The Commonality of the Human Condition

Sadek J. Sulaiman

Thank you Shaikh Taha for inviting me to participate in the summer series of lectures of the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Studies.  I am also thankful to Alhewar Center and Ustaz Sobhi Ghandour for kindly co-hosting this event.

My presentation is about the Commonality of the Human Condition Versus the Diversity of Human Thought.   It is adapted from an article I wrote recently in Arabic, entitled The Law of Change in the Human Condition. This presentation is of a general style; it skips over a lot of pertinent detail.  However, in the discussion to follow, we may come back to focus on any particular areas of interest. At that point it will be your individual choice to interact in English or in Arabic.  I shall gladly respond in kind. 

Let me begin with the diversity of human thought.  In the annals of human intellection over the past four millennia of recorded history, different social groups have given rise to different perspectives on the world and man’s place in the world, as a result of different ways of perceiving reality.  Where the perspectives are religious, they derive from metaphysical insights. Where the perspectives are philosophical, they ensue from critical thought.  Among religious traditions, theology, dogma, doctrines, and ritual vary considerably.  Among philosophical systems notions about the universe and man vary no less.

Let us look at the religious setting first.  Almost all early human thought is presented in religious context. Every major religion offers notions primarily about God, the Universe, Man, and Man’s destiny beyond this life.   But their versions of reality vary. For example, in the traditions of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, the three major faiths of all time, we find remarkable divergence on the concept of divinity and man’s relationship with the divine.  We also find marked differences in their perceptions of the universe and man’s station within it.

In Hinduism divinity is depicted in a multiplicity of semi-autonomous deities emanating from a single God.  In Christianity, divinity is a coalescence of the godhead, the human intellect, and the nexus called the Holy Ghost.  In Islam, the divine is absolute, ultimate, and transcendent.  “There is nothing whatever like unto Him,” says the Qur’an in a categorical rejection of any and all anthropomorphic images.  Divine transcendence, to be sure, is acknowledged in all three faiths; however, only in Islam is it conceived as absolutely unbridgeable.   

In Hinduism, the universe, uncreated, has always been there, and man is not freed from his earthly confines before he has progressed far enough to ascend to a higher plane of existence; hence he goes through numerous rebirths until he finally washes away his bad karma and qualifies to move up.   In Christianity, the universe was created, and the advent of man was stained with an original sin from which only by faith in Jesus Christ can man seek salvation.   In Islam, too, the universe was created, but it was not an original sin but an act of disobedience that landed man on earth – an act for which man was forgiven, but told henceforth to make his own decisions. He would be saved by faith and good deeds alone.  Beyond that, divine mercy may redeem anyone.  

In their eschatological conceptions, both Christianity and Islam subscribe to the doctrine of a coming judgment, a resurrection of the dead, and everlasting rewards in heaven or punishments in hell.  But their versions of those cataclysmic events do not coincide.  On an entirely different track, Hinduism speaks of neither heaven nor hell, nor for that matter of purgatory, the interregnum Christianity and Islam posit between death and resurrection.   

A general distinction of note between the religions of the Far East and those of the “Peoples of the Book” is that in the former nature is paramount and man is asked to abide by her dictates; in the latter, God is supreme, and man is encouraged to explore and exploit nature for his needs.  Noting this distinction, Philosophy Professor Huston Smith of M.I.T. observes that it is no accident that modern science first jumped to life in the Western world.  Preceding that, I might add, science thrived in the Muslim world; there, too, it was prompted by the Qur’an’s call to man to investigate nature and make good use of her resources.      

Notice also the inter-faith variance in ritual and tradition.  In Islam and Christianity cremation of a human corpse is sacrilegious, and only burial is proper, for the soul may need to wear her body again on some distant day of rising from the grave.  In Hinduism, cremation is a deliberate act of eliminating a wasted body for which the soul has no further use.  For worship, Christianity has ornate churches, Hinduism temples with adorned statutes of deities, and Islam plain mosques with mehrabs pointing in the direction of Makkah.  In habits of food and drink, Christianity is omnivorous and indifferent to liquor.  Islam is selectively omnivorous and averse to liquor.  Hinduism is strictly vegetarian. 

Even within the same religion, conceptions vary.  Reminiscent of Christianity’s separation from Judaism, Buddhism separated from Hinduism, leaving behind Hindu deities, scriptures, rituals, and caste hierarchy, and carrying along the dual doctrines of reincarnation and karma.  Like Judaism and Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism consist of multiple denominations, each offering a distinctive doctrinal brand.

So do Taoism and Confucianism, the two indigenous religions of China; in point of fact, neither one is so much a religion as a blueprint for a good life here on earth, with emphasis laid on morality, and with hardly a thought for the afterlife.  Even so, the two approach morality from different angles.  Confucianism stresses propriety of social conduct. Taoism focuses on the nurture of the inner self.

