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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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Third, by freeing people from superstition and social bondage, and by mobilizing individual and collective energies and channeling them towards productive and creative activities, Islam established the psychological and societal conditions conducive to progress.

Fourth, in building a distinctively Islamic civilization, Muslims did not start from scratch, but built on the achievements of earlier civilizations. In natural science, technology, commerce, and administration, Muslim physi­cists, technicians, traders and administrators appropriated many of the theories, techniques, and practices developed and perfected by earlier civili­zations.

The above-mentioned patterns of change suggest that while Islam was the major source contributing to the value-orientation of Islamic civili­zational action, technical rules were borrowed, with some modification, from other civilizations. However, as the process of civilizational exchange prog­ressed, it gradually proved to be problematic, especially in these areas where the value orientation and technical orientation of action could not be easily distinguished. To illustrate this point, I will single out two areas in which Muslim failure to develop technical rules capable of actualizing the Islamic values was decisive in relegating these values into the realm of pure theoret­ical discussion.


The first area where Islamic values were compromised because of the absence of practicable rules, or structures, for the actualization of these principles is the area of political organization. The Qur’an established the principle of shura (consultation) as the cornerstone of political decision-making within the ummah. Similarly the Prophet of Islam, and later his Companions, exemplified the principle of shard in their practices. Gradually, however, the practice of shard was undermined, and was eventually abandoned as the Muslim community embraced the hereditary model of political organization during the reign of Mu'awiyah bin Abu Sufiyan. Historically, the establish­ment of hereditary rules was attributed to Mu’awiyyah’s desire to maintain the Khilafah within the Umayyad branch of Quraysh. While this may, or may not, be a true assessment of Mu’awiyah’s psychological disposition, the eclipse of the practice of shura from the early Muslim society should be attributed in the first place to the inability of early Muslims to institutionalize the principle of shura. That is to say, because the Muslim community was not able to institutionalize the principle of shard in ways which would give equal access to decision-making process to Muslim leadership in the pro­vinces, the rule of Medina was destabilized, leading into a state of anarchy and disorder, thereby justifying the imposition of the monarchical rule for maintaining order.

Indeed the Islamic leadership continued, throughout the Rashidun (Rightly-guided) period, to deal with the emerging problems of a vast state by using decision-making mechanisms borrowed from the Arab tribal system. Thus the khalifah at Medina depended exclusively on the Muhajirun and Ansar leaders, while provincial leaders were excluded from such important decisions as the selection of provincial governors. The exclusion of Muslims residing outside Medina from decision-making led gradually to a widespread discontent, culminating in civil disturbance during the reign of the third khalifah, ‘Uthman bin ‘Affan.

While the interpretations of the nature of the armed conflict which plagued the Muslim community after the assassination of the third khalifah may vary, one aspect of the conflict is quite clear, viz., the march from the provinces was instigated by the desire of the provinces to have more control over their own affairs, including the selection of provincial governors.[2]

Thus in the absence of an established procedures for a peaceful resol­ution of the conflict which erupted between the central government and the provinces, the conflict quickly escalated into a civil war which ended in the way described above.


The second area in which Islamic values were undermined because Muslim scholars failed to develop appropriate technical rules for their actualization is the area of scientific research. In their drive to perfect their natural sciences and technologies, Muslim scholars studied works produced by previous--civili­zations, most notably the Greek and Hellenistic. But because Greek sciences and technologies were not completely isolated from Greek values and beliefs, the interaction between Greek and Islamic cultures led to the emergence of the science of Kalam, a science whose main aim was to defend and purify Islamic faith’ from Greek influences. But rather than limiting its purificationalist efforts to the normative aspects of Muslim culture, Kalam scholars ended up condemning all sciences which were rooted in Greek civilization, including natural sciences.

Historically, the tension between the Islamic-rooted and the Greek­-rooted worldviews was manifested in the clash between Muslim theologians (mutakalimun) and Muslim philosophers (falasifah). As a result of this clash, the Mutakalimun gradually developed an antagonistic outlook towards natural (or rational, to use their own term) sciences. This antagonism is apparent in the writings of eminent Muslim scholars, such as al-Ghazzali or al-Shatibi. Al-Ghazzali’s antagonistic attitude towards natural sciences is re­vealed in his important work Tahafut al-Falasifah. Al-Ghazzali set out in this work to demonstrate the impossibility of grounding metaphysical know­ledge in purely rational arguments. And as far as this objective of his work was concerned he was quite successful. Yet though he did not intend to refute physical (or rational) sciences, and cautioned against any attempt of such refutation on the basis of semantic disagreement over the usage of certain terms, or on the basis of apparent disagreement between Qur’anic statements and physical knowledge, he ended up undermining the foundation of physics, i.e. the principle of causality.[3]


The Qur'anic Narrative
The Qur'anic Narrative

Leading with Compassion
Leading with Compassion


Tensions and Transitions
in the Muslim World

Peace and the Limits of War

The Challenge of Modernity 


Blaming Islam

Foundation of Knowledge

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