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Chapter Three: Society and Ideas

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Chapter Three: Society and Ideas

Biologists consider that the embryology of the fetus reproduces the morphological stages of the species. From the Islamic point of view, there is no doctrinal reason to confirm or reject this thesis outright. This is because, like all religious systems, Quranic thought has rather purposely remained allegorical on this and many other issues. On the contrary, it is possible, from the historical point of view, to point out certain similarities between some traits of the mental development of the individual and the psycho-sociological evolution of society. The latter also seems to undergo the three stages of development:

1. The age of the object,

2. The age of the person, and

3. The age of the idea.

However, the passage from one stage to another in the case of society is not as obvious as in the case of the individual. In fact, every society has, whatever its level of development, its own complex cultural universe. In this universe, the worlds of objects, human beings and ideas are intertwined through the society's concerted action.

It goes without saying that the scheme of this action, no matter how simple it may be, includes necessarily a set of motivations and operational modalities, that is to say, a set of moral motives and technical ideas. But there is always a dominance of one of the three factors over the others. It is through this dominance that human societies are distinguished from one another and it shows itself in thought and action.

An underdeveloped country is not necessarily poor in terms of material means (objects). The lack of ideas may be the real source of its underdevelopment. This lack of ideas manifests itself especially in the way such a society utilizes, more or less efficiently, the means already at its disposal and in its inability to create new ones. More importantly, it manifests itself in the society's way of posing its problems or not posing them at all when it gives up any desire, no matter how vague it may be, to tackle, them.

According to economists who study the problems of the Third World, land is the most reliable means for the "take-off' and passage of a society from the primary to the secondary stage, such as China has done since 1951. Yet, it is a well-known fact that the most fertile lands existing in Iraq and Indonesia have not enabled these two countries to realize their take-off.

There is here a real lack of ideas that is politically and economically translated in the form of impeding inhibitions. From the sociological point of view, this situation corresponds to the psycho-sociological characteristics of the present Muslim world. The historian, the economist and the sociologist can explain this situation, each according to his own perspective. By relying on the theory of the three stages, we are here giving it a psycho-sociological explanation. The antecedents of contemporary societies will certainly justify this theory. In general, on the axis representing the stages of development, a historical society—both past and present—has to occupy a particular position. Thus, history reveals the existence of three stages:

1. The pre-civilized society,

2. The civilized society, and

3. The post-civilized society.

Usually, historians distinguish between the first and the second stages, but no distinction is made between the second and the third. For them, a post-civilized society is simply a society that pursues its course on the track of its civilization. This regrettable confusion generates all other kinds of confusion by distorting the premises underlying reasoning at the philosophical, moral, and sociological levels, and even at the economic and political levels. Accordingly, it is claimed that the problems of underdeveloped countries will be solved on the basis of such premises.

Experts of the ideological struggle sometimes artfully exploit such confusion when they themselves take charge of, or entrust some of their disciples with, the task of convincing us by means of false syllogism that Islam has failed to promote a developed society. To remove this confusion, we should say that a post-civilized society is not a fixed society. Rather, it is a society that has reversed the direction of its movement. Thus, it evolves backwardly, for it has deviated from the path of its civilization and broken away from it. A historian who rightly grasped this phenomenon described it dramatically as follows:

The (Islamic) East [al-Mashriq], it seems, was similarly visited, though in accordance with and in proportion to [the East's more affluent] civilization. It was as if the voice of existence in the world had called out for oblivion and restriction, and the world responded to its call. God inherits the earth and whomever is upon it.

This was none other than Ibn Khaldun. One century after the fall of Baghdad and before that of Granada, he noted the breaking point in the cycle of Islamic civilization, the point from which started the post-Almohad era, the post-civilization era of the Muslim world.

By following the historical journey of this society from its beginning as marked in the Hijra calendar, one can form an idea of the stages through which it had passed as well as about their psycho-sociological significance. Originally, it was only a small tribal society living in the Arabian Peninsula in a limited cultural universe in which even religious beliefs were centered on inanimate objects, that is, the idols of the Jaihiliyyah (pre-Islamic Arab era).

