During the 4th century B.C., or thereabouts, a series of dialogues or discussions were penned by Plato, one of the greatest of the Ancient Greek philosophers, which dealt with a number of profound existential themes: the origins of moral virtue, the value of justice, the nature of love, the reality of the soul, what defines good governance. Many of the dialogues take the form of Plato’s teacher, Socrates, posing questions to a person or a group so as to help them examine the validity of their beliefs and to wean out any contradictions.
In one such dialogue, The Meno, Socrates takes an ignorant slave boy and, by asking him a series of questions, manages to extract from him the fundamental axioms and rules of geometry. Having done so, Socrates insists that the boy knew the foundations of geometry all along. He had merely forgotten them. In Plato’s belief, each person is born with an innate knowledge of things; including knowledge of what is good and evil, right and wrong. Thus a baby lives close to the truth, but as it grows up it forgets and so falls into ignorance. Through proper inquiry, Plato suggested, knowledge may again be “recollected”.
Now in Plato’s exaggerated conviction about knowledge lies an elemental truth about human nature. The Qur’an makes it known that simply by being born into the human condition, man possesses a certain intuitive knowledge of, and an attraction to, truth, beauty and goodness. In Islam, such an innate recognition is part of man’s primordial nature, or fitrah which, in a way, may be said to resemble the “conscience”. So set your face to the upright religion, the primordial nature which God has instilled in man, says the Qur’an [30:30]. Hence, as turned out from God’s creative hand, man is born pure and innocent, inclined towards virtue, possessing an inborn capacity to sense, as it were, God’s divinity. Man’s fitrah, therefore, is to love God, truth, and beauty, and to feel an aversion towards selfishness, falsehood and evil. Such is his true nature; much as the nature of a lamb is to be gentle or a horse to be swift.
Islam’s view of human nature, therefore, is an optimistic one. Unlike in Christianity, which insists that everyone is born into a state of original sin, the Islamic faith begins with the premise that man is essentially a creature of goodness, and that any veering away from this norm is as a result of his socialisation and upbringing. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said: ‘Each child is born upon the primordial nature, but it is his parents that make of him a Jew, Christian, or Magian.’ [Bukhari, no.1358] These three religions, well-known to the Prophet’s companions and contemporaries, are here contrasted with the “primordial nature” which, as the Qur’an sees it, consists of man’s instinctive recognition of God. Fitrah, in other words, is here equated with Islam.
So in the cosmology of the Qur’an, every human being is born predisposed to Islam, the primordial religion (din al-fitrah), and is perfectly capable of receiving the truths manifested by the light of divine revelation: that God is One, Unique, possessing the attributes of perfection, and that none deserves to be worshipped save Him. But man, when entangled in customs, distractions, whims, selfish desires and false teachings, becomes contentious, slavish, hankering after what is forbidden, and deflected from the pure worship of the One true God. And it is precisely for this that prophets were sent and heavenly scriptures revealed: to help man recollect his purpose of creation and to retrieve this fitrah.