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Primacy of intellect and the trap of the senses

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

Humans are distinguished from all other known species as is evident from their domination of the earth. This prominence is apparent in all divine scriptures, as Allah mentions in the Quran:

وَلَقَدْ كَرَّمْنَا بَنِي آدَمَ وَحَمَلْنَاهُمْ فِي الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ وَرَزَقْنَاهُم مِّنَ الطَّيِّبَاتِ وَفَضَّلْنَاهُمْ عَلَىٰ كَثِيرٍ مِّمَّنْ خَلَقْنَا تَفْضِيلًا

We have certainly honored the children of Adam and carried them on the land and sea and provided them with good things and preferred them over much of what We have created with definite preference.

Surat Al-Isra 17:70

Whereas the distinction of humans is obvious, an answer is still required as to exactly how humans are different. This question seem to have straightforward answers, yet articulating a complete response seems to be a difficult task. We often think that we humans are special as being the most sophisticated creation, yet Allah states otherwise:

لَخَلْقُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ أَكْبَرُ مِنْ خَلْقِ النَّاسِ وَلَٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ

Surely the creation of the heavens and earth is greater than the creation of mankind, but most people do not know.

Surat Ghafir 40:57

The design of the heavens and the earth, the universe itself, is far more complex than human beings. To understand this, one has to observe that we are bound by the laws of the universe and our actions cannot break free of them. The laws of the universe, on the other hand, are independent of our actions.

We often think that our social intelligence and ability to form advanced communities is what distinguishes us from other species, yet again Allah states otherwise:

وَمَا مِن دَابَّةٍ فِي الْأَرْضِ وَلَا طَائِرٍ يَطِيرُ بِجَنَاحَيْهِ إِلَّا أُمَمٌ أَمْثَالُكُم

There is no creature on the earth or bird that flies with its wings except that they are communities like you.

Surat Al-An’am 6:38

In this verse, it is clear that other animals have this ability too, as Allah made the point by using the phrase “similar to you,” which indicates that this is not necessarily what makes us special.

We might think that we are the only species who can communicate with clear and articulate language, yet again Allah mentions that animals have this capability as well:

حَتَّىٰ إِذَا أَتَوْا عَلَىٰ وَادِ النَّمْلِ قَالَتْ نَمْلَةٌ يَا أَيُّهَا النَّمْلُ ادْخُلُوا مَسَاكِنَكُمْ لَا يَحْطِمَنَّكُمْ سُلَيْمَانُ وَجُنُودُهُ وَهُمْ لَا يَشْعُرُونَ

When they came upon the valley of the ants, an ant said: O ants, enter your dwellings that you not be crushed by Solomon and his soldiers while they perceive not.

Surat An-Naml 27:18

One can explore other dimensions for which animals and humans share characteristics which makes it difficult to identify exactly how humans are special.

For example, animals might have stronger senses than human, as some of them can see bands of light we do not see and can hear sound frequencies we do not hear. Animals also have intuition which seems stronger than human intuition at some times, as they can sense natural disasters before they occur.

So how exactly did Allah distinguish and favor humans over other species? There is ample research that attempts to answer this question and scholars have also explored different answers. As it turns out, humans are distinct by possessing the unique ability of imaging a future that still does not exist and acting upon it.

Ibn Al-Jawzi, a Muslim scholar from the classical period, long ago identified the distinction of humans in their ability to reason. Human beings can reflect upon what will be best for them in the future instead of merely acting upon mere immediate sensual desires and feelings like hunger, pain, and passion. He writes:

وإنما فضل الآدمي على الحيوان البهيمي بالعقل الذي أمر بكف الهوى فإذا لم يقبل قوله وحكم الهوى كان الحيوان البهيمي أعذر من الآدمي

Indeed, humans are only favored over beastly animals by their minds which order them to restrain their desires. If one does not accept its suggestion and instead follows the judgment of his desires, the beastly animals will have more of an excuse than him.

