'What does it mean to be human in today's world?' - Live Dialogue

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Yusuf Progler

Shawwal 17, 1422 2002-01-01

by Yusuf Progler

What does it mean to be human in today's world?

How has the meaning of humanity changed?

Where is humanity heading?

What is the Islamic understanding of humanity and how can that understanding help humanity cope with its current challanges?

Name:

Safa

Question:

There are several questions in the discussion and most of all, I am interested in the third one: where is humanity heading? It has been in my mind for long and I would appreciate your answer with a lot of thanks.

Answer:

Salam, and thanks for bringing into focus that aspect of our discussion. First, in light of my previous answer, we can reflect on where we are now, and how things go to be that way. The next logical step is to ask, where are we going? I think it is necessary to clarify something here, before proceeding. We are talking about "humanity" here, which is a relative new term in human history. It is part of the increasingly global outlook that many people are adopting in recent years. In the past, what we can see as humanity today was always divided: dar al-islam/dar al-harb, muslim/kaffir/ mushrik, ahlul kitab/ahlul sunnah/ahlul bayt, not to mention the myriad social realities based on ethnicities and nationality. But humanity supersedes all of that. Humanity is a common sense of existence, of fellowship, or shared identity and shared habitation of a single planet. That is fairly new in human history. I am not saying that the divisions are wrong or useless, that is another debate, but what I want to try and help you recognize is that the idea of a common humanity is in may ways a revolutionary idea, and that it transcends the usual divisions based on ideology, religion or ethnic identity. Both are relevant and needed. Now, given this definition of humanity, we can reject those sorts of predictions or prophesies that say one or another group will be elevated to heaven, or wherever that particular group sees as the idea goal. To talk of humanity and where it is heading means we have to consider the totality. It is a different discussion than saying, where are the Muslims going? Or, what is the future of the ummah? Humanity is bigger. In fact, almost so big that is difficult to get your mind around it. And even more difficult to predict where it is going. Let's look at it in a different way. There future is not there to predict, and only Allah knows the future. For use mere humans, the most constructive way to look at this issue, in my mind is to ask the question, What kind of world do you want to live in and what can you do to bring that about? If we don't ask this question, and ask it in ever widening concentric circles that include humanity as noted above, we are, in my view headed in the wrong direction. That is a different way of addressing this question than the usual silly slogans such as "information age," or those ways of understanding existence that are at bottom cruel and exclusive.

Name:

Amir

Question:

Assalaamu Alaikum. Do Western Muslims have a chance of developing a true Islamic humanitarian mindset given the complexities of living and growing up in todays Western society?

Answer:

I can't recall who said this, but a Muslim thinker once said that before you can be a good Muslim you have to be a good human being. Like many religions, Islam is profoundly humanistics and humanitarian, not in the way the ideology of secular humanism has hijacking the meaning, but in the sense of living the way humans lived for some many thousands of years, before the modern period. That way of life supposed close contact with nature and time to contemplate one's existence. We have neither today. We have jobs, cars, TVs, computers, more books than we know what to do with, but do we really know who we are? If we can answer that question, then I think we will see all of our traditions in an entirely different light. Without pondering this question of what it means to be human, we are in danger of somehow normalizing our dis-humanity, which means altering the way we understand and practice our religion, whatever it may be.

Name:

Ali

Question:

Salam, in the modern world the meaning of humanity seems to be very different from what it has been in the past. Can you please explain for us why and how it changed?

Answer:

Salam and thanks for the question. This issue is at the core of our discussion today, because if the meaning of humanity has changed some how or some way, then that alters the relevance of ideas, practices, ideologies and even religions that depended on a certain understanding of what it means to be human. But how can it be, you might ask? How can we not be human? A good place to start is with the work of sociologists and social theorists, as well as historians, who have traced the way that modern bureaucratic and institutional societies have somehow altered the meaning of being human. For example, in the past human beings lived very close to nature and it was unthinkable to be separate from nature, including animals, weather patterns, and other things that are rarely part of "human" life today. We have enveloped ourselves in cities and buildings, living in so many boxes, controlling every feature of temperature and light, in an artificial environment. We no longer have a sense of where our food comes from. If we have contact with animals, they are for the most part domesticated. I think the Qur'an presumed a kind of human existence that was somehow closer to nature than most of us are today. Look at all the verses that ask the human being to look at nature, to observe the changes of nature. Can we really do that today, living in an air conditioned house, driving a car, working in an office? I am not trying to say that the Quran is irrelevant, or that Islam is somehow false. But it is possible to say that we have in a sense become dehumanized, and that without recognizing this possibility, we may unknowlingly alter our understanding of Islam, or any other tradition, to fit our dehumanized condition. Read some of the books by Ivan Illich, for example. He makes a great case that modern medicine, education, transportation and urban life have become dehumanizing. Bureaucracies are dehumanizing, institutions are dehumanizing. There is not enough time and space here to fully address this, but his works are a good place to start. Another good book is "Nature and Madness," by Paul Shepard, which argues that the further from nature modern man has travelled, the more insane he has become. Lewis Mumford spoke of this in terms of the "mega-technic" society. There are many other interesting examples to ponder here.

