Human nature can be defined as the ‘fundamental dispositions and traits of humans.’ Take everything away from an individual – all the external factors such as society and interactions with others – and you are left with human nature. This gives an insight into the innate nature of human beings, exposing one to the core ideals and values at the heart of every human being.
The idea of human nature paves the way for a number of questions. Is man inherently good? What drives man to commit evil acts? Is man corrupt from birth? As Muslims, we have our own notion of human nature: fitra, a term many will be familiar with. However, one must also look at society around them and the ideas that shape it. In the Western society, an array of perspectives around human nature exists, some optimistic and others pessimistic. These views shape the political philosophy that stems from such perspectives. For example, if man is inherently evil, then surely the state must play a more active and omnipresent role in governing how we live our lives as its citizens?
This article seeks to explore the varying Western notions around human nature and contrasts them with an Islamic perspective. The aim of this article is to widen the scope of discussion around the concept of human nature, whilst also shedding light on how it affects political theories and ideologies. It will also aim to provide a grounded and orthodox Islamic stance that will clear any misconceptions an individual may have. Before Muslims enter the realm of political discourse, it is important to ensure one has knowledge of core ideas and principles that may affect their political stance. It may seem obvious, but it is better to clarify this in a bid to ensure that no confusion arises.
Differing Perspectives in Western Thought
Rousseau and the ‘Noble Savage’
Jean Jacques Rousseau (d. 1778) was a visionary who penned a number of discourses on inequality, education, and political philosophy. However, that which concerns this discussion is his perspective on human nature, or the state of nature.
Rousseau advocated the view that man is inherently good, only to be corrupted by society. He expanded on this idea by propagating the view that our savage ancestors shared two traits with other animals: amour de soi and pitie. The former translates to a ‘constant impulse to preserve one’s life’, whilst the latter translates to ‘compassion for the suffering of other members of the same species’.  Rousseau is of the view that these two attributes are inherent within a man, existing before reason or any social interaction has occurred. He makes this clear in many of his writings, such as in his famous work The Social Contract. When discussing man’s nature, Rousseau writes, “His first law is to attend to his own preservation.” 
Therefore, an individual would first of all seek to preserve one’s own life before feeling empathy on seeing another person suffering. This means that man was not inherently evil or bad. In contrast, man could empathise and do good unto others before having been corrupted by the environment around him. Rousseau also emphasises the idea of family, which plays a pivotal role. He is of the view that the family is the first ‘society’ that an individual is exposed to, and an individual remains attached to their family for as long as it contributes to their own preservation – as long as a need exists.  Once this need has ceased to exist, an individual may choose to remain with their family voluntarily, but not naturally. The cessation of need results in this natural bond disappearing.
Rousseau also used the term amour propre, which many refer to as a more unnatural form of self-love. However, in his introductory book on Rousseau, Nicholas Dent disagrees, claiming that what Rousseau propagates is that this self-love is only good or bad depending on what the individual makes of it. It can become inflamed, resulting in the individual becoming engrossed with the idea of their superiority over others. However, one must bear in mind that this form of self-love is separate to the innate and more positive amour de soi, which will not be elaborated on in this discussion. The idea of superiority over others only comes to fruition once one has been exposed to wider society and has interacted with other people.
One final element of Rousseau’s thought that is relevant to this discussion is his notion of choice in relation to human nature. Rousseau is of the view that human beings have the ability to change their nature, having been granted the capacity to choose. Choice allows one to determine one’s actions and how one lives, and is a means of ensuring that one is not enslaved by one’s own desires. This does not negate the fact that an individual can be corrupted and, as a result, make the wrong choices. Yet this sheds light on the fact that there does exist the idea of free will in Rousseau’s understanding of human nature and a somewhat positive perception of human beings, who are credited as intelligent and able to deny their whims and desires if they choose to.
The Pessimism of Hobbes
In contrast to Rousseau, the English thinker Thomas Hobbes (d. 1679) had a much more pessimistic view of human nature. “The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place”, writes Hobbes when discussing the state of nature.  He likens the state of nature to war, and is very persistent in his negative outlook of it. So, whilst men may be naturally equal, they will always find reason to quarrel and fight with others.
