counted among those that form its nature, but we cannot say of
something that we know and deal with that it has no nature at all, or
that its nature is constantly changing. This is a matter of logic. There
should therefore be no dispute about the fact that human beings have a
nature that makes them the beings they are. There should also be no
dispute about the fact that this nature must be fixed, because if it
changes then the thing that has the new nature must be something
different from a human being, just as water or oxygen must be something
different from the water or oxygen that we know and deal with if their
The question should not therefore be about whether or not humans have
a nature, or whether or not that nature is changing: it should be about
the kind of qualities that make them the beings they are.
We are all agreed that we have bodies, and that these bodies have a
nature in virtue of which they need for example certain things for their
existence. We are also agreed on the fact that we have certain mental
qualities without which we cannot be the human beings that we are. A
being that is intrinsically unable to think, or will, or know, cannot be
a human being even if it had a body that looked exactly like that of a
human, and even if it had some of the other mental qualities of humans.
Thus if genetic engineering could bring some being like these, we should
not say that it changed the nature of humans, but that it came up with a
new being that has nothing to do with us. Assuming this to happen, it
will not abolish human beings; normal humans will continue to exist and
be reproduced in the natural way they have always been.
The question would then be: is it in our interest, as normal humans, to allow something like this to happen?
The answer of a believer in God would be an emphatic no! Why?
Because he believes that no being can have a nature that is even equal,
let alone superior, to that of a human being. Anyway, this should be the
position of a Muslim.
Humans, according to Islam, have many qualities that distinguish them
from other creation, but these qualities are not of equal importance.
Let us start with what, according to Islam, is â€˜spirituallyâ€™ common to
all creation and then deal with humans as a special creation.
All Creation is Muslim
Every created thing worships its Lord; each according to its special
makeup. The Qurâ€™an gives us some details of this worshipping that is
common to all creation.
003.083 Seek they other than the religion of God, when to Him submit
(aslama) whosoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or
unwillingly, and to Him they will be returned.
59:1 All that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth glorifies God.
022.018 Have you not seen that to God prostrate whosoever is in the
heavens and whosoever is in the earth, and the sun, and the moon, and
the stars, and the hills, and the trees, and the beasts, and many of
030.026 To Him belongs whosoever is in the heavens and the earth. All
are obedient to Him
Humans, a Special Creation
Human beings are a special creation; but they are no exception to the
fact that their essence is that of being servants of God. They are
however distinguished from all other creation by certain qualities that
make them the special beings they are with a degree above other created
First, Adam, the father of all human beings was created in a special
way. God tells us that He created him with his own hands (38:75 )
Second, He told the angels to prostrate themselves to him once he was created (2:34)
Third, He breathed into him a spirit (called in Arabic rooh) with which He did not endow any other animal. (38:71-2 )
Fourth, He made all that is on the earth subservient to humans:
002.029 He it is Who created for you all that is in the earth
Fifth, He endowed them with dignity:
017.070 Verily we have honored the Children of Adam. We carry them on
the land and the sea, and have made provision of good things for them,
and have preferred them above many of those whom We created with a
Sixth, He taught him what the Qurâ€™an calls the names of things in virtue of which he became more knowledgeable than the angels:
002.031 And He taught Adam all the names, then showed them to the angels,
saying: Inform Me of the names of these, if you are truthful.
002.032 They said: Be glorified! We have no knowledge saving that which
You have taught us. Lo! You, only You are the Knower, the Wise.
002.033 He said: O Adam! Inform them of their names, and when he had
informed them of their names, He said: Did I not tell you that I know the
secret of the heavens and the earth ? And I know that which you disclose
and which you hide.
Body and Soul
The human body and the human soul are two different entities with
different sets of attributes and functions, but they are in many ways
connected and interdependent.
The fact that they are distinct is stated in many Islamic texts:
First, in the creation of Adam, the soul, rooh, was breathed into an already created body:
015.029 So, when I have made him and have breathed into him of My Spirit,
do ye fall down, prostrating yourselves unto him.
