We live in a society that cuts us off from our fundamental human instincts.
It does this in two main ways.
First, we are taught to follow exclusively our “intellect.” But intellect is defined as solely related to materialism, scientism, and logic. We are taught that if you can’t see it, touch it, or hear it, it doesn’t exist and it doesn’t even make sense. The only true way to know the world is with the five bodily senses, while discovering new facts by employing the scientific method. What we discover via these rational and logical methods is what is ultimately true and real. This is what we know.
Even the scientific term for human beings as a species, “homo sapiens,” translates to “One who knows.”
Anything beyond scientific materialism is considered non-intellectual, a-rational, and even pure superstition. What we might think we know about God, morality, how to live a virtuous life, etc., is not actually knowledge. Rather, these are mere beliefs. Everyone is entitled to his beliefs, of course, but it is folly to pretend like these beliefs are on par with knowledge verified by science. The distinction between knowing and believing is like night and day, and only material science is in the business of knowledge, while religion can only be a matter of belief and, therefore, personal subjective opinion.
Gabor Maté, a contemporary psychologist, laments the artificial separation between our intellect and what he calls our “gut feelings.” Maté argues that cognition rests on a bedrock of emotion and instinct. Divorcing rational thought from intuitive feelings is crippling, since intuitions can also be a source of knowledge about the world and ourselves. When we train ourselves to repeatedly ignore or ruthlessly suppress our intuitions, we know less and less.
The idea that intuitions can be a source of knowledge sounds bizarre to those of us who have been indoctrinated with scientific materialism. But this makes sense from both a secular and an Islamic basis. From a purely secular basis, human beings are evolved creatures. Intuitions evolved due to their ability to give a survival advantage to an animal. This advantage could only be obtained if the intuitions were somehow tied to reality in a meaningful way. Due to this connection with reality, intuitions can be an important source of knowledge (and this is not negated by the fact that sometimes some intuitions can be misleading).
Islamically, we do not have to accept this evolutionary explanation. We know that Allah created human beings with the bodily capabilities to survive and to thrive in this life and the next. These include the five senses, the intellect, and instincts. And the most important of all instincts is the fitra.
More on the fitra in a moment.
Aside from disregarding intuition, modernity urges us to prioritize base desires. If “Just do it!” And “YOLO!” refer to anything, it is the exchange of what we know to be good and virtuous, for what we feel like doing at any given moment.
“Give in to your desires,” we are told suggestively in songs, movies, and books. Your desires for the material, for the sexual, for the physical appetites: these, we are told, are all “natural” and “innocent.” And it’s only right to follow them and indulge them. You should be your truest self, even if being your truest self means you are a man in a woman’s body, or vice versa. Follow your feelings! Otherwise you are repressed, abnormal, and unhealthy. Fulfilling your every last desire will make you happy. “Just do it.”
This two-pronged emphasis on scientific materialism and the pursuit of base desires has warped the human fitra.
The fitra (الفطرة) is what Allah has instilled inside each human being, an instinctive knowledge. Every human being is born with a sound and functioning fitra, and if followed, this fitra will lead the human being to the indubitable conclusion that there is one Creator and that we ought to worship Him alone. We are wired for tawhid.
فَأَقِمْ وَجْهَكَ لِلدِّينِ حَنِيفًا فِطْرَتَ اللَّهِ الَّتِي فَطَرَ النَّاسَ عَلَيْهَا لَا تَبْدِيلَ لِخَلْقِ اللَّهِ ذَلِكَ الدِّينُ الْقَيِّمُ وَلَكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ
“So direct your face toward the religion, inclining to truth. [Adhere to] the fitra of Allah upon which He has created all people. No change should there be in the creation of Allah. That is the correct religion, but most of the people do not know.” (Surat Ar-Rum, 30)
The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ teaches us in a well-known hadith:
“No child is born but that he is upon fitra. His parents make him a Jew, or a Christian, or Magian. Just as an animal gives birth to offspring wholly [without defect], do you detect flaws?”
In the case of modernism, knowledge (through the scientific method) is contrasted with belief (unproven personal speculations).
But Allah contrasts it differently:
وَمَا لَهُم بِهِ مِنْ عِلْمٍ ۖ إِن يَتَّبِعُونَ إِلَّا الظَّنَّ ۖ وَإِنَّ الظَّنَّ لَا يُغْنِي مِنَ الْحَقِّ شَيْئًا
“But they have no knowledge of it. They only follow speculation (dhann). And speculation will not avail them in the face of Truth at all.” (Surat An-Najm, 28)
Knowledge versus speculation.
