In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful
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Reviving the Ummah Chapter 9 The Heart of the Breakdown

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With this chapter we begin the central illness that has paralyzed the Ummah. This, and the following chapter represent the heart of the diagnosis and is not my work, but broadly the thesis of Ibn Khaldun, Allama Iqbal, Muhammad Asad, Ali Shariati, Muhammad Abduh and Malek Bennabi, among others. Ibn Khaldun’s study into the social cohesion of groups is the first basis, the foundation upon which students of his work, including Malek Bennabi and Allama Iqbal built their analysis. Malek Bennabi, who had also read Allama Iqbal has perhaps taken the diagnosis to its greatest maturity, and thus, while this diagnosis is indebted to the lifetime research of multiple great thinkers, it is essentially a summary and small-scale extension of Bennabi’s viewpoint. Building upon each other, we have finally come to a clear picture and understanding.

Yet, there is an additional problem – understanding the diagnosis for those outside. The problem of the matter is that to even understand the diagnosis, we will need to first educate ourselves to a whole new science that these aforementioned scholars have implicitly or explicitly created. The foundations of this science were first created by Ibn Khaldun. The closest Western equivalent is Sociology. However, this science of ours is wider in scope and, in terms of the Western sciences be highly “interdisciplinary”. 

Furthermore, many of the definitions used in the West are not helpful because, as Malek Bennabi notes, those definitions are normative in nature and rooted within their cultural context and worldview, thus cannot be readily understood or even effective for those outside that context. This science can perhaps be loosely defined as “The Science of Civilization”.

To the reader familiar with Sociology, you will find that even the basic definitions here are different from the Western standard and Marxist perspectives, even for concepts such as civilization and culture. This is the only way forward for us to effectively grapple with our condition. I do not have the space to convince the critic, and as was noted in the Foreword, this book is not meant for the critic or the academic in the first place.

A Quick Background to the Science of Civilization

So, before we can get to the diagnosis, we will have to take a step back and delve into at least the basics of this science. In the following pages I shall rely largely on Bennabi, in particular On the Origins of Human Society, The Question of Ideas in the Muslim World and The Question of Culture. It may be considered that Bennabi’s work is the most developed form of this science. I will not have the space to do this in detail, but will condense everything to the most concise possible.

A final note to consider before we start is as Bennabi warns – some things have simple definitions and these are like simple two dimensional drawings. However, what is at hand is a more complex drawing. This is like an engineering drawing that requires multiple drawings to fully explain the engineering of the object. It is this latter kind of complex definitions and explanations we are about to engage in.

Society & Civilization

Let us start with the basic unit we are studying – society. Bennabi notes that the term society is used for a wide variety of social phenomena but there are two fundamental types of society, natural or primitive society and historical society. The primary difference between the two is that in the former there is no fundamental change in its characteristics since its inception and the primitive society is essentially stationary, while the later transforms and evolves over time and is essentially dynamic. From here on end society will only mean historical society.

There are two origins of historical society, ones that evolve from a primitive state of nature organically and the historical society that is formed from elements of another historical society that is left over to create a new society. A historical society may be brought to its state of perpetual change by a challenge that is either a natural circumstance creating a geographical type society or by the appeal of a certain ideal, which creates an ideological society. Thus, two types of historical society:

1. Geographical historical society
2. Ideological historical society
The term society can then be described as:
“A group of human beings which perpetually changes its social features by creating itself the means of change, and which perceives the objectives it seeks to achieve through such a process of change.” (Bennabi)

In addition, society is defined as an organism which has the following characteristics:
1.         Perpetual movement; change and evolution
2.         Generation of the means of movement
3.         Purpose of movement

Both Bennabi and Allama Iqbal note movement as a central characteristic of society. Bennabi states:
“The human group acquires the quality of society when it starts moving, that is to say, when it begins changing itself in order to achieve its goals. This event coincides in the historical perspective, with the moment when a civilization emerges.”

The key element of society is what he describes as the “social relations network”. He notes that “the network of relations is the first historical task a society carries out upon its birth”.    

