In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Civilizational progress is something we often take for granted. We assume that society will continue to progress morally and technologically in a linear fashion until one day we will leave this earth to settle on distant worlds. The fact of the matter, though, is that civilization must constantly battle against the force of entropy, the natural tendency for systems to break down.
The reason that societies weaken or collapse is because each generation has to put effort into instilling values, knowledge, and wisdom into the succeeding generations, their children, lest all the progress they made is lost. When a generation dies off without passing on their values, the next generation will turn to the ignorant and the unqualified as their leaders. This is social entropy.
The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يَقْبِضُ الْعِلْمَ انْتِزَاعًا يَنْتَزِعُهُ مِنْ الْعِبَادِ وَلَكِنْ يَقْبِضُ الْعِلْمَ بِقَبْضِ الْعُلَمَاءِ حَتَّى إِذَا لَمْ يُبْقِ عَالِمًا اتَّخَذَ النَّاسُ رُءُوسًا جُهَّالًا فَسُئِلُوا فَأَفْتَوْا بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ فَضَلُّوا وَأَضَلُّوا
Verily, Allah does not take away knowledge by snatching it from people but rather he takes away knowledge with the death of scholars until he leaves no scholar behind and people turn to the ignorant as their leaders. They are asked to give judgments without knowledge, thus they are led astray and lead others astray.
Hence, if one generation accepts the divine values prescribed by Allah but does not adequately pass them onto their children, the next generation will act on foolish judgments and the stability of society will weaken. This means society requires a concerted and sustained effort to educate the next generation in values and wisdom, and so civilization is much more fragile than we might imagine.
We mentioned in a previous article that natural entropy can be inferred from Surat al- Waqi’ah, and social entropy can be inferred as well:
وَالسَّابِقُونَ السَّابِقُونَ أُولَٰئِكَ الْمُقَرَّبُونَ فِي جَنَّاتِ النَّعِيمِ ثُلَّةٌ مِّنَ الْأَوَّلِينَ وَقَلِيلٌ مِّنَ الْآخِرِينَ
The forerunners, the forerunners are those who are brought close, in gardens of pleasure, many from the first generations and few from the latter generations.
Surat al-Waqi’ah 56:10-14
The leaders of virtue were educated at the hands of the Prophets, which inspired them to take the initiative in spreading divine values in society. They drank from the fountain of prophetic wisdom directly, putting them in the best position to lead others. Over time the people with this level of wisdom will decrease in number, although there will always be people who are at least willing to follow the divine guidance:
ثُلَّةٌ مِّنَ الْأَوَّلِينَ وَثُلَّةٌ مِّنَ الْآخِرِينَ
Many from the first generations, and many from the former generations.
Surat al-Waqi’ah 56:39-40
A manifestation of social entropy in American society was described by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan as “defining deviancy down.” In other words, as crime and aberrant social behavior continued to increase in society, the response of leadership was to simply redefine social norms to accommodate activity that was previously considered deviant. The problem is exacerbated by opportunistic interest groups who seek to benefit from the newly redefined social norms.
One of the ways that people redefine social norms is by describing them with less-offensive euphemisms. What was previously described with words meant to stigmatize unhealthy behavior is now described in more pleasant sounding language. The Prophet told us that some Muslims would use this trick to justify their harmful behavior:
لَيَشْرَبَنَّ نَاسٌ مِنْ أُمَّتِي الْخَمْرَ يُسَمُّونَهَا بِغَيْرِ اسْمِهَا
Some people from my nation will drink wine, calling it by different names.
For example, adultery is a harsh word that evokes a sense of betrayal and treachery. Historically, any extramarital affair or sexual encounter was once considered adultery, and it was among the worst crimes on par with murder and theft. Yet today people speak of an open marriage, or a fling, or a hook-up, making adulterous behavior acceptable and normal, even encouraged. The terms of language are changed in order to deny the moral reality of what they are doing.
What was most alarming for Moynihan, and should be for us was well, was the breakdown of intact two-parent families. He cites a paper from the Progressive Policy Institute:
There is a mountain of scientific evidence showing that when families disintegrate children often end up with intellectual, physical, and emotional scars that persist for life… We talk about the drug crisis, the education crisis, and the problems of teen pregnancy and juvenile crime. But all these ills trace back predominantly to one source: broken families.
The breakdown of family values is threatening because strong families are the basic unit of a society and a check on authoritarian power structures. Strong families are more independent from a government or corporate authority, and thus are more capable of challenging corruption. On the other hand, individuals who cannot rely on their families are more dependent on a government or corporate authority, meaning that they are in a weaker position to be able to challenge corruption. A nation of weak individuals is much easier to control and manipulate by corrupt powers than a nation of strong, independent families.
From another view, strong families are the primary way that values are passed down to children. If the moral and spiritual education of the next generation is out-sourced to a government or corporate authority, then they will more likely instill within them the values that serve their selfish interests, not necessarily the values that serve Allah or society as a whole.
