A Monthly Newsmagazine from Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT)
To Gain access to thousands of articles, khutbas, conferences, books (including tafsirs) & to participate in life enhancing events

Occasional Paper

The Meaning of History: An Islamic Perspective

Talib M. Aziz

Not since Ibn-Khaldun's al-Muqaddima in the fourteen century did any Muslim scholar make a significant contribution to the understanding of the historical process. The late Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr from Iraq made a serious effort in giving his vision on the development of the history. His interpretations of history can be considered as part of his effort to prove that Islam, through the ulama (jurists) of the traditional religious schools, is still capable of contributing to the advancement of knowledge and resolution of problems facing man in this temporal world. The [cultural, and scientific] invasion of the West, once Sadr was quoted saying, must come to an end, and Muslim scholars should export their knowledge to the world. The aim of this article is to present Sadr's views on the philosophy of history in an organized and systematic manner than the form unlike his presentations, which was in the form of lectures delivered to his pupils in the religious school of Najaf, a Shi'a holy city in Iraq. The comparison of his views to that of other thinkers is my own, but the all the references to the Islamic sources are his.

The Nature of History

Sadr views history as a causal process and as working according to a well-defined pattern. This understanding of history grows out of his general Islamic beliefs. Man and his environment exist by virtue of divine creativity and thus must have meaning. History unfolds according to a specific set of rules and its natural processes are not random, for God's actions are not without meaning. God has implanted within his creation a well-defined system that links the effects of all elements in the historical process to each other. However, the historical process itself is not a self-contained mechanism, but rather has two sides: the materialistic side, where man and nature have great impact on the process; and the metaphysical side, where the Deity's will has full control over its telos. Therefore, the materialist side does not comprise the totality of the historical process. It is the will of the Almighty that prevails in the end.

Consequently, Sadr defined the historical process as causal in respect to its mechanical workings, divine in respect to its goal, and social in respect to its impact on human life. While the physical forces may act independently, their impact extends into a wider arena, because the process encompasses the whole human realm. This is why the effect of small social forces or influential personalities within the society is felt throughout the social system. Accordingly, Sadr is able to take account of the Marxist notion that the change in the means of production may reshape the social structure of the society, while at the same time finding room in his theory of history for the Hegelian notion that ideas are the prime factors shaping history. On the other hand, the historical process, considered as a totality, is shaped according to the will of God. It is true that history follows a dialectical course of development, but it operates according to a divine pattern. Materialistic conditions as well as idealistic conditions have effects on the final outcome of the historical development. Nonetheless, the Deity has its own way of directing the development of history according to its own will. The story of history has a built-in divine logic. To understand history one must be aware of the telos of history as ordained by the Deity.

The sunan (laws) of history are general conditions that govern the historical process, conditions that determine outcomes of historical development. If one is to understand history, one must understand the laws. Sadr classified three types of historical laws of development: First are the voluntaristic laws, those which involve human agency as a determiner of outcomes. Through these laws man can have control over the destiny of his life. They function as if they are physical laws of nature. Once man has acted, he will because of these laws witness certain consequences without fail. Sadr finds a reference to these laws in the Qur'anic statement that God would not change the environment of people unless people change within themselves. He also notes that the Quran mentions that the collapse of society would be the natural outcome of the control of corrupt-wealthy individuals over the affairs of the society.

Second are the naturalistic laws. These consist of inexorable patterns that are evident in the historical process and that cannot be changed by man's action. Man, at some stages of history, may deviate from these patterns, but eventually he will be subdued by them. Thus, man must realize that he is part of a divine historical design. If one society tries to challenge or change the social roles of males and females, for example forcing women to work outside the home and men to be homemakers, these actions would lead to the destruction of society because women are naturally created to nurse children and men naturally have the physical ability to confront the physical demands of the outside world. For Sadr, such a social violation is limited in duration, and the divine design for history will eventually prevail. Sadr also mentioned that if a society should legalize the homosexual relationship, such a society would eventually be doomed to annihilation. He believes that the espousal of religious beliefs and norms is also part of the divine design. If people choose not to espouse such beliefs and norms, they would also suffer disintegration in the end. The Quran specifically mentions this,

So set thy purpose for religion as a man by nature upright--the nature (framed) of Allah, in which He hath created man. There is no altering (the laws of) Allah's creation. That is the right religion, but most men know not. (30:30).

Third are the deterministic laws. These govern history's movement toward its final goal or outcome (telos). God has full control over the direction of the historical process and enforces it on man. While man through the voluntaristic laws of history has an impact on the outcome of specific historical development, the deterministic laws govern the entire historical process from creation to eternity. God, according to Sadr, has a grand design for history. The whole historical process is a divine drama unfolding since the creation of Adam and operating according to God's will. The entire process will culminate in the coming of the Savior (Mahdi, the twelfth Imam) and the establishment of a justice and social system on earth that will prevail over all the injustices of man.

Stages of Historical Process

Sadr recognized three stages in the history of man: 1) the stage of rearing (Hadanah), which started with the creation of Adam and Eve and ended with their becoming dependent upon the earth; 2) the stage of unity or solidarity (Wihdah), which preceded the rise of social differences between men (as a social group, not as individuals); 3) and, the stage of dispersion or discord (Tashatut), which will last until the coming of the Mahdi (Messiah).

