This article is actually a translation by Mr Saeed Ahmad of a few lectures delivered by Imaam Amin Ahsan Islahi on this topic. (Editor)
The Qur'anic philosophy of good and evil is based on man's nature. It is the Qur'an's assertion that it has provided knowledge and guidance for all moral virtues and beliefs. It has exhorted man to be virtuous and avoid vices, the knowledge of both being inherent in him and not imposed from outside his personality. It has reminded man of things which are innate in him, which he often ignores for the immediate accomplishment of his worldly desires.
Highest Good: The Unity Of God
According to the Holy Qur'an, the highest good is the belief in the unity and providence of Allah and this belief is the pre-requisite of Islamic commandments. This concept is the fountainhead of good conduct and morality. It is the divine sanctuary of all good without which no good or virtue is safe and incorruptible. The Holy Prophet (sws) explained its importance when he was asked `which act is the best?'. The reply was `Belief in Allah'. When another Companion of the Prophet (sws) asked `which sin is most henious in the eyes of Allah?', the Prophet (sws) named the act of setting up another god beside Allah although the latter had created man. As all the messengers of Allah were inspired by the same divine source, Christ also gave a similar reply, as is contained in the Bible. When one of the scribes asked him, `which is the first commandment of Allah?' he answered:
"The first of all the commandments is `Hear! O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord, and thou shalt love the Lord with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength; this is the first commandment." (Mark 12:29-30)
The highest good has so thoroughly permeated man's nature that the Holy Qur'an says that Allah created the souls of the sons of Adam and got a solemn pledge from them that they would accept Allah alone to be their Lord, the Bounteous. This was done lest man may put up an excuse on the Day of Judgement that he was not aware of it. Surah Aaraaf reads thus:
"And when thy Lord took from the children of Adam, from their loins, their seed, and made them testify upon themselves, `Am I not your Lord'? They said, `Yes we testify' lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection, `As for us, we were unaware of this'." (7:172)
Thus the concept of the unity of God is the first of the fundamentals of human nature and an irrefutable fact for every human being. Allah will not entertain any excuse against this innate evidence. One may argue that he does not remember such a testification. Forgetfulness or ignorance of an incident does not affect its veracity. The survival of the signs or remnants of an incident is a sufficient proof. So is the case of the testification held before Allah by the progeny of Adam. Polytheists and monotheists of all times subscribe to the belief that God's existence does not need any proof or philosophical arguments. Arguments are required for polytheism. The Holy Qur'an has therefore asked them consistently to produce proof for existence of the alleged partners of Allah.
Intuition Of Good And Evil In Man's Nature
The preceding testification about the Almighty encompasses all the attributes and imperatives of His unity. All good emanates from this highest good and is in fact an offshoot of this mainstream. Evil is an opposite and independent permanent fact. The Almighty has endowed the knowledge of good and evil in human nature. The Holy Qur'an says in Surah Shams:
"By the human mind and that which perfected it and inspired in it lewdness and God-fearing." (91:7-8)
According to a group of philosophers man was born with a clean slate. All the shades that came up later were the results of the surroundings on his gaining experience and knowledge. The Holy Qur'an regards this to be a misconception. The environment is all made up of man's right or wrong actions. Only good, justice, rightfulness spring from the real source of his nature and every believer or disbeliever knows this. Evil, cruelty and falsehood result from man's submission to his immodest desires and everyone holds them to be undesirable. The knowledge of good and evil is one of the capabilities bestowed by the Almighty on man to enable him to face the ordeals of life. God has, therefore, mentioned this knowledge as His special bounty. The Holy Qur'an says:
"Have we not blessed him with two eyes and a tongue, and two lips and guided him on the two highways' of right and wrong." (90:8-10)
Allah bestowed on man two eyes for the observation of the surroundings and a tongue and two lips for speech and explanation. He also granted the knowledge of good and evil to follow the righteous path.
