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The Individual and Society in Islam

Prof. Abdelwahab Bouhdiba
M. Ma ‘ruf al-Dawalibi


Abdelwahab Bouhdiba

The set of six volumes in the series about the various aspects of Islamic culture, of which this is the first to appear, aims to give a reasoned, objective picture of the various aspects of Islamic civilization. This involves summarizing our knowledge, assessing the stage our various Islamic cultures have reached, and showing both their richness, exuberance and variety of expression and also their unity.

Encyclopaedic learning, aiming to spread its net as widely as possible, by no means excludes concrete approaches. Our goal is not to produce an apologia. We consider that Islam does not need one, and that it is enough to show it as it is for the secrets of its emergence and the reasons for its expansion, durability and extraordinary vitality to appear at once. Threatened continuously from its birth to the present day, Islam continuously asserts itself. It is not even a matter of a phoenix rising from the ashes. Islam is not in danger and there is no need to defend it.

Nor is it our aim to write a learned work. There are hundreds of books of all kinds, ancient and modern, by genuine great scholars on the inside and equally great and equally profound observers on the outside. These books, in every language, written with differing sensitivities and from a wide variety of approaches, have built up an extraordinary rich knowledge of Islam. This contribution by Islamic studies fortunately still continues today. It would be absurd to duplicate it or claim to compete with it. Our idea is simply to put forward, on problems of major interest, an approach that is both objective and committed and that above all captures the spirit that in various ways and with varying success has animated Muslim societies.

We know that accumulated misunderstandings often caricature Islam and give a thoroughly inaccurate and unfair picture of it. We know, too, that some of the answers from ‘the inside’ are at best clumsy and unnecessarily impassioned, not to say plain wrong, and tend (to the delight of our detractors) to exaggerate this caricature still further.

We are equally well aware that societies with their backs to the wall readily set off in search of illusory refuges, and think that they can find true safety in extremisms of all sorts. We are also all too well aware that it is these extremisms that attract the most attention. They can only please all those who, for political, ideological or economic reasons, have a vested interest in prolonging the misunderstandings that have done so much harm.

But we believe that the time for sterile polemics is past. In any case it must be ended. It is as deeply believing modern citizens aware of our own difficulties and as adults responsible for our fate that we set out to raise our problems here. There is no denying that Muslims societies today are nearly all developing societies; technically they are backward; and they are spared neither by poverty, hunger, ignorance or wickedness. Evil, like a cancer, is eating them away and undermining them from within. For some two centuries external threats and innumerable challenges have unceasingly blocked their continuing efforts freely and independently to overcome their intolerable decadence, which is damaging and protracted. So there is a great temptation to impute to Islam this serious backwardness and structural inadequacy, not to mention the crimes committed here and there, sometimes even in its name! The younger generation in Muslim countries can no longer make do with noble declarations of intent and vague question-begging. They urgently need to understand in order to believe, to analyse in order to belong, and to acquire convictions so as to embark on their future clearsightedly and even with joy and happiness.

We wish to be receptive to these urgent questionings and crises of conscience. We wish to do our best to shed light. We wish to give real answers to legitimate questions. So we must evade nothing, for there is really no need to be ashamed of our heritage, or even of our present or of our efforts to find a solution to real questions – the only ones ever worth asking.

There could be no better framework for our enterprise than UNESCO. Islam’s universalist spirit and that Organization’s vocation to be receptive to mankind link up perfectly. It is to mankind, Muslim and non-Muslim, that we address ourselves to develop the message of Islam. We wish to give our book the widest possible scope. In it a Muslim élite carries out a genuine self-analysis. In so doing it bears penetrating, demanding and lucid testimony to the efforts of past and present Muslim cultures to take their place and assert themselves as the heirs to the message of the Qur’ª n.

Hence while scholarship underpins our work, it is not its end. We certainly mean to take advantage of the contributions of modern science. Historiography, archaeology, linguistics, sociology, economics and political science are all pressed into service; and we have made the most of them. We have checked all the facts and used to our advantage all the specialist knowledge that is the pride of our time, yet without overlooking the considerable works of our predecessors and our contemporaries among Muslim scholars. But despite all the concerns of our time, our common ground remains.

