What follows is a summary of Said Nursi’s explanation of how Islam views the human ego and its education, and how this view differs from those human philosophies based on human arrogance and denial of God:
An absolute and all-encompassing entity has no limits or terms, and therefore cannot be shaped or formed, or determined in such a way that its essential nature can be comprehended. For example, light undetermined by darkness cannot be known or perceived. However, light can be determined if a real or hypothetical boundary line of darkness is drawn. In the same way, the Divine Attributes and Names (e.g., Knowledge, Power, Wisdom, and Compassion) cannot be determined, for they are all-encompassing and have no limits or like. Therefore, as their essence cannot be known or perceived, a hypothetical boundary is needed for them to become known.
In order to make Himself known through His Attributes and Names, God Almighty drew a hypothetical line before His all-encompassing Attributes and Names. This line is the human ego. By reflecting all of His Attributes and Names on it and thereby making it an essential dimension of human existence, the ego became a Divine trust, an arena in which the manifestations of Divine Attributes and Names are reflected in order to mirror the Divine Being. The ego imagines within itself a fictitious lordship, power, and knowledge as reflections of their Divine counterparts, and so posits a boundary line, hypothesizes a limit to the all-encompassing Divine Attributes, and says: “This is mine, and the rest is His.” Ego thus makes a division. By means of the miniature measure it contains, ego slowly comes to understand the true nature of the Divine Attributes and Names.
Ego can understand the Lordship of the Creator of the universe through this imagined lordship, as well as the real Ownership of its Creator by means of its own apparent ownership. This enables it to say: “I own this house, just as the Creator owns all of creation.” Ego obtains a degree of understanding of His Absolute Knowledge through its partial knowledge, and can intuit the Exalted Fashioner’s primary, originative art through its defective, acquired art. For example, ego says: “I built and arranged this house, so there must be One Who made and arranged this universe.”
Ego contains thousands of states, attributes, and perceptions that disclose and make the Divine Attributes and essential Qualities knowable to some extent. It is like a measure, a mirror, or an instrument for seeing or finding out, an entity with an indicative function. Having no meaning in itself, it discloses meaning outside itself. It is a strand of consciousness from the thick rope of human existence, a fine thread from the celestial weave of humanity’s essential nature, a hypothetical line from the book of human character.
That character has two aspects or faces. One looks toward good and existence and, unable to create, only receives what is given. The other looks toward evil and derives from non-existence. Here ego is active. Ego’s real nature is indicative—like a letter that has no meaning by itself—and points to the meaning of things other than itself. Its lordship is completely hypothetical, and its existence so weak and insubstantial that it cannot bear or support anything on its own. Rather, ego is a scale or measure designed to show the degrees and quantities of what is measured. The Necessary Being’s absolute, all-encompassing, and limitless Attributes can become known, to some degree, through it.
Those who know and realize this reality of their essential nature and act accordingly are included in: Truly he [she] who purifies it succeeds and prospers (91:9). They carry out the trust and, through their ego, see what the universe is and what duties it performs. Since they find in themselves a point of confirmation with respect to their Creator’s Existence and Oneness, they see that their ego confirms the information they have gathered about the universe. As a result, this information retains the quality of light and wisdom and is not changed into darkness and futility.
When ego has performed its duty correctly, it renounces its claim to lordship and hypothetical ownership (mere devices of measurement) and proclaims: “His is the sovereignty and ownership of all beings, and to Him is due all praise and thanks. His is the judgment and rule, and to Him you are returning.” Thus it achieves true worship and attains the rank of the best pattern of creation.
But if ego forgets the Divine purpose of its creation, abandons the duty of its nature, and views itself as a self-existing being independent of the Creator, it betrays the trust and falls into the class of those warned and threatened by: And he [she] who corrupts it fails (91:10). This development is responsible for all of the polytheism, evil, and deviation that have caused the heavens, Earth, and the mountains to be terrified of assuming the trust, lest they be led to associate partners with God.
Followers of materialistic and naturalistic philosophies have adopted this second face of ego. They consider ego as having an essential meaning of its own, for they view it as an independent existence, an index only to itself, and as working wholly on its own behalf. Considering its existence necessary and essential, they mistakenly assume that it owns its being, is the real lord and master of its own domain, and is a permanent reality entrusted with a quest for self-perfection to acquire self-esteem.
Such ideas cause ego to swell until it gradually permeates all parts of a human being, to change from a hypothetical line or “light vapor” into a “viscous liquid.” Our indifference to creation’s miraculous truths (with which we are now “too familiar”) and our preoccupation with this world and natural sciences causes that “liquid” to “harden.” After this, our neglect and denial cause ego to “freeze.” Losing its refined and opaque nature, due to ingrained rebelliousness, arrogance, injustice, and wrong viewpoints, it increases in density until it envelops the person. Like some huge monster, the ego completely swallows its owner so that he or she and his or her faculties become no more than its slave.
Eventually, the ego of the human race strengthens the individual ego through individual and national racism, causing this now-swollen ego to contest the Majestic Maker’s commands, just as Satan did. Finally it considers itself the yardstick by which everyone and everything else should be compared and measured. Thus it divides God’s sovereignty between itself and other causes and associates partners with God in the most grievous manner. To justify its position, it then shares God’s acts with many other things (e.g., causality, idols, natural forces, and matter), just like a thief who seeks to justify his or her theft by claiming to have taken a certain amount for each of his or her friends.
