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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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[Jahiliyyah] roots are in human desires, which do not let people come out of their ignorance and self-importance, or in the interests of some persons or some classes or some nations or some races, whose interest prevails over the demand of justice, truth and goodness.[33]

Islamic society, on the other hand, is based on harmony between God and man, and the unity of religious and sociopolitical principles, and on man’s duty to his fellow man and his duty to God. Qutb defines Islamic society as one in which Islamic law (Shari’ah) rules, and where Qur’anic and Prophetic injunctions are observed and practiced.

[The] Muslim community does not denote a land which is the abode of Islam, nor is it a people whose forefathers lived under the Islamic system at some earlier time. It is the name of a group of people whose manners, ideas and concepts, rules and regulations, values and criteria, are all derived from an Islamic source.[34]

But how does this process of resurrection of Islamic society begin? How can Islam replace jahiliyyah? Quth’s answer was that bringing an Islamic society to life requires the emergence of an Islamic vanguard.

The transformation of the jahili society to an Islamic one is not a natural process that takes place apart from human efforts, Qutb stresses. Nor is it a supernatural process carried out directly by divine power in isolation of human agency. Rather, changing the prevailing conditions from jahili to Islamic is a long and tedious process that requires the struggle of the Muslim masses. The struggle to establish an Islamic society, Qutb con­tends, should be initiated and led by a vanguard. The vanguard must confront the jahili society on two levels: theoretically, by refuting the ideas and arguments of the jahiliyyah and exposing its corruption; and practically, through a well-organized movement, equipped with all the strength it can acquire, to combat a powerful jahi1iyyah.

When jahiliyyah takes the form, not of a ‘theory’ but of an active movement in this fashion, then any attempt to abolish this jahiliyyah and to bring people back to God, which presents Islam merely as a theory, will be undesirable, rather useless. Jahiliyyah controls the practical world, and for its support there is a living and active organi­zation. In this situation, mere theoretical efforts to fight it cannot even be equal, much less superior, to it.[35]

What is troubling about Qutb’s model is that it reduces the problems facing the Muslim society to a simplistic struggle between good and evil, faith and infidelity, or morality and immorality. No more do these problems appear as cultural and civilizational problems, resulting from a drastic decline in the intellectual, industrial, and organizational capacities of the Muslim people, alongside the moral decline in Muslim character. With Qutb, the problems of the Muslim society became exclusively moral problems, and could be solved simply when a significant number of people declare their commitment to the “Islamic worldview”.

Qutb went further to redefine the terms “development” and “under­development”, and to introduce new criteria for advancement and progress. A developed society, Qutb insisted, is not a society that is on the cutting edge of material production, but one which displays moral “superiority”. A society, which is high on science and technology but low on morality, is backward, while a society, which is high on morality but low on science, and material production is advanced. By so defining the question of development, Qutb was able to take away the guilt associated with underdevelopment, and provide a quick fix to a seemingly complex and intricate situation. The feeling of relief and self-confidence was obtained, however, at the expense of sacrificing clarity and sound judgment. As a result, many Islamist groups began to see their role in terms of converting the jahili society to “Islam”, and engaging in fierce, and frequently bloody struggle with political au­thorities. Advancement and progress are no more to be accomplished by emphasizing science, industry, innovation, education, and social reform, but through revolution.

While the currently dominant Islamic model draws its conception of reform from the Qur’anic framework of historical change, the model is completely oblivious to the interconnectedness between the moral sphere and other spheres of collective life. Thus the dominant Islamic model articu­lated by Qutb separates moral development from material advancement, while portraying social change in terms of growth in the number of individuals who renounce their allegiance to jahili society and declare their commitment to Islam.

The simplistic nature of the model stems from the fact that it neglects to study the impact of social structure on the process of institutionalization of moral principles. The advocates of the model failed to take note of the structural differences between the society that witnessed the early in­stitutionalization of the Islamic ideals and the one in force today. As a result of this ahistorical approach to understanding social change, the dominant model almost completely ignores the need for identifying the patterns of historical change, so as to develop a model that allows organizational and technological development, along with the moral one.


We saw early in this paper that the Qur’anic model of historical change establishes a direct linkage between three levels of social life:, the psycholog­ical, the cultural, and the material, and emphasizes the interdependency among the three. We also saw that the contemporary historical experience of the Muslim society has vindicated the Qur’anic model by demonstrating the futility of bringing about real progress by concentrating on the structural and material aspects of social change, a la the secular model. However, contemporary experience also shows the impossibility of changing society by focusing on the moral sphere of individual life, a la the moralizing model embodied in the dominant Islamic approach. Both contemporary and histor­ical experiences of the Muslims show that piety and good will do not suffice by themselves for building an advanced social life capable of fulfilling the requirement of khilafah. For while moral commitments are essential to prog­ress, they have to be supplemented by scientific, technological, and organi­zational skills.