Second, when a human child is born it is born as a living thing but
without a soul. The soul is breathed into it when it is about forty days
Third, when a person dies, his soul leaves his body.
039.042 God receives (menâ€™s) souls at the time of their death, and that
(soul) which dies not (yet) in its sleep. He keeps that (soul) for
which He has ordained death and dismisses the rest till an appointed
term. Lo! herein verily are portents for people who take thought.
Fourth, if a person goes to paradise he will have a body with a
nature different from his present worldly body, though he will continue
to have the same soul.
The Human Soul
Human beings, according to Islam, are born good. This goodness is an attribute of the human soul; it consists in being
- born with a natural capacity to be aware of the fact that they are
servants of God, their sole Creator who alone is to be worshipped. All
the other good human qualities are related to this basic quality. I mean
the qualities of cognition and volition, of morality and prudence, of
rationality and of the aesthetic taste, and so on. They are related to
it in the sense that they are strengthened by it, in the sense that they
are justified by it, and in the sense that they act as avenues that
lead to it. They are thus used in the Qurâ€™an as standards on which it
bases its arguments for inviting people to its truths
- created with a wholesome soul,
- given the capacity to distinguish between what is morally good , and what is morally bad:
091.007 And by the soul and Him Who perfected it
091.008 And inspired it (with conscience of) what is wrong for it and
(what is) right for it.
091.009 He is indeed successful who causes it to grow,
091.010 And he is indeed a failure who stuns it.
All of Godâ€™s commands and prohibitions in Scripture have their
foundation in this original good nature of the human soul. It is because
of this that the religion to which Prophets like Muhammad invite people
is called the religion of human nature:
030.030 So direct your face toward the religion, (thus) turning to
the truth, a religion that is the fitra (original good nature) upon
which he created human beings; there is no changing of Godâ€™s creation.
That is the true religion but most people know
And it is because of this Divine commands and prohibitions are
justified in the Qurâ€™an in terms of their compatibility with the good
qualities of this original human nature. Gambling and alcoholic drinks
are for example prohibited because Satan, the archenemy of human beings,
uses them to create enmity and hatred among people (5:90-91) who are
born to be faithful brothers. The justification that is given for
killing the killer is that it saves life (2:179).The relatives of the
killed person are given the right to forgive or take ransom, because in
this way even more lives are saved. Prayer helps to prevent them from
committing grave sins. Being mindful of God gives peace to their hearts.
And so on and so forth.
- Humans, however, are created as willful beings; they are therefore
given the choice either to live an actual life that is a reflection of
their natural humanness, or to rebel against their human essence and
live a life of alienation.
God likes for them to choose to worship Him, and He helps them in many ways to make this right choice:
First, He does not create them neutral between these alternatives,
but makes this choice the natural thing for them to prefer; it is the
one that makes them live in peace with themselves.
Second, He makes His whole creation consist of signs of His existence
and His attributes of perfection, and provides in it evidence for the
truthfulness of the Prophets whom He sends, and the Messages with which
Third, He makes belief in God the only alternative that is compatible
with all the good qualities they have: reason, the moral values of
justice, mercy, wisdom and so on.
Fourth, He sends Prophets with messages that describe for them in
detail the good life that is compatible with their good essence, give
them reasons for their being so, and adduces arguments against the
alternative of rebelling against their Creator and therefore their own
Fifth, If they make the wrong choice, still however much their actual
life is perverted, their essence remains incorrigible; they always
have the chance to make the decision to come back to their it so long as
they are alive, and their all-Merciful God will always accept them.
It seems from this that no external factor can change or corrupt the
human soul and deprive it of some or all of its good qualities. Only the
person himself can corrupt himself by his willful acts.
The Human Body
The soul, we said, is of a nature that is completely different from
that of the body. But it needs a body to make the actual life of the
human person an expression of the humanness of his soul. The body that
it needs is not however any body; it is a special body that is designed
to suit that soul.
