A Concise Review of Humanism

In the minds of many nominal Muslims, the term "humanism" has certain magic, electric charm – like the "Aladdin’s lantern". It bemuses many with its so-called rational, liberating gimmicks. Many Muslims, therefore, have developed false opinions without questioning the origin of western humanism and its effect on modem man. I shall attempt to clarify this subject by borrowing from the writings of a noted Islamic scholar, a sociologist, Dr. Ali Shariati.

The pundits of all schools of thought cannot agree upon a precise definition of the term “humanism”. A definition of what is human will vary according to the religious belief, scientific perspective, or philosophical school. Despite all the ambiguity as to the proper meaning of human existence, the aggregate of the generally accepted assumptions may be labeled as "humanism". In his book, "Marxism and other western fallacies – an Islamic Critique", Dr. Ali Shariati writes, "By humanism, we refer to the school of thought that proclaim its essential goal to be the liberation and perfection of man, whom it considers a primary being, and principles of which are based on response to those basic needs that form the specificity of man." In today’s world there are four intellectual currents who, despite their mutually contradictory natures, claim to represent this humanism. These are: (1) western liberalism, (2) Marxism, (3) existentialism, and (4) religion.

Western humanism is deeply rooted in ancient Greek mythology where we find jealousy, competition and opposition between the forces of heaven and earth, between the worlds of gods and men. Humanity seeks to liberate itself from the yoke of oppression, tyranny and captivity as laid upon it by the gods in attaining self-awareness, freedom, liberty, independence and sovereignty. It struggles to rule over nature to unseat Zeus, who symbolizes the rule of nature over mankind. He wants to be the “only” mentor of his destiny. As such, a bond of enmity between the gods and men was altogether natural and logical to the Greek myths.

However, it was, wrong, and obviously so, on the part of great minds of western humanism – from Diderot and Voltaire to Feuerbach and Marx – to equate the mythical world of ancient Greece, which remains within the bounds of material nature with the spiritual and sacred world of ancient religions of the East (Islam in particular). They have compared and even dared to equate humanity’s relation to Zeus with that of Allah, whereas the two sets of relations are in truth antithetical. In the former world, Prometheus steals "the divine fire" from the heavens while the gods were asleep and brings it to earth. For this sin he is punished at the hands of the gods. On the contrary, in Islam, Allah curses Iblis for not prostrating to Adam (A) –” the first man. Furthermore, Allah entrusts the “divine fire” in the form of heavenly light of wisdom, of revelation, to His prophets so that it might be brought to humanity for bringing the progeny of Adam (A) out of darkness to light. Man is entrusted to be His vicegerent on earth. Allah, in contrast to mythical Zeus, wants humanity to be free of the yoke of slavery to nature and proclaims, "All the angels have prostrated themselves at the feet of Adam, and land and sea have been made subservient to you." It is, therefore, in the mythic world-view of ancient Greece, quite natural and logical that a humanism should grow in opposition to rule by, and worship of, the gods. And as such, it is easy to see the fallacy of western humanism, which is born out of the Greek myths, and to sense its opposition against theism (or western and eastern polytheism).

It is worth mentioning here that Catholicism as practiced in the Middle Ages, which was at odds to humanity, was further responsible for inducing humanism in the West. It maintained the same opposition between heaven and earth like ancient Greece, and with its Greek-style exegeses of original sin, atonement, and man’s expulsion from Paradise, it represented man as helplessly condemned because of divine displeasure and anger, and declared him to be a weak sinner. It exempted only the class of clergy, and held that the only means of salvation for the rest of mankind lay in blindly following them and through the membership in Churches. We, therefore, notice that even the arts of the Middle Ages revolve around the images of super-humans, angels, and even if human figure appears, it is only in the persons of apostles and saints with their faces obscured by a halo of celestial light. Everywhere, thus, in medieval Catholicism, we see a good resemblance between mythical-Christian God and mythical-Greek god Zeus. It is, therefore, easy to visualize how the theory of secularism would eventually influence the minds of western men of learning after the Renaissance as a mere by-product of that very western humanism which wanted to liberate human spirit from the clutches of oppressive Catholicism.

Just as it was natural for Greek humanism, through the denial of the gods, disbelief in their rule, and cutting off the bond between gods and men, to struggle to arrive at an anthropocentric universe and to tend towards earthly materialism, so is modem western humanism drawn into the same fountain of ancient Greece. Shariati writes, “The history of western culture is the persistence of these two contrasting currents that issue from the same spring, whether we refer to religion or science.” Both these divergent streams of today have their root in Greek humanism. Marxism and bourgeois liberalism alike share this human materialism in theory and in practice. Thus, we find Marx and Voltaire both closing their eyes to spiritual dimension of the human essence. It is only natural, thus, that both these philosophies are centered on and around the "physical" man.