Knowledge, in the true sense, can only come from One who is All-Knowing, One who has the deepest and most encompassing knowledge of the world, and that can, by definition, only be the Creator of that world. Non-creators, in contrast, can only speculate because they rely on finite senses and finite epistemological capacities. The human senses and empiricism, in general, are so limited that we do not even know what we do not know!
For this reason, true knowledge comes from revelation from Allah about both the seen and unseen realms, as well as epistemological avenues authorized and confirmed by that revelation, such as the fitra. Everything else is, in fact, speculation.
Aside from our fitra, we also have something inside of us that leans towards the base desires: al-Nafs al-Ammara bi al-Su’ – النفس الأمارة بالسوء, the part of the self that commands us towards evil or indecency or immorality. We have it and we must fight it. It is only in suppressing it that we are healthy and happy, which the exact opposite of modern society’s message. Islam teaches us to restrain the base desires while society wants us to celebrate them.
Allah informs us in the Quran:
وَاللَّهُ يُرِيدُ أَن يَتُوبَ عَلَيْكُمْ وَيُرِيدُ الَّذِينَ يَتَّبِعُونَ الشَّهَوَاتِ أَن تَمِيلُوا مَيْلًا عَظِيمًا
“Allah wants to accept your repentance, but those who follow [their] passions want you to digress [into] a great deviation.” (Surat Al-Nisa, 27)
The corrective mechanism for when we do slip up and fall into the suggestion of our nafs that commands towards evil is called al-Nafs al-Lawwama – النفس اللوامة: the part of the self that blames. It feels bad whenever we do something wrong. It is our instinctive sense that something is off, that something is not quite right about this. “Maybe I shouldn’t have done that. I feel bad now.”
When the wife of the Aziz, who had tried to seduce Yusuf (`alayhi al-salam) and then got him wrongfully thrown in prison, finally confessed to her crimes many years later, she said:
وَمَا أُبَرِّئُ نَفْسِي ۚ إِنَّ النَّفْسَ لَأَمَّارَةٌ بِالسُّوءِ إِلَّا مَا رَحِمَ رَبِّي ۚ إِنَّ رَبِّي غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
“And I do not acquit myself. Indeed, the soul is a persistent enjoiner of evil, except those upon which my Lord has mercy. Indeed, my Lord is Forgiving and Merciful.” (Surat Yusuf, 53)
She blamed her nafs al-ammara bi al-su’, i.e., the part of the self that commands to evil.
In opposition to this, modern society demonizes any feeling of shame and commands us to banish the concept of blame from our vocabulary. “Slut shaming!” and “Blaming the victim!” are major crimes in the modern western culture. Feminism stridently insists: No blaming or shaming should ever happen in any circumstance. Shame is bad. We need to be positive in all scenarios: body-positive, sex-positive, HIV-positive, you name it.
But the nafs al-lawwama is not positive; it alerts us to when we’ve made a mistake. If it’s positive and supportive in every instance, it has failed us. We will only sink deeper into our own misguidance. Our feeling bad and feelings of shame help us move in the right direction, away from evil.
When we move away from immorality and indecency and seek Allah’s forgiveness, He will turn to us in tawba, forgiving our sins and even erasing them. But this won’t happen if we never feel a sense of shame at our wrong actions or if we learn to squash our internal signals.
Modern society buries our fitra under the combined weight of our intellect and our desires. It warps the very fitra that instructs us to control our desires and to know and worship our Creator. Is it any surprise, then, how so many find themselves steeped in desire and materialism, far from the sanctuary of obedience to the Most Loving, Allah?
Umm Khalid was born in Egypt but moved to the US at a young age. She completed memorization of the Quran early in life and then attended Harvard University for her undergraduate studies. She studied Anthropology with a regional focus on the Middle East and graduated with honors. She has served as campus chaplain at a women’s college in New England while teaching Quranic recitation.
Umm Khalid is the mother of four children whom she home schools using a curriculum she personally developed, focusing on Islamic tarbiya and inculcating strong convictions for young children.
For more Islamic parenting and homeschooling info, you can follow Umm Khalid on her Facebook page.
Umm Khalid teaches online at Alasna Institute.