Developmental Trends in Contemporary Society

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

For almost two centuries now, development has been one of the most pressing questions confronting Muslim leadership. Since the Ottoman Sultan Salim III introduced his modernization program, many models and projects aimed at bringing about better social, economic, and political conditions have been produced.

This paper examines the two contending models of development in Muslim society: the secular and the Islamic. The examination is done with the aim of discovering the historical patterns that govern the process of social change in general. Towards this end, the paper begins by outlining the Qur’anic model of historical progress, and then uses the outlined model to explain historical changes experienced by Muslim societies.

The paper contends that while the dominant Islamic model of develop­ment draws on the Qur’anic model, it fails to heed the Qur’anic injunction to study the history of peoples in order to gain further insight into the phenomenon of progress. The paper concludes that while moral reform is essential to social progress, genuine progress requires, as well, intellectual and organizational development. Thus any project of development, which neglects to recognize the dialectical relationship between the psychological, cultural, and material aspects of social life is bound to fail to effect real progress.


The concept of development is frequently used to denote positive social change. As such, development is only one side of the two-sided phenomenon of change (taghyyir), which includes, as well, the process of decline or deterio­ration. The Qur’an makes reference to social change (taghyyir ma bi’l-qawm) in two ayahs. In surah Ra'd, the Qur’an relates changes in the existential conditions of a people to psychological changes:

Verily God changes not the conditions of a people until they change what is in their souls. (13:11)

The same meaning is expressed, in slightly different terms, in surah al-Anfal:

Because God changes not the bounty He has bestowed on a people until they change what is in their souls. (8:53)

The above two ayahs point clearly to change in the external conditions, and the quality of life, of a people as a result of internal change in the human psyche. But the ayahs do not say much about the causes and mechanisms of this change, neither on the level of social action or interaction; nor on the level of human psyche. The ayahs, for instance, do not disclose to us whether the change in the “soul” is purely moral, purely conceptual, or a mixture of both. Nor do they explain how psychological changes influence the existential one, or, for that matter, to what extent the former are influ­enced by the latter.

The Qur’an gives us, however, further insight into the process of “change” through the concepts of Khilafah and Istikhlaf. Both terms are derived from the Arabic root Khalaf, and reflect two aspects of the same meaning. Khilafah refers to the state in which man is given mastery over the natural world, whereas Istikhlaf refers to the process by which man attains this mastery. Thus the Qur’an uses the term Khilafah in reference to the purpose and mission of man.

Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a Khalifah on earth.” (2:30)

But the Qur’an uses the term Khilafah not only to describe the mission of humanity at large, but also to describe the superior material conditions of a people. In surah al-A’raf the Qur’an describes the people of ‘Ad as Khalifahs:

Call to remembrance that He made you Khalifahs (inheritors) after the people of Noah, and gave you stature tall among the nations. (7:69)

Again few ayahs later, God reminds Thamud of the state of material advancement they enjoyed, describing them as the Khalifahs (inheritors) after ‘Ad.

gave you habitations in the land: you build for yourselves palaces and castles in (open) plains, and cave out homes in the mountains. (7:74)

The Qur’an further tells us that the phenomenon of istikhlaf in which a group of people is given material superiority follows a cyclical pattern in which a people experience an increase in material capacity and strength (tamkin), followed by an experience of decline and destruction (ihlak).

See they not how many of those before them we did destroy? Gen­erations we have established on the earth, in strength such as we have not given to you. For whom we poured out rain from the skies in abundance, and gave (fertile) streams flowing beneath their (feet): yet for their sins we destroyed them, and raised in their wake fresh generations (to succeed them). (6:6)

However, the Qur’an makes it clear that tamkin and ihlak are not arbitrary events in the history of a people, but are governed by immutable laws. The Qur’an associates tamkin with the commitment to the values of truth and justice, disclosed to mankind through Divine Revelation:

God has promised, to those among you who believe and work right­eous deeds, that He will, of a surety, grant them in the land, inheri­tance (of power), as He granted it to those before them; that He will establish in authority their religion—the one which He has chosen for them; and that He will change (their state), after the fear in which they (lived), to one of security and peace: they will worship Me (alone) and not associate aught with Me. (24:55)

The Qur’an further explains that as material advancement results from peoples’ commitment to the principles of truth (haq) and justice (‘adl), their material destruction result from indulgence in wrong doing (batil) and injustice (zulm).