Aristotle's views are nearer to the Holy Qur'an. He says that there is a divine spark in man. The Holy Qur'an has described it as breathing of the Almighty's spirit into man. When Allah placed the whole plan of creation of man before the angels, He commanded them to bow before Adam (sws) in these words:
"When I have perfected him and breathed My spirit in him, fall you down unto bowing before him."(15:29)
This spirit is the divine spark. Its realization helps attain perfection imbued in his nature. The Holy Qur'an further emphasizes that faith is man's nature but he is prone to forget it. Allah has been sending His messengers to remind him of this forgotten faith. The faith commanded by these messengers is in harmony with human nature. The Qur'an says:
"So get thyself upright to your religion. This is the providential nature in which He created man. There is no altering the creation of Allah. This is the right religion but most men know not." (30:30)
There is no dichotomy and inconsistency between Islam and human nature. Both have the relationship of law and its explanation or commentary. Whatever is innate in human nature, has been explained through divine revelation. In Surah Noor (24:35) good nature and divine inspiration have been described as `light upon light' ie, divine revelation is not light over darkness but light upon light.
The Human Soul's Invisible Reprover
The Almighty has not only imbibed the awareness of good and evil in man's nature but has also placed in him an invisible guard who reproves him on acts of evil and urges him towards virtuous acts. The Holy Qur'an has adduced the existence of this invisible guard as an evidence for the life hereafter:
"Nay, I swear by the Day of Resurrection. Nay, I swear by the rebuking soul [that the Day is bound to come]." (65:1-2)
Man loses his balance between good and evil under pressure of worldly desires and succumbs to evil acts. Due to this tendency of the soul, according to the Holy Qur'an, it is prone to evil. The Prophet Yusuf (sws) pointed towards this in these words:
"I do not exculpate myself. Lo, the human soul is prone to evil." (12:53)
The human soul is aware of virtues and man's nature impels him to follow the path of virtue. So long as he maintains a correct balance, he repents on committing evil and also resents the evil stance of others and even admonishes them. This trait of the mind is called `the soul's self-reproving' by the Qur'an.
To maintain this balance, the Almighty requires man to keep Him and the Day of Judgement uppermost in his mind so that he does not fall an easy prey to worldly desires and always stands up against them. If he stumbles, the soul's `self-reproving trait' at once reprimands him and he, on receiving the warning, tries to make amends through penitence and returns to the Almighty's shelter. One who is able to maintain this balance, enjoys, in the words of the Holy Qur'an, a `contented soul', the highest position that a believer is expected by the Almighty to strive for. A contented soul will find the coveted position in Heaven and this is, in fact, man's highest status in front of Allah.
The Holy Qur'an while describing the secrets of man's creation has revealed a lot about man's nature. The discussion in the following sections will show that it is based on very sound lines.
The Concept of Good and Evil is Inherent in Human Nature
The existence of good and evil in human nature is so manifest, so evident, and indubitable that it hardly needs any proof or arguments. Proof is normally needed when it is more evident than the subject. If the subject is itself more than explicit, no proof is required. The faith acquired through experience cannot be destroyed by arguments. Pain in a patients heart or stomach does not need any external proof. None can convince the patient as he is experiencing it. The existence of the sun needs no proof, one has just to open his eyes to see it. No proof can be greater or more acceptable than the sun itself. Similarly, the mind is a flawless witness to the fact that truth is good and falsehood is bad; cruelty is bad and justice is good. The traits of good, mercy, honesty, pity, benign conduct are all moral virtues. The human mind is a standing witness to these; what stronger argument or proof is needed higher than the mind's own admission.
