Approaches to the Understanding of Islam

Developing Just Leadership

Ali Shariati

Rajab 25, 1398 1978-07-01

Occasional Paper

by Ali Shariati

(A complete translation of Ravish‑i Shinakht‑i Islam, comprising two lectures given at Husayniya‑yi Irshad in Aban 134710ctober 1968.)

BEFORE I BEGIN discussing the subject itself, it may be appro­priate to mention a number of points by way of introduc­tion and reminder. These points may not be directly connected to my subject, but they have priority, insofar as they relate to fundamental and vital problems.

In recent years, most intellectuals have come to believe that talking is no longer of any use, and that to speak of our suffer­ings is of no benefit. Until now, we have constantly talked and discussed our sufferings without doing anything or undertak­ing any action. We must therefore close the era of talking, and everyone must begin acting by reforming his family or his city.

In my opinion, this view is based on an oversight, because in reality we have not talked up to now, we have not spoken of our Sufferings, we have not closely and scientifically analyzed our sufferings. All we have done is to moan in our misery, and it is obvious that such moaning is of no value.

Up to now, we have not discussed our psychological and social problems at all correctly. Sometimes the false impression may arise that we have diagnosed our ills and must now set about curing them, but unfortunately it must be said that we have not diagnosed our ills.

Those who have set to work and experienced the difficulties, diversions and misfortunes that assail man in his practical strivings, realize and feel full well how little we have spoken concerning our sufferings, and how slight is our awareness of our sufferings, our corruption, our perversions!

Not only have we not spoken enough concerning our beliefs and religious and ideological outlook; we have not spoken at all on the subject.

How can we say that we have diagnosed our ills and spoken enough concerning them, and that now is the time for action? We are a religious society; the basis of our work must be reli­gious; but we still do not know our religion.

By profession I am a teacher, and when my students ask me for books concerning certain topics, I am unable to answer them, for no books on those topics exist in the Persian lan­guage. This is truly shameful.

Our nation prides itself on having followed the ja'fari school and Ali for centuries. From the very first century of Islam, when Iran entered the Islamic community and swiftly discarded its ancient religion in favor of Islam, it has followed the school of Ali, the companions of Ali and the government of All, whether officially as is now the case, or practically, with respect to sentiment and belief. But today when a student asks me what book he should read concerning Ali, or the first persons who followed Ali and laid the foundations for the history of Shi'ism in the very first century of Islam through their extreme loyalty to Ali, I can give him no answer.

All I know of those persons is their names.

For a nation whose religion is the religion of Ali, it is extremely shameful not to have written a single worthwhile book concerning Ali and his companions.

It is shameful that after fourteen centuries, All should be made known to us by a Christian, Georges jourdaq, and that Abu Dharr should be presented to us by jaudat as‑Sahhar, one of our Sunni brothers.

Salman Farisi was the first Iranian to embrace Islam; he is a Source of pride to the Aryan race and to all Iranians. He was a great man and a genius who followed the Prophet at the very beginning of his call, and then became so close to him as to be considered part of his family. The only book concerning this man‑a source of pride to Iran from the national, scientific, religious and Shi'i viewpoints‑has been written by a French­man;1 in Persian, not even four pages exist concerning him.

I do not know how we can claim that the stage of analysis and discussion is at an end, and that now is the time to begin work! I do not wish to say that this is not a time for action and work, because speaking and acting, analyzing and applying, must always be joined together. This was the practice of the Pro­phet: he never divided life into two sections, the first consisting exclusively of talk and the second, exclusively of action. It is an extremely naive claim to make that "we have spoken enough and now is the time for action." All we have done is to moan and lament plentifully, and I am also convinced that lamenting in pain must be abandoned. Instead, we must speak concerning our sufferings, out of a sense of suffering, but also "scientifi­cally." The school of thought in which we believe must be the basis of our work, activity and thought. We must know what kind of man Ali was, and we must make the acquaintance of Abu Dharr and Salman and the veracious transmitters from the Prophet and Ali.

Unfortunately, no readable, worthwhile book exists in Per­sian concerning these sacred personages who are deserving of respect from a purely human viewpoint, quite apart from any religious considerations. If six books on the subject have appeared recently, they are all translations; we ourselves have not yet taken pen in hand.

Someone who knows the Qur'an well is known in this coun­try as "accomplished" (fazil), not as a "scholar" ('alim). The scholars enjoy a higher rank than the accomplished, who know about such subjects as the Qur'an, the history of Islam, and the life of the Prophet and his Companions; who interpret and explain the Qur'an and are skilled in such matters. These people are the second‑class scholars of Islam! If this mode of thinking be true, even the Prophet, Ali and Abu Dharr must be regarded as "accomplished," not "learned."

It is for this reason that I am convinced that the greatest, most urgent and most vital task confronting us today is to speak‑to speak correctly, to speak out of a sense of suffering, yet at the same time precisely and scientifically, and thus to analyze what afflicts us. For all those who have set to work in our country and elsewhere in the Islamic world in the hope of accomplishing something have seen very little result for their efforts, or no result at all. The reason is that when they set to work, they did not know what needed to be done, and it is certain that as long as we do not know what we want, we will also not know what to do.

Our first task is, then, the knowledge of our religion and our school of thought. Yes, centuries after our historical adhesion to this great religion, we must still begin, unfortunately, with an attempt at knowing our religion.

As I said in our previous session, there are various ways of knowledge of Islam. One is the knowledge of Allah, and com­paring Him with the objects of worship in other religious. Another is the knowledge of our book, the Qur'an, and compar­ing it with other heavenly books (or books that are said to be heavenly). Yet another is the knowledge of the personality of the Prophet of Islam and comparing him with the great reform­ing personalities that have existed throughout history. Finally, one more is the knowledge of the outstanding personalities of Islam and comparing them with the prominent figures of other religious and schools of thought.

