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SOCIAL SCIENCES. A strong interest in the social order was manifested from the earliest period of Islamic history. Society was to be patterned according to the guidelines laid down in the Qur’an. The emergence of the schools of law (madhahabs) indicated the serious concern with social issues; the interests of the individual were placed within the context of the greater society.

The earliest formulation of the concept of a good society and government containing elements of political and social philosophy was the comprehensive instruction of the fourth righteous caliph, `All ibn Abi Talib, to the newly appointed governor of Egypt, Malik al-Ashtar, in 658 CE. It contains many points that are as valid today as they were in the seventh century.

Caliph `All’s other writings, compiled in the Nahj albaldghah, drew attention to history and the problem of oppression. This is the earliest record of one of a prominent Islamic figure attempting to encourage the study of history and society in the universal and enlightened sense. In his advice to his son Hasan, `All stressed the need to study history, the fate of past people. He pondered over their performance and the events surrounding them with great empathy, saying:

I walked among their ruins till I was regarded one of them. In fact by virtue of their affairs that have become known to me it is as though I have lived with them from the first to the last. I have therefore been able to discern the dirty from the clean and the benefit from the harm” (Nahjul Balagha: Sermons, Letters and Sayings of Imam Ali. p. 426).

`All also stressed the need for a ruler to keep continuous discourse with men of learning in order to understand the causes of prosperity and stability. The interest in inquiring into the conditions of society, prosperity, oppression and tyranny, moral decadence, religious devotion and deviation, the dynamics of conflict between man, and a host of other related themes was first kindled by `All. It was a result of reflection on what he had to confront in real life. Centuries later many of the themes raised by `All became apparent and it was left to Ibn Khaldun to develop them and to link them into a pattern in history.

The passion for history eventually extended toward the study of society, subsequently exemplified by the intellectually revolutionary formulation of historiography and sociology by `Abd al-Rahman ibn Khaldun in the fourteenth century. Ibn Khaldun has been called the founder of the disciplines of history and sociology. In his monumental Muqaddimah he introduced the cyclical theory of the rise and fall of dynasties, together with their foundation, the different types of solidarity (`asabiyah). Ibn Khaldun anticipated many findings of modern social science, including the idea of systemic causation and the principle of interdependence among factors, as well as the general influence of social factors on events and human psychology. [See the biography of Ibn Khaldun.]

Despite his great contribution to the study of society, no succeeding development appeared in this field after Ibn Khaldun; until the present day there has been no attempt at the historical analysis of Muslim society surpassing Ibn Khaldun’s achievement. Modern Islamic social-science thinking in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries at best raised isolated problems without the foundation of a thorough framework sustained through decades of cumulative research by a community of scholars immersed in the relevant disciplines.

What is meant by Islamic social science? By this we do not mean mere studies of Islamic society and its social problems, or the discussion of Islamic ideas and events in the Muslim community; we mean critical or affirmative discussion of the Islamic religious system, or the application of the social sciences in the study of social phenomena derived from Islamic influence. An analogous Western example is Max Weber’s study of the Protestant ethic, which theorizes that Calvinist doctrine conditioned the rise of the capitalist spirit. An analogous study could be that of the way Islam awakened the scientific spirit during the ‘Abbasid caliphate in the ninth century CE, bringing social-science concepts and methodology to bear on the historical data.

Studies of this kind are rare but have begun to appear in the twentieth century. Far more abundant, however, are discourses on social philosophy and agitation for Islamic reform, exemplified by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Sayyid Ahmad Khan in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth by writers such as Said Nursi in Turkey and Muhammad Bagir al-Saar in Iraq. Their works did evince greater intellectual acumen than many in their times; Bagir al-Sadr’s Our Philosophy dealt, among other topics, with the refutation of Marxism, but employed hardly any historical data.

Nearer to the social-science sphere are some of the discussions offered by Murtaza Mutahhari, ‘Ali Shari’ati, and Malek Bennabi. A very interesting contribution was made by Edward W. Blyden, a Liberian professor and cabinet minister in 1887, on Islam and the African character. The works of all these thinkers raise significant problems worthy of serious scholarly pursuit.