Volume 1, still in preparation, will set out the Foundations of Islam. It will elucidate the Revelation and give as accurate an idea as possible of Islamic dogmas, beliefs and practices.

Volume 3 will show both the diversity and the universality of Islam. Its subject will be the way Islam has ‘apprehended’ the world. The expansion, building and dismemberment of an empire and the internal and external tensions are all part of a historical process that had and still has its moments of glory and of tragic uncertainty.

Volume 1 will deal fully with theology and dogmatics. Volume 3 will draw widely on history and geography. The present volume seeks to show how Islam conceived and implemented man’s place in the community. Drawing on fiqh (jurisprudence) and modern sociological analysis it seeks to follow the intellectual progress of Islam, which sets out to create a new man, eternal and ever worthy of the trust God placed in him.

Without duplicating the subject-matter of the later volumes we hope, by combining the historical development of ideas with an account of the doctrine and the concrete approach, to show the enormous historic task performed by Islam to regulate life in a community and make the sacred precepts dominant in society. Islam on the march, always on the march, is an incarnation perpetually in search of itself to fulfil the word of God through the law, the family, the state and morals. It has never really stopped developing its own dynamism: we would even speak of continuing acculturation.

We have not evaded the real difficulties Islam has met in translating its eternal principles into practice. The Revelation is a fact in history. Essentially timeless and absolute, it corresponds to a moment in human time. But his ‘time’ is not itself enclosed within historical boundaries. The beginning and end of Prophecy mark the limits of the jª hiliyya (pre-Islamic times) and absence of checks. But the Revelation is in a sense a continuing fact. The jª hiliyya is not necessarily behind us. It can also be in us; around us; in front of us. The Islamic conception of man runs up against social constraints and psychological limitations. Little of the drama experienced by the Muslim conscience will be understood without first realizing that permanence implies precariousness, that strictness implies tolerance, and that the eternal principles would be no use to Islam or Muslims had it not been a matter of first creating Muslim actions. In Islam as elsewhere the creation of values is continuous, for values need to be carried and supported by a conscience that believes in them and a will that carries them out. To be a Muslim is to face a continuing challenge. The modern world’s challenges to Islam are modern only in their formulation and the context that surrounds them. It needs to be realized that this challenge has been one of the most lasting constants in our history: the preaching in Mecca, the building of an Islamic state in Medina, the epic of the early caliphates, three of which ended tragically, the ShÌ ‘ ite crisis, Umayyad and Abbasid expansion, the Crusades, decline, colonization and decolonization are all to some extent lasting crises marking our past, burdening the present and confusing the paths of the future. Fourteen centuries during which the Revelation, initially perfect, nevertheless reigned; dynamic but eternally in search of its own translation into action. Fourteen centuries of problems solved, but also of answers challenged as soon as uttered, like phoenixes rising from the ashes.

This means that a priori Islam never lacks resources. Its flexibility and the way it allows for inevitable constraints and the weight of circumstances have enabled it to win through where so many other cultures have perished. It was up to us to identify these resources, take note of them and evaluate them by the yardstick of the present; and also to see how Muslim societies of today seek to put them into practice.

The Qur’ª nic Revelation was a real rediscovery of the human person. In that sense it reinstates the evangelical message and restores to human reason the status denied to it both at that time and in the modern world. If Islamic civilization was a window on the universal, this is by virtue of its conception of the very nature of creation. To use one’s reason is to apprehend oneself as a universal being. So people must open their eyes – those of the body, those of the heart and those of reason. For anonymous individual to human person, from mechanically unified tribal society to the umma as an open community, from traditional society to universal society, a kingdom of rational ends – such is the progress to which the Qur’ª n calls us. It defines men as equals. Thus equity (i.e. justice), brotherhood and equality are basic values.

‘Thus have We made of you / An Ummat justly balanced …’ (II.143).This balancing, or mediating, function of the Muslim community constitutes a true transcendental investiture. It informs it with islamicity. It makes it take responsibility for the values of equity, freedom and justice. The just are the authentic ones, and they are the living signs of piety. ‘Be just: that is Next to Piety …’ (V.8).

This exemplariness leads to an essential dignity, identifies ways of thinking, defines modes of action and delineates a lifestyle. There is continuity between the flowering of values and their translation into action.

