Our Beacon Forum

Towards Organic Humanism
By:Farhan Shah, Norway
Date: Tuesday, 1 August 2017, 11:53 am

My endeavours to re-form or re-define the Islamic calling in relation to the pressing religious, social, political and ecological issues of our time, emerges from a profound, constructive and permanent love and care for the innumerable unborn generations, which, although they lie outside the limits of immediate vision, ought to be considered as the most important portion of living communities. Trial and error are always part of positive historical evolutions. And as our collective experiences demonstrate, it is the future, its potential members, which must always control the present attitudes and policies. Put differently, our immediate interests should be subordinated and, if need be, sacrificed for the sake of posterity; of that unborn infinity which gradually discloses itself from generation to generation. As moral agents, we cannot afford to remain indifferent to this biological truth.

In April 2017, my colleges in Claremont CA. and I, realised a one-day conference on Iqbal and Whitehead. The express purpose of this conference was to explore the process-oriented vision of Islam that emerges from the Quranically inspired writings of Muhammad Iqbal, and further, to adumbrate the main points of an Islam of creativity, guiding us toward “integral ecology”, that lives for respect and care for all forces of life. Iqbal was a Muslim philosopher and the spiritual father of Pakistan, who, as it happens, was also an informal student of Alfred North Whitehead, concurring with Whitehead that the very energy of the universe, found in human life and nature, is creative. For Iqbal, as for Whitehead, God works with, not against, this creativity.

In many contexts I speak of a process interpretation of Islam as a form of Islamic Humanism. I realise, however, that the phrase can be misleading and off-putting, if the word "humanism" suggests a Promethean perspective asserting that "man is the measure of all things." I realise as well that for many process thinkers, with their ecological orientation, the phrase can also suggest a strong anthropocentric approach that neglects the value of the more-than-human world. I do not intend the word to have these connotations. In Islam the Qur'an itself speaks of the whole of creation on the analogy of a tree of life, or a single organism, emerging from and returning to its divine source. An Islamic Humanism will see human dignity and human rights as situated within, not apart from, this larger whole, itself becoming through time, with each creature having intrinsic value. Therefore, a humanism understood as anthropocentric is completely alien to the Islamic outlook.

The paper is intended to clarify, even though partially, this point, bringing my perspective shaped by a holistic approach to the Quranic scripture and Muhammad Iqbal`s philosophy into conversation with the larger project of Constructive Postmodernism, which is to encourage and cultivate ecological worldviews that stress the profound interrelationality of the whole life and that invites us, in the midst of unsustainable courses, toward the development of just and sustainable communities throughout the world, the Islamic world much included. My sense is that Islam can make a powerful contribution to this deeply humane – and, yes, organically humanistic – hope.

The essence of organic humanism
The essence of organic humanism, inspired by the Quranic scripture and Muhammad Iqbal`s philosophy, can be summed up as following: (1) The ontological dignity of humanity, (2), Human rights as universal and the corresponding duties, and (3) the interrelationality/radical interdependence of all creation. We will briefly look into point one and two, and further deal with the last point in somewhat more detail.

(1) Human dignity transcends the barriers of ethnocentrism, and encompasses humanity en masse, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, functionality, ethnicity, age, etc. The Quran asserts in a sonorous way: “Verily, We have created all humans worthy of dignity and honour” (17:70). The prophet of Islam, in his farewell address (632 CE), categorically asserted that “there is no superiority of a black over a white or a white over a black. All of you humans belong to the same single stock.” Furthermore, the dignity and honour of the human person finds it ultimate expression in her/him being “someone” and not “something”. Stated differently, the human entity is an “end in itself”, thus omitting collective identity`s such as family membership or citizenship from the scheme of things.

(2) Human rights are judicial principles employed against states in order to protect human beings from structural injustice, and are intimately connected to humanity`s intrinsic dignity. The prime function of humankind`s inalienable rights is the enhancement of the common good and also to furnish healthy environments in which human beings can work out their individual potentialities.

