Be Like Adam's Son: Can Civilizations Challenge Perdition?

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Arnold Toynbee, at the end of his Study of History, took up the question of whether a civilization could challenge demise. He only hoped that the Christian Civilization could do, although he did not seem optimistic enough.

Toynbee did excellent work by taking up Ibn Khaldoun's cycle of the lifespan of a state, and developed it to be a cycle of the lifespan of civilizations. One thing that Toynbee did not notice was the cycle of prophethood. It is a cycle that does not confine itself to any particular nation or race or civilization. It is something like 'the cycle of man's effort,' from a verse in the Qur'an, "O you man! Verily you are ever toiling on toward your Lord – painfully toiling – but you shall meet Him." (84:6). It was a process that started from the day the Lord said, "I will create a vicegerent on earth;" (2:30); and it ends in a human's realizing God's foreshadowing, in the same verse "I know what you do not know." (2:30)

This process or cycle of 'human effort' started with Adam (and his two sons were given prominence in the Qur'an), and on to Noah, Abraham, and so on until Muhammad. It was a new way of a human's endeavors; and in the last link of man's efforts, the prophets' message, a human was commanded to look at history, to discover its laws; for, as the Qur'an warns the human being, if he/she fails to understand, then history has its way of forcing humankind to listen.

There will be a time, and I can see it in the near future, when people will come under the guidance given by the prophets; and those who try to discourage others from the way of God will be effectively stopped; men will come to accept equality with other men, with no attempt to rise above other men, and without the folly of trying to eliminate compulsion through compulsion.

But not yet. Especially in the Muslim world people cannot up till now consider an alternative to compulsion. Indeed, if Muslims wish to see their bodies relieved of the consequences of compulsion, then they need to dismiss it from their hearts. It is a disease in the heart that, as long as it survives there, will not allow good sense to take its place. And when you are really healed of the disease, you will not make exception for yourself. It begins when the Muslim looks into his own heart and tries to free it from the wish to force others.

Does this go against the grain? So many Muslims who have influence inspire in the hearts of their followers that the more spite and ill-will they have, the better Muslims they are. But this is not what Abraham taught; he prayed to God that his heart be free from impurity. How far from this purity of heart we are when we look with derision at the practice of Bilal and his comrades, taking them to be defeated inside when they accepted to be tormented without taking revenge.

Do you see now why I say that the era of the prophets' system has not arrived yet. People cannot imagine repelling mischief but with mischief, with more severe mischief if possible. Do we think of a way of giving each other a peaceful life instead of hurting each other? That is what the Qur'an teaches us, "Nor can Goodness and Evil be equal. Repel Evil with what is better: then will he between whom and you was hatred, becomes as it were your friend and intimate." (41:34). Do we really think of the way of turning somebody's hostility into love? I suspect that many still regard this as a kind of madness, and that shows you how long a way we shall have to walk. Many still consider compulsion as the good sense. And yet, good sense comes without compulsion.

But let us return to Jonah's people. They are the people who, as the Qur'an recounts, learned the lesson at the right time, and so averted punishment. They are one reason for my optimism; for my insistence that God's light will spread and then dominate. It is not just belief in the unseen but rather belief in something that begins to happen before our eyes. History is my witness; even though many ignore it.

One starting point is to realize that somebody's disbelief is not a cause for eliminating him. Nor should we imagine that the Qur'an calls for this. It is confusion like this that led us to wage the two Gulf Wars; for in the eyes of each party, the others were disbelievers. But, at the same time, we have a book like Muhammad Sa'eed Ramadan al-Booti's Jihad, about which I said the first time I saw it, "The world will not be the same after the publication of this book as it was before it." It is not a minor thing that a man of the caliber of al-Booti should publish a book asserting that disbelief is no cause for execution. But it does not mean that the complex problem will be solved with one book.