The complementarity of moral and technical elements of social life reemphasizes the importance of our observation that Islamic civilization was developed by building on the accomplishments of earlier civilizations. That is, cultural exchange and civilizational appropriation -have always been essen­tial aspects of human progress. And so while a people cannot advance their material conditions merely by learning technical skills from others, they cannot, by the same token, bring about order and progress by asserting their moral commitment to a higher vision.

The challenge before us today is to produce a developmental model capable of integrating the moral and technical elements of collective life, while taking into account the specificities of the structural and organizational aspects of contemporary society.



[1] The anchoring of material advancement in moral commitment may be objected to on the ground that peoples prosper materially even when they ignore Divine principles—e.g. ‘Ad, Thamud, or even modern West. We believe that this objection results from failure to recognize the cyclical nature of civilization. For while moral correctness is required for initiating the project of development, very often moral commitment is weakened as people indulge in luxurious life. As Max Weber, and later Arnold Toynbee, observed, all civilizations are rooted in religious reform; modem Western civilization itself can be traced to the Protestant Reformation.

[2] See for instance Ibn Qutaybah, al-Imamah wa’l-Siyasah (Cairo: Maktabat Mustafa al-Babi, H 1328/CE1963), pp. 36—7.

[3] Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, Tahafut al-Falasifah (Cairo: Dar al-Ma’arif, n.d.), pp. 65—7.

[4] Ibid., pp. 229—31.

[5] Ibn Rushd, Tahafut al-Tahafut (Cairo: Dar al-Ma’arif, n.d.), vol. 2, pp. 782—3.

[6] Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, al-Mustasfa mm Usul al-Fiqh (Cairo: al-Matab’ah al-Amiriyyah, H 1322), vol. I, p. 3.

[7] Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi, al-Muwafaqat fi Usul al-Shari’ah (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’arifah, n.d.), vol. 1, p. 46.

[8] Ibid., p. 51.

[9] Ibid., pp. 51-2.

[10] The arguments presented in this, and the next two sections, are discussed in greater length in Part II of my book, The Challenge of Modernity: The Quest for Authenticity in the Arab World (Lenham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1994).

[11] Abdul Rahman al-Rafi’i, ‘Asr Muhammad ‘Air, 4th ed. (Cairo: Dar al-Ma’arif, 1982), pp.


[12] Ibid., pp. 406—8; see also Muhammad Latif al-Bahrawi, Harakat al-Islah al-Uthmani ‘Asr al-Sultan Mahmoud al-Thani (1808—1839) (Cairo: Dar al-Turath, 1978), p. 118.

[13] Ibid., p. 321.

[14] Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, “Lectures on Teaching and Learning”, in An Islamic Response to Imperialism, Nikkie R. Keddie, ed. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1968), p. 17.

[15] Ibid., p. 18.

[16] See Muhammad ‘Abduh, al-Islam Din wa Hayah, edited by Tahir al-Tinaji (Cairo: al-Hilal, n.d.), p. 148.

[17] Al-Afghani, “Lecture on Teaching and Learning”, p. 17.

[18] Muhammad ‘Abduh, al-Islam wa’l-Nasraniyyah Ma’a al-’Ilm wa’l-Madaniyyah, 7th ed. (Cairo:

Dar al-Manar, H 1367), pp. 140—1.

[19] Ibid., pp. 177-8.

[20] Ibid. pp. 134—7, and 154.

[21] Quoted in John Esposito, Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspective (N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 19.

[22] Taha Hussein, Mustaqbal al-Thaqafah fi Misr (1938) in The Collected Work of Taha Hussein (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-Lubnani, 1973), vol. 9, p. 17.

[23] Ibid., p. 20.

[24] Ibid., p. 29.

[25] Ibid., p. 32.

[26] Ibid., p. 24.

[27] Ibid., p. 25.

[28] Ibid., p. 41.

[29] Ibid., p. 44-5.

[30] The parliamentary rule was abolished by Jamal Abdul Nasser on the twenty-third of July, 1952. It only took an executive order signed by Abdul Nasser to dismantle the Egyptian “democratic” experiment.

[31] Ibid., p. 49.

[32] Taha Hussein, Mustaqbal al-Thaqafah, p. 54.

[33] Sayyid Qutb, Ma‘alim fi’l-Tariq (Beirut: Dar al-Shuruq, 1982), p. 166.

[34] Ibid., p. 8.

[35] Ibid., p. 54.

 Published in Islamic Studies (Spring 1994), Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 27-47.

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