Hobbes was a proponent of a system or ruler who oversees society and scares people into submission – a leviathan of sorts. This can be a tyrannical ruler who ensures complete obedience on the part of his subjects. Hobbes argues that such a ruler is necessary to ensure peace. This is primarily due to the innately evil and disruptive nature of man. Hence, there must be a mechanism in place to curtail such behaviour and keep people in line. A common power that aims to keep people in ‘awe’ will prevent individuals from incurring harm upon others. 
The Hobbesian political system is fairly despotic and tyrannical in nature, and is something many have sought to counter and distance themselves from.
There exists an array of perspectives amongst Western thinkers on the state of nature. We have focused primarily on Jean Jacques Rousseau, whilst also shedding light on the ideas of Thomas Hobbes briefly. It is important that one understands the existence of other thinkers and perspectives, such as John Locke, whose ideas have not been explored in detail in this article. Locke is of the view that man is rational and can look after himself, yet the state provides the function of stepping in and protecting the natural rights of man once life becomes too difficult.
Rousseau builds on from his conception of human nature to form a political philosophy centred around a somewhat democratic form of governance, introducing concepts such as the ‘general will’ and the ‘lawgiver’. The ‘general will’ is a concept in which citizens come together to determine policies of the state in mutual agreement. This displays the positive valuation of human nature, which causes one to trust the citizens to determine what is right in the ideal state. Whilst all of these concepts are intriguing, they bear minimal relevance to the discussion at hand and may be explored separately in other discussions. Having understood the differing Western perspectives as well as the ideas they give birth to, it is time we explore the view of the Islamic thinkers – one thinker in particular.
The Islamic Perspective
Upon asking one of my beloved teachers about the Islamic notion of human nature, I received this response:
“Islam believes man is born on the fitra, without sin, and is naturally good. It is his nafs and environment that then take him away from that original primordial state.”
This summarises the Islamic view quite succinctly, but there is so much more that has been elaborated on by scholars.
Ibn Taymiyya and the Fitra
The Islamic perspective in question focuses solely on the ideas of the famous scholar Taqi Al-Dīn Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). Ibn Taymiyya was a polymath, specialising in a variety of fields and offering a text-based perspective. He ensured that the Qur’ān and Sunnah played a fundamental role in determining all of his conclusions.
The notion of human nature in Islamic scholarly discourse is known more commonly as the fitra. This is based on the hadith of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) in which he says, “No child is born but that he is upon natural instinct. His parents make him a Jew, or a Christian, or a Magian. When an animal delivers its offspring with its limbs intact, do you detect any flaw?” 
What this means is that each child is born upon the natural inclination to believe in Allāh. They are then corrupted by the environment of their parents, which results in them becoming a Jew, a Christian, or a follower of any other religion. One may realise that there are some parallels between this concept and that which has been advocated by Rousseau. There is an element of the idea that alludes to an individual’s natural inclination being corrupted due to their environment – in this case, their parents.
Ibn Taymiyya further expands on the idea of the fitra in several of his written works. He is of the view that human beings are born with the disposition to know God, whereby one is naturally inclined to acknowledge one’s Creator.This is a natural inclination that exists in an individual and paves the way for them to acknowledge God’s existence, as well as to love, worship, and obey Him. Ibn Taymiyya is also of the view that living beings love and worship something in everything they do, and must therefore have an object of love. For Ibn Taymiyya, the only beneficial object of love for an individual is God. Therefore, an individual must have something to strive for, and innately has a tendency to come to know and love God. If one puts the two together, the object and goal of every action of an individual would be the pleasure of the God they have come to know, love, worship, and obey.
Comparison with Rousseau and Innate Goodness
Rousseau seems to take issue with the conventional modes of understanding and implementing religion – revelation, miracles, and dogmatic faith. Rousseau thought coming to know God should be done naturally and not through books. This contrasts with the approach of Ibn Taymiyya and orthodox Muslims, who believe in referring back to the holy texts to ensure that their implementation of the religion is pure and accurate. Yet despite this, Rousseau also concurs with the view of Ibn Taymiyya in claiming that man finds it natural to turn to God to display gratitude for what He has granted him with. Both Rousseau and Ibn Taymiyya agree that it becomes natural for one to work towards establishing good in God’s name, as well as to laud and extol Him. This is also done out of love for oneself and love for the Creator. Despite the clear disparities between the two great thinkers, there are some parallels in their thought and ideas.