The first stage refers to the rearing of humanity as a whole not just to the creation of Adam and Eve, because their creation represents the creation of all mankind. It is considered a rearing stage because Adam and Eve were protected from facing any physical needs or environmental difficulties. They were provided with abundant resources in a 'heaven-like' environment. Man also during this period must grow into maturity and be provided with faculties to help him in his earthly mission. Sadr summarizes the events and features of the first stage. First, the superior nature of man to angels is his ability to learn and acquire knowledge. This characteristic of man had made the angels bow to him. Second, God made man responsible for his actions through sanctions on his behavior. Man was created with free will and with the ability to violate the sanctions and commands of his Lord. Third, there is a system of reward and punishment for the purpose of restraining man from committing sins and encouraging him to do good deeds (in this life in the form of enjoyment and burden of guilt and in the hereafter, heaven and hell). Three features, knowledge, free-will, and reward and punishment, are to enhance the progress of man in his life on earth. The lack of any one of these features would make man's existence on earth undesirable. Such analysis was envisioned by the angels when God presented them with his vicar, i.e., a creature having free agency. Their response was that man would eventually commit sins and bloodshed, unless some control measures were imposed on him to limit his behavior. Being vicar of God implies that man has the freedom to choose, and without the ability to distinguish between good and bad, he would wander aimlessly and ultimately go astray. However, God's remedy was that man would acquire the knowledge (the names), as the first control mechanism of his action. The new creature (mankind), who was chosen as the vicar of God on earth, would have the capacity to learn and progress according to the guidance of God, which would be sent to him. Messengers of God would act as witnesses and lead man to the proper course of action to fulfill his role on earth.

Man was faced thereafter with a dilemma to test his action and force him to go through a decision-making process to test the use of his knowledge to control his behavior. His creator had warned him of his enemy (Satan) and against eating the fruit from a specific tree. The prohibition was to give the father of humanity the experience of controlling his sensual urge and to prepare him for the responsibility of living on earth. Resources on earth are limited and man is supposed to acquire a reasonable amount of them to satisfy his needs. Through a rational dialogue full of lies, Satan won Adam's confidence and seduced him to eat from the tree and violate God's prohibition. God therefore warned Adam again of his enemy and made him take full responsibility for his action. Man thus was presented with his second behavioral control mechanism, punishment and reward. He was left to face the difficulties and enjoyment of life on earth and to receive God's warnings from time to time. Furthermore, man was allowed to repent of his action and was able to gain his Lord's forgiveness. He was able to reconsider his action and behave according to God's will. From this point of view, man's experience with Satan was for his benefit in order to prepare him to repent whenever he deviates from his purpose in life. The sinful action allowed man to experience spiritual feelings and made him live up to the responsibilities given him by God through repentance and praying for God's mercy. By then, man's mental faculty (rational reasoning, spiritual feelings) had developed to the capacity of his role as vicar of God on earth.

The second historical period is parallel, but not identical, to the state of nature of the social contract theorists (Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau). Men at one time maintained a harmonious social life. Unlike the state of nature, there has always been some sort of social setting and man cannot be portrayed without society for man is a social animal, to use the Aristotelian proverb. The social relationship was the outcome of man's physical needs for such items as food and shelter. His search for survival forced him to cooperate with others. Eventually he found himself using the help of other men and cooperating with them for his survival. Man possesses the natural instinct of self-love. This instinct makes him more dependent on others to secure his needs and interests. The more he gets the less satisfied he becomes and the more eager the demand for more. This ultimately results in an increased complexity of his social relationships. Generally, man's social relations are driven by his self-love: the more he gains physical satisfaction, the greater his desire for additional commodities.

Sadr has recognized two aspects of man's physical livelihood: First, every man has specific on-going 'primary' needs connected with his physiological being--nutritional, sexual, rational, and sensual needs; and second, there are no limitations to the quantity of these needs and commodities, because they are dependent on the complexity of life and social relations and the demands of the changing environment. The extent of man's experience in life, the widening of his knowledge and the complexity of his social relations make his 'secondary' needs grow and expand. These latter needs are different from one person to another, one society to another, and from one historical period to another. For example, modern technology has made electricity one of the basic needs of man. This need, however, was not a fact of life in the past century, and is not a basic for the Amish people, living within the most technologically advanced society, the United States. The function of a social system, therefore, is to recognize, and organize, the social relationships between men according to these needs. Similarly, the best social system for humanity should satisfy man's primary needs and should have a progressive nature so as to keep in touch with the development of society in attempting to satisfy the secondary needs.

At the unity stage, humanity as a whole, according to Sadr, was considered as one nation, as men lived together in harmony. Man at this stage had not yet formed a state, and the social units that he formed were free of any form of social exploitations. He was guided by the Divine knowledge, distinguishing between good and evil and refraining from the latter. The simplicity of life made his livelihood needs and expectations simple. The faculties that God implanted in man's nature (fitra) enabled him to form a monotheistic society that adhered to the worship of God alone, which meant, in practical terms, the rejection of non divine standards of behavior and of deviation from the role of vicar of God on earth. The social responsibilities in these social units were performed by all members, and even messengers of God did not have special hierarchical privileges. They functioned only as guides and advisors. The commitment to the guidance of God was the only security that kept these social units, in that historical stage, in tranquility. There was no need for political leadership or any form of social enforcement agencies in order for man to conform to a certain course of behavior. It was only deviation from God's way-of-life that would endanger the survival of a peaceful and just society. The third stage started with the rise of differences between people. Men, by nature, possess different capabilities and talents. The complexity of the social life gave growth to livelihood needs, which resulted in the uneven distribution of goods and possessions between people. Men with extra talents and more physical powers gained the upper hand in social relations, and began to exploit others who were weak or had fewer talents to acquire the material goods. A contradiction in social life, which took the form of oppression by the powerful few of the weak, became the major phenomenon of this historical stage. The oppression took different forms with various degrees of intensity, but the social contradiction lasted through all ages and generations and permeated various types of social systems.
Sadr differs from Marx on the origin of the social contradiction. Marx relates the contradiction to the growth of means of production. The development of each new means of production gives rise to new social relations and thus to a new type of exploitation, one class of the society exploiting another class. So, "the hand mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist." In other words, the contradiction originates in the economic environment in which man lives. The people who possess, or have access to, the means of production have full control over social relations and social arrangements. In order to change the social arrangement and end the exploitation of the many, one must take from the few their access to the means of production and allot it to the society as a whole. In sum, the historical development of societies is tantamount to the development of its economic conditions; the social revolution is the abolition of ownership of capital by the elite class of a society.

