The Philosophy of History: Cain and Abel

Developing Just Leadership

Ali Shariati

Rajab 25, 1398 1978-07-01

Occasional Paper

by Ali Shariati

(Translated from Islamshinasi, Vol. I, pp. 68 85.)

ACCORDING TO THE ISLAMIC school of thought, the philoso­phy of history is based on a certain kind of historical determinism. History represents an unbroken flow of events that, like man himself, is dominated by a dialectical contradic­tion, a constant warfare between two hostile and contradictory elements that began with the creation of humanity and has been waged at all places and at all times, and the sum total of which constitutes history. History is the movement of the human species along the course laid down by time, and the human species itself is a microcosm, representing the most perfect expression of being, the most evident manifestation of creation. In it, nature attains to awareness of self, and it moves toward perfection as man himself advances ‑nature, living, conscious and aware.

To put it differently, man is a manifestation of God's will, the absolute will and consciousness of all being, and man, accord­ing to anthropology, is the representative of God in the world, His viceregent upon earth. The history of man, which consists of the record of man's becoming and the formation of his essence, cannot therefore be accidental, something fashioned by events, the plaything of adventurers, banal, vain, aimless, pur­poseless and meaningless.

History is without doubt a reality, just like the other realities in the world. It began at a certain point, and must inevitably end at a certain point. It must have an aim and a direction.

Where did it begin? Like man himself, with the beginning of the contradiction!

In our discussion of anthropology, we have seen that man is a compound of clay and divine spirit; this is apparent from the story of Adam. The story of Adam is also the story of man, man in the real and philosophical meaning of the word. Man begins with the struggle between spirit and clay, God and Satan, within Adam. But where does history begin? What is its point of departure? The struggle between Cain and Abel.1

The sons of Adam were both men, human and natural, but they were at war with each other. One killed the other, and the history of humanity began. The war of Adam was a subjective, inner one that took place within his own essence (or the human race as a whole), but the war between his two sons was an objective one that took place in outer life. The story of Cain and Abel is therefore the source for our philosophy of history, just as that of Adam is the source for our philosophy of man. The war between Cain and Abel is the war between two opposing fronts that have existed throughout history, in the form of a historical dialectic. History, therefore, like man himself, consists of a dialectical process. The contradiction begins with the killing of Abel by Cain. Now Abel, in my opinion, represents the age of a pasture‑based economy, of the primitive socialism that pre­ceded ownership, and Cain represents the system of agriculture, and individual or monopoly ownership. Thereafter a perman­ent war began so that the whole of history became the stage for a struggle between the party of Cain the killer, and Abel, his victim, or, in other words, the ruler and the ruled. Abel the pastoralist was killed by Cain the landowner; the period of common ownership of the sources of production‑the age of pastoralism, hunting and fishing‑the spirit of brotherhood and true faith, came to an end and was replaced by the age of agriculture and the establishment of the system of private ownership, together with religious trickery and transgression against the rights of others. Abel disappeared, and Cain came to the forefront of history, and there he still lives.

I have deduced the foregoing from the fact that when Adam proposes to his sons that they should each offer a sacrifice to God in order to resolve then dispute‑Cain having fallen in love with the beautiful betrothed of his brother‑Cain places a handful of withered yellow corn on the altar, while Abel brings a young and valuable red‑haired camel. I have therefore considered the latter as representative of pastoralism and the former as representative of agriculture. History tells its that in the age of pastoralism, which was also the age of fishing and hunting, nature was the source of all production (and in the story the camel represents this system of production). Forests, seas, deserts and rivers‑these resources were at the disposal of the whole tribe, and the tools of production were mostly men's hands and arms. If in addition to these they had a few simple tools, they were objects anyone could make and own.

