The Unique Qur’ānic Generation
The callers to Islām in every country and in every period should give thought to one particular aspect of the history of Islām, and they should ponder over it deeply. This is related to the method of inviting people to Islām and its ways of training.
At one time this Message created a generation - the generation of the Companions of the Prophet, may God be pleased with them - without comparison in the history of Islām, even in the entire history of man. After this, no other generation of this calibre was ever again to be found. It is true that we do find some individuals of this calibre here and there in history, but never again did a great number of such people exist in one region as was the case during the first period of Islām.
This is an obvious and open truth of history, and we ought to ponder over it deeply so that we may reach its secret.
The Qur’ān of this Message is still in our hands, and the hadith (prophetic traditions) of the Messenger of God, i.e. his guidance in practical affairs, and the history of his sacred life are also in our hands, as they were in the hands of the first Muslim community whose equal history could not produce again. The only difference is the person of the Messenger of God; but is this the secret?
Had the person of the Prophet been absolutely essential for the establishment and fruition of this message, God Almighty would not have made Islām a universal message, ordained it as the religion for the whole of mankind, given it the status of the last Divine Message for humanity, and made it to be a guide for all the inhabitants of this planet in all their affairs until the end of time.
God Almighty has taken the responsibility for preserving the Holy Qur’ān on Himself because He knows that Islām can be established and can benefit mankind even after the time of the Prophet. Hence He called His Prophet back to His mercy after twenty three years of messengership and declared this religion to be valid until the end of time. Therefore the absence of the Messenger of God is not the real cause nor does it explain this phenomenon.
We look, therefore, for some other reasons, and for this purpose we look at that clear spring from which the first generation of Muslims quenched their thirst. Perhaps something has been mixed with that clear spring. We should look at the manner in which they received their training. Perhaps some changes have found their way into it.
The spring from which the Companions of the Prophet drank was the Holy Qur’ān; only the Qur’ān, as the hadith of the Prophet and his teachings were offspring of this fountainhead. When someone asked the Mother of the Believers, Aisha - may God be pleased with her, about the character of the Prophet, she answered, ‘His character was the Qur’ān.’
The Holy Qur’ān was the only source from which they quenched their thirst, and this was the only mould in which they formed their lives. This was the only guidance for them, not because there was no civilisation or culture or science or books or schools. Indeed, there was the Roman culture, its civilisation, its books and its laws which even today are considered to be the foundation of European culture. There was the heritage of Greek culture, its logic, its philosophy and its arts, which are still a source of inspiration for Western thought. There was the Persian civilisation, its art, its poetry and its legends, and its religion and system of government.
There were many other civilisations, near or far, such as the Indian and Chinese cultures, and so on. The Roman and Persian cultures were established to the north and to the south of the Arabian Peninsula, while the Jews and Christians were settled in the heart of Arabia. Thus we believe that this generation did not place sole reliance on the Book of God for the understanding of their religion because of any ignorance of civilisation and culture, but it was all according to a well thought out plan and method. An example of this purpose is found in the displeasure expressed by the Messenger of God when Umar, may God be pleased with him, brought some pages from the Torah. The Messenger of God said, ‘By God, if even Moses had been alive among you today, he would have no recourse except to follow me.’
It is clear from this incident that the Messenger of God deliberately limited the first generation of Muslims, which was undergoing the initial stages of training, to only one source of guidance, and that was the Book of God. His intention was that this group should dedicate itself purely to the Book of God and arrange its lives solely according to its teachings. That is why the Messenger of God was upset when Umar, may God be pleased with him, turned to a source different from the Qur’ān.
In fact, the Messenger of God intended to prepare a generation pure in heart, pure in mind, pure in understanding. Their training was to be based on the method prescribed by God Almighty who saved the Holy Qur’ān, purified from the influence of all other sources.
This generation, then, drank solely from this spring and thus attained a unique distinction in history. In later times it happened that other sources mingled with it. Other sources used by later generations included Greek philosophy and logic, ancient Persian legends and their ideas, Jewish scriptures and traditions, Christian theology, and, in addition to these, fragments of other religions and civilisations. These mingled with the commentaries on the Holy Qur’ān and with scholastic theology, as they were mingled with jurisprudence and its principles. Later generations after this generation obtained their training from this mixed source, and hence the like of this generation never arose again.