At-Tibb Ar-Ruhani 7-10

This feature is referred to as human intellect, and some scholars refer to it as mental time travel. A person can relive in his mind the past and imagine different outcomes, and he can also imagine different paths to the future along with various paths to each outcome. This mental time travel, the human intellect, is the primary and most critical attribute distinguishing humans. In Islamic terms, the combination of this imagination coupled with willpower are what constitute intention.

Intention (Niyyah) النية

Intention defined as the combination between imagination and will power has a profound effect on understanding how one can bring about change. This combination is so powerful that it is referred to as the most important part of any intended change. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

إِنَّمَا الْأَعْمَالُ بِالنِّيَّةِ وَإِنَّمَا لِامْرِئٍ مَا نَوَى

Verily, actions are only by intentions and everyone will have what they intended.

Sahih Bukhari 54

Whereas we often regard actions as the most critical component, this is mainly due to the observable nature of actions and the subtle nature of intention. As the Prophet has mentioned, intention is the essence of action as it fully defines it and controls it.

However, it is only through the true understanding of intention that combines both the intellect as imagination and determined good will through which change can come to be. This point has been emphasized by the Prophet’s statement that whoever intends to do something good will get the full reward for it as if the action had actually taken place.

Nevertheless, this is assuming that the intention took place in both of its parts, both intellectual and determined good will. Lacking the intellectual part of intention results in unorganized work without a clear direction or plan. Efforts and actions take place with only one significant component present.

On the other hand, the intention which only has imagination without determined good will is simply a form of day dreaming. It is only through the combination of both that the power of intention can be unleashed, and when this happens the realization of intention as desired outcomes in the physical world is only a matter of time.

The power of intention can be seen through many examples of individuals in history who had a vision that was realized after they passed away. Intention, when it takes place in both of its parts, sets a chain reaction in motion that would continue even after the individuals who first conceived it are long gone. Thus is the power of intention!

Trap of the Senses

Since human intellect in the form of imagination is what distinguishes us from other creatures around us, it would be logical for us to invest in protecting, utilizing, and enriching our intellects. In fact, the protection of intellect (aql) has historically been one of the five major objectives of Islamic law (maqasid ash-sharia). Yet this is not the rational by which most human live due to the powerful senses humans possess which counter the intellect when out of control.

Senses, and the desires emerging from them, are immediate; they report the world as it appears in the moment. Intellect attempts to rationalize the senses to arrive at explanations which provide a coherent story to stand the test of time.  The senses report to us that what looks good is good, what feels good is good, and what sounds good is good, from which we experience bursts of passionate desire (hawa). In contrast, the intellect says that this is not necessarily the case.

It does take much effort to see how both senses and intellect can conflict. At this point, we must understand that monotheism is based upon the senses always being subordinate to the intellect. Senses are only a means of collecting information and their reporting should not be taken at face value. This lesson is critical as Allah, God, cannot be seen directly by the senses. He only can be understood through His signs, thereby establishing monotheism as heavily dependent upon the intellect.

Allah mentions in the Quran that if it would not have been tremendously difficult for believers, He would have made the choice between intellect and the senses as very clear:

وَلَوْلَا أَن يَكُونَ النَّاسُ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً لَّجَعَلْنَا لِمَن يَكْفُرُ بِالرَّحْمَٰنِ لِبُيُوتِهِمْ سُقُفًا مِّن فِضَّةٍ وَمَعَارِجَ عَلَيْهَا يَظْهَرُونَ

If it were not that the people would become one nation of unbelief, We would have made for those who disbelieve in the Most Merciful ceilings and stairways of silver for their houses upon which to mount.