The Social Relations Network

Bennabi describes the social relations network both quantitatively and qualitatively. He notes that a community having N individuals, and K total number of relations for every individual, will have the following equation:

K = N – X
Where X = Index of development from the quantitative point of view
And: 1 < X < N
The total number of relations in the community is then L where:
L = NK = N(N-X)
In the peak of its development, society can be represented as:
L1 = N (N-1)
Society in its final state of disintegration, where social relations are dissolved would then be represented by:
L2 = N (N-N) = 0

The qualitative component of the social relations network is the efficiency of the network, and what Bennabi describes as the psycho-temporal level. Bennabi makes a convincing case that the birth of social relations takes place through moral values and through religious relationships; that religion plays a key role in building civilization.

Having thus put the study of society and civilization on a solid definitional foundation, let us consider some fundamental variables other than the social relations network through which we can study the complex phenomenon of civilization. These fundamental variables include:

1. The three realms of objects, people and ideas
2. Two worldviews
3. The civilization cycle
4. Culture

Before we move there however, to clarify the relationship of society and civilization, we here define civilization as synonymous with historical society once it is able to meet its challenge of either an ideological or geographical nature. Civilization is thus a state of being for historical society and it begins to decline when the challenges it faces in its environment begin to overwhelm it.

The Three Realms: Objects, People & Ideas

The world revolves around three key elements – objects, people and ideas. Of these three elements, the realm of people is the key realm that helps organize all three realms. It is the realm of persons that brings together the realm of objects and ideas. Bennabi makes this point by noting that Germany after WWII had lost all its objects but could regain herself because of its realm of persons and ideas. He notes on the other hand that the Islamic civilization declined catastrophically under the blows of such new nations as Spain, despite having the best libraries and thus realm of ideas, while these new nations had a relatively poor stock of ideas. Yet, in its early period, even with a vast scarcity of objects in relation to the two civilizations it faced in opposition, Islam was able to succeed. The fundamental importance of the realm of people, and the social relations network as we have defined, is spoken of at great length by Ibn Khaldun.

However, if the realm of people is the most important of the three realms, the realm of ideas is the development goal of civilization. If society is an organism, then its development can be described similar to the development of man; Bennabi describes the development of a child as he moves from recognizing objects to people and finally, to understanding ideas between seven and eight years of age.

Thus, as a child develops, he grows from first identifying objects, i.e. the realm of objects, then recognizing people, i.e. the realm of people and finally reaches the stage of understanding ideas. The cycle then reverses and at senility man returns to his original childlike stage of objects.

“A half-open mouth, ready to grab and suck anything, is a salient feature of the small child. However, as he grows older, his mouth closes as if driven by some internal springs. This morphological detail actually corresponds to a specific phase in the child's psychological development.” (Bennabi)

He notes that these physiological differences are also observed between those who are educated and the illiterate. Bennabi notes that the three realms of objects, people and ideas hold different levels of strength over an individual depending on the individual and the society he lives in. If the society is object and people focused, the aggregate of individuals that it reproduces will share that balance. Bennabi points to the object and people focus of Muslim society today as the symptom of our decadence, i.e. that we are in the senility of our civilization cycle.

Bennabi writes that the conditioning power of ideas, the ability to effect changes in society, is not the same for different civilizations. He illustrates how the ability to effect change in the material world is harder for the West because of their cultural roots. He gives the example of the Prohibition in the United States and its ineffectiveness while for Muslims, it was a simple matter of the Prophet (peace be upon him) prohibiting alcohol, the drinking of which vanished overnight without any needs for extensive policing. Bennabi believes that this conditioning power varies within the Muslim civilization’s passage through history, in its civilization cycle.

Impressed & Expressed Ideas

The power of ideas is dependent on how effective the impressed (or original, universal principles) are in their transformation to the expressed ideas (or derived ideas). In their original use, the impressed ideas are in their peak of potency. However, as time changes and the world around us changes, the ideas become less effective in their application. An attempt to create an effective new interpretation of the original ideas can often lead to the expressed ideas becoming betrayals of the original ideas. Betrayal can lead to vengeance from the original idea; an ill-constructed bridge will collapse and the tragedy that follows would translate to the vengeance of the betrayed ideas.

Society, civilization and empires fall in the same way. Dead ideas leave a void in the brain which in turn causes an inability for society (and individuals) to express themselves effectively. Dead ideas as attracting deadly ideas, which are ideas foreign to the host civilization that are harmful for the host because of their alien origins, just as in the case of an introduction of a creature into an ecology from outside can cause havoc in the host ecology. Dead ideas cause the basis for colonization and Bennabi expresses this state as colonizability.

Bennabi identifies three levels regarding the parameter of actions where ideas can be betrayed:
1. The political, ideological and ethical level concerning the realm of persons.
2. The logical, philosophical and scientific level concerning the world of ideas.
3. The sociological, economic and technical level concerning the world of objects.
The distortion of original ideas takes place on these three levels, over time and space.

Genuineness & Efficiency of Ideas

Bennabi makes the point that Europe has given primacy to efficiency in its colonial order. This has caused the secular elites in the Muslim world, who are impressed by the Europeans, to focus exclusively on the efficiency of ideas. Europe’s other face is one of an inward ego and a peculiar ethical order. This is not visible to the secular elites who are impressed by the efficiency of her ideas and adopts wholesale all ideas in the belief of their effectiveness. Because they can only view this one side, they are unaware that ideas have another key aspect: their truthfulness or genuineness.

Ideas and Social Dynamics

Bennabi views the world of ideas as not merely an intellectual endeavor that does not impact the world, but rather one which is centrally important to reviving society. He states that the purpose of planning is to revive social dynamics and the methodology and formation of the plan must be honest to the intrinsic ideas of the civilization. He notes that this planning can only be effected from a wider viewpoint than Economics can provide; for the economist inevitably denigrates the non-economic aspects and does not have a holistic view of society.

He notes that our plans cannot be a mixture of planning methodologies because “any project conceived according to the ideas of one doctrine and implemented according to the means of another will lead nowhere”. We have to look at the problem and build on our own methodology that is honest to our intrinsic principles if we are to have the desired effect on our society’s problems.

Two Worldviews

Bennabi describes the solitude of man. He describes this as a cosmic void within man that he (Man) then attempts to fill. Two different ways to fill this void are described – either with the material or the metaphysical. Obviously, there are many other ways; for instance, filling oneself with the realm of people whose extreme can be seen in personality cults. However, all else tend to fit in between the two extremes – the realm of objects and the realm of the spiritual. The former is illustrated by the West and the latter by the Islamic civilization. Historically, perhaps all civilizations can be classified within these two categories, as the core Zeitgeist of any civilization.

Bennabi describes this setting beautifully with the following illustrations:
1.         Man either looks at his feet or at the stars
2.         Objects and forms, techniques and aesthetics, versus truth and virtue
3.         Industrial time versus extemporized time
4.         Positivism and dialectic materialism versus morality and revealed knowledge.

We do not have the space here to do justice to these illustrations but let us make a cursory note of the differing worldviews through the illustration of the classic folk stories of two individuals in isolation – Robinson Crusoe and Hayy ibn Yaqdhan. While Robinson Crusoe fills his days with his struggle against the material world, Hayy ibn Yaqdhan is shown to spend his isolation in the contemplation of the spiritual. Bennabi also makes the observation that for each of the two civilizations, the point of failure comes in the overindulgence of its core; for Islam it is the overindulgence of mysticism and for the West it is the overindulgence of materialism.

The implication of this is that any ideas, policies and actions that are not derived and true to our Islamic core and rooted in the Western materialistic worldview will not be helpful to us, and may in fact become another deadly virus for our civilization. The great challenge is to derive effective policies and actions from ideas that are genuine to our Islamic core. Thus, we must pass the test and criteria of genuineness to our core and effectiveness to the world around us if we are to avoid the pitfalls of dead and deadly ideas.

The Civilization Cycle

There are three stages to the cycle of civilization, these are namely:
1.         Pre-civilized society
2.         Civilized society
3.         Post-civilized society

Allegorical Description

As we earlier considered in the context of the three realms, these three stages of historical societies can be correlated to three ages – the Things Age, where the focus in on material objects, the Persons Age, when society enters the “Realm of Persons” and the Ideas Age, the highest age, where Ideas are the most important element. We earlier discussed these stages within the allegory of a person growing up – a baby is focused on things, as he grows older he learns the world of persons, and finally he enters the world of ideas. He notes that while Islam took us from the world of things to the world of Ideas, we have degenerated back to the Things Age and thus post-civilized society.