Although Sadr pictured the rise of contradictions in the social relations as due to the changing economic conditions of the society, he regarded the real cause behind it not as consisting of external-environmental conditions, but rather as resting within man himself. Man is not always the product of his environment, but the environment is shaped by his activities. The development of economic conditions is his doing, and social relationships are developed and organized to meet his needs. It was his intellectual and physical capabilities that made it possible for man to advance his living conditions. Without these faculties, the external conditions would have stayed the same since the dawn of history. The reason behind the rise of the social contradiction is that man deviated from the way-of-God.

The changes in the conditions surrounding man would only serve as instigators of man's mental capabilities. They act as 'raw materials' for the human brain to work on. Change of environmental conditions gives man the ability to develop new tools or means of production to counteract the effects of the changing conditions. Consequently,

...the natural forces of production do not, by themselves, reach their [state of] perfection and growth, or quicken their development and maturation, but rather they only instigate the senses and the thinking of man. Their natural development, thus, is not [the result of a] dialectical process, and the positive effect [i.e., the emancipation of life] does not emerge out of this development. Rather, the forces of production are governed by an historical factor that is superior to them.

The superior factor, according to Sadr, is the human mental faculty. If production itself, in the Marxist definition, "is natural activity against the environment, performed by many people to satisfy their materialist needs, and where the social relations become its natural outcome" then the whole process of production must have been preceded by two factors: thought and language. Thought allows the human being to change the nature of his environment to meet his needs, e.g., from wheat to flour to bread. Unless there is such a faculty, we cannot suppose man would respond to the new changes in the environment. Animals, for instance, are not able to effect radical change in the environment. Language, as the physical (phonic) side of thinking, allowed the participant in the production activity to communicate, and thus facilitated the development of production. Language itself is not the natural outcome of economic conditions as are social relationships, but is rather the outcome of needs to exchange views and thoughts. "We don't find one Marxist --not even Stalin-- who would dare to say that the Russian language for example had changed [or developed] after the socialist revolution to a new one." Hence, the primary factor behind the contradictions that exist in society is, according to Sadr, not the changing economical conditions (forces of productions) but rather the contradictions within man himself.

At this historical stage, man had deviated from his fitra and started abusing his talents and power to oppress and alienate others. His deviation led him to adopt a new kind of worship and turn away from his creator. Once there was no control over his behavior, he fell deeply into sin, and social corruption grew. The society, once a coherent and harmonious entity, became divided and conflict-ridden. Classes and groups opposed each other. The social dilemma was that the powerful would get even more powerful, and thus more corrupt and abusive, while the weak became weaker and subject to more oppression. In general, the history of mankind during this period was a struggle between these two groups. The historical process can be defined between two poles of political thinking, those who would like to protect their interests and keep the existing system of alienation indefinitely and those who would like to revolt and change the existing oppressive system of social relations with a just one.

The natural course of action for the deprived and weak was to lead a revolution against the corrupt and oppressive political regimes. The history of revolutions, according to Sadr, has taken two different routes to confront the unjust social structure. The first types are revolutions that advocate the elimination of materialistic forms of oppression in the society. They are considered forms of alienation which the oppressed encounter every day. These feelings of the masses (that they are underprivileged) lead them first to a silent opposition. When oppression continues, they organize their effort in vocal political movements that give force to their demands upon the system. These groups eventually resort to violent actions when all other means are exhausted. Revolutions of this type of movement mobilize masses on the basis that a new system would transfer the wealth and resources to all members of society and eliminate special privileges for the upper and dominate classes. However, such revolutions, while concerned about certain kinds of social needs, are short-sighted. The masses would continue to face other forms of alienation in the post-revolutionary system. The oppressed of yesterday would become the master, and thus, the oppressor of today. The whole historical process would repeat itself. Thus, "the revolution would only change the position of exploitation, but would not accomplish the elimination of it." That is why Marx probably thought there is a dialectic process in history where each rising class resorts to oppressive measures and means to protect its interests against other groups, i.e., every thesis gives rise to an antithesis.

The second type of revolutionary process is one that tries to eliminate the source of alienation and does not merely emphasize elimination of its materialistic contradictions. It is a revolution that would resort to the creation of new social values that would put an end to all sources of exploitation. The revolution would advocate the values of justice, righteousness and equality that stem from belief in God is the only revolution that would secure man from the domination and the exploitation of other powers. It is the total surrender of man to God that would free him from surrendering to others. When the revolution advocates the equality of all people, it must be on the basis that all are equal before God and no one group has special rights with respect to others. When revolutionaries try to eliminate the means of control of the dominate group it is not because of a belief that they do not have the right to reign, but because all people have an equal right to govern before God and act as His vicar on earth. Sadr called the latter type of revolution the 'real revolution' and the former the 'relative revolution.'