Consistency and Continuity
The other important truth is the fact that the soul always reprimands a person on the committing of an evil or a sinful act. Man's nature is aware of evil. Otherwise, there would not be uniformity of thought among people of different religions, races, countries and continents about the basic virtues, particularly in the presence of a lot of differences in their modes of living, customs culture and civilization etc. The consensus about the natural awareness of good and evil is evidently due to the fact that the Creator imbued the knowledge of good and evil in human nature. The Holy Qur'an says:
"Man is a telling witness against himself although he tenders excuses." (75:14-15)
The virtue of good and the vice of evil is so well accepted and manifest in human nature that they have been continued to be acknowledged and their consistency has never been questioned. In some societies, there may be exceptions to this truth, but humanity never subscribed to such deviations. For example, the Parsees allowed marriage with sisters, the Spartans used to kill weak children, or the Arabs before Islam used to bury their daughters alive. Nevertheless, such conduct always remained very despicable and the common human conscience condemned such exceptions being against human nature.
A Natural Criterion of Good and Evil
Those who succumb to a sinful life or cruelty to others do not, however, regard their acts to be good nor would ungrudgingly yield to a similar treatment by others. Thus, the basic moral law in man's nature impels him to a treatment of others that he would like for himself at their hands. This principle is a criterion for discrimination between good and evil. The Holy Qur'an has drawn attention to this principle of human nature in Surah Mutaffifeen as follows:
"Woe to the stinters who, when they measure against the people, take full measure but, when they measure for them, do scrimp." (83:1-3)
`Whatever one does not like for himself, he dislikes it for others' is a principle ingrained in human nature and it easily determines the property or otherwise of an attitude without any external evidence.
Nature and Free Will
If knowledge of good and evil is in man's nature, the evil conduct of the majority of mankind needs to be explained. If it were so, all human beings or at least the majority should have followed the right path. Unfortunately, however, the majority does not follow it. The question is answered when we understand a few basic concepts.
There is vast difference between animal instinct and man's nature. Animals are slave to their instinct and cannot but follow it truthfully. A cat eats mutton, milk, etc, but will not eat apples and grapes even if it starves to death. So is the case with other animals. Man is quite different; he may turn poison into medicine and may fill his belly with leaves of trees, roots and other similar things. The nature of man has a freedom of action and desires. The greatest quality of man is his power to act according to his will. Man's vicegerency of the Almighty is also due to his freedom to act. One can also use this faculty to debase his nature. Knowing what is good, he can commit evil and on the top of it he can also adduce arrangements to justify his action. In fact, the faculty of intellect granted to man has the capability of adducing arguments for and against a thesis. Thus man is free to act as he wills. He knows what is right, virtue, truth magnanimity and self-respect. He knows the directives of Allah and the demands of religion. However, he acts against them under pressure of desires and sentiments and then sacrifices his conscience with the help of his intellect.
Misuse of Freedom of will Creates Evil
Desires, sentiments and likings are essential to human existence; without them man loses his entity. If he so desires, he can keep them under control or be a slave to them. Man disobeys the Almighty by misusing his will. The Almighty, in His wisdom, sometimes leaves a man free to act as he pleases. He does not deprive man of the free will otherwise man would be reduced to a mere animal and would not then be accountable for his deeds.
Evidently, man commits evil through misuse of his freedom of will. A great majority of human beings, under pressure of desires, get into evil and detract from nature's moral laws, except a small minority who them.
Who is the Creator of Good and Evil?
The question remains that has one and the same creator created both good and evil? If these have been created by two different dieties, existence of more than one God will be inevitable. If Allah is the Creator of both; how can the all-good God be the Creator of evil? The discussion in the preceding sections makes it clear that evil is created through the misuse of man's faculty of free will. Man can use this power for good as well as for evil. This universe is based on natural laws that are all good. But the knowledge of these laws ie, science can be applied for mankind's benefits as well as for its destruction. A knife can be used for peeling fruits and vegetables as well as for killing people. It has been left to man's discretion to use nuclear power for peaceful purposes or for destruction. If he wants to use this power for destruction and tyranny, he has the liberty and freedom to do so. It would then be a blatant misuse of power gifted by the Almighty.