The duty of today's intellectual is to recognize and know Islam as a school of thought that gives life to man, individual and society, and that is entrusted with the mission of the future guidance of mankind. He should regard this duty as an individ­ual and personal one, and whatever be his field of study, he should cast a fresh glance at the religion of Islam and its great personages from the viewpoint of whatever may be his field of study. For Islam has so many different dimensions and varying aspects that everyone can discover a fresh and exact vantage point for viewing it within his field of study,

Since my field of study is the sociology of religion and the project is connected with my work, I have tried to codify a kind of sociology of religion based on Islam and drawing on the terminology of the Qur'an and Islamic literature. In the course of my work and research, I came to realize that there are many totally untouched topics that we have not even imagined existed. One of the facts I encountered in my study of Islam and the Qur'an was the existence of scientific theories of history and sociology peculiar to the custom and method of work of the Prophet. What is implied here is something different from taking the Qur'an, certain Verses Of the Qur'an, the philosophy and certain methods used by the Prophet, or the political, social, psychological and ethical system of life of the Prophet, and then analyzing them by means of contemporary science. We might, for example, try to understand the cosmological verses of the Qur'an with the help of physics, or to deduce the meaning of the historical and sociological verses of the Qur'an in the light of sociology. What I mean is something quite different; namely, that I extracted from the Qur'an a whole series of new topics and themes relating to history, sociology and the human sciences. The Qur'an itself, or Islam itself, was the source of the ideas. A philosophical theory and scheme of sociology and history opened themselves up before me, and when I later checked them against history and sociology, I found them to be fully correct.

There are several important topics in the human sciences that I discovered with the aid of the Qur'an that have not yet been discussed by these sciences. One is the topic of migration. In the book Muhammad, Seal of the Prophets, published by the Husayniya‑yi Irshad, the topic is discussed only in its historical dimension; i.e., the movement of peoples from one point to another, From the tone in which the Qur'an discussed emigra­tion and migrants, from the life of the Prophet and, in general, from the concept of migration field in early Islam, I came to realize that migration, despite what Muslims imagine, is not merely a historical event.

The understanding that Muslims have of the hijra is that a number of the Companions migrated from Mecca to Abyssinia and Medina on the orders of the Prophet. They imagine that migration has the general sense in history of the movement of a primitive or semi‑civilized people from one place to another, as a result of geographical or political factors, and that for Muslims, migration represents simply an event that took place in the life of the Muslims and the Prophet of Islam. But from the tone in which migration is discussed in the Qur'an, I came to perceive that migration is a profound philosophical and social principle. Then, turning my attention to history, I realized that migration is an infinitely glorious principle, and that it consti­tutes a totally fresh topic, one by no means as simple as history and historians have made it out to be. Even the philosphers of history have not paid attention to the question of migration as it truly deserves, for migration has been the primary factor in tire rise of' civilization throughout history.

All the twenty‑seven civilizations we know of in history have been born of a migration that preceded them; there is not even a single exception to this rule. The converse is also true, that there is no case on record in which a primitive tribe has become civilized and created an advanced culture without first moving from its homeland and migrating.

I deduced this topic, which is of great relevance to both history and sociology, front Islam and the tone in which the Qur'an discusses migration and commands permanent and general migration.

All the civilizations in the world‑from the most recent, the civilization of America, to the most ancient that we know of, the civilization of Sumer‑came into being on the heels of a migra­tion. In each case, a primitive people remained primitive as long as it stayed in its own land, and attained civilization after undertaking a migration and establishing itself in a new land. All civilizations are, then, born of the migrations of primitive peoples.

There are numerous subjects and topics that I came to under­stand in this way. Islam and the Qur'an, in proportion to my own degree of knowledge of them, helped me to understand questions of history and sociology in a better, fresher and more precise fashion. I thus came to realize that through applying the special terms of the Qur'an, it is possible to discover numerous topics even in the most modern of sciences, the human sciences.

The subject I now wish to discuss, with respect to the sociol­ogy of Islam, is the greatest dilemma of both sociology and history: the search for the basic factor in the change and devel­opment of societies. What is the basic factor that causes a society suddenly to change and develop, or suddenly to decay and decline? The factor that sometimes causes a society to make a positive leap forward; to change totally its character, its spirit, its aim and its form, in the course of one or two centuries; and to change completely the individual and social relationships obtaining in it?

Attempts to find air answer to this question have been contin­uing for centuries, and particularly during the last 110 years, all the different schools of sociology and history have constantly lavished clear and exact attention on the search for an answer. The question constantly raised is this: what is the motor of history, the basic factor in human society's development and change?

The various schools of sociology part company at this point, each one devoting attention to a particular factor.

Certain schools do not believe at all in history, but regard it as nothing more than a worthless collection of narrations from the past. They also refuse to accept that sociology should have any fixed laws, principles or criteria.

A certain kind of scientific anarchism exists in the world. It is pessimistic with regard to the philosophy of sociology and the human sciences, and considers accident to be the basic factor. It says that the changes, advancements, declines, and revolutions that take place in nations all come into existence as the result of accident. For example, suddenly the Arabs attacked Iran; by chance, Iran was defeated and later the Iranians became Mus­lim. By chance, Chengiz Khan attacked Iran; it so happened that Iran's government was weak at that time, so that it was defeated. The Mongols entered Iran, so that the Mongol culture and way of life became intermingled with the Irano‑Islamic way of life, and a certain change took place. Similarly, the First and Second World Wars also broke out by accident; it was possible that they should not have taken place. In short, this school regards everything as the outcome of chance.

Another group is composed of the materialists and those who believe in historical determinism. "They believe that history and society, from the very beginning down to the present, are like a tree, devoid of any volition. In its origin it was a seed. Then it emerged from the seed, appeared above the ground, put forth roots, stems, branches and leaves and grew into a great tree, compelled to yield fruit, to wither in winter, to blossom again in spring, to attain perfection and finally to decay. This group believes that human societies traverse a long life throughout history in accordance with determining factors and laws that play in human society exactly the same role as the laws of nature in the natural realm.

According to this belief, individuals can have no effect on the fate of their societies, and society is a natural phenomenon that develops according to natural factors and laws.

The third group consists of those who worship heroes and personalities. It includes the fascists and Nazis, as well as great scholars like Carlyle, who also wrote a biography of the

Prophet of Islam, and Emerson, and the like. This group be­lieves that laws are no more than a tool in the hands of powerful individuals and have of themselves no effect on society. Average

and sub‑average persons, equally, have no share in the chang­ing of society; they too are like tools for others to use. The only fundamental factor in the reform or advancement of society, or the cause of its downfall, is the powerful personality.