Prophets and messengers of God were the pioneers to lead the struggle for the latter type of social revolution. The divine missions of prophethood had the complete answer to the social problems facing man. Unlike other social movements in history, the purpose of prophethood was not to wither away social contradiction (the facade of the problem) but to solve the inner contradiction of man. The revolutions and the messages of prophets were concerned with eliminating the alienation of man, and also helping him to overcome the psychological tendency of oppression of his human nature.

On the social level, God sent his messengers with codes of law that would put an end to the alienation, and eliminate the oppression of man. For this reason, prophets led social revolutions of the oppressed against the oppressors. Throughout history, the followers of all prophets were from the deprived classes. The message of the prophets (and religions) became the cry of the oppressed for generations that followed them. The great religions of the world, e.g., Christianity and Islam, were embraced by the deprived and the poor and were opposed from the start by the elite. The prophets' concern was the liberation of man from his sins and from his unjust social environment. The goal of the prophets was to create a just social system that protects the rights of every individual within the social structure. Hence, "the idea of the state originated [first] with the prophets, whose main role was to establish a flawless state whose structure and principles were founded by God, the most High." The reason behind the revelation of religion that contains shari'a (divine cannon laws), or cannon laws, was to lay the ground for the formation of a political system that would end all forms of human oppression and alienation. That is why Sadr considers the Prophet Nuh (Biblical name, Noah) as the first advocate and the founder of a political state. His message was the first universal religion that had elaborated a shari'a to govern people. In every epoch of history, God reveals his commands and message to prophets as a basis for social conduct. The great universal Divine messages to Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad were to be the higher (constitutional) laws of political states.

On the personal level, prophets were to refine human behavior according to man's fitra. Man was driven by his passions and self-love into sinful action and social corruption. Unless man could be liberated from his tendency toward evil behavior, then all efforts at eliminating social injustice would be impotent. Without freeing man from his sins, social injustice would soon be replaced by new forms of social injustice. The prophetic message carried the spiritual guidelines that would purify human nature. Man would be in constant struggle against his sins. He would be trained to lead the fight against his corrupt desires and excessive passions. The prophetic mission would make man responsible for his actions before divine authority. Such divine guidance is the only control mechanism that would prevent man from exploiting his fellow man.

The prophets have led the struggle against injustice on two levels: the greater (or more precisely, fundamental) struggle (jihad al-Akbar) to confront man's inner passions and corrupt tendency, and the lesser (or minor) struggle (jihad al-asghar) to eliminate the manifestation of personal corruption in the society. Prophets directed their followers to rotate the battle fields of struggle from self to society, and from society to self. This is the only way, according to Sadr, for humanity to eliminate all forms of exploitations and oppression. The prophets throughout history were the source of real social revolution when they led the struggle against corruption in society, and the corruption in the human self. Hence, he plainly affirms that,

..we believe that it is not possible for the real revolution (emphasis added) to be disassociated from revelation and prophethood, and their extension in history of mankind; similarly, that it is not possible for prophethood and Divine message in any way to be detached from the social revolution against exploitation, opulence, and oppression.

Development of Historical Process

The historical process is a social affair where the main participants (or elements) are man, nature, and God. They correspond to the three types of historical laws mentioned above: voluntaristic, naturalistic, and deterministic, respectively. Though other social theories had recognized only the first two elements, Sadr thought that their shortcoming stems from the fact that history itself is kalimah (literally, word; meaning creation) of God. Without including the role of God in history, our understanding of the process of historical development is meaningless. Sadr, hence, recognizes three type of relations man would be bound to: 1) social relations between man; 2) economic relations between man and nature; 3) vicarage (the relations between man and God.) It is the last type of relation that makes his Islamic theory superior to non-Islamic theories. Historical process is the byproduct of this relationship. While the positivist theory of man would only recognize the effect of economic relationship on the social one, or vice versa, Sadr discloses the effects of the third relationship on the other two. He claims that the failure of man-made theories to solve the social problems facing man throughout history is due to their discounting of the prime dynamism of the historical process, which has a direct effect on man's life. To illustrate Sadr's point of view, I will explain two interpretations of historical development from social and economic aspects.

Ibn Khaldun is considered the first to give a theory of the historical development of man from the standpoint of his social relationship. The major concern of his Muqaddimah is the study of the rise and fall of dynasties, which he thought "has a natural term of life like the individual." He traced the strength of the dynasty to the blood ties and family traditions which bound members to the state and created a sense of solidarity which he called, casabiyah. At the first stage, the formation of the dynasty, a primitive tribal solidarity--that of the first wave of uncivilized nomad tribes bent on domination-- is at its peak. These tribes eventually achieve their objective of seizing power over the cities and establishing their dynasty. In the second phase, the dynasty would become a sovereign political state, where the ruler would govern his people according to his will, and not according to the mutual consent of his followers. "The third phase is one of quiet ease and leisure to gather the fruits of the rule and dominion, since human nature tends to acquire wealth and leave behind... fame." At this time the sovereign would regulate taxes and impose new civil rules to govern people instead of relying upon the communal solidarity. He becomes careless about the welfare of his followers and increasingly concerned with his own leisure, building palaces and stocking his treasury with the wealth of his people. "The fourth phase is one of extravagance and waste." The corruption of the ruler becomes widespread and taxes on the people are increased to finance his lust for pleasure. The civil laws become the norms that govern the society, not the strong bond of solidarity. The tradition of solidarity is weakened. People become divided into factions and have little interest in defending the dynasty. The ruler has a standing army to do the job. In the fifth phase, the whole system shows signs of decay. The rulers are more corrupt and may even spend part of his army's pay for his own pleasure. This weakens his troops' desire to defend the state. Subjects of the dynasty are busy with their own daily affairs and survival. There is nothing bonding them to the state. By then, "the 'asabiyah collapses completely, and they forget about the defense of their dynasty against attacks of the enemy." The dynasty is open for invasion by a new nomadic group.

