Laws of History in the Qur'an
Now time has come that we should know the different ways in which the laws of history are mentioned in the Qur'an. In other words, we should see how the laws which, from the viewpoint of the Qur'an, govern history have been expressed by it, and how has the Qur'an pointed to the norms of history.
In the Qur'an we find three forms of the expression of the laws of history. We propose to study each of them minutely and to show how they differ from each other.
(i) The first form in which the Qur'an has mentioned a law of history is that of a conditional form. When two phenomena or two sets of phenomena are linked together in the realm of history, the Qur'an expresses this link in the form of the two clauses of a conditional sentence indicating that whenever the conditional clause (protoasis) materializes, the concluding clause (apodosis) is also bound to materialize. This form is applicable to many natural laws and norms also on various levels. For example, when we speak of the law of boiling, we always express this law by means of a conditional sentence. We say that if water as a result of proximity to heat attains a certain degree of temperature (100°C), it boils because of a special kind of pressure.
This is an example of the relationship between the two clauses of a conditional statement. The phenomenon of the boiling of water appears whenever a certain condition, that is proximity to heat and a particular degree of temperature is fulfilled. Here the natural phenomenon of boiling, which means conversion of water into gas, has been described in the form of a conditional sentence. This law does not say whether this condition has been fulfilled or not. It merely says that if this particular condition is fulfilled, its consequence inevitably materializes. In other words water must boil at a certain degree of heat. That is what the law of a conditional statement tells us. This sort of laws renders great service to man in his ordinary life, and plays, an effective role in his development. With the knowledge of these laws man can take a suitable action in respect of the consequence of a condition. If he needs it, he may take action to fulfill the prerequisite condition, and if he is not interested in it, he can prevent its fulfillment.
If a person is interested in the boiling of water, he should arrange the materialization of the appropriate conditions stipulated in the law of boiling, and if he wants water not to boil, he should ensure that water is not heated to the boiling point.
Hence, a law advanced in the form of a conditional sentence has a constructive value in human life. From the above it also becomes clear that there is a philosophy behind the expression of laws in the form of conditional sentences. Allah has based the system of this world on universal laws and firm norms. He draws man's attention to this firm and compact system of the world so that man may know where he stands in it. Allah tells man about the factors which make or mar his life so that he himself may be able to meet his due needs properly.
If the boiling process of water was to take place accidentally, was not subject to a definite law and did not require heat, man could not control this process, nor would it have been possible for him to boil or not to boil water as he wanted.
Man acquired this skill when he came to know the definite norms and firm laws of the world. The laws of nature have been put forward to him in the form of conditional propositions, thus enabling him to see things in light, not in darkness.
In the light of the laws of nature he can determine his course of action in regard to the world.
Exactly the same applies to the forms in which the Qur'an enunciates the laws of history. In many cases we find these laws put forward in the form of conditional statements. For this purpose the Qur'an mentions two interconnected social or historical phenomena and says whenever the first phenomenon appears, the second phenomenon is bound to appear. It does not say when the first phenomenon appears or when it does not.
Several of the Qur'anic verses mentioned by us earlier narrate the historical laws in the form of a conditional statement. In this connection the following verse may be recalled:
Allah does not change the condition of a people unless they change what is in their hearts. (Surah ar-Ra'd, 13:11)
Here a law of history has been mentioned, and as we explained earlier and will further explain later, it has been put forward in the form of a conditional statement, for the verse says that there exists an inseparable link between the two different changes, namely a change in man's inner content and a change in his external position. Substantially this is a case of conditional statement. The divine law mentioned here virtually says if a people change internally, their material condition and social position are bound to change consequently. Hence divine law has been stated in the form of a conditional statement.
The following verse is another example of a law expressed by means of a conditional statement:
If they continue to tread the right path, we shall give them to drink of water in abundance. (Surah al Jinn, 72: 16) We have already said that this verse speaks of a law of history, according to which good produce depends on fair distribution. This is a clear case of a conditional statement.
Another example is provided by the following verse:
When We would destroy a township, We send commandment to its people who live at ease, and afterward they commit abomination therein and so the word (of doom) has effect on it, and We annihilate it with complete annihilation. (Surah Bani Isra'il, 17: 17)
In this verse also a historical norm has been stated in the form of a conditional statement. Here two things have been combined, one of them being the direction of the command of Allah to the wicked and those who live at ease and their disobedience of these commandments, and the other being the consequent destruction and annihilation of such a society. This is another law of history put forward as a conditional statement. The law does not say in which circumstances the condition mentioned in it is to materialize. It only stipulates that as and when the condition will materialize, the consequent clause of the law is also bound to materialize with it. This is the first form in which the laws of history have been mentioned in the Qur'an.
(ii) The second form in which the laws of history have been advanced in the Qur'an is that of a definite and unqualified statement. In many cases the laws of nature are stated in this way also. When an astronomical prediction is made on the basis of the movement of the planets, such as the prediction about the time of a lunar or a solar eclipse, no condition is attached to such a statement. In this case a scientific law or a scientific question is put forward as a definite and unconditional statement. Man can in no way influence or modify the conditions and the circumstances of such occurrences. Therefore a prediction about them is made in the form of a definite and unqualified statement without any conditions being attached to it. When we say that the sun will eclipse on such and such day or say that the moon will eclipse on such and such night. We express a scientific question in the form of a definite statement and not a conditional statement.
