Healing Civilizational Diseases: The Importance of the Creative Minority

This article was originally published in Olea Press vol. 4 no. 1. Olea Press is the student journal of Zaytuna College which encourages students to explore issues contemporary and perennial by drawing upon sacred and traditional principles.

A wise man once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” When news emerges of an imminent genocide of a religious minority, the outbreak of a pandemic, or a politician advocating for the establishment of a utopia, one can find precedents of similar incidents in history. Malcolm X famously stated, “Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research. And when you see that you’ve got problems, all you have to do is examine the historic method used all over the world by others who have problems similar to yours. And once you see how they got theirs straight, then you know how you can get yours straight.” [1] The importance of the study of history lies in the extraction of solutions through the analysis of past incidents; if problems repeat then so too must the nature of their solutions.

The study of the rise and fall of civilizations remains crucial to the preservation of societies; neglecting it can lead to our decline. Such cyclical theories assume that civilizations are analogous to living organisms — they are born, they grow, and they ultimately die. The lifespan of a civilization is determined by the effectiveness of its policies, the virtues that lead to its rise, and the diseases which contribute to its downfall. Philosophers of history have coined various theories explicating the natural changes and transitions every civilization experiences.

One such theory of civilization was constructed by 18th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, who outlined history in three stages: the Age of Gods, the Age of Heroes, and the Age of Men. [2] These stages resemble and correspond to the stages of human life: childhood, adolescence, and maturity. A civilization’s childhood – its Age of Gods – is marked by the dominance of religious principles, and its people are governed by religious states. In the adolescent stage – the Age of Heroes – heroic virtues like piety, physical strength, and aristocratic superiority are promoted within a continually religious society. In the final, mature stage of a civilization – its Age of Men – philosophies replace religious beliefs, contaminating people’s minds. Skepticism becomes widespread, and people are captivated by such pleasures as lust, greed, and pride. In the Age of Men, chaos within a society ensues: people become slaves to themselves, liberty transforms into despotism, endless wars become the norm, and eventually the extinction of society occurs. After the collapse, a few people “adjust their behaviors, return to their old beliefs…and a civilization or state starts from the beginning again.” [3]

According to Vico’s theory, Western civilization appears to have entered the Age of Men. God is increasingly absent from both public and private life, while atheism and agnosticism are increasingly prominent. [4] Heroic, strong, masculine men – once central figures of the Age of Heroes – are labeled “toxic” and frowned upon by modern society. Alternatively, society today promotes the feminization of men. Skepticism spreads incessantly: if even a speck of doubt exists, trust disappears entirely, along with the possibility of accepting anything as the truth. During the last thirty years, endless wars rage on in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. These trends indicate the imminent extinction of Western society; however, a solution to this alarming crisis exists.

Arnold Toynbee, an eminent 20th-century historian, studied 26 civilizations empirically and comparatively to discern the reasoning behind their rise and fall. He famously declared that civilizations are confronted with challenges that threaten the cohesion of society: if left unchecked, they ultimately lead to the civilization’s demise. However, Toynbee believes the saviors of a society lie within its “Creative Minority,” individuals who proactively respond to civilizational crises in a creative manner, bring change to rectify their societies, and are often inspired by their faith. [5]

We find an analogy to Toynbee’s creative minority in the Quran’s ūlū al-baqiyya: “If only there had been among the destroyed peoples before you, O Believers, virtuous individuals (ūlū al-baqiyya) who forbade corruption in the land — other than the few We had saved from the torment.” [6] The ūlū al-baqīyya consist of people with virtue, discernment, balance, and religion who forbid corruption within their societies. [7] This righteous minority enjoins others towards righteousness and forbids the evil permeating civilization.

Throughout Islamic history, brilliant intellectuals creatively confronted the daunting conflicts plaguing their societies. Allama Iqbal, the great philosopher of the Indian Subcontinent, understood the rise of atheism, materialism, nationalism, and other corrosive ideologies as being detrimental to the Islamic faith. He attempted to “reconstruct Muslim religious philosophy with due regard to the philosophical traditions of Islam and the more recent developments in the various domains of human knowledge.” [8] Iqbal engaged and addressed the prominent ideas of his age such as Kant’s criticisms of the ontological argument [9], Einstein’s theory of relativity [10], and the divinity of scientism. [11] Aside from his philosophical works, Iqbal utilized the medium of poetry to allegorically illustrate the stratagem of the devil operating in the world (similar to C.S. Lewis in his Screwtape Letters). [12] Iqbal’s works were widely memorized and sung in gatherings, and his influence, through creativity, would become ingrained within South Asian culture, extending beyond the Subcontinent to the entire world.