Monopolistic or individual ownership of the sources of pro­duction (water and land) or the tools of production (cows, plows, etc.) did not exist. Everything was equally at the disposal of everyone. The spirit and the norms of society, paternal respect, steadfastness in fulfilling moral obligations, absolute and inviolable obedience to the limitations of collective life, innate purity and sincerity of the religious conscience, a pacific spit it of love and forebearance‑these were among the moral characteristics of man in that system of production, and we may take Abel as representative of them.

When man made the acquaintance of agriculture, his life, society arid whole make‑up became exposed to a profound revolution, which, in my view, constitutes the greatest revolu­tion in history. It was a revolution that produced a new man, a powerful and evil man, as well as the age of civilization and discrimination.

The agricultural system resulted in a restricting of the sources of production present in nature. It brought about the emer­gence of advanced tools of production, complex relations of production; and since arable land, unlike forests and seas, could not be freely at the disposition of all, the need appeared for the first time in human life for men to arrogate part of nature to their own selves and deprive others of it‑in a word, private ownership.

Before this, the individual had not existed in human society; the tribe itself was the individual. But now, with the coming of agriculture, that unitary society, where all men were like the brothers in a single household, was divided. The first day that a piece of land that had been owned in common was taken from nature and became the exclusive right of one person to the exclusion of all others, no law yet existed under the name of law, religion or inheritance; it was purely a matter of force. The strength of the more powerful members of the tribe in the system of pastoral ownership had served to protect the tribe and to increase its social prestige, or its sustenance from hunting and fishing; it fulfilled both of these functions for the sake of the tribe. But now it became the sole source for the determination of rights," the measure of private consumption, and the primary factor in the acquisition of private ownership. At this critical point in history, the exact opposite of Marx's theory applies; it is not ownership that is a factor in the acquisition of power, but the converse. Power and coercion were the factor that first bestowed ownership on the individual. Power brought about private ownership, and then in turn, private ownership be­stowed permanence on power and strengthened it by making it something legal and natural.

Private ownership bisected the unitary society. When acqui­sition and private possession became the norm, nobody was willing to content himself abstemiously with the amount he genuinely needed. In any event, it was left to every individual to determine the extent of his need. People therefore ceased the practice of acquiring property when they were obliged to rather than when they wished to. By contrast, under the previous system, the system of Abel or of collective ownership, men had engaged in hunting and fishing only to the extent of their needs. Nature, free and generous, was always at their disposal. Labor was merely a means for the satisfaction of need, and whoever was more skilled in production gained more. But now the open and abundant spread of nature‑its forests and seas­ - had been left behind and men crowded around the poverty­ stricken and pitiable meal offered them by tillage and land. In greed and acquisitiveness they began to struggle with each other. In this new form of social life, the eagles and the vultures‑the crows, in the story of Cain‑broke the wings of the weaker birds and drove them away. Previously, society had been like a flock of migratory birds, moving across deserts and down river banks and the shores of the oceans in harmony and unison. But now for the sake of the carrion of private property and the desire of monopoly, the birds, full of savage hatred for each other, were pecking and clawing at each other.

Finally, the human family that had been overflowing with freedom, peace, tranquillity and vitality, became transformed into two warring and contradictory camps. On one side was a minority that possessed land in excess of need and in excess of its ability to work it, and that therefore needed the labor of others. On the other side was a majority that, on the contrary, possessed only hunger and the ability to work, but had neither land nor tools. Under the new social system, the fate of the majority was clear‑slavery. The class now subjected to slavery had nothing‑no land, no water, no honor, no ancestry, no morality, no dignity, no thought, no art, no learning, no value, no rights, no truth, no spirit, no meaning, no education‑in short, nothing in this world or the next.