Generations before you we destroyed when they committed injustice (zalama); their messengers came to them with clear signs, but they would not believe. Thus do we requite those who sin. (10:13)


Such were the populations we destroyed when they committed in­equities; but we fixed an appointed time for their destruction. (18:59)

of material progress experienced by a people and their commitment to truth and rightness on the one hand, and the state of destruction and deviation from truth and their indulgence in wrong-doing on the other. The movement between the two states—truth and falsehood—depends on the nature of the leading social forces in society. When the forces of truth have the upper hand, society is brought back, or reformed (islah), to the state of felicity and prosperity. But when the forces of corruption (fasad) take over, society is brought into a state of chaos (dalal) and destruction (halak).

Thus the Qur’an discloses to us the forces responsible for leading people towards social order and material prosperity, and those responsible for dragging them into disorder and destruction. The two antagonist forces receive their identity from their positioning vis-à-vis truth. That is, only those whose will is in congruence with the Divine Will are capable of bringing social order conducive to advancement in material conditions, while those whose will is in contradiction with the Divine undermine the state of peace and prosperity and bring shame and disorder. This is because by refusing to submit their wills to the will of the Divine, they reject the very principles that constitute the notion of order.[1]

For if order means a state of harmoni­ous interaction among various elements, this state can result only when these elements are subject to one set of rules. However, by refusing to submit to the universal rules of the Divine, people become subject to their own particu­lar wills. But in the absence of the unifying force of universal principles, emanating from a universal will, particular wills guided by personal interests to the neglect of the interests of others are bound to come into conflict and contradiction, hence creating chaos and disorder, and ultimately destroying themselves.

If the Truth had been in accord with their desires, truly the heavens and the earth, and all being therein, would have been in confusion and corruption. (23:71)

As such, the state of prosperity dawns on a people when the principles governing their life coincide with, or approximate, the principles of truth, while the state of destruction occurs when the whimsical designs of self-in­terested individuals gradually take over and dominate life. This means that the state of truth and prosperity is the original state of things, while the state of corruption and destruction is a state of deterioration and imbalance. Therefore, bringing order and prosperity hinges on the people’s ability to, first, identify the original state of truth, and second, on their willingness to embrace the principles of truth they identified. Improving social conditions is at bottom a project of re-form of the de-formed life of the people, by reapplying the principles of truth.

Say: the Truth has arrived, and falsehood neither creates anything new, nor restores anything. (34:49)

As to the source and origin of corruption leading to the decline of society and its ultimate destruction, the Qur’an provides us with a clue. The Qur’an seems to attribute the destruction of advanced civilization to the very state of abundance, leading to excesses and unscrupulous life in the absence of a strong moral commitment to restrain human appetite:

And how many populations we destroyed, which exulted in their life of ease and plenty. (28:58)


In the end we fulfilled to them (the Prophets) our promise, and we saved them and those whom we pleased, but we destroyed those who committed excesses beyond bounds. (21:9)

In sum, the Qur’an provides us with a general account of the process of societal change, which can be summarized in the following five points.

First, the change in the existential conditions of a people is ultimately rooted in their psychological conditions.

Second, the enjoyment of superior material conditions follows cyclical patterns whereby a people experience increase in material strength (tamkin), followed by material destruction (halak).

Third, material strength is associated with a state in which people are committed to principles of truth (haq) while destruction results from the triumph of corruption and iniquities.

Fourth, bringing about order and improving material conditions of a people, after chaos and corruption have destroyed society, requires a process of true reform, whereby the principles of truth are rediscovered and reapplied to the life of the people

Fifth, the material destruction of a people may be attributed to a life of plenty and abundance, coupled with absence of moral strength to prevent excesses and ensure self-restraint.

But beyond this general account, the Qur’an leaves many details of the process of rise and decline to the human intellect to discover and answer. It is not clear, for example, how corruption begins after truth and prosperity are established. Nor is it clear how the process of reform is to take place. These and other questions have to be answered by studying the rise and fall of human societies, or civilizations, in history. For the Qur’an itself directs the believers to study history so as to identify the general laws or patterns (sunan) governing the unfolding of world history.

