Dangers of the Human Imagination

Posted by on Apr 4th, 2013 and filed under Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

Yousef Drummond


This is the title of a song, released in late 1971 associated with U.S. counter-culture icon John Lennon and is universally recognized as a plea for “world peace”[1].  It gained instant global success here in the United States and sent ripple-effects overseas for one salient reason:   a growing uneasiness among the masses here in the United States about the protracted war in Vietnam.   U.S. soldier casualty, according to one source, set the figure at 58,000, while that of the North Vietnamese is estimated at 1.1 million, with 1,170,000 injured[2].

The masses here in the United States reacted, sometimes violently, at their government’s “failed” military involvement in Vietnam, one that began in 1964 and ended in 1975.  Other more important political and social issues swelled the ranks of those opposed to the Vietnam War – the civil rights movement is but one example.  However, social historians now say that many political and social “ideas” associated with neo-liberalism, socialism and communism directed its adherents to demand that their government “dismantle” a political ethos of unbridled individualism they deemed responsible for global capitalistic exploitation and colonization to usher in a new, “collectivist vision” of brotherhood for all.

“Imagine” asked the masses here in the United States over thirty years ago, who had become disillusioned through years of war in Vietnam, to “imagine” a world with no religious, political, social and economic boundaries.

It is difficult to separate the message from the messenger here:  John Lennon asked the masses here in the United States to take an “existential ‘leap of faith’ and drop all the antiquated belief systems and political ideologies…”[3] that he claimed prevent him and the masses from “living in the moment”.

“Imagine” aimed to address the existential concerns of the democratic masses, here in the United States, that grew weary of a protracted U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.  Specifically, the democratic masses related the Vietnam War with the U.S. government’s deliberate attempt at furthering its global political imperialistic goals.

Existentialism is first and foremost a philosophical idea, borne of the human imagination.  The philosophy of existentialism is a “world-view” that emphasizes a person’s subjective experiences – her emotions and feelings (e.g., of the certainty of death or of hope and despair) to the exclusion of any “objective” standards of Truth, be they religious (God [we say ‘Allah (SWT) Forbid!’]), political, economic or social.  The role of the human imagination within an existential context is reduced largely to a philosophical view of man himself as an “isolated” being living in a “meaningless” Universe and by virtue of this acute realization attempts to live by experiencing his emotional ups-and-downs (feelings of dread and anxiety because of the “reality” of his death – considered the “end”).  Consequently, this philosophical idea emboldens its adherent to attempt to fulfill his own desirous actions (both moral and political), for which he believes he “owns” and for which he himself is responsible.   Human beings have the capacity, through the imagination, to imagine what they are and what they “ought to be” (or should be), or should have been.  Through the imagination, human beings imagine what they are not[4].

The modern European philosophical tradition related to the practical concerns of republican governments here in the United States and elsewhere has led to a more strident reliance on the secular, political moral impulse of human beings and a weakening of the religious moral impulse.  Both impulses, that is, the religious and the political, rely on the unique nature of the human imagination.

I am not concerned here with the dangers of the political imagination, however.  I will deal with the dangers of the political imagination in time, Insha’Allah.  I focus, then, on the religious imagination.

I now turn to the modern definition of an “idea”.  I use, as an illustration, the definition employed by a source that distills eloquently the philosophy of mind authored by Immanuel Kant.  According to the Glossary of Kant’s Technical Terms, “Ideas are special concepts which arise out of our knowledge of the empirical world, yet seem to point beyond nature to some transcendent realm[5]”.   According to the same source, mental concepts are “the active species of representation by means of which our understanding enables us to think”[6].   General concepts are ideas that point to the empirical world – what we see around us.  Abstract concepts are ideas not associated with the empirical world.

Here is an every-day meaning of a general concept.  Everyone understands the general concept of a chair when we see one; a chair has four legs.  We need not go further here.   We know the general concept of a chair because we have learned to do so in the past.  Picture yourself in grammar or pre-school school all over again, with the teacher pointing out to us a piece of paper with the word “chair” inscribed on it and pasted on to the actual object to which it designates – the chair itself.  I say all this to illustrate that our mind “grasps” definitions of a concrete object by means of general concepts.

