Man's superiority over other species does not lie in his physique. As a matter of fact, physically, man is inferior to animals in many respects. The babbler birds of the Nagib desert could teach us a lesson or two in family bonds when the elder brothers and sisters take charge of the fledglings in the arbors; or we could learn much from the acrobatics of monkeys. What chance has a human ballerina against the poise and grace of a flying squirrel's aerial dance?
Imam Ali bin Abi Talib has this to say about animals' exemplary way of life, which is worthy of imitation by humans "Be like a bee; anything he eats is clean, anything he drops is sweet and any branch he sits upon does not break."2
The real criterion of man's superiority in Islamic thought lies in his spiritual volition, called Taquwah in the Quran. This spiritual power bestows on humans a greater measure of balance between their conscious and unconscious minds, thus en¬abling them to make the best use of their freedom. They are considered the best of God's creation only because of this dif¬ference. Without the proper exercise of this power, our superiority would be groundless.
There are quite a few men and women with beautiful and strong bodies walking about on this earth who, because of their lack of willpower, have absolutely no claim of superiority over animals. The Quran describes such people as originally "created in the best make" but, because of their lack of discipline, they are "rendered as the lowest of the low" (ch. 95 vv. 4, 5):
Those who incurred the curse of Allah and His wrath.
Those some of whom He debased into apes and swine…
(ch. 5 v. 63.)
They are like cattle, - nay, more misguided; for they are heedless
[of warning. ]
(ch. 7v. 179.)
Man has been endowed with the ability to differentiate between evil and virtue and to exercise his freedom of choice.
In the words of Hazlitt: "Man is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be." Animals do not possess this freedom of choice. That is why the Quran characterizes those humans who fall short of this endowment as the "lowest of the low." The following verse emphasizes the point:
And be not like those who said: "we hear"
While they did not pay attention;
The vilest of beasts, in the sight of Allah,
Are the deaf and the dumb-
Those who do not comprehend.
(ch. 8 vv. 21, 22.)
The Imam Ali says about such people: "The worldly-minded people are like barking dogs and wild beasts, some of them roar on others, the strong ones eat the weak and the big ones hurt the small."3 And again, writing of those who misuse their freedom, he says: "A savage and ferocious beast is better than a wicked and tyrant ruler."4
Islamic teaching concerning the inter-relation and inter¬dependence between human beings and the rest of the animated world is very explicit, consisting of an elaborate code of laws (Shariah). These begin with the dictum that man has designated the authority as the vicegerent of God on earth. The Quran mentions this repeatedly, but the following verse provides a good example: "He [God] it is who made you vicegerents on earth; / So he who disavows, will bear its consequences.” (ch. 35 v. 39.)
While elaborating the responsibilities of this office, the Quran lays great emphasis on the development of godly attributes in man. Compassion, love, mercy, justice, charity – these are among the divine attributes that, as his vicegerent, we are enjoined to acquire as we work to establish his kingdom on earth in harmony with his laws of nature. This kingdom of God is not meant to be only a human domain. God’s mercy encompasses all creation, including the animal kingdom. Called to administer justice and grace over the whole of his kingdom, man cannot succeed if he fails to nurture in himself the attributes embodied infinitely in God.
Contrary to certain scientific theories, Islam believes that the divine design of animated nature includes some unalterable factors, providentially created and preserved in the origin of species, to keep species distinct from one another. Terri¬torial, climatic, and other such evolutionary or devolutionary processes may change the ethological characteristics or anatomical structures of these species. In their struggle for exis¬tence, animals may learn how to camouflage themselves to dis¬tract attention or to deceive by impersonation or manipulation of their environment. However, no species can transgress be¬yond the distinct orbit that is ordained for it by the divine law, commonly known as predestination or fate. Within the biological world, some things are unalterable.
The religious concept of predestination or fate has played a significant role in determining the Islamic code of human behavior toward animals. According to the Vedic philosophy, all suffering is meted out by Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, for one's misdeeds in the previous existence, and there is nothing one can do to stop the wheel of any creature's fateful Karma. Unfortunately, some of the believers in all the major religions, including Islam, have failed to understand the real import of the theory of predestination taught by all the religions in their respective ways. This lack of understanding has been one of the causes of human indifference toward animal suffering.
According to Islam, the literal interpretation of the theory of predestination is "pre-fixing the fate of some one or some thing" in the sense of determining the capacity, capabil¬ity, endowment, function, and other faculties. The Quran uses the Arabic word Taqdir meaning fate for the fixed orbits of the planetary motions as well as for the inorganic substances and for animated creatures, including human beings. Within those pre-fixed limitations, however, conditions could be changed for the better - for example, suffering could be avoided or lessened by human effort and skill.
A true conception of the Islamic maxim "there is an antidote for every ailment" could become an antidote for the prevalent apathy and fatalistic resignation not only to the evil plight of animals but also to much of human suffering.
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