Emerson says: "Give the the names often powerful personal­ities, and I will tell you the whole of human history, Without ever studying it. Tell me about the Prophet of Islam, and I will tell you about the whole history of Islam. Present me with Napoleon, and I will expound for you the whole history of modern Europe."

In the view of this group, the destiny of society and mankind is in the hands of powerful personalities, who act as the guides for all societies. The happiness or wretchedness of societies does not, then, depend on the masses of the people, nor is it caused by inevitable laws of environment and society, nor is it the result of mere accident; it depends solely on great personalities who every now and then appear in societies in order to change the destiny of their own societies, and sometimes that of mankind.

In his biography of the Prophet of Islam, Carlyle writes as follows: "When the Prophet of Islam first directed his preach­ing to his own relatives, they all rejected him. It was only Ali, at that time a ten year‑old boy, who arose in response to the call of the Prophet and gave him his allegiance." Carlyle then con­cludes, in the light of his own way of thought: "That small hand was joined to the large hand, and changed the course of history."

The opinion also exists that the people, the generality of society, do play a role in determining their destiny; but no school of thought, not even democracy in its ancient or modern forms, claims that the masses are the fundamental factor in social development and change. Democratic schools of thought believe that the best form of government is that in which the people participate; but from the time of Athenian democracy down to the present, none of these schools has believed that the broad masses of the people are the decisive factor in social change and development. The most democratic of sociologists, then, even while believing that the best form of government and of administrative and social organization is that in which the people participate by casting their votes and electing the government, do not regard the "people" as the basic factor of social change and development. Instead, they regard determin­ism, great personalities, the elite, mere chance or divine will as the decisive factor.

The worshippers of personality can be divided into two groups.

The first group consists of those who believe that a great personality like the Buddha, Moses or Jesus appears and changes human society. They are the pure hero‑ worshippers.

The other group consists of those who believe that initially a personality appears and then he is joined by a group of the elite, the outstanding geniuses of his people, so that a team comes into being. It is this elite team which directs society on a path and to a goal of its own choosing. This group might more correctly be called "elite‑worshippers."

In Islam and the Qur'an, none of the foregoing theories is to be found. Now from the point of view of Islam, the prophet is the greatest of all personalities; and if Islam were to believe in the role of the prophet as the fundamental factor in social change and development, it would have to recognize all the prophets, and especially the Prophet Muhammad, as constitut­ing that fundamental factor. We see, however, that this is not the case. The mission and the characteristics of the Prophet are clearly set forth in the Qur'an, and they consist of the conveying of a message. He is responsible for conveying a message; he is a warner and a bearer of glad tidings. And when the Prophet is disturbed by the fact that the people do not respond and he cannot guide them as he would wish, God repeatedly explains to film that his mission consists only of conveying the message, of inspiring fear in men and giving them glad tidings, of showing them the path; he is not in any way responsible for their decline or advancement, for it is the people themselves who are responsible.

In the Qur'an, the Prophet is not recognized as the active cause of fundamental change and development in human his­tory. He is depicted rather as the bearer of a message whose duty it is to show men the school and path of the truth. His mission is then completed, and men are free either to choose the truth or to reject it, either to be guided or to be misguided.

"Accident" also has no decisive role to play in Islam, for all things are in the hand of God, so that accident, in the sense of an event coming into being without any cause or ultimate pur­pose, is inconceivable, whether in nature or in human society.

If personalities are mentioned in the Qur'an, other than the prophets, their mention is frequently joined with a sense of condemnation or distaste. Even if they are mentioned for their righteousness and purity, the Qur'an never considers them as an effective factor in their societies.

The conclusion we deduce from the text of the Qur'an is, their, that Islam does not consider the fundamental factor in social change and development to be personality, or accident, or overwhelming and immutable laws.

In general, those addressed by every school of thought, every religion, every prophet, also constitute the fundamental and effective factor of social change within that school. It is for this reason that we see throughout the Qur'an address being made to al‑nas, i.e., the people. 'The Prophet is sent to al‑nas; he addresses himself to al‑nas; it is al‑nas who are accountable for their deeds; al‑nas are the basic factor in decline‑in short, the whole responsibility for society and history is borne by al‑nas.

The word al‑nas is an extremely valuable one, for which there exist a number of equivalents and synonyms. But the only word that resembles it, structurally and phonetically, is the word "mass."

In sociology, the masses comprise the whole people taken together as an entity without concern for class distinctions that exist among them or distinguishing properties that set one group apart from another. "Mass" means, therefore, the people as such, without any particular class or social form.

AI‑nas has exactly the same meaning, i.e., the masses of the people; it has no additional meaning. The words insan and bashar also refer to man, but they refer to ethical and animal properties respectively.

Frorn this we deduce the following conclusion: Islam is the first school of social thought that recognizes the masses as the basis, the fundamental and conscious factor in determining history and society‑not the elect as Nietzsche thought, not the aristocracy and nobility as Plato claimed, not great personali­ties as Carlyle and Emerson believed, not those of pure blood as Alexis Carrel imagined, not the priests or the intellectuals, but the masses.

We can fully realize the value of this point of Islamic doctrine only when we compare it with other schools of thought.

To whom do the various other schools of thought address themselves? Some of them address themselves to the educated and intellectual class; others, to a certain selected group within society. One addresses itself to a superior race, another to super­men, while yet another focuses its attention on a certain class of society, such as the proletariat or the bourgeoisie.

None of the privileges and distinctions assumed by these schools exists in Islam. The only fundamental factor in social change and development is the people, without any particular form of racial or class privilege, or any other distinguishing characteristics.

The following can also be deduced from the Qur'an: while tire people are those to whom the Qur'an addresses itself and they constitute the axis and fundamental factor in social devel­opment and change, and while they are responsible before God, at the same time personality, chance and tradition also have been recognized as capable of affecting the destiny of society. According to Islam, there are then four fundamental factors of social development and change personality, tradition, acci­dent and al‑nas, "the people."

Tradition, in the form derived from Islam and the Qur'an, has the sense that each society has a fixed basis, or in the words of the Qur'an, it has a road, a path, a particular character. All societies contain definite and immutable laws within them­selves. A society is like a living being; like all organisms, it has scientifically demonstrable and immutable laws. From a cer­tain point of view, then, all developments and changes that take place in a society take place on the basis of a fixed tradition and immutable laws that are the very fundament of social life.

