The Definition of Fitrah
Muslims believe that God gave mankind an inborn natural predisposition which cannot change and which exists at birth in all human beings, the religio naturalis. This is called in Arabic as “fitrah” (instinct). This “fitrah” is the small voice inside each one of us which tells us “this does not feel right.” When we pick up a gun for the first time in order to kill someone, we have to fight mightily in order to overcome our fitrah which tells us that killing is wrong. In a similar manner, all mankind is born automatically knowing that “God is one.” As I recall, an atheist once said to me that “God made me an atheist”. This is actually not true. This fitrah prevents them initially from disbelieving the existence of God. They must really fight themselves for a long time and be continually persuaded by those who are around them to believe otherwise. This is how they end up worshipping fire, stones, statues, multiple gods, and other things. It is forced upon them in spite of their fitrah as they grow up.
This is affirmed by Qur’an 30:30 when we read that:
“So set thy purpose (O Muhammad) for religion (deen) as a man by nature upright the nature (framed) of Allah in which He hath created man (fitrah). There is no altering (the laws of) Allah’s creation. That is the right deen, but most men know not.”
Islam is also called deen al-fitrah, the religion of human nature, because its laws and its teachings are in full harmony with the normal and the natural inclination of the human fitrah to believe in and submit to the Creator. Like the word al-Islam, the word deen also means, obedience and submission, among other meanings. Allah states that:
“Who is better in obedience (in deen) than he who surrendereth his purpose to Allah while doing good (to men) and followeth the tradition of Abraham, the upright? Allah (Himself) chose Abraham for friend.” (Qur’an 4:125)
“There is no compulsion in religion (deen). The right direction is henceforth distinct from error.” (Qur’an 2:256)
Ad-deen implies religion in the widest sense of the word, embracing both the practical aspects of the acts of worship and ordinary transactions of life, and the teachings of religion; and it is a name for that whereby one serves Allah.
“Lo! religion (deen) with Allah (is) The Surrender1 (to His will and guidance).” (Qur’an 3:19)
Particularly it means the religion of al-Islam. The synonyms of ad-deen are ash-shariah (the law), tawheed (Oneness of Allah and wara’ (caution). Ad-deen also comes from the verb dana, meaning “he had indebted”. This is significant, according to al-Attas, because man is indebted to Allah for his existence and sustenance. The believer will realise that his spirit acknowledged Allah in pre-existence, and that the debt that he must return is his self, and this can be done by service and submission to Allah. This return implies a return to man’s inherent spiritual nature, to his fitrah. The one who submits to Allah is called ‘abd (a slave) of Allah and his service is called ibadah (slavehood or conscious submission to the will of God). By worshipping Allah in such a manner, man in fulfilling the purpose of his creation and existence.
“I created the jinn and humankind only that they might worship Me.” 2
Fitrah and Human Responsibility
Man is distinguished from the rest of the creation because he has been endowed with intellect (‘aql) and free-will (iradah). The intellect enables him to discern right from wrong. He can use these faculties to complement his fitrah and to please Allah or to be untrue to it and displease Allah The choice is his. The prophets and Divine revelation are external sources of guidance to guide the intellect and will of man. The Qur’an declares that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, enjoins the right and lawful things (ma’aruf and forbids the wrong and unlawful things (munkar). Man is responsible for his actions and accountable to Allah for every atom of right and wrong that he does. It is in this sense of accountability that guides man to act in accordance with the Divine Will. It empowers him to struggle against the wrong-doing of his lower self (nafs) as well as the negative influences of the social circumstances. The central hadith (quoted below) makes plain that it is the social circumstances after the birth of the child that causes the individual to diverge from fitrah. Hence if someone follows an aberrant path it is not because of any innate wrong within his nature, but because of the emergence of the lower self or nafs after birth, and negative effects in the social circumstances.
The concept of fitrah as original goodness and the most basic of human concience, in my view, does not merely connote a passive receptivity to good and right action, but an active inclination and a natural innate predisposition to know Allah to submit to Him and to do right. This is man’s natural tendency in the absence of contrary factors.
In a hadith3, the Prophet(P) is reported to have said:
“Every new-born child is born in a state of fitrah. Then his parents make him a Jew, a Christian or a Magian, just as an animal is born intact. Do you observe any among them that are maimed (at birth)?”
In the context of the hadith, according to Abu Haytham, fitrah means to be born either prosperous or unprosperous (in relation to the soul):
And if his parents are Jews, they make him a Jew, with respect to his worldly situation; [i.e. with respect to inheritance, etc.] and if Christians, they make him a Christian, with respect to that situation; and if Magians, they make him a Magian, with respect to that situation; his situation is the same as that of his parents until his tongue speaks for him; but if he dies before his attaining to the age when sexual maturity begins to show itself, he dies in a state of conformity to his preceding natural constitution, with which he was created in his mother’s womb.4
The situation is clear. Although all children are born in a state of fitrah, the influence of the environment is decisive; parents may influence the religion of the child by making him a Christian, Jew or Magian. If there are no adverse influences, then the child will continuously manifest his fitrah as his true nature. Since many infants are born with gross physical deformities, the maiming referred to in this hadith is not meant in the physical sense; it means that all children are born spiritually pure, in a state of fitrah. The reference to animals born intact in the central hadith should be viewed as an analogy to illustrate the parallel spiritual wholeness of children at birth.
It is precisely because of man’s free-will and intellect that he is able to overcome the negative influences of the environment and attain to the highest level of psycho-spiritual development, an-nafs al-mutma’innah, “the self made tranquil”. At this level, his inner and outer being, his soul and body, are able to conform to the requirements of his fitrah and the dictates of the shari’ah. He actualises his fitrah, and attains psycho-spiritual integration and inner peace.
And only God knows best.