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The Dialectic of Sociology

Ali Shariati


(Translated from Islamshinasi, Vol. I, pp. 85 94.)

SOCIOLOGY IS ALSO FOUNDED on a dialectic. Society, like history, is composed of two classes‑the class of Abel and the class of Cain‑for history is simply the movement of society along the line traced out by time. Society represents, therefore, a fragment corresponding to a certain time‑sector in history. If we remove the concept of time from the history of a people, we will be left with the society of that people.

In my opinion, there are only two possible structures in all of human society ‑the structure of Cain and the structure of Abel. I do not regard slavery, serfdom, bourgeoisie, feudalism and capitalism as constituting social structures. These are all part of the superstructure of society. Marx has put all these five stages‑together with a special stage he calls the Asiatic mode of production‑on the same level as primitive socialism and per­fected socialism (i.e., the classless society that is ultimately to come into being). He has regarded them as all belonging to the same category and designated them all as "structures." Accord­ing to Marx, when the village khan becomes the urban hajji, and the peasants become workers, a change takes place in the structure of society, just like the change that occurred when the common ownership of the sources of production gave way to private ownership, with one group owning everything and another group lacking everything. To equate the two changes is remarkable!

No more than two structures can exist in society: one where society is the lord and master of its own destiny, and all men work for it and its benefit, and another in which individuals are owners, and the masters of their own destinies and the destiny of society. However, within each of these two structures, there exist different modes of production, forms of relationship, tools, resources and commodities; all these constitute the “superstructure." For example, within the structure of Abel, it is possible to have economic socialism (i.e., collective owner­ship); the pastoral and hunting mode of production, and the hunting mode of production (both existed in the primitive commune); the industrial mode of production (in the classless, post‑capitalist society); and even the mode of production, the tools and commodities of the period of the urban bourgeoisie; and the artisan and peasant culture of the feudal period with its socialist structure.

At the opposing pole, that of the "structure of Cain," or economic monopoly and private ownership, various economic systems, forms of class relations, and tools, types and resources of production, may also exist. Slavery, serfdom, feudalism, bourgeoisie, industrial capitalism, and‑as its culmination - ­imperialism, all belong to the structure of Cain.

But in my opinion, Marx has mixed certain criteria in his philosophy of history, so that his classification of the stages of social development has become confused. He has confused three distinct entities: the form of ownership, the form of class relations, and the form of the tools of production. According to Marx, the stages of historical development, each of which he regards as a change in social structure, are the following:

1) Primitive socialism, the period in which society lives col­lectively and on the basis of equality, in which production consists of hunting and fishing, and there is joint ownership of the sources of production‑the forests and streams, Here, the criterion of the structure is the form of ownership, which is collective,

2) Slavery, the period in which society is divided into two classes, master and slave, and the relationship between these two classes is that of owner and property, or man and animal. The master has the right to do what he wills with his slave, his tool‑to kill him, beat him, or sell him. Here, the determining factor in the structure is the form of human relationship.

3) Serfdom, the period in which one class owns the land, and the other class, the serfs, although liberated from slavery to masters, has in effect become a slave to the land and tied to it. They are bought and sold together with the land, and their status vis‑a‑vis the landowner is higher than that of the slave but lower than that of the peasant.

4) Feudalism, a mode of production based oil agriculture and land ownership. The landowner is a master who enjoys political power over the mass of the peasants, within certain limits. He levies taxes, and possesses certain moral and inborn privileges; lie possesses "honor and nobility" based on blood arid lineage; tic has inherited them and the masses are deprived of them.

5) Bourgeoisie, a Structure based oil acquisition and com­merce, oil handicrafts and urban life, and the exchange of money. The middle class‑i.e., the class in termed late between peasant and landlord, between aristocracy and serf‑the shop­keeper, the tradesman, tire artisan, tile urban craftsman‑comes into its own, and with its newly acquired wealth, takes the place of the former aristocracy of ancient lineage and noble birth. The landlord‑peasant relationship disappears, and tendencies to liberalism and democracy make their appearance.