Islam thus appears to approach the theory of determinism in history and society; but it has something further to say on the subject, modifying the law it has established. In Islam, we have both human society (al‑nas) being responsible for its fate, and also the individuals that compose society being responsible for their destinies. The Qur'anic verses, "For them shall be what they have carried, and for you shall be what you have earned," (2:134) and "Verily God does not change the state of a people until they change the state of their own selves" (13:11) bear the meaning of social responsibility. By contrast, the verse, "Every soul is accountable for what it has earned" (74:38) sets forth the responsibility of the individual. Both society and the individual are therefore answerable for their deeds before the Creator, and each constructs his own destiny with his own hands.

In sociology, these two principles are apparently contradic­tory‑on one side, the responsibility and freedom of man in changing and developing his society; on the other side, the notion of a determining, fixed, scientifically established law, one inaccessible to human intervention, and providing the immutable basis for the movement of society. But the Qur'an looks upon these two poles‑the existence in society of deter­mining, fixed and immutable laws, and the collective and individual responsibility of man for social change and (development‑in such a way that not only are they not contra­dictory, they even complement each other.

In nature matters lie similarly. An agricultural engineer has the responsibility of cultivating the trees and plants in an orchard, the responsibility of ensuring that they bear the best possible fruit, the responsibility of trimming and irrigating the plants and the trees. In all of these matters he has freedom of choice, and therefore also responsibility. But at the same time, we see that certain laws exist in botany, and it is on the basis of these determining and immutable laws that change and devel­opment take place in plants and trees.

In accordance, then, with his degree of knowledge and infor­mation, man can make use of the laws inherent in the plant, laws which are in themselves Unchanging. An agricultural engineer can never establish new laws of botany, nor can he abolish any of the existing laws of botany. Those laws, pre-­existent in nature, impose themselves ineluctably upon the agricultural engineer. But while he cannot change them, he does have the ability to manipulate the fixed practices and laws of botany by means of scientific intervention, and thus to benefit from the existing laws which he cannot change. On the basis of it new form, one lying fully within the scope of the existing laws, he can transform an inferior or average fruit into a superior one.

The responsibility of man in society is exactly similar. Society, just like the orchard, has been established on the basis of God‑given norms and patterns, and its development anti-evolution is also founded on them. But at the same time man is responsible, and he cannot divest himself of his responsibility through reliance upon Khayyamian fatalism or historical determinism, thus ridding himself of accountability for the destiny of his society. For while stating that society is indeed founded upon immutable laws, the Qur’an does not deny human responsibility. According to the school of thought that the Qur'an represents, man has the responsibility of correctly recognizing the norms of society and of improving those norms for the advancement of his society. By what means should he do this? By means of his own knowledge.

Why is an agricultural engineer more responsible than others for the cultivation of an orchard and for increasing its yield? Because he is better informed concerning the norms of the orchard and as a result, enjoys greater freedom in changing the destiny of the trees and its plants. Similarly, the greater a man's knowledge of the norms that predominate in society, the greater is his responsibility for changing and developing society, and the greater, too, his freedom in doing so.

Islam, as a scientific school of sociology, believes that social change and development cannot be based on accident, for society is a living organism, possessed of immutable and scien­tifically demonstrable norms. Further, man possesses liberty and free will, so that by intervening in the operation of the norms of society, once he has learned of them, and by manipu­lating them, he may plan and lay the foundations for a better future for both the individual and society.

Thus on the one hand there exists the responsibility of man; and on the other hand, the belief that society, like a living organism, is founded on immutable and scientifically demon­strable laws.

Maybe this constitutes one of the meanings, from the view­point of sociology, of the well‑known saying, "Neither determinism nor absolute free will, rather a position interme­diate between them.”5

We have, then, on the one hand, man, equivalent to will, and on the other, society, equivalent to norm. Norm (sunnat), in its Qur'anic usage is something unchanging, and man is directly responsible for his individual and social life; the combi­nation of these two represents the "median position." Man is free in his deeds and actions‑not determined‑but obliged to follow the pre‑existent laws of nature in order to realize his freedom.

"Personality" is not in itself a creative factor in Islam. Even the prophets are not regarded as persons who have created new norms in the existing society. Front the point of view of sociol­ogy, the superiority of the prophets to other teachers‑apart from the rank of prophethood itself‑is that they have recog­nized the divine norms that exist in nature and the world better than mere reformers, and on this basis they have been better able to make use of their freedom as men to advance their aims in society. It is a truth fully attested by history that the prophets have always been more successful than reformers who were not prophets.

Reformers sometimes set out the best of theses and principles in their books, but they have never been able to change society or to create a civilization. The prophets, by contrast, have built new societies, civilizations and histories. It is not that they have established new norms in opposition to divine law‑as the fascists and hero‑worshippers might say‑but rather, through the power of prophethood and extraordinary talent, they have discovered the divine norms existing in society and nature, and through the exercise of their will in conformity with these norms, they have performed then mission and attained their goal.

Accident also cannot exist in Islam in the philosophical sense of the word, for God intervenes directly and continuously in all affairs. Moreover, since accident has no logical cause or ulti­mate purpose, it cannot appear in society, nature or life.

However, a certain form of accident, understood in a particu­lar sense, does exist in human fate. For example, Chengiz Khan appears in Mongolia, comes to power in accordance with social norms, and assembles a large force around him. But the defeat of Iran at the hands of Chengiz Khan is an accident; it was quite possible for it not to have occurred. Accidents of this type may very well affect the destinies of certain societies.

In short, four factors affect the destiny of societies ‑personal­ity, accident, norm and people (al‑nas). Among them the two most important are al‑nas and norm, because al‑nas represents the will of the mass of the people, and norm, the scientifically demonstrable laws existent in society.

Personalities in Islam are those who understand well the divine norms; who have discovered these norms by means of a scripture (In the particular sense accorded to scripture by Islam, that of wisdom and guidance), and make of this the secret of their success.

