Up to this point we have introduced ‘fiṭrah’ vis-a-vie our understanding of rationality. However, the fiṭrah is conceptually broader than the supra-rational. This is because, while it includes axioms such as logical principles (which are not proven but argued from as a starting point), it also includes phenomena that we directly recognize and experience. These phenomena do not fall in the domain of rationality and include such items as our perception of natural beauty, the ‘pleasure’ of moving poetry or the moral injustice of theft.
Let us present an example to elucidate the point. Imagine you wake up early before the break of dawn. You travel with a friend to a mountaintop. The weather is warm and there is a light comfortable breeze. As you sit down and watch the sunrise, you are in a state of awe. You turn to your friend and say, “Isn’t it beautiful?” and he responds, “Nah..it’s really ugly. Prove to me rationally that that sunrise is beautiful.” Obviously, this would be an absurd request. The sunrise being beautiful is a phenomenon that is experienced and not a syllogism that can be constructed and argued for. In the Islamic paradigm we would say that the perception of the beauty of the sunrise and the subsequent experience of awe are part of the fiṭrah.
A translation of the Arabic word, ‘fiṭrah’proves challenging since there does not seem to be a word to word equivalent in the English language. Therefore, in order to fully comprehend the breadth, scope and meaning of the term, we will need to present a working definition. The fiṭrah can be defined as the “original normative disposition” of the human being.1 Let us expound upon each word of this working definition.
The word fiṭrah comes from the Arabic triliteral stem fa-ṭa-ra which means, “to split, cleave, break apart.”2 The meaning is linked to ‘origination’ since it would refer to the nāb (tooth) of a baby camel cleaving the gum.3 The Qur’an employs this aspect of the meaning, i.e. to originate by cleft, in the verse,
“Can there be any doubt about God, Originator of the heavens and earth?”4
The word translated as ‘Originator’ is ‘Fāṭir’ and it refers to the attribute of God who creates ex nihilo or “creates out of nothing”.
Normativity here is referring to the way something should be or the natural baseline that one would compare to in order to understand what would be considered deviant or abnormal. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said,
“No child is born but that he is upon the fitrah. His parents make him a Jew, or a Christian, or Magian. As an animal delivers a child with limbs intact, do you detect any flaw?”5
The reference to the new born child of an animal with its limbs intact is the natural baseline (i.e. normative) of how an animal should be and hence, the statement is followed by the question, “do you detect any flaw?”
Disposition refers to the natural inclination of the human being related to God’s existence or recognition, His worship and some basic intuitive morals. The Qur’an indicates this,
“So direct your face toward the dīn, inclining to truth. [Adhere to] the fiṭrah of Allah upon which He has created [all] people. No change should there be in the creation of Allah . That is the correct dīn, but most of the people do not know.”6
There are two main views about this ‘disposition’ of the fiṭrah:
The fiṭrah contains primary, inborn knowledge of: God’s existence, that He deserves to be worshiped, and some basic morals or
The fiṭrah does not contain knowledge, rather it directs one towards the truth i.e. a ‘potency’ disposed towards the recognition of God, primed to worship Him.
Awakening the Truth Within
The fiṭrah is impacted by a number of factors. These factors include one’s upbringing, a person’s environment, one’s engaging with immoral acts, etc. Whichever view about ‘disposition’ one adopts, it is clear that these factors will impact the functioning of the fiṭrah. One can imagine these factors “clouding” or covering the fiṭrah. In the context of dealing with destructive doubts, the objective then is to “uncloud” the fiṭrah and awaken the truth within the human being. This can be done in a number of ways including exposure to revelation, rational arguments, spirituality, reflection and experiences.7
1 El-Tobgui, Carl Sharif. Ibn Taymiyyah on Reason and Revelation: A Study of Dar’ Ta’arud Al-’aql Wa-l-Naql. Islamic Philosophy, Theology a, 2019., pg. 228
2 Wehr, Hans, and J. Milton Cowan. Arabic-English Dictionary: The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (English and Arabic Edition). Snowballpublishing.com, 2020., pg. 842
3 See Lane, Edward William. Arabic-English Lexicon, 1872. Pg. 2470 under entry فطره
4 القرآن الكريم. “Surat ’Ibrahim [14:10] – The Noble Qur’an.” Accessed March 29, 2022. https://legacy.quran.com/14/10.
5 Qushayrī, Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj. Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim
6 القرآن الكريم. “Surat Ar-Rum [30:30] – The Noble Qur’an.” Accessed March 29, 2022. https://legacy.quran.com/30/30.
7 For further details about ‘Awakening the Truth Within’ see the Sapience Institute course of the same title which can be found at: https://learn.sapienceinstitute.org/courses/awakening-the-truth-within/