Being Human In The 21st Century
In the several past editions of one the most influential international platforms that shapes global agendas, the World Economic Forum, one of the biggest questions that was raised and discussed is concerning being and staying human in light of emerging trends and technological developments in the 21st century.
Interestingly despite the sophistication and advances the world at large especially the West have achieved, they still ponder on these basic questions that have been posed as far as 2000 years ago during the time of the ancient Greek philosophers, chiefly Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
The fact that last year alone the world spent close to USD 1.7 trillion on arms, but fell short by less than USD 1.7 billion in fulfilling the United Nations appeal to support refugees – trillions are spent waging wars but little to take a region to safer shores – tells a lot about our state of being human.
It was also reported in the New York Times in 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, recognizing that the decadence of human beings has destroyed the environment.
This corroborates the important argument made by Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, the contemporary Muslim thinker from Malaysia, that despite the positive contributions of modern science and technology, modern man does not understand his true self better, and unable to attain a state of peace and tranquility in their self and in relation to the others.
In the intellectual tradition of Islam, as represented by luminaries such as Ibn Sina (d. 1037), Al-Ghazali (d. 1111), Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240) and many others whose insights contemporary Muslims can still benefit from, what is understood by being ‘human’ is not the same as the contemporary modern Western world’s understanding of it—whose understanding is derived originally from the Enlightenment period.
Since the time of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (d. 1804), the Western civilization 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.
Thus by and large in the Muslim educated circles today, the Western man’s ways of thinking and consciousness which evolved over centuries have impinged and surreptitiously infused into the Muslims own ways of thinking and consciousness, causing confusion in their worldview on one of the key elements that constitutes the worldview of Islam: on the nature of man.
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 which seeks to treat psychological problems at its roots.
The nature of man as understood in Islam, which does not restricts the scientific method to sense perception and reason, but also includes ‘true reports’ (khabar sadiq), postulates that man is both physical and spiritual (i.e. possesses a soul), in which the physical is embedded in and serves the spiritual.
As an implication, a man that is true to his natural inclination (fitrah) would voluntarily limit his material desire through the cultivation of virtues and self-discipline in order that he might realize 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 implied whereby, 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 the likes of Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al- Rāzī (d. 925), remarked in his al-Tibb al-Rūḥānī (The Spiritual Physick), “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 that must be allowed to flourish in the 21st century if wish to see the following: the virtuous circulation of wealth, the harmonious way of living between man and his environment, the creation of creative and innovative technologies that is in harmony with man and nature, and most importantly, the conviction on his purpose and place in this world.