Recognizing that deviancy is being defined downward should not cause us to become arrogant and harshly judgmental against people who engage in such behavior. We can criticize the behavior without impugning the dignity of the person. Certainly, much of the hypocritical moralizing that has taken place in the American “culture war” has only made the problem worse.
However, we need to be clear that there are natural limits on what people should and should not do. If we have a loved one who is addicted to smoking, a very destructive behavior, then we ought to encourage them to quit. This is an act of love and sincere concern for the well-being of our loved one. To encourage them to continue the harmful habit of smoking because they enjoy it would not be love at all; it would be indifference at best and hatred at worst.
Similarly, when we talk about single mothers we should not disparage their dignity, their motives, or their love for their children. They might be the victims of circumstance or might not know any better. Instead, it is better to educate people with gentleness about the benefits that intact marriages have on children and society at-large. The larger problem does not lie in an individual or group of single mothers, so they should not be excoriated; the problem is that society as a whole has failed to value marriage.
The way to resist social entropy is to encourage people at the grassroots level in a way they find attractive and reasonable. This was, in fact, the way that the Prophet was able to win his society over to divine values.
ادْعُ إِلَىٰ سَبِيلِ رَبِّكَ بِالْحِكْمَةِ وَالْمَوْعِظَةِ الْحَسَنَةِ ۖ وَجَادِلْهُم بِالَّتِي هِيَ أَحْسَنُ
Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and argue with them in a way that is best.
Surat an-Nahl 16:125
Harshly judgmental preaching that is not rooted in wisdom only turns people away from the message. In contrast, to invite people to a higher way of life requires kindness, knowledge, and patience.
Some Muslims have the idea that we must start at the top, seize control of government and use force to impose moral reforms on people. This method is destined to fail.
On one occasion, the Prophet was preaching to the Quraish aristocracy in Mecca and hoping that they would convert to Islam. The conversion of the Quraish leadership would have saved the vulnerable Muslims from persecution and helped spread the message of Islam, so the Prophet was naturally eager to convince them. While he was speaking to them, a blind man came to him and the Prophet turned away as he was hoping to win over the leadership. Allah corrected this mistake and revealed the verses:
عَبَسَ وَتَوَلَّىٰ أَن جَاءَهُ الْأَعْمَىٰ وَمَا يُدْرِيكَ لَعَلَّهُ يَزَّكَّىٰ أَوْ يَذَّكَّرُ فَتَنفَعَهُ الذِّكْرَىٰ أَمَّا مَنِ اسْتَغْنَىٰ فَأَنتَ لَهُ تَصَدَّىٰ وَمَا عَلَيْكَ أَلَّا يَزَّكَّىٰ وَأَمَّا مَن جَاءَكَ يَسْعَىٰ وَهُوَ يَخْشَىٰ فَأَنتَ عَنْهُ تَلَهَّىٰ
He frowned and turned away that the blind man came. What would make you know that perhaps he will purify himself or remember and benefit by remembrance? As for him who imagines himself independent of Allah, you give him attention, yet it is not your duty to purify him. And as for him who comes to you striving and fearing Allah, you are distracted from him.
Surat Abasa 80:1-10
Allah taught the Prophet that the way to reform society was to spread the message at the grassroots level, to each individual person who is willing to accept the divine revelation. The Quraish aristocracy were the last to accept Islam, and only after grassroots pressure made it impossible for them to resist.
In the same way we should not worry ourselves with winning over presidents, kings, or prime ministers. If they accept the divine values, then all the better. But if they reject them, then our efforts are better spent on the common people. After all, the real goal is the salvation of individual souls, more so than any other worldly goal.
The good news is that the there will always be people who recognize divine values and encourage society to adopt them. Society as a whole may not always respond, but the individuals who do respond will benefit.
The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَبْعَثُ لِهَذِهِ الْأُمَّةِ عَلَى رَأْسِ كُلِّ مِائَةِ سَنَةٍ مَنْ يُجَدِّدُ لَهَا دِينَهَا
Verily, Allah will raise up in this nation at the beginning of every century someone who will renew their religion.
This is the phenomenon of religious renewal (tajdīd). By the mercy of Allah, every generation will have a group of scholars and righteous people that will invite their societies to a higher way of life based upon divine values. Society might reject them, but the ideas will live on and will be picked up by later generations.
Divine values are being rejected today and even redefined out of the mainstream. The response in some quarters has been hateful, judgmental, sometimes hypocritical, and ultimately counter-productive, because their preaching was itself not based upon divine values or the prophetic method. Rather, we need to inspire people to fulfill their natural instinct to seek out the truth and their Creator, a better and more enlightened way of living. It will take much mercy, knowledge, wisdom, and patience, but the results are sure to come in this life and the next.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.
 Moynihan, Daniel P. “Defining Deviancy Down: How We’ve Become Accustomed to Alarming Levels of Crime and Destructive Behavior.” American Educator: the Professional Journal of the American Federation of Teachers. 17.4 (1993): 10-18.