The Essence of the Human Being in Classical Theology

By Hussein Abdulsater
Submitted to Session P4685 (Religious Texts, Scholarship, and Interpretation, 2016 Annual Meeting
Rel Stds/Theo
Different attempts to address the question of the definition of the human being (insān) reveal the tensions between various scholarly disciplines and intellectual trends in classical Islam. For one, there is the corpus of traditions that provide an elaborate supply of relevant terms and concepts. The Falāsifa as well contributed to the discussion, echoing the diversity of their sources in light of the perennial philosophical preoccupation with identifying the essences of beings. Jurists, for their part, were concerned with defining the human being in a manner that would clearly delineate the scope and locus of legal responsibility. Mystics also addressed the problem from the perspective of the perfectibility of human beings in their quest for the divine.

This presentation is based on a paper that investigates the various definitions of the human being proposed by classical Muslim theologians, particularly Muʿtazilīs and Ahsʿarīs. Though seemingly a question of subtle theology (laṭīf al-kalām; daqīq al-kalām), the essence of the human being is in fact intimately related to the main premise of grand theology (jalīl al-kalām), that is, the question of moral obligation (taklīf). For the concern of theologians in the discussion is to identify the subject of moral obligation, the mukallaf, in every human being, to which they refer as the living and/or active being (al-ḥayy al-faʿʿāl; al-dhāt al-faʿʿāla). The concern, therefore, is not an epistemic one centered on the classification of beings, but a theological one aiming to detect the moral agent eligible for reward and punishment.

The theological discussion of the question betray the plethora of relevant terms issuing from various disciplines of scholarship (insān, rūḥ, nafs, ḥayāt, and ʿaql etc...). Therefore, it was imperative to reckon with the meanings of these terms and how they relate to the essence of the human being. In their attempts to produce a satisfying answer to the question, theologians relied on the contributions of the Falāsifa, jurists, mystics and traditionalists, thus arriving at different answers that betray the extent of the influence of other scholarly disciplines on various theological schools at different points in time.