Sociology is the study of events, trends and relationships in human societies. Through such study we learn the principles that societies are based upon, how they develop and which factors strengthen or weaken them.
The Qur’an, which contains the Divine guidance necessary for humankind, gives the social dimensions of human life the most importance. That is why Muslim scholars reflected upon and wrote about sociological matters long before sociology was recognized as a formal discipline in Europe. Even acts of individual worship commanded by Islam have an essentially social or collective aspect which is evidently beneficial to the community, enabling mutual care and solidarity as well as identity and cohesion.
The principle of worship
Part of the rationale behind the duties of worship established by the Qur’an is to maintain social order by training individuals in submission to the One God of all. The Qur’anic concept of worship is inclusive-it means fulfilling the commands and avoiding the prohibited. Every aspect of a Muslim life is interrelated with every other and oriented to worship. Verses 21-22 of Chapter al-Baqara give the reason for calling human beings to worship:
O people! Worship your Guardian-Lord who created you and those who came before you, that you may have the chance to learn righteousness; who has made the earth your couch and the heavens your canopy; and sent down rain from heavens; and brought forth therewith fruits for your sustenance. Do not then set up rivals to God when you know [the truth].
The comprehensiveness of worship reflects the comprehensiveness of the Divine attributes upon which human life depends and of which it is always needy. This is clear in the great opening chapter of the Qur’an, al-Fatiha. Before saying You we worship and to You we turn for help, we praise and glorify God as Lord and Sustainer of all creatures and creation, as the Most Merciful and Compassionate, as Master of the Day of Judgement.
As the Qur’an emphasizes in many verses, worship strengthens and matures the conscience making it individually and socially active on behalf of good. Without it, the Islamic virtues do not become a part of the normal character of either individual Muslims or of their communities. The present condition of Muslims in the world, in spite of their huge numbers, illustrates how, if worship is neglected, families and societies lapse into mutual distrust, feuding and internal wars, making them vulnerable to external manipulation and thereby weakening them further as Muslims.
Worship is the means to contentment both in this world and in the Hereafter. It harmonizes worldly and otherworldly aspirations and activities because it sustains a vigorous, honourable bond of each and all with their Lord and, through their worshipping as the creatures of One God, with each other. Just as people working for a highly regarded company or enterprise are proud to declare their association with it, so too are alert, practising Muslims proud to declare their belonging to God through the service of worship and say: inna li-llah - we are for God, we belong to God.
How worship provides for man’s worldly contentment can be explained as follows:
1. Man is privileged compared to other creatures by his subtle and complex senses and faculties. He is most selective and scrupulous and is born with an inclination towards living rightly and seeking perfection, and a corresponding aversion to what is bad, ugly and gross. The inclination towards perfection means that he has almost infinite needs. Indeed, even to satisfy the needs essential for survival, namely food, clothing and shelter (security), he is obliged to co-operate with fellow human beings. Therefore, man is, essentially a social creature.
The development of three basic faculties-thinking, desiring and using force to achieve objectives-are restrained in all creatures except man. Because man is uniquely charged with the duty of stewardship of the creation, God has put no restraints upon the development of these faculties in man. There is, in consequence, a potential in man to unjust and unruly conduct, to do wrong to his best nature, to live selfishly at the expense and in disregard of others. But social life requires some measure of discipline on the part of a society’s members if it is to function effectively to secure the basic needs for all.
However, though all people agree upon the need for justice, their understanding of justice will differ according to a number of factors such as cultural background and level, conscience, experience, interests and relationships. Hence the need for an overarching authority whose command is acceptable on account of its universality and impartiality. This authority is religion. As the laws of physics, set by Divine command, are constant in their operations and neutral as regards man’s interventions in the natural world, so too the ordinances of religion (the laws of human relationships and relationship with God) are constant, unchanging and impartial.