Thus we can say without any reservations that the main reason for the difference between the first unique and distinguished group of Muslims and later Muslims is that the purity of the first source of Islāmic guidance was mixed with various other sources, as we have indicated.
There is another basic cause, which has operated in creating this difference. That difference is in the art of learning of this unique generation. They of the first generation did not approach the Qur’ān for the purpose of acquiring culture and information, nor for the purpose of taste or enjoyment. None of them came to the Qur’ān to increase his sum total of knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself or to solve some scientific or legal problem, or to remove some defect in his understanding. Rather, he turned to the Qur’ān to find out what the Almighty Creator had prescribed for him and for the group in which he lived, for his life and for the life of the group. He approached it to act on what he heard immediately, as a soldier on the battlefield reads ‘Today’s Bulletin’ so that he may know what is to be done. He did not read many verses of the Qur’ān in one session, as he understood that this would lay an unbearable burden of duties and responsibilities on his shoulders. At most he would read ten verses, memorise them, and then act upon them. We know this from a tradition reported by Abdullah ibn Masud.
This understanding, the understanding that instruction is for action, opened the doors to spiritual fulfillment and to knowledge. If they had read the Qur’ān only for the sake of discussion, learning and information, these doors would not have opened. Moreover, action became easy, the weight of responsibilities became light, and the Qur’ān became a part of their personalities, mingling with their lives and characters so that they became living examples of faith; a faith not hidden in intellects or books, but expressing itself in a dynamic movement, which changed conditions and events and the course of life.
Indeed, this Qur’ān does not open its treasures except to him who accepts it with this spirit: the spirit of knowing with the intention of acting upon it. It did not come to be a book of intellectual content, or a book of literature, or to be considered as a book of stories or history, although it has all these facets. It came to become a way of life, a way dedicated to God Almighty. Thus, God Most High imparted it to them in a gradual manner, to be read at intervals:
“And (it is) a Qur’ān which We have separated (by intervals) that you might recite it to the people over a prolonged period. And We have sent it down progressively.”
The Qur’ān did not come down all at once; rather it came down according to the needs of the Islāmic society in facing new problems, according to the growth of ideas and concepts, according to the progress of general social life and according to new challenges faced by the Muslim community in its practical life. One verse or a few verses would be revealed according to the special circumstances and events, and they would answer questions which arose in the minds of people, would explain the nature of a particular situation, and would prescribe a way of dealing with it. These verses would correct their mistakes, either of understanding or of practice, would bring them closer to God, and would explain to them the wisdom of the various aspects of the universe in the light of God’s attributes. Thus they clearly realised that every moment of their lives was under the continuous guidance and direction of the Almighty Creator and that they were traversing the path of life under the wings of God’s mercy. Because of this sense of constant relationship with God Almighty, their lives were moulded according to that sacred way of life, which was being instructed by Him.
Thus, instruction to be translated into action was the method of the first group of Muslims. The method of later generations was instruction for academic discussion and enjoyment. And without doubt this is the second major factor, which made later generations different from the first unique generation of Islām.
A third cause is also operative in the history of Muslims; we ought to look at it also.
When a person embraced Islām during the time of the Prophet he would immediately cut himself off from Jahiliyyahh (pre-Islāmic ignorance). When he stepped into the circle of Islām, he would start a new life, separating himself completely from his past life under ignorance of the Divine Law. He would look upon the deeds during his life of ignorance with mistrust and fear, with a feeling that these were impure and could not be tolerated in Islām! With this feeling, he would turn toward Islām for new guidance; and if at any time temptations overpowered him, or the old habits attracted him, or if he became lax in carrying out the injunctions of Islām, he would become restless with a sense of guilt and would feel the need to purify himself of what had happened, and would turn to the Qur’ān to mould himself according to its guidance.
