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The Quran and Human Development

In determining how the Qur’an establishes criteria for human development, we can begin by exploring verse 1 of Surah Al-Mulk.

تَبَارَكَ الَّذِي بِيَدِهِ الْمُلْكُ وَهُوَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ

The literal meaning of this verse is:  “Blessed be He in whose hands is Dominion; And He over all things hath Power” [Yusuf Ali]. The Arabic word برکہ ‘Barakah’ in this verse has been translated as ‘Blessed.’ But the word ‘Blessed’ does not reveal the full meaning of ‘Barakah.’ The root of ‘Barakah’ is ب (ba)- ر (ra) – ک (kaf). The meaning of this root is: something which is firm and stable in its place, which acquires proper nourishment and, grows and develops as a result, for example, like a tree does. Starting as a tender sapling, it must continue to receive nourishment so that it grows and becomes strong to stand firm and remain stable in its place. Should it be uprooted from its place it would not be able to survive, let alone develop? The tree must continue to stand firm, not for a certain period of time but, for its entire life. The Holy Qur’an also uses the word ‘Barakah’ for Earth . The Earth, fittingly, remains stable in its place and is a source of nourishment, growth, and development for everything and everyone.

Allah asserts that all authority and sovereignty belong to Him (Qur’an 67:1). The purpose of His authority is: so that He may continue to provide provisions for nourishment and development to all. In this single assertion, significant Islamic principles are established: An Islamic system should be firmly rooted. It must be sound, strong, and stable; and its purpose should be to provide nourishment and provisions for the development of all living beings. The very first verse of the Qur’an (1:1) establishes an essential principle of the Qur’an, stating that a system is only worthy of praise and appreciation when it upholds and fulfills the responsibility of universal development for all. That is why the Qur’an states that the Supreme Being, in whose hands lies all sovereignty and authority of the entire universe, is responsible for providing nourishment and provisions for the development of all beings, and it is He who maintains the control and stability so worthy of our praise. Allah has established measures and standards – قدر (Qadr) in the words of the Qur’an – in order to accomplish this aim while He maintains full control over all aspects of Qadr. He has Power over all things (67:1).

This is but one kind of development, i.e., physical development. However, human beings are more than just the physical body. There is, in addition, an essential aspect of our humanity which the Quran refers to as our نفس ‘nafs’. We can call it ‘human soul,’ ‘human self,’ ‘human personality’ or ‘human individuality’ but, none of these descriptions fully explains the meaning of ‘nafs’. Human beings become a part of humanity solely due to their ‘nafs’. With respect to the physical body alone, humans belong to the animal kingdom. But there is something else within each human for whose development God’s attributes are necessary. One can call these attributes Permanent Values. The ‘nafs’ acquires its capability for development through these core values.

One self-evident principle which the Quran establishes for humans and which is common with animals, is that is that the human body develops from what it takes, from what it consumes. But the “human self” develops from another principle: self develops by that which humans give for the welfare of others; what humans do in order to improve the life of others.

However, this internal self or ‘nafs’ cannot be seen, cannot be felt; and others are not able to feel or touch it. If one has the ‘eye’ – not just the physical eye but also the mind’s eye – then one can feel one’s own self as to how much it has developed. For this, the Quran mentions the characteristics and the attributes of the Momineen. In reality, these Momineen are manifestations of these attributes. For example, the Qur’an has mentioned that a Momin will try to survive with less and lead a life of hardship himself and give priority to others’ needs above his own. This is not a decision that can be comprehended at the level of the physical body but only at the level of what the Qur’an has called the ‘nafs’ meaning the ‘higher self.’

The Qur’an explains further that a Momin is one who does this act of giving priority to others above himself and does this of his own freewill. By doing this, a Momin feels happy that he has been able to fulfill the needs of someone else who is more deserving than himself, even though his own life itself might be very hard. What is that entity within a human being that makes the decision to do this sacrifice? The human body cannot do this. The human body’s development is based upon instinct as it is the case with animals. No animal will give preference to some other animal over the needs of its own body. Man behaves similarly when he lives at the material level, i.e., at the animal level. In fact, those living at this level may even indulge in looting and exploiting others. In contrast, an animal, when his stomach is full, never cares what happens to the leftover food, whether another animal eats it or someone takes it away. An animal sits contented and continues on carefree. It is only this human animal that despite his needs being little beyond bread, continues throughout life seeking to fill an ever unfulfilled greed. The animal does not exhibit greed once its basic requirements have been met. In other words, when man falls, he falls very deep to the lowest level – below even the animals!

Our human level is considerably different in that it is this level that the Qur’an addresses. And this is intended for our own self-development. The Quran’s Qadr is a standard or measure so that we may acquire the attributes established in the Qur’an for the Momineen. For example, take human respect. This respect should be established in society as universal standard irrespective of color, race, language, age, religion, wealth, or status. This respect should be based solely on the basis of being human. This is the characteristic of the higher human self, not of the human body. As for the human body, the strong and powerful body will easily subdue the weak and poor one.

Does the Qur’an say that those with a strong body in this life will also be strong in the Hereafter? No, it does not. But, it does say that those whose ‘nafs’ has developed and has become strong to the extent that it is able to reach the level required to cross a threshold, then it will enter the next stage after death. They are the ones who will move forward. The Qur’an refers to this as the life of Heaven (Jannah). On the other hand, it says that those whose ‘nafs’ has not sufficiently developed will get stuck and not be able to move forward into the next life. This is referred to as Hell (Jaheem) by the Quran. Jaheem means a barrier which does not allow one to move forward. The choices we make in this life will decide where we end up in the next life. Thus, we pray:

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