Why do we do what we do? Such a profound question. Equally meaningless, without the most illuminating philosophical answer. Aphorisms tremble at the sight of this question. While awaiting heavenly assistance on the ultimate answer (like Physic’s Unified Field Theory) that explains all of man’s actions, I shall settle for toning down the profundity of the question to what has been occupying my mind recently: What motivates Muslims to act? For a Muslim, Islam is not simply a religion in the common sense of the word, it is Deen, a way of life with a worldview (Weltanschauung) that affects most, if not all their actions. Well that is what a Muslim ought to be because I suspect empirical account of lives of many Muslims may make my words empty.
In light of the ongoing destruction and killings of Palestinians by Israel, with Muslims and non-Muslims angered at the injustice of it all, we find Muslims unified and motivated to put an end to this continuation of great injustice. The graphic pictures and stark statistics may have help motivated Muslims and non-Muslims. God knows that is motivation enough, but how long before many take a radical approach toward Israel if the protests are directed to governments that are impotent to Israel… if many haven’t already. How many armed volunteers to the Baghdaadi “Khilaafah” will divert their resources to a more urgent cause? If they do, how will be sustained in the long term? How many political and militant groups have been formed mainly on account of Israeli oppression, and how is justified beyond the narratives we hear about?
Islam being a revealed religion gives primacy to scripture in all matters; including the way of life of Muslim. This legacy is palpable in the celebrated slogan of some Muslims (especially of the Salafi inclination) Qalallahu wa Qalarrasul, meaning they only act if presented with scripture in the form of what God said (Qur’an) or what the Prophet said (Hadith). In fact, the reason why Muslims don’t consult the scripture for every action (like breathing and walking) is because a of a legal (and moral) maxim deduced from the scripture which says: all actions are permissible except when indicated otherwise. This is why the default ruling on all actions is permissibility unless indicated otherwise. Given the primacy of scripture, we can identify two major sources of motivation for actions of Muslims, which are from the Scripture. The first is motivation to the Calculating Self, the second is motivation to the Lofty Self. To make this clearer, let us abstract what makes a human being.
I would like to emphasize here that the principle of natural permissibility is not only limited to things and objects but also includes all human actions and behavior not related to acts of worship, which may be termed living habits or day-to-day affairs. Here again, the principle is that these are allowed without restriction, with the exception of a small number of things which are definitely prohibited by the Law-Giver, Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala, Who says: …He (Allah) has explained to you what He has made haram for you…. (6:119) including both objects and actions. – The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam by Yusuf Al Qaradawi
Man can be said to be made up of three selves. In order of increasing nobility they are: the Animal Self, the Calculating Self, and the Lofty Self. These are my terms, they might have been used elsewhere, but this is the best description I could come up with at the moment.
The Animal Self is that which is driven by animal instincts. The Animal Self feels hunger, sexual desire, fear, anger, carnal pleasures, etc. The Animal Self lives in the present. The Calculating Self is that which calculates and strategizes, having a considerable control over the Animal Self. The Calculating Self lives in the past and in the future: learning from the past and planning for the future; or getting stuck in the past and anxious about the future. The Lofty Self is that which seeks meaning, through which the Divine is sought. The Lofty Self lives not in the past, present or future but beyond the realm of time; where the Divine can be sought, where art can be understood, where convictions can be made, where Sufis get frustrated trying to explain… Let us consider the different selves to be on different levels such that Animal Self is at the bottom, then Calculating Self, and Lofty Self at the top.
Several fields of knowledge have developed to better understand these states of man, or at least to interact with these states. Empirical (Natural) Science especially biological sciences investigates the Animal Self. Social Sciences like history and economics investigate the Calculating Self. Disciplines like Psychology try to combine studying the Animal Self together with the Calculating Self. Art and Philosophy (including Theology) are the fields of knowledge we rely on to have access to the Lofty Self. Each knowledge field has a methodology that suites the state of Man it investigates which for some is being perfected with time e.g. Empirical Scientific method of observations leading to hypothesis and laws suits Biological sciences which would include some Chemistry, whereas Historiography is reliable in forming History etc.
Advancement in each of these fields has blurred the lines that used to limit these fields of knowledge within the levels of Man they investigate or interact with. People now start investigation in one level of Man then in a stunning feat, they come out at other levels like the head of a mole in whack-a-mole. This would be an awesome breakthrough in the knowledge of Man if the conclusions they reach is verified true according to the methodology that interacts best with that level they “come out of”. Ok, I have a feeling that didn’t make sense, so go through the sentence again or see the examples below.
The most common example today is when the self celebrating New Atheists coming from the background (knowledge field) of Empirical Science investigating the Animal Self, then they reach conclusions about the Lofty Self e.g. due to his large veins and arteries, Mr A is very compassionate. Whaaaaaat?! Another is when Empirical Science reaches conclusion about the Calculating Self. Actually there is a closer link between the two (Animal Self and Calculating Self), so the conclusions are not always problematic (epistemically). Due to the closeness, it is not difficult to see how the psychologist or economist could begin investigating the Calculating Self, then reach conclusion about the Lofty Self e.g. a statement like in the drive to maximize profit, Mr B became greedy. These closely linked interactions between knowledge fields in adjacent levels is not very problematic. It seems the most problematic one is jumping between the Animal Self to the Lofty Self.
Unfortunately the reverse is also the case. We have some “experts” beginning investigations from the Lofty Self and then reaching Empirically-Scientific statements about the Animal Self e.g. Mr A is very compassionate, therefore his veins and arteries are large. No thanks to proponents of “scientific miracles of the Qur’an” and “anti Evolution Theory”. Similarly when the reverse deductions are between adjacent levels of the Self, the epistemic problems are minimal e.g. Mr B is greedy, therefore he is driven to maximize profit. However exploring these problems shall be saved for another day because it will not shed light on the initial question: What motivates a Muslim? These epistemic problems shall unveil to us a surprising similarity between two groups of people on the issue of religion: the New Athiests and the Religionists (Muslims, who are the subject of interest). More on that later.
At the beginning, we established the centrality of scriptures in the life of a Muslim. In the second post of this series, we shall investigate scriptural motivations to Muslims further.