6) The full development of the bourgeoisie and industry. Capital is accumulated and production becomes concentrated lit large‑scale industry. Shops give way to Super markets, small rooms in the bazaar to companies, small artisan workshops to vast factories, moneychangers to banks, caravansarais to stock exchanges, and merchants to capitalists. In place of the exchange of money, drafts, cheques, shares and credits become the symbols of economic exchange and commercial transac­tion. T he peasants are drawn from their fields, and the workers from then‑ bazaars, ateliers and shops, to tile factories and the poles of industrial production. There, they are placed everyday under increasing pressure. Since the means of production and tile tools of labor are no longer spade, pick, saw and ax, or cow, donkey and plow, but only machinery, tire worker becomes totally at the disposal of the capitalist. The faces turn empty­handed, and can demand only a wage for the labor of his hand. He is more of a captive and more exploited than before. It is for this reason that he is no longer called worker, but proletarian.

7) As the capitalists become fewer in number and greater in wealth, and both industry and capital continually expand, the industrial proletariat is placed under ever‑increasing pressure. But it becomes stronger at the same time, and the dialectical war between the two poles ends in the triumph of the proletariat. The private ownership of industry and capital is abolished; public ownership takes its place; and a classless society comes into being.

We can see clearly that the first and seventh stages are charac­terized by the same structure, as are the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth stages. Throughout history, then, only two structures have existed, and it is not possible for there to be more than two. For example, the structure existing in feudalism and industrial capitalism is the same; in both cases we see private ownership of the tools and resources of production. Again iii both cases, the social structure is based upon class; the only differences are the tools of production, the form of production, and, as a result, the outer form of the relations of production. The converse also holds true: it is possible for the tools, form and relations of production to be the same, but for the structure to be different. For example, a society that engages in agricultu­ral production, with tools that are unchanged, that has no notion of industry or capitalism and no developed bourgeoisie, may establish a socialist structure, a system of collective owner­ship, by means of revolution, war with external forces or internal coup d'etat.

Once I and my fellow tribesman lived together in equality and brotherhood, hunting and fishing; a single structure existed in our society. Then he became an owner, and 1, one of the deprived; he, the ruler, and I, the ruled. The form of things changed, the tools and the mode of production, but he remained an owner and did not work, and I remained one of the deprived and worked. One day, I was a slave and he was the master. Then I became a serf and he became the lord. Then I became a peasant and he became the landlord. Later still, I laid down my spade, and he abandoned his horse, and we both came to the city. He bought a few taxis with the proceeds of his land, and I became a taxi‑driver. Now he has a factory, and I am the proletarian working in it! When and in what respect did the structure ever change? It was only the forms, the names, the tools, the forms of labor that changed; all these things relate to the superstructure. In all periods, with the exception of the period of primordial equality and fraternity, he retained his position of ruler and I, my position of ruled, running back and forth in his service. The structure will change only when we again both go out to work on the same piece of land as before, with the same cow, plow arid spade as before!

It is possible, then, to divide society in accordance with these two structures, into two poles, the "pole of Cain" and the "pole of Abel."

1) The pole of Cain. The ruler = king, owner, aristocracy. In the primitive and backward stages of social development, this pole is represented by a single individual, a single force that exercises power and absorbs all three powers (king, owner and aristocracy) into itself; it represents a single visage, the visage of Cain. But at later stages in the development and evolution of the social system, of civilization and culture, and the growth of the different dimensions of social life and the class structure, this pole acquires three separate dimensions arid presents itself under three different aspects. It has a political manifestation ­power, an economic manifestation‑wealth, and a religious manifestation ‑asceticism.

In the Qur'an, the Pharaoh is the symbol of the ruling politi­cal power; Croesus (Qarun) is the symbol of the ruling eco­nomic power; arid Balaam is the symbol of the official, ruling clergy. They are the threefold manifestation of the single Cain.

These three manifestations are referred to in the Qur'an as mala',mutraf and rahib, meaning, respectively, the avaricious arid brutal, the gluttons and the overfed, and the official clergy, the long‑bearded demagogues. These three classes are con­stantly engaged in, respectively, dominating, exploiting and deceiving the people.1

2) The pole of Abel. The ruled = God‑the people. Confront­ing the threefold class of king‑owner‑aristocracy is the class of the people, al‑nas. The two classes have opposed and confronted each other throughout history. In the class society, Allah stands in the same rank as al‑nas, in such a fashion that wherever in the Qur'an social matters are mentioned, Allah and al‑nas are virtually synonymous. The two words are often interchangeable, and yield the same meaning.