- Though this body is in many ways like that of animals, it is the one with the best form, as the Qurâ€™an says.
- Because it is a special body it is to be treated with respect even
when it is dead. To cut off part of a dead human body, the Prophet tells
us, is (as sinful as) cutting it off a living body.
- When a person dies and his soul leaves his body, that dead body is
to be washed and cleaned; it is to be wrapped in clean cloth, and be
berried. People are told to stand up when a funeral passes by
irrespective of whose funeral it is.
- Human bodies are not to be mutilated even in war.
- Because the soul uses the body, many of its acts are attributed to
some bodily parts, especially the heart. But the language used leaves
one in no doubt that what is meant is not the physical body part.
- Human beings are advised not to degrade themselves by behaving like
animals especially when performing acts of worship. We are told not to
raise our voices the way donkeys do. The Prophet saw someone leading
another by a rope; he cut the rope and told him to lead him by his hand.
He tells us that, when performing prayer, we should not make any act
that looks like that of an animal. We are thus told not to come down for
prostration as a camel does, not to make our acts of prostration like
the pecking of a crow, not to sit as a dog sits, and so on. We are even
told by the Prophet not to wear beast hide that makes us look like them
This is not to be taken as unfair prejudice against animals; it is
only meant to advise the human to behave in the way that suits his human
nature. He is however encouraged and even ordered to care for animals
and show mercy towards them. The Prophet tells us of a prostitute whom
God forgave and even caused to enter paradise because she descended into
a well and brought water in her shoes to quench the thirst of an almost
dying dog. He tells us on the other hand of a woman who went to
hell-fire because she kept a cat that she neither fed nor allowed to
seek food for itself. Animal bodies are not to be maimed, neither are
their faces to be branded. When the Prophet saw a brand on the face of a
donkey, he cursed the person who branded it.
There are in Islam, some general principles that help to guide us in
our dealings with Godâ€™s creation, and that can thus help us in the
position we take regarding genetic engineering. These include the fact
- Everything God creates He creates in the best of ways.(32:7)
- All of Godâ€™s creation around us is created to serve human beings.
- This creation should not therefore be altered.
- There are close relations and links not only among the constituents of an individual creation, but also among all creation
- Experience tells us that the results of all such alterations have been harmful.
You might say that we do, we have to, till the land, plant crops,
kill animals, dig wells and canals, build bridges, and so on. Yes indeed
but in doing all this we are working within the natural order not
disrupting it. We do the same when we fix something that goes wrong; we
seek cures for our ailments and the ailments of our animals; we might to
that end even have to cut off some parts of our bodies. This is because
though Godâ€™ creation is the best, it cannot, in the nature of things,
be as perfect as its Creator is.
Genes should be dealt with in the same way. There is no harm in
replacing genes that are not working properly with better ones. Genetic
engineering should not aim at perfecting nature; it will only distort
If the human person, body and soul, is the best of Godâ€™s creation,
any tampering with it will only make it worse. We are warned in the
Qurâ€™an of making any alterations in Godâ€™s creation. One reason for this
might be the fact :that there are close relations and links not by only
among the constituents of an individual creation, but also among almost
all kinds of Godâ€™s creation.
Genetic engineering should not therefore aim at perfecting nature; it
will only distort it. It should only be resorted to for therapeutic
As to human cloning there is in my view nothing that justifies it and
much that is against it. The way a human being is naturally reproduced
is a way is a way that is very well connected to nature; it involves
sexual urge, close intimacy between two individuals, growth in the
uterus of a natural mother, love, suckling, caring and the joy of
childish behavior; it has father and mother, brothers and sisters and
relatives. But a cloned being lacks many of these qualities and
What kind of a creature is that going to be? And what is the need for
it? Isnâ€™t it really odd that while we try to control natural birth, we
encourage un-natural production of creatures that, to say the least,
lack some of the qualities of naturally reproduced humans?
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