Differences in Approaching History Between Reform Oriented and Traditionalist Muslims

Contemporary rifts between reform-oriented and traditionalist Muslims might be traced back to differences in their respective philosophies on the progress of history. By first examining the three most prominent enlightenment philosophies of history, which share much in common, and then contrasting them with pre-modern philosophies of history, I will lead us to the possible formulation of an Islamic philosophy of history. 

Enlightenment Theories of the Progress of History

The Whig theory of history is the most popular, largely liberal (in the classical sense) notion that emerged from the Enlightenment. Its name was derived from Whiggism—a particular political philosophy prominent in the development of parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom. The Whigs were first a political party, but more generally Whiggism refers to a political philosophy that supported parliamentary supremacy over monarchical authority. In his famous work The Whig Interpretation of History, historian and philosopher of history Herbert Butterfield summarizes the Whig theory of history as one of eternal progress from darkness to light—from backwardness to enlightenment. A mix of political freedom, rational debate, technology, and a general “spirit of history” itself would all culminate in the linear progress of mankind. For Whigs, history itself is a fundamentally progressive process, not just temporally but morally and spiritually as well. In this sense, a “traditional” outlook is considered somewhat useless as it positions one metaphysically against history itself. [1] 

This idea that things continuously improve is so deeply ingrained in our contemporary cultural psyche that any alternative possibility remains unquestioned. This requires a kind of constant updating of both “usul” and “furu”. By usul I mean a foundational principle and by furu I mean a specific derivation that can be made from that principle. In Usul-ul-fiqh, this is differentiated between the principles by which laws are derived (usul) and a specific law itself (furu). In relation to morality, not just the given considerations of what is ethical must change with the times, but also the methodology or principles by which we determine ethics to begin with. Both principles and derivations from those principles, whether in ethics, law, morality, or governance, must constantly be revised in light of the eternal telos of progress. It is not just, for example, that an expansion of individual autonomy is a better reflection of our conception of freedom, but even our conceptions of freedom may have to be reconsidered, transformed, or abandoned entirely at some points. No principle or derivation is above the tide of progressivism.

The development of history as a progressive force is also reflected in the German philosopher Hegel’s idealism. For Hegel, history itself serves as a metaphysical spirit or geist; an underlying, almost sentient, ethic of history propels its development towards a particular teleological end through a dialectical process of overcoming conflicts reflected in human reason. For example, history traverses ancient slavery, then democracy, and eventually arrives at some semblance of a rights-maintaining monarchy which fulfills the best aspects of all prior regimes. The conflicts between ancient slavery and democracy merge and the best aspects of each combine, with the undesirable aspects being negated. The outcome is a mixture of all prior regimes that is simultaneously superior to all of them. This is a process of sublation, by which superior ideas emerge through conflicts between inferior ones. [2] For Hegel, thought itself is a historical process which imbues history with a progressive function of moving towards the realization of increasingly rational truths. [3] This is present in all developments in human life: for example, politics develops from the family, to civil society, to the state—the ultimate development of geist. The spirit which underlies history is an unfolding of reason or human consciousness and freedom—a semi-self aware actor that rationally unfolds to increase human consciousness (of this process of development) and human freedom (as an actual material reality). For example, the state maximizes human freedom by limiting individual freedom, and the individual accepts this restriction as a necessity due to the unfolding of history [4]. The ultimate telos of history is a progressive march towards the realization of human freedom as a rational truth and a corresponding material reality. 

Ultimately with Hegel, we see the development of history as ultimately progressive: humans accrue increasing awareness of the rational organization of social life, leading to a utopian manifestation of the most absolute sense of “human freedom” possible. This theory also underlies prominent contemporary political theorist Francis Fukuyama’s famous statement that liberal democracy reflects the “end of history”—that the sublation of all previous contradictory and conflicting forms of governance dialectically results in the greatest realization of human freedom through the development of history.

