Social Stability And Change In The Islamic Perspective

by Mohammad Jamil Qalander





We, humans, are environed from within and without by an infinite series of systems and sub-systems which collectively constitute the Gigantic System of Cosmos whose creation, as the Quran says, “Is a feat greater than …. That of the creation of humans” (40:57). Paradoxically, all these systems endure in and through change. A Sufi poet says: عـالـم اسـت امـواج در بحــر وجــود “The universe is waves in the ocean of Being”; and every wave sing in the language of Iqbal: ( ہسـتـم اگر میـروم ، گـر نـروم نیـستم )

“If I move, I exist; if I do not move, I do not exist.” Consider the case of a mountain which seems to be stationary and solid to the naked eye, but which, as the Quran says, is in a state of the murmur (motion akin to that of a cloud) (27:88). It is in and through this murmur that the structure of the mountain partakes of itqan (stability). For instance, the human body remains intact and compact as long as the heart pulsates therein and blood circulates through it. No sooner this process of pulsation and circulation comes to its end than the body’s decomposition sets in. This relative itqan is stability, and the murmur is changing.

            That change is the most significant feature of cosmic reality is a truth that dawned on some thinking minds of the remote past. For instance, Heraclites conceived of all that exists in terms of the omnipresent process of flux. According to tot the Platonic view, Reality comprises: (2) that which is changeless and (2) that which changes. The Quran, which presents a highly consistent view of cosmic change, announces: (کل تجری لآجل مسمی ) “Each and everything is moving on for a specific period”. This periodic movement is subject to the law. The Quran says: ( ولـکل آجــل کتــاب ) “For every period there is a law”. Change is, therefore, a law-governed process.

            The Quran has put forward five propositions with respect to the universality of change:

1.   That each and everything is going to perish except the person of God. (کل شیئ ء ھــا لک الا جھــہ)

2.   That everyone that is on the earth is going to perish except the person of God. (کل مـن علیھا فـــان ہ)

3.   That the earth and the heavens are programmed to undergo change so as they evolve into a new earth and new heavens. (یوم تبدل الآرض غیر الآرض والسموات). The first part of the verse has been alluded to by Ibn Khaldun in the context of negative sociological change, i.e. the fall of a civilization, the desolation of its dwellings, the ruin of its art monuments, etc. But it occurs in the Quran in the sense of a positive global change interlocked with the change in human consciousness, as Iqbal has pointed out.

4.   That the amthal (forms) of humans are likely to change so as to evolve into what we do not know at the present level of our knowledge. ( ومـا نحــن بمســبوقین ہ علی آن نبــدل امــثـالکم و ننشئکــم فیــما لا تعــلــمون ہ )

5.   That humans would grow into Malaika who would succeed them in the earth, provided God so wills: ( ولو شئنــا لـجعلنـا منکم ملا‏ئکۃ  فی الارض )

The first two propositions explicitly state that God is not subject to change. He endures so as to retain His identity amidst all this flood of change. It is because personality, as Berdyaev correctly observes,” is changeless in change”. Allama Iqbal, however, goes ahead to the extent of saying that the category of change is applicable, in some special sense, to the Creative Self of the Divine to whom change cannot mean imperfection. Allama Mashriqi speaks of the ascending movement of the Divine in the direction of His Amr, i.e. Cosmic Plan. All this is to indicate that God is the dynamic field of creative and directive energy in contrast to the static Absolute of Hegel; hence, life is a dynamic and creative process.

The foregoing Quranological wisdom led the Ash rite school of thought in Islam to its conception of atoms in terms of ‘passing accidents’ unceasingly coming and going. Ibn Roshd echoes the same truth in so far as he views the world as an ‘eternal process of becoming’. It is in consonance with the same traditional trend that Allama Iqbal says:

            طرح تو انگن کہ ماجدت پسند افتـــادہ ایم

            ایں چہ حیرت خانئہ امروز و فردا ساختی

Disgusted with the routine cycle of ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’, he is thus all for innovation.

