In Islam, the most important concept through which man is conceived is what is known in Arabic as the khalifa, the best translation of this being, perhaps, ‘representative’.

Man is khalifa on earth. In other words, man is Allah’s representative on earth. Allah has created the world, Allah runs it, not an ant moves an inch without Allah’s knowledge, neither a volcano erupts but for His willing it to erupt. This is the Islamic concept of the Absolute. Indeed, Allah is totally Absolute. He is not just all-powerful, he is power itself. He is not just all-loving, he is love itself. And he is not just the punisher, but he is punishment itself.

His majesty is such that in the Qur’an, He proclaims:

Verily, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alteration of night and day, there are indeed signs [of their Creator] for men of understanding – Qur’an 3:190.

These verses were addressed to the 7th century Arab desert dweller, who would often find himself alone amidst a vast expanse of desert, above him the blistering sun or the starry sky. Travelling for trade was necessary to make a living, since there was little agriculture. During these travels, subject to sandstorms and intense heat, the Arab lived with a heightened awareness of his total helplessness in the face of the forces of nature. A sandstorm could reshape the sand-dunes around him, wiping out all markers of the path he had taken or the path he was to take. A day’s delay in reaching the nearest well could result in severe dehydration. A few more days without water could kill him. A mirage could misguide fatally. If he was on track, the desert traveller would pitch his tent at night, gaze at the star-lit sky and look at the silhouettes of the dunes in the moonlight. He would reflect on the nature of existence – the ephemerality of his fragile human life and the eternity of the nature around him.

It was in this atmosphere that Islam was born. Its first recipient, the Arab, was acutely aware of the dichotomy of power and helplessness. If Allah is all powerful, man is the weak creature, who must walk on ‘the straight path’ (siraat al-mustaqeem), an oft-evoked metaphor in the Qur’an, or else, he shall be lost to hunger, thirst, and much else.

However, this weakness is not the whole story about man. The Qur’an tells us that after creating the world, Allah ordained that one of the created objects shall be His representative, who shall run the world according to the divine principles of justice and love. Allah offered this grave responsibility to the mountains, but they shrunk away, not being courageous enough to bear the burden. He offered it to the heavens, but they too could not bear it. Then, he placed the responsibility on Adam, the primordial man – a symbol of all human beings to come. Adam was brought alive when Allah breathed His own breath into him, and hence, Adam is custodian of the divine spirit, with its tremendous might and tremendous love. Even the angels were made to prostrate in front of Adam, to acknowledge his supreme status amidst all creation. One such angel, Iblis, refused to prostrate, saying, “Me You made of fire, him You made of mere clay” (Qur’an 7: 12). That day, in a time before time, he became Satan, the symbol of all darkness that conceals our awareness of the fact that in his heart, man can know and reflect the divine.

In this mythical manner, the Islamic scripture tells us of the great transformation man is capable of. Originally a mere lump of clay (or in the language of some modern scientists – a mere mix of atoms and neurons that have come together accidentally), when he accepts the role set for him by the divine, man may command the prostrations of the highest of all creatures, lay claim to what even the heavens cannot claim, and transform the world underneath them.

But in this transformation, a central element is responsibility. Islam is a religion of action. If man exists, it is to act. The meditative stillness of the Hindu and the Buddhist are essential  but not final in Islamic anthropology. From the calm equipoise of the saying, “Surely, to Allah we belong, and to Allah we shall return (inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi raji’un)” (Qur’an 2:156) must arise an awareness that every action may represent a shirking away from the terror of the responsibility that the divine holds up for man, or a dignified fulfillment of this majestic responsibility, recognizing in oneself not just the owner of a psyche-body, but the custodian of the divine breath

What does this responsibility entail? First of all, to be aware that the smallest of one’s actions is of great import. It is not just in the big decisions of life that we become responsible. The smallest of acts can be done absentmindedly, or with care and attention, that is, with awareness that our life on earth is precious, that we are here to serve a purpose, to discharge a responsibility. This is the Islamic counterpart of the Buddhist ‘mindfulness’.

Beyond this, the details of ‘straight path’ are for each man and woman to ascertain for himself, with inspiration from the Absolute. To discern what is right is the first step in executing one’s responsibility. As the psychologist Erik Erikson has shown, every ten years or so, the identity of the human being changes, and self-development requires a new set of challenges to be met. For the young, the challenge may be to understand one’s potentials and manifest them. For the old, it may be to let go of one’s demands of the world, to prepare for one’s final moments. For the young, the challenge may also be to establish mature and lasting relationships of love and intimacy. For the old, the challenge may be to guide the young with their experience, rather than take sides to fulfill their own selfishness. Those in middle-age have another set of responsibilities.

From a psychological perspective, we are all like the helpless Arab traveller in the vast and threatening desert. As the above qouted saying expresses, we come from the sacred and go back to it. The journey in between – the desert, with its harsh heat, its cool moonlight, its sandstorms, its dunes, and its mirages – are elements of our inner life. To be aware of one’s responsibility is to take life’s journey seriously, to take oneself seriously. To introspect and become aware of our condition, to discover the right path, and then to have the courage to walk it, this is the fulfillment of the role of the khalifa. 

~ by tdcatss on June 27, 2011.

6 Responses to “Responsibility”

  1. Thank you, Kaif, for such an excellently written post . . .again! You have a wonderful mind and communication skills, and a heart for the things that lie deep within. This reminds me of when I realized that if we believe something, really believe it, then we have a responsibility to act on those beliefs. If we believe that there is a bad storm coming, we then warn others and take cover ourselves. Choosing not to believe carries its own form of responsibilities, I guess, as does choosing what we do believe.
    You always make me think! :) Blessings to you!

  2. Thank you Debbie, I am very happy to read your comment!

    Yes, I too feel that to believe (perhaps it is more accurate to say ‘to have faith’) requires one to act, and not just sit there passively. Otherwise, I feel, the belief remains just another habit, another thing to cling to, while not realising one’s own agency.

  3. Kaif, I am learning a lot of about Islam from your blog. I wonder why the masses always choose a more populist approach/ideology not matter which religion they belong to or practice. Why don’t they ever get the essence?

    Well, maybe, if they did get the essence, there may not be religions at all on earth! What say? :-)

  4. my views on this are perhaps a little different. i think there would still be religions, and at times, the masses get the essence better than someone like me – ‘educated’, westernised, and all that. in islam for example, the peace on the face of some of those who pray five times a day is something quite essential, i think… of course, not all who pray five times a day have it.

  5. What an excellent post. I am so pleased to have discovered your blog.

  6. Thank you Sonya

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