As a result, people can no longer perceive and confess their impotence and weakness, insufficiency and need, deficiency and imperfection, which are basic to human beings, and thus cannot fulfill the purpose of their creation: to worship and serve God as He wills. Immersed in naturalism and ascribing partners to God, they cannot locate the wide open doors of gratitude and thus are the people mentioned in: To associate partners with God is the highest wrongdoing (31:13).
This betrayal of the Divine trust causes ego to sink into absolute ignorance. Regardless of how much science it has acquired, knowledge only compounds its ignorance. Whatever glimmers of knowledge of God it obtains from the universe through its senses or reflective powers are extinguished, for it can no longer find within itself anything with which to confirm, polish, and maintain them. Whatever comes to ego is stained with the colors within it. If pure wisdom were to come, an ego stained by atheism, polytheism, or other forms of denying the All-Mighty could not even absorb a small fraction of it. If the whole universe were full of shining indications of God, one dark point in that ego would cause them to be hidden, just as if they were invisible.
Philosophies based on denying God and disobeying religion cause ego to pick up the reins and gallop headlong into error. Their principles approve of power, for they believe that “might is right” and live by the maxims of “all power to the strongest,” “winner takes all,” and “right comes from power.” They give moral support to tyranny, encourage dictators, urge oppressors to claim divinity, and consider conflict to be social life’s fundamental principle. In fact, conflict springs from tyrants, brutes, and savage people misusing their innate dispositions. Conflict is so fundamental and general to the their line of reasoning that they absurdly claim: “Life is conflict.”
By ascribing the beauty of the Divine works of art and the threads of which they are made to the works and threads themselves instead of to the Maker and Fashioner’s pure, sacred Beauty, they say: “How beautiful it is” instead of: “How beautifully it has been made,” and thus consider each as an idol worthy of adoration. Such philosophies assume the form of an evil tree spreading its dark veils of ascribing partners to God and of misguidance to countless people. The branch of empowered reason or intellect, one of human nature’s three main drives, yields the fruits of atheism, materialism, and naturalism for the intellect’s consumption. The branch of empowered anger and passion produces such tyrants as Pharaoh, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, while the branch of empowered animal desires and appetites produces the fruits of goddesses, idols, and those who claim divinity.
In sum, the powers of evil have flattered the reason of philosophers and thrown them, in their self-conceit and arrogance, into the abyss of deviation. They have transformed ego into a false deity (microcosm) and nature into an object of worship (macrocosm). Hence,
whoever rejects false deities and believes in God has grasped a most unfailing support that never will give way: God is the All-Hearing, All-Knowing (2:256).
In contrast, the blessed line of Prophethood represents ego’s first, purified face and assumes the form of a blessed tree of worship bearing the fruits of Prophets, Messengers, saints, and the righteous in the garden of Earth and on the branch of empowered reason or intellect. On the branch of empowered anger, which defends against and repels evil, it yields the fruits of virtuous and just rulers and governors. On the branch of empowered attractiveness, it bears the fruits of generous, benevolent persons of good character and modest bearing. As a result, this line shows humanity as creation’s perfect fruit.
This line is the origin of pure worship and servitude to God, for the ego represented by this line knows that it is His servant, that it was created to serve One other than itself, and that its essential nature has only an indicative function. Ego understands that it bears the meaning of One other than itself and is meaningful only when pointing to that One upon Whom its existence depends. Believing that its existence and life depend upon that One’s creativity and Existence, ego knows that its feeling of ownership is illusory, that it enjoys only an apparent and temporary ownership by the real Owner’s permission, and that it has only a shadow-like reality. Understanding itself as a contingent entity, an insignificant shadow manifesting the true and necessary Truth, ego knows that its function is limited to serving as a conscious and willing measure and balance for its Creator’s Attributes and essential Qualities.
This is how Prophets, pure and righteous people, and saints following the Prophets’ line perceive ego’s nature. As a result, they ascribe sovereignty only to the Exalted Sovereign of creation; believe that He has no partner or like in His Sovereignty, Lordship, and Divinity; has no need of an assistant or deputy; and that He possesses the key to and absolute power over all things. They also believe that causes serve as veils to conceal reality and that nature is no more than the sum of His creation’s rules, an assemblage of His laws through which He displays His Power.
This radiant, luminous, and beautiful face of ego always has been like a living seed full of meaning, a seed from which the Exalted Creator has created the blessed tree of worship whose branches have adorned humanity with such illustrious fruits. This face lifts the past’s darkness, thereby enabling us to know that it is a source of light, a bright shining ladder whose many rungs enable all souls traversing it to leap into the future and eternal happiness, and a radiant abode and garden for souls that have left this world, cast off their heavy loads, and been set free, as opposed to what the materialist, naturalist, and even existentialist philosophies claim it to be: a domain of eternal extinction or a vast graveyard.
Prophethood teaches that our aim and function is to be molded by Divine values and achieve good character. Prophets believe that we should perceive our impotence and seek refuge with Divine Power, perceive our weakness and rely on Divine Strength, realize our insufficiency and essential poverty and trust in Divine Mercy, know our need and seek help from Divine Riches, see our faults and plead for pardon through Divine Forgiveness, and perceive our inadequacy and glorify Divine Perfection.
Prophethood states that the principles upon which human social life is to be based are mutual assistance, magnanimity, and generosity, since all things, from the sun and the moon and down to particles, work together in ways determined by reciprocal cooperation. For example, plants help animals, animals help people, and particles of food help the body’s cells.