Certain salient points in their contributions suggest the prospective research scenario for the social sciences in Islamic society. A leading recent thinker is Malek Bennabi, an Algerian engineer, patriot, and reformer appointed Director of Higher Education in 1963. He was noted for his part in the struggle for independence and for numerous public lectures on politics and Islamic reform. The key to the problem of reform is what he described as the “post-al-Muwahhid man,” Bennabi’s personification of the decadence and backwardness that emerged after the fall of the al-Muwahhid (Almohad) dynasty in the thirteenth century in North Africa. Bennabi attributed the consequent stagnation of Islamic society to the pervasive influence of this human type on the subsequent course of Islamic history. He catalogued a number of psychological traits dominating the postal-Muwahhid man, a type he believed became dominant around the epoch of Ibn Khaldun in the fourteenth century.

An important observation of Bennabi is his comparison between the traditionalism of the English conservative and the traditionalism of the post-al-Muwahhid man. Writing about the sociological “heredity” of the two societies, Bennabi said:

But these two aspects of heredity are not identical: in the one case, it is a question of aptitude, in the other the ineptitude. The Englishman voluntarily inclines towards a certain traditionalism, judged necessary for national equilibrium; but this equilibrium is dynamic. In the Muslim society, on the contrary, it bespeaks of an impotence to surpass that which is given, to go beyond the known, to cross new historical frontiers, to create and assimilate anew. Here it is no more a question of determination but of an insolvency. (1991, P. 12)

Thus Bennabi highlighted the significance of a human type collectively dominating the reaction and attitude of Islamic society toward the problems of the age. Bennabi raises numerous valid and significant problems susceptible to further sociological and historical research. It is this emphasis on a human type, persisting for centuries, that makes Bennabi’s contribution most original. Although he did not deal exhaustively with any of the problems he raised, nevertheless he brought them up for discussion.

Another author somewhat similar in sensibility to Bennabi in his concern with the problem of decadence and human type is `Al! Shari`ati. He directed his attention to martyrdom and its sociology and psychology, a theme that emanates from the Shi`i religious outlook. Shari`ati introduced significant sociological inquiry into the nature, meaning, and function of martyrdom, centering around the tragedy of Karbala (68o CE) in which Husayn ibn ‘Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, and seventy-two followers pitted themselves against an overwhelmingly superior force.

Shari’ati saw the significance of this event as the expression of revolt against evil when no other means are available: the intention was not to overpower the enemy but to expose him and to awaken the spirit of resistance. He deduced sociological and historical consequences from the martyrdom of Husayn. Two kinds of martyrdom are distinguished by Shari`ati jihad and shahadah. jihad is the defense of the faith with power and struggle as in a holy war, while shahadah is the defense of the faith through dying for it in a conscious manner, as planned by Husayn ibn `Ali, to whom the alternative was to pay homage to evil.

Husayn’s martyrdom exposed the infamy of the ruling power and influenced the rest of the Muslim world. Even the Sunni imams became uncompromising in their attitudes toward the Umayyad and ‘Abbasid dynasties (Shari’ati, 1986). Sharl’ati’s thesis on the impact of Husayn’s martyrdom offers attractive results from a historical and sociological perspective. Much attention had previously been given to the tragedy in the historical narrative sense, but little to its overall sociological and historical impact, and Shari`ati attempted to supply the latter. [See the biography of Shari’ati.]