Marx develops this view through a materialist lens instead, claiming that all history is the development of class struggle. The means of economic production in a given society reflect its class structures; the contradictions of each form of production (slavery, feudalism, capitalism) increase until they essentially explode into a new system. Thus, the development of history through time is really a development of the means of production, wherein the conflict between different economic classes eventually leads to the collapse of a given system and its replacement by another. This theory of history is based on a materialist conception of the factors that give rise to revolution, collapse, and rebirth [5]. Marx predicts that capitalist society will simultaneously create the great material wealth needed to foster communist utopia and provide the greatest amount of contradictions between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, making communist revolution inevitable. Communism will reflect a stateless society that lacks a class-hierarchy. Without the organizational principle of contradiction (class), we will have once again reached the end of history.

All of these ideas share the general enlightenment assumption that history develops in an ultimately progressive and “good” fashion. The Whig theory is reflected in such popular sentiments as: technology is always making things better, contemporary morals are always superior to those of the past, etc. The Hegelian understanding is more obscure and imagines a different purpose and dialectical method, yet it ultimately agrees that history proceeds towards an ultimately good end—that of human freedom. Similarly for the Marxist, the universal progressive end is the achievement of a communist utopia.

These enlightenment strains of thought leave unanswered the question of why: why is the telos of history necessarily progressive, not just in an ontological sense but in a moral sense? For Hegel, this is explained by the geist’s function as a kind of internal reason to history itself, whereas for materialists like the Whig (or the contemporary liberal) and the Marxist this is a more difficult question. For example, the fact that evolution has led to the development of the nuclear bomb and climate change implies we may have actually evolved ourselves into extinction. It is difficult to formulate a philosophy of history that escapes certain metaphysical presuppositions while also functioning teleologically, which is the initial postmodernist critique of “grand narratives” of this sort. If we assume the death of anything beyond the material, the necessary imperative for history to also be progressive dies along with it. Regardless and in spite of this contradiction, the majority of modern individuals believe there is no metaphysical force animating history, while also adhering to the notion of its movement in a progressive fashion, without considering the difficulty in reconciling these ideas.

Traditional Understandings of the Progress of History

These theorizations differ vastly from traditional or pre-modern understandings of “history.” Plato, for example, theorized a “great year” or an incredibly grand cycle in which the planets and stars return to their original positions. This great year determines all events in the meantime regarding the rise and fall of civilizations. Growth, expansion, decay, and collapse are not events occurring as part of some great human show of agency, but merely the reflections of a greater metaphysical cycle occurring celestially. The Indian conception of a “yuga,” or a world age that spans billions of years, is even more fantastic. Human history can be divided into four ages, or yugas, which are themselves part of an even grander cyclical system of destruction and rebirth. We are currently in the 51st year of Brahma supposedly which is some hundreds of trillions of years after the initial Brahma year, and within this period of time smaller units denote the creation and destruction of universes.

Thus cyclical philosophy of history can be traced back to the works of Ibn Khaldun, whose masterpiece The Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun is undoubtedly the greatest sociological work produced in the medieval world. According to The Muqaddimah, civilizations, like humans, are determined by a kind of cyclical life-force of birth and decay, only for him this is due to more particular instantiations of inevitable rural-urban and in-group/out-group divides. Nonetheless, the idea of society as placed on some rocketship inevitably destined for greater and greater heights without end, as assumed by the enlightenment theories we mentioned earlier, is substantively denied and negated. 

Even within the modern period we see thinkers who espoused specifically non-linear, non-progressive conceptions of historical development. Giambattista Vico theorizes the tripartite division of history into a cycle of ages of gods, heroes, and men; this theory is arguably progressive at some level but markedly breaks from the enlightenment ideas against which he argues. [6] Oswald Spengler understands history as a kind of eternal recurrence of organic processes of birth and decay. [7] Rather than always progressing for the better, history operates in a cyclical fashion in which temporal progress often mirrors moral and social decline. This approach has been overtaken by the dominance of Whig history in the Enlightenment era. Even as the institutions traditionally considered the basis of civil-society and social life (such as marriage, community, and religion) fall into empirical and spiritual decline, we must now rely on GDP growth and the availability of new iPhones to retain faith in the myth of progress

