Allah the Almighty has provided everything in the world for the service of mankind (Jāthiya, 45:13); however, He has also declared that mankind bears certain responsibilities (Qiyāma, 75:36). He has adjusted the general flow of life by setting a fine balance between freedom and responsibility by means of divine rules for the universe, as well as for those of mankind. In the following verse of the Qur’an, Allah the Almighty orders humanity to unite in harmony with the universe: “And the firmament has He raised high, and He has set up the balance (of justice), in order that you may not transgress the due balance.” (Rahmān, 55:7-8)
Yet, those who are unaware of the secret of our existence in this world, cannot be in harmony with the divine order and beauty Allah the Almighty has created, because they are too attached to worldly pleasures and temporal things. Unfortunately, such people waste their lives, falling into heedlessness and ignorance.
This secret is hidden in the reality of human beings, who are equipped with two opposing tendencies, good and evil. These tendencies were given to human beings as a divine test which can only be possible with the existence of alternative choices and different characters that may tend to good or evil. In order for human beings to make their good tendencies the dominant traits in their lives, their mystical and intellectual faculties will not be sufficient. If they were, Allah the Almighty would not have made Adam the first prophet of mankind, and would not have bestowed the divine truths upon him, which guided him to comfort and peace in this world and the hereafter.
Indeed, all of the mystical and intellectual faculties of mankind can easily be manipulated towards either good or evil. One of those faculties, for instance, is the rational mind. It is like a double-edged sword that can commit deeds which are either sinful or virtuous. The best stature (ahsanu taqwīm) cannot be attained without using reason only. Nevertheless, this same mind can bring human beings lower than even the status of beasts. It is therefore necessary for the human being to bring discipline to the use of reason. This can be achieved through the guidance of divine revelation; in other words, by following the teachings of the prophets. If a person allows divine revelation to guide the mind, that person can attain true peace. If not, they will be led astray. Therefore, the mind needs to be guided by the direction of Allah’s will.
Throughout history, many arrogant people used their reasons very effectively for the purpose of harming others. They justified their actions by assuming that these bad deeds were the most logical and reasonable thing to do. For instance, when Hulagu Khan invaded Baghdad and drowned 400,000 people in the Tigris, he was not troubled by his conscience. Before the coming of Islam, the people of Makkah used to bury their daughters alive, silencing their heart-rending screams. They were not troubled by what they did, and they did not stop carrying out that terrible act. Rather, it was to them like felling a tree; they would argue that to do so was their legitimate right.
All of these people had minds and feelings. Nevertheless, like a wheel that spins counter-clockwise, they had gone in the wrong direction. These examples show that human beings are creatures who need direction and guidance; they possess both positive and negative traits. If this guidance is not given under the direction of the prophets, the faculties of human beings lead them astray, turning them into murderers and deluding them into thinking that they had done the right thing. A mind without guidance is like a dark cloud veiling the conscience and blocking feelings of compassion and mercy.
Allah the Almighty has sent prophets in order to reveal the proper way, and to show us how urgently mankind needs advice, guidance and great personalities to uplift them. Indeed, the blessing of Islam and the guidance of the Prophet Muhammad transformed the cruel people of the Jāhiliyya ( pre‑Islamic age of ignorance)who buried their daughters alive, into merciful people, who would weep if they witnessed the slightest injustice.
Allah the Almighty has created some human beings with distinguished qualities, such as the Caliphs. As previously stated, He bestowed upon people both the soul and the ego, both of which are in a continuous struggle. This is the test. Thus, the most virtuous creation, human beings, find a place between the lower stage, occupied by animals, and the upper stage, occupied by angels. They find their exact place according to their efforts and their struggle between their soul and their nafs. Thus, of all creatures, man stands the most in need of purification (tazkiyah), and attaining good morals (tarbiyah). Allah the Almighty says in the Qur’an that a life far away from tazkiyah and tarbiyah is like that of an animal, perhaps even lower: “Many are the Jinns and men we have made for hell. They have hearts wherewith they understand not, eyes wherewith they see not, and ears wherewith they hear not. They are like cattle, nay more misguided: for they are heedless (of warning).” A‘rāf, 7:179)
The dual weakness and wealth of man stems from the severe contradictions found within his inner and outer life. Man has accepted the trust (amānah) that the mountains refused to accept, because they feared the responsibility. These are contradictions that are difficult to overcome. This is because a human being possesses virtues that elevate him to be near Allah, and at the same time deadly vices that keep him far from Him. People with no tarbiyah or peace in their hearts store up animal characteristics in their inner world. Some are sly like foxes, some are rapacious like hyenas, some are as hard-working as ants, some, too, are as poisonous as snakes. Some nibble lovingly, some suck blood like leeches, some smile while stabbing their friends in the back. All of these are different characteristics of animals. Every human being who cannot be free from his or her nafs and cannot eventually establish a good character, is overwhelmed by his or her own evil traits. Some people may have only one animal characteristic, while others may have more. It is not difficult for knowledgeable people to recognise them; faces reflect what lies inside.
People with positive traits and people with negative traits live side by side in this world. An analogy of this situation is that of a gazelle kept in a stable of vicious and wild animals, with whom it must live. Sometimes, a miser lives side by side with a generous person, an imbecile next to a wise man and a compassionate person with a stone-hearted man. Misers are merciless, they are cowards and shy away from giving service to others. Imbeciles cannot understand the wise; cruel people assume that they are being fair but always abuse their power. Those with angel-like souls live next to evil people. The former try to recognise the truth (haqq) and be good servants while the latter live according to their instincts, and think that happiness is to eat, mate and attain a high social status.
To live in a world full of opposite personalities is a difficult test for human beings. Yet we are required to pass this test, and this is in fact our true aim in this world. In order to pass this test, it is necessary to develop good morals rather than bad traits. We must bring virtuousness into our being.
The human body comes from earth and there will it return. As we possess some of the qualities possessed by other creatures, it is a must that we control ourselves using tazkiyah and tasfiyah; otherwise, there will be no escape from the evil of nafs within us, which weakens the soul. In the Qur’an, Allah states: “By the soul, and the proportion and order given to it; and its inspiration as to its wrong and right; truly he succeeds that purifies it, and truly he fails that corrupts it!” (Shams, 91:7-10)
Rūmī explaines the concepts of right and wrong in the following exhortation: “O traveller of truth! Do you want to know the truth? Neither Moses nor the Pharoah are dead. They are alive in you. They are hidden in you. They keep fighting each other in you! So look for them in yourself!”
Again Rūmī says:
Do not feed your body to excess, because it is a sacrifice that will be given to the earth in the end. Instead, try to feed your soul. It is the one that will go to the heavens and be honored.
Give your body small amounts of tasty food, because those who give it too much become the slaves of their nafs, and eventually have an unpleasant future.
Give your soul spiritual food; give it mature thinking, fine understanding and spiritual food, so that it can go where it is supposed to go in as capable a way as possible.
The nafs with no spiritual training (tarbiyah) resembles a tree with rotten roots. The signs of decay can be seen in the branches, the leaves and the fruits. Likewise, if a heart has a disease, it is reflected in the body as bad traits, like hatred, jealousy and arrogance. These bad traits are tied to the nafs. In order to cure this disease one must abide by Allah’s commands.
However, for those who are at different levels in life and have different characters there is a need for guidance by model personalities; the most essential foundations in establishing the character are imitation and emulation.