For example, in the verse beginning "If ye lend Allah a goodly loan . . . ." (Qur'an, 64:17), it is obvious that what is meant by God is in reality "people," for God has no need of any loans from you.

In the affairs of society, therefore, in all that concerns the social system, but not in credal matters such as the order of the cosmos, the words al‑nas and Allah belong together. Thus when it is said, "Rule belongs to God," the meaning is that rule belongs to the people, not to those who present themselves as the representatives or the sons of God, as God Himself or as one of His close relatives. When it is said, "Property belongs to God," the meaning is that capital belongs to the people as a whole, not to Croesus.2 When it is said, "Religion belongs to God," the meaning is that the entire structure and content of religion belongs to the people; it is not a monopoly held by a certain institution or certain people known as "clergy" or "church."

The word "people" (al‑nas) has a profound meaning and distinct significance in Islam. It is only the people as a whole who are the representatives of God and His "family" (al‑nas iyalu 'Llah). The Qur'an begins in the name of God and ends in the name of the people. The Ka'ba is the House of God, but the Qur'an also calls it the "house of the people" and the "free house" (a 1‑bayt al‑'atiq) (22:29, 33), as opposed to other houses that are in the bond of private ownership. We see here that the word al‑nas does not denote a mere collection of individuals. On the contrary, it has the sense of "society" as opposed to "individuals." The word al‑nas is a singular noun with the sense of a plural; it is a word without a singular. What word could better convey the concept of "society," something pos­sessed of an identity totally independent from all of its individ­ual members.

All societies that have existed throughout history, whether they have been defined in national, political or economic terms, have been founded on a system of contradiction, a contradiction that has existed at its very heart. Within every class society, two hostile and opposing classes have existed: on the one hand, king, owner and aristocracy, and on the other, God and the people.3 On the one hand, religions in their multiplicity; on the other, the one religion.


1. Islam has abolished all forms of official mediation between God arid man, and the Qu'ran mentions the third manifestation of Cain‑the official clergy ­with harsh words, even going so far as to curse them and compare them to donkeys and dogs. The Prophet of Islam said: "Any heard longer than a man's hand shall be in hellfire," and he also commanded men to keep short their sleeves and the hems of their garments. All of this is a sign of the struggle that Islam has waged against the concept of an official clergy that exists in all other religions, and the attention it has paid to their deviationist role in stupefying the people and distorting the truth. What is important to remember is that Islam has no clergy; the word "clergy" (ruhaniyun) is recent, a borrowing from Christianity. We have scholars of religion; they do not constitute official authorities who impose themselves by way of heredity or monopolistic powers. They are simply specialized scholars who have come into being in Islamic society as the result of a necessity, not on an institutionalized basis. They derive their influence, presence and power in society from the people and the free and natural choice of the members of society. 'They are normal individuals, either students who piously Study religion with effort and the endurance of hardship, or scholars who teach and conduct research. If their ranks have been penetrated by the illiterate, this is because of the general illiteracy of society or other factors. The garb they wear is not that of an official clergy, but that of knowledge, personal investigation and research.

2. Mu'awiya said, "Property belongs to God," and Abu Dharr retorted, "You say this in order to draw the conclusion that since I am the representative of God, property belongs to me. Say instead, 'Property belongs to the people.' " The celebrated dictum "People are empowered over then own property," from which the principle of taslit ("empowering") in Islamic jurisprudence has been derived, means exactly the opposite of what is commonly thought. People have regarded it as constituting a religious justification for individual ownership and the sanctity of private capital. They have interpreted "people" as meaning "individuals," whereas on the contrary, what is intended is "people's owner­ship" of property, as opposed to the ownership of those individuals who have gained control of the wealth of the people through plunder, usurpation, exploi­tation, whether "legally" or "illegally"! The subsequent addition of the word "and their own persons" at the end of the hadith may have had the purpose of further reinforcing the concept of individuality at the expense of that of al‑nas.

3. According to the Qur'an (94:1‑3), Allah is tire Lord of the People, King of the People, and the God of the People. That is, He does not belong to the aris­tocracy, to the prominent minority in society, to the elite. Note carefully these three concepts relating to Allah and His relationship with men, as well as the opposites implied by each of them.


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