People encompass multiple existences, multiple levels of dealing and interacting with the world. The foremost level is an individual level – the level of a single person or single self (nafs) and the moral and ethical life and behavior of that person within the milieu of small scale interactions. This is the level at which most people relate to religion and ethical life – they see religion as an individual spiritual quest, morals and ethics as an individual’s responsibility, religious life as an individual struggle within their own nafs (soul) and characterized by their own behavior. And Islam greatly emphasizes this individual role through verses that indicate that“neither your creation nor your rising is anything but as a single soul.” (Qur’an 31:28) So the individual has a real, substantiative existence, a profound link to deeper realities, and therefore has a real and substantial responsibility as well.
But at the same time Islam claims a societal role for humans, and not simply a peripheral role but one in which society is viewed holistically, as greater than the sum of its parts – almost as a complex organism in its own right. And this role of society as a dynamic complex system intersects and overlaps with the role of the individual. So the Qur’an speaks of “ummatin” (the larger community) as having a collective fate, a collective life, a collective responsibility that interacts in a dynamic manner with each individual that is part of the society. And it doesn’t speak of the life of a community in an entirely allegorical or philosophical way but rather as having its own reality and therefore a responsibility and a destiny. “Every society will be called to its book.” (Qur’an 45:28) Just as individuals have a book that is a record of the reality of what they are and which is used to judge them and determine their fate, so too does every society have a book and a judgment awaiting them.
The Qur’an also implies a collective mode of thinking for each society –“We have adorned for each society their acts.” (Qur’an 6:108) So identification with a group and an admiration of the acts of that group is an instinct built into human beings. Every group has a particular taste, a particular aesthetic and a way of looking at things that makes their own achievements seem more pleasing than those of other groups. We value what we are familiar and comfortable with and we value that which originates from our own society (we have a group identity, a national identity that interacts and intersects with our individual identity) and we often devalue or deem as irrelevant or as something to be subsumed, that which is outside of our own societies.
So built into human nature are two modes of thinking that co-exist and overlap one another – individual thinking, and a complex, evolving, shifting ecosystem of group-thinking. This instinct to be part of a group is extremely powerful, whether the group is a nation, a culture, a sub-culture, a group of philosophers one identifies with, a political grouping, liberal, conservative, progressive, socialist, neo-con, political hawks, groups united on specific prejudices, groupings based on arts, music, business, corporations, commercial brands, technology, military forces, anarchists, internet discussion groups, groups of like-minded bloggers, groups that adhere single-mindedly to past traditions…groups that overturn tradition…and so on….
The impulse and need to form and participate in groups is a pattern built into the nature of humans, and while on one level our thinking is individual, on another it is, almost subconsciously, collective. Our individual consciousness evolves in the milieu of a complex, interconnected mental ecosystem where group ethics and a collective spirit and intention in action arises. Collective modes of thought emerge due to shared opinion, ideological direction, and will. So a society or group can take on the characteristics of a single complex individual and be viewed in that manner. And just as there is a limited lifespan for individuals there is also a term, a limit, a timeframe governed by a variety of conditions for the survival of any given mental ecosystem. When the life and vitality in the ideas around which a society or group congregates fades, weakens, or degenerates, that society, that manifestation of ideology and social structure reaches the end of its term, the end of its functional societal lifespan.
“And for every society there is a term, so when (the conditions of) their term is fulfilled they shall not remain behind, nor shall they go before.” (Qur’an 7:34)
So there arises a responsibility laid out not only by the Prophet but by revelation (the Qur’an) and by the reality and nature of societies and the laws which govern them. They have a life and death and an existence for a given span and will be called to an accounting (to their book). And so the Qur’an calls for people who will “rise up for Allah’s sake in twos and singly” (Qur’an 34:46) as the conscience of a society, as those who impart life to societies which blindly lay the foundations of their own demise and the conditions of their own degeneration. These will not approve group-think when it merits disapproval, nor allow a societal nafs-amarra to overrun their individual nafs-lawwama, but will act instead on carefully considered knowledge and inner conscience. Approval and disapproval takes on a metaphysical quality as the individual binds or distances himself from the reality which a society or group generates for themselves – and so we each are called upon to write our part, to manifest our corrective role in society’s unfolding “book”.
“Truly what unites the people and imparts to them a common shared (negative or positive) destiny consists in individual approval and disapproval.” (Imam Ali – Nahjul Balagha)
– Irshaad Hussain