Surat Az-Zukhruf 43:33

In other words, Allah would have made the choice between the senses and intellect so clear that those who select the senses would be given sensational experiences in this life. This would have made choosing intellect very difficult due to the power of the senses in shaping our choices and decisions. It is a demonstration of both the superior value of intellect and obscuring power of the senses. This declaration is mentioned just after the intellectual articulation of monotheism by Prophet Ibrahim, peace and blessings be upon him:

وَإِذْ قَالَ إِبْرَاهِيمُ لِأَبِيهِ وَقَوْمِهِ إِنَّنِي بَرَاءٌ مِّمَّا تَعْبُدُونَ إِلَّا الَّذِي فَطَرَنِي فَإِنَّهُ سَيَهْدِينِ وَجَعَلَهَا كَلِمَةً بَاقِيَةً فِي عَقِبِهِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْجِعُونَ

When Abraham said to his father and his people: Verily, I am free from that which you worship except for He who created me and surely He will guide me. And he made it a word remaining among his descendants that they might refer to it.

Surat Az-Zukhruf 43:26-28

The statement of Ibrahim here highlights how the idols his people worshiped contradicted the consistency and unity in creation. Although at this point he was still looking for the set of values that Allah desires, which were later revealed to him, he was clear that the consistency of the creation reflects the one Creator who initiated all things. Hence, Ibrahim is the father of all monotheistic religions due to his intellect guiding him to monotheism.

Intellect is the only means through which monotheism can be truly practiced. Senses act only as a source of information of our surroundings which the intellect can then use in pursuit of answering pressing questions. Indeed, alcohol and intoxicants are prohibited in Islam exactly because they damage and degrade the intellect, as stated by Umar ibn Al-Khattab:

وَالْخَمْرُ مَا خَامَرَ الْعَقْلَ

Wine is that which clouds the mind.

Sahih Muslim 3032

Positions taken in Islam related to controversial matters of the sense, such as music, poetry, and pictures, can only be properly understood by exploring their relation to the intellect. The proper response to anything that involves the senses is to exercise caution by making sure they are subservient to the intellect.

For example, Allah mentions poetry in a negative manner highlighting its use for evil purposes:

وَمِنَ النَّاسِ مَن يَشْتَرِي لَهْوَ الْحَدِيثِ لِيُضِلَّ عَن سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ وَيَتَّخِذَهَا هُزُوًا ۚ أُولَٰئِكَ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ مُّهِينٌ

Among people is he who buys amusement of speech to mislead others from the way of Allah without knowledge and who takes it in ridicule. Those will have a humiliating punishment.

Surat Luqman 31:6

Poetry can be sensual and evoke strong emotions toward the wrong ends, even as it is amuses and entertains people’s senses. Yet at the same time, Prophet Muhammad encouraged poetry when it is used to promote the values of Islam:

 إِنَّ مِنْ الشِّعْرِ حِكْمَةً

Indeed, in some poetry is wisdom.

Sahih Bukhari 5793

By combining the texts and using reason to interpret them consistently and comprehensively, instead of taking the senses at face value, we will arrive at the correct understanding of poetry as expressed by Lady Aisha:

الشِّعْرُ مِنْهُ حَسَنٌ وَمِنْهُ قَبِيحٌ خُذْ بِالْحَسَنِ وَدَعِ الْقَبِيحَ

Poetry can be beautiful or ugly. So take what is beautiful and leave what is ugly.

Al-Adab Al-Mufrad 863

Likewise, music has a powerful effect over people to lead them into undesirable behavior, as evidenced by so much contemporary popular music filled with references to drugs, promiscuity, and even violence. Here the classical jurists exercised caution and placed limits on the use of music, caution which has been proven justified by the toxic environment of today’s music scene.

Reaffirming the role of the intellect and reason in Islam is the key to facing so many of our modern challenges. The lack of a clear distinction between the intellect and senses makes some Muslims very hesitant to embrace new scientific and social advancements, such as the early resistance of some scholars to the invention of photography and telecommunications. When the values of Islam are not understood well, in this case the primacy of the intellect, people adhere to rigid positions and exhibit extreme inflexibility. The way forward is to renew our commitment to the values of Islam in a way that places our new understandings of reality upon the firm bedrock of timeless, divine principles.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.