Indeed, human rights are essential in order to develop sustainable communities. However, there is a general tendency to regard human rights as if they were passed on from some limitless row of pleasurable items. Rather, we need to recognise that human rights are first and foremost possibilities, not actualities. In other words, human rights can only be “realised” by the fulfilment of duties to “realise” these rights. No obligations, no human rights possibilities turned into actualities. For example, if refugees have a natural right to sustenance and protection, then non-refugees have the responsibility to supply them with food and shelter. In order to realise the right to free speech, then other human beings have a duty not to curb the right to free expression. Rights separated from duties will only stay as potentialities or cherished but abstract ideals. We ought to have an interrelational approach to the implementation of human rights.

Just as human dignity encompasses the human species as a whole, so are basic human rights all-embracing, transcending the dogmatic model of we/they divide. This deleterious us/them distinction undermines the more inclusive way which emphasises the larger whole to which “we” and “they” belong, that is, the human species as an organic whole. In the Quran, we read the following verses, emphasising humanity`s organic unity: “Humanity is one but one single community” (10, 19, 2, 213).

(3) The last point is related to anthropocentrism. There have been, and still are, anthropocentric tendencies in most civilisations. Briefly stated, the notion of anthropocentrism - derived from the homo mensura sentence – was formulated by the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Protagoras, who asserted that “man [read: the human being] is the measure of all things”. Furthermore, the dualism developed by Descartes juxtaposes the human mind to all things, even to human body. This mode of dualism also reckons animals devoid of any subjectivity, thus turned over to science for objective study. The image that is affirmed on the basis of the homo mensura dictum and the Cartesian dualism quickly develops into human arrogance and reductionist attitude towards the planetary life as a dead matter to be used for human profit only. From a Muslim process perspective, humanism does not stand for human entities as the sole denizens of planet earth, or that the human dignity is the only fact to be reckoned with at the cost of the larger spectrum of non-human species and their well-being. This perspective easily mutates into an unfortunate view which is bereft of respect and profound responsibility for other living organisms and nature in her totality.
With this backdrop in mind, can Islam help us to redirect our energies and visions to the effort to save what can be saved and build on the wreckage something of lasting value?

The Islamic notion of stewardship
As a mode of actual living, Islam rejects the mechanistic view of the universe, which pulverises everything into facts and figures, information and numbers, without recognising the life-experiences and subjectivity of living entities. In Islamic tradition, we can identify a position that challenges the longstanding mode anthropocentrism and mechanistic dualism, a form of “deep ecology”. According to the Quran, the Earth and everything in it belongs not to humans but to God. In Islam, humans are referred to as caliphs, which literally means “guardians”. Our roles as guardians on earth implies the sacred errand to protect the earth, its material and non-material resources. Humans are free to use these recourses in their own interest but not in an unrighteous way, but rather in a way creative of cultivation of the Earth and her biological diversity. Thus, in Islam there is no space for human dominion over planet Earth. The concept of God`s unity (Tawheed) implies, among other things, “world-unity”. And since human beings are free agents, their freedom implies normative responsibilities toward their external climates.

One of the central pillars of a Quranically inspired deep ecology is that (1) every living entity has an intrinsic value of its own, and hence cannot be considered exclusively in instrumental terms, and (2) that no human being has any right to cut down the richness and plurality of planetary creation, except in the interest to meet vital human needs. The term “vital needs” implies that human beings can only satisfy their fundamental needs essential for their life on planet earth. Lastly, that the non-human world ought to be recognised as communities of subjects (ummam) just as the human species. The classical arabic term ummam is a plural form of the term Ummah, a term Muslims use in order to refer to other believing communities.