For all these things of which they were deprived depended on land and the soil, on the fruits that orchards and fields yielded. These things were therefore the monopoly of the class that possessed the sources of production, riot only material but also non‑material. The class that did not perform menial tasks had the opportunity and capital needed to engage in education and the cultivation of abstract culture, literature, science and the arts. The two opposing classes used to live in a uniform society, animated by a single spirit, a single sentiment, a single concept of honor and dignity‑that of the tribe. They used to venture together into the forest empty‑handed, and out to the ocean. The riches of nature, like the air surrounding them which they inhaled together, or like the landscapes encompassing them which they beheld together, were at the disposal of both of them, at the disposal of the tribe. They were equal with each other, and therefore they were brothers. They were both sons of Adam, and Adam was from clay. Now, because of the carrion of property, they had drawn apart and were facing each other in hostility, and enmity prevailed between them. The ties of kin­ship had been replaced by the bonds of servitude; equality had been sacrified to discrimination, arid brotherhood, to fratricide. Religion had become a means of deception and the acquisition of material benefit, and nothing else. The spirit of humanity, conciliatoriness, arid compassion, gave way to the spirit of hatred, rivalry, the worship of wealth, acquisitiveness, desire for monopoly, deception, coercion, oppression, self‑worship, cruelty, murderousness, transgression, the desire for domina­tion, the claim of superiority, the creation of privilege, the despising of men, the killing of the weak, the trampling under­foot of everything and everyone for the sake of property, the killing of brothers, the torturing of fathers, and even the deceiv­ing of God.

We can thus attain a profound understanding of the contra­diction between the two types‑Abel, the man of faith, peacea­ble and self ‑sacrificing, and Cain, the worshipper of passions, the transgressor, the fratricide‑by means of psychological analysis and on the basis of a scientific arid sociological exami­nation of their environment, their occupations and their class. We know that they had in common their race, their father and mother, their upbringing arid family, their environment arid religion. In that original environment, we assume that human society had not yet been fully formed, and that different intellec­tual environments, varying cultural atmospheres and social groups had not yet come into being. We cannot therefore say that each of the two brothers was subject to the influence of differing religious or educational factors, at least not to the extent that they should have grown up as exact opposities, each symbolizing a certain type.

Both scientific and logical method demand that when two phenomena, though similar in every respect, develop in differ­ing or opposing directions, we should draw up a list of all the causes, factors and conditions that affect each of them. We will then be able to delete all that they hold in common and arrive at the factor or factors that are in opposition or contradiction. The only factor that differentiates the two brothers from each other in the story consists of then different occupations. These differ­ing occupations set the two brothers in a particular economic and social position; they have contradictory types of work, structures of production, and economic systems.

Our theory is clearly supported by the exact correspondence, on the one hand, between the type of Abel and the class psychol­ogy and the social behavior of man in the period of primitive socialism, of free pastoral hunting and fishing economy; and on the other hand, between the type of Cain and the social and class characteristics of man in the period of class society, the system of slavery and master psychology.

No", the commentators on the Qur'an and other religious scholars have said in explanation of the narrative concerning Cain and Abel that the purpose for its revelation was the con­demination of murder. But this is very superficial and oversim­plifies the matter. Even if my theory is not correct, the narrative of the two brothers cannot be as slight in meaning and purpose as they hold it to be. The Abrahamic religions, especially Islam, depict this story as the first great event that occurs on the threshold of human life in this world. It is not credible that their only purpose in so doing should be the mere condemnation of murder. Whatever may be the underlying sense of the narrative, it is surely far more than a simple ethical tale, yielding the conclusion, "it has thus become clear to us now that murder is an evil deed, so we must try never to commit this shameful act. Let us avoid doing it, particularly to our brothers!"