This was precisely the most significant contribution of fiqh, which for many centuries was and still is the continuing formulation of the lax (sharÌ ‘ a). The role of fiqh has been to derive from the precepts of the Qur’ª n clear, precise rules, case by case, as to what everyone’s behaviour should be in daily life. Deduction (instinbª ð ) has been raised to the rank of an art having no connection with mechanical casuistry. Starting from absolute principles but taking account of the requirements of the times, how should people act? Fiqh lays down a real art of how to behave. It means bringing morals down to earth and principles down from their pedestal, so that the law may truly inform behaviour.

Thus the behaviour of Muslims could be as Islamic as possible and strive towards the ideal. Islam is a twofold tension, upwards and downwards: attuned to the ideal model, and transfiguring ordinary people. The vertical deduction of the law – the object of fiqh – is complemented by an upward-looking quest for the ideal action. God possesses the archetypal Book (umm al-kitª b) (IV. 7-33; XLIII.4). He gives it to man by an act of His divine grace. It is for man, from moment to moment as his life unfolds, to write in the mark of that archetype. Existential experience is a dynamic guided by an agonizing anxiety to obtain God’s satisfaction by behaving in a Qur’ª nic way. Piety in life is not formal adoration, but searching for the divine absolute through all my ways of feeling, thinking and acting.

It is not righteousness / That ye turn your faces / Towards East or West; /But it is righteousness - /To believe in God/ And the Last Day, / And the Angels, /And the Book, /And the Messengers; / To spend of your substance, / Out of love for Him, / For your kin, /For orphans,/ For the needy, /For the wayfarer,/For those who ask, /And for the ransom of slaves; /To be steadfast in Prayer,/And practise regular charity; To fulfil the contracts/ Which ye have made; /And to be firm and patient, /In pain (or suffering)/ And adversity/And throughout / All periods of panic/ Such are the People/ Of truth, the God-fearing (II.177).

The programme of my existence is thus completely mapped out. It is a matter of fulfilling it, and furnishing our lives with actions conforming to the divine precepts: which will be by no means an easy task.

The Qur’ª n is thus the matrix on the basis of which legal rulings, collective attitudes and individual behaviour are determined. From the divine being to the human person the road is admittedly long. The object of this volume is precisely to bring out this progress and show how the socialization of man and the individualization of the law are both parallel and complementary.

Fiqh, which gives this volume its rich and splendid subject-matter, has taken on at least five functions in Islamic culture: it has channelled, acculturated, regulated, integrated and reassured.

Fiqh is not merely a reading of the Qur’ª n and the sunna. It has (in the strongest sense of the word) channelled the Revelation by designating just actions and drawing all the immediate and remote implications from the distinction between Ê alª l and Ê arª m, licit and illicit. The thousands of treatises on fiqh also acted as powerful relay stations for the Revelation. The principles are thus brought within reach of all: of all societies, and within them of all consciences in all circumstances. Fiqh, both the part concerned with observance (‘ ibª dª t) and that concerned with ‘intercourse’ with others (mu‘ ª malª t), has thus continuously conveyed the Islamic sharÌ ‘ a. It has popularized, publicized and socialized it. Thanks to it, ethics and the creed have been translated into institutions and become realities, embodied in attitudes and behaviour corresponding as closely as possible to the demands of the Qur’ª n.

As a result an enormous process of acculturation, perhaps unique of its kind, has been carried out: this volume can give but a slight idea of it. Every society that embraces Islam comes into it with its own structures, organization, customs and culture. Fiqh has not been a steamroller, stifling all spontaneity in them. It has not substituted an Arab mode of organization for all others. It has taken account of indigenous traditions so long as they did not infringe the provisions of the law, pruning here, correcting there, repressing when necessary. The profusion of schools, rites and trends bears witness to this desire to islamize societies without reducing them to uniformity. The ideal from the outset was pluralism. God created men in diversity: and diversity is wealth. So that divergence between faqÌ hs (jurisconsuls) appears as ‘a mercy from God’ (wa-ft ikhtilª fihm raÊ ma). All of that is, as it must be, subject to the distinction between the licit and the illicit. Provided that the precepts of the Qur’ª n were observed, people could organize themselves as they wished. The various political, cultural, educational, economic and social institutions were accordingly remodelled if necessary, but always in an organic way: and also so as to allow scope for the creative genius of groups. This was one of the secrets of the extraordinary profusion of Islamic culture, which shared out Islam and accepted in return the happiness of Andalusia, the naturalness of Africa, the Greek genius of Byzantium, the dolce vita of India and Polynesia. ‘Let there be no compulsion / In religion’. (II.256) This is not a slogan; there is no compulsion in cultural creativity either. Whenever possible, Islam teaches that social control is far preferable to the compulsion it must replace. We would like the reader to consider how essential this approach to acculturation is. It is of course beyond the scope of the present volume: we hope that the others will cover it.