Implications for Reform-Oriented Muslims and Discourse

The Muslim reformer succumbs to an enlightenment myth of progress, and to the Whig theory of history more generally. Some may even be Hegelians—viewing history as having its own spirit—or Marxists—framing economic determinism as God’s method of organizing history in a dunyawi sense (relating to the material and worldly life, the opposite of the afterlife, the akhira). However, none of these theories correspond to the Islamic conception of history, which I claim is fundamentally an idea of decay wherein the ultimate realization of “good” is possible only in the next world. Islam adheres to neither a linear myth of progress nor a cyclical eternal recurrence; rather, the collapse and rebirth narrative crosses over two distinct worlds. The “dunya” or material-world is essentially doomed to collapse, while true salvation, the true realization of any good, can only be found in the “akhira,” the afterlife in which humans live in bliss within the presence of God. 

Within the dunya, the end times reflect the death of spiritual truth, beauty, and even the opportunity to live a moral life. Once the dunya ends, there is no second chance. The true scholars die, the Qur’an disappears from the world, and falsehood spreads everywhere, as do misinterpretations of Islam. Despite brief respites such as the return of Christ and the defeat of Al-dajjal, various calamities will continuously occur until the day of judgement, itself a fearful event. Thus, history progressively carries us away from a true understanding of Islam, which was most perfect at the time of its revelation and has since then only decayed. This pattern is apparent in different regime types: for example, the caliphate was greatest at its very inception and could only decay, both morally and politically. In contrast, democratic states are generally theorized to improve as time goes on. The Muslim reformer mistakenly assumes that we become more authentically Muslim with time, despite Islamic eschatology saying the opposite. Ultimately, we arrive at a peak, with no choice but to proceed downhill towards the fulfillment of decay and degeneration as prophesied. History in relation to time has metaphysical distinctions even in the end-times, according to the following hadith narrated by Abu Hurairah:

The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “The Hour (Last Day) will not be established until (religious) knowledge will be taken away (by the death of religious learned men), earthquakes will be very frequent, time will pass quickly, afflictions will appear, murders will increase and money will overflow amongst you.”[8]

The passing of time may manifest differently due to our fast-paced modern lives, a lack of barakah (blessings) in our day, or our increasing desire to escape to virtual mediums. However, when one understands this hadith, it is clear that history in a spiritual, phenomenological, social, political, and ethical sense is directed differently than progressives assume.

In the Sunni tradition, which understands this principle of historical decay, it is unthinkable that we at a later point in time may correct the mistaken conceptions of the Sahaba (companions of the Prophet, peace be upon them all) and classical scholars. In the Whig theory, morality inevitably develops through history whereas from an Islamic conception the opposite is true: developments to the religion that occur in the later times are more likely deviations from the truth rather than discoveries of it. This does not mean that everything in the future is always wrong or un-Islamic—after all, the Islamic scholarly tradition does not become fully formalized until significantly after hijra. However, it does raise important questions: just how far does this arc of history continue? At what point do we enter the downward phase of the eschatological spiral? For the reformist, it would seem there is no end of times—history simply progresses into the ether without limitation. These two oppositional assumptions implicitly underlie contemporary disputes between more traditionally-oriented and reform-oriented Muslims; they disagree foundationally on the relationship between historical progress and our eschatological tradition. These divides then bleed into our ideas regarding epistemology, morality, and the normative Islamic scholarly tradition.