Mutahhari, who was himself assassinated, also wrote about martyrdom to clarify its aims and concepts. Mutahhari wrote on numerous subjects, but the one of most interest here is his discussion of the historical transformation of Iran through conversion to Islam. He notes, “the arrival of Islam in Iran was an invasion from the viewpoint of the politico-religious forces ruling the country. But it was a revolution in the fullest sense of the word and with all its characteristics from the viewpoint of the masses and the Iranian nation” (“Islam and Iran: A Historical Study of Mutual Services,” Al-tawhid [Tehran] 8.2 [Nov. 1990-Jan. 1991]: 157). Among the significant transformations brought about by Islam was the rise of Iranians to ascendancy in scientific and other cultural domains for the first time in their history, preceded by the first unification of religious faith in Iran. The religious and political boundaries once drawn around Iran were demolished by Islam, and the new interaction with the outside world stimulated the Iranians. Their talents were accepted far and wide, and they became exemplars: in the pre-Islamic period, there were no such Iranian figures as al-Razi, al-Farabi, and Ibn Sina.

There were many other significant changes mentioned by Mutahhari worthy of sociological research, such as the radical change in class structure. Mutahhari’s treatment of the subject is comprehensive in the sense of raising the awareness of Islamic influence on Iranian society, although its methodology is not entirely sociological.

In yet another work Mutahhari addresses the differential effect of the Islamic reform movement in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries among the Sunnis and Shi’is. Why did revolutionary movements involving mass action take place among Shiis and not among the Sunnis? Mutahhari was referring not to the movement against Western imperialism but to that against injustice and exploitation. He writes:

In the history of the Sunni world, we do not come across movements like the anti-tobacco movement led by the religious leaders in Iran as a result of which monopolization was canceled and external colonization and internal absolutism were dealt a severe blow. There was no movement like the uprising in Iraq which liberated that country from the yoke of British colonization. There was no movement like that of constitutionalism against the autocratic regime in Iran resulting in the establishment of constitutionalism. And lastly there has been no movement in the Sunni world like the one which is led by the religious leaders in Iran today. (1979, P. 51)

The explanation given by Mutahhari is the differential role and position of the religious leadership in the two communities. In the Sunni world the religious institution is aligned with and under the control of the ruling power, whereas among the Shl’is it is independent of the ruling power. The Shi’i religious leaders were thus in a better position to exert their influence and lead the masses against an oppressive regime. Hence Mutahhari opens the subject of the sociology of leadership in the Muslim world as conditioned by the nature of the religious framework creating differential functions and impacts. [See the biography of Mutahhari.]

What is presently lacking is in-depth study of the problems raised by Mutahhari, Shari`ati, Bennabi, and Afghani. Their thoughts and discourse are Islam-centered, and any research and analysis in this direction would serve to establish the Islamic social-science tradition.

Another interesting work comes from another quarter, not from a Muslim but from an ardent admirer of Islam, Edward W. Blyden (1832-1912), a West Indian black clergyman who became a Liberian national and secretary of state as well as professor of classics at Liberia College. His magnum opus, Christianity, Islam, and the African Race (1887; rev. ed. 1992) is strewn with original insights and significant material for sociological and cultural-anthropological research. He discusses the effects of Islam and Christianity on the African people and showed how the nature of each faith patterned different results.

What is most original in Blyden’s analysis, of great significance in the sociology of religion, is his distinction between the nature of conversion for Africans drawn to Christianity and those drawn to Islam. He explains the different phenomena by relating them to African cultural and situational background, Western colonialism, and historical contacts with Arabia. According to Blyden, conversion to Christianity made Africans imitators, and conversion to Islam made them disciples. Culturally and sociologically, Islam introduced a superstructure on a permanent indigenous structure. When Arabs met Africans in their own home, the result was amalgamation rather than absorption or undue repression (Blyden, 1992, P. 33). Christianity, on the other hand, introduced the sense of subordination to the white man, his symbols and images, while Islam allowed the flow of African symbols into religious life, because Islam lacked preexisting pictorial representation. In addition, Africans found it easy to blend their identity with Islam because a member of their race, Bilal, was a companion of the Prophet and assisted at the birth of the religion (p. 400), and an African slave was the mother of the Prophet’s ancestor Isma’il.

