Each person is composed of three parts—spirit, carnal soul, and body. Each of these needs to be satisfied. They are so interrelated, and their needs are so different, that neglecting one results in our failing to attain perfection.
path to perfection
As we read in the Qur’an: Fair in the eyes of men is the love of what they covet: women, children, stored-up heaps of gold and silver, horses of mark, cattle and tillage
(3:14). Our physical make-up and individual characteristics produce certain inclinations, and we can neither avoid satisfying these lusts implanted in us by the Creator nor be rid of them. This does not mean that people attempting to satisfy their lusts are free to do as they please or cannot overcome their inclinations. On the contrary, this means that we can change our inclinations by exercising our free will, and can control our lust, anger, and other emotions and then use them to propel ourselves along the path of perfection and wisdom.
Made of dust (our earthly element) and spirit (our heavenly element), we have to satisfy both our material and spiritual needs. Just as we are subject to anger and passion, so can we exercise our intellect. We are not just plants or animals; rather, we are unique beings with both plant and animal aspects. Just as our physical body is subject to its own pleasures and diseases, our spirit has its own joys and ailments. Sickness harms the body, while the body’s well-being, health, and whatever is in harmony with its nature gives it pleasure. As for the spirit, its pleasures and diseases depend on whether or not the carnal soul has been purified.
Our most important task, inseparable from existence and our life’s ultimate aim, is to attain felicity and happiness. The most consummate happiness is to embody and manifest the Divine Attributes and characteristics. The soul of a truly happy person develops by knowing and loving God, and is illuminated by an effulgence emanating from the Godhead. When that happens to a person, he or she radiates only beauty, for beauty can radiate only from that which is beautiful.
True happiness cannot be reached or retained unless all of the soul’s faculties and powers are purified and reformed. Doing so either partially or temporarily will not result in true happiness. This is similar to physical health. Just as a body can be considered healthy only when all of its limbs and organs are eternally healthy, people can attain perfect happiness only when freed from all evil-commanding and animal forces preventing their ascension to higher realms.
Purifying our faculties and powers does not mean eliminating desire and anger or destroying our reproductive instincts and capacity for self-defense, for such abilities are necessary for our continued existence. For example, without intellect we could not distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong, true and false; without anger we could not defend ourselves; and without sexual attraction and desire humanity’s continued existence would be threatened.
We must express our powers and faculties in a balanced and moderate way so that they can perform their functions properly. Doing so engenders a particular ability. For example, purifying and training the intellect brings knowledge and wisdom, purifying anger engenders courage and then forbearance, and purifying passion and desire develops chastity. The moral virtues acquired by those rising toward perfection and the realization of true happiness are wisdom, courage, and chastity.
If every virtue is considered the center of a circle, and any movement away from the center is considered a vice, each vice becomes greater the further it moves away from the center. Thus the number of vices is infinite, for there can be only one center. Moreover the direction of deviation does not matter, for any deviation from the center is a vice.
Each moral virtue has two extremes. For example, wisdom has stupidity and cunning, courage has cowardice and rashness, and chastity has lethargy and uncontrolled lust. Thus the purpose of our existence—perfection—lies in maintaining a balance and moderation between these two extremes. Concerning this, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib is reported to have said:
God gave angels intellect without sexual desire and passions or anger, and gave animals anger and desire without intellect. He exalted humanity by bestowing all of these qualities upon it. Accordingly, if our intellect dominates our desire and ferocity, we rise above angels, because such a station is attained by people despite obstacles that do not vex angels.
One important point related to our earthly existence is that since we are social, civilized beings coexisting with other people, our earthly life covers social, political, and economic aspects as well as spiritual ones. Our worldly nature makes it possible for us to be too obedient to our desires. History shows that when those who are interested only in power finally attain it, they light fires of oppression and enslave the poor and the weak. On the other hand, God is All-Just and never approves of injustice and oppression. Thus the religion He revealed must—and does—cover all aspects of human life.