Thus, there would be a break between the Muslim’s present Islām and his past Jahiliyyahh, and this after a well thought out decision, as a result of which all his relationships with Jahiliyyahh would be cut off and he would be joined completely to Islām, although there would be some give-and-take with the polytheists in commercial activity and daily business; yet relationships of understanding are one thing and daily business is something else.
This renunciation of the Jahili (pre-Islāmic ignorance) environment, its customs and traditions, its ideas and concepts, proceeded from the replacement of polytheism by the concept of the Oneness of God, of the Jahili view of life and the world by that of the Islāmic view, and from absorption into the new Islāmic community under a new leadership and dedication of all loyalties and commitments to this new society and new leadership.
This was the parting of the ways and the starting of a new journey, a journey free from the pressures of the values, concepts and traditions of the Jahili society. The Muslim encountered nothing burdensome except the torture and oppression; but he had already decided in the depths of his heart that he would face it with equanimity, and hence no pressure from the Jahili society would have any effect on his continuing steadfastness.
We are also surrounded by Jahiliyyahh today, which is of the same nature as it was during the first period of Islām, perhaps a little deeper. Our whole environment, people’s beliefs and ideas, habits and art, rules and laws is Jahiliyyahh, even to the extent that what we consider to be Islāmic culture, Islāmic sources, Islāmic philosophy and Islāmic thought are also constructs of Jahiliyyahh.
This is why the true Islāmic values never enter our hearts, why our minds are never illuminated by Islāmic concepts, and why no group of people arises among us who are of the calibre of the first generation of Islām.
It is therefore necessary, in the way of the Islāmic movement, that in the early stages of our training and education we should remove ourselves from all the influences of the Jahiliyyahh in which we live and from which we derive benefits. We must return to that pure source from which those people derived their guidance, the source that is free from any mixing or pollution. We must return to it to derive from it our concepts of the nature of the universe, the nature of human existence, and the relationship of these two with the Perfect, the Real Being: God Most High. From it we must also derive our concepts of life, our principles of government, politics, economics and all other aspects of life.
We must return to it with a sense of instruction for obedience and action, and not for academic discussion and enjoyment.
We should return to it to find out what kind of person it asks us to be, and then be like that. During this process, we will also discover the artistic beauty in the Qur’ān, the marvellous tales in the Qur’ān, the scenes of the Day of Judgment in the Qur’ān, the intuitive logic of the Qur’ān, and all other such benefits, which are sought in the Qur’ān by academic and literary people. We will enjoy all these other aspects, but these are not the main object of our study. Our primary purpose is to know what way of life is demanded of us by the Qur’ān, the total view of the universe which the Qur’ān wants us to have, what is the nature of our knowledge of God taught to us by the Qur’ān, the kind of morals and manners which are enjoined by it, and the kind of legal and constitutional system it asks us to establish in the world.
We must also free ourselves from the clutches of Jahili society, Jahili concepts, Jahili traditions and Jahili leadership. Our mission is not to compromise with the practices of Jahili society, nor can we be loyal to it. Jahili society, because of its Jahili characteristics, is not worthy to be compromised with. Our aim is first to change ourselves so that we may later change the society.
Our foremost objective is to change the practices of this society. Our aim is to change the Jahili system at its very roots, this system which is fundamentally at variance with Islām and which, with the help of force and oppression, is keeping us from living the sort of life which is demanded by our Creator.
Our first step will be to raise ourselves above the Jahili society, and all its values and concepts. We will not change our own values and concepts either more or less to make a bargain with this Jahili society. Never! Even if we were on different roads, and if we take even one step in its company, we will lose our goal entirely and lose our way as well.
We know that in this we will have difficulties and trials, and we will have to make great sacrifices. But if we are to walk in the footsteps of the first generation of Muslims, through whom God established His system and gave it victory over Jahiliyyahh, then God must be the Master of our wills.
It is therefore desirable that we should be aware at all times of the nature of our course of action, of the nature of our position, and the nature of the road which we must traverse to come out of ignorance, as the distinguished and unique generation of the Companions of the Prophet came out of it.
Source: Chapter 1 from Milestones by Sayyid Qutb¸ Maktabah Booksellers and Publishers, available online