In Christianity, the sectarian multiplicity is evidence enough of doctrinal diversity.  Even the Ten Commandments come in some fifteen versions, or more.   A perennial point of controversy has been the integrity of the human mind itself.  Can we grasp the truth without the aid of revelation?  Must we subject every religious tenet to the adjudication of reason?  Saint Thomas Aquinas, who had thoroughly absorbed Ibn Rushd, found no theological doctrine acceptable if it went against reason.  But that does not coincide with the position of the Church at large, where faith comes first and reason a distant second.  In Christian orthodoxy, man is a sinner; his reasoning cannot be trusted to arbitrate matters of right and wrong.   

In Islam, the theologians, philosophers, and Sufis have offered diverse views on the sufficiency of reason.  Ibn Rushd, preeminent among Muslim rationalist philosophers, gave equal validity to reason and revelation, arguing that both are necessary and essentially consistent.  His critic, Abu Hamid Al Ghazali, inclining to mysticism, discredited reason; instead, he set out to reconcile Sufism with the orthodox tradition.  Neither position is consistent with mainstream Islam; wherein mysticism is suspect, and reason is trusted only where she follows in tandem with divine revelation.  

At another level, Sunni and Shiite doctrines diverge.  To the three core principles of faith held in common, usul al din, namely, the Oneness of God, the Veracity of the Prophets, and the Certainty of an Afterlife Judgment,  التوحيد، النبوة، المعاد   the Shia add two other core principles: Justice, meaning that God is inherently just, therefore inherently incapable of injustice, and Imamat, meaning that God, not the people, selects men for the task of leadership.  While the Sunnis acknowledge Justice as a tenet of faith, though not as an Asl, they reject Imamat altogether as a divinely determined function.

Let us now turn to philosophy.  Like religion, philosophy has offered varied and often contradictory perspectives.  For example, the pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraclitus and Parmenides taught diametrically opposite views of the fundamental character of reality. Heraclitus saw it as change: nothing is permanent, he said. Parmenides saw it as permanence: nothing ever changes, he concluded.  A century later, Plato applied Heraclitus’ thesis of change to the world of the senses, and Parmenides’ antithesis of no-change to the realm of the intellect. Plato thereby produced a synthesis that took his own philosophy a step further. Many centuries later, Friedrich Hegel found in similar philosophical triads a basis for his theory of dialectic. 

We may note here two other examples of dialectic.  The stoic thesis, which asserts that life’s hardships are best endured with equanimity, and the Epicurean antithesis, which deems the pursuit of pleasure as the highest good, synthesize in the concept of the golden mean, which suggests a middle course between two extremes as invariably the optimum choice.  Similarly, the monist view that the soul is one with the body, and the dualistic counterview that the soul is a non-physical entity imprisoned in, but distinct from the body, find synthesis in the view originating with Aristotle and shared by most classical philosophers that the soul, though distinct, is essentially associated with the body, and that through the progress of the soul humanity develops morally and intellectually.  

In modern times, France, England, and Germany have each revealed its own distinctive philosophical disposition.  France inclined to world rationalism that emphasized the deductive process of thought.  From certainty about his own existence Rene Descartes deduced the existence of everything else, including God.  England preferred the inductive process, offered empiricism, and produced David Hume who took empiricism to the limit by denying that anything at all exists outside of man’s own perception.  Germany developed idealism, and produced Hegel who upheld the authenticity of the human mind in understanding its cosmic environment.  In direct opposition to Hume’s denial of the objective world Hegel said the universe is real, and man’s rational conception of the universe, though ever incomplete, is real as well.  They present, as it were, the two sides of a coin.  “The real is the rational, and the rational is the real,” are his famous words.    

Then in the New World, notably with William James and John Dewey, American pragmatism came of age, focused, characteristically, on the practical and useful.  Unlike Europe and Asia, who both had seen truth as something intrinsic to an idea, America saw truth as an evolving value, one that attaches to an idea in the process of its actualization in the real world. To find the meaning of an idea, to judge its utility we must examine the consequences to which it leads in action, otherwise dispute about it may be without end, and will surely be without fruit, so wrote Charles Pierce, an earlier pioneer of American pragmatism.  Building on Pierce, James focused on the consequences of an idea as the real measure of its value, thereby turning America’s attention in the direction of action and the future.   Dewey followed suit, laying emphasis on education as the most effective means of developing a better generation.  ‘All the virtue in the world will not save us if we lack intelligence, he wrote. Ignorance is not bliss, it is unconsciousness and slavery. Only intelligence can make us sharers in the shaping of our fates.  This, in a way, was young America distancing herself from European metaphysics and attempting to jump ahead of European science.   To be herself, to go her own way, America needed a philosophy of her own. Pragmatism came along and provided the rationale for the dynamic, result-oriented thrust of the American experience.  

Thus from the pre-Socratic thinkers of Greece to their more scientifically grounded posterity of the 20th Century, philosophers have produced myriad explanations of the natural world and man’s place and role in it. They have agreed, disagreed, synthesized, and quite so often offered contrary views.  In fact, the reason why a new philosophy emerges at all is that its proponent finds the previous philosophies inaccurate, inadequate, incoherent, or unsatisfactory in some other way.  Such is the nature of the human intellectual inquiry:  ever in motion, never capturing a perfect understanding, yet ever striving towards one all the same.