The early 17th-century Mughal Prince, Muhammad Dara Shukoh, understood the religious tensions between Muslims and Hindus in his father’s empire. Attempting to establish a middle-ground between the two faiths, he published the book Majma’ al-Baḥrayn – titled after a Qur’anic [13] term meaning the “meeting place between the two seas,” in reference to the great seas of Islam, and Hinduism. [14] This work did not seek “to synthesize two separate streams of Islam and Hindu religion. Instead, [it aimed] to uncover and document a common font of truth shared by Muslims and non-Muslim, Indian ‘monotheists’.” The text was written in both Persian and Sanskrit to make it accessible to both Muslims and Hindus. Dara Shukoh further supplemented his middle-ground by translating key Hindu texts, such as the Yogavasisthas, into Persian in order to establish close relations between the two faiths. [15] He understood that before his empire could reach its zenith, it needed to incorporate the Hindu population which constituted the majority of its inhabitants. 

In fact, the success of the Mughal empire occurred partly through its ability to indigenize and unify the state by integrating the Hindu Rajputs. [16] This is the work of the creative minority: Shukoh understood the necessity of integrating the Hindus into government positions. He acknowledged a problem and fixed it in order to prevent a society from collapsing. Had he ignored the issues, the Mughal Empire may have witnessed mass rebellions and boycotts – major catalysts for the decline of an empire. Dara Shukoh and several Mughal kings chose the path of the creative minority and grew so wealthy that the English term “Moghul” today refers to “a very rich, important, and powerful person.” [17]

However, the righteous predecessors of our history have today passed away, and the torch of the creative minority has been entrusted to our community. As is stated in the Quran: “That was a community that had already gone before. For them is what they earned and for you is what you have earned. And you will not be accountable for what they have done.” [18] We must not allow ourselves to become preoccupied with our ancestral glory and their remarkable feats which transformed the world. Self-delusion is responsible for us being stuck in this perpetual cycle of pondering upon the “Golden Ages” of our past rather than attempting to create our own. Despite the threats of colonialism, imperialism, communism, and fascism, our ancestors sacrificed their blood, sweat, and tears just to pass the torch onto us. The time has come for us to rise to the level Allah commands us to: “Be a group who calls others to goodness, encourage what is good, and forbid what is evil — it is they who will be successful.”[19] And looking at our current conditions, there is much work to be done. 

Today, the disease of nihilism wreaks havoc on our world. Despite living in luxury, with beautifully renovated houses and fancy cars, modern man has become a depressed king. On the first day of an undergraduate course on 19th-century European history, a professor asked us to describe ourselves on pieces of paper, so that she could better understand her students. Describing myself as “passionate” and “cheerful,” I handed in my paper and thought nothing of it. As she began to read our responses, she was overwhelmed by shock. She walked to the center of the lecture hall and, after a lengthy pause, she sighed and said, “I can’t believe how many of my students are nihilists. What happened to you all?” At that moment, my grin vanished. I thought to myself, “What is going on here? How widespread is nihilism within my generation and when did things get so bad?” Only later did I realize nihilism was a symptom of a much larger crisis. If left untreated, it would be the catalyst for the decline of our civilization.

Another disease of our society is the widespread practice of sexual promiscuity. This too, if left untreated, could bring about the collapse of our civilization. Oxford professor Joseph Unwin examined data from 86 societies and civilizations to identify whether there existed a correlation between sexual freedom and the flourishing of culture. [20] He concluded that, given the cultural allowance of total sexual freedom, a culture would collapse within three generations, conquered by another with greater social energy. [21] He further elucidates this by stating: “Any human society is free to choose either to display great energy or to enjoy sexual freedom; the evidence is that it cannot do both for more than one generation.” [22] God forbids us from engaging in sexual promiscuity with the following command: “Do not go near adultery. It is truly a shameful deed and an evil way.” [23] Several commentators have explicated how, although the societal effects of sexual promiscuity may not be immediately apparent, historical precedent reveals that the society’s fall is neigh with a coming rapid decline. [24] The erasure of God, the rise of nihilism, and the prevalence of sexual promiscuity within our society, together point to the imminent collapse of our civilization if we remain dormant. Now that the problem has been successfully identified, it must be solved. Therefore, it is of immense importance for us to rise to the challenge, just as our ancestors did, creatively confronting these issues in order to preserve our societies.

The creative minority must deploy the new mediums shaping our culture, in order to effectively spread their message to their contemporaries: “Fight them with what they fight you with.” [25] Social media enables the creative minority to engage with contemporary intellectual and communal issues. Philosophical treatises first become widely accepted within academia and then trickle down to the masses, inevitably shaping culture. World-class novels which accurately document our crises must pose tangible solutions to them. Historical masterpieces must explain the qualities of a rising civilization and the diseases that threaten its social cohesion. Award-winning movies must instill religious values such as faith, tolerance, and virtue. If effectively employed, the creative minority can address the civilizational crisis that confronts them and continue to preserve order and peace.