Works like the above unearth facts that people have ignored for such a long time, and they often meet such unusual ideas with hostility and denial for some time. Well, people may receive well or dispute most vehemently, but history will go its way. Not the smallest bit is lost in history; I mean it will have its part in determining people's destiny. It must show people where they stand, and how they fare. For our part, it is our duty to learn to adapt with the minimum losses and cost. We have with us this excellent teacher which not only teaches the harmful and the profitable, but teaches the law to which they refer, the engines behind the movements of history. (the sunan in the diction of the Qur'an (as for example in 33:62.)

It is left to us, in the Muslim world, to learn from Jonah's people and from history how to bring to a minimum the amount of suffering that is inflicted on us, in quality and in quantity; not to be so much disgraced, not to be the greatest losers. So let each one of us do his share in bringing this to pass. Let us not pay again and again for the same mistakes. My own ambition is to discover the main law of history. One thing appears true, that the world was not created as a one-time act, nor is it regressing and declining. This is not what the Qur'an teaches us, nor is it what observation tells us. The world has its own laws of guidance, and moves towards guidance, no matter how pessimistic we may be about it. A human can intervene and save time, and can accelerate the progress, to realize the most profitable. By adopting creative ways, a human can prove what God prophesied for him at the time of his creation.

It is a gross short-sightedness to assume that what happens at the moment will go on happening as it is. Jonah's people are a proof that something can happen that did not happen before. It is our duty to learn to have the model of Jonah's people turn into a general law, not to stay as a single phenomenon. It is always a hurdle to people's advance that they take the novelty of an event as a proof that it cannot happen again. That something is not there does not mean that we do not cause it to come into being. And the world very badly needs this law. The world is stiff with pessimism; and this condition stifles the vitality of the spirit, and does away with its natural vigorousness and motivation.

History has indeed saved me. I saw in it God's creation. I saw how people simply did things in the way they saw them happen; I saw all the losing deals, where time and efforts are wasted. But I also saw how history discards the erroneous ways and practices, and how the world is designed in a way to proceed to the less costly and more merciful, and to the less complicated. It is on a principle of great economy that the world is designed. And the realization of all this is not far away from us; its early harbingers are already with us.

But let us hurry in stopping the bleeding, the great wastage in time, materials, and human abilities. Indeed, to the extent we are short of knowledge we are bound to waste time and energy. History, for long ages, used to proceed spontaneously and slowly. But of late, humans began to open their eyes and see that they can steer things and save time. So when we now speak of truth having the upper hand, we are referring to this awakening to the possibility of following the easier and less complicated methods. So let us not be among those who deny God's signs. But if we insist on our ways, on not seeking a more fruitful and creative method, history just does not care, for it is we who have to pay the price.

See what distinguished Jonah's people from the others; what merited that penalty should be lifted. So do not doubt that men's effort have effect. God chose not to have all men be well-guided and pious. He chose to have them bear the responsibility, to determine their own destiny. It is a trust a human has to bear. He/she has been given the opportunity to distinguish himself from the rest of creation. And that happens when a human adopts the way of good sense, not compulsion; no faith can enter a heart through compulsion, as the Qur'an says, "'Will you then compel mankind, against their will, to believe?" (10:99)

Does all this suffice? Is history our reference, for repetitious and monotonous ways, and for creative and new ways? Does the reader distinguish the two readings of the Qur'an?

What a human has been enabled to do is not little, "And He has subjected to you, as from Him, all that is in the heavens and on earth." (45:13) But man often underrates himself/herself, and does not take count of the trust put in his/her hands. He/she is required to develop the world, with that ability of distinguishing the profitable and the harmful. So will a human remember this and not regress to a more primitive state?

What the angels objected to is still true of humankind; at the time of creating man, the angels objected to God, "Will You place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood?" (2:30). Humans still shed blood and wreak havoc on the earth. They still drive other men from their home (45 million emigrants in the world, according to the latest statistics.) Of course there are all these acts of destruction and mischief, but we must deal with the ideas behind them.