Blyden’s work is rich in sociological insights and causal explanations. An example is the contrasting types of the Arab and European missionary: the Arab missionary married and intermingled with the African converts; the European missionary kept a social distance. Blyden’s work offers suggestions for sociological and cultural study of the integration of Islam into African culture, the changes wrought by Islam at the institutional as well as the personal psychological level, and an understanding of the interplay of various historical and social factors in the spread of Islam and the nature of conversion.

This discussion has dealt mainly with the study of social phenomena derived from Islamic institutions and beliefs, a nascent field. It has excluded the large body of work on socioeconomic problems not directly related to Islam. The bulk of modern writing, scholarly and otherwise, has however been in the area of social philosophy rather than in social science proper. A recent example within the confines of social science is Fatima Mernissi’s work on the origin of Islamic family institution as conditioned by the Islamic religious system (Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Enquiry, Oxford, 1991). [See the biography of Mernissi.]

There is a noticeable growth in social-science research on economic and related social problems, but it can hardly be Islamic in thematic and problematic orientation. Developing Islamic social-science research is a hopeful prospect, but the obstacles are great if cooperation is not forthcoming from authority. For example, in a society attempting to implement the traditional shari’ah law (hudud), sociological study of its impact would only be possible with the cooperation of the ruling power and with access to data in official files. This has not yet occurred; instead, what we have are bits and pieces of information filtered through the mass media or other nonscientific sources.

Islamic social science research has yet to emerge as a sustained and collective effort dealing with problems conditioned by the Islamic religious system. In the West social science emerged out of social philosophy, and the present ascendancy of Islamic social philosophy in the Muslim world is bound to give birth to a comparable Islamic social-science tradition. After endless discourse on the perfect social order, one is bound to ask why reality is otherwise. A balanced and reflective mind will seek the aid of the social sciences. Culinary recipes do not satisfy hunger-only the actual dish does. That requires a science of cooking practiced by living cooks, not by those of bygone ages. The dead can only inspire; it is the living who must aspire.

In addition to the works mentioned above, the following provide a general appreciation of social-science themes that have emerged from various research perspectives on Islamic society.


Alatas, Syed Hussein. Modernization and Social Change. Sydney, 1972.

Alatas Syed Hussein. Intellectuals in Developing Societies. London, 1977

Alatas, Syed Hussein. The Myth of the Lazy Native. London, 1977. Alatas, Syed Hussein. Corruption: Its Nature, Cause, and Functions. Aldershot, England, 199o.

`All ibn Abi Talib. Nahjul Balagha: Sermons, Letters, and Sayings of Imam Ali. Compiled by Al-Sharif al-Radi. Translated by jafar Hussein. Qom, 1989. See page 426.

Bennabi, Malek. Islam in History and Society. Translated by Asma Rashid. Islamabad, 1988. See page 12.

Berkes, Niyazi. The Development of Secularism in Turkey. Montreal, 1964.

Blyden, Edward W. Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race. London, 1887. Reprinted as Christianity, Islam, and the African Race. San Francisco, 1992.

Ibn Khaldim. The Muqaddimah. Vols. 1-2. Translated by Franz Rosenthal. New York, 1958.

Keddie, Nikki R. An Islamic Response to Imperialism. 2d ed. Berkeley, 1983.

Mernissi, Fatima. Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Enquiry. Translated by Mary to Lakeland. Oxford, 1991. Mutahharl, Murtaza. Islamic Movements in the Twentieth Century. Translated by Maktab-e-Qoran (Office of the Qur’an). Tehran, 1979 See page 41.

Shari`ati, ‘Ali. On the Sociology of Islam. Translated by Hamid Algar. Berkeley, 1979.

Shari`ati, `All. “Shahadat.” In Jihad and Shahadat: Struggle and Martyrdom in Islam, edited by Mahmud Taleqani and Murtaza Mutahharl, pp. 153-229. Houston, 1986.

Shari’ati, `AIi. What Is to Be Done: The Enlightened Thinkers and an Islamic Renaissance. Edited by Farhang Rajaee. Houston, 1986.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/social-sciences/

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