Bennabi describes the post-civilized society as one that has reversed the direction of its movement and is now moving backwards, like our allegory of a person ageing. Bennabi considers the Islamic civilization to be a post-civilized society that has now regressed back to a world of objects and persons. Islam started in Jahili society were man lived in the world of objects and people. Islam broke this mold and brought the society into civilization and the world of ideas within three decades, through the catalyst of revelation and the transformative elements of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and the sahaba.

Psychological Description

The three stages of civilization can also be described as:
1. Spiritual
2. Rational
3. Instinctive
The will and power of society gives civilization its objective character. Society’s will and power differs depending on what phase society is in. He illustrates these stages by using a diagram similar to the one illustrated below.

Bennabi describes the stages through psychoanalysis thus:

“Looking at the individual at the zero point of the diagram drawn, we find him in the state which some Muslim scholars call “fitrah” (natural disposition). This means that he is fully “equipped” with all his inborn instincts thus being in the state of “homo natura”. The function of the religious ideal manifests itself in subjecting those instincts to a process of conditioning and adaptation representing what is known in Freudian psychology as “Repression”. Yet, this process is far from eradicating those instincts; instead, it regulates them in an integrated functional relationship with the imperatives of the religious ideal. Thus, the vital energy represented by the instincts is not abolished; it is rather channeled according to a specific order.
“In this stage, the individual is partly liberated from the natural laws which govern his biological structure in such a way that his being is almost totally under the control of the spiritual forces awakened in him by the religious ideal; thus, he leads a new life governed by the laws of the soul.“It was according to such laws that Bilal, despite the severe torture inflicted on his body, was raising his finger, repeating in a defying manner “Ahad, Ahad”. It is quite obvious that these words do not reflect the reaction of the natural instincts which were put under control, nor does it reflect the judgment of reason, for reason is unable to react in such a state of severe pain! It is nothing other than the voice of the soul which was liberated from the bondage of the instincts being now entirely subordinated to the power of the “faith” that had imbibed Bilal bin Rabah’s self.
“Similarly, the Islamic society was undergoing the same process of transformation. Like Bilal, it was not expressing itself in the language of flesh and blood. The voice of reason was not as yet heard in that nascent society. Thus, all the language used at this stage was based on the “logic” of the soul for it was exclusively the manifestation of the spiritual forces inherent in the human being.“This is the first stage of civilization, the stage at which all the instincts of man are “tamed” and integrated in a specific order that pulls their reins and restrains their drive.” (Bennabi, On the Origins of Society)
When the society’s social relations network expands even further and the conditioning power of religion weakens, the intellect rises in prominence as the integrating force. This is the age of reason, as labeled in the diagram. However, reason is a weaker force and does not fully control the instincts of man, and as civilization wanes, instincts play an increasingly more dominant role until they dominate. When instincts begin to dominate, the power of religion is weakened and morality fades, society begins to lose its integrity through a failing social relations network, which leads to the decline of civilization.

Historical Description

Describing the diagram in historical terms, the cycle of the Islamic Civilization began at the origin point in Ghar-e-Hira. Here was born our purpose, will and morality. Until 38 Hijri, we had a rapid rise as we remained faithful to our spirit, values and methods. In 38 Hijri, after the Treaty of Siffin and the division of the Islamic state, Bennabi notes that we lost our “soul”. Thereafter, we continued in a plateau trajectory which Bennabi describes as “reason” with many scientific developments and a continuation of the intellect. Between point B-C we began to move away from Reason and move increasingly towards taqlid on the one hand and mysticism on the other. Bennabi marks the decline of the Muslim civilization with the fall of Grenada in the West and the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in the East.

This then is the historical description of the cycle.

Bennabi describes the first spiritual phase as one where the newly formed society deals with its problems by suppressing needs and maximizing utilization and distribution of resources at hand. He describes this stage as the most beautiful forms of asceticism exemplified by the Prophet (peace be upon him) and the generosity of the Sahabah in giving their wealth to the greater cause.

As the resources of the society expand in conjunction with the spiritual and intellectual endeavor, the power of the society also expands, marking the dramatic rise of the initial state in Medina. Bennabi notes that the power of the will is kept intact because of the strength and vitality of the ideas that creates a tension within every Muslim. He notes that this is a distinguishing characteristic of the origin-to-A phase. In the A-B phase, gradually the power of the idea weakens and the realms of people and objects take increasing prominence until it takes hold, particularly in the B-C phase.