Many were the ways of life that have passed away before you: travel through the land, and see what was the end of those who rejected Truth. (3:137)


Say: Travel through the earth and see what was the end of those before you. (30:42)

Say: Travel through the earth and see how God did originate crea­tion. (29:20)


History testifies that the followers of the Islamic Revelation, which came to reform peoples’ beliefs and practices, were able, after a fierce struggle, to triumph over the forces of Arab paganism, and later over the Persian and Roman dynasties. History also testifies that the triumph of Islamic reform led to advancement in social and material conditions, resulting, ultimately, in the establishment of an Islamic civilization, exceeding in its expansion, resilience, and achievement all previous civilizations, including the Roman.

Although the causal linkage between Islamic reform and Islamic civili­zation cannot be denied, the patterns of progress from the moment of initiat­ing the reform to the moment of reaching the climax of Islamic civilization are quite complex. While providing a detailed account of this process is beyond the scope of this paper, identifying the general profile of early Islamic development is essential for enlightening current attempts aimed at reforming Muslim conditions. The following four points underscore some of the essen­tial patterns of Muslim historical change.

First, Islamic Revelation was directed at replacing the distorted beliefs and values of people with ones in conformity with the Truth.

Second, by committing people to the ideas and principles of truth and rightness, Islam reformed individual actions and societal institutions.

Third, by freeing people from superstition and social bondage, and by mobilizing individual and collective energies and channeling them towards productive and creative activities, Islam established the psychological and societal conditions conducive to progress.

Fourth, in building a distinctively Islamic civilization, Muslims did not start from scratch, but built on the achievements of earlier civilizations. In natural science, technology, commerce, and administration, Muslim physi­cists, technicians, traders and administrators appropriated many of the theories, techniques, and practices developed and perfected by earlier civili­zations.

The above-mentioned patterns of change suggest that while Islam was the major source contributing to the value-orientation of Islamic civili­zational action, technical rules were borrowed, with some modification, from other civilizations. However, as the process of civilizational exchange prog­ressed, it gradually proved to be problematic, especially in these areas where the value orientation and technical orientation of action could not be easily distinguished. To illustrate this point, I will single out two areas in which Muslim failure to develop technical rules capable of actualizing the Islamic values was decisive in relegating these values into the realm of pure theoret­ical discussion.


The first area where Islamic values were compromised because of the absence of practicable rules, or structures, for the actualization of these principles is the area of political organization. The Qur’an established the principle of shura (consultation) as the cornerstone of political decision-making within the ummah. Similarly the Prophet of Islam, and later his Companions, exemplified the principle of shard in their practices. Gradually, however, the practice of shard was undermined, and was eventually abandoned as the Muslim community embraced the hereditary model of political organization during the reign of Mu'awiyah bin Abu Sufiyan. Historically, the establish­ment of hereditary rules was attributed to Mu’awiyyah’s desire to maintain the Khilafah within the Umayyad branch of Quraysh. While this may, or may not, be a true assessment of Mu’awiyah’s psychological disposition, the eclipse of the practice of shura from the early Muslim society should be attributed in the first place to the inability of early Muslims to institutionalize the principle of shura. That is to say, because the Muslim community was not able to institutionalize the principle of shard in ways which would give equal access to decision-making process to Muslim leadership in the pro­vinces, the rule of Medina was destabilized, leading into a state of anarchy and disorder, thereby justifying the imposition of the monarchical rule for maintaining order.

Indeed the Islamic leadership continued, throughout the Rashidun (Rightly-guided) period, to deal with the emerging problems of a vast state by using decision-making mechanisms borrowed from the Arab tribal system. Thus the khalifah at Medina depended exclusively on the Muhajirun and Ansar leaders, while provincial leaders were excluded from such important decisions as the selection of provincial governors. The exclusion of Muslims residing outside Medina from decision-making led gradually to a widespread discontent, culminating in civil disturbance during the reign of the third khalifah, ‘Uthman bin ‘Affan.

While the interpretations of the nature of the armed conflict which plagued the Muslim community after the assassination of the third khalifah may vary, one aspect of the conflict is quite clear, viz., the march from the provinces was instigated by the desire of the provinces to have more control over their own affairs, including the selection of provincial governors.[2]

Thus in the absence of an established procedures for a peaceful resol­ution of the conflict which erupted between the central government and the provinces, the conflict quickly escalated into a civil war which ended in the way described above.


