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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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Thus the Qur’an discloses to us the forces responsible for leading people towards social order and material prosperity, and those responsible for dragging them into disorder and destruction. The two antagonist forces receive their identity from their positioning vis-à-vis truth. That is, only those whose will is in congruence with the Divine Will are capable of bringing social order conducive to advancement in material conditions, while those whose will is in contradiction with the Divine undermine the state of peace and prosperity and bring shame and disorder. This is because by refusing to submit their wills to the will of the Divine, they reject the very principles that constitute the notion of order.[1]

For if order means a state of harmoni­ous interaction among various elements, this state can result only when these elements are subject to one set of rules. However, by refusing to submit to the universal rules of the Divine, people become subject to their own particu­lar wills. But in the absence of the unifying force of universal principles, emanating from a universal will, particular wills guided by personal interests to the neglect of the interests of others are bound to come into conflict and contradiction, hence creating chaos and disorder, and ultimately destroying themselves.

If the Truth had been in accord with their desires, truly the heavens and the earth, and all being therein, would have been in confusion and corruption. (23:71)

As such, the state of prosperity dawns on a people when the principles governing their life coincide with, or approximate, the principles of truth, while the state of destruction occurs when the whimsical designs of self-in­terested individuals gradually take over and dominate life. This means that the state of truth and prosperity is the original state of things, while the state of corruption and destruction is a state of deterioration and imbalance. Therefore, bringing order and prosperity hinges on the people’s ability to, first, identify the original state of truth, and second, on their willingness to embrace the principles of truth they identified. Improving social conditions is at bottom a project of re-form of the de-formed life of the people, by reapplying the principles of truth.

Say: the Truth has arrived, and falsehood neither creates anything new, nor restores anything. (34:49)

As to the source and origin of corruption leading to the decline of society and its ultimate destruction, the Qur’an provides us with a clue. The Qur’an seems to attribute the destruction of advanced civilization to the very state of abundance, leading to excesses and unscrupulous life in the absence of a strong moral commitment to restrain human appetite:

And how many populations we destroyed, which exulted in their life of ease and plenty. (28:58)

Also:

In the end we fulfilled to them (the Prophets) our promise, and we saved them and those whom we pleased, but we destroyed those who committed excesses beyond bounds. (21:9)

In sum, the Qur’an provides us with a general account of the process of societal change, which can be summarized in the following five points.

First, the change in the existential conditions of a people is ultimately rooted in their psychological conditions.

Second, the enjoyment of superior material conditions follows cyclical patterns whereby a people experience increase in material strength (tamkin), followed by material destruction (halak). 

Third, material strength is associated with a state in which people are committed to principles of truth (haq) while destruction results from the triumph of corruption and iniquities.

Fourth, bringing about order and improving material conditions of a people, after chaos and corruption have destroyed society, requires a process of true reform, whereby the principles of truth are rediscovered and reapplied to the life of the people

Fifth, the material destruction of a people may be attributed to a life of plenty and abundance, coupled with absence of moral strength to prevent excesses and ensure self-restraint.

But beyond this general account, the Qur’an leaves many details of the process of rise and decline to the human intellect to discover and answer. It is not clear, for example, how corruption begins after truth and prosperity are established. Nor is it clear how the process of reform is to take place. These and other questions have to be answered by studying the rise and fall of human societies, or civilizations, in history. For the Qur’an itself directs the believers to study history so as to identify the general laws or patterns (sunan) governing the unfolding of world history.

Many were the ways of life that have passed away before you: travel through the land, and see what was the end of those who rejected Truth. (3:137)

Also:

Say: Travel through the earth and see what was the end of those before you. (30:42)

Say: Travel through the earth and see how God did originate crea­tion. (29:20)

ISLAMIC CIVILIZATION

History testifies that the followers of the Islamic Revelation, which came to reform peoples’ beliefs and practices, were able, after a fierce struggle, to triumph over the forces of Arab paganism, and later over the Persian and Roman dynasties. History also testifies that the triumph of Islamic reform led to advancement in social and material conditions, resulting, ultimately, in the establishment of an Islamic civilization, exceeding in its expansion, resilience, and achievement all previous civilizations, including the Roman.

Although the causal linkage between Islamic reform and Islamic civili­zation cannot be denied, the patterns of progress from the moment of initiat­ing the reform to the moment of reaching the climax of Islamic civilization are quite complex. While providing a detailed account of this process is beyond the scope of this paper, identifying the general profile of early Islamic development is essential for enlightening current attempts aimed at reforming Muslim conditions. The following four points underscore some of the essen­tial patterns of Muslim historical change.

First, Islamic Revelation was directed at replacing the distorted beliefs and values of people with ones in conformity with the Truth.

Second, by committing people to the ideas and principles of truth and rightness, Islam reformed individual actions and societal institutions.


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