In my opinion, the murder of Abel at the hands of Cain represents a great development, a sudden swerve in the course of history, the most important event to have occurred in all human life. It interprets and explains that event in a most profound fashion‑scientifically, sociologically, and with reference to class. The story concerns the end of primitive communism, the disappearance of man's original system of equality and brother­hood, expressed in the hunting and fishing system of productiv­ity (equated with Abel), and its replacement by agricultural production, the creation of private ownership, the formation of the first class society, the system of discrimination and exploita­tion, the worship of wealth and lack of true faith, the beginning of enmity, rivalry, greed, plunder, slavery and fratricide (equated with Cain). The death of Abel and the survival of Cain are objective, historical realities, and the fact that henceforth religion, life, economy, government and the fate of men were all in the hands of Cain represents a realistic, critical and progres­sive analysis of what happened. Similarly, the fact that Abel died without issue and mankind today consists of the heirs of Cain2 also means that the society, government, religion, ethics, world‑view and conduct of Cain have become universal, so that the disequilibrium and instability of thought and morality that prevail in every society and every age derive from this fact.

The story of Cain and Abel depicts the first day in the life of' the sons of Adam on this earth (their marriage with their sisters)3 as being identical with the beginning of contradiction, conflict and ultimately warfare and fratricide. This confirms the scientific fact that life, society and history are based on contradiction and struggle, and that contrary to the belief of the idealists, the fundamental factors in all three are economics and sexuality, which come to predominate over religious faith, brotherly ties, truth and morality.

The source of the conflict between Cain and Abel was the following. Cain preferred the sister who had been betrothed to Abel to his own fiancee. He insisted on having her, and demanded the betrothal that had been concluded with Adam's approval be annulled. The two brothers went before Adam, who then proposed to them that they each offer a sacrifice. Whoever had his sacrifice accepted should have the sister, and the loser should accept the result. Cain tried trickery, brought his trickery to bear and brought some withered corn as his sacrifice; naturally, it was not accepted. (See flow Cain always practices treachery whenever he feels the need, even toward God! Every representative of the "system of Cain" behaves in the same way.) Again Cain resorted to trickery, and preferring his own passions to God's word, he vilely slaughtered Abel (who, although he was not the original complainant and desired nothing of Cain, had offered God his best camel, his most precious possession, a sacrifice which was of Course accepted).

The dialogue that takes place between them at the time of Abel's death is also instructive. Cain threatens him with death, but Abel replies softly, kindly and submissively, "But I will not raise my hand against you."

The society and system represented by Abel were thus subdued by the aggressive and acquisitive system of Cain, with­out there being any resistance offered.

When considering the story of Cain and Abel, I wondered at first whether the question of sexuality might not be depicted in it as a stronger and more primary factor than economics. Might not Freudianism be correct in this case? The first word uttered in the conflict was, after all, "woman," just as everything began with Eve in the case of their father.

But if we think a little more deeply, we see that matters are not this simple. It is true that the first source of the conflict is Cain's attraction to the betrothed of Abel; so far, Freud would appeal­ to be right. But were Freud to accept that another cause, or set of causes and factors, existed prior to sexuality‑which he regards as the primary cause‑he would have to agree that the story cannot be analyzed in the sense of primacy of the sexual factor. For before the question of sexuality arises, this question too must be considered: it is true that Cain begins the dispute with his brother on account of his attraction to his betrothed, but why does Cain of the two brothers display this type of behavior? For considering the important fact that both brothers had a sim­ilar heredity and environment, they ought to have conducted themselves in an identical manner, both showing the same determination and. steadfastness.4 Then again, even if it be scientifically possible that under identical conditions, only one of the two brothers should manifest such conduct, why was that one Cain? There is also this third point, that the general conclu­sion to be drawn from the text of the story and the dialogue between the two brothers and their respective forms of behavior, as well as the view of the narrator of the story‑this being the Qur'an, and also the Christian and more particularly Jewish texts, not to mention books of exegesis, history and Islamic lore‑the conclusion to be drawn from all of these is that Abel is presented as the type of good and Cain as the type of evil. I use the word "type" and not "character," for the latter would imply, that Cain possessed only evil characteristics such as lust and materialism, and that Abel possessed only good characteristics such as religiosity and sensitivity. No, one of them is the com­plete manifestation of an evil man, and the other of a good man.