In closing, the importance of a creative minority in confronting the challenges posed to civilization is best illustrated by Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas:

We are now again at the crossroads of history, and awareness of Islamic identity is beginning to dawn in the consciousness of emergent Muslims. Only when this awareness comes to full awakening with the sun of knowledge will there emerge from among us men and women of spiritual and intellectual maturity and integrity who will be able to play their role with wisdom and justice in upholding the truth. Such men and women will know that they must return to the early masters of the religious and intellectual tradition of Islam, which was established upon the sacred foundation of the Holy Qur’an and the Tradition of the Holy Prophet, in order to learn from the past and be able to equip spiritually and intellectually for the future; they will realize that they must not simply appropriate and imitate what modern secular Western civilization has created, but must regain by exerting their own creative knowledge, will, and imagination what is lost of the Muslims’ purpose in life, their history, their values and virtues embodied in their sciences, for what is lost can never be regained by blind imitation and the raving of slogans which deafen with the din of development . . . Their emergence is conditional not merely upon physical struggle, but more upon the achievement of true knowledge, confidence and boldness of vision that is able to create great changes in history. [26] 

The time is now. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. May God make us from amongst the creative minority who successfully enjoin the good and forbid the evil. 

Works Cited:

[1] Dagbovie, Pero, “Of All Our Studies, History is Best Qualified to Reward Our Research.” The Journal of African American History 90, no. 3, (2005) 299-323.
[2] Onder, M., & Ulasan, F., “Ibn Khaldun’s Cyclical Theory on the Rise and Fall of Sovereign Powers: The Case of Ottoman Empire,” Adam Akademi Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi, no. 8(2), (2018), 245-247.
[3] “In U.S. Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” Pew Research Center, October 17, 2019. https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace.
[4] Toynbee, Arnold, “Has America Neglected Her Creative Minority?” Sooner Magazine, January 1962, 7-9.
[5] Qur. 11:116. Translation taken from Mustafa Khattab. The Clear Quran (Lombard: Furqaan Institute of Quranic Education, 2016), 186.
[6] Mufti Muhammad Shafi, Ma’ariful Qur’an, vol. 4, (Karachi: Maktaba-e-Darul-‘Uloom, 2012), 686-687.
[7] Iqbal, Muhammad, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought, (Unknown: Dodo Press, 2009), Preface.
[8] Ibid, 33.
[9] Ibid, 35-36.
[10] Ibid, 69.
[11] Iqbal, Muhammad, Iblees Ki Majlis-E-Shoora: The Devil’s Advisory Council. (Selangor: The Other Press Sdn. Bhd., 2020).
[12] Gandhi, Supriya. The Emperor Who Never Was. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020), 187.
[13] Qur. 11:116. Translation taken from Mustafa Khattab. The Clear Quran, 244.
[14] Gandhi, Supriya. The Emperor Who Never Was, 187.
[15] Alam, Muzaffar, The Mughals and The Sufis: Islam and Political Imagination in India, 1500-1750, (Albany: University of New York Press, 2021), 217.
[16] Ibid, 267.
[17] Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), s.v. “Mogul.”
[18] Qur. 2:134. Translation taken from Mustafa Khattab. The Clear Quran, 16.
[19] Qur. 3:104. Translation taken from Mustafa Khattab. The Clear Quran, 50.
[20] Unwin, Joseph. Sex and Culture. (London: Oxford University Press, 1934), viii.
[21] “Why Sexual Morality May be Far More Important than You Ever Thought,” Kirk Durston, last modified December 1, 2021, https://www.kirkdurston.com/blog/unwin.
[22] Unwin, Joseph. Sex and Culture, 412.
[23] Qur. 17:32. Translation taken from Mustafa Khattab. The Clear Quran, 230.
[24] Sayyid Quṭb, Fī Ẓilāl al-Qur’ān, vol. 11, 17:32, trans. Adil Salahi (Markfield: The Islamic Foundation, 2005), 124.
[25] Qur’an, 16:126. Translation taken from HalalMovies, “Hamza Yusuf – Muslims have to produce World Class Films & Movies,” September 1, 2021, Hamza Yusuf – Muslims have to produce World Class Films & Movies.
[26] Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, Islam and Secularism (Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, 1993), xvi-xvii.

Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

Ahmed Khan

Ahmed Khan is the host of The Creative Minority, a podcast which seeks to engage with contemporary intellectual issues ranging from but not included to politics, philosophy, theology, sociology, metaphysics, ethics, history, medicine and others with world class academics, theologians, scientists, professors, and celebrities who are at the forefront of shaping academia and culture.

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