The cyclical process of historical development of Ibn Khaldun emphasizes the importance of the social relationship for the survival of political entities, thus considered by him as the prime mechanism that shapes history. He was a pioneer in showing the effect of economics on the strength of the social solidarity of the people.

Rousseau had reached the same conclusion that the social relation is negatively influenced by the economic relationship, but he looked at the problem from a different perspective. He viewed the 'state of nature' as a harmonious social affair, where man lived in nature and exploited its resources with other men in a cooperative way. Life, then, was not threatening, and man thus did not have an aggressive attitude toward other men and nature. He was governed by his inner feelings, instincts, and impressions, which made him a patient and compassionate creature with empathetic feelings toward other men. He does not calculate personal advantage in dealing with his fellow men, and his social relations are based on seeking approval from them. It is private property that made man think about his self-interests and his personal welfare instead of the welfare of his community. Once he built a fence around his property and was willing to defend it, then the social phenomenon of haves and have-nots started to take shape and became an acceptable norm in human relationships.

The basic characteristic of civil society is inequality of ownership. Private property came into existence as an historical accident and it has subsequently shaped the mentality and relationships of mankind. On the psychological level, it has introduced greed, and made human beings calculating, and aggressive and rational creatures. On the social level, it has divided human society into various classes of haves and have-nots where the former exploits the latter. Therefore, Rousseau concludes that the consequences of private property are all negative. It made slaves of every one; even the owners are slaves to their greed and to their property. To elevate human beings above such unhealthy and destructive relations, man must abolish private property, i.e, transform the civil society into 'the state of nature.'

Marx, while making use of Rousseau's analysis of historical development, did not agree with his conclusion. Although private property has negative consequences for human relationships, it is the prime factor of historical development. History, according to dialectical materialism, is a progressive process that centers on the ownership of property, but leads eventually to the abolition of private ownership by social ownership. In this way, according to the Marxist view, negative effects of materialism are eliminated while producing the essential positive effects.

While Sadr confirms that there are effects of the social and economical relationship on the process of historical development, he thinks that they do not subsume the whole process. It is man's relationship to God that ultimately explains the development of history. Sadr considers man as the sole agent in the shaping of the course of history, because only man can strengthen or weaken the vicarage relationship. Man commits to or deviates from the divine purpose of his existence. The social and economic structure in any society is the by-product of his deeds. Sadr, therefore, differs from the Marxist view, which considers the superstructure of the society (i.e., the state, economic relations, values, culture, laws and knowledge) as the manifestations of material conditions. Sadr, then, asks what is inside man that makes the outcome of historical development different from one society to another and from one epoch to the next. His answer is al-mathal al-acla (the social ideal, or the ultimate goal of the community which I will refer to henceforth as the Ideal), which defines the purpose that social action seeks to achieve during its life span. It is derived from people's views about life and nature, that is, from a socially determinate view. Social policy would be only the reflection of this Ideal, and the community's life, values, and temporary goals would be a determinant of it. "To the degree that the Ideal of the social group is righteous, superior and comprehensive the social goals will be right, and comprehensive; and to the degree that the Ideal is limited, and low the goals derived from it would be limited and subdued too... So when any group chooses an Ideal, it has in fact determined its goals, means and the drawbacks of achieving such goals through those means."

Sadr specified three types of Ideals. The first is that which reflects the environment and the conditions people experienced in their life. In other words, it is the present condition (with all its limitations and faults) that shapes the future of a people. This 'conservative' Ideal (as I call it) would halt the progress and development of history. It would make the future a repetition of the past, and form out of the relative and limited standards and values an ultimate goal. In fact, the commitment to a conservative Ideal can be considered an act of suicide for a social group. It would lead to a degeneration of society or nation because it would not give it the opportunity and moral energy to develop the socioeconomic resources, or to mobilize the talents of its members.

However, why would any society determine to go in this historical route and choose its own demise? Sadr states two reasons for such a suicidal social mission: First is a psychological reason where people are accustomed to their way of life, praise their condition and are protective of what they have. A member of the society becomes the product of his environment, and is unwilling to change. His social environment has made of him an empiricist, not a rational being; thus he lives for the day and cannot foresee any progress in the future. Second is a social reason where an authoritarian and tyrannical rule would impose standards and goals on the people to shape and mold the society according to its will for the survival of the regime itself. The survival of such a type of a social system throughout history is critical. Because of this sensitivity, the political ruler or elite tries to resist any changes within the existing social norms which might bring a challenge to his reign. The Quran mentions such social dilemmas. In reality, the ruler himself or the political regime becomes the Ideal per se. The goal is to prevent the realization of an alternative Ideal that would transform the present circumstance into a completely different future that would eventually culminate in the withering away (to use Engels' term) of the existing political system.

The historical consequence of the conservative Ideal is the gradual decaying of the society and the waste of its resources. No solidarity emerges that unites people together, producing goals that articulate their resources and opening up a future that is worth struggling to achieve. Rather, the social system is doomed to collapse. Sadr lists three possibilities that would bring about the ultimate termination of such a society:

1) a military invasion by a foreign power that cannot be resisted by scattered social resources. The will of the people had long dwindled, having been wasted upon the immediate concerns of daily-life. A good example of such a case is the Mongol occupation of Muslim territories and the subsequence collapse of the Muslim Empire. The cAbbasid state was not able to muster a strong resistance to the invasions.