In such cases it is not within human power to change the conditions or the circumstances of the matter in question because it is not conditional. When we say that the sun or that the moon will eclipse, though we speak with reference to the future, we make a firm statement. The same is true of the weather forecasts based on scientific laws.
When it is said that it will rain in such and such area, the statement is firm and unconditional and forecasts rainfall at a definite place and at a definite time.
This is the second form of the expression of the laws of history. While dealing with the analysis of the social elements we will cite some more examples of it from the Qur'an.
This second form of expression of the laws and norms of history has created a wrong impression among the European thinkers, who maintain that historical norms are inconsistent with human freedom, for if it is presumed that they regulate man's life, he can have no freedom of choice.
This wrong idea has led some thinkers to say that in this world man has only a negative role, for he cannot change the norms of history. These thinkers have renounced man's freedom for the sake of historical norms to which they have attached too much importance.
The followers of this way of thinking say that the role which man plays is negative, not positive. Man is like a device which moves as required. We will elaborate this idea later.
Some other thinkers with a view to combine the idea of human freedom and the idea of the apparent existence of the norms of history, maintain that it is man's power of choice alone which establishes the norms of history. The historical laws are in fact subject to man's will. Hence we need not sacrifice man's freedom for the sake of historical laws. On the other hand it may be said that man's freedom and his power of choice is a phenomenon which in its turn is itself a part of the norms of history. In this case also though man's freedom is affected, yet in a concealed manner.
Some believe that the laws of history should be rejected altogether in the interest of human freedom. A number of European scholars are of the opinion that to maintain man's freedom the scene of history should be kept outside the purview of the universal laws and it should be maintained that no special laws are applicable to the field of history. This, they say, is necessary to promote man's free choice in respect of his activities.
All these points of view are largely incorrect, as they are based on the wrong idea of the existence of a basic contradiction between the laws of history and man's freedom. What is the source of this misunderstanding? The misunderstanding has arisen from the fact that the scholars having this wrong notion are under the impression that the laws of history are always and invariably expressed in the form of a verbal statement having the import of certainty. Had it been so really and had we believed that in the presence of the laws of history no scope was left for human effort and initiative, their contention would, of cause, have been correct To refute their wrong impression it is enough to refer back to the first form of the laws of history, that is the form of a conditional statement. In the conditional statements which we have quoted from the Qur'an, the main condition mostly refers to man's will, his choice and the relation between the conditional clause and the consequent clause. It may be observed that the conditional clause invariably implies man's effort and his work.
For example take the Qur'anic verse which says: Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in their hearts. In this verse it has been specifically stated that the change in the condition of people depends on their own deeds. They themselves can bring about a change if they so want. When a law of history is mentioned in the language of a conditional statement, and the stipulated condition directly relates to man's will and choice, then the law of history itself necessitates the existence of man's free will and his choice. It gives man freedom of action so that he may change his condition. It is knowledge of a natural law, such as the law of the boiling of water enhances his power, for when he knows under what conditions water boils, he can boil it at his will.
In this way the laws of history in the form of conditional statements are not only not inconsistant with man's freedom and will, but in contrast they lay stress on these qualities. They also explain the results of man's actions so that he may take the proper course leading to the desired results. This was the second form of the laws of history.
(iii) The third form of the laws of history to which the Qur'an has given special attention, relates to the laws which are not firmly resolute and unbreakable, but imply only a sort of natural tendency of human history. Obviously there is a difference between a tendency and a firm law. For further clarification, let us conceive the idea of a law. Our normal conception of a scientific law is that of a humanly unbreakable norm, for we know that man cannot violate or evade natural laws.
It is within man's power not to offer prayers, for to offer prayers is a duty prescribed by Islamic law, and not a law of creation or a universal law. Similarly one can take alcoholic drinks, for prohibition of intoxicants is a rule of Islamic law, not a law of creation. In contrast man can never violate universal laws and norms. For example, it is not possible to make water not to boil or to delay it's boiling a single moment in spite of the presence of all the conditions necessary for its boiling, for the law of boiling is inescapable and cannot be evaded.
Normally we have this concept of a law and it is correct to a certain extent. But it is not necessary that every natural law should be so inflexible and unbreakable. We have a number of natural tendencies, which though effective in the natural development of history and man, are not rigid enough and can be resisted. But still they cannot be resisted or violated for long. You cannot put off boiling of water for a single moment, but there are tendencies which can be contained for quite a long time.
We do not mean to say that on account of their having a different character, these tendencies do not influence the movement of history. These tendencies being flexible, can be resisted and violated, though according to the norms of history they may in the long run gradually crush all those who opposes them. From there it may be said that there are some tendencies which may safely be resisted with impunity, but there are some others which can be resisted only for a short time, and then they crush him who fights against them in contravention of the laws of history. This has been a characteristic of genuine human tendencies and drives all over history.
Adopted from the book: "Trends of History in Qur'an" by: "Ayatullah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr"
Share this article