The second area in which Islamic values were undermined because Muslim scholars failed to develop appropriate technical rules for their actualization is the area of scientific research. In their drive to perfect their natural sciences and technologies, Muslim scholars studied works produced by previous--civili­zations, most notably the Greek and Hellenistic. But because Greek sciences and technologies were not completely isolated from Greek values and beliefs, the interaction between Greek and Islamic cultures led to the emergence of the science of Kalam, a science whose main aim was to defend and purify Islamic faith’ from Greek influences. But rather than limiting its purificationalist efforts to the normative aspects of Muslim culture, Kalam scholars ended up condemning all sciences which were rooted in Greek civilization, including natural sciences.

Historically, the tension between the Islamic-rooted and the Greek­-rooted worldviews was manifested in the clash between Muslim theologians (mutakalimun) and Muslim philosophers (falasifah). As a result of this clash, the Mutakalimun gradually developed an antagonistic outlook towards natural (or rational, to use their own term) sciences. This antagonism is apparent in the writings of eminent Muslim scholars, such as al-Ghazzali or al-Shatibi. Al-Ghazzali’s antagonistic attitude towards natural sciences is re­vealed in his important work Tahafut al-Falasifah. Al-Ghazzali set out in this work to demonstrate the impossibility of grounding metaphysical know­ledge in purely rational arguments. And as far as this objective of his work was concerned he was quite successful. Yet though he did not intend to refute physical (or rational) sciences, and cautioned against any attempt of such refutation on the basis of semantic disagreement over the usage of certain terms, or on the basis of apparent disagreement between Qur’anic statements and physical knowledge, he ended up undermining the foundation of physics, i.e. the principle of causality.[3]

Al-Ghazzali denied the necessity of causal connections among natural phenomena, attributing the regularity of natural behavior to customary habituation (‘adah).[4] Evidently, his rejection of the principle of causality was motivated by his fear that one’s belief in causality would undermine one’s faith in God as the ultimate author of all things. As Ibn Rushd was able to demonstrate, while accepting the necessity of causal relations need not lead to undermining one’s faith, as long as the human mind is capable of accepting a necessary connection willed by the Divine, the rejection of this necessity is bound to undermine the very notion of reason, and to reduce the scope of science to science of divinity.[5] While understanding the full ramifications of the mutakalimum-falasifah schism falls outside the scope of this paper, it is important to realize here that by undermining causality the mutakalimun destroyed the foundation of rational sciences; hence science was gradually reduced to legal science, while non-Shari'ah sciences were valued only insofar as they directly contributed to advancing Shari'ah sci­ences. This legalistic tendency, i.e. the equation of science with legal science, is apparent in the writings of leading Muslim scholars who were influenced by the Ash’ari system. This legalism can be discerned in the writings of al-Ghazzali himself. In his al-Mustasfa, al-Ghazzali divided sciences into three categories: rational (‘aqli), narrative (naqli), and rational-narrative, and declared the rational as useless. As he put it:

Sciences are of three types. Purely rational, which Shari'ah does not encourage or require, such as arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and the like. These sciences [may be divided, in turn, into] useful but based on false speculation, and sometimes speculation is sin; and into useless, though it may be predicated on ....... [The second type is] purely narrative, like Hadith, or Tafsir, or rhetoric (Khatabah). . . . [Finally the noblest of sciences is the one that com­bines both the rational and narrative, and joins both opinion and Revelation, and the sciences of fiqh and its principles and of this kind.[6]

The antagonistic attitude towards rational sciences, which we can dis­cern in al-Ghazzali’s works, was elevated into an intellectual principle in al-Shatibi’s writings. In discussing the fifth prelude in his al-Muwafaqat, al-Shatibi declared that “discussing a matter which does not lead to action is a discussion of something the Shari'ah does not approve.”[7] He went on to explain his statement by arguing that studying all kinds of objects for the purpose of gaining knowledge about it is something that Muslims should reject and avoid because it is contrary to the Sunnah. He further proclaimed that these kinds of research were the “practice of the philosophers who are condemned by the Muslims”.[8] Anticipating that his argument could be ob­jected to on the basis that Islam requires learning and sciences, he claimed that this requirement was limited to learning and study of questions connected with action.[9]


We saw in the foregoing section that the relationship between the theoretical (ideal) and practical (actual) aspects of collective life is such that the ability of Islamic principles and values to shape actual practices of society is limited, firstly, by the availability of practical means for their implementation, as well as the development of social structures which permit their institutionali­zation, and, secondly, by their interpretation and systematization into a comprehensive set of beliefs and values.