The proportional influence of each of these four factors on a given society depends on the circumstances of that society. In societies where al‑nas, the mass of the people, are advanced and stand at a high level of education and Culture, the role of personalities is reduced; but in societies that have not reached that level of civilization, for example a tribe or a clan, the personality or the leader may be influential. At each different stage of society, with respect to progress or backwardness, one of the four factors mentioned will have more effect than the other three.

In Islam, the personality of the Prophet had a fundamental and constructive role in bringing about change, development and progress, in building a future civilization and in changing the course of history. This was because he appeared in a particu­lar geographical location‑the Arabian peninsula ‑which, front the point of view of civilization, was just like its geogra­phical position. That is, it was a peninsula surrounded on three sides by seas, but thirsting and deprived of water. It was a neighbor to the great civilizations of history: to the north, the civilization of Greece and Byzantium; to the east, the civiliza­tion of Iran; to the Southeast, the civilization of India; to the northwest, the Aramaic‑ Hebrew civilization. It was also a neighbor to the religions of Moses, Jesus and Zoroaster, as well as to the totality of Aryan and Semitic civilizations. At the time of the appearance of the Prophet of Islam, all the civilizations in existence were gathered around the Arabian peninsula. But the peculiar geographical location of the peninsula decreed that just as none of the vapors that arose over the oceans ever reached the peninsula, so too not a trace of the surrounding civilizations ever penetrated the peninsula. The Prophet of Islam thus appeared in such circumstances that his personality was‑from the point of view of a sociologist‑the greatest factor in the change and development of society and history.

Similarly, a historian looking at the great event that occured in the Arabian peninsula in the seventh (Christian) century will see that it absorbed into itself everything that surrounded it and laid the foundations for a great civilization and a lofty new society. When the historian then studies the peninsula and finds it an absolute vacuum from the point of culture and civilization, with its people existing at the lowest level, he is bound to attribute all these signs of change and development, this most fundamental and greatest revolution in history, to the personal­ity Of Muhammad the son of Abdullah. The personality of the Prophet thus has a particular, indeed exceptional, status.

In general there are five major factors that build a man. First, his mother makes the structure and dimensions of his spiritual form. 'The Jesuits say, "Give me your child until he is seven years old, and he will remain a Jesuit until the end of his life, wherever he goes." The mother rears the spirit of man as some­thing tender and sensitive, full of emotion, and gives each child its first instruction with her own gestures while suckling it.

The second factor in the making of man is his father, who makes the other dimensions of the spirit of the child after the mother.

The third factor that builds the outer and apparent dimen­sions of man is school.

The fourth is society and environment. The stronger and more powerful the environment, the greater will be its educa­tive effect upon man. For example, if somebody lives in a village, the formative effect upon him of his environment will be less than in the case of one who lives in an extremely large city

'The fifth educative factor in the building of personality consists of the general culture of society or that of the world as a whole.

There are thus five dimensions which taken together form a mold into which the spirit of man is poured and from which it is extracted once shaped.

Education consists of the particular shape deliberately given to human spirits for the attainment of certain purposes. For if man be left to his own devices, he will develop in such a manner as to be unfit for the purposes of social life. We therefore provide men with certain molds within which to grow and develop according to our desires and the demands of the age.

But in the life of the Prophet of Islam, whose personality must be regarded as the greatest factor in historical change, none of the factors mentioned above affected his spirit. It was, on the contrary, the deliberate purpose of God that no mold or form should be imposed on his spirit, and no artificial or inculcated form should touch his soul, in the way that earns men the approval of their time and then environment. For that great man came precisely in order to break all molds, and if he had grown up within one of them, he would never have been able to complete his mission. For example, he might have become a great physician, but only according to Greek models; he might have become a great philosopher, but only according to Persian models; he might have become a great mathemati­cian or poet, but only according to the models approved by his age. However, he was sent to grow and develop in an environment that was empty of culture and civilization, and to remain untouched by the influence of any of the five factors mentioned above.

It is for this reason that when the Prophet opens his eyes, he does not see his father. Even though he has his mother, the hand that would keep him free of all forms and molds draws him into the desert while his mother is still alive. It was then the practice of the Arabs to send their infants into the desert until they were two years of age, so that they would spend their infancy in the desert. They would then return to the cities to grow up in the care of their mothers.

By contrast with this practice, the Prophet Muhammad went back to the desert after returning to Mecca, and he stayed there until he was five. After some time his mother died. These wise and subtle divine measures preserved from the influence of all forms and molds the infant that was destined to shatter all existing molds‑Greek, Eastern, Western, Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian‑and to create a new mold. Then again the hand of providence and fate removed him from the city to the desert in his youth, on the pretext of making him a herdsman, so that the urban environment might not impose its own approved forms on the spirit that had to develop in freedom. In order that society and the age might not leave any effect on the Prophet, he was, moreover, created in a society that had no general culture. In addition, he was unlettered‑that is, he was unable to read or to write‑because it was necessary that the mold of schooling also should not be imposed on him.

We see then that the greatest distinction and advantage enjoyed by the person who was to undertake such a mission lay precisely in his exemption from all forms and molds accepted in his age, all the forms that fashion man according to a stereo­type. For the man who was destined both to destroy all fire temples and to close down all academies and establish in their place the mosque, the man who was destined to destroy all racial, national and regional forms and molds, should not himself be subject to the influence of any such form.

First, his father was taken from him so that his dimensions would riot be imposed on the spirit of the Prophet. Then his mother was kept at a distance from him so that her maternal affection and tenderness should not taint with lyrical softness a spirit that had to be stern and powerful. He was, moreover, born in a dry peninsula, far removed from universal culture, so that his great spirit might not be affected by the educative influence of any culture, civilization or religion, for a spirit destined to endure and perform an extraordinary mission cannot be fash­ioned in any ordinary form. This apparent deprivation was in reality the greatest of advantages and distinctions for the person who was entrusted with the greatest role in the greatest event of history.

Second Lecture

My topic concerns different approaches to the knowledge and understanding of Islam. "Different approaches" constitutes a precise and important scientific concept, and it denotes meth­odology for the understanding of Islam.

The question of methodology is of extreme importance in history, and particularly in the history of science. The correct cognitive method for the discovery of truth is more important than philosophy, science or the possession of mere talent.