In fact, the Jaihili (pre-lslamic Arab) environment was a perfect reflection of society in its age-of-the-object stage. Besides, one must note that, at this pre-civilization stage, the world of objects itself is very poor; the 'object' is rudimentary, consisting of the sword, the spear and stake, the quiver, the bow and arrows, the camel, the horse, the saddle without stirrups provided with a simple wood support (the iron stirrup was to be invented later by al-Muhallab b. Abi Sufrah[1]), the tent and the miserable utensils.

All these things are characteristic of nomadic life. Anyway, the "object" soon resumes its hold on the person in the post-civilized society. Like any consumer society, a post-civilized society still possesses a world stuffed with objects. These objects are rather apathetic, devoid of any social dynamics.

Be that as it may, the world of human beings of the Jahili society was confined to the boundaries of the tribe. As to its world of ideas, it was clearly embodied in those brilliant poems known as the Mu'allaqait.[2] in short, just like the world of human beings, it was a narrow and restricted world from which the poet of the Jaihiliyyah would draw his sparkling verses to celebrate the glories and victories of his tribe in one of those epic episodes historically recorded under the name of Arabian days, chanting the memory of his beloved, mourning, like al-Khansa[3], a hero who had died, or immortalizing a name such as that of Hatim Al-Tai for his largesse and hospitality.

Such was the visage of that Jaihili society, shut in on itself. On it borders would fade away the historical waves and movements of its great neighbors: the Byzantines and Persians to the north and east and, the Ethiopians to the south.

Suddenly, an idea illuminated a grotto, Ghar Hira[4], where a solitary man was meditating. Its flash brought about a message commencing with the word "Read". This word broke the darkness o the Jaihiliyyah and the solitude of its society as well. A new society, integrated into, and communicating with, the world and history, came into existence. It started breaking its tribal frontiers, thus edifying its new world of human beings. In this new world, every individual was the bearer of a message. A new cultural universe in which objects had to be centered on ideas was being constructed.

From the beginning, as the integration process of Muslim society started in history, its world of human beings was founded on a prototype embodied in the community of the Ansar and Muhajireen who fraternized with each other in Medina. This archetype was to become the embodiment of the Islamic ideal. It was to become the model to inspire, and be emulated by, subsequent Muslim generations. Its memoirs which were carefully recorded would inspire the early writings in the Muslim world such as the Tabaqat of Ibn Sa'd[5].
Every step of the new society toward the world of ideas - that is, towards the age of the idea—has necessarily to pass through the world of human beings, that is to say, through the age of the person. Just as in the case with the individual, the process at the society's level would also follow its course up to the point of inversion and regression. Then, ideas would freeze, the movement would become a backward one, and Muslim society would turn back reversing its course, hence going over its previous ages.

Similarly, the society's world of human beings no longer reflects the image of its original archetype. Rather, it first becomes a world of mystics, thus, giving way to a world of all sorts of deceivers and charlatans, notably the category of za'im[6]. Moreover, its world of objects is no longer as simple and necessary as it was during the time of the Jahiliyyah.

Finally, the "object" regains its authority over the minds and ~consciences. Superfluous and gleaming as it often is, the "object" may be very costly, especially when it has to be purchased abroad. The process is then locked up and Muslim society, turning back, realizes that, centuries ago, it entered the post-civilization age.

[1] Al-Muhallab b. Abi Sufra, one of the outstanding military leaders of the Umayyads. He waged successful campaigns against the Kharijite (Khawarij) forces.
[2] Al-Mu'allaqait: Seven famous long poems or odes which the pre-Islamic Arabs universally celebrated by making them part of the decoration of the idol-filled shrine of Makkah or the Ka'bah.
[3] Tamadur bint 'Amr b. al-Harith al-Khansa
[4] Ghar Hira: a cave in Mount Hira'(near Makkah) where Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) used to withdraw into seclusion before the revelation of the Qur'an was made to him.
[5] Ibn Sa'd is famous for his book Kithab al- Tabaqat al-Kabir) which is an aid to the study of traditions by giving information on some 4250 people (including 600 women) who, from the beginning of Islam down to the author's time, had played a role as narrators or transmitters of traditions about the Prophet's sayings and doings.
[6] Arabic term for ‘leader’, particularly in politics.

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