Concluding Thoughts

It is imperative that Muslims develop a strong philosophy of history rooted in our eschatological tradition. Such a theory must conceptualize the linear, dialectical, idealist, materialist, and eschatological ideas of historical development, progress, collapse, etc. As Muslims, we adhere not to a purely linear conception of progress but to a kind of dialectical up-and-down. For example, the ahadith indicate that Muslims will conquer Constantinople and Rome but also that the world will unite against the Muslims to take from them as taking from a plate of food. Though much of our historical development is material (for example, the invention of gunpowder led to the golden age of the Ottoman-Safavid-and Mughal dynasties, but also the reliance and overconfidence on early technological supremacy arguably led to their collapse in the face of European powers), much of it is also part of an eschatological understanding of history which escapes purely materialist or empirical reference. Thereby such material observations must be contextualized within a broader Islamic philosophy of history—one that combines together actual history (what events have occurred), our philosophy of history (by what mechanisms does God push history forward both metaphysically and socially), and oncoming history (what will occur in the future). Though such a task would no-doubt take decades of work and scholarship, this is a pivotal undertaking for our community. Its accomplishment would fruitfully reformulate reform-tradition debates, revealing how much reform relies on assumptions entirely negated by the larger Islamic tradition. Doing so would also change how we understand various contemporary Muslim debates on politics, reform, nationalism, spirituality, new sects and ideologies, and more as part of our larger philosophy of history. Many conversations on these issues undergird these two oppositional approaches, yet it is never made clear that this is an issue of contention or difference. Rather, for example, traditionalist Muslims argue for the moral weight of the scholarly tradition without explicating to the reformist or the Salafi why it ought to hold moral weight in the first place. The development of an authentic and rigorously-sourced Islamic philosophy of history would fundamentally alter our approach to this debate and to our future as Muslims.

Works Cited

[1] (Butterfield, 62), Butterfield, Herbert, The Whig Interpretation of History. 1st ed., G. Bell and Sons, 1931.
[2] (Beiser, 273) Beiser, Frederick. The Cambridge Companion to Hegel (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy). Cambridge University Press, 1993.
[3] (Beiser, 277) 
[4] (Beiser, 289)
[5] (Beiser, 276-278) 
[6] Costelloe, Timothy, “Giambattista Vico”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2021/entries/vico.
[7] Little, Daniel, “Philosophy of History”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2020/entries/history.
[8] Sahih al-Bukhari 1036, Kitab al-Istisqaa

Photo by McGill Library on Unsplash


About the Author: Faizan Malik is a student studying political science in Toronto. He is interested in modernity, liberalism, critical theory, and the role that these play in framing contemporary discourses on Islam. He is particularly interested in how critical theory can be utilized from a traditionalist Islamic perspective and to what extent such a marriage is possible or desirable (conclusion still pending).

3 thoughts on “Differences in Approaching History Between Reform Oriented and Traditionalist Muslims

  1. A very interesting and well-written article. As a fellow Muslim, I agree with your position of defending traditionalism and objecting to reformists. The tradition of the Sahabah being the best generation and perfecting morality is absolutely fundamental to the Sunni belief, as you have pointed out.
    That being said, although the ultimate realization of “good” is in the next world, I don’t think that true realization of any good can only be found in Akhira. How do you explain, for example, the Golden Age of Islam? A Muslim is encouraged to excel both in the Akhira and in the dunya. Of course, by putting the Akhira first and foremost.
    We have the concept of the end of times, including moral denigration, but that doesn’t mean Muslims are part of the equation. For example, when the Mehdi comes or with the return of Christ, it is seen as “Islam will be revived.” There is also a motif of Muslims having a second golden age, or have a rise to power. For example, freeing Jerusalem a third time, or having just and righteous rules once more.
    One particular criticism I personally have for us Muslims, is that Muslims tend to have a dooms-day philosophy in life. “We are at the end of times, so why bother?” or “History is only going downhill (morally), so is there no reason to go beyond and extra,” or “I’m never going to be like the sahabah, so what’s the point of striving more in my religion.” I hope I illustrate my point in these examples. Recent historical examples include Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, or Abdul Kamal (Aerospace scientist that served as the president of India). It is important for us Muslims to strive in excellence in this dunya, on the sole condition that the Akhira is a higher priority.
    It is important to note that in the Golden Age of Islam, there was significant reform in Usul al Fiqh and Mantiq, for example, as a consequence of the introduction of Greek logic.
    My whole point, I hope I convey clearly, is that it is too pessimistic for us to say that the best of times for Muslims have already passed. Indeed, moral perfection is long gone with the generation of Sahabah, but that should not exempt us from trying our hardest in the dunya. In terms of morality and character (our Akhira), but also in terms of striving for a second golden age of Islam. I think we could both agree that there is much to be done for generations of scholars to come. For what you advocated – combining history, its philosophy, and the future from an Islamic perspective – but also in uniting Muslims forward, and in developing modern Islamic logic. I doubt, and hope not, that your tone was pessimistic to the future.

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