I have therefore reached the conclusion that Abel is a man of sound disposition; an inhuman and unbalanced social system, form of work and economic life have not alienated, disfigured, perverted or polluted him; they have not made of him a crippled and defective being, one of the "fractured," to use the expres­sion of Marcuse, polluted and laden with complexes. At the same time that he is filled with love for his father, affection for his brother, belief in God and steadfastness for the sake of justice, and does not display the same passionate insistence as his brother on the fulfillment of his sexual appetites, he is not neutral and insensitive to the face of beauty. For throughout the various tribulations to which Cain subjects him‑even threat­ening him with death on several occasions‑he did not say even once, in pious abstention: "Here, brother, I renounce her. She's not worth arguing over; take her, she's yours."

Abel was a man, a "son of Adam," neither more nor less. All the texts that relate this story present him in this light. The reason for this, in my opinion, is that he lived in a society without contradiction and discrimination; his work was free and unfettered‑"He was neither mounted on a camel, nor laden like a donkey; neither a master of slaves, nor servant to a king."5 He was merely a man. In a society where all enjoy equally and possess in common all the bounties of life, all the material and spiritual resources of society, all will necessarily be equal and brothers, and the spirit of salubrity, beauty, kind­ness, purity, sincerity, love and goodness will be cultivated.

Cain is not inherently evil. His essence is the same as that of Abel, and nobody is inherently evil, for the essence of everyone is the same as the essence of Adam. What makes Cain evil is an anti‑human social system, a class society, a regime of private ownership that cultivates slavery and mastery and turns men into wolves, foxes or sheep. It is a setting where hostility, ri­valry, cruelty and venality flourish; humiliation and lordship ‑the hunger of some and the gluttony of others, greed, opu­lence and deception; a setting where the philosophy of life is founded on plundering, exploitation, enslavement, consum­ing and abusing, lying and flattering; where life consists of oppressing or being oppressed, of selfishness, aristocratic arro­gance, hoarding, thievery and ostentation; where human rela­tions are based on the giving and receiving of blows, on exploiting or being exploited; where human philosophy con­sists of maximum enjoyment, maximum wealth, maximum lust, and maximum coercion; where all things revolve around egoism and the sacrifice of all things to the ego, a vile, crude and avaricious ego.

It is all this that makes of Cain‑the brother of good, kind, pure Abel; the immediate son of Adam‑a creature ready to lie, to commit treachery, to drag his faith into the mud with a quiet conscience, and ultimately to behead his brother, all for the sake of his sexual inclinations‑not even some crazed and powerful infatuation, but straightforward and transient lust! No, Mr. Freud, he does all of these things not because his sexual instincts are stronger than those of others, but because (and this is quite simple) human virtues have grown exceedingly weak in him, weaker even than some feeble expression of lust. If what Freud said were true, and the sexual factor were so strong in him that he would do anything to attain the object of his desire, then he would have been the one to offer up a precious red‑haired camel at the altar, not Abel! If what Freud said were true, we would see Cain running out into the fields and burning all his crops as soon as his father made the suggestion.

We see, on the contrary, that all Cain is ready to do in order to gain God's pleasure and win his lost love is to sacrifice a hand­ful of grain, grain that was, moreover, yellowing and withered.

My purpose in examining the story In Such detail has been first, to refute the idea that it is exclusively ethical in purpose, for it treats of something far more serious than the topic for a mere essay, and secondly, to make clear that it is not the story of a dispute between two brothers. Instead, it treats two wings of human society, two modes of production; it is the story of history, the tale of bifurcated humanity in all ages, the begin­ning of a war that is still not concluded.

The wing represented by Abel is that of the subject and the oppressed; i.e., the people, those who throughout history have been slaughtered and enslaved by the system of Cain, the system of private ownership which has gained ascendancy over human society. The war between Cain and Abel is the permanent war of history which has been waged by every generation. The banner of Cain has always been held high by the ruling classes, and the desire to avenge the blood of Abel has been inherited by succeed­ing generations of his descendants‑the subjected people who have fought for justice, freedom and true faith in a struggle that has continued, one way or another, in every age. The weapon of Cain has been religion, and the weapon of Abel has also been religion.