We know that in the Middle Ages, Europe spent a millenium in the most appalling stagnation and apathy, and that imme­diately after the end of this period, the stagnation and apathy gave way to a multi‑faceted and revolutionary awakening in science, art, literature, and all areas of human and social con­cern. This sudden revolution and burst of energy in human thought resulted in the birth of the civilization and culture of today's world. We must now ask ourselves, "Why did Europe stagnate for a thousand years, and what happened to cause a sudden change in direction, so that in the course of three centu­ries, it discovered truths it had failed to perceive in a whole millenium?"

This is an extremely important question; it may, indeed, be the greatest and most important question that science must answer.

Without doubt, numerous factors caused the stagnation of Europe in the Middle Ages, and various causes suddenly awak­ened Europe from its sleep, setting it on the Course of swift and dazzling progress in every respect.

We must point out here that the fundamental factor in the stagnation of thought, civilization and culture that lasted for a millenium in medieval Europe was the Aristotelian method of analogical reasoning. When this way of looking at questions and objects changed, science, society and the world also changed, and as a result of that, human life too. We are con­cerned here with culture, with thought and the scientific move­ment, and it is for this reason that we regard the change in methodology as the fundamental factor in the Renaissance. At the same time, it is true from the sociological point of view that the main factor in this change was the transformation of the feudal system into that of the bourgeoisie; this was caused, in turn by the breaching of the wall that separated the Islamic East from the Christian West, the breaching brought about by the Crusades.

Method is then of far‑reaching importance in determining progress or decline. It is the method of investigation, not the mere existence or non‑existence of genius, that brings about stagnation and apathy or motion and progress. For example, in the fourth and fifth centuries before Christ, numerous great geniuses existed who cannot be compared with the geniuses of the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Aristotle was without doubt a greater genius than Francis Bacon, and Plato a greater genius than Roger Bacon. But what enabled the two Bacons to become factors in the advancement of science, despite their inferiority in genius to men like Plato, while those gen­iuses caused the millenial stagnation of medieval Europe? In other words, why should a genius cause stagnation in the world, and an average man bring about scientific progress and popular awakening? Because the latter has discovered the cor­rect method of reasoning, by means of which even a mediocre intellect can discover the truth, while the great genius, if he does not know the correct method of looking at things and reflecting on problems, will be unable to make use of his genius.

It is for this reason that we see in the history of Greek civiliza­tion tens of geniuses gathered in a single place in the fourth and fifth centuries. The history of mankind has remained under then‑ influence down to the present. But the whole of Athens was unable to invent a wheel, whereas in modern Europe, an average technician who cannot even understand the writings of Aristotle and his pupils has made hundreds of inventions.

The best example of this is provided by Edison, whose gen­eral perception was inferior to that of the third‑class pupils of Aristotle, but who at the same time contributed more to the discovery of nature and the creation of industry than all the geniuses who have been trained in the Aristotelian school dur­ing the past 2,400 years. He made more than a thousand inven­tions, great and small. Thinking correctly is like walking. A person lame in one foot and unable to walk fast, if he chooses the right path, will reach his destination sooner than the cham­pion runner who takes a rocky and winding path. However fast the champion may run, he will arrive late at his destination, if he reaches it at all; whereas the lame person who chooses the right route will attain his destination and goal.

The choice of correct method is the first matter to be consid­ered in all the different branches of knowledge‑literary, social, artistic and psychological. The first task of any researcher must therefore be the choice of the best method of research and investigation.

We must make full use of the experiences of history, and we must consider ourselves obliged, as the followers of a great religion, to learn and know Islam correctly and methodically.

Today is no time for the worship of what we do not know. The educated, in particular, have a heavier responsibility for acquiring knowledge of what is sacred to them; this is not merely an Islamic duty, but also a scientific and a human one. A person's character may be judged in accordance with his degree of knowledge concerning his beliefs, for the mere holding of a belief is no virtue in itself. If we believe in something that we do not fully know, it has little value. It is the precise knowledge of that in which we believe that may be counted a virtue. Since we believe in Islam, we must acquire correct knowledge of it and choose the correct method for gaining that knowledge.

The question now arises, what is that correct method? In order to learn and know Islam, we must not imitate and make use of European methods‑the naturalistic, psychological or sociological methods. We must be innovative in the choice of method. We must of course learn the scientific methods of Europe, but we do not necessarily need to follow them.

Today, scientific methods have changed in all branches of knowledge, and new approaches have been discovered. In the investigation of religion as well, new paths must be followed and a new method must be chosen.

It is obvious that a single, unique method cannot be chosen for the study of Islam, since Islam is not a one‑dimensional religion. Islam is not a religion based solely on the mystic intuition of man and restricted to the relationship between man and God; this is merely one dimension of the religion of Islam. In order to study this dimension, a philosophical method must be followed, because man's relation to God is discussed in philosophy, in the sense of general and unfettered metaphysical thought. Another dimension of this religion is the question of man's life on this earth. In order to study this dimension, use must be made of the methods that have been established in the human sciences of today. Then, too, Islam is a religion that has built a society and a civilization; in order to study these, the methods of history and sociology must be used.

If we took at Islam from only one vantage point, we will have seen only one dimension of this multi‑faceted phenomenon; even if we see it correctly, this will not suffice for a knowledge of the world. The Qur'an itself is a proof of this. It is a book that has many dimensions, some of which have been studied by great scholars throughout history. For example, one dimension com­prises the linguistic and literary aspects of the Qur'an; the literary scholars have examined these minutely. Another dimension comprises the philosophical and credal themes of the Qur'an that the philosophers and theologians of today would do well to reflect upon. A further dimension of the Qur’an, one which has remained more obscure than all the others, is its human dimension, comprising historical, socio­logical and psychological matters. The reason for this dimen­sion's remaining unknown is that sociology, psychology and the human sciences are far more recent than the natural sci­ences. Similarly, the science of history is the most recent science to have appeared in the world; it is something different from historical data or the books of history that are among the oldest books in existence.

Historical passages concerning the fate of nations, their rela­tions with each other, and the causes for their decline and fall, occur frequently in the Qur'an; they must be studied by the historian with a historical and scientific approach. The sociol­ogist must examine them according to sociological method. Cosmological matters and questions relating to the natural sciences and natural phenomena must be examined and under­stood according to the methodology of the natural sciences.

