The existential question, “who am I?” is as old as mankind, and has been answered in various ways throughout history. From our being a mere collection of physical atoms to actually being identical with God Himself, different schools of thought have offered their own opinions on this issue. Naturally, the religion of Islam is not exempt from this, and has offered a truly unique perspective on exactly what the true nature of humanity is. This question is especially important because it is intimately linked with the purpose of our creation. Allah says:
I did not create the jinn and the humans except that they may worship Me (51:56)
Commenting on this verse, Imam Hussain (as) says:
“Verily, Allah, the Exalted, has not created human beings except for recognizing Him and worshipping Him as (the consequence of) knowing Him.”
Therefore, to truly worship Allah, which the Qur’an describes as the purpose of our creation, we must have a type of knowledge of Allah, which is called ma’rifah. This knowledge, however, is not the type gained merely from reading books or hearing lectures. That is called conceptual knowledge, and is indeed beneficial, but what the Imam (as) is referring to here is something far more sublime and majestic.
Of course, if Allah can directly inspire a small creature like the bee (16:68), we should not be at all surprised that He can inspire the hearts of His servants with knowledge of His Self. We are told that, during the time of ghaybat al-kubra, we are to recite:
O Allah! Grant me ma’rifah of Yourself for if I do not have the ma’rifah of You…
If merely reading books were sufficient for knowing Allah, it would have been pointless for us to recite such a dua. The purpose of our creation, then, is a type of knowledge inspired directly to the very soul of a human being. It is one which is beyond the limitations of words and phrases, although hints of its reality can be indicated through words and phrases for the sake of guidance.
Now, how can this goal be achieved? Both the Holy Prophet (saws) and Imam Ali (as) are reported to have said:
“Indeed, he knows his self knows his Lord.”
Therefore, at least one of the ways to know Allah, if not a necessity in the path to doing so, is to know one’s self. Before the soul can be lead to know Allah and achieve the purpose of creation, then, the soul itself must first be understood. A type of theoretical knowledge is necessary before one may embark upon the practical journey of knowing one’s Lord.
What, then, has Islam said about this human self, or soul? In Suratul Baqarah, Allah says:
Allah shall not take you to task for what is unconsidered in your oaths, but He shall take you to task for what your hearts have incurred, and Allah is all-forgiving, all-forbearing (2:225)
For our purposes, we need to focus on the phrase ‘what your hearts have incurred.’ In his monumental Tafsir Al-Mizan, Allamah Tabatabai (ra), after a discussion on the linguistic aspects of the verse, states that:
The above explanation is a proof that the words “your hearts” in the verse refer to the man himself – his spirit and soul. The faculties of thought, understanding, love, hate, fear, and so forth, may be attributed (basing what one says on the common man’s belief) to the heart, as hearing is attributed to the ears, sight to the eyes, and taste to the tongue. But the word “earning” can only be attributed to man. As the verse uses the expression, “for what your hearts have earned”, it proves that the “heart” here stands for the ‘soul’, ‘spirit’.
In other words, the true identity of a human being is his or her heart, in its metaphysical, spiritual sense. He or she is not a being with a heart, but rather is the heart itself. As Allamah (ra) points out, to speak of the soul, spirit or self is the same as speaking of the heart.
The body, then, is merely a tool which the soul uses. It does not have any connection with the true identity of man beyond being a means to an end. It is like a pen used to write or draw something. Beyond being a tool which we must use to pursue the goal of creation, it is not a part of our true identity.
Of course, at this point nothing truly unique has been stated, as the majority of world religions all conceive of the true identity of man as such. Where Islam offers a truly unique position, then, is in how it describes the relation of that soul with its creator, Allah.
So set your heart on the religion as a people of pure faith, the origination of Allah (fitratAllah) according to which He originated mankind (30:30)
When asked what this ‘fitratAllah’ is, Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (as) is reported to have said, “He originated mankind (fatarhum) upon tawhid.” In other words, our souls are created with an inherent connection to Allah. We are not beings cut off from our creator and isolated from Him in the world of matter. Wherever the soul may be, it is always connected with its Lord and is blessed with an inherent ability to know and understand Him.
It is because of this that the mystics and scholars of spirituality state that the notion of ‘seeking God’ is one which is founded upon a misunderstanding. We do not need to search for God, because God is already present with us, in fact closer to us than our jugular vein and even our own hearts:
And We are nearer to him than his jugular vein (50:16)
Know that Allah intervenes between a man and his heart (8:24)
Further, we read in the ahadith that:
The heart of the true believer (mu’min) lies between two fingers of God, that He may turn it whatever way He pleases.
Therefore, if God is so close to us, there is no search for Him to be performed. Rather, the problem confronting us is our own sins and transgressions. These form a type of barrier between us and Him, and hence we are unable to experience His nearness and the bond with Him which we possess. The experience of this nearness is the same as knowing Him, which, as we have seen, is the goal for which we were created. The extent of one’s nearness to Him, then, will be exactly the same as the extent to which one has inner knowledge of Him.
What is so amazing about this reality is that a mere human being, who is not even a dot when witnessed from the top of a mountain, let alone one within our constantly expanding universe, is capable of incredible states with Allah. Mankind is capable of such honor in the eyes of Allah that He says:
“Neither [the vastness of] My earth, nor [that of] My heaven can contain Me. Indeed it is the heart of the man of faith which can contain Me.”
Observe closely the amazing contrast here: this incomprehensively vast universe, which is constantly expanding and perplexes the minds of even the greatest scientists, cannot contain Allah. However, man, who is a mere dot within this grand universe, is such that he can contain Allah!
Such an honorable position is not inevitable, though, and it is of course possible that man slips from this lofty state and falls to a level of existence beneath that of the animals. As Allah says:
We have indeed created man in the best of moulds,
Then do We abase him (to be) the lowest of the low,
Except such as believe and do righteous deeds: For they shall have a reward unfailing.
Once the human soul becomes mixed with matter, the potential for such a slip occurs. As Prophet Yusuf (as) says, the soul is inclined towards evil unless Allah allows His Mercy to reach it (12:53). Of course, a soul originated upon tawhid cannot incline towards evil. Hence, it is the mixture of that pure soul with an earthly body which creates such an inclination towards evil. If a person is able to remember Allah and his own soul properly, he will live within this world in a proper manner, utilizing it as Allah intends and hence not become attached to it in a way that the veils between him and his Lord increase.
This slip ultimately occurs when man is completely devoted to and focused upon the physical world, thereby existing in a state of heedlessness (ghaflah) regarding his true nature. As Allah says:
And be ye not like those who forgot Allah; and He made them forget their own souls. Such are the rebellious transgressors. (59:19)
Note the specific wording of this verse. Allah could have simply said that those who forget Allah are in a state of rebellion. However, their forgetting Allah is specifically mentioned as something which leads to the forgetting of one’s own soul. As every word of Allah is a manifestation of infinite wisdom, there is therefore a connection between the remembrance of one’s own soul and the remembrance of Allah.
Therefore, the key to ultimate felicity and achievement of one’s purpose as a creation of Allah begins with knowledge of the soul. Once a person understands his or her soul, the practical path towards obtaining knowledge of Allah within that very soul can begin.
 A Bundle of Flowers. Chapter 2: ‘Knowing Allah, His Greatness and His Grace.’
 Sayyid Ridha Husayni Mutlaq. The Last Luminary. (Islamic Publishing House) Page 8.
 See Lantern of the Path, Section 5, and Tafsir al-Mizan, commentary on 5:105.
 Quoted by Imam Khumayni (ra) in Forty Hadith, chapter two.
 Ibid. Chapter 5.