2) The intellectual encroachment of a foreign ideal and the adaptation of foreign Ideal to bring about the revival of society. The people by then have lost their identity and do not believe in their capacity to survive, as they become the shadow of another society. Sadr cited the example of Muslim appropriation of western values and the Western Ideal and their satisfaction at being the peripheries of Western civilization. Notable instances of this are the regimes of Reza Shah of Iran and Mustafa Kamal Ataturk of Turkey, which attempted to foist the ideals of European man on their countries.

3) the emergence of a new Ideal that would put an end to the old political and social structure and bring about a new system to satisfy the immediate needs of the society and delay its eventual death. Example of this type are the leaders of the Islamic revival movement such as Jamal al-Din Afghani and Muhammad Abduh who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, tried to introduce a new Ideal that would re-created the new Muslim Ummah out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

The second type of the Ideal is that derived from futuristic ambition of a people. This 'utopian' Ideal (as I call it) is not a carbon-copy of the present conditions as in the first case. Rather it drives the nation towards development and progress. The members of the society are striving for a better future, for change of their present conditions, and for accomplishing certain goals. Such a society is looking for an advanced and utopian state.

However, the short-sighted vision of the society would not produce a utopia in a meaningful sense of providing a solution to the human problem. The mental capacity of man is limited, and therefore, unable to visualize the ultimate goal. The conditions he thought of as paradise would soon be discovered to be imperfect. Though such a Ideal can mobilize the people into challenging their values and environment and utilizing their resources in the production of improved material conditions, and motivate their effort to a powerful historical movement, the social achievement would be for a limited time only. The capacity to grow is proportionately related to the capacity of the Ideal to picture the reality of the future. Man soon would achieve his goal, and the Ideal would stagnate and eventually kill the achievement because the utopian conditions proposed by the Ideal have become living circumstances. It would eventually be a 'conservative' Ideal that halts progress, and the people committed to its stagnating principles face the same historical determinism.

Sadr identified two ways in which a utopian man-made Ideal fails to visualize the ultimate state of affairs and make valid generalizations about the future outcome:

1) Failure in 'horizontal generalization'(or prediction of conditions). Man visualizes his future from the circumstances he faces and will rebel against everything that is linked in one way or the other to his present environment. Rousseau's man, 'born free, but everywhere in chains,' would strive to break all of them. He is on the march to create a new world that is unrelated to his past and in opposition to its values and principles. The Enlightenment movement of eighteenth century Europe is an example of this phenomenon. The European man, suffering from religious persecution of the church, economic exploitation of feudalism, and political oppression of the monarchies, was determined to gain freedom from all those impairments. However, he later discovered that he had created a monster out of human nature by the new unbound and unlimited forms of freedom. When moral standards were abolished, values became relative, and every cruel action got some kind of justification. Hence capitalist democracies failed to produce a utopia for Western man. The result is a political system controlled by big capitalists. The society is wounded by moral ailments, as people adhere to amoral political ideologies, and workers all over the world are severely exploited by the new economic system.

2) Failure of 'temporal generalization' (or prediction of a future epoch). Man, while rejecting the ills of the existing social conditions, may adhere to his vision of a splendid social situation in the future, i.e., the invention of a utopian social state. Marxists of nineteenth century Europe, for example, who had witnessed the failures of their social systems, proposed the utopia of communism. However the socialist movement in Russia and China may claim the success of their experiments on many levels, they are witnessing that the utopia that have promised is all an illusion. If Sadr had lived to witness the recent transformation in Eastern Europe, he would have seen his historical analysis of ill-fated man-made utopias come true. His prediction was that such man-made forecasts of the future would soon be exhausted and were doomed to failure. Man may predict discrete events in time but he cannot envision the whole historical process, only God can. Part of Marx's failure in making an accurate prediction, Sadr explained, is that his thought is limited to his experience of the social system in Europe. Hence, his analysis and prediction would be limited to his case study. A man's mentality cannot transcend beyond his environment when making futuristic predictions.

So the second type of man-made Ideal would also bring an end to the survival of society. Since the gains of the Ideal are transient, the society would find itself in the midst of a stagnate situation that consumes all previous social advancement. Sadr, furthermore, gives an account of the stages of stagnation of the society that went through the adaptation of a 'utopian' Ideal. At first the society would grow and develop rapidly since the Ideal is truly the outcome of people's aspiring to of a better future. However the span of development is short-lived and the gains are limited. Time would pass too quickly to achieve the goals prescribed by the Ideal.

The second stage starts when the dynamism of the Ideal becomes static, and is not able to entice people to participate. They have found that the utopian situation is not real. The Ideal cannot deliver new promises so as to make the society believe again in future paradise. The stagnation, thus, transforms the Ideal into an idol, the leaders into masters and sovereigns, and the people into followers but not participants in progress and development. The third stage is only a continuation of the stagnation of the Ideal where the society is divided into two distinct groups: an elite governing class with one purpose in mind, which is to keep and protect its privileges, being careless about the future of the society; and at the bottom a divided mass that neither has hope in its future or in the social system. The last stage is where the 'criminals' would take over the leadership positions to bring about the final destruction and immediate death of the society. One nation Sadr refers to as an example of his cycle of the rise and fall of nations that adopt the second 'utopian' Ideal is Germany. The German nationalism in few decades had delivered its promises of building a great nation-state. However the idealism of national solidarity of the German people, when achieved, made an idol of the Aryan people, which was considered the superior race. By then, the German people who felt lost in their historical mission and could envision no future to their lives became indifferent about their social system and their leaders. It was easy then for criminals like the Nazis to seize power in Germany. While mobilizing people around the idol, the Nazis were able to deliver final destruction not to the German nation alone, but to modern European civilization that was built around the idol of nationalism.