For man to consent to obey the commands of religion, he must be alert to the Divine Power which created him and all things. He must understand and remember the principles of belief, in particular that he is sent to this world to be tested and perfected, that the One who sent him observes him constantly and knows the condition of his innermost being and hears his every petition. Worship is the principal means to maintain this state of mind and to improve it.
2. Worship awakens conscience and therefore keeps people honest in their social relations and duties.
3. Worship, because of its social dimensions, maintains the quality of human relationships. Regular prayer enables meeting and interaction with other Muslims in the mosque; fasting at least one month each year reminds the prosperous and well-fed of the conditions of the less-fortunate and unites all in a shared discipline; the obligation to pay the alms-tax requires an effort to create prosperity and then share it to achieve distributive balance in the economy; the greater pilgrimage to Makka assembles all the diverse tribes and nations of Muslims in a great, public demonstration of unity and solidarity under One God.
It is hard to conceive of any more effective means of establishing social harmony and mutual responsibility than the duties of worship in Islam.
The principle of striving
One of the laws set in the universe by God is work or striving. As God is always active (Qur’an, 85.16) He commands human beings to be active also and renew themselves. The whole creation is constantly busy in glorifying and praising God (e.g. 59.1). The world of living organisms hums with the rhythms of labouring:
And your Lord taught the bee to build its cells in hills, on trees, and in [men’s] habitations... (Nahl, 56.68)
Many verses (e.g. 56.11-4) tell that day and night, sun and moon and stars etc., are for the service of human beings, to enable their striving in every dimension of human life.
Striving is so much a part of the structure of the universe that to resist it is more burdernsome than to go along with it. That is why a person who lies in bed all day making no effort is less happy than one who strives and struggles.
The principle of constancy in truth
The Qur’an tells us that God will help those who are constant in their adherence to and striving for the faith:
So neither lose heart nor fall into despair: for you must gain mastery if you are true in faith. (Al ‘lmran, 3.139)
The promised help is conditional:
1. There are two Ashari’ahs: the natural and the revealed, or the book of the universe and the Book of Revelation, the Qur’an.
The recompense for obedience or disobedience of the laws given in the Qur’an is seen mostly in the Hereafter whereas the recompense of following the laws given in the universe is mostly seen in this world. For example, the reward of perseverance in the laws of religion is ultimate victory, the reward of incompetence in understanding or applying the laws of nature is misery. It follows that a truthful person may be unsuccessful if he uses the wrong means and an untruthful person may be successful if he uses the right means.
2. Though a Muslim should be the bearer of all Islamic qualities it does not always happen so: a non-Muslim may be a better example of an Islamic quality. That’s why it can happen that an Islamic quality of a non-Muslim triumphs over the un-Islamic one of a Muslim.
Absence of the concept of ‘primitive’ peoples
Sociological and anthropological theory in the West still adheres to the notion that, at the beginning of human history, human beings and societies were ‘primitive’ and gradually evolved and progressed until they reached the ‘civilized’ state of societies as they are today.
The Qur’an does not teach any such notion of ‘primitiveness’. All human beings are descended from the Prophet Adam, who was taught the names of all things, and his wife, Eve. Neither their mode of life nor their relationships nor their religious worship were ‘primitive’.
Human societies frequently declined from their true or original state of recognizing and worshipping One God, and Prophets and Messengers were sent to teach them and guide them to righteousness. Throughout history, many societies and nations of so-called ‘high civilization’ were destroyed on account of their spiritual and moral decadence, and the Qur’an gives warning narratives about them. It is in part because of the absence of a concept of ‘primitiveness’ that Islamic rule over so many diverse peoples of the world has been, in general, tolerant, patient and assimilative with their diversity, whereas Western rule has been, in general, impatient, brutal and destructive.
