أَمْ تَحْسَبُ أَنَّ أَكْثَرَهُمْ يَسْمَعُونَ أَوْ يَعْقِلُونَ ۚ إِنْ هُمْ إِلَّا كَالْأَنْعَامِ ۖ بَلْ هُمْ أَضَلُّ سَبِيلًا
Do you suppose that most of them listen or exercise their reason? They are just like cattle; indeed, they are further astray from the way.
(Sūrat al-Furqān, No.25, Āyat 44)
Human beings who go astray from the right path and follow their desires become like animals, or even worse. They lose the ability to discern things correctly. According to this verse they neither listen nor use their reason to understand things. This verse was advice to the Prophet sallal-lāhu ‘alayhi wa-ālihi wasallam that he should not expect most people to listen to his mission and should not grieve over their rejection. Most of them did not really listen or understand.
A person either has enough intelligence and wisdom to understand things (exercises reason himself) or gets the understanding from others who have intelligence and wisdom (listens). These are two ways of advancing towards the truth. Most of the people who opposed the Prophet (s) used neither of these two ways and in the process lost their humanity. This fact is also acknowledged by the people who will enter the fire in the Hereafter:
وَقَالُوا لَوْ كُنَّا نَسْمَعُ أَوْ نَعْقِلُ مَا كُنَّا فِي أَصْحَابِ السَّعِيرِ
And they will say, ‘Had we listened or applied reason, we would not have been among inmates of the Fire (Q 67:10).
How does a human being become worse than animals? Although it may seem obvious, commentators of the Quran have put together some interesting points about this:
1) Animals do not have the potential for intelligence and guidance, hence that is not expected from them. But the human being has been given that potential and was the one to whom the angels prostrated. When he falls low and destroys his potential it is a great loss and source of shame for him.
2) Animals do not have a book of deeds and will not have to give account. A human being who disobeys God will have to answer to Him and face the consequences of his actions.
3) Animals serve human beings in different capacities. But human beings who have strayed and are slaves of their desires serve only themselves.
4) Animals cannot harm or cause destruction to people on a large scale. Human beings can become such that they wreak havoc on the world due to greed and abuse of power.
5) Animals may not have a defined path for them to move towards perfection. But they have been given an instinct and they naturally move on the path that is meant for them. Human beings move away from the path that was laid out for them.
6) Animals do not justify their actions. They do what they do. Human beings can do wrong and then get others to approve their actions. This plotting to manipulate others is not found in animals.
According to Tafsīr al-Mīzān, this verse does not imply that animals have no understanding or knowledge of God. It does not reject that about animals, nor about the human beings who disbelieve. This verse condemns those who despite having inner instinct about God move away from Him because of obeying their lowly desires. Through their actions they throw a veil over that instinct, and it becomes concealed. The verse compares them to animals who do not have the type of heightened instinct that humans have been given.
May the Almighty prevent us from becoming like animals, or worse than them. The Sharī‘ah of Islam with its laws to guide the actions of daily life is meant to help us preserve our human instinct and avoid stooping to animalistic tendencies. Let us also pray for the relief of the oppressed Palestinians who are facing unprecedented persecutions from the occupying forces.
Sources: Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh.