The Concept of History in Islam
By Ali Unal
WESTERN PHILOSOPHIES OF HISTORY AND THE CONCEPT OF HISTORY IN THE QUR’AN
I wonder whether it is a skepticism to see a political purpose behind some philosophies produced in the West during the last few centuries. Whether they might label me as unscientific or a skeptic, it is not more reasonable, in my opinion, than trying to find a political purpose behind those philosophies to attribute to those people who have made gigantic advances in science and technology such theories as biological ‘evolution’ and that the Western brain is apt, because of its biological composition, for science while the Eastern brain for romanticism and the Negro brain for jazz and athleticism.
Is there any scientific proof in the work of Darwin?
It is true that almost all of the nineteenth century Western philosophical theories were based on the idea of ‘progress’ and ‘evolution’. As everyone knows, the roots of the Darwinian theory of evolution lie in the theory of Malthus, an eighteenth century Anglican priest, who was interested in the influence of demographic factors on economics. According to his theory, only those who are able to produce have a right to survive, while the others—the poor, the sick, the disabled, who are not able to produce—are condemned by nature to be eliminated. Having much appreciated this socio-economic theory of Malthus, Darwin put forward, as a scientific theory, that selection is an overall law encompassing the whole of nature, according to which only the powerful can survive; the weak are cleared away in the course of time. Referring to P. -P. Grassé, a contemporary French zoologist, Maurice Bucaille (What is the Origin of Man, Turkish translation, Istanbul 1984, pp. 48-50), says that in the work of Darwin it is impossible to find any scientific proof although Darwin made plenty of observations to support his theory, and that his is more of a philosophical, not scientific, theory. If, then, some socio-economic worries lie in a ‘scientific’ theory, one which has shaken the circles of science for the last two centuries and been used as a ‘weapon’ against religion, why should it be unfair to seek a political purpose behind some philosophical ones?
It may well be asserted, albeit difficult to affirm in a brief article, that the Western philosophies of history, especially those put forward in the nineteenth century, had some political intentions and functioned as an ideological precept for the nineteenth century Western imperialism. Almost all of these philosophies suggested that mankind were in an irreversible flow towards good and nothing could stop this flow. This was an assertion of continuously forward movement or progress. The sociology of Spencer, for instance, is a continuation of the theory of Darwin. According to Auguste Comte, mankind had already passed the stages of metaphysics and religion, and reached the last and happiest age of progress by entering the stage of science. We can find the same notion of progress in the historical philosophies of Herder, Fichte, Hegel and Karl Marx.
Western philosophies of history
Hegel’s philosophy of history can be defined, according to Abdul-Hamid Siddiqi, (TarihinYorumu—’The Interpretation of History’—Istanbul 1978, p. 51), as a composition of conflicts and contradictions. As a matter of fact, Hegel holds that each period in the history of social civilization represents an independent unity. This unity, which is thoroughly of its own, gives rise to it antithesis over time, resulting in a thesis-antithesis conflict. After a while, the sides agree on a ‘synthesis’, which finally ends in a new conflict of thesis and antithesis. As a result of this conflict, a new thesis is brought about which encompasses both its thesis and antithesis. This tripartite system causes ‘thoughts’ to progress, until it attains to the ‘Geist’.
The ‘Geist’ is, in the philosophy of Hegel, who appeared to be under the influence of the Indian philosophies, a spirit—the universal spirit—which manifests itself through concrete events. Each event, together with the philosophy attached to it, is a stage in the evolutionary course of this spirit, and because of this, no philosophy is not to be criticized as being wrong. Every event is planned by an absolute, determining will, and all of the desires, inclinations, efforts and conflicts are the means which the Geist employs in self-realization. Everything in the world, therefore, happens irrespectively or independently of man’s free will and man is nothing more than a plaything of an all-powerful will. That being so, only those who can perceive the demands of this will or, more clearly, the course of events, and act accordingly are the heroes of their time to be absolutely obeyed.
His theory mostly based on the atheism of Feurbach, the evolutionist theory of Darwin and the dialectics ofHegel, Karl Marx, in his own words, stood the Hegelian man who stands on his head, upright on his feet. (To this, an Egyptian Muslim thinker responds: ‘Is man really a being who ‘walks’ on his head’?) According to Marx—in all his views whether philosophical or historical, sociological or economic—man is a being ‘walking on his feet’, that is, whose mind is directed, commanded by his ‘feet’.
Marx maintains that man is an outcome of the legal relationships between himself and the tools of production that he must originally have found present in nature and then developed in the course of history. What we call ‘human thought’ is the reflection in his mind of the relations between himself and his material, economic life and the tools of production he uses. For this reason, the only true knowledge is, according to Marx, that which will come out in human mind when the legal relationships between man and the tools of production are established in a communist system according to the principles of communism. We can rightfully conclude from this argument that all the Marxist theories are substantially false because Marx himself conceived them all in a capitalistic system. Again, to Marx, all the human life or history on the earth consists of the conflicts between individuals, classes and peoples for economic reasons. This conflict, which is inevitable, after passing through the primitive feudal and capitalistic stages, is certain to result in communism. For this reason, all these stages are not to be criticized.
As to historicism (Karl R. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, London 1976), which was once quite widespread, because sociological laws vary according to time and place, we cannot find a long, stable period in human history by which we can come to long term general rules. History never repeats itself at the same level. We cannot make true predictions about ‘tomorrow’ since the relationships between events are very complex. This is truly so, but, in historicism, activity has a great importance, although what we conceive of is impossible to realize unless they are in conformity with the main course of history. This main course, however, depends on certain blind and irresistible laws. So, only when man acts in accordance with these independent laws and the urgent, inevitable changes they impose, has he acted reasonably. What falls to man, then, is to give a hand to the changes or attempts that he is expected to acceptbecause it is completely unreasonable to desire to give a better shape to the world.
The critics of Western philosophies of history
To sum up, we can list the outlines of the philosophies of history summarized above, as follows:
- Mankind is in a continuous progress towards the final happy end.
- This progress depends on the fatalistic, irresistible laws of history which are completely independent of man, so a man must, in any case, obey these laws, otherwise he is certain to be eliminated.
- All the stages, primitive, feudal or capitalistic, through which mankind inevitably pass in the course of time to the final happy end should not be criticized, because mankind have nothing to do other than pass through them.
- What is implied concerning the political conditions of time by all such philosophies of history may be this: The present socio-economic and even the political conditions of the world are inevitable, because they were dictated by nature, which decrees that only the able and the powerful can survive. If the laws of history dictated by nature are in favor of the West, the communities that choose to survive must concede to the dominion of the West.
Is it at all possible to approve this while we clearly see that any age contains ‘ages’—while some people are living in the age of electronics in some parts of the world, some others are suffering the conditions of the middle, or even primitive, ages, which is equally true also for individuals—and history, rather than moving forward along a straight line, advances by cycles, and that man is the being who, much more than a play-thing of some laws of only nominal, not external, existence, makes history by enjoying free choice. Also, it is not morally, even scientifically and historically, possible to approve the injustices, no matter when and under what circumstances they are committed. Further, we have a right to ask those who side with such philosophies of history whether they can concede to the spread of Islam at the expense of Christianity, and why they would prefer to try their hardest and resort to every kind of means to maintain their dominion, rather than leave everything to the fatalistic laws of history?
Like every other incoherent and false philosophy, the above mentioned philosophies of history did not last long. When the twentieth century came in, the atomic physics had already dethroned the mechanical physics, which resulted in the obsolescence of the gross materialistic and positivistic world-views together with the evolutionist conceptions of history, like money which is no longer in circulation. The place of such conceptions were taken by the philosophies of history which were anxious about the future of the West and did not put absolute confidence in science and technology.
Of these, according to Danilevsky’s philosophy of history a civilization is not transformed into another, and no civilization can be saved from dying. A civilization is the further step of a culture and each culture develops one or more than one of the values of humanity. The present Western civilization is based on science. No civilization can claim superiority over the others in all respects. A people that has reached the stage of civilization is doomed to collapse after a long period of decline; because of this, the Western civilization will one day become a thing of the past.
There are many cultures according to Oswald Spengler, a German sociologist whose work The Decline of the Westshook the West in the early years of this century. Each great culture is unique and none of them can, as with Danilevsky, claim superiority over the others. A civilization manifests itself in big cities as the inevitable result of culture. Over time, the desire for living dies away and women no longer bear children. Faith is replaced by scientific irreligion or dull metaphysics. Any civilization that has entered upon this stage either gives birth to materialism, love of money, passion for power, sex and class conflict as its fruits, or results in imperialism, and finally collapses. Spengler holds that the present Western civilization, with all its big cities, railways and skyscrapers, will in a near future, turn into an ethnographical museum.
The ideas of Arnold Toynbee can be traced in Ibn Khaldun, a 15th-century Arab-Muslim scholar often called ‘Father of Historiography’ and whose Muqaddima (Introduction) is very famous. A civilization is, Toynbee maintains, the work of a creative minority in a propitious clime, and it falls into decay as the founding minority lose their energy and become unable to find solutions to new problems. According to Ibn Khaldun, who influenced, to some extent, almost all the philosophers of history in the twentieth century, a civilization—he calls it ‘Umran—is based on tribal solidarity which is the distinguishing mark of nomadic life. Nomads lead a very simple life and do not know anything of luxury.
Ibn Khaldun also holds that human beings feel an intrinsic need to live together, but, since some people are of an aggressive disposition, co-existence calls for some sanctions. These sanctions are either put by a powerful individual or tribal solidarity determines them naturally. Thus, the need for a common authority results in the establishment of the state.
Social solidarity is, Ibn Khaldun maintains, much stronger in nomadic tribes. If united with religion, it becomes an irresistible power. Nevertheless, as the state is established more firmly, the social solidarity is no longer needed and, due to the established (settled) living, people indulge in luxury. Luxury dissolves the solidarity and the ruler, in order to strengthen his authority, forms a council and a troop of royal guards. But nothing keeps the state or civilization from collapse: increasing extravagance, luxury and indulgences of every kind, and heavy taxes bring about the ruin of the civilization.
The Qur’anic concept of history
What distinguishes the Qur’anic concept of history from other philosophies is that, first of all, while philosophers of history or sociologists build their conceptions on the interpretation of past events and present situations, the Qur’an deals with the matter from the perspective of unchanging principles. Second, contrary to the fatalism of all other philosophies, including even Ibn Khaldun’s, the Qur’an lays great emphasis on the free choice and moral conduct of the individual. Although Divine Will, emphasized by the Qur’an, could be regarded as, in some respects, the counterpart of the ‘Geist’ in the Hegelian philosophy and of absolute, irresistible laws of history in other philosophies, the Qur’an never denies human free will. God, according to the Qur’an, tests man in this life so that man himself should sow the ‘field’ of the world to harvest in the next life, which is eternal. For this reason, the stream of events—successes and failures, victories and defeats, prosperity and decay—all are the occasions which God causes to follow one another for mankind, to the end that the good may be distinguished from the evil. Testing must evidently require that the one who is tested should possess free-will to choose between what is lawful and unlawful or what is good and bad. Thus, according to the Qur’an, what makes history is not a compelling Divine Will, rather it is man’s own choice, the operation of which God Almighty has made a simple condition for the coming into effect of His universal Will. If this point is understood well enough, then it will be easy to see how groundless are the Western philosophies of history especially with respect to their conception of ‘inevitable end’.
A possible question
If civilizations are not, essentially, subject to an inevitable end, why, then, were none of the past civilizations able to resist decadence and the ‘corrosive power of time’?
The core of the matter lies in the answer to this important question. What, indeed, caused the philosophers of history such as Ibn Khaldun, Toynbee, Spengler and the like to form a wrong conception of history is that they, rather than trying to discover the real dynamics of historical movements, attempted to explain the apparent causes of the establishment, flourishing, and decay of civilizations. Whoever looks back to the past couldn’t help arriving at the same conclusions. But that no community has so far been able to remain at the peak it climbed does not mean that this is an inevitable end, a determinist grip on the fate of nations. The past civilizations collapsed because they did not heed the warnings of what had happened to peoples preceding them. To accept a historical determinism means to nullify human free will and to regard as useless, even as absurdity, all the warnings and advice given to living people by both Divine Scriptures and social sciences.
As stated before, man is tested in the world. He has a carnal self which is the source of all desires and animal appetites. In addition, man has a natural inclination towards living together with his fellow human beings, and also he is in a complex relationship with his natural environment. This requires that man’s carnal desires should be limited and his relations with both his human and natural environment be based on ‘justice’ so that he may be at peace with himself, his environment and nature. Nevertheless, as history witnesses, some people may, under the instigation of their carnal desires, not be pleased with their share in the society and attempt to dominate others. If such people realize their ambitions, they may, in order to justify their actions, make a constitution to govern the people. It is, indeed, easy to have the people to ‘vote’ for their constitution.
This is what has always been where and when the Divine laws are abrogated. Where the people sincerely believe in one God as the Lord, Sovereign and Master of humankind, without concession to any intermediate role of some classes such as the clergy in Christianity, and where they are really conscious of the meaning of Divine Unity, which, by delivering man from the humiliating slavery to carnal desires, worldly positions, or to other beings, and eradication of the false and artificialcontradictions of the black and the white, clergy and laity, the ruler and the ruled, the employer and employed etc., elevates him so high as to be the servant of only One God, no oneattempts to dominate others through the force of money, color, race or weapons.
According to the Qur’an, all men are, on account of being the creatures of one God, essentially equal in the sight of God. Furthermore, man lacks knowledge and power to establish the rules according to which at least the majority of people could live at peace with themselves, with each other and with the natural environment. Above all, man has to be at peace with his Creator and Sustainer. Because of these, only God’s exclusively is sovereignty both in the heavens and on the earth.
What God asks of man—it is what we can conclude we must do through the exercise of our reasoning—is thatman should build his worldly existence on three foundations: justice, religious-moral values and Divine laws oflife and nature.
The Qur’an invites man, first of all, to believe in and worship One God, by which he may lead a balanced life: He may attain true inward happiness and peace and co-exist with his fellow human beings in accordance with the rules of justice, without being led astray by his carnal, evil-commanding self. Second, the Qur’an lays down some moral, also legal, principles. For example, it says:
Give to the kindred his due and the poor and to the wayfarer. But spend not wastefully in the manner of a spendthrift. Kill not your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and for you. Come not near to unlawful sexual intercourse. Do not kill anyone which God has forbidden, except for just cause. Come not near the orphan’s property except to improve it. And fulfil covenants. Give full measure when you measure and weigh with balance that is right. (al-Isra’, 17.26, 31–5)
Also, the Qur’an prohibits usury, black-marketeering, hoarding, theft, gambling, and cheating etc. Besides, it is also a Qur’anic injunction to study nature, discover its laws and make progress in sciences. Moreover, there are some other vital principles, obedience to, or neglect of, which has a definite part in man’s ‘fate’. For example, patience and forbearance usually bring success and victory, and while working produces wealth, inertia and laziness are the causes of poverty.
Thus, man, according to the Qur’an, by neglecting or living in accordance with justice, religious-moral values and Divine laws of nature, determines his own future. There is in principle nothing, other than his free choice, to dictate his fate. If, then, a community, at least by majority, obey God and perform both His ‘religious’ and ‘natural’ laws, there can be nothing to prevent them from realizing peace, happiness and harmony in both individual and social life. Otherwise, no matter how glittering a community may appear, it is inevitable for it to fall into decay.
There is another point to be emphasized concerning the Qur’anic concept of history. The Qur’an does not accept ‘inevitable end’ for civilizations. Any civilization, as long as it follows its ‘right’ way, it canremain at the peak, although no civilization has so far been able to. And, any civilization which is due and, on the threshold of, collapse because it has deviated from its course, could be saved from destruction and even realize a new riseif it reforms its way. Finally, historydoes not follow a straight and always forward course, rather, it advances by cycles.