Social structure from an Islamic lens

The book is worth the attention for both the general readers and the students

September 11, 2022


rof Sultan Shah and Dr Ayesha Farooq have studied the very pertinent theme of social structure from an Islamic lens. The locus of their analysis is Pakistan. I believe that such issues are of great significance and merit scrutiny by the academics. Therefore, I consider this study quite invaluable.

Their recent book, Islamic Teachings and Social Structure: Convictions and Contradictions is a welcome addition to the existing body of knowledge. Such themes were confined, for long, to the ulema who mostly had a lopsided view, having no relevance to the on-ground reality.

Bridging the gap between the religious injunction and the social reality on the ground is possible only if university academics start bringing about new epistemic synthesis to produce knowledge. Thus, the authors need to be commended for their endeavour.

Since the study conducted by Prof Shah and Dr Farooq is about the social structure, I will furnish the intellectual history of the concept before highlighting the merits of the study. I may assert at the outset that ‘social structure’ is a modernist construction necessitated by situation. It emerged in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. The human society was studied with the aid of the methods typical to natural sciences, therefore, the word ‘structure’ was coined and immediately came into currency.

Social structure is about patterns in relationships. In sociology, social structure is the distinctive, stable arrangement of institutions whereby human beings in a society interact and live together. Social structure is often treated together with the concept of social change, which deals with the forces that change the social structure and the organisation of society.

Two main clusters of approaches conceive these patterns differently. One, a top-down one, tends to see a global organisation as stemming from a common shared culture. The second, a bottom-up, pays more attention to agglomerative processes that begin with individuals who may or may not begin with shared cultural templates.

The idea of ‘social structure’ was first introduced by Herbert Spencer. At the time, the word ‘structure’ in biology referred to ‘what we would now call ‘organs,’ sets of contiguous tissue that performed a specifiable function for the organism. Spencer argued that society had ‘social structures’ that carried out social functions.’ Thus, the root of the idea of social structure comes from ‘the organismic metaphor’ applied to society.

This metaphor in the Western tradition goes back to Plato who suggests a mapping between characteristics of persons and those of the city. Most importantly, he makes a distinction between (what might appear to us as) cognition, emotions and instincts.

In the fourth book of The Republic, Plato had Socrates demonstrate that three parts of the soul have different functions — that we “learn with one part of ourselves, feel anger with another, and with yet a third desire the pleasures of nutrition and generation”.

Plato did not propose an organismic model of the state, and it seems that no such developed analogies emerged in Europe until the mass of differentiable urban occupations were no longer associated with a servile status. Social structure entered the lexicon of human knowledge with the onset of modernism, more specifically as an outcome of Industrial Revolution.

Spencer argued not only that the functional needs of the whole were met by the parts (like Plato), or that there were laws of development of the whole (like Comte), but also that structures (and functions) have their own developmental tendencies that direct the social organism’s course of development.

Despite his use of the organismic metaphor, Spencer always saw the functions that were met by social structures as being, basically, functional needs of the individuals who made up the society (and not those of the social whole apart from the individuals). Human action is fundamentally driven to meet human needs and wants, such as defending against enemies and obtaining food. Individuals cooperate to fulfill those ends, giving rise to structures.

Thus ‘social structure’ referred to the internal organisation of the social whole arising as a by-product of the functional interdependence of human life (a point that Malinowski was to reiterate later). Friedrich Angles came up with an almost similar sort of theorisation in his famous book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).

Claude Levi-Strauss applied these structuralist principles to the study of social structure in The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Here Levi-Strauss examined the structural logics that organise complex patterns of kin relationships by understanding them as formal laws of transfers (as a marriage may be seen as the transfer of a daughter (or son) from one lineage to another). Levi-Strauss went on to focus on cognitive structures, but the encouraging results of his work on kinship led to a common enthusiasm for ‘structure’ in the social sense as well.

Religion helps to establish moral order for a society, legitimating social hierarchies, collective goals, and cultural boundaries. Religions promote social change by guiding their followers to share or “live” their views. The encouragement for outward expression of religious views makes these views a vehicle for social change. The acceptance or rejection of the social changes is often tied to personal belief as well.

The social system of Islam is based upon sound and just principles, which are designed to secure happiness and prosperity for both the individual and the society. It does not tolerate class warfare, social caste or domination of individual over society or vice versa. The Islamic social order, the Ummah, as a bearer of witnesses (to the truth) before all mankind (Al-Qur’ n, 2:143) is the dynamic vehicle for the realisation of the Divine Will in space-time - in history.

In early Islamic societies, pre-Islamic Arab culture was still influential; the family was organised around a patriarchal clan with a common male ancestor. Families were led by the eldest male family member. With the advent of Islam, the spirit of the social structure changed. However, the (outward) form, remained unchanged. The family was the linchpin in the social organization. This becomes the main focus of the study under review.

Intermarriage and its effects, the status of a daughter in a patriarchal family and the population growth are discussed by referring to the Quranic injunctions and the traditions of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him). I wish the authors would have added a detailed introduction. They should have defined social structure at the outset. The take of scholars like Ibne Khaldun is conspicuously missing. Also missing is an index at the end. Despite these shortcomings, this book is worth the attention for general readers as well as the students.

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore