• Date: 2010 Jun 29

Society and Tradition

Should society have a real existence, it must also have its own laws and conventions. But if we accept the first theory about the nature of society as mentioned above, and deny its actual existence, we have to admit that society has no laws or conventions. In case we accept the second theory and hold that the combination of society is synthetic and mechanical, society will certainly be having laws and conventions, but only those which relate to the causative system of its component parts and their mutual mechanical effects. It will not be having any signs or characteristics of life. In case we accept the third theory, society should be having its laws and conventions independent of the laws and conventions of its component parts (individuals), for in this case society enjoys a sort of independent collective life, although not removed from the life of the individuals, but scattered in it. On getting organized into society, the individual human beings lose the independence of their identity only comparatively.
Otherwise they retain it to a very large extent. The individual life and individual endowments and acquirements are not totally dissolved in the collective life. In fact according to this theory man lives with two lives, two spirits and two egos, - one being his human life, human spirit and human ego born of his basic nature and the other his collective life, collective spirit and collective ego born of his collective life and absorbed into his individual ego. That is why man is governed both by psychological and sociological laws. According to the fourth theory, the only laws and conventions that govern man as such are the social conventions.
The first person among the Muslim scholars, who mentioned the laws and conventions governing society and distinguished from the laws and conventions of the individuals, and consequently maintained that society had a personality, a nature and a reality, was Abdur Rahman Ibn Khaldun of Tunis. He in his celebrated Introduction to History has discussed this question in detail. Among the modern scholars the first person who discovered the conventions governing the communities, was the French philosopher of the 18th century, Montesquieu.
About him Raymond Aron says: "His purpose was to make history intelligible. He sought to understand historical truth. But historical truth appeared to him in the form of an almost limitless diversity of morals, customs, ideas, laws, and institutions His inquiry's point of departure was precisely this seemingly incoherent diversity. The goal of the inquiry should have been the replacement of this incoherent diversity by a conceptual order. One might say that Montesquieu, exactly like Max Weber, wanted to proceed from the meaningless fact to an intelligible order. This attitude is precisely the one peculiar to the sociologist". (Raymond Aron, Main Currents in Sociological Thought, vol. 1, p. 14)
The gist of this statement is that behind the so many forms of social phenomena apparently inconsistent with each other, a sociologist discovers such a unity that all the varying phenomena are recognized to be the manifestations of that unity.
In the same way, all the similar social events and phenomena have their origin in a similar sequence of analogous causes. Here is a passage from the observations on the causes of the rise and fall of the Romans: "It is not fortune that rules the world.
We can ask the Romans, who had a constant series of success when they followed a certain plan, and an uninterrupted sequence of disasters when they followed another. There are general causes, whether moral or physical. . . which operate in every monarchy, to bring about its rise, its duration and its fall. All accidents are subject to these causes, and if the outcome of a single battle, i.e. a particular cause, was the ruin of a state, there was a general cause which decreed that that state was destined to perish through a single battle. In short, the main impulse carries all the particular accidents along with it". (Raymond Aron, Main Currents in Sociological Thought, vol. I, p. 4)
The Holy Qur'an declares specifically that the nations and societies as such have laws and norms according to which they progress or decline. When it is said that a nation or a community has a common destiny, that amounts to saying that society has its law. In respect of the Israelites the Holy Qur'an says: '
"In the scriptures We decreed for the Children of Isra'il: Twice you shall create disorder in the land and you shall become great tyrants. When the time of the punishment of your first transgression came, We sent against you, Our slaves of great might who ravaged your country. Thus the prophecy was fulfilled. Then We granted you victory over them.
We heaped you with wealth and sons and made you a greater host. (We said to you): If you do good, it shall be to your own advantage; but if you do evil, you yourselves shall suffer. So when the time of the punishment of your second transgression came, (We sent against you other slaves of Ours) to ravage you and enter the Masjid in the same way as had the former army entered it, utterly destroying all that they laid their hand on. (And We said): It may be that your Lord will have mercy on you, but if you repeat (the crime), We shall also repeat (the punishment). We have Hell, a prison for the disbelievers." (Surah Bani Isra'il, 17:4 - 8)

The sentence: "If you repeat (the crime), We shall also repeat the punishment", has been addressed to a community and not to any individual. Hence it clearly shows that the laws governing societies are universal.
Compulsion or Volition
One of the basic questions which have been under discussion among the scholars, especially during the last century, is the question of the compulsion or volition of individual spirit vis-a-vis collective spirit. If we accept the first theory concerning the composition of society, regard its composition as merely imaginary and hold that it is only individual who is basic, then there can be no question of collective compulsion, for in that case there would be existing no collective force or power.
Hence if there were any compulsion, that would be on the part of an individual or individuals only. No individual would be compelled by society in that sense in which the supporters of the theory of collective compulsion talk of it. But if we accept the fourth theory, look at the individual only as raw material and an empty receptacle from the viewpoint of human personality, think in the terms of exclusive basis of society and regard the entire human personality, human intellect and human will, which from the basis of the volition of an individual, as a manifestation of the collective will and intellect and as a guise which the collective spirit has assumed to promote its ends, there will be left no room for a conception of free will of the individual in social matters.

The French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, who believes that society is basic and of prime importance says: "Unlike such things as eating and sleeping which have animal aspect, all social and, in fact human matters are the product of society, and not that of individual thinking or will. These matters have three characteristics: they are external; they are compulsive and they are general. They are external because they are imposed on an individual by society from outside. They actually existed in society even prior to an individual's being born.
The individual accepts them under the influence of society. That is how an individual accepts moral and social customs, religious precepts and the like. The social matters are compulsive in the sense that they impose themselves on the individual and give their own colour to his conscience, judgement, feeling, thinking and sentiments. As these matters are compulsive, they are automatically general and universal also."
However, if we accept the third theory and hold that both the individual and the society are basic, that would in no way mean that the individuals are helpless in human and social matters even if it is conceded that the force of society predominates the force of the individuals.
Durkheim believed in compulsion because he ignored the importance of human nature, the development of which is due to basic and substantial human evolution. This human nature gives man a sort of freedom which enables him to resist the impositions of society. That is how a sort of balance exists in the relations between society and the individual.
The Holy Qur'an maintains that society has a nature, a personality and an actuality. It holds that society lives and dies. It has conscience and the power of obeying and disobeying. At the same time the Qur'an also maintains that the individual has enough power to ignore the dictates of society, if he so desires, and bases its doctrine on what it calls (human) 'nature framed by Allah'.
There were some people in Makkah who described themselves as weak and put forward their weakness as an excuse to shirk their responsibility. In fact they said that they were helpless and could not defy society. The Holy Qur'an says that their excuse was not acceptable because at least they could migrate from that social atmosphere: "Was not Allah's earth spacious so that you could have migrated therein." (Surah an-Nisa, 4:97)
At another place the Holy Qur'an says: "Believers, look after your own souls because he who goes astray cannot harm you if you have the right guidance." (Surah al-Mai'dah, 5:105)
In the famous Qur'anic verse there is a reference to a trait of human nature. In that verse of the Holy Qur'an after declaring that He has put the covenant of monotheism in the nature of man, Allah has added: "So that you may not say that our forefathers were pagans and we, being their posterity, had to follow them." (Surah al-A'raf, 7:172 - 173)
Therefore, with this kind of human nature, there can be no question of any compulsion.
The teachings of the Holy Quran are based absolutely on, a sense of responsibility - responsibility towards oneself and towards society. Exhortation to what is good and restraint from what is evil are a manifestation of the individual's revolt against the corruption and weaknesses of society. The stories related by the Holy Qur'an mostly represent this element of individual's revolt against the atmosphere of social corruption. The stories of Prophet Nuh, Ibrahim, Musa, 'Isa, the Holy Prophet, the People of the Cave, the Believer of the tribe of Fir'awn, all contain this element. .
The root cause of the misconception about the helplessness of individuals in relation to society and social atmosphere is that it has been wrongly presumed that in the case of a real compound its components are fully dissolved and with the emergence of a new reality their plurality is assimilated to the unity of the whole. It is said that there are only two alternatives: either the existence of the personality, freedom and independence of the individuals be admitted and consequently it should be denied that society is an actuality and it is a real compound; or alternatively it should be admitted that society is a real com pound.
In the case of the first alternative the position will be in conformity with the first and the second theories, and in the case of the second alternative it will have to be denied that individuals have any personality, freedom or independence. That is what the proposition of Durkheim states. Anyway, it is not possible to combine both these alternative theories. As all indications and sociological arguments support the actuality of society, the counter-theory must be regarded as invalid.
As a matter of fact all real compounds are not alike from philosophical point of view. In the lower grades of nature, that is in the case of inorganic matter and lifeless beings, according to the philosophers, each existing thing is governed by one absolutely simple force, and nature has dealt with all of them in a like manner. In their case the component parts are assimilated fully and the existence of the parts is dissolved absolutely into the existence of the whole.
That is what we see in the case of water which is a compound of oxygen and hydrogen. But the more the level of a compound goes up the more its components acquire relative independence of the whole, with the result that a sort of plurality in the unity and a unity in the plurality is established. We find that man in spite of his unity enjoys a wonderful plurality. Not only his faculties and subordinate forces retain their plurality to a great extent, but there also exists a sort of permanent conflict and struggle between his inner forces. Society is the most real being in nature, and its component parts relatively enjoy a great deal of independence.
The component parts of society are human beings, who are equipped with their innate intellect and will. Their individual and natural existence precedes their social existence. In addition, as we said earlier the components of the high grade compounds retain their relative independence. In view of all these facts the individual spirit of man is not helpless against the collective spirit of society.
[16] "Therefore woe to those who write the scripture with their own hands and then say: 'This is from Allah, in order to make some paltry gain. Woe to them for what their hands have written and woe to them for what they earn thereby!'" (Surah al-Baqarah, 2:79)
"Ignominy shall attend them wherever they are found, except in cases in which they came to terms with Allah and people. They have incurred the wrath of Allah and humiliation has been stamped on them. That is because they used to disbelieve the revelations of Allah and kill the Prophets wrongfully. That is because they disobeyed and used to transgress." (Surah Ale Imran, 3:112)

Man and Universe by  Martyr Ayatullah Murtada Mutahhari
Copyright © 2009 The AhlulBayt World Assembly . All right reserved