            Change in terms of innovation and movement in the direction of self-realization is not only desirable, it is an essential prerequisite for the onward march of corporate life on the path of evolution. A community whose ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ are equal in point of progress has been dubbed by the Holy Prophet as maghbun, i.e., laden with losses. ( من استوی یوما ہ فھو مغبون). The Holy Quran, which takes a prospective view of god, Cosmos, and Life, has drawn the attention of humans to the evening twilight, the night covering everything within its fold, and the moon becoming full, and has told them: ( لـتـرکـبـن طبــقــا عــن طــبــق ) “You shall certainly and necessarily climb one peak (of progress) after another.”  This is a picturesque portrayal of the onward march of humans in an ascending fashion, wherein time-factor plays a significant role, but not in abstract isolation; it rather co-operates with humans in bringing change in human society. The Holy Prophet identifies Time with God Himself. It is, therefore, God working in the guise of Time who controls phenomena such as life and death, laughing and weeping, the rise and fall of nations, etc. ( وانہ ھو اضحک وآبکی ۔ وآنہ ھو آمات وآحیا ۔ وآنۃ آھلک عادن الآولی ۔ و ثمود فما آبقی ۔)

The Quran introduces itself as a warning to humans with the freedom to choose between progress and staying behind. ( ۔۔۔ نذیرا للبشــر ۔ لمـن شـاء منــکــم آن یتقد م آو یتا خــرہ ). But it is not in the nature of life to remain stationary; it tends to express itself creatively and spontaneously. This creative and spontaneous self-expression of life is subject to the factor of wise control. Consider the case of seed, which being the embryonic center of creative and self-expressive possibilities requires a stable ground with all its natural conditions, i.e., moisture, light, temperature, air, etc. for its self-actualization in the form of a tree. In this example, seed and ground stand respectively for change and stability. Let us take the example of the human body which is an organic system comprising an infinite number of sub-systems, e.g., nuclei, particles, atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, nervous system, constituent organs, etc. We are told by the scientists that through the processes of catabolism and anabolism, collectively called metabolism, the bodily cells constantly change so that they break down and are replaced by new cells with the result that after every three or seven years a new body emerges. But despite all this change its human inhabitant endures and retains its identity so that he/she can recall his/her past experiences. The composite human individual is thus the arena of change and stability. The same principle is applicable to human society, as some theorists have conceived it in terms of social organism. As such it embodies the categories of change and stability so that its superstructural level is destined to undergo what I call social metabolism through a process called change-in-anfus, i.e. psychological change, in the Quran. Change, which first takes place in the psychological realm of human society, is followed by its assertion and projection into the social realm.

In order to be the Figure of Change, human society needs a stable Ground to stand and move upon. This ground has two dimensions: (1) the spiritual and (2) the material. The spiritual dimension comprises those Constant Values which are enshrined in the Quran to direct the development of ‘human person’ in the individual. The material dimension is the corporate and cooperative togetherness of humans within definite geographical locations, which is inspired and sustained by the Quranic Constant Values. These two dimensions are exquisitely alluded to in the verse: بلـدۃ طیبۃ و رب غفــورہ A pleasant and fragrant City of Bliss under the Merciful Shadow of a protecting and sustaining god”. It is upon such stable ground that the breeze of pleasant change blows freely, since in the thought provocative words of Allama Iqbal:

The ultimate spiritual basis of all life, as conceived by Islam, is eternal and reveals itself in variety and change. A society based on such a conception of Reality must reconcile, in its life, the categories of permanence and change. It must possess eternal principles to regulate its collective life, for the eternal gives a foothold in the world of perpetual change. But eternal principles when they are understood to exclude all possibilities of change which,  according to the Quran, is one of the greatest ‘signs’ of God, tend to immobilize what is essentially mobile in its nature. The failure of Europe in political and social science illustrates the former 0principle; the immobility of Islam during the last 500 years illustrates the latter.