If the foregoing analysis is correct, then sources of civilizational de­cline cannot be confined to moral corruption, but should include also distor­tions in the original worldview which brought social and material advance­ment in the first place, as well as the failure on the part of the intellectual and political leadership to translate ideals and principles into workable mod­els and effective institutions. Therefore, an effective project of development should take note of the close interrelationship among three strata of social life, alluded to earlier: the psychological, the cultural, and the material. That is, for material development to take place, a set of cultural and psychological conditions must be obtained first.

Psychologically, in order for the peoples’ energies to be channeled to develop their social and material environment, three conditions must be obtained: (1) their actions must be oriented towards work, both mental and physical; (2) they must be willing to postpone immediate gratification, so as to reinvest part of what they produce to further develop and perfect their act of production; and (3) they should have a firm belief in the positive values of innovation and creativity.

Culturally, a number of socio-cultural conditions must prevail in order for the psychological orientation of individual members to have significant effect. These conditions are aspects of social morality which foster an atmos­phere of social trust and cooperation, including: (1) mutual respect man­ifested in toleration of differences in interpretation and strategy; (2) political order conducive to meaningful popular participation, as well as self-criticism and self-correction; (3) a system of law just and efficient to command the respect of the majority of people; and (4) vibrant intellectual and scientific movements.

The intimate relationship between the theoretical and practical aspects of social life, alluded to above, means that the development of the practical (e.g. organizational, economic, etc.) cannot be attempted apart from that of the theoretical (e.g. moral, intellectual, etc.). Indeed, the slow pace of progress in many Muslim countries should be, at least partially, attributed to the failure of political and intellectual leaders to appreciate the dialectical relationship between the development of the cultural and structural levels of social life. A comparative study of the strategies of the two main forces in Muslim societies, the secularist and the Islamist, can show that while the secular and Islamist projects stand in direct opposition in terms of the sub­stantive issues, both approach the issues of their concern with the same one-sidedness which emphasizes one aspect of social life at the expense of the other. Therefore secularists seem to be consumed with structural, pro­cedural, and organizational change, while Islamists are completely devoted to the moral, the legal, and the confessional.


The question of development, and the debate and conflict over developmen­tal approaches and measures, in the context of Muslim societies may be traced back to the early years of the nineteenth century, when the need to reform the military institution, and with it the education and administration systems, was felt by political and military leaders at the highest levels within the Ottoman ruling circles.

Up until the eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was considered a Great Power, with a formidable military capacity and vast territories, stretching over the bulk of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Yet by the end of the eighteenth century, it became apparent that the Empire was on a course of rapid decline. The state of decline was felt by Sultan Salim III (reigned 1789—1808), who was especially concerned about the deteriorat­ing conditions of the Ottoman army, and the decline in-the empire’s capacity to meet military threats from the rising European powers, most notably the Russian Empire. The modernization of the Ottoman army was completed during the reign of Salim III’s successor, Mahmud II, who utilized the services of West European military officers to restructure the Ottoman army.

The efforts to modernize the military were not confined to those of the Sultan at Constantinople. Muhammad Au, the ambitious governor.[11] Egypt, shortly followed in the footsteps of the Ottoman Sultans, embarking on a project of military modernization. Muhammad Ali began his efforts to build a modern military force by hiring ex-officers of European armies, mainly French and Italian. He established several military academies to teach modern military doctrines and techniques, and built a new industrial base to supply the military with modern weaponry systems.” However, he went farther than the Ottoman Sultans when he decided to send missions of Egyptian nationals to receive training in Europe. He started sending students in small groups to receive training in Italy as early as 1813. The first large mission, consisting of forty-four students, was sent to France in 1826. This unprecedented move to send Muslim students to study in the West encouraged the Ottoman Sultan Salim II to follow suit, sending Otto­man nationals to study in Western Europe, mainly in Prussia.[12] Undoubtedly, sending Muslim students to the West marked the beginning of profound cultural changes in Middle Eastern society.

