Be Like Adam's Son: The Law of the Better and More Enduring

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People mix up things, and are baffled. We say that what does more good will stay, and what does harm will disappear: they take it in a narrow sense and so deny a great law. This law, however, is the basis for the improvement of life, that the more beneficial will supersede what is less beneficial. It is the law for dealing with efforts, convictions, and ideas; the law of 'the better and more enduring.' It is this law that Iqbal had in mind when, in his book The Revival of Religious Thought he said that the criterion for deciding the value of a civilization, a culture, or a religion was the kind of individual it produced, and the amount of good it did to humankind.

This is the law I am trying to put forth, the law adopted by the prophets; it is the law that mankind will have to accept, sooner or later. And even in the issue of monotheism, we shall have to accept the amount of good that is brought about through belief in the One God as the proof that monotheism is a sound belief.

Up till now we have been discussing the profitable in connection with time, through following up history; but we need also to consider the profitable across space. It is not a beneficial thing that gives advantage to some individuals at the expense of the majority, that favors a certain group while it harms another. Biased and skewed views of the law of the more beneficial and more extensive across time will ruin it, and it has been the reason for ruining civilizations, religions, and cultures. It is so because the law does not relate to an individual or a small group – the more extensive is its population the truer it will prove to be.

You see people accept a law even when it is severe if it applies to all, without being prejudiced in favor of some. That is why the Prophet, peace be upon him, says, "Those who were before you encountered failure for they would acquit the notable person if he stole, but punished the humble." (Reported by al-Bukhari and Muslim) And we may say in the light of this law that the UN Security Council may be on the way to destruction if it persists in granting some of its members the Veto Right. The Qur'an teaches us "when you judge between man and man, you judge with justice" (4:58): for justice to be justice, it must be even-handed justice, applied to all.

Disbelief and polytheism must be understood as inequality among people. Some Muslim scholars did notice that a state ruling with justice would survive, even if it were disbelieving; and a state would perish if it ruled with injustice, even it were a Muslim state.

People get confused about applying the law of doing good: they see it apply, as they assume, to even the burglar seeking to gain what is good for himself; but they are wrong here, as the burglar's purpose is for quite a short term, and he seeks good for himself alone. He certainly does not think of even the long term for himself, let alone thinking of the good of the majority of people. Of course so many people seek good for themselves, but fail to look far into the future, and fail to see how much good they do to others. That is the meaning of our failing to see the value of history.

When the Qur'an compares nations and peoples to individuals, what they have in common is having a life span, but of course with the great difference in the duration of the life span of an individual in comparison with a people or a civilization. Ibn Khaldoun awoke to the fact that while history appeared, to the casual observer, as no more than an aggregate of so many details about nations and rulers; its essence was great insight, an investigation of the causes of events, and a revelation of the genesis of creation.

Let me tell you how I view the importance of history, which the Qur'an accepts as the witness for its truth. Now nations have for some time awakened to the importance of inoculations against smallpox and polio; the WHO is proud to offer a prize for anyone who can detect any case of smallpox outside labs. And even countries low on the curve of knowledge and education have learned this trick. Well, let me say then that if those who did the explosions in the World Trade Center, in the Tokyo tunnels, and, before that in Mecca in 1979, if they had been inoculated well with historical knowledge they would not have done it; the virus for blind destruction would have been killed within their minds. But of course, it must be a thorough and well reasoned knowledge, showing the transitions from stage to stage, from one phase of human development to the next. Do you see how far historical insight can go? It can do away with mischief and destructiveness, and any pointless spilling of human blood. And this does not only apply to obscure young men – it applies to world-known heads of states. All have been led into spilling human blood by their lacking historical knowledge.

The Qur'an's method in narrating the events about past nations and peoples is to give some details and then comment with generalizations like, "Thus do We explain the Signs in detail; and perchance they may turn to Us;" (7:174) "We have explained in detail in this Qur'an, for the benefit of mankind, every kind of similitude: but man is, in most things, contentious;" (18:54-55) and "Such were the populations We destroyed when they committed iniquities; but We fixed an appointed time for their destruction." (18:59). The Qur'an will not fail to show people's responsibility for what befell them: they failed to link causes and effects.

But people are mostly blind to the consequences of human conduct. We all know the extreme case of the robber who does his robbery, who is reinforced by quick results, and is blind to the catastrophe that usually follows. In the same way, the colonizers saw the quick results of their occupation, and maybe they did later realize the mischief they had done as they had hampered the coming of the era of reform. Foucault divined this fear of knowledge in people's minds, what he called 'the deep fear of the logos.' It is the blind fear of losing the quick advantages. Men would not like to consider the long-term results. The states which enjoy the Veto Right would not like to face the long-term sinister consequences of their holding on to that privilege. Most of the leaders are unaware of the curses that will pour on their names in the future, for all the great havoc that followed on their quick advantages.

When we recite in the Qur'an, "Such is the punishment of your Lord when He punishes communities in the midst of their wrong: grievous, indeed, and severe is His punishment;" 11:102) the normal reaction must be to shudder; it is not right that we pass by such verses feeling nothing. Let us not be less sensitive than the Indian philosopher who insisted on speaking out his mind to the king, and when his disciples warned him against it he said: "I realize the risk, but I cannot imagine letting history put on record that this philosopher was alive at the time of a tyrannical king without speaking to him." I wonder if some of us have the historical sense, by not letting the present conduct continue as that would be a disgrace in the eyes of our future generations.