So we see how fertile and innovative the human mind has been, how diverse the thought it has generated over the ages in its perennial quest for comprehending the universe and itself.  From that great diversity, various religions, philosophies, theosophies, and mythologies have risen.  If we add to that wide panoply of intellection differences of gender, race, culture, and personal temperament, we might think there is little left to point to in terms of commonality of the human condition. 

But that would be looking at the trees and missing the forest, focusing on the variable and losing sight of the constant.  Deep down what is common among humans is far greater than what is different about them on the surface.  We are in essence one species, one genetic pool, one bundle of sentiments.  We have come along together on the same evolutionary track - mammals of similar physical and mental constitution, engaged in an ongoing struggle for survival and growth.  To prove that we are one humankind the fact suffices that a normal child can ever be born of union between any man and any woman: our reproductive biology will neither object nor impede, nor will it require licensing by culture, creed, race, or country.  And a child born thus is every bit as preciously human as any other child.

Nor are we different in our basic human characteristics.  We thrive on freedom, and atrophy in serfdom.  We expand with knowledge, and contract with ignorance.  We are nourished by the same foods, and sickened by the same toxins.  We are attacked by the same diseases and cured by the same medicines.  We laugh and cry for the same reasons.  We invariably seek happiness, and wish misfortune would never knock at our door. Love enlivens us, apathy stifles us, and hatred poisons our days.  We care for our families, and beyond that, we like to be of service to fellow humans.  There is something intrinsically human about us all, and that is our common vital center. 

Beyond the dynamic nature of human thought, which never ceases to produce new understandings and insights, lies that vital center.  Religion and philosophy alike have felt its presence, and embodied its tenets in their teachings.  Even mythologies have paid homage to it.  As a result, remarkably enough, all thought systems, however divergent, point to the same ethical ideas for fashioning a good and enlightened life, on both the personal and societal planes.   All view humanity as one, and make it, rather than any particular social or ethnic group, the object of their interest.  Philosophy, as expounded variously by its several schools, and religion, as represented variously by its major faiths of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Shintoism, Taoism, and Confucianism, all present themselves as universal systems.  Each, in its own way, has tried its hand at globalization, and each has succeeded in some measure.  Today they collectively belt the globe. 

Thus, beyond the diversity of human thought, we discern the commonality of the human condition - evidenced not only by our shared qualities, sentiments, and needs, but also by our shared mathematics and science, and our pervasive love of learning.  We reason alike, cooperate, strive for similar goals, and instinctively admit to the same moral code.  We recognize in common the principles and practices that sustain and nurture us as individuals and societies, and we seek the same values that enhance us as  humans and citizens.  By the same token, we agree as to what degrades our lives, diminishes our worth, and impedes our progress.  And we know by experience that accumulated negativism in thought, word, and action ultimately plunges us in conflict and chaos.

The ethical compass we collectively share is our ultimate guide in shaping a graceful and productive life.  Moral good and enlightened self-interest, in the final analysis, are one and the same.  The great teachers of mankind said as much, as they went about living ethically, and educating their contemporaries in doing likewise.  From Hammurabi’s law of 18th Century B.C., to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the Twentieth Century, theirs has been one consistent effort to crystallize, codify, and maintain ethical standards in the human experience at large.  

They realized, as we ought to realize, too, that any time we diminish ethical standards we diminish ourselves; any time we ignore morality, we do so at our own peril.  There is no gain to be realized from an immoral act, only a negative return that strikes at the victim, society, and the perpetrator himself.  By the same token, a moral act, intentioned and engineered to be good and right, benefits both the receiver and the giver; beyond that, it benefits society and posterity at large.    

At the societal level, moral relapse results in collective degradation.  Injustice leads to political and social turmoil; ultimately it destroys national cohesion.  Inequality diminishes human worth; eventually it ignites class warfare. Factionalism undermines cooperative effort, impeding progress. Despotism begets corruption, which then undercuts public trust.  Let a society with any religion, race, culture, or geography take to these social ills, and it will suffer and regress.  Conversely, let a society with any religion, race, culture, or geography establish justice, equality, human dignity, and sound governance, and it will prosper and advance. 

The Prophets and sages of all nations, ever conscious of humanity as a whole, transcending borders, have addressed their wisdom to humankind at large. They have told us: You may think differently, act differently, be different in as many ways as you like.  But you must all conform to the one morality that springs up from the well of your common nature, your primordial fitrah - as the Quran calls it. 

That we are one at the base and diverse on the surface, that diversity is not adversity but a dynamic that brings out the best in us, and that righteousness is the true measure of our excellence as individuals and nations - these are vital truths of our common human condition – truths  that we must never overlook. 

The Glorious Qur’an illuminates: يا أيها الناس إنا خلقناكم من ذكر وأنثى وجعلناكم شعوبا وقبائل لتعارفوا، إن أكرمكم عند الله أتقاكم، إن الله عليم خبير     (الحجرات 13) O Mankind!  We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may know each other.  Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is he (who is) the most righteous of you.  And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).
Mr. Sulaiman presented this address on July 11, 2001 at Al-Hewar Center in metro Washington, D.C.  The event was cosponsored by the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences

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