Although the early reforms led by the Ottoman Sultan and his gover­nor were directed almost exclusively towards the military establishment, the two Muslim rulers soon realized that to keep the Ottoman military forces competitive with their European rivals, they had to introduce modern sci­ences to the education system, and hence decided to establish technical schools to teach pure sciences, such as mathematics and physics, since these sciences were excluded from the curricula of regular schools. Evidently both Muhammad Ali and his patron were driven towards reform by the desire to maintain or expand their power base. For not only were their reformist efforts directed, almost exclusively, at the military and the bureaucracy, but they showed no interest whatever in social and political reform.[13]

Yet despite the Ottoman rulers’ desire to confine modernization to technical spheres, and the many precautionary measures they took to safeguard against European cultural influences, the separation between the technical and cultural spheres of Western civilization proved untenable. Quickly, European ideas, customs, and habits began to penetrate the Otto­man society, creating social divisions and cultural tensions. Cultural tension and polarization became increasingly evident when those who received train­ing in Europe came back to assume leading positions in the Ottoman bureau­cracy. Having been exposed to a superior civilization, the European-educated students were deeply impressed by the advanced political and social institu­tions of Europe, and by the vigor and skills of Europeans.

The first Muslim intellectual to point out the flaws of the Ottoman and Khedivate project of modernization was Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. While emphasizing the need for developing the scientific and technological capacities of the Muslims, al-Afghani realized that scientific development could not be achieved merely by training Muslims to use Western technology. For technology and scientific innovations are but artifacts, reflecting the ethos of a people and their philosophical outlook. What was needed by the Muslims to progress was a new spirit and direction. As he put it:

If a community did not have a philosophy, and all the individuals of that community were learned in the sciences with particular subjects, those sciences could not last in that community for a century. . . The Ottoman government and the Khedivate of Egypt have been opening schools for the teaching of the new sciences for a period of sixty years, and they are yet to receive any benefit from those sci­ences.[14]

Al-Afghani ascribed the Muslim failure to catch up with the West in science and technology to their deficient outlook and faulty perspective, arguing that Islam had created in the early Muslims the desire to acquire knowledge. Thus, they quickly assumed a leading role in scientific research, first by appropriating the sciences of the Greeks, Persians, and Indians, and later by moving these sciences to new frontiers.[15] He accused contemporary Muslim scholars (‘ulama) of wasting time and energy on trivial matters, instead of addressing the important questions and issues of the time.

Evidently, al-Afghani, along with those who supported his reformist project, most notably Muhammad ‘Abduh and Muhammad Rashid Rida, believed that genuine technological and economic reforms must be combined with cultural reform. People’s attitude and conception have to be reformed if the locus of the organizational and technological development was to be located within the Muslim society itself. Al-Afghani endeavored, therefore, to combat fatalism, which plagued the bulk of Muslim societies by the turn of the nineteenth century. It was widely accepted then that Muslim decadence was natural, as it reflected an advanced stage in the continuous moral decline since the time of the Prophet. It was also believed that this trend was inevitable and beyond human control.[16] Al-Afghani rejected this interpreta­tion of history, which was advocated by traditionalists, insisting that Muslim decadence has been precipitated by moral and intellectual decline, and that the superiority of the West, and its triumph over the Muslims, was a tempor­ary stage in the continual struggle between the East and the West.

The reformist school put the blame for Muslim backwardness in par­ticular on Muslim scholars, traditionalist ‘ulama. AI-Afghani, for instance, argued that the ‘ulama, rather than providing strong leadership for the community, had become obstacles hindering its development. By dividing science, which has a universal nature, into Islamic and European, the ‘ulama had deprived the ummah of technology, allowing the West thereby to surpass the Muslims in military capacity. “Ignorance had no alternative”, he wrote, “but to prostrate itself humbly before science and to acknowledge its submission.[17]

Similarly, Muhammad ‘Abduh held the ‘ulama’ responsible for the Muslim decline for failing to confront the serious problems facing the ummah, and to enlighten the people as to how they can go about solving them.[18] Even worse, the ‘ulama’ have adopted a fatalistic outlook, believing that nothing can be done to overcome the plague encompassing the Muslim community. ‘Abduh explains:

