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Religion and Social Change

Cover Story


Religious convictions, experiences and feelings constitute a very basic aspect of an individual’s psychology and often play a crucial role in determining that individual’s total behaviour. It is therefore not surprising that religion interacts with the processes of social change, occurring in any society – in an important and decisive way. In the ultimate analysis social consciousness, at any point of time, is deeply influenced by the psychological make-up of the individuals who constitute a particular society. If the individual’s behaviour and attitude are influenced by religion, the social trends and norms cannot remain indifferent to religious influence.
The relation of religion with social change can be fruitfully analysed by identifying three basic issues. The issues nay be stated in the form of questions; the answers are to be sought in the religious wisdom.
a)       Is it meaningful to evaluate a particular social change in ethical terms? In other words, can one legitimately apply ethical criteria to social changes and label them as ethically “desirable” or ethically “undesirable”? If so, how?
b)       If a particular social change may legitimately be characterised as “healthy” or “desirable”, how can the people be motivated to participate in a movement directed towards the desirable change?
c)       What are the particular segments of society which bring about social change? In other words, which segments lead the change and act as catalysts or agents? Are they the intellectuals, the nobles the working class or any other particular section?
In trying to answer these questions, one encounters a primary obstacle – namely the “multiplicity of religions”. There are a number of religions in the world with their own worldview and teachings. These religions differ form one another; often even on basic issues. How can then, one seek answers (to questions about social change) from the “religious wisdom”?
This is undoubtedly a difficulty. However there are two ways to overcome it.
a) Sometimes one finds two contradictory statements in the same religious text. The contradiction may not actually be present; the reader may not be grasping the point correctly. However, if the contradiction is real then only one (of the two contradictory statements) would be authentic. A sincere and patient search should be able to identify the “authentic” elements.
This methodology, if used systematically, would identify the authentic elements in religion. They would actually be identical.
Islam advocates exactly this approach. It distinguishes between i) what is revealed by the God and ii) what is invented and introduced by human beings as an “innovation” in the “revealed” religion. Only the “revelation” is authentic and acceptable; the human “innovations” are to be rejected.
The messengers of God periodically performed this task of restoring religion to its “purity”. Hence only the authentic revealed religion deserves to be identified as “the religion of mankind”.
b) Thesecond important reality is that in spite of the present multiplicity of religions, there are some trends which religions share. These common currents actually provide us with a number of insights about the issues of “social change”.
i) All religions recognise that man is not merely a physical being; man has a “higher” self. Therefore it is legitimate to talk about “spiritual development” of man.
ii) All religions hold man accountable for his actions and have the concept of “moral choice”.
iii) All religions subscribe to moral and ethical values; most of these values are identical.
One can thus overcome the problem of “religious multiplicity” in dealing with the issues of “social change”.
Do ethicalcriteria apply to “social change” i.e. can we legitimately classify and categorise social changes as ethically “desirable” or “undesirable”? There are three answers to this question:
i) The conventional“western” answer;
ii) The “Marxist” answer; and
iii) The “religions” answer.
Theconventional “western” stance on the issue of ethical desirability of a particular social change is ambiguous. The dominant opinion seems to be that “ethical values are not absolute; they change with time”. A “social change” therefore is not subject to ethical judgement. It just occurs (as part of the world’s “natural evolution” perhaps). If it has occurred, one should accept it, without raising “moral” objections to it.
The Marxist answer is similar in its import, though it attributes social changes to the changes occurring in the “means of production”. As a result if technological evolution, the structure comprising “means of production” undergoes fundamental changes. With each such “fundamental change” there occurs a corresponding “social change”.
With such a “deterministic” understanding of history; the “ethical evaluation” (of social changes) obviously becomes meaningless. The Marxist answer (though starting from a very different perspective) finally coincides with the “conventional western” answer. Both advocate “acceptance” of a social change as inevitable (once it has occurred); and do not envisage the possibility of subjecting a particular change to ethical criticism.
The third answer is the “religious” answer. Religious wisdom holds moral and ethical values to be absolute, permanent and universal. The scope of their application may of course widen with technological development; but the values themselves are eternal. They therefore provide a criterion to judge particular social changes; the changes may be found (on scrutiny) to be either “desirable” or “undesirable”.
What, then, are these moral values (on whose basis, we may judge “social changes”). In answer to this question, Ismail Raji al-Faruqi, identifies the following basic values:
“Justice, equity, universalism, charity, balance and temperance, altruism and brotherhood, honesty and truthfulness, uprightness and co-operation” (Islamization of Knowledge, 1988, Aligarh)