Name:

Hanif

Question:

In Bloom's (literary critic) book "Shakespeare the Making of the Human," I believe he argues that the concept of humanity was not properly developed until the advent Shakespears's writings. What would be an Islamic response to this type of thinking?

Answer:

All peoples like to think that their particular tradition is the one that best defines humanity. I am saying that we need to suspend that for a moment, and reflect on our common humanity as it stands today. Only when that is understood, can we go back to the great classics of any tradition and realize that they had a very different understanding of being human. It is not that those traditions are irrelevant, but without understanding where they are coming form or where we are now, we run the risk of altering those traditions to suit our dehumanized state. Futurists are taking the idea of progress to an absurd conclusion, that we will live forever or be able to upload ourselves into orbs and traverse the universe, fantasies of the Star Trek sort. I think those sorts of fantasies are the best indicating that some of us have already become hopelessly dehumanized.

Name:

Kawthar

Question:

As a Muslim, I have always seen Islam as the true way of humanity, and I think the crisis of humanity in the modern world is simply "being far from Islam". Even the Muslim societies in modern world are far from true Islam, and I believe that this is the crisis!! I wonder if this discussion is the same or wants to say something else.

Answer:

Your sentiments can be expressed from a variety of sectarian perspectives. Everyone believes the problems of "humanity" are due to straying form some presumed ideal. Christians can say the same as Muslims, that the problems of the world are due to not living the true Christianity. These can only lead to interminable debates and stone-headed arguing. I am trying to suggest that we put aside these differences for the moment, and really reflect on what it means to be human, and how that identity as a human being has really changed as a result of living the modern lifestyle. I am not advocating that we go back into caves, that would be a silly and specious argument, and in any event we would die immediately of starvation! Before thinking about solutions, it is more important to really understand the nature of the problem. The problem, as I see it, is that the life many of us is a dehumanizing life. This has been most forcefully argued by those most deep in the modern bureaucratic mega-technic society, but that sort of society is spreading globally, like a virus, so it is only a matter of time before we are all in the same boat.

Name:

X

Question:

How can we use the prophecies of our messenger (pbuh) about the future in an intelligent way to discuss the direction in which humanity is heading?

Answer:

It's possible, but maybe not fruitful at this point in time. In addition, this opens up sectarian ways of claiming and disclaiming the messenger of Islam, Allah's benedictions be upon him. Have you read all the traditions of the messenger in all the schools of thought? Or do you think some are false or rafidi? Well, then we are not ready to talk about humanity, since the idea I am trying to develop here suspends - for the moment - any sort of sectarian bias and is trying to make room for reflection outside of the usual boxes that we live in. Prophecies come and go depending on the human condition of the people that see a need to turn to those prophecies. If you look at history, you will be amazed at how many times people were convinced that they saw the signs of the day of judgment. They were wrong, and we might be, too. In the mean time, humanity marches merrily on. To me, the time is right to really have some serious discussions of a different sort, to really ponder our common humanity. What does it mean to be a human being outside the particular understanding of any one tradition or its various subdivisions. Again, this is not to say those traditions are irrelevent, but I do think we need to open our minds to understand.

Name:

Sara

Question:

As salaamu alaikum. As Muslims in the U.S., how do we participate in "humanitarian" activities without indulging in mixing of men & women? I think it is admirable that muslims in big cities such as Chicago organize shelters & feed people in need, etc, but I also realize they cannot do so while keeping men & women separate. Or even having non-Muslim members of the opposite sex (in particular a female muslim with a male non-muslim) working at the shelter etc, it's difficult to avoid intermixing. I would like muslims in our community to be more involved with helping the poor, but how can we do it if the requirements of our religion (no unnecessary intermixing) keep us from it? Any suggestions from you would be helpful. JazakAllah.