Fiqh has not acted merely as a powerful regulator. Though it very often looks like real casuistry, it is because it has been on the lookout for every situation, in order to produce, if not always a final answer to it, at least a reasoned and justifiable one. The codification of fiqh into commonplace general principles, specialized headings and case-studies (fatª wª ) has given it application to the general as well as to the particular. It is mental gymnastics which in the last analysis is only wisdom, realism and rigour. ‘Make things easy, do not make them inaccessible’ (yassirñ wa-lª tu‘ assirñ ) sets out no other attitude. Fiqh has thus ‘dialecticized’ the Qur’ª n and made its scope historic. By so doing it has been the vector of the law and regulator of the behaviour of Muslims.

Whence the integrative dimension of fiqh. Muslim societies could not, in view of what we have just said, be closed societies. By definition, they were open and dynamic. And yet the Islamic reference so systematically built up was structured in such a way that every action and every thought, whilst being free and independent, bore its imprint. If the freeing of the conscience did not develop a characteristic pathology, it was because the individual remained powerfully integrated into society. He belonged to the group. Better, he was the group. He was not merely part of the Islamic community: he was the Islamic community.

Whence, lastly, the reassuring function of fiqh. Socialization was a process of adaptation. Facing a new situation, the individual was not flung into the unknown. Guided by the standard-setting attitudes produced by education and conveyed by so many economic and social institutions, no one was abandoned to his passions alone. To the extent that Islam has been sufficiently internalized, man reacts in full confidence and maturity. The huge standard-setting and cognitive structure of fiqh treats believers as adults and takes them all seriously. Better still, it takes seriously everything about them – their reason, needs, desires, dreams and aspirations. Social constraint acts from outside in the form of prohibitions. Social control acts from within in the form of guidelines and references which make it possible every time to analyse the situation and invent the behaviour best calculated to meet it. Fiqh conveys an extremely socialized vision of man. Whence the protection of the individual, and the security (tum’anÌ na) that produces inner peace and fulfils the ‘divine promise’: ‘O (thou) soul, /In (complete) rest / And satisfaction! /Come back thou/ To thy Lord, /Well pleased (thyself) / And well-pleasing / Unto Him! / Enter thou, then, / Among my Devotees! / Yea, enter thou/ My Heaven!’ (LXXXIX. 27-30).

First fiqh, and then the various institutions, acted in such a way as to stimulate and also limit. The aim is to bring individual initiatives, the resources of the community, collective constraints, the interests of all parties, and moral obligations as closely as possible into conformity with the precepts of the Qur’ª n. Of course a social mechanism is never absolute or faultless; it could not be total in so far as (perfection not being of this world) it is man’s nature only to strive towards it. Moreover Islam’s control over Muslims has never been total, and the converse is hardly less true: Muslims’ control over Islam has never been total either. So on the one hand there is extreme socialization and on the other extreme determination, both limiting or reinforcing each other as the case may be. Whence so many difficulties and vicissitudes, which with the lapse of time and in the light of the difficulties encountered today stand out in striking relief. If today the ‘machine" seems to be racing, it is because the processes of traditional social control have become quite inadequate. We are required to rethink our modes of integration and techniques of Islamization. The various Islamic cultures have given education a special place in the socialization of individuals and the individuation of its principles. They have made education the main motive of social control. But what we forget is that education is not purely and simply training. It only succeeds if it first takes care of the independence of the individual.

Education in Islam aims to ensure the independence of the individual, but does not exclude the learning process. It rests on every person’s ability immediately to recognize value, rationally to distinguish good from evil, to find his bearings in collective activities, and lastly to engage in plans for existence which he draws up from scratch and in which he sees himself as the driving force of his own community and as responsible for his own destiny, and discovers Islam as an indispensable requirement for his own fulfilment.