If society is an organism which is engaged in perpetual movement, generation of the means of that movement and has defined a purpose for its movement, culture is the conditioning of those functions, in line with a macro-definition of Pavlov’s operant conditioning. A post-civilized society would also have a culture, but a static culture that enforces the singular state of that society and thus acts as an anti-civilizational element. In fact, such a culture would be highly resistant to any change, as is the present state of the Muslim Ummah. Both Bennabi and Allama Iqbal point to the need for movement and change in our cultural bearings but such words fall on deaf ears in the Ummah.

However, in a healthy civilized society culture plays a productive role of regulating the functions of society as noted earlier. Only in senility does culture become a straightjacket for society. It is thus that we define here the definition of culture within the context of this chapter.

Man is born with vital energies that derive from his original state of fitra. These include but are not exclusively derived from his instincts. The great task of civilization and of religions, and in particular of Islam is to condition and channel those vital energies for a greater purpose, for the good of society, for Man’s role as the vice-regent on earth and for the ultimate purpose of worshiping Allah comprehensively. Conversely, the purpose of the Western civilization is to worship Man and to work for the greater benefit of himself. The task of culture is to transform those vital energies for those greater purposes. However, in post-civilized society culture stops fulfilling those functions and enters a state of rigid pathology.


This then, in short, is how we here define our science of civilization. And in the process we have already explained enough for the smart reader to understand the problem of the Ummah. In sum, the diagnosis of the Ummah, her great sickness, is the breakdown in the social relations network, starting with the Battle of Siffin, the separation of religious and political functions, the establishment of madhabs and other divisions which were further hardened into place by taqlid, the separation of knowledge under secular-religious lines, and finally the hardening of that breakdown in social relations via a retrogressive culture. The task before us is to revive the social relations network both qualitatively and quantitatively and repair the mistakes made, reflecting on the original state of Islam and then finding solutions for today that are honest and genuine to the original principles.

Within the framework we can analyze:

1. Our Present circumstance, concluding that the Islamic civilization has come full circle and is now at a post-civilized state and looking to either be reborn or die
2. The fundamental indicators that can serve to analyze its future development
3. The fundamental variables that need to be effected to bring about change and the nature and identity of those elements that are degenerative and blocking its rebirth

I fear I cannot go into further length here and will leave the reader to think about the problem of the Ummah within the framework given. We now consider a social education program that can help bring about that rebirth, by encouraging the factors that bring about civilization, and discouraging the anti-civilizational elements.

Social Education

Muslim scholarship is defined by being meaningful and having solutions that are helpful in solving real problems particularly for Muslim society. If we are to attempt to effect and change the post-civilized society’s culture through education, we must first understand the difference and interplay between the two. Bennabi notes that there is a misconception between the two terms in the Muslim world, and that this is a problem for the Ummah:

“The dual role of culture [positive and negative renewal] will have no effect unless this grave confusion between the meanings of culture and education, widespread in the Muslim world, is abolished”. (Bennabi, The Question of Culture)

He describes the difference between culture and education as one of a theory of behaviour rather than a theory of knowledge. Bennabi explains this difference between education and culture as:
“…thing more general than knowledge and more closely related to the character than accumulation of data…”

“… a set of moral qualities and social values that influence the individual from birth.”

Social eduction would thus attempt to bridge the gap between culture and education and seek “to influence the way of life in a given society as well as the behavior of its archetypes i.e., in order to construct an efficient system of social education it is imperative to have a manifest and clear-cut idea about the relations and reflexes that govern the utilization and orientation of the vital energy at the level of both the individual and the society.” (Bennabi, On the Origins of Human Society)

Social education must transform our society by teaching people “the art of living with his fellow humans. That is how to be civilized.” (Bennabi) The approach to teaching this social education should be non-mechanical and instead be an applied and practical education that teaches cooperation, the etiquettes of discussing, the importance of ideas and to specifically focus and target local cultural retrogressive elements. Islamic education, as it was conceived originally in its early period did all of this, but unfortunately today it has been reduced largely to memorization of texts.

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