Answer:

Sorry, I skipped this question with a short answer in the interest of time, but now I have a few moments to come back to it. I understand your concerns, though I don't live in the US, and can' t really comment on these activities in places like Chicago, except to say that you should probably come to some kind of way of living that allows you to survive in and contribute to the society in which you live. If that's not possible while maintaining your sense of being a good Muslim, then it might be the wrong society. In addition, you might also find a more definitive answer to such questions in the fatwa section of this and other sites. That is not my goal here. But I can say that feeding the poor and sheltering the homeless are noble and humane activities, and if we can find a way to expand those efforts on the scale of humanity that I am suggesting here, then maybe there is some hope. For now, it has to start, as it is with you, by small scale, local activities, and in that context serious discussions can be had in finding ways to balance the concerns of practicing your religion and contributing to humanitarian efforts. In another sense, however, I am not only talking about humanitarian activities like charities and feeding the poor. I am asking a deeper question of what it means to be human.

Name:

John

Question:

What do Muslims and their botched attempts at governments in so called "Muslim" countries, where anarchy and chaos are the order of the day, have to offer mankind?

Answer:

With the way the Americans and other so-called civilized societies have "botched" things in Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, Vietnam (the list is quite extensive if you are honest with yourself), I think we all need to take a more careful look at alternative ways of understanding the world in which we live, how it got to be that way, and where it is going. Such a prospectus needs an open mind, and time to study.

Name:

Amir

Question:

Assalaamu Alaikum. Do Western Muslims have a chance of developing a true Islamic humanitarian mindset given the complexities of living and growing up in todays Western society?

Answer:

You posted this twice, so you are really eager for an answer! Let me reflect a bit more on your question. You are asking about humanitarian efforts, and Muslims, like others in the world today, have their sectors of society who are truly humanitarian and others who are not. But that is not the question here. Can we live a human being in today's world? Or, more fundamentally, what does it mean to be human, and can we be good Muslims if we are bad human beings. In this vein, I would not lay all the blame on Western society. Yes, the problems of modernity began there, and you just have to read Illich, Mumford and Shepard, as cited above, to come to terms with that. But the pathologies of dis-humanity are going global, and that is why we need to step back and say, how have the meanings of being human been altered, not by "the West" or any geographical or ideological entity, but by the lifestyles that we have adopted, especially the sort of lifestyle that separates us from the essential features of being human, namely a connection to nature, a connection to the world of the unseen, and a connection to one's fellow humans. Modern life, in many ways, is about disconnection. Sure, we are connected now, but in a few minutes the plug will be pulled. That is the life we live, the clock dictates, the boss dictates what the clock dictates, the money decides what the boss dictates, and so on in a cruel and dehumanizing cycle. I think if you really reflect on your own life, you will catch my meaning. If you do, don't despair. You can start right now to recapture your humanity, in even small ways. You can discover the beauty of existence and ponder the riddle or mortality.

Name:

Sumayya

Question:

The idea of humanism in the west came about during the Renaissance period to displace the centrality of God for the centrality of human or to put it in other words "to celebrate our humanity" (the words of Charleston Heston acting as Michael Angelo in the movies The Agony and the Ecstacy). Given this inversion of reality, how can Muslims contribute the discussion of humanism from an Islamic perspective?

Answer:

Good point, but I am not talking about what has become the institutionalized ideology of "humanism." That is something entirely different. I am asking a much more simple question. Are we still human? Humanism invites a never ending evolution of humanity toward where ever our imagination takes us, including pathological and dehumanized technological fantasies and dystopias of the type Hollywood seems obsessed with. The question is more simple, and you don't need a degree in humanities to think about it. Many of the defining features of being human in the past - one of which is living close to nature - have been radically altered in the modern period. That means it is possible to say, in a sense, that we are no longer human. I'd like to see that question addressed on a global scale, not just within the narrow confines of the Western academic tradition, and I think Muslims ought to look elsewhere for dialogue partners, because people all over the world in a variety of traditions have ways of addressing this. Why get mired in the same old self-serving debates on secular humanism? What do indigenous peoples who still live closer to nature have to add to this? What do people of Eastern religions, like Buddhism and Hinduism, have to add to this discussion. Part of our problem, I think, is that we are in a love-hate death embrace with the West, and breaking out of that can reveal entirely new ways of understanding world and all the people who share it.