The metaphors of the Quran to personalise non-human communities indicates an interrelational paradigm. As communities interact with each other, and have complex networks, we are encouraged by the Quranic world-view to recognise the animal world and the nature not ripped apart, but rather organically linked with the human world. This deep symbol of interconnectedness, which flows through the idea of God`s unity, points toward the great wisdom of radical interdependence: we are members of one another and equal before one God. Human communities do not exist as self-enclosed entities but as interactive entities. We are what and who we are through our relationships with others. The welfare of the world contributes to our welfare and its illness and decay impoverish us as well.

Muhammad Iqbal`s organic approach
Muhammad Iqbal has made several remarks conducive to the development of an Islamic process-oriented ecology. In one of his pregnant remarks he states that “All is holy ground. As the Prophet so beautifully puts it: The whole of this earth is a mosque”. If the whole of the earth is a mosque, i.e., ontological sacredness, this could then lead to the conclusion that all of the denizens of earth, human as well as non-human, are sacred and interconnected (reflecting the presence of Divine energy and God`s unity). In other words, all life deserves our outmost respect by widening our horizons, thus including non-human actualities such as animal organisms and the nature in our decision-makings and policies in order to secure environments that promote the overall wellbeing of our dwelling place. Further, the naturalism of the Quran is only a recognition of the fact that humanity is connected with nature, and this relation, must be used not in the interest of unrighteous desire for domination, but in the nobler interest of preserving and enhancing the organic wholeness of life. There is also a hadith (traditions based on reports of the sayings of the Prophet of Islam) which reads: “Allah is kind only to those who are kind to His creations”. Explained differently, our opportunity and fulfilment is to love and serve God by serving God`s creation by expanding our scope of moral responsibility, thus transcending the reductionist anthropocentrism and dualistic framework.

This is a version of humanism which not only is human-centred, but a version which expands the circle of our sensibilities with regards to other non-human creatures and the biosphere as well. In other words, this is a humanism which goes beyond anthropocentrism and embraces a more organic view of all forces of life. A kind of vast network of intersubjectivity.

John Cobb and Whiteheadian thought
In this context, a passage of John Cobb deserves our attention. For Cobb, to believe that “a human life is of more value than many sparrows’ (Matthew 10:31) does not warrant the conclusion that sparrows are worth nothing at all. Indeed, it presupposes the opposite. The Heavenly Father cares even for sparrows; how much more for human beings! This certainly means that people too should be concerned more about a human being than a sparrow. Much more! But it does not warrant the teaching that sparrows exist only as a means to human ends…God is pictured as loving the creatures and caring for them, not only human beings, but sparrows as well.” Cobb`s views can be infused into the Iqbalian vision of “all is holy ground”, productive of paving the way for a humanism characterised by respect for humanity`s innate dignity combined with, “world-loyalty”, as Prof. Whitehead calls it. A world-loyalty in which our self-interest is joined with our commitment to be creative partners with God in the quest for welfare and beauty for all creation

To recapitulate, as have been explicated above, the foundational keys of an Islamic process humanism are as follows: (1) Every member of the human species is endowed with an intrinsic, hence, inviolable, dignity, (2) the importance of human rights as universal/all-embracing and the corresponding duties and (3) humanism, far from being purely human-centred, needs to be blended in respect and profound concern for the biosphere and non-human species, i.e., in addition to humans having intrinsic value, so do other living beings.

I have chosen to identify this version of humanism as “Organic Humanism”, which is an attitude spacious enough to include all creatures, just as God includes every being in the Divine life (read: panentheism), thus making humans God`s creative companions in healing and enhancing all life on earth. That God has taken the risk of permitting the emergence of egos equipped with the power of free-responses, shows His faith in humanity. It is up to human beings now to vindicate this immense faith.

(This lecture was delivered at the University of the Azores, Portugal, 25th of July 2017)

Messages In This Thread

Towards Organic Humanism
Farhan Shah, Norway -- Tuesday, 1 August 2017, 11:53 am
Re: Towards Organic Humanism
jawaid ahmed,uk -- Wednesday, 2 August 2017, 7:30 am
Re: Towards Organic Humanism
Farhan Shah, Norway -- Thursday, 3 August 2017, 1:44 pm