According to the definition given by Kant, general concepts are limited to our knowledge of the empirical world – what we see.  General concepts allow us to “retain” definitions associated with the concrete object – think of a glass of water, with the glass representing a general concept and the water itself as the definition associated with a particular general concept.  Consequently, we then associate a general concept with a concrete object so when we see the object once more we know what the definition of that object is. In a nutshell, ideas are categorized as general concepts, but that these concepts are anchored to what we see – the empirical world.  Yet there is more.  Kant puts forth another type of concept in another category – that is, there are concepts “that seem to point beyond nature to some transcendent realm”.    This “transcendent realm”, according to Kant, refers to “metaphysical beliefs”, such as “God”, “freedom, and “immortality”.  What Kant is saying here is that the human imagination also grants our minds the capacity to formulate abstract concepts, those that do not point to anything we have ever seen (such as the Reality of the “transcendent realm”).  Abstract concepts do not refer to the empirical world in any matter whatsoever, to anything we have seen or will see while here on Earth.  Nevertheless, such concepts exist in our minds.  The faculty of the imagination then, according to Kant, is responsible for forming mental concepts[7] – both general and abstract.

The human imagination is viewed today as a mental ability to form, without effort, mental images that…act(s) as the foundation of knowledge[8].  The human imagination is “a world where…images are nested in the mind to ‘form a mental concept of what is not actually present to the senses’”[9].   We retain an image of a chair, a concrete object, we saw yesterday, but this image in our minds is not “the object as it is, in-itself”.    We can never know what the chair is “in-itself”, for example, but the “appearance” or “image” of the chair in our minds.  Our image of the concrete object in our minds is a “representation” of the concrete object, a chair, for example.  Such images, “representations” of concrete objects tend to remain in the human mind after viewing concrete objects. We then remember, or recall, a concrete object we saw, a chair for example, the day before.  In sum, whenever we see a concrete object, the “image” that is “retained” in our mind is a “representation” of the concrete object, even for days or weeks after we’ve seen it.

Modern philosophers of the mind tell us that the foundation of knowledge is due to general concepts alone because they are restricted to concrete objects alone. They say that human knowledge is that which is gained from our sense organs (for example, the eyes).  They tell us whatever we see, or “perceive” a concrete object via our sense organs (for example, our eyes), our mind generates an “image” that is a “representation” of what concrete object we perceive.

Zaid Shakr, one of the most influential clerics here in the United States, once noted that the French philosopher Rene Decartes is among the first doubters.  Decartes embarked on a personal experiment wherein doubted his senses (his eyes, ears, etc.) along with every image “registering” in his mind as a result of stimuli arising from concrete objects around him, along with his belief in God Himself (we say Allah [SWT] Forbid!).  Descartes major contribution to the modern philosophy of the is this:  Cogito ergo sum:  “I think, therefore I am”.

I note here in passing that Rene Decartes modern philosophical world-view rests on the shoulders of giants in the annals of medieval philosophy, among them Abu al-Hassan al-Basrî al-Ash‘arî (871-934), Fakhr al-Dîn Râzî (1147-1209)[10] and Abu Nasr al-Farabi (870-950)[11]. Their guidance in these matters was a belief in the Holy Qu’ran and the Sunna of our Noble Prophet Muhammad (May the peace and blessings be upon him and his progeny).

Philosophy has become “modern” in the sense that what the human mind cannot know for certain via the senses, for example, the Reality of the Unseen as dictated by all of Allah’s (SWT) last and final Prophet Muhammad (salla-lahu-alaihi-wa-salam), is discarded as useless for human intellectual and social fulfillment for an “unswerving faith” on experimental science.

As far as the Muslim is concerned, the Unseen is not logical to our minds[12]; we cannot explain it to others.   Yet we, as Muslims, firmly believe in the Unseen, even though we cannot see it for ourselves while we are here on Earth.

My original intent for writing this article is to articulate the “pitfalls” of the human imagination.  I now change my intention to say that the human imagination is downright dangerous as it pertains to religion.