The Radicalists of the "new humanism" of Europe – proclaimed in a manifesto that they published in 1800: "Set aside God as the basis of morals and replace Him with Conscience." They held that man is a being that in and of itself possesses a moral conscience, which in their view springs from his original and essential character, and which his human nature requires. This reliance upon human nature, as well as upon moral conscience, forms the fundamental basis of western atheistic humanism of the present age. The modem day humanists have come a long way since 1800 to first doubt and then to outright deny human nature as an outlying principle. Commenting on this Dr. Shariati writes, "Nonetheless, the new humanism – upon which western bourgeois liberalism as a system is based – regards humanity as possessing eternal moral virtues and noble, supramaterial values for which man is the essential focus. It is at this point that it placed its reliance upon man in and of himself, as against nature or the supernatural. … This humanism arrogates human morals as a whole from religion, but, while denying their religious rationale, it proclaims the possibility of spiritual development and growth in adherence to the moral virtues without belief in God."

On the subject of existentialism, Shariati remarks, "Just as the bourgeois liberalism of the West sees itself as the heir to historical humanistic culture, and Marxism presents itself as a path for the realization of humanism, of the whole man, so existentialism is a humanism, and of course a more rightful claimant to humanism than its two predecessors." Existentialism speaks of humanity as a separate spun cord loose in the world, a being with no determinative character or quality owed to God or nature, but capable of choice, and thus creating its own reality. This is beautifully articulated by Dr. Shariati when he says, "In comparison with capitalism, which reconstituted man as an economic animal; in comparison with Marxism which found man an object made of organized matter; in comparison with Catholicism, which saw him as the unwitting plaything of an imperious unseen power (the Divine Will); in comparison with dialectical materialism, which saw him as the unwitting plaything of the deterministic evolution of the means of production – existentialism made man a god! It paid him the grandest worship: ‘All the beings of this world realize their existence after their essence is determined, except man, who creates his essence subsequent to his existence.’ Man, therefore is not God’s creation, nor nature’s creation, nor is he the offspring of the means of production. Man is a god who creates himself! Given all the disrespect paid man by the Church, capitalism, and communism, it is easy to see what an incentive this call could be to souls believing in the miracle of man!"

Lastly, we come to the fourth category of humanism, that of religion. Religion proclaims its own world-view, its own mission for the guidance of humanity. While, we have noticed that Christianity (Catholicism in particular) has created a god similar to Zeus, in eastern religions humanity has a unique relationship with the God of the worlds. Especially, in Hinduism, we see the other extreme where we find man and god(s) so much intermingled as to be essentially inseparable. In Islam, however, while the gap from man to God is infinite, that from God to man is altogether eliminated. Man is bestowed with Divine spirit, entrusted with divine trust. Islamic concept of human dignity relies on the theme of oneness of God (Surah al-lkhlas), oneness of our ancestors (Qur’an 49:13), and oneness of our religion (Qur’an 23:51-52). Universal peace in the light of Islam presupposes peace of conscience (that is peace within one’s self), peace at home, peace in society and finally peace in the world. Universal brotherhood is one of the cardinal principles of Islam, and this important matter is completely ignored by all other religions. Qur’an describes the Islamic Ummah to be a middle (wasat) nation and the best (khayr) Ummah ever raised on the ground that they believe in one God, enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong. Islam urges its followers to rescue humanity from all man-made bondages and to fight against injustice to dignify man. War is waged only against injustice and despotism and to rescue humanity from oppression.

Someone once argued that in the USA, and many secular countries, any person irrespective of his religious affiliation may become the head of the state, a right that is denied to non-Muslims in an ideal Islamic state. My opinion on this matter is very simple. Given the secular world that we live in, we sometimes ignore the mere fact that in the secularist regimes a person is discriminated on the ground of nationality. For example, even if I were to become the smartest, the most trusted and qualified person in the U.S., I would be denied the right to run in the presidential election merely because I was not born in the U.S.A. This subtle discrimination is very much ignored by many people who are under constant pressure of western humanism. Islam discriminates on the ground of religion merely because of the fact that it is inconceivable to imagine a non-Muslim heading an Islamic state where it requires his decisions on religious matters. And this responsibility is not possible for him to fulfill owing to his different faith. There are several other reasons too. In an Islamic state, however, no demarcation is drawn on the basis of nationality. Any Muslim, irrespective of his color, race, ethnicity, nationality, can become the head of state. It is, of course, desired that the person is sane, the best among the believers and decides by mutual consultation (shura).

I shall close here our topic on humanism with a final note that Islam is a manifesto of human liberation. It frees man from worship of others; sovereignty belongs truly to the Creator. Its first summons, "Say, There is no god but Allah, and prosper", propounds tauhid as the necessary means to that end.


Above article was written in the early ’80s and delivered as a speech at the UC, Santa Barbara.