To say that man is nothing but an animal is to deny, by implication, that he has essential attributes other than those of all animals…. It is important to realise that the essence of his unique nature lies precisely in those characteristics that are not shared with any other animal. His place in nature and its supreme significance to man are not defined by his animality but his humanity. Man has certain basic diagnostic features which set him off most sharply from any other animal and which have involved other developments not only increasing this sharp distinction but also making it an absolute difference in kind and not only a relative difference of degree.
G.G. Simpson: The Meaning of Evolution.
The human being consists of physical and non-physical elements. Hair and nails are regularly cut and disposed of, body parts such as heart and lungs can be transplanted. The scientists now say that our cells are frequently renewed and over a seven year period we have a completely new body. However, the body may change but our personal identity is not affected. There is something that bodily changes cannot radically alter; something that continues to endure even if the limbs are amputated and even after the death of the whole body. There is something that remains constant in the changing body. Behind the body is something far more enduring and real. This is the Self, or the human personality, and is often referred to as the ‘spirit’ or the ‘soul’, but these are incomplete descriptions of the ‘nafs’ that is referred to in the Quran.
Life is continuous. We know that matter cannot be destroyed but changes into other matter or a different state. Energy too converts into different types of energy. So why do we think that the human Self cannot develop and change into another creation after death?
It’s worth looking at a common natural event to understand this process.
After a caterpillar hatches it spends the next part of its life eating the leaves of the tree on which its life began. Then one day, the caterpillar stops eating, hangs upside down from a twig or a leaf and spins itself a silky cocoon or molts into a shiny chrysalis. Within this protective casing, the caterpillar radically transforms its body, eventually emerging as a butterfly. For someone who has never seen this transformation it is difficult to imagine how this can happen, but it does. To quote Richard Fuller: “There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.” Just as the caterpillar thought that life was over, it becomes a butterfly.
Similarly, with a human life, when the body ‘dies’, the Self emerges as a new creation.The Self is the latent personality that develops or regresses subject to the activities of the individual. It grows not by the subconscious intentions but through the deliberate and premeditated thoughts and acts that the human being performs, and not so much by the social influence to which the individual is exposed, but by the way in which he reacts to it. Therefore, it is the duty of society to provide opportunities for Self development and it is the duty for individuals to realise such opportunities to their full potential.
Freedom is the indispensible condition of moral life. Morality is irrelevant to a being whose actions are determined by outside forces. This freedom, of course, has its stresses and limitations. Nevertheless, his actions are free in the sense that they are self-determined; choosing freely from the alternatives available. The individual feels free when his actions are in accord with the characteristics of his Self. However, these need to be disciplined and restricted and when these restrictions are imposed, it is for the sole purpose of turning them to the best account.
The self-imposed restrictions are not disparaging to his status as a free individual. Freedom properly channelled is the necessary condition of human development, both individual and social. A weak Self can easily deviate from the right path. Only a strong Self can forge ahead towards the goal of Self-realisation, survive death and take its place in the life yet to come. This is in essence the purpose of life and to achieve this goal, God provides His guidance in the Quran.
The Ego, named Iblees (shaitan) in the Quran, is an aspect of our psyche which is in fact our ‘free will’ and often manifests as the negative influence and a regressive factor. This is our ‘demon’ that we constantly have to fight against to progress and strengthen our Self. A ‘strong willed’ individual will have no problem overcoming this shaitan but the choice is yours whether you concede your negative desires or discipline yourself and face challenges to emerge as a Self fit for not only this life but the life yet to come.
The body is a temporal capsule to house the Self and facilitate its development. Just as the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, the human journeys onto become a different, potentially better being.In Darb-e-Kalim, Iqbal describes this: “Life is like a shell and the Self is the pearl drop (concretion) therein; what is the shell worth if it cannot transform the sand grain into a pearl. Through Self-knowledge, Self-restraint and Self-development, the Self can conquer even death.”This birth, life and transition is well illustrated by Carlo Collodi in his children’s novel ‘The adventures of Pinocchio’. Pinocchio, a marionette, is carved by Geppetto and longs to become a ‘real boy’. He faces many challenges, learning to tell the truth and do good and eventually succeeds in attaining his dream. This very simplified story helps understand the development of the Self, that through overcoming obstacles how a person can change and become fit for the next life. Another story, ‘The Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ by Robert Louis Stevenson, shows how the human psyche is in constant conflict with itself. Unless guided, the Self is in perpetual turmoil with shaitan (the ‘free will’ Ego aspect) seeking to influence it.