The third type of Ideal, according to Sadr, is the 'real' one. The Ideal is actually God himself. The mission of mankind in earth is to work toward the ultimate that is God. Here, Sadr argues that religion, or the divine utopia, is only the means for the long historical process of man's ascendancy to God. It is religion and utopian social order that make it possible for man to progress spiritually and physically. Since God is the ultimate in existence, therefore, man's mission is a progressive one to achieve higher value. The mission is also a divine patterning of the historical process, which cannot be avoided by man. Thus, all mankind is part of a historical process regardless of their immediate goals and the temporal missions that have embraced in life. Nations may adopt a different Ideal that causes groups resist change, men may have alternate goals in life or disbelieve in God, but the whole historical mission is directed towards God. God in this case represents the end of everything, as He was the beginning of everything. This ultimate end is not a geographical or historical end. God is the ultimate and the absolute of existence, which means he is everywhere and anywhere. Man cannot achieve the intimacy of God, but encounters Him at any moment or point at which man might decide to halt his mission. Encountering God is relative to where man (who is the limited) cannot achieve the ultimate and the absolute. Hence, the progress of his historical development is not limited at all.

Man may progress toward God in two ways: He may be fully aware of the mission and its goal, or he may be ignorant of the historical development and be proceeding towards Him without his determination. The former is called by Sadr responsible progress, and the latter irresponsible progress. Irresponsible progress is when man adopts an Ideal in his life other than God. Responsible progress is known in Fiqh as the act of worship, or the submission of man to God and following his guidance. Such submission would make man compatible to progress of the historical process.

Responsible progress will have a positive impact on man. On the one hand, it will open the opportunity for continuous development and growth and achievement. There are no limits to that progress or to temporal goals that can be achieved at any point in history. Man will, in discharging his mission and duty toward the ultimate, to be in a constant struggle to abolish all idols and other Ideals that impede his progress. There are no boundaries or limits for man's development, and no historical stages of stagnation during the mission.

On the other hand, the responsible undertaking of the God-given mission would put an end to the contradictions facing man in his social life. The source of these contradictions is neither the economic relationship nor the social relationship, but rather, according to Sadr, man himself. Man will have the responsibility to account for his deeds before God. Such accountability to his All Powerful Lord will end all forms of oppression by man of man. Other Ideals also create some forms of accountability, such as laws, norms or moral values that make man responsible before different social authorities; but their effectiveness is limited because man always finds a way to avoid his responsibilities. However, the case of accountability before God is not a contingent he can escape. In the latter case, the responsibility is not accidental, but rather an essential and continuous one aimed at eliminating the contradiction within man himself, which is the source of all forms of oppression in the social setting.

Man by creation is formed from part of earth and part of God, the soul. The former part inclines him towards fulfilling his passions. In order to satisfy his sensual needs to the maximum, man is willing to oppress others. The latter part will make him ascend to the ultimate, beyond his earthly needs. He will search for the attributes of God, for His justices, His mercy, His beauty, and His knowledge, to the rest of the one hundred attributes of God. His role is to be the vicar of God, not to resemble animals. Thus, the purpose of the religion of God is to give man the ability to restrain his inner passions from getting out of control and harming others so as to establish a divine utopia on earth and not a jungle. Therefore, the only way to constrain his animalistic features is to make him accountable to the All-Seeing, All-Hearing.

In sum, Sadr concluded that monotheistic (tawhid) religion is the only Ideal that could give man the potential to progress throughout history and end the contradiction of mankind. The attribute of God's justice represents the ideal on which man should model his relations on earth. Moreover, the belief in the Day of Judgment would give the spiritual power to man to restrain his passions and make him fully responsible for his deeds before God. Meanwhile, God would reveal his message to mankind through prophets. They guide man in his mission under God and safe-guard his historical development. Finally, the Imams would lead the struggle of mankind against all forms of idols and corrupt the Ideals that hinder the progress of man.

The Pattern of the Historical Process

Sadr interprets of the historical development as a complex process that takes different forms and involves multiple actors. However, the main factor that shapes history is man's adopted ideal, which he called the Ideal. The rise and fall of civilization depend solely on the power of the Ideal to mobilize human energy and its ability to solve his contradiction. His conclusion is that the only the Ideal that can guarantee the ever-lasting human progress is divine monotheistic religions revealed to divinely guided prophets. While other the Ideals might govern human progress, their impact in human history is short because their remedy to man's problems is not effective. In the meantime, human history is a process that functions according to God's blue-print. Man might curtail or speed up the process, but he cannot alter its direction. God not only made the dynamics of the process function in a certain fashion, but His will prevail.

History is a process in which the will of God or the power of his message does not endure. History is functioning according to man-made-Ideal that brought a constant reign of oppression to man, and there is no end in sight. Sadr asserts that God's final victory will prevail at the coming of the Mahdi (the messiah), who will rule the earth and establish a reign of justice and peace that will last to the Day of Judgment. The victory of righteousness over wickedness is a predetermined fact that will surely come about. The whole of human history is progressing toward the realization of God's will.