All civilizations or cultures have a span of life, just as an individual human life has its determined span:
To every people is a term appointed: when their term is reached, not an hour can they delay it, nor advance it. (A’raf, 7.34)
Comparison with Western civilization
The Christian peoples by and large rejected the Qur’an’s offer to hold some common ground between themselves and the Muslims and to leave their differences to the Will of God (see. e.g., Al Imran, 3.64).
Though hard to believe now, at the time of the rise of Islam, the lands of the southern Mediterranean were the wealthiest part, in intellectual, cultural and economic terms, of the then Christian world. When these lands were conquered by Muslims and, with the passage of time, great numbers of Christians accepted Islam, many clerics became quite irrational in their attitude to Islam and presented it, willfully, in the most outrageously false manner. The early climax of this irrational hatred of Islam was the long wars of the Crusades. This dreadful campaign against Islam was formally abandoned seven centuries ago. However, an important part of it was the embedding of images which remain deep in the cultural attitudes (and the languages) of European peoples. Just as it is impossible, despite all the historical evidence to the contrary, to alter the image, created by centuries of Church propaganda, of witches or of Vikings, so too, it seems, it is impossible to alter the negative image of Muslims and Islam in popular Western consciousness.
After the Renaissance, civilization in Europe separated itself from the Christian religion and moved towards materialism and humanism. It took rather more of its inspiration from Greek philosophy and Roman political and administrative order and very little from Christianity. The Islamic civilisation which protects the Revelation continued to be regarded as the major threat and rival throughout the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods. When the military and economic balance had shifted, following the industrial revolution in Europe, overwhelmingly against the Islamic world, the Europeans tended to regard Muslims more with contempt than fear
Now, after the collapse of Communism, some authoritative Western figures have explicitly declared that the only enemy of the West is Islam. At this cross-roads, both parties, Western civilization and Qur’anic civilization, should state clearly what kind of people and society they want so that a choice can be made between them:
According to Western philosophy the basic rule in collective affairs is selfish conflict over who controls and profits from available resources. The outcome of this conflict is determined by power. The best that civilized society can offer is to balance powers within and between groups so that conflict is mitigated to some extent. Solidarity within the group has commonly been expressed as an extension of selfishness to embrace a particular nation or race. This means that the Western nations have felt free to exploit weaker peoples beyond their frontiers, to regard them as lesser beings who do not deserve the same rights and privileges, and should not expect the same share of the world’s goods, as themselves. The consequence of this philosophy has been continual tension between peoples expressed in overt or covert war. Within societies the same philosophy has been expressed in the conflict between economic classes and in ever-increasing levels of alienation and anxiety. In certain respects, community life, even family life, have ceased to function as a resource for people. Having no other status than as consumer units, and finding no other means of consolation, of belonging to society, the great mass of people are reduced to pointless consumption.
In absolute contrast, the Qur’an assures us that the basic rule in both individual and collective life is seeking the pleasure of God. Since God is the Most Merciful and Compassionate, seeking His pleasure means seeking virtue and contentment instead of pleasure and self-aggrandisement. It means that virtue is a practicable goal for a human society, that the governing principle of collective life is cooperation, not conflict. It means that what unites a people as a community is not primarily race or nationality but their shared status as servants of the One God and the bond of religion. That is why, in the Islamic world, by and large, mutual help and social welfare programmes were reasonably effective in spite of comparatively low levels of gross wealth. In the Western countries, expenditures on such programmes constitute a fraction of gross wealth and are under constant threat because the basic motive of these programmes is not mutual caring but the avoidance of class conflict: if gross wealth declines (as is happening at present) the level of ‘social spending’ is reduced in spite of the ‘social cost’ in civil unrest and crime.
Western civilization, for all its many splendid achievements is bound to fail, because of its radically unsound basic principles, to bring happiness to humankind. It can and does provide great material prosperity (amid great waste) to a segment of a segment of the human population. The Qur’an commands a balanced growth and development because it defines human beings, individually and collectively, as belonging to this world and the Hereafter, and as answerable, all equally, to their One Creator.