One should add to this list; “modesty, chastity, integrity, and sense of accountability before God”.
The fallacy of the western and the Marxist stances may now be illustrated. The United States establishment, at one point of time, enforced prohibition in the country, through legislative measures. In a democracy, such a legislation (passed by representatives of the “people”) presumably had popular support, and may therefore be counted as a legitimate “social change”. However, later on under the pressure of the public opinion itself, the prohibition was withdrawn. (The details of this remarkable series of events may be seen in Syed Abul A’la Maudoodi’s article “Man Made Law – Divine Law”)
This experience of the United States shows that “social change” does not necessarily proceed in a continuous “linear” way; its direction may indeed reverse itself. Therefore there is nothing “inevitable” about it. It is clearly seen to be subject to human choice. Hence ethical criticism should be applied to it and it should be labelled as “desirable” or “undesirable”.
It is interesting, in this context, to examine the meaning of the word “retrograde”. This adjective is often used to condemn ideas and practices which are unacceptable to us today (though possibly they could have been “acceptable” in the past).
In the Cambridge International Dictionary of English (2002 Edition, New Delhi) the meaning of the word “retrograde” is explained as: “returning to older and worse conditions, methods, ideas, etc.
Here one may recall the familiar romantic notion of “good old days”, according to which everything was proper and perfect in the “good” past and that glory has now unfortunately lost. This romantic idea is of course not true. Similarly, the opposite extreme notion that “everything older was necessarily worse” is also not true. One has to subject all ideas and practices (whether new or old) to rational scrutiny, based on ethical values; the values themselves being eternal and universal. Only then, one may decide whether the ideas and practices are “good” or “bad”.
According to Islamic worldview, a society may move from an “undesirable” state to a “desirable” one by its conscious effort. The Qur'an describes the experience of the “Children of Israel” in the following words:
“We sent Moses with Our Signs (and the Command), “Bring out your people from the depths of darkness into light. And remind them of the “days of Allah (i.e. the events of history)”. Verily, in this, there are Signs for those who are firmly patient and constant – and who are grateful and appreciative”. (The Qur'an –14:5).
The people here are motivated to change their state by promising them “light” (i.e. hope, enlightenment and clarity) instead of their present state of “darkness” (i.e. despair, confusion and ignorance). The motivation is strengthened by reminding them of the events of history. They are told about people who overcame their handicaps in the past through their efforts.
One important instrument of social change, throughout human history, has been “migration”. People may migrate from one region of earth to another for various reasons. However, if they undertake migration in order to protect their “faith”, the act of “migration” gets elevated to the position of a very “pious” act. The Qur'an motivates people to migrate if their faith demands it.
“O My servants who believe! Truly, spacious in My Earth. Therefore serve Me alone. Every soul shall have a taste of death. And in the end, all of you shall be brought back to us.” (The Qur'an – 29: 56-57).
Islam thus motivates people to change their condition by pointing out that
a.       It is in men’s power to change their conditions;
b.       If they make the effort to change their state, Allah will bless the effort and the obstacles would be removed; and
c.        In their changed condition, they would be blessed by enlightenment and would be able to lead a pious and noble life.
Which sections of the society lead a movement for social change? The Qur'an identifies two sections in this respect:
a. The leadership; and
b. The people as a whole.
The role of both is important. The leadership, by using its capabilities, explains and clarifies the concepts which form the basis of change. It then demonstrates them in practice and sets an example. The effort of leadership succeeds if people respond adequately and participate in the process of social change. However in the ultimate analysis “the people” are the basic factor. They have to take the initiative. Then Allah provides them proper leadership. The example of Talut (described in the Quran) is illustrative of this. First the people (i.e. the Children of Israel) took the initiative.
The Qur'an says: “Have you considered the episode of the chiefs of the Children of Israel, after Moses. They said to the Prophet, who was among them (at that time), “Appoint for us a king, that we may fight in the cause of Allah.” (The Qur'an  –2:246). After this initiative, Allah appointed Talut, who proved to be the competent and able leader. (Thus leadership emerged). “Their Prophet said to them, “Allah has appointed Talut as king over you” (The Qur'an – 2:247).
The Children of Israel then fought the battle (against their enemies) under the able leadership of Talut and emerged victorious: “When they (the Children of Israel) advanced to meet Goliath and his forces, they prayed, “our lord! Pour out constancy on us and make our steps firm. Help us against those that reject faith. By Allah’s will, (the Children of Israel) routed them (their enemies). And David killed Goliath”. (The Qur'an – 2-250,251)
Thus we see that religion has a comprehensive role in the context of social change. It provides criteria, on whose basis the desirability or otherwise of a particular change may be judged. It motivates people to change their collective style for a better one. It guides the society for change along proper lines and it holds both the masses and the leadership responsible for the condition of their society.

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