How is the mechanism of history thus functioning? One of God's laws that govern history is that oppression necessarily precedes the rise of just order. So the more severe the forms of oppression, the better the chance for justice to emerge victorious. Thus, the oppression would beget eventually its antithesis, to speak in Hegelian terms. The oppressive forms of relationships in human history will result in more demands and calls of justice and peace. Victory will come dialectically to the oppressed people. Since the oppressed people are always adopting an Ideal that is limited in its ability to solving human problems, while some forms of oppression are eliminated by human struggle and revolution, others will prevail. Throughout history many forms of oppression accumulate and are reinforced within the structure of human society. In the time that precedes the coming of Mahdi, the world will conform to the prophetic description of "full of oppression and tyranny." The dialectic outcome of this situation will be the final victory of the forces of good and justice over all forces of oppression and tyranny. These forces led by the Mahdi will adhere to the message and the guidance of God and end once and for all the contradiction of man and set up the historical stage for the everlasting progress toward the eternity of the Absolute.

Sadr thinks that man would not only progress in his material condition then, but also would ascend beyond this physical world into the unseen world. The spiritual part of man will predominate over that part made of the 'dirt' of earth. Or put another way, the physical world will ascend in a progressive manner toward the spiritual world. Sadr seemed to believe in the substantial motion (al-harakah al-jawhariyah) of Sadr al-Din Shirazi, a Muslim philosopher (d. 1640), in which the matter continues to develop to a higher state.

"Matter in its substantial movement pursues the completion of its existence and continues its completion, until it is free from its materiality [physical being] under specific conditions and becomes an immaterial [metaphysical] being - that is, a spiritual being."

At the fourth historical stage (the Epoch of Justice of Mahdi's reign and beyond), man will progress, and his material being will develop to the state of an immaterial being. Such development will allow man to cross the dividing line between the material world and spiritual world.

Sadr discovers a different pattern of development in history, unlike the linear process of Christian thought which pictures history as moving between two events, from the creation to the Last Judgement. Though St. Augustine added other important events that influenced man's history, the basic linear process was kept in Christian thought. The coming of Christ, which is considered as God's act of redemption, had no effect on the development of man. The history of man is governed by his original sin, and his fall to the lower world on earth. The second coming of Christ will put an end to the city of man and establish the heavenly city of God which will enable man to transcend his original sin and return to God. However, this development is a progressive linear process of history, similar to that of the Enlightenment thinkers of eighteenth century Europe. While the Enlightenment philosophers thought the scientific revolution is the basic factor for man's development, St. Augustine thought that man overcoming his original sin of disobeying God's order is the reason for his development. In other words, the former thought that religion hinders the development of man, yet the latter thought otherwise, that religion is the salvation of man and the only cause for his development.

Sadr seemed to agree with St. Augustine's views about divinely revealed religion, but his interpretation of history takes into consideration a rise and fall connected with man's progressive trials. However these attempts are not in conflict with the grand design of God in the development of history. They function with the divine blue print, but do not constitute the whole mechanism of human history. Plato thought that there is a cycle of degeneration of the ideal state, the rule of the philosopher-king; first into theocracy, the rule of officers for the pursue of honor and prestige; then into oligarchy, the rule of aristocrats for the pursue of material interests; and into democracy, the rule of the masses for the pursue of their interests; and finally into tyranny, the rule of the corrupt one for his own interests. Ibn Khaldun's historical cycle, unlike Plato's, which is centered around the quality of the ruler, is centered around the solidarity of the social group that formed the political state. The degeneration of Plato's republic is caused by inferior educational background of the ruler, while Ibn Khaldun's monarchy is caused by growth of the economic life of the kingdom and the subsequent breakdown of solidarity. However, the cause of the degeneration of the progress of man, according to Sadr, is the limited efficacy of the Ideal adopted by man.

Sadr's historical process is not cyclical; rather the dialectic of history looks like a spiral. At each point of ascension, a man-made Ideal had brought an oppressive condition which caused man's progress to degenerate. However, out of these worsening conditions, man would ascend to a new epoch of progress. Then a new cycle of rise and fall of human civilization will be repeated. In the meantime, the message of the Divine prophets gives the alternative Ideal to mankind whereby man can end his misery and inner contradiction. While the prophets succeeded in revealing to man the solution to his social problems, the problems persisted because man did not commit himself to the implementation of the message. However, the messages of the Five Great Prophets (Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad) represent the five advancing periods in human history. Yet again, at each time man deviated from following the guidelines of the message, and went into a period of darkness, which is symbolized by oppression and conflicts. The hope for humanity will be in the coming of the Mahdi who will end the historical stage of diversification, and lead man into salvation and progress. Mahdi, therefore, is considered the fruit of human progress, and the conclusion of the historical process. Sadr eloquently expressed this metaphoric dream:

The Mahdi is not an embodiment of the Islamic belief but he is also the symbol of an aspiration cherished by mankind irrespective of its divergent religious doctrines. He is also the crystallization of an instructive inspiration through which all people, regardless of their religious affiliations, have learnt to await a day when heavenly missions, with all their implications, will achieve their final goal and the tiring march of humanity across history will culminate satisfactory in peace and tranquility. This consciousness of the expected future has not been confined to those who believe in the supernatural phenomenon but has also been reflected in the ideologies and cult which totally deny the existence of what is imperceptible. For example, the dialectical materialism which interprets history on the basis of contradiction believes that a day will come when all contradictions will disappear and complete peace and tranquility will prevail.

Sign In


Forgot Password ?


Not a Member? Sign Up