Those idle and stagnant say, repeating the saying of the enemy of the Qur’an: the end of time has arrived, and the day of judgment is about to start, and that corruption which has befallen the people and the recession which has inflicted religion are only signs of the age. It is, therefore, useless to work to [rectify these deviations], for all efforts [in this regard] are fruitless, and all movements [in this direc­tion] are pointless.[19]

The fatalistic attitude of Muslim scholars was reflected in their resis­tance to innovation and creativity, as well as in their blind adherence to the opinions of their forefathers. To prevent contemporary Muslims from resort­ing to original reasoning and to inhibit fresh reading of the divine revelation, traditionalist ‘ulama raised the early generation of Muslims to the level of sanctity and infallibility, and resorted to all repressive measures to combat original minds.[20] Abduh went farther to openly accuse traditionalist ‘ulama of being the enemies of Islam; they kept the Muslims weak by depicting natural sciences as perverted, admonishing Muslims to refrain from learning them. “The truth is where there is proof’, Abduh wrote, “and those who forbid science and knowledge to protect religion are really the enemies of religion.”[21]

But rather than bringing about an Islamic reform, the critique of Muhammad ‘Abduh led to strengthening the forces of secularization in Egypt. This is due mainly to the fact that the work of Abduh helped reveal the flaws of the traditionalist models without offering an alternative. His students and followers, including Sa’d Zaghlul and Mustafa Kamil, substi­tuted Western models for the traditional.


The secular model of development is epitomized in the work of Taha Hussein. Hussein, and other secularists, shared the reform school’s belief in the need for cultural reform in order to achieve organizational and technolog­ical development. His solution, however, was not geared towards developing contemporary social forms on the basis of Islamic principles and norms, but to wholeheartedly embrace Western forms and institutions. To achieve this objective Hussein endeavored to prove that Egypt belonged culturally to the West, and to deny the significance of Islamic influence on Egyptian society.

In Mustaqbal al- Thaqafah fi Misr, Hussein set out to demonstrate the Western nature of the Egyptian culture. Stressing historical continuity and the interrelationship between past and future historical conditions, Hussein wrote: “I do not want us to contemplate the future of culture in Egypt except by reflecting on its distant past, and near present. Because we do not want, and cannot afford, to sever linkage between our past and pre­sent.”[22]

To demonstrate that the Egyptian culture was historically part of the European culture, Hussein argued that Pharaonic Egypt was in harmonious relationship with the “Western” nation of Greece, while it was engaged in a bloody conflict with the “Eastern” nation of Persia.[23] He pointed to the cultural exchange that took place between the Egyptians and the Greeks during the reign of Alexander the Great. “The Egyptian mind, during the reign of Alexander”, he contended, “influenced, and was influenced by, the Greek mind, sharing many, if not all, of the latter’s characteristics.”[24] This is what happened in the distant past, but what about the near past? Hussein recognized that Pharaonic civilization was superseded by over one millennium of continuous Islamic civilization, but rejected the notion that the Islamic culture had restructured the Egyptian mind. He rather contended that as Christianity. was forced to readjust to fit into the European culture, failing thereby to reshape the European mind, which continued to be faithful to its Greek roots, so did Islam change so as to conform to local cultures, thereby failing to change the Egyptian mind, or for that matter, what Hussein called the “Mediterranean mind”. “If it is true that Christianity did not change the European mind, and was not able to deprive it of its Greek heritage, or strip it of those characteristics it acquired by being part of the Mediterranean region, it should be [equally] true that Islam did not change the Egyptian mind, or the minds of other Mediterranean people.”[25] Hussein conceded that most Egyptians saw themselves as part of the East, not only the geographical, but the cultural as well.[26] He, however, dismissed this belief as a misconception, arguing that religious similarity among Middle Eastern societies, though can be the “basis of economic exchange, is not sufficient to be a basic of cultural unity.”[27]

Hussein returned from the distant past to the present to find that the old close ties between the Egyptian and European society have been renewed in the last few decades. He noted that the Egyptians have copied the Euro­pean life in all aspects.

