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Written by Louay Safi   
Apr 18, 1994 at 09:40 AM
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Developmental Trends in Contemporary Society
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For almost two centuries now, development has been one of the most pressing questions confronting Muslim leadership. Since the Ottoman Sultan Salim III introduced his modernization program, many models and projects aimed at bringing about better social, economic, and political conditions have been produced.

This paper examines the two contending models of development in Muslim society: the secular and the Islamic. The examination is done with the aim of discovering the historical patterns that govern the process of social change in general. Towards this end, the paper begins by outlining the Qur’anic model of historical progress, and then uses the outlined model to explain historical changes experienced by Muslim societies.

The paper contends that while the dominant Islamic model of develop­ment draws on the Qur’anic model, it fails to heed the Qur’anic injunction to study the history of peoples in order to gain further insight into the phenomenon of progress. The paper concludes that while moral reform is essential to social progress, genuine progress requires, as well, intellectual and organizational development. Thus any project of development, which neglects to recognize the dialectical relationship between the psychological, cultural, and material aspects of social life is bound to fail to effect real progress.

THE ONTOLOGY OF PROGRESS IN THE QUR’AN

The concept of development is frequently used to denote positive social change. As such, development is only one side of the two-sided phenomenon of change (taghyyir), which includes, as well, the process of decline or deterio­ration. The Qur’an makes reference to social change (taghyyir ma bi’l-qawm) in two ayahs. In surah Ra'd, the Qur’an relates changes in the existential conditions of a people to psychological changes:

Verily God changes not the conditions of a people until they change what is in their souls. (13:11)

The same meaning is expressed, in slightly different terms, in surah al-Anfal:

Because God changes not the bounty He has bestowed on a people until they change what is in their souls. (8:53)

The above two ayahs point clearly to change in the external conditions, and the quality of life, of a people as a result of internal change in the human psyche. But the ayahs do not say much about the causes and mechanisms of this change, neither on the level of social action or interaction; nor on the level of human psyche. The ayahs, for instance, do not disclose to us whether the change in the “soul” is purely moral, purely conceptual, or a mixture of both. Nor do they explain how psychological changes influence the existential one, or, for that matter, to what extent the former are influ­enced by the latter.

The Qur’an gives us, however, further insight into the process of “change” through the concepts of Khilafah and Istikhlaf. Both terms are derived from the Arabic root Khalaf, and reflect two aspects of the same meaning. Khilafah refers to the state in which man is given mastery over the natural world, whereas Istikhlaf refers to the process by which man attains this mastery. Thus the Qur’an uses the term Khilafah in reference to the purpose and mission of man.

Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a Khalifah on earth.” (2:30)

But the Qur’an uses the term Khilafah not only to describe the mission of humanity at large, but also to describe the superior material conditions of a people. In surah al-A’raf the Qur’an describes the people of ‘Ad as Khalifahs:

Call to remembrance that He made you Khalifahs (inheritors) after the people of Noah, and gave you stature tall among the nations. (7:69)

Again few ayahs later, God reminds Thamud of the state of material advancement they enjoyed, describing them as the Khalifahs (inheritors) after ‘Ad.

gave you habitations in the land: you build for yourselves palaces and castles in (open) plains, and cave out homes in the mountains. (7:74)

The Qur’an further tells us that the phenomenon of istikhlaf in which a group of people is given material superiority follows a cyclical pattern in which a people experience an increase in material capacity and strength (tamkin), followed by an experience of decline and destruction (ihlak).

See they not how many of those before them we did destroy? Gen­erations we have established on the earth, in strength such as we have not given to you. For whom we poured out rain from the skies in abundance, and gave (fertile) streams flowing beneath their (feet): yet for their sins we destroyed them, and raised in their wake fresh generations (to succeed them). (6:6)

However, the Qur’an makes it clear that tamkin and ihlak are not arbitrary events in the history of a people, but are governed by immutable laws. The Qur’an associates tamkin with the commitment to the values of truth and justice, disclosed to mankind through Divine Revelation:

God has promised, to those among you who believe and work right­eous deeds, that He will, of a surety, grant them in the land, inheri­tance (of power), as He granted it to those before them; that He will establish in authority their religion—the one which He has chosen for them; and that He will change (their state), after the fear in which they (lived), to one of security and peace: they will worship Me (alone) and not associate aught with Me. (24:55)

The Qur’an further explains that as material advancement results from peoples’ commitment to the principles of truth (haq) and justice (‘adl), their material destruction result from indulgence in wrong doing (batil) and injustice (zulm).

Generations before you we destroyed when they committed injustice (zalama); their messengers came to them with clear signs, but they would not believe. Thus do we requite those who sin. (10:13)

Also:

Such were the populations we destroyed when they committed in­equities; but we fixed an appointed time for their destruction. (18:59)

of material progress experienced by a people and their commitment to truth and rightness on the one hand, and the state of destruction and deviation from truth and their indulgence in wrong-doing on the other. The movement between the two states—truth and falsehood—depends on the nature of the leading social forces in society. When the forces of truth have the upper hand, society is brought back, or reformed (islah), to the state of felicity and prosperity. But when the forces of corruption (fasad) take over, society is brought into a state of chaos (dalal) and destruction (halak).


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