The classical observation of the great poet-theorist of the East is still significant in so far as the state of affairs in the contemporary world of Islam continues to conserve the same status quo at the level of attitude and behavior toward Islam. Apart from some superficial changes of centrifugal nature, no fundamental change has occurred therein in the direction of practical faith in the dynamics of Islam as a factor of social change, of discipline to maintain stability, and of unity of brains and hands to change the ‘Munkar’, i.e., what is ugly, unhealthy, unpleasant, inhuman, obnoxious, and bad into ’maroof’ ( المــعــروف ) i.e., what is beautiful, healthy, pleasant, human, fragrant, and good. The political and religious censor and a ban on the activity of Islam as a revolutionary but benevolently wise factor of physico-socio-psychological change has made the world of Islam, once the girt-house of Al-Hamra and Taj Mahal, to inherit an environment whose characteristic features are today ignorance, emotionality, irrational and centrifugal agitativeness, anger, jealousy, rivalry, competitiveness, sense of insecurity, fear, grief, superstitious ness, dirt and filth, lack of sanitation and hygiene, adulteration, undernourishment, diseases, dust and mud, dependence on others, mismanagement, inhuman planning, disorganization, unwise administration, pseudo-religious aversion to fine arts, fatalism, and above all, the loss of attitudinal-behavioral sobriety so necessary for the correct understanding and solution of problems. Islam has been gradually and cunningly reduced to the simple lip-service trinity of beliefs, rituals, and sermons at the cost of its revolutionary but sober character as a factor of environmental change. Thus the resultant infernal environment as described in the foregoing lines gnaws the very vitals of the Muslim ummah, keeps it mercilessly engaged in a warring struggle with itself at psycho-organismic level, and, hence, draws heavily upon its energy, time, and other resources so that it impedes its participation in creative, constructive and productive enterprise. All this misery, to say once again, is rooted in the deprivation of Islam of its revolutionary role as a factor of physico-socio-psychological change, and in its reduction to what Allama Iqbal calls ‘religious shroud’ which covers the body of the new god of nationalism.

It is extremely ironic that, contrary to the Islamic principle of muhasaba-i-nafs(self-evolution), we avoid to blame over selves for this infernal physico-social milieu; instead, we blame it on God or others who, of course, have no visible or direct hand in its emergence as it is. What naturally follows from this attitude is that we have no idea or initiative to engage our brains and hands so as to change cooperatively the ‘Munkar’ which has I invaded our environment to its uglification and distortion. We rather keep waiting for God and His Malika to come and change it for us miraculously or with a single stroke of magic or in a push-button fashion. But in so thinking we forget that the Creator of Nature says in the Quran: ( ان اللہ لا یغـــير ما بقــوم حــتی یغیرو ا  مــا بانــفــسھــــم ) “Certainly God does not change the condition of a nation until they (first) change that which is their psyches” (13:11). Thus a physicosocial change is subject to the condition of psychological change in terms of charging and electrifying psychic battery with the spirit of iman. The Holy Prophet has prescribed three means whereby iman should operate as a factor of change: (1) hands, (2) tongue, and (3) heart. It is the order of the Prophet that

Whoever from amongst you finds a ‘Munkar’ (something ugly, unhealthy, obnoxious, bad, and below Quranic standard, he should change it with his hands; if he can’t, then he should change it with his tongue (through verbal persuasion), if he can’t do even that, then he should change it with his heart (at the level of theory, intention, and emotion), but that is the weakest position in points of iman.

Thus from theory to practice the life of the momin is devoted to the Islamic program of action to change the ‘Munkar’ in the environment.  The Prophet’s directive further suggests that the strength of iman is directly proportional to the quantum of manual work done to change what is ‘Munkar’ in the existing environment and inversely proportional to indulgence in the simple trio of wishing, intending, and theorizing absolutely divorced from field-work.