Since my area Of Study and specialization is history and sociology, I assume the right to set forth what has occurred to me in this connection as a plan or design. I will set forth two methods, both of them relating exclusively to the vantage point of sociology, history and the human sciences. In order to make my meaning clearer, I will compare religion to an individual.

Only two ways exist in which to acquire knowledge of a great personality, and both of these ways must be pursued simultane­ously in order to yield the final result‑the knowledge of the great man in question.

The first way consists of studying and investigating the intel­lectual, scientific and written works of the individual, his theor­ies, his speeches, his lectures and his books. Knowledge of the ideas and beliefs of a person is an indispensable preliminary to understanding him. But our investigation of these will not suffice for a complete understanding of the person, because many things will exist in his life that are not reflected in his works, his writings and his pronouncements, or, if reflected there, they may be difficult to discern. The second way, ‑which complements the first and makes possible a complete under­standing of the person, is to Study his biography and to seek an answer to such questions as: where was he born? to what family did he belong? what was his race and what was his country? how did his childhood pass? how was he educated? in what environment did he grow up? where did he study? who were his teachers? what events did he confront in the course of his life? what were his failures and his successes?

There are, then, two fundamental methods for gaining knowledge of a person, and both must be followed: first, the investigation of his thoughts and beliefs; and second, the exam­ination of his biography from beginning to end.

A religion is like a person. The ideas of a religion are concen­trated in its book, its "scripture," the very foundation of the school of thought to which it summons men. As for the biog­raphy of a religion, it is its history.

There are, then, two fundamental methods for learning Islam correctly, precisely and in accordance with contemporary methodology. First, the study of the Qur'an, taking it as the compendium of the ideas and the scientific and literary output of the person known as "Islarn"; and second, the study of Islamic history, taking it as the sum total of the developments undergone by Islam from the beginning of the Prophet's mis­sion down to the present.

These are the two methods, but unfortunately the study of the Qur'an and the study of Islamic history are very weak, as they non exist in our corpus of Islamic studies; in fact, they exist on the fringe of those studies. Fortunately, however, as a result of the awakening that has taken place in Muslim society in our age, Muslims are paying increased attention to the study of the Qur'anic text and to the analytical study of Islamic history.

In his book The Night of Imperiali'sm, Farhat Abbas says that the social awakening of the countries of North Africa‑Mor­occo, Algeria and Tunis‑began on the day that Muhammad Abduh carne to North Africa and began teaching the interpre­tation of the Qur'an, a subject that had not customarily been taught in the circles of religious learning.

We see that the author of the book‑who was not himself religiously oriented‑regards the beginning of awakening and religious development in the countries of North Africa as hav­ing occurred when the Muslims and their religious scholars laid aside the study of the various religious sciences and made it their chief concern to go back to the Qur'an and study its text.

The knowledge and understanding of the Qur'an as the source of the ideas of Islam, and the knowledge and understand­ing of Islamic history as the record of the various events that have occurred at different times‑these are the two fundamental methods for attaining a precise and scientific knowledge of Islam.

If today the Muslims of Iran are transforming their mosques into centers of activity and are drawing up plans for the instruc­tion of the masses, on the twin bases of the Qur'an and history, they will have laid the firmest foundation possible for a great Islamic intellectual expansion and development.

Another method exists for gaining knowledge and under­standing of Islam‑the method of typology. This method, which many sociologists believe effective, consists of classifying topics and themes according to type and then comparing them on that basis.

Based on this approach, which is used in Europe in research on certain topics pertaining to the human sciences, I have established a method that can be applied to every religion.

It consists of the identification of five distinguishing aspects or characteristics of every religion, and then comparing them with the corresponding features in other religions:

1) the god or gods of every religion; i.e., the entity worshipped by the followers of the religion.

2) the prophet of each religion; i.e., the person who proclaims the message of the religion.

3) the book of each religion; i.e., the foundation of the law proclaimed by the religion, to which it invites men in faith and obedience.

4) the circumstances of the appearance of the prophet of each religion and the audience to which he addresses himself; for each prophet proclaims his message in a different fashion. One will address himself to people in general (al‑nas), another to princes and the nobility, and still another to the learned, the philosophers and the elect, one prophet will thus seek to draw near to established power, while another sets himself up as an adversary and opponent to established power.

5) those choice individuals each religion nurtures and produces‑the representative figures it has trained and then presented to society and history. In just the same way that the best method for assessing a factory is to inspect the goods it produces, and for assessing a plot of land is to examine the harvest it yields, so too religion may be regarded as a factory for the production of men, and the men nurtured by each religion constitute the goods it produces.

According to this method, in order to learn and know more of Islam, one must first know God or Allah. Various ways exist for gaining knowledge of God, such as gazing and meditating upon nature and the methods of philosophy, illumination and gnosis.... But the method I wish to propose is that of typology. We examine the type, concept, features and characteristics of the God discussed in Islam. For example, we ask whether He is wrathful or merciful. Is He exalted above all being? Is He commingled with man? Does His compassionate aspect predoniniate cover His wrathfuI aspect, or is the reverse the case? In short, what “type" of God is He?

In order to correctly recognize the characteristics of God, we must refer to the Qur’an and the words of the Prophet, as well as the elite among those whom he trained. For the divine attributes have been clearly set forth in the Qur'an, and the Prophet and those whom he trained have referred to them in their pronouncements. Then we can compare Allah with the figure depicted in other religious as God‑Ahuramazda, Yahwa, Zeus, Baal, and so forth.

The second stage in knowing and learning Islam consists in knowing and learning its book, the Qur'an. One must also understand what kind of a book the Qur'an is, what topics it discusses, and what areas it emphasizes. Does it speak more of the life of this world or more of the hereafter? Does it discuss questions of individual morality more, or social questions? Is it concerned more with material or with abstract objects? Is it more interested in nature or in man? In short, what matters does it treat and in what fashion?

For example, with respect to proving the existence of God, does it recommend to man that he should refine his Soul in order to know God? Or does it instruct us to attain knowledge of God through the study of the particulars of creation, the exter­nal and internal worlds? Or should we follow both paths?

Havings answered these questions, we should proceed to a comparison of the Qur’an with other religious texts, such as the Gospels, the Torah, the Vedas, the Avesta, and so on.