Is it possible for a Muslim to believe in what is clearly illogical to our minds?  Yes.  My point here is this:  A Muslim need not employ her or his mind or specific method of human understanding, through “images” that are “representations” or “symbols” of concrete or material objects, etc., to “think” of the Unseen, but only to “believe” firmly in its reality.  The starting-point of faith for the Muslim is to “believe” in, not “think about”, Allah (SWT), His Angels, His Books, our eventual Resurrection, etc.  To the Muslim, there is no need to have “images”, or “representations” of the Unseen in our minds while we are here on earth.  Some Christians say that “Faith” is “evidence of things not seen”.  We say Muslims are in no need of “grasping” with our minds this “evidence” while we are here on Earth.

The annals of Medieval Christian tradition took this “evidence of things not seen” to a dangerous level.  There are countless volumes of medieval Christian texts with paintings of Devils, Angels, etc.  I, for one, do away with such nonsense, and I never want to see them ever again.

I once told an Imam that the greatest travesty that occurred in the history of civilization was the attempt by others to “materialize” what is Unseen by either depicting what they think the Unseen appear to them – their mental “images” or “representations” – of concrete objects in their minds unto paper or by sculpturing it by hand (meaning, depictions of Angels, etc.)   I was raised a Christian and attended churches and have become familiar with “religious” paintings and sculptures that adorn them.

We are certainly able to “retain” images of concrete objects we have seen in the past, in the form of general concepts that pertain to the empirical world – what we see.  We can also “retain” images of “what we have never seen before” – that is, what Kant refers to as “the transcendent realm” – which are referred to as abstract concepts.  We now turn to the human imagination as it pertains to abstract concepts.

We must keep in mind once again that, in modern terms, the human imagination is a unique faculty of the mind in that that it allows us to “see”, or “perceive” concrete objects in the empirical world.  According to Kant, we only perceive the “appearance” of concrete objects; we cannot come to know a   concrete object “in-itself”.  What we see, or perceive, according to Kant, is the “appearance” of a concrete object that is “registered” as the “image”.  The human mind naturally craves for definitions of concrete objects and thus we “think of” or “conceive” of general concepts to understand, or to give a definition to, concrete objects we perceive.   However, Kant tells us our mind generates abstract concepts (e.g.  “The transcendent realm”, i.e., the Unseen) that do not point to anything we see, or have ever seen before with our eyes.

According to Kant, the ideas pointing to abstract concepts are illusions; thus goes the saying that the mind sometimes “play tricks” on us at times.  According to Kant, a person has illusory thoughts or ideas of objects no one has ever seen before.  Modern philosophers of religion adopt Kant’s critical stance on human reason as it pertains to “some elements of religion” – the “transcendent realm”, or the Unseen, or miracles, for example.  Modern philosophers of religion, in brief, adopt a dim, if any, positive view on the religious “imagination”.

Perhaps the only method by which a religious “imagination” can escape the specter of mental illusion, according to one author, is to “retain” some kind of “material image” of a concrete object (be it a painting or sculpture).  Early Christian theologians combined natural religion with the human imagination to explain religious matters, of things not seen on Earth, to explicate how God relates with His Universe.

Peter Jonkers, professor of religion at the Faculty of Catholic Theology of Tilburg University, the Netherlands, asserts that the religious “imagination” is crucial for our capacity to be “closer” to the Divine by means of pious devotion.  My central inquiry is in response to an article[13] Mr. Jonkers had written on the need to re-inject this religious “imagination” within the discussion concerning the philosophy of religion; in other words, the religious “imagination” is crucial for religious piety and devotion. Is religious imagination possible, he asks, in the modern age where human reason occupies a central foundation for a philosophy of religion?

I, as a Muslim, believe the religious “imagination” is certainly not necessary for faith in Allah (SWT) and the Unseen.  I, as a Muslim, believe that Allah (SWT) defies any description or conception that arises in my mind (which implies that He is not a figment of my imagination).  Muslims say that whatever we “think” of Allah (SWT), He is not what we “think” of him.  We do not complete the sentence:  “Allah (SWT) is _____”.  Allah (SWT) is far above any description we ascribe to Him!