It is for this reason that the war of religion against religion has also been a constant of human history. On the one hand is the religion of shirk, of assigning partners to God, a religion that furnishes the justification for shirk in society and class discrimination. On the other hand is the religion of tauhid, of the oneness of God, which furnishes the justification for the unity of all classes and races. The trans-historical struggle between Abel and Cain is also the struggle between tauhid and shirk, between justice and human unity on the one hand, and social and racial discrimination on the other. There has existed throughout human history, and there will continue to exist until the last day, a struggle between the religion of deceit, stupefaction and justification of the status quo and the religion of awareness, activism and revolution. The end of time will come when Cain dies and the "system of Abel" is established anew. That inevitable revolution will mean the end of the history of Cain; equality will be realized throughout the world, and human unity and brotherhood will be established, through equity and justice. This is the inevitable direction of history. A universal revolution will take place in all areas of human life; the oppressed classes of history will take their revenge. The glad tidings of God will be realized: "We have willed that we should place under obligation those who have been weakened and oppressed on the earth, by making them the leaders of men and heirs to the earth" (Qur'an, 28:5).

This inevitable revolution of the future will be the culmina­tion of the dialectical contradiction that began with the battle of Cain and Abel and has continued to exist in all human societies, between the ruler and the ruled. The inevitable outcome of history will be the triumph of justice, equity and truth.6

It is the responsibility of every individual in every age to determine his stance in the constant struggle between the two wings we have described, and not to remain a spectator. While believing in a certain form of historical determinism, we believe also in the freedom of the individual and his human responsi­bility, which lie at the very heart of the process of historical determinism. We do not see any contradiction between the two, because history advances on the basis of a universal and scientif­ically demonstrable process of determinism, but "I" as an individual human being must choose whether to move forward with history and accelerate its determined course with the force of knowledge and science, or to stand with ignorance, egoism, opportunism in the face of history, and be crushed.


1. In this and the following section, Shari'ati is basing his theories not only on the elliptic narrative of the Qur'an (5:30‑34), which does not even mention the names of Adam's sons, but also on the traditions that sprang up in amplifica­tion and explanation of the Qur'anic account. It is said that both Abel and Cain had twin sisters, and Adam decided that each should marry the other's twin sister. But Cain regarded his own twin sister as more beautiful than Abel's and therefore determined to marry her, not shrinking even from tile murder of his brother in order to gain his wish. Some writers, viewing this primordial incest with repugnance, have suggested that the two brothers' brides were jinn, not human. See Tabari, Tarikh al‑Rusul wa‑l‑Urnam, I, pp. 137 ff;Tha'alibi, Qisas al‑Anbiya, pp. 34‑37. (TR)

2. we mean heirs in a typological sense, not a genealogical one.

3. Certain pious believers have invented various devices for legitimizing the marriages of Cain and Abel inorder to free mankind of the blemish of bastardy. However, it is a little late for that! (See our earlier footnote on p. 98. (TR.)

4. For example, it is not possible to say that they were both brothers, but one studied in Qum while the other studied in Paris, one read Islamic periodicals and the other, frivolous magazines! Or that one of them had a sayyida for a mother and the other, a Swede!

5. A line quoted from the Gulistan of Sa'di. (TR.)

6. Justice ('adl) refers mostly to the legal relations between individuals and groups, on the basis of the laws laid down in society. Equity (qist) refers to the equal enjoyment by all men of the fruits of their labor and of their rights, whether or not this is recognized by law. Justice implies the existence of a judicial system, and equity relates to the structure of society. In order to have justice, the judiciary must be reformed; in order to have equity, the social System must be changed‑not superficially, but in its fundamental structure.

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