What is The Qur’anic Concept of History?
What distinguishes the Qur’anic concept of history from other philosophies is that, first of all, while philosophers of history or sociologists build their conceptions on the interpretation of past events and present situations, the Qur’an deals with the matter from the perspective of unchanging principles. Second, contrary to the fatalism of all other philosophies, including even Ibn Khaldun’s, the Qur’an lays great emphasis on the free choice and moral conduct of the individual. Although Divine Will, emphasized by the Qur’an, could be regarded as, in some respects, the counterpart of the ‘Geist’ in the Hegelian philosophy and of absolute, irresistible laws of history in other philosophies, the Qur’an never denies human free will. God, according to the Qur’an, tests man in this life so that man himself should sow the ‘field’ of the world to harvest in the next life, which is eternal. For this reason, the stream of events—successes and failures, victories and defeats, prosperity and decay—all are the occasions which God causes to follow one another for mankind, to the end that the good may be distinguished from the evil. Testing must evidently require that the one who is tested should possess free-will to choose between what is lawful and unlawful or what is good and bad. Thus, according to the Qur’an, what makes history is not a compelling Divine Will, rather it is man’s own choice, the operation of which God Almighty has made a simple condition for the coming into effect of His universal Will. If this point is understood well enough, then it will be easy to see how groundless are the Western philosophies of history especially with respect to their conception of ‘inevitable end’.
A possible question
If civilizations are not, essentially, subject to an inevitable end, why, then, were none of the past civilizations able to resist decadence and the ‘corrosive power of time’?
The core of the matter lies in the answer to this important question. What, indeed, caused the philosophers of history such as Ibn Khaldun, Toynbee, Spengler and the like to form a wrong conception of history is that they, rather than trying to discover the real dynamics of historical movements, attempted to explain the apparent causes of the establishment, flourishing, and decay of civilizations. Whoever looks back to the past couldn’t help arriving at the same conclusions. But that no community has so far been able to remain at the peak it climbed does not mean that this is an inevitable end, a determinist grip on the fate of nations. The past civilizations collapsed because they did not heed the warnings of what had happened to peoples preceding them. To accept a historical determinism means to nullify human free will and to regard as useless, even as absurdity, all the warnings and advice given to living people by both Divine Scriptures and social sciences.
As stated before, man is tested in the world. He has a carnal self which is the source of all desires and animal appetites. In addition, man has a natural inclination towards living together with his fellow human beings, and also he is in a complex relationship with his natural environment. This requires that man’s carnal desires should be limited and his relations with both his human and natural environment be based on ‘justice’ so that he may be at peace with himself, his environment and nature. Nevertheless, as history witnesses, some people may, under the instigation of their carnal desires, not be pleased with their share in the society and attempt to dominate others. If such people realize their ambitions, they may, in order to justify their actions, make a constitution to govern the people. It is, indeed, easy to have the people to ‘vote’ for their constitution.
This is what has always been where and when the Divine laws are abrogated. Where the people sincerely believe in one God as the Lord, Sovereign and Master of humankind, without concession to any intermediate role of some classes such as the clergy in Christianity, and where they are really conscious of the meaning of Divine Unity, which, by delivering man from the humiliating slavery to carnal desires, worldly positions, or to other beings, and eradication of the false and artificial contradictions of the black and the white, clergy and laity, the ruler and the ruled, the employer and employed etc., elevates him so high as to be the servant of only One God, no one attempts to dominate others through the force of money, color, race or weapons.
According to the Qur’an, all men are, on account of being the creatures of one God, essentially equal in the sight of God. Furthermore, man lacks knowledge and power to establish the rules according to which at least the majority of people could live at peace with themselves, with each other and with the natural environment. Above all, man has to be at peace with his Creator and Sustainer. Because of these, only God’s exclusively is sovereignty both in the heavens and on the earth.
What God asks of man—it is what we can conclude we must do through the exercise of our reasoning—is that man should build his worldly existence on three foundations: justice, religious-moral values and Divine laws of life and nature.
The Qur’an invites man, first of all, to believe in and worship One God, by which he may lead a balanced life: He may attain true inward happiness and peace and co-exist with his fellow human beings in accordance with the rules of justice, without being led astray by his carnal, evil-commanding self. Second, the Qur’an lays down some moral, also legal, principles. For example, it says:
Give to the kindred his due and the poor and to the wayfarer. But spend not wastefully in the manner of a spendthrift. Kill not your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and for you. Come not near to unlawful sexual intercourse. Do not kill anyone which God has forbidden, except for just cause. Come not near the orphan’s property except to improve it. And fulfil covenants. Give full measure when you measure and weigh with balance that is right. (al-Isra’, 17.26, 31–5)
Also, the Qur’an prohibits usury, black-marketeering, hoarding, theft, gambling, and cheating etc. Besides, it is also a Qur’anic injunction to study nature, discover its laws and make progress in sciences. Moreover, there are some other vital principles, obedience to, or neglect of, which has a definite part in man’s ‘fate’. For example, patience and forbearance usually bring success and victory, and while working produces wealth, inertia and laziness are the causes of poverty.
Thus, man, according to the Qur’an, by neglecting or living in accordance with justice, religious-moral values and Divine laws of nature, determines his own future. There is in principle nothing, other than his free choice, to dictate his fate. If, then, a community, at least by majority, obey God and perform both His ‘religious’ and ‘natural’ laws, there can be nothing to prevent them from realizing peace, happiness and harmony in both individual and social life. Otherwise, no matter how glittering a community may appear, it is inevitable for it to fall into decay.
There is another point to be emphasized concerning the Qur’anic concept of history. The Qur’an does not accept ‘inevitable end’ for civilizations. Any civilization, as long as it follows its ‘right’ way, it can remain at the peak, although no civilization has so far been able to. And, any civilization which is due and, on the threshold of, collapse because it has deviated from its course, could be saved from destruction and even realize a new rise if it reforms its way. Finally, history does not follow a straight and always forward course, rather, it advances by cycles.
By B. Said Nursi