There is not much “religious imagination”, if at all, when I ponder on the Divine message contained in the Holy Qu’ran.   Muslims believe that the Holy Qur’an is like no other text, such as that written by scholars who inject their own prejudices.   Muslims believe that Almighty Allah [SWT] revealed the Holy Qur’an to Muhammad (salla- lahu-alaihi-wa-salam) via Jibril (ali-his-salam).

Roman Christian theologians tell us that the object we see (such as a sculpture or painting) is not the “transcendent realm” itself (or as I call it “the Unseen”) but is a “representation” or “symbol” of the object itself.  Muslims waste no time in replying there is no need for “material objects” that purport to remind them of Allah (SWT).  I seek refuge in Allah (SWT) from this!

I include word on this relationship between the object itself and whether that object is the “transcendent realm” itself.  We remove, for sake of argument, the “symbolism” to which early Christian theologians refer.  This direct relationship is what is referred to anthropomorphism.  Anthropomorphism is the mind’s spontaneous tendency to ascribe earthly characteristics (shape, etc.), or attribute to the Divine.

Mr. Jonkers tell us that “…these anthropomorphic images (of the “Trinity” as represented as painting or sculpture) are by no means similar to the real, Transcendent object (the Trinity) they represent”[14].    How is this possible?  Mr. Jonkers say it is possible to envision a kind of religious imagination that takes into account the “essential dissimilarity between the Transcendent essence of the Trinity and its image (in our mind)”:

 “The only possibility to escape the danger of illusion is by keeping in mind that the image of the Trinity as human beings is symbolic…A symbol is indeed a product of imagination, yet it can never substitute the object it symbolizes”  (italics mine)[15].


Mr. Jonkers is implying here that the image of a concrete object (such as a painting or sculpture) we “retain” in our minds is a “symbol” of the “transcendent realm” – of God, His Angels, the Unseen, etc.  In this way, we escape the anthropomorphism inherent in ascribing earthly attributes to the Divine.


I remember attending a neighborhood church in Kingston, Jamaica, the West Indies, with other youths one Sunday morning.  As was usually the case, we were sitting in pews observing Mass, with persons in line up to take “the body of Christ”.  The members of the congregation receives this “body of Christ” as the pastor (or priest) places it on the congregant’s tongue.  I though this process of placing a “white wafer” of some type on a person’s tongue amusing, and I nearly burst out in laughter!

I took the opportunity once, while in college, to do a little research on this subject.  It turns out that this “white wafer” is supposed to “symbolize” the “body of Christ!”   This practice is traced to a religious concept called “Transubstantiation[16]”.  As I write this I refrain from finding a speck of amusement here.

I believe the Holy Qur’an appeals to the human heart first, then the human mind.  Because the human heart is inclined to good as well as evil, the state of the human heart determines our mental well-being.

The human heart, I believe, is related to the human mind – and Allah [SWT] Knows Best.  I believe the various religious images extant in the human imagination are directly related to the religious images gone astray in the human heart.  I believe that a person’s heart becomes imbued with “religious images” of the Divine and/or the Unseen as she or he views concrete objects such as Christian Art or sculpture.  The central question, then, is when viewing such Christian Art or sculpture creates a danger to the human imagination and cripples the spiritual condition of the human heart.  My awareness of this insight is based on the insight put forth by William Elmont Blyden, author of the classic text Islam, Christianity and the Negro Race[17].   Mr. Blyden’s contention is that Christian Art, those religious relics of European civilization as revealed in “Aryan” Art, has had a debilitating effect on the African personality, thereby rendering those Africans who are Christians inferior to Europeans, while for those Africans ascribing to the Muslim faith, their personalities were as robust as ever.

My conversion to Islam occurred when I stepped into a masjid some ten years ago on Jamaica Avenue in Queens, New York, with a brother who invited me, only to see there were neither paintings nor sculptures there.

I say all this to relate an episode in my life while I was in college where I began to consider seriously the relationship (if any) between the subject (anyone going to church) and bowing towards a concrete object (a painting or sculpture – say, the Virgin Mary holding a child).  I juxtaposed these life-episodes with my eventual reversion to Islam when I stepped in the masjid with another brother one Friday afternoon some ten years ago and saw worshippers lined up behind a lone person (I now know that person is the most knowledgeable of all on Islam), the Imam, with all bowing and prostrating to Allah (SWT), who is Unseen and without Partners in His Kingdom.