Europe built railroads and telegraph and telephone lines, so did we. Europe uses tables [for dinning], and produces [different kinds] of dining wear, tools, and food, so do we. We have gone further to emulate Europeans in their clothing, and even their lifestyle, without being selective or cautious; nor have we distinguished between what is good and what is not, nor what is appropriate and what is inapprop­riate [when emulating the European]. Our political system is purely European, we have copied it from Europe without being cautious or hesitant.[28]

If the Egyptian society had already become in practice a European society, as Hussein asserted, why is it necessary, then, for him to prove the obvious? Hussein realized that the Europeanization of the Egyptian society was incomplete. For one thing, only the “upper” social classes (al-tabaqat al-raqiyyah) had been Europeanized, while the vast majority of Egyptians had not. But for another, Hussein recognized that the development of the upper classes, and the Europeanization of the Egyptian society, and by implication, of other Middle Eastern societies, had been superficial. What had been Europeanized is people’s taste, not their intellect. They had ac­quired European appetite, but not the European assertiveness, creativity, productivity, or scientific curiosity. Even the parliamentary system and the democratic rule, a source of great pride to Hussein, which he thought were so entrenched in society that no Egyptian would be willing to give them up,[29] were after all not so deeply rooted in pre-1950 Egypt. Hussein himself was allowed to live enough to see the democratic system vanishing in the air in 1952.[30]

Be that as it may, Hussein contended that Western culture remained at the surface, unable to penetrate deep into the heart of the Egyptian society, because Egyptians have been reluctant and selective in adopting European culture. In order to ripe the fruits of modern civilization, Egyptians would have to follow the example of the Japanese, who, although exposed to Western civilization for a shorter period of time, stand today on equal footing with the West, because they have not been hesitant in adopting Western ideas and practices.[31] In short, to stand on competitive ground with the Europeans, the people of Egypt, Hussein contended, have to become Europeans themselves; they have, that is, to embrace the European culture in all of its aspects, both the “good” and the “bad”.

The road to [civilization] cannot be traveled on empty words, super­ficial semblance, or compromised positions. The road is rather straightforward, with no alternatives. The road is this: we have to follow in the footsteps of the Europeans, and adopt their ways, in order to become their equals; we have to become their partners in modern civilization], in its good and evil, in its sweetness and bitter­ness, in its attractive and repulsive aspects, and in its elements which can be celebrated and those which should be faulted.[32]

The model of modernization qua Westernization was carried vigor­ously by almost all Muslim secular regimes that had dominated Muslim societies since the middle of this century. The result has been a very slow pace of material growth without development. Surely, for all appearances, life in most Muslim capitals seems to be as modern as it is in Western capitals. But beneath the facade of modernity lies an eerie emptiness. For as soon as one delves deep to examine modern practices, one finds that Muslim elites have acquired only Western taste, but not Western industrious­ness and creativity. That is to say, Muslim elites’ interest in modernity lies for the most part in consuming modern goods, and imitating Western lifes­tyles. Even when one encounters modern institutions and technologies in Muslim societies, one finds them lifeless and dysfunctional. Hence parliamen­tary systems in most Muslim countries share with their Western counterparts only the procedural element of vote-casting, but not the spirit of popular political participation. Similarly, factories may produce products similar to those manufactured in developed societies, but the technologies and the innovative ideas behind them are made abroad.

The failure of the secular project of modernization lies primarily in the fact that secular elites thought they could impose Western culture and practices through an act of bare force. They failed to understand that the mode of change lies ultimately in the psychological and cultural aspects of society, which can only be influenced through an open debate aimed at persuasion, and not through compulsion and harassment.


It was against the background of the violent model of secularization that the current Islamic model of development emerged and matured. The model of change, which continues to be dominant within the rank of Islamists, is epitomized in the writings of Sayyid Qutb. Qutb organizes his system of ideas around three key concepts: “jahili society”, “Islamic society”, and “the Islamic vanguard”. He contends that all societies could be subsumed under one of two, mutually exclusive, societies: Islamic and jahili Qutb developed the concept of jahiliyyah or jahili society, to analyze modern society and expose its shortcomings and deficiencies. The term jahiliyyah was first introduced in the Qur’an in reference to the faithlessness of the pre-Islamic Arab society and its ignorance of Divine guidance. Sayyid Qutb, however, adapted the term and gave it a new definition. According to Qutb, the jahili society is one that has been established on rules, principles, and customs that have been founded by man without regard to, or in ignorance of, divine guidance. In such a society, Qutb argues, man’s unrestrained greed and self-aggrandizement become the overwhelming forces that domi­nate social, economic, and political relationships among its members, leading to injustice and exploitation of some persons, classes, races, or nations by others.

[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.

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