The freedom of will is a great blessing granted by the Almighty. This freedom places man above animals and crowns him with the vicegerency of the Almighty. It cannot be argued that the evil springing out of the misuse of this freedom could be the creation of Allah. He is all good. By foolish misuse of this freedom, man assumes the responsibility for the creation of evil.
Avarice Breeds Evil
Why should man use his freedom of will for the generation of evil? The reason appears to be that the greed for quick gain misleads him to evil actions. The reward of evil is immediate but the results of good acts and compliance of moral laws do not produce a cash reward; one may have to wait even till the Day of Judgement. This difficulty is present in the reformation of the society. Although the doctors continue warning against the evil effects of smoking and drinking but just for temporal enjoyment and elation, people do not heed the doctor's advice and continue with the addiction. This is also true of moral evils. By falsehood and fraud one may achieve his immediate ends forgetting its evil effects. The temptation may be so strong that one does not care even for the warnings of the reproving soul in him. A murderer by killing another man derives some pleasure or satisfies his urge for revenge but its consequential effects that engulf the society remain a distant reality. On the other hand, the reward of virtues like truth, honesty, sympathy and other good acts is hardly immediate; sometimes one may face difficulties and torture for a virtuous conduct. A long period of waiting is usually inherent in the outcome of good acts. For these reasons, man disobeys his nature to accomplish his evil desires immediately.
The Divine Spark
Those indulging in evil acts for immediate gains gradually debase their nature. Those who heed the reprovings of their soul and have an eye on the ultimate good instead of immediate gains, are virtuous people. Allah has exemplified their nature in Surah Noor (24:35) as pure and transparent oil that lightens upon seeing the fire short of contact. For people endowed with such good nature, the words of the Prophet (sws) and his person serve as a miracle. They have the divine flame ready to lighten up on hearing the revelation. For such people, the Prophet's call is the voice of their own. If one feels some estrangement towards the Prophet's guidance, evidently his pilot flame has gone off. Those who have debased their nature, feel perturbed on the Prophet's advice as the Holy Qur'an says in the sermons of the various prophets in Surah Hud:
"He said, O my people; Bethink you, if I rely on a clear proof from my Lord and there hath come unto me a bounty from Him and it is obscure from you, should We compel you to accept it when you are averse there-to?" (11:28)
The Devil's Antecedents
What then is the devil's role in the spreading of evil? This problem could not be understood by St. Augustine, an intelligent Christian thinker as mentioned before, and he met his defeat at the hands of the devil. He accepted the devil as a torch bearer of evil and an entity independent from God. It gave rise to the belief that there are two independent domains of God and of the Devil in the universe and both remain at loggerheads. The Holy Qur'an does not regard the devil an independent creation: he can be from men as well as from Jinns. The devil who beguiled Adam was one of the Jinns named "Iblees". The Holy Qur'an says:
"He was one of the Jinns and he disobeyed his Lord." (18:50)
The point of view that the devil who beguiled Adam (sws) is still alive and continues to mislead mankind is childish. The devil has sought the Almighty's permission for continuation of his mission to misguide people till the Day of Judgement to establish that His followers were few. Allah has said:
"Respite then is granted thee till the Day of the Time appointed: [Iblees] said: Then, swearing by Thy power, I will put them all in the wrong. Except thy servants among them sincere and purified. [God] said: `Then, it is just and fitting, and I say what is just and fitting. That I will certainly fill hell with thee, and those that follow thee, Every one'." (38:80-85)
The Holy Qur'an makes it clear that there are both good and bad Jinns. The physical laws that apply to jinns are also applicable to Iblees. When the jinns are not immortal, how could Iblees be immortal? Thus the devil is not an immortal creation. The Holy Qur'an is clear on the issue that there are devils from men in the same manner as from the jinns and these devils are perhaps even more cunning than Iblees himself.