The third stage in acquiring knowledge of Islam is learning the personality of Muhammad ibn Abdullah. To know and understand the Prophet of Islam is extremely important for the historian, for nobody has played in human history the same role as the Prophet. The role of the Prophet in the events he occasioned is an extremely powerful and positive one. When we speak of the personality of the Prophet, we mean both his human attributes and his relationship with God, with the particular spiritual strength he derived there from. In other words, we are concerned both with his human and his prophetic aspects.

For example, with the human dimension of the Prophet, we must study the way in which he spoke, worked, thought, smiled, sat and slept; we must study the nature of his relations with strangers, with enemies, with friends and family. We must also examine his failures and his triumphs and the manner in which he confronted great social problems. One of the basic and fundamental ways of learning the original essence, spirit and reality of Islam is their, learning about the Prophet of Islam and comparing him with other prophets and founders of reli­gions, like Moses, Jesus, Zoroaster and the Buddha.

The fourth stage consists of examining the circumstances tinder which the Prophet of Islam appeared. Did he, for exam­p1e, appear without any preliminary? Was anyone waiting lot him? Did he himself anticipate his mission? Did he know what his mission was to be? Or was it that a sudden and powerful blow descended upon his spirit, an extraordinary current Of thought began to flow through his mind, totally changing his manner of speech and personality, in Such fashion that he initially found it difficult to bear? How did he confront men when he first proclaimed his mission? To what class did he pay particular attention, and against what class did he struggle? All of these are matters that aid us in the understanding of the Prophet of Islam and the circumstances of his appearance.

If we compare the circumstances under which the Prophet of Islam appeared with those under which other prophets appeared‑whether true or false‑such as Jesus, Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Confucius, Buddha and so forth, we reach the following remarkable conclusion: all the prophets, with the exception of those of the Abrahamic line, turn immediately to the existing secular power and seek association with it, hoping to propagate their religion and message in society by means of that power. By contrast, all the prophets of the Abraharnic line, from Abraham down to the Prophet of Islam, proclaim then' missions in the form of rebellion against the existing secular power. At the very outset of his mission, Abraharn begins de­stroying idols with his ax; he strikes his ax against the supreme idol of his people in order to proclaim his opposition to all the idols of his age. The first sign of the mission of Moses is when he enters the court of the Pharaoh in his shepherd's garb, with his staff in hand, and declares war on pharaonism in the name of monotheism. Similarly, Jesus struggles against the power of the Jewish priesthood, since it is allied with Roman imperial­ism. And the Prophet of Islam, at the very beginning of his mission, starts the struggle against the aristocracy, the slave owners and the merchants of Quraysh, the owners of orchards in Ta'if. The comparison of the two groups of prophets‑the Abraharnic and the non‑Abrahamic‑helps us to understand the essence, spirit and orientation of the various religious in question.

The fifth stage in the learning and understanding of Islam consists in studying the outstanding examples, the finest goods that these factories for the production of men have delivered to humanity, society and history.

If, for example, we choose to study Aaron in the religion of Moses, St. Paul in the religion of Jesus, and Ali, Husayn or Abu Dharr in the religion of Islam, as outstanding specimens of each of the religions, this will facilitate for us the understanding of the religions.

An exact, clear knowledge of those persons will, from the scientific point of view, resemble the knowledge of a factory through the knowledge of the goods it produces, because reli­gion is a factory engaged in the production of men.

Let us tonight take Husayn as the example of one trained and nurtured by the religion of Islam, in order to discover what kind of a man it is who believes in Allah, the Qur'an and the Prophet.

The life of Husayn is well known, as are the principles for which he fought. His sensitivity with respect to social matters and the destiny of the people, his devotion and self‑sacrifice­-these, too, are well known. It is well known, further, when the truth and what he believed in were threatened, how easily he renounced and sacrificed all that a man is attached to in the course of his worldly life. He was, in short, such a person that we can designate Husayn the son of Ali as an outstanding example for the purposes of our Study.

In addition to learning and acquiring a knowledge of the life, ideas, and characteristics of Husayn, another method also presents itself to us. This is to compare Husayn with Abu Ali Sina and Husayn b. Mansur Hallaj, Who Were Muslim but trained and nurtured by philosophy and Iranian Sufism respectively.

The comparison of these three individuals will help us to gain a vivid comprehension of the differences between the schools of philosophy, Sufism and Islam, as well as their common features.

Ibn Sina was a great philosopher, scholar and genius, a source of pride to the whole history of science and philosophy in Islamic civilization. But this great and profound man, who was so outstanding as a philosopher and scholar, was content, from the social point of view, to place himself in the service of rank and of power, and he never showed any concern with the destiny of man and the fate of his society. He saw no connection between his own fate and that of others. His sole concerns were the investigation of scientific matters and scholarly research. The outer form of his life was a matter of indifference for him; whoever granted him money and position was acceptable to him.

As lot Hallaj, he was a man aflame. A man that is on fire has no responsibility; it is his function simply to burn and to cry out. Why was Hallaj burning? From the passionate love of God. He had taken his head between his hands and run through the streets of Baghdad proclaiming, "Split open this head, for it has rebelled against me! Deliver me from this fire that is burning within me! I am nothing, I am God!" By this he meant, "I no longer exist, God alone exists!"

Hallaj was constantly immersed in the burning invocation of God, and this was a Source of true exaltation for him. But imagine if Iranian society were to consist of 25 million Hallaj's. It would be nothing but a vast lunatic asylum, with everyone running into the streets proclaiming, "Come, kill me! I can endure it no longer! I have nothing! There is naught in my cloak but God!"

Such instances of burning passion and immersion represent a kind of spiritual or mystical lunacy, and if all the members of society were like Hallaj ‑or, for that matter, like lbn Sina‑the result Would be wretchedness and destruction.

But now imagine a society in which only one Husayn son of Ali exists, together with several Abu Dharrs. That society would have life and liberty, thought and learning, power and stability; it would be capable both of defeating its enemies and of truly loving God.


1. The allusion is to Louis Massignon's Salman Pak el les premices spiriluelles de l’lslam iranien, Paris, 1934.( TR)

2. A dictum attributed to Imam Jafar as‑Sadiq, indicating that the opposing poles of absolute determinism and absolute flee will may be reconciled by the truth that lies between them. (TR)

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