            The Quran has categorically ordained a program of action for ‘tabdil-alardh’ (i.e., environmental change) in terms of 1. ‘tathir’ ( تـطــھیر ) and 2 . ‘tazkiya’ ( تـزکیۃ ). In its broader sense, tathir (lit, purification, and cleaning) comprises a. ‘Adil’ (عــدل) and b. ‘Ihsan’ ( احســـان ).

            Adl (lit., leveling up) stands for the incarnation of the cosmic and rational categories of proportion, balance, equilibrium, symmetry, harmony, ratio, and measure ( collectively referred to in the Quran as ‘ Cosmic Balance’) in the body-civic of the Muslim ummah.

            Ihsan (lit., beautification) aims at the immanent projection of the transcendental aesthetic values of the Quran into the physico-social surroundings thereof. Ihsan,  as the Prophet tells us, signifies contemplation of the Source of Beauty in such a way that the contemplator feels as if he were seeing, or being seen by, that source during his activity of adherence and submittal thereto. Being an artistic phenomenon, the category of Ihsan can never coexist with the uglification and distortion of the face of the physico-social environment, especially in consideration of the Prophet’s announcement that ‘ God is beautiful and he loves Beauty ‘ (اللہ جمیل و یحـب الجمــال). It has been said that ‘love begets love. I would rather say, “Beauty begets both Beauty and Love”. Conversely speaking, ugliness begets both ugliness and hatred.

            Tazkiya (lit., growing and thriving) is the natural outcome of the culmination of the processes of ‘Adil’ and ‘ihsan’ so elaborated. This is a self0evident truth that does not require exposition.

            Adl and ihsan are practically the two aspects of the same artistic and creative operation. Their function may be likened to that of the Greek/Roman artist who, as the famous Sufi thinker Rumi narrates, began to run, clean, and polish a wall of one kings’ palace to the extent of having converted it into a mirror which, when the curtain between the two walls was raised, reflected all the fantastic pictures painted into a spectrum of colors on the opposite wall by his Chinese rival.

            It is through such a process of tathir (تطــھیر) that the physico-socio-psychological environment of the Muslim ummah can be converted into a mirror akin to Prophet Solomon’s Hall so as to reflect the running stream of Al-Asma al-Husna ( The Beautiful Attributes of the Divine) in terms of ihsan (beautification). A physico-socio-psychological environment so evolved may be likened to a sanitarium where mentally and physically sick humans are cured of their ailments. It is beyond the scope of this paper to unfold the archetypical vision of such envirological heaven as it is enshrined in the Quranic Museum of Divine Wisdom, which I leave for my forthcoming work:

Mere wishful thinking does not lead to the gate of such a heavenly milieu. It is the unified, disciplined, organized, and mobilized community of humans which, electrified, charged, and fired with the Creative Spirit of the Divine, participates corporately and cooperatively in the artistic venture of its creation. This creative and dynamic community carries within the Mile of its eyes a vivid vision of the Beautiful as distinct from the Ugly, and then projects it, in spirit and form, which their hands on the vast canvas of its physico-social environment which then becomes a monumental testimony to the fact that the community is ‘ lord of eyes and hands’ (آولی الآیدی واآبصار).

Being steel in spirit as well as in physique, and dew in heart, it sleeps on thorns while dreaming of flowers. It is by virtue of its immersion into the Creative Spirit of Divine that it emerges as steel and dew. Again, it is in terms of its constant study and teaching of the Composite Book of Revelation and Nature that this immersion takes place, as the Quran bids:کونو ا ربا نیین بما کنتم الکتاب وبما کنتم تدرسون ۔  

“Be ye immersed in your Rab by your constant teaching of the Book and your constant study thereof” (3:79). It is such a community whose members, in the words of Martin Buber, “takes part in creation, meets the Creator, reaches out to Him, helpers and companions.”