Rousseau was also of the view that individuals alone are responsible for abusing their faculties and committing evil actions. What this symbolises on Rousseau’s part is the view that God is not responsible for man committing evil; the responsibility lies with one who has made such a choice. Man is the author of his own evil actions. There are some parallels between this idea and that which is propagated by Ibn Taymiyya regarding the idea of evil. Ibn Taymiyya is quoted to have said, “God does not create pure evil. Rather, in everything that He creates is a wise purpose by virtue of what is good. However, there may be some evil in it for some people, and that is partial and relative evil. As for total evil or absolute evil, the Lord is exonerated of that.” Moreover, Muslims are of the view that God provides humans with free will, which includes the ability to ‘choose’ to commit evil acts or not.
On the issue of doing good, Ibn Taymiyya is of the view that it is somewhat more innate to a human being to do good than to commit evil. Ibn Taymiyya argues that human beings are formed to love what is agreeable to them and to hate what harms them. Rousseau expresses something similar using the term ‘conscience’ to label the instinct through which we love the good and hate the bad. Ibn Taymiyya is also of the view that people are predisposed to take pleasure in good actions being committed, such as justice, the same way they would take pleasure in food or drink. Ibn Taymiyya seems to be linking feelings of pleasure – whether regarding concepts such as justice or something less abstract such as food – with a man’s natural constitution. It is the desires being appeased and the feelings of pleasure and pain one feels that determine whether an action is good or not, which correlates to one’s natural constitution and which is ultimately responsible for such reactions.
This does beg the question as to whether certain sins are justified if an individual derives pleasure from them, such as premarital sexual intercourse. This is where revelation comes into play. Revelation is what limits or places conditions on how certain pleasures can be attained. Revelation allows one to understand and interpret how they should approach certain actions. Moreover, the concept of utility plays a key role, as revelation informs one of the punishments and rewards in the life after death. So one must consider the pleasure and pain that could face them and whether or not the benefit of committing a certain action is greater than the harm. Ibn Taymiyya argued that those who continue to sin do so either because of desire or ignorance, both of which fuel their wrongdoing. 
Contrary to popular belief, however, Ibn Taymiyya was not one to dismiss or disregard reason. He is of the view that despite not being synonymous, fitra and reason are related. Reason can be invoked when one is aiming to use rational arguments to salvage an individual’s corrupted fitra, and yet without the original inclination to goodness within the fitra, reason itself is not of much use. Another accusation levelled at Ibn Taymiyya is that he is quick to disregard reason, opting to stick with revelation alone. One of my teachers explained the relationship between reason and revelation by stating that they both complement each other, and that this what Ibn Taymiyya seems to be getting at in his works.
There is a view held by many stating that no external will can influence an individual’s own will. Islamic theology suggests that revelation exists to control and influence an individual. Therefore, the will of Allāh supersedes the will of any and every man. Whilst there seem to be many parallels between the thought of Rousseau and Ibn Taymiyya, the differences are stark. Whilst Ibn Taymiyya believes that man is inherently good and inclined to do good, he is also of the view that man is naturally predisposed to come to know, love, and believe in Allāh and Islam in a general sense. This is something that Rousseau, as a Christian, cannot accept. Moreover, the concepts of utility – via reward and punishment in the Hereafter as outlined in revelation and other important texts – play a core role in Ibn Taymiyya’s theological ethics.
Ibn Taymiyya’s notion of the fitra is the basis of his political theory. He is of the view that justice plays an important role in politics. For him, it is the guiding virtue, even more so than political piety. Justice is something that stems from fitra in the sense that it is an innate concept that all men know to be good. This is the basis of Ibn Taymiyya’s notion of politics. The fitra forms the epistemic base through which one is able to build upon different ideas within Islamic discourse. Ibn Taymiyya is renowned for his utilitarian approach, aiming to work towards the greater of two goods whilst weighing up the benefits and the harms. This stems from Ibn Taymiyya’s conception of God as a deity Who prioritises the good over evil and acts for wise purposes. This utilitarian approach to politics and life in general can be seen in a number of incidents throughout the life of Ibn Taymiyya, such as his rulings on the prohibition of alcohol, or when providing fatāwa on fighting the invading Mongols, or even when choosing not to retaliate after being attacked in public.
