Fitrah: Primordial human nature

By Rabbi Allen Maller

                                                                      Rabbi Allen S. Maller is a retired Rabbi who has studied Islam and who seeks to build mutual respect and appreciation of Muslim and Jewish faith traditions.

FITRA

Since the time of Aristotle Greek philosophers thought that mankind’s ability to use tools was what made human nature unique. However, we now know that many different species (including birds) use and make tools. Chimps also use tools in different ways in various locations, so tool use must also have a cultural factor and not just be a genetic factor. Chimps also can be taught simple sign language and are able to make up simple sentences in sign language.
So if tool making, culture, and simple language do not distinguish human nature from our nearest primate relatives, what makes humans what we are? Religious spirituality is one answer. Religion; like art, music and advanced language capabilities are found universally among all human tribes, ethnic groups and nations in the world.
The concept that every child is born with a natural belief in God is called in Arabic: ”Fitra”. Thus religion is part of human nature (fitra). As Prophet Muhammad taught, “ “No babe is born but upon Fitra. It is his parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a Polytheist.” (Sahih Muslim, Book 033, Number 6426)
Children are not born out of any sin, original, inherited or derived. They are all born with the natural ability to believe in a religion as part of their nature, just as they are born with the capability to learn any of the thousands of human languages.
It is reported on the authority of Abu Mu’awiya that (the Prophet) said: “Every new-born babe is born on the millat (organized religion) and remains on this until his tongue is enabled to express himself (is able to talk in sentences)”. Thus, every (normal) human baby is naturally endowed by its creator with the ability to speak a language; and to believe in a religion of unseen spiritual beings and effective ritual practices ”Fitra”.
Parents provide the specific language content (words, grammar, syntax, etc.) and the specific religious content (polytheism, idolatry, monotheism, etc.) Thus, parents make children into a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim or a Polytheist. This does not occur because parents rationally convince their children that their own beliefs are true.
Children believe what their parents teach them because during the last 5-10,000 generations, the importance of human culture has became increasingly significant, and young children who ignored what their parents and society taught them, had a lower survival rate than those who believed their parents’ teachings.
Qur’an and Torah both teach us that, unlike all other earthly creatures, Homo Sapiens have been created to be Allah’s Vice-regents (deputies or agents) on this earth. (Qur’an 2:30, 35:39, 38:26 and Torah Genesis 1:26-28). Of the  8.7 million estimated total number of species on Earth (6.5 million on land and 2.2 million in oceans), only one can consciously decide how to have a major impact on the world’s climate; and the evolution of life on this planet. That species is Homo Sapiens.
Religion provides guidance and direction to enable humans to be good Vice-regents of God rather than be destroyers of society and nature. The Qur’an also teaches that we should be able to see the majesty of God by seeing that God has created humans in different, successive stages (71:14) and has caused us to grow from earth like a plant. (71:17)
Abstracts like language, religion and averages do not actually exist. One cannot speak language, or practice religion, and no mother has 1.8 children. One can only speak a language, practice a religion, or have a whole number of children ”Fitra”.
Religion is a collection of human spiritual feelings. thoughts, and activities that informs a sacred narrative connecting personal experiential realities with physical realities to unite a group of people into a holy community.
The evolution of spiritual activities that enhance the successful survival of humanity is not only concerned with enhancing the survival of our own species. With the recent domestication of plants and animals and the very recent industrial revolution, Homo Sapiens (HS) acquired a great deal of responsibility for the evolution of most of the species on the planet itself.
The ability to genetically modify both plants and animals gives Mankind a significant role in the future evolution of life. Thus the behavior of religious people themselves now becomes a factor in the evolution of life on earth.
Religious behaviors are evidence of self-conscious creative thought processes most people associate with Homo Sapiens. Religious behaviors are the creative responses of intelligent minds to certain challenges in social and personal life. Since only Mankind of the millions of species on this planet, can consciously have an impact on the evolution of life; it is only natural that God has inspired thousands of individuals (124,000 according to Muslim tradition) to urge their own communities to live according to God’s will.
All of this is nature religion ”Fitra”. Revealed religion begins with the development of writing about 5-6,000 years ago. Written revelation has introduced a tremendous force expanding the power of religion both in space and time. The impact of religions with written revelations on historic human culture is comparable to the impact of modern science and invention on 20th century life styles. Both together will make the 21st century a turning point in human destiny.
What role does God (the One God of the revealed religions) play in all this? According to Genesis 4:26 humans only began to call upon the name of the Lord in the days of Enosh (a name which like Adam means humanity). That could mean that prior to Enosh prehistoric nature religions evolved naturally. Only with the rise of scriptural revelations did the One God penetrate human consciousness. Almost all nature religions were polytheistic and involved worship of physical objects. Only with revealed religion does true monotheism become established.
Or it could mean that human consciousness had finally risen to the level of being able to receive and understand Divine communication from the One God. After all it took over 3,000 years for monotheism to spread world-wide even with scriptural revelations; so it is not surprising that it took 50-100,000 years to get humans ready to receive those revelations.
The ‘books’ inspiration’ that Islam sees as given to Abraham (Q 87:18-19) and Noah (Q 4:163, 42:13, 57:26) were passed down orally for many centuries before the world’s first alphabet was developed in the eastern Mediterranean which made writing and reading from the written Torah and Quran available to a much greater number of people than the pre-alphabet writing systems use by the professional scribe class for at least 2-3,000 years before the time of Moses.
Nature spirituality among Homo Sapiens has been evolving for at least 50-100,00 years. It is as deeply rooted, if not more so, in the Homo Sapiens brain as is art or music. The idea that reason, socialism or modern science would replace religion has turned out to be a wish fulfillment fantasy of people who bear a grudge against religion. Usually their children or grandchildren return to religion.
Religious rituals and ideas are ubiquitous and still continue to evolve under the guidance of the one and only God as the creative intelligent minds of Homo Sapiens encounter changes in their environment. This will most likely continue as long as HS have creative intelligent minds.
Or, as the celebrated Jewish Physicist Albert Einstein put it:  “What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in asking it? I answer, people who regard their own life and that of their fellow creatures as meaningless are not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life.”