Thus compulsion no longer has much meaning, and violence plays a minimal role. ‘No compulsion in religion’ puts independence first and relegates violence to last. Islam has realized that violence, though diminished and even purely symbolic, has no lasting effectiveness. Repression carries within itself its own limits. Penalties are in the end no more than limits: fiqh itself speaks of Ê udñ d (statutory punishment).

Relationships between members of the community are essentially relationships of equality, or better of strict brotherhood. No group, class or person is entitled to draw systematic advantage for itself or individual benefit from the precepts of the Qur’ª n. The effectiveness of Islamic law flows from the definition of laws as mutual, universal, imprescriptible obligations. The chapters on economic and political thought will amply demonstrate this.

Better still, this brotherhood goes beyond the strictly Islamic dimension and runs into the human one. Mutual help and the sense of value apply to all my brothers, whether People of the Book or not. The senses of intra-communal and inter-communal solidarity extend and reinforce each other. MuÊ ammad’s community must maintain peaceful and mutually respectful relations with all other communities. Reprehensible activities by one or the other can at worst only give rise to conflicts which can in any event be only temporary and transient.

Such are the broad outlines of the Qur’ª nic revolution which gave the Islamic faith its full, complete and absolute meaning. It is this faith that animates fiqh, and that enabled it to undertake all the functions we have analysed. True faith, in Islam as elsewhere, is essentially active. Its very nature requires this, since it is prayer and communion with God. A Muslim is not merely a being who has faith, he is faith. A Muslim is a subject, not an object. Much more, beyond the object and beyond the subject the Islamic faith is a project. Hence it must be continually faced with the ever-shifting, ever-new data of history, society and culture. It is through my commitment to the world that my faith is fulfilled and that through it my life finds a meaning. Divine in its essence, nevertheless faith is in trust in the Muslim’s conscience and life. It is no doubt by virtue of it that God can reveal Himself as ‘nearer to him / Than (his) jugular vein’ (L.16).

A few words about the organization of the present volume. In view of the diversity and importance of the issues addressed, several approaches would have been possible. At meetings of the editorial committee, we tackled the topics selected by starting with the most theoretical and ending with the most practical, moving in this way from the abstract to the concrete. We endeavoured to single out the underlying principles in order to identify the processes leading to their application. Our first chapter thus treats of basic norms and values. The second takes a look at rights and responsibilities generally. The following (Chapters 3-9) are concerned with the ways and means whereby they are translated into reality and seek to analyse the crucial issue of socialization. The object is to see how the moral and social thinking of Islam has taken shape and how it has found expression through the major institutions of the family and education. Special attention was paid to the specific status of women, children, young people and those outside the mainstream of society. Chapters 10, 11 and 12 discuss specifically Islamic approaches to the economy, political power and the workings of the law. Chapters 13, 14 and 15 are concerned with all the particular situations that have given rise to numerous misunderstandings and misinterpretations, namely: the status of minorities, inter-community relations and human rights. Lastly, Chapter 16 offers us a vivid picture of everyday life in the Islamic city and is, so to speak, the culmination of the whole edifice. The hope at least is that we shall thereby show the reader how, at several levels of social and historical reality, Qur’ª nic institutions have been actually implemented, with all that this entails in the way of risks, theoretical and practical difficulties, theological, philosophical and legal inquiry and the development of institutions explicitly responsible for the implementation of basic principles.

Shortly after the completion of this work, we learned of the death of Dr ‘Abd al-‘AzÌ z Kª mil, who had allowed us to benefit from his immense learning, his great perspicacity and his matchless generosity. In him we have lost a distinguished colleague and a dear friend. Without his masterly contribution, our book would have been incomplete.

We have also been informed that our distinguished colleague Dr MuÊ ammad ‘Abd al-Hª dÌ RÌ da has recently died. His fine contribution to the present work will count as a swan song on which he lavished much care. While we have lost a dear friend and a scholar of great vision, we are sure that the whole of his work will long continue to spread its light.

Note to the Reader

All Qur’ª nic quotations and verse numbers are given here according to the Arabic text with facing English translation provided by A. Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur'ª n. Text, Translation and Commentary, Lahore, 1938, many subsequent editions.

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