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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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Al-Ghazzali denied the necessity of causal connections among natural phenomena, attributing the regularity of natural behavior to customary habituation (‘adah).[4] Evidently, his rejection of the principle of causality was motivated by his fear that one’s belief in causality would undermine one’s faith in God as the ultimate author of all things. As Ibn Rushd was able to demonstrate, while accepting the necessity of causal relations need not lead to undermining one’s faith, as long as the human mind is capable of accepting a necessary connection willed by the Divine, the rejection of this necessity is bound to undermine the very notion of reason, and to reduce the scope of science to science of divinity.[5] While understanding the full ramifications of the mutakalimum-falasifah schism falls outside the scope of this paper, it is important to realize here that by undermining causality the mutakalimun destroyed the foundation of rational sciences; hence science was gradually reduced to legal science, while non-Shari'ah sciences were valued only insofar as they directly contributed to advancing Shari'ah sci­ences. This legalistic tendency, i.e. the equation of science with legal science, is apparent in the writings of leading Muslim scholars who were influenced by the Ash’ari system. This legalism can be discerned in the writings of al-Ghazzali himself. In his al-Mustasfa, al-Ghazzali divided sciences into three categories: rational (‘aqli), narrative (naqli), and rational-narrative, and declared the rational as useless. As he put it:

Sciences are of three types. Purely rational, which Shari'ah does not encourage or require, such as arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and the like. These sciences [may be divided, in turn, into] useful but based on false speculation, and sometimes speculation is sin; and into useless, though it may be predicated on ....... [The second type is] purely narrative, like Hadith, or Tafsir, or rhetoric (Khatabah). . . . [Finally the noblest of sciences is the one that com­bines both the rational and narrative, and joins both opinion and Revelation, and the sciences of fiqh and its principles and of this kind.[6]

The antagonistic attitude towards rational sciences, which we can dis­cern in al-Ghazzali’s works, was elevated into an intellectual principle in al-Shatibi’s writings. In discussing the fifth prelude in his al-Muwafaqat, al-Shatibi declared that “discussing a matter which does not lead to action is a discussion of something the Shari'ah does not approve.”[7] He went on to explain his statement by arguing that studying all kinds of objects for the purpose of gaining knowledge about it is something that Muslims should reject and avoid because it is contrary to the Sunnah. He further proclaimed that these kinds of research were the “practice of the philosophers who are condemned by the Muslims”.[8] Anticipating that his argument could be ob­jected to on the basis that Islam requires learning and sciences, he claimed that this requirement was limited to learning and study of questions connected with action.[9]


We saw in the foregoing section that the relationship between the theoretical (ideal) and practical (actual) aspects of collective life is such that the ability of Islamic principles and values to shape actual practices of society is limited, firstly, by the availability of practical means for their implementation, as well as the development of social structures which permit their institutionali­zation, and, secondly, by their interpretation and systematization into a comprehensive set of beliefs and values.

If the foregoing analysis is correct, then sources of civilizational de­cline cannot be confined to moral corruption, but should include also distor­tions in the original worldview which brought social and material advance­ment in the first place, as well as the failure on the part of the intellectual and political leadership to translate ideals and principles into workable mod­els and effective institutions. Therefore, an effective project of development should take note of the close interrelationship among three strata of social life, alluded to earlier: the psychological, the cultural, and the material. That is, for material development to take place, a set of cultural and psychological conditions must be obtained first. 

Psychologically, in order for the peoples’ energies to be channeled to develop their social and material environment, three conditions must be obtained: (1) their actions must be oriented towards work, both mental and physical; (2) they must be willing to postpone immediate gratification, so as to reinvest part of what they produce to further develop and perfect their act of production; and (3) they should have a firm belief in the positive values of innovation and creativity.

Culturally, a number of socio-cultural conditions must prevail in order for the psychological orientation of individual members to have significant effect. These conditions are aspects of social morality which foster an atmos­phere of social trust and cooperation, including: (1) mutual respect man­ifested in toleration of differences in interpretation and strategy; (2) political order conducive to meaningful popular participation, as well as self-criticism and self-correction; (3) a system of law just and efficient to command the respect of the majority of people; and (4) vibrant intellectual and scientific movements.

The intimate relationship between the theoretical and practical aspects of social life, alluded to above, means that the development of the practical (e.g. organizational, economic, etc.) cannot be attempted apart from that of the theoretical (e.g. moral, intellectual, etc.). Indeed, the slow pace of progress in many Muslim countries should be, at least partially, attributed to the failure of political and intellectual leaders to appreciate the dialectical relationship between the development of the cultural and structural levels of social life. A comparative study of the strategies of the two main forces in Muslim societies, the secularist and the Islamist, can show that while the secular and Islamist projects stand in direct opposition in terms of the sub­stantive issues, both approach the issues of their concern with the same one-sidedness which emphasizes one aspect of social life at the expense of the other. Therefore secularists seem to be consumed with structural, pro­cedural, and organizational change, while Islamists are completely devoted to the moral, the legal, and the confessional.


The question of development, and the debate and conflict over developmen­tal approaches and measures, in the context of Muslim societies may be traced back to the early years of the nineteenth century, when the need to reform the military institution, and with it the education and administration systems, was felt by political and military leaders at the highest levels within the Ottoman ruling circles.

Up until the eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was considered a Great Power, with a formidable military capacity and vast territories, stretching over the bulk of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Yet by the end of the eighteenth century, it became apparent that the Empire was on a course of rapid decline. The state of decline was felt by Sultan Salim III (reigned 1789—1808), who was especially concerned about the deteriorat­ing conditions of the Ottoman army, and the decline in-the empire’s capacity to meet military threats from the rising European powers, most notably the Russian Empire. The modernization of the Ottoman army was completed during the reign of Salim III’s successor, Mahmud II, who utilized the services of West European military officers to restructure the Ottoman army.

The efforts to modernize the military were not confined to those of the Sultan at Constantinople. Muhammad Au, the ambitious governor.[11] Egypt, shortly followed in the footsteps of the Ottoman Sultans, embarking on a project of military modernization. Muhammad Ali began his efforts to build a modern military force by hiring ex-officers of European armies, mainly French and Italian. He established several military academies to teach modern military doctrines and techniques, and built a new industrial base to supply the military with modern weaponry systems.” However, he went farther than the Ottoman Sultans when he decided to send missions of Egyptian nationals to receive training in Europe. He started sending students in small groups to receive training in Italy as early as 1813. The first large mission, consisting of forty-four students, was sent to France in 1826. This unprecedented move to send Muslim students to study in the West encouraged the Ottoman Sultan Salim II to follow suit, sending Otto­man nationals to study in Western Europe, mainly in Prussia.[12] Undoubtedly, sending Muslim students to the West marked the beginning of profound cultural changes in Middle Eastern society.


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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