Ibn Taymiyya’s conception of the fitra is a technical and nuanced perspective that acknowledges man’s innate disposition to do good and to come to know God. Through it, he is able to formulate his own social and political ethics. Whilst some parallels do exist between him and Rousseau, there is a clear disparity between his ideas and those of Hobbes. One needs to go no further than to look at Ibn Taymiyya’s more community-centric mode of governance, as opposed to Hobbes’ leviathan model. Despite this, Ibn Taymiyya is still considered orthodox in his views on revolution, and one can clearly see that he is no advocate of liberal democracy. Neither is Rousseau, but the two thinkers do differ on their conception of God, their approach to revelation, and theology as a whole. For Ibn Taymiyya, theology and religion play a pivotal role in shaping his world view, and this can clearly be seen in the God-centric approach to every discussion he participates in.
What this article has hopefully done is put forth alternating conceptions of human nature that exist within Western discourse as well as the Islamic perspective. This should provide some familiarity with the ideas at the core of many ideologies and philosophies that dominate the world today, whilst also shedding light on why certain decisions are made or why certain approaches are chosen. This will also open the door to further discussion on governance and how Muslims can approach a political model that is suited to their beliefs whilst also being compatible with the world around them. It is important to start at the very beginning before embarking on such an arduous task, hence the lengthy discussion on the state of nature.
Where does Islam stand on the populace having a say on decision made by the executive and legislative branches of government? Does the prioritisation of justice always require liberal democracy? So many questions exist that require addressing, and one must work tirelessly in aiming to answer them.
Even the discussion on human nature is not complete. Yet as someone interested in the realm of politics, I can only provide so much in terms of perspective. Do we, as Muslims, believe that our nature dictates our personality? Or would that be solely down to the environment around us, which molds us to become who we are? To go one step further, would our personality type dictate how we choose to practice our religion? If we possess an innate disposition to come to know God and become Muslims, how do we come to have different understandings of God?
These discussions need to happen, and one must seek to further study and explore such ideas under adequate mentorship to find the answers and to address the extensive problems that plague many Muslims in the 21st century.
 Dent, N., 1988. Rousseau. Blackwell, p. 14
 Wokler, R., 2001. Rousseau: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, p. 54
 Rousseau, J.J. ( 1998). The Social Contract. (H. J. Tozer, Trans.) Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, p. 6
 Dent, N., 1988. Rousseau. Blackwell, p. 54
 Kolodny, N., 2010. The explanation of amour-propre. Philosophical Review 119 (2), p. 166
 Wokler, R., 2001. Rousseau: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, p. 56
 Hobbes, T. ( 2014). Leviathan. Ware, Hertfordshire, Great Britain: Wordsworth Editions Limited, p. 98
 Wokler, R., 2001. Rousseau: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, p. 47
 Sahīh Al-Bukhāri 1292
 Vasalou, S., 2016. Ibn Taymiyya’s Theological Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 80-81
 Hoover, J., 2019. Ibn Taymiyya. Oneworld Publications, pp. 43-44
 Wokler, R., 2001. Rousseau: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, p. 111
 Dent, N., 1988. Rousseau. Blackwell, p. 241
 Wokler, R., 2001. Rousseau: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, p. 105
 Majmū’ Al-Fatāwa – Vol. 14, p.266
 Tzortzis, H. A., 2018. The Divine Reality. FB Publishing, p. 186
 Ibn Taymiyya, Radd. 430
 Dent, N., 1988. Rousseau. Blackwell, p. 236
 Vasalou, S., 2016. Ibn Taymiyya’s Theological Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 85
 Vasalou, S., 2016. Ibn Taymiyya’s Theological Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 87
 Ibid., 97
 Ibid., 95
 Anjum, O., 2012. Politics, Law and Community in Islamic Thought. Cambridge University Press pp. 220
 Ibid., 221
 Ibid., 241-243
 Hoover, J. (2019). Foundations of Ibn Taymiyya’s religious utilitarianism. In P. Adamson (Ed.), Philosophy and Jurisprudence in the Islamic World. Berlin: De Gruyter, pp. 145-168.
 Hoover, J., 2019. Ibn Taymiyya. Oneworld Publications, p. 122