The Devil's Role
In the human life, the devil's role is no more than that of a sneaking whisperer. Allah has not empowered him to forcibly mislead anyone he wishes. He is free only to whisper evil and he can do nothing beyond that. This role has been clearly described in the last Surah of the Holy Quran:
"Say: I seek refuge with the Lord of mankind, the King of mankind, the God of mankind, from the mischief of the whisperer who withdraws [after his whisper], who whispers into the hearts of mankind, among the jinns and men." (114:1-6)
This explains the technique adopted by the devil. All his effort is directed towards whispering, propaganda and false promises. With these he entraps people and then absolves himself of the responsibility, and enjoys the misfortune of these foolish people who spoil their life in the Herein and Hereafter.
Thus the only power with the devil is of whispering evil. He has not been armed by the Almighty with any weapon to mislead them perforce. On the Day of Judgement he will absolve himself of the responsibility, addressing those who fell prey to his whispering in the following words:
"Nor had we any authority over you, Nay, it was ye who were a people in obstinate rebellion." (37:30)
The devil, in addition to false promises, deceitful talk and kindly advice with veiled warning tries to harass people through threats. But those of Allah's bondmen who do not yield to his threats are able to parry his attacks. When the devil threw a challenge that he would certainly mislead all the progeny of Adam, Allah permitted him in clear words:
"Go, do whatever you like: As for My servants, no authority shall thou have over them. Allah is sufficient for all manoeuvrings." (17:6)
Those who cherish the help of their Lord and stand up to face the devil will come up triumphant with confidence in their Lord and His blessings.
The Holy Qur'an has drawn attention to another facet of the devil's character: that of a defrauder and a deceiver. When someone falls into his trap by committing a sin, he absolves himself of all the consequences and leaves him to suffer alone. This aspect of his character has been described by the Holy Qur'an as follows:
"The devil is but a traitor to man." (25:29)
This character of Iblees has been very clearly stated in Surah Hashar:
"Like Satan, when he said to man `Disbelieve', then when he disbelieved, he said, surely I am quit of you. Surely I fear God, the Lord of the worlds." (59:16)
Despite everything, mankind's conscience has never commended evil. It has always tried to propagate good in practice. Ever since the time of social awareness, there has always been a system to dispense justice and righteousness. May be that some evils overwhelmed a society to an extent as to subdue virtues but such a position has never been tolerated by the universal conscience of mankind. There have always been such men in the society who played the same role as that of the invisible adjudicator in man's soul. Whenever situation worsened to the extent of extinction of good or virtue, the divine law came into play and completely wiped out that society to extinction.
All the elements of good and evil are inherent in man's nature. Allah keeps on reminding him lest he may offer an excuse on the Day of Judgement that he was taken unawares. Through the prophets and divine revelations all the principles have been explained in great detail. It is His infinite bounty.
Man will be answerable to God on the basis of his nature. Those who received the Prophet's message but did not pay heed, will be doubly guilty. Those who did not receive the Prophet's message will be answerable on the basis of the natural innate knowledge of good and evil.
Allah is perfect good. Evil is created through man's misuse of his own power to act. He gets into evil of his own. The devil's role is no more than evil whispering to misguide him. Allah has not given the devil the power to forcibly misguide. Man misuses his discretion to act under pressure of his desires and satisfaction of his sentiments. These desires and sentiments are not evil in themselves as to be destroyed in the manner the monks or nuns do. They prescribe nerve-racking and self-attritious practice to get rid of desires and sentiments. All that is needed, is to control the desires and sentiments and confine them within appropriate limits. Anger, rage, ambition, all are essential for cultivating virtue and good in human character and are not to be destroyed altogether. Nevertheless, anger has a limit which, if crossed, will result in tyranny. It is, therefore, essential that desires and sentiments should not be completely destroyed but need to be kept under control or civilized for which the Prophet (sws) has imparted excellent teaching.