M. Fethullah Gulen
Question: What could be said about comprehending the essential natures of the soul and the conscience, which play a dramatic role in the rise and fall of human beings?
The nature of human beings bears both material and divine aspects. Some other expressions, like angelic-satanic, material-moral, corporeal-spiritual, and sensual-conscientious, are also used to refer, with nuance, to the same dichotomy. To us, it is much more suitable to handle and assess the moral and material aspects of human beings, one by one, as distinct mechanisms apart from each other. I would rather call the moral one as “the mechanism of the conscience” and the other as “the mechanism of the soul.” Innermost faculties such as the heart, the spirit, the secret (sir), the private (khafiy), the most private (akhfa), willpower, the conscious, feelings and senses form the mechanism we call the conscience. All kinds of lust, caprice, spite, hatred, anger, and obstinacy – the features endowed to human beings for particular reasons and purpose – compose the mechanism of the soul (nafs). These two mechanisms almost always function against each other. However, if the mechanism of the conscience overcomes the other, the mechanism of the soul, too, is transformed to positive, and becomes a mechanism serving human beings to rise and be exalted.
As classified by sufis, the mechanism of the soul may become useful for human beings if “it” breaks away from the state of evil that commands it (ammara) and moves on to higher levels of self-condemnation (lawwama), inspiration (mulhama), serenity and peace; these represent the soul at rest (mutmainna), the soul well-pleased (with God) (radiyya), the soul pleasing to God (mardiyya), and the purified or innocent self or soul (safiyya). Due to this fact, it is deficient to only deal with the mechanism of conscience of the human beings.
Let’s take lust as an example. If this feeling is merely employed for its own sake, it shall become a complete source of evil. However, it can become a means of sainthood when used within permissible conditions, say between married couples whose love and marital relations will be rewarded. When the companions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, were surprised to learn this, he explained that “if a person does not fulfill that desire within permissible conditions, he or she would do it through forbidden means. By keeping himself within lawful terms, he avoided the forbidden.” Avoiding a sin is as rewarding as if one has fulfilled a required duty. This is a very logical explanation, as much as it is very much in compliance with human nature. So, even through this feeling belonging to the mechanism of soul, one may gain Paradise.
As a matter of fact, we may use all senses under the mechanism of the soul as inducements for the beauties of Paradise. I mean, just as one may live some dimensions belonging to Paradise through the feelings and senses belonging to the conscience, he or she may, in the same way, feel and comprehend the incidents belonging to Paradise through some senses belonging to the soul, assuming those senses have been followed with a particular discipline. Indeed, this may be one of the mysteries and causes of the fact that Paradise shall address both the soul and the corporeal body. (As a side note, it would be rather reasonable to interpret Adam’s creation from soil such as loam, dried clay, etc., as to inform us of the nature of human beings. Otherwise, interpreting them as the clay and loam of the world known by us shall be a deficient interpretation.)
Another example could be feelings of rage or anger. The feeling of rage has the potential to make people turn rotten; they can so far as to become murderers, like Pharaohs who have blood in their hearts and minds, hands and eyes. However, if one can activate the feeling of rage when he or she needs to fight for honor and homeland, they will be ennobled with praise and reward. You see, such anger is welcomed by God, just as favorably as mildness is. Now, take into consideration that merely using our earthly aspects correctly can make people rise so high, and then imagine what may happen if we use our conscience well!
Yes, one can reach the levels of angels, even through his or her earthly side. And if the conscience, in addition, becomes part of this ascension, he or she shall be superior to the angels. Indeed, there is no compulsion for angels; their will power is manifested in the form of choosing from alternatives, all of which are good anyway. Human beings are charged with using their will power to make a choice between good and bad. As the award shall be proportional to the difficulty, a human choosing goodness, despite the temptations of their carnal soul, shall be superior to the angels.
Conscience originates from a root that means “to find” in Arabic. One uses his conscience to find both himself and his Lord. Hundreds of thinkers – from great figures of Islamic thought like Imam Rabbani, Imam Gazali, Rumi, and Bediuzzaman, to many others in the West – have handled the question of human conscience with their particular inner discoveries and perceptions.. Here, I want to draw special attention to the terms of “inner discovery and perception.” In fact, saints experience the pleasures of the conscience through inner discoveries, as truths are unveiled in their hearts. Thinkers and philosophers, on the other hand, experience this “finding” through perception. Interestingly, both groups agree with the fact that the conscience never lies. Among the main and essential evidences demonstrating the existence of God, Bediuzzaman counts the conscience, too, in his early works. But later, as he did not consider the conscience as an objective everyone could understand, he discounted it.
Yes, indeed, not every one is able to comprehend the cryptic language of the conscience. Thus it cannot be considered as objective evidence. But, for those who can understand that language, the conscience is the greatest and keenest of all the evidences. No other information or wealth of knowledge can make one attain a higher level of awareness than what they can attain through their conscience.
There are two main points about the realm of the conscience: the point of support and the source of help. With these, we comprehend very clearly that we are impotent and destitute. And, with this comprehension, we rely fully on God Almighty and wish from God whatever we wish. In as much as we bear that need to seek help, it becomes clear that there should exist Someone to give that help to us. Otherwise, giving this need to human beings would be absurd. Indeed, there exists no absurdity in the universe. There is definitely a counterpart to any feeling we human beings bear. In the same vein, there shall undoubtedly be counterparts of those points in the conscience. Nevertheless, it is not possible to sense this for someone who has not listened to his or her conscience in his or her life. Though consciousness is a part belonging to the conscience, it does not bear any value, for it is a single entity. At the time, when willpower is controlled by feelings and the heart, it, too, becomes almost another center of conscience. Like all the loquacious, eloquent witnesses of the existence of God, the conscience, too, is a holy and heavenly resonance that calls out the truth. But, this merely happens if a particular conscience is one of the consciences we have described above. Otherwise, to expect those results from a conscience yoked by its carnal soul would be impossible.
Yes, imagine someone who has completely become a slave to lust, animosity, anger, or worldly status. Whatever he or she does, this person is under the impact of these negative feelings that are wrapped around his or her soul. Such a conscience is bound hand and foot, and it lacks any influence. We call such a person “conscienceless,” in the fullest meaning of the term. These kinds of people do not have any kind of knowledge about the mechanism of the conscience; it is not possible for them to feel the meaning it denotes and its objective beyond objectives. Another significant remark on the matter is from Immanuel Kant, in the Critic of Pure Reason. He notes that God shall be known through practical reason, but not a theoretical one. That is, the nice behavior and actions of someone become, through time, the very nature of him or her, and help them reach the point that may not be attained through abstract knowledge. Yes, abstract knowledge and information can never ascend people to those high positions. No matter how many books they read or memorize, those lacking resolution and deprived of theological practice cannot attain the peace felt by believers. The necessary practices are clear to us: the practices that are approved by faith as good, and defined as “righteous actions.” In this way, we properly utilize the conscience, and can implement its lessons to carry out righteous acts in real life.