I now consider the question:  so what is the reason for these paintings and sculptures in the first place?

Up until then I had abandoned some rudimentary practice of prayer from time to time as a Catholic and have had to struggle to make prayer five times per day.  But I never took seriously some passages from the Old Testament of the Holy Bible on the topic I consider in this column, until now.  I include a few verses of the Holy Bible[18] here:


“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4).

“You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 26:1).

“Beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven” (Deuteronomy 4: 16-19).

I, as a Muslim, believe and testify there is no similarity between the Creator, Allah (SWT), and His creation, whether in “images” or “symbols”.  I was struck when I read the following words in Ma’ariful Qur’an, a comprehensive commentary on the Holy Qur’an:


“…the Companion ‘Adi ibn Hatim (radi-allahu-anhu) relates that when he embraced Islam and presented himself before the Holy Prophet (sallalahu-alaihi-wa-salam) with a cross hanging round his neck, the Holy Prophet (sallalahu-alaihi-wa-salam) asked him to remove this idol”[19].


Early Christian theologians tell us that the “symbolism” of a concrete object (the most similar of which is the “crucifixion of Christ”, as symbolized as a cross) do not lead others to the error of anthropomorphism or polytheism.  I reject this view; a person who reduces the Divine to a “symbol” is insulting the Most High!


Nu’aim Al-Kuza’I, the teacher of Al-Bukhari[20], said:


“Whoever likens Allah to his creatures is a disbeliever, and whoever denies the Attributes that Allah ascribes to Himself is a disbeliever.  It is impossible to liken Allah to any of his Creatures[21]”.


When someone inquired Imam Malik about the manner in which Allah (SWT) Himself rose over the Throne, he said:

“Allah’s action of rising over the Throne is known, the manner in which this was done is not known (italics mine), the belief in this matter is obligatory, and inquiring about this matter in religion is an innovation, or Bid’ah[22]”.

Then he addressed the inquirer thus, “You are but an evil person”.  Then he asked the people around him to send him out.  Umm Salama (radiallahu-anha), the Prophet’s wife, is reported to have made the same statement[23]”.


The writer is a recent revert to Islam and can be contacted at:














[1] Imagine (album).  From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

[2] How many people died in the Vietnam War? WikiAnswers


[4] Lippens, Ronnie.  The Interstitial and Creativity:  Bergson and Fitzpatrick on the Emergency of LawJournal of Theoretical and Philosophical Criminology.  2010, Vol. 2. (2) 1-21.

[5] Glossary of Kant’s Technical Terms

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Imagination definition by Babylon’s free dictionary.


[10] Ali Mesbah.  Subject-Object Relation in Mulla Sadra’s Theory of Knowledge.

[11] Al-Farabi’s Doctrine of Education: Between Philosophy and Sociological Theory. ArticleID=1080.

[12] Jum’uah khutbah, Muhammadi Masjid, Elmont, New York.

[13] Jonkers, Peter.  Illusory Imagination versus Nihilistic Reason.A Historical-Philosophical Case Study of the Role of Imagination in Religion.  Proceedings of the 14th Conference of the European Society for Philosophy of Religion, Cambridge, UK, 2002.

[14] ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Transubstantiation.  From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

[17] Blyden, William Elmont. Islam, Christianity and the Negro Race.  (1994). Black Classic Press.

[18] Bible Verses about Graven Images.

[19] Maulana Mufti Muhammad Shafi.  Ma’ariful Qur’an:  A comprehensive commentary on the Holy Qur’an.  Vol. 1 (Surah Al-Fatihah, Al-Baqarah).  (1996).  Maktaba-e-Darul-Uloom, Karachi – 14., pg.87

[20] The Concise Collection of Creed & Tauhid.  Darussalam Publishers & Distributors. (2001).

[21] Ibid, pg. 382.

[22] Ibid, pg. 378.

[23] Ibid, pg. 378-379.

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