Name:

Nadia

Question:

How can muslims in the west best show how Islam is a religion of compassion and humanity? like specific acts, conduct etc. I believe muslims do not do enough to show the humanity of our deen.

Answer:

Show who? Why is it important to show our humanity to others when we often cannot show it to eachother? Do we even know what it means to be human? Now is not the time for da'wah. Now is the time for reflection. If people want to see compassion and humanity, they will see it. If they want to see cruelty and selfishness, they will see that, too. It is like reading the poetry of Rumi and Hafez, you apprehend the poem where your nafs is at. But your question has at bottom an important point. What matters is how we live, and I would just expand that a bit more to include the idea of living as a member of humanity, in light of the points I have been trying to make above, and then relfecting on how that new found sense of humanity translates within the Islamic tradition.

Name:

Nadia

Question:

How can muslims in the west best show how Islam is a religion of compassion and humanity? like specific acts, conduct etc. I believe muslims do not do enough to show the humanity of our deen.

Answer:

Another repeat post, so let me knock it around a bit more by posing some questions for reflection. How is it that Muslims do not show their humanity? What does that mean? What is an example of some one who does show their humanity? In other words, how are we judging what it means to show compassion and humanity?

Name:

Juwarya

Question:

It seems to me that a major problem with the lack of humanity in modern times is selfishness. People (and I will speak of muslims, really) don't seem to have time to help others, or use religious restrictions as excuses to keep them in their own little world rather than out helping others - they want to ignore the non-muslims around them. Muslims of today seem to be too self-focused, forgetting that this is just the dunya, that what is important is Allah & good deeds, seeking Allah's favor. i know its also hard with how busy lifestyles can be especial in the west, but i bet those people can find time to play sports, take vacations, etc. Can you please comment on these ideas? Jazakallahukhairn.

Answer:

I agree with you you. Part of the problem with what I have been calling "dis-humanity" is indeed selfishness and greed. And it seems the "global economy" and the "information age" are normalizing that even more. If you expand your idea a little bit further, to make room for people who are not necessarily Muslims, but who may be good human beings, then I think we are on the same page. Part of being human, in my way of thinking, is to accept that on some level we are all related. Retreating into self-focused ways of living are in a sense, a cop-out, but they are also a survival strategy. So then the question becomes, why are our survival strategies somehow inhuman? You are also talking about priorities. Part of being selfish and greedy is making prioritized decisions to seek wealth, fame, fortune or whatever rather than the favor of Allah, as you put it, or rather than finding a sense of true humanity, which is what I am trying develop here. The busy lifestyle you mentioned, which is not limited to the West, is part of the problem, and that lifestyle, in they way I am trying to develop this line of thinking, is responsible in part for creating a sense of dis-humanity among us.

Name:

Zahra

Question:

Dear Ustadh Yusuf, you are suggesting to have a new look toward the meaning of 'Humanity' and it is a great idea. Maybe you can give us some key how we should try for a new look. How we can answer the question "what the meaning of being human is" in a useful way?

Answer:

This seems like the last question, so let me thank you all for a very stimulating session. This really felt like a dialogue, an opportunity to share ideas and for me to reply to a variety of questions. I have no concrete answers to these questions, and I seriously doubt if enough people really understand the issue I am trying to raise. Hopefully this session has contributed to better understanding, but your awareness should not end here. I think if you really want to learn about this issue, then try to understand your own society and the way you and those around you live. Ponder that, and really listen to your heart, how do you really feel about your life? Most of us can recognize the condition of dis-humanity, if we open our hearts to it, but it is often painful and so we retreat, as one questioner above suggested, into sectarian or other sorts of boxes. Since this dialogue is taking place among English speaking people, then I can also recommend going to some books in English that might further help you to understand the points I tried to make above. I would start with Ivan Illich's "Deschooling Society" and "Medical Nemesis." Then you can move on to "The Myth of the Machine" (two volumes) by Lewis Mumford, and round out your studies with "Nature and Madness" and "Thinking Animals" by Paul Shepard. These people are not Muslims, but I think they have tapped into something deeper than any surface understanding of any religion can claim today. Remember, all religions are deep and profound, but our minds can become too small to really apprehend their depth. One way that we lose this depth is to normalize our dis-humanity, and in order to reverse that you first have to recognize it. These books helped me, and I hope the will help you. After reading them, you can then go back into the Islamic tradition, in whatever shape or form you prefer, or any tradition for that matter, and look at it anew, with new eyes, new questions, and, inshallah, a new sense of hope.

Courtesy: www.msanet.org

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