Does Society have an Essential and Independent Existence?

Society is composed of individuals, without individuals a society does not exist. What is the manner of this synthesis? How is an indivi­dual related to society, and what kind of relationship is it? Let us take into consideration the following views:

First View

Society is constituted of individuals. This is merely a hypostatized synthesis i.e. a synthesis does not exist in reality. An objective synthe­sis takes place when a series of elements influence one another, and when there is a reciprocal and mutual relation of action and reaction between the elements. These actions and reactions prepare the ground for the emergence of a new phenomenon with its own specific. Characteris­tics, as observed in the case of a chemical synthesis.

For example, due to the action and reaction of the two gases, oxygen and hydrogen, for example, a new compound, namely, water, is produced with a new form and a new set of properties. The essential condition for a real synthesis is that the constituent elements are merged into one another in the process of synthesis, giving up their individual nature and pro­perties, to bring into existence a new substance: the compound.

In collective life, human beings never merge with one another in this way, and a society does not represent anything like a `unified man'. Thus, society does not possess an essential and independent existence, but a secondary and a hypostatized one. It is the individual alone who has independent, real, and essential existence. So, although human life in society does have a collective form and colour, but members of society do not merge to form a real compound called `society'.

Second View

In reality, society cannot be compared to the natural com­pounds, it is an artificial compound. An artificial compound is a kind of compound although it is not a natural one. An artificial compound, like a machine, is a system of interrelated parts. In a chemical com­pound, the constituent elements lose their identity, and dissolve in the `whole' and essentially lose their individuality. But in an artificial com­pound, the components do not lose their identity; they just surrender their independence.

The components are interconnected and related in such a way that the effect of the resultant product is quite different from the sum total of the individual effects of its ingredients. For example, an automobile carries persons or things with a great speed from one place to another. Its mobility and speed cannot be attributed to the sum of individual performance of its parts when considered as in­dependent and disconnected from one another.

There is a sort of co­ordination and coherence between its parts, which is artificial and im­posed from without. However, merger of identities of the ingredients in the `whole' does not take place. Yet, the whole does not exist with­out its constituent parts. The whole is the sum total of its parts in addition to the specific connections and relations among them.

Society, in the same manner, is comprised of several primary and secondary organizations and bodies. These organizations and the indivi­duals who are connected with them, all are inseparably related with one another. Any changes in any one of these institutions cultural, religious, economic, legal or educational bring about changes in other institu­tions also. Thus, social life is a phenomenon dependent on the social machinery. But in this process, neither the identity of individuals nor that of institutions is dissolved completely in the society as a whole.

Third View

Society is a real compound like the natural compounds. But the synthesis here is of minds and thoughts and of wills and wishes; the synthesis is cultural and not physical. Like the material elements, which in the process of action and reaction, reduction and dissolution in one another, prepare the ground for the emergence of a new substance, and due to this re‑organization a new compound comes into existence and the elements continue their existence with a new identity, individuals also, who enter into social life with their gifts acquired from nature and their inborn abilities, spiritually merge into one another to attain a new spiritual identity, which is termed the `social spirit'.

This synthesis itself is unique and special, with no parallel in the universe. Since the components do affect and influence one another and are transformed by mutual effect to acquire a new personality, this synthesis is a natural and real synthesis. However, in this case, the `whole' or the `compound' does not exist as a single physical entity. It is different from other com­pounds in the sense that in other natural compounds the synthesis is physical and the components influence and affects one another to the extent of acquiring a totally new identity, and the compound becomes a single indivisible entity, a real unit. The multiplicity of constituents is dissolved and transformed into the unity of the compound.

But in the synthesis of society and individual, though an actual synthesis takes place because, the constituents, the individuals, as a result of their interaction, attain a new form and identity the plurality of individuals is not converted into a unity. This synthesis does not produce anything like a `unified man', a physical entity in which all individuals have physically merged. Society conceived as a single physi­cal entity is only a hypostatized abstraction.

Fourth View

Society is a real compound of a higher order than a natural compound. In the case of natural compounds, the constituents have their own individuality and identity before the synthesis occurs. During the process of their action and reaction, conditions for emergence of a new substance are produced. However, the human individual did not possess any kind of individuality at the stage of pre‑social existence.

At that stage, he is like an empty container capable only of embracing the social spirit. Without social existence, human beings are absolutely like animals, with the only difference that they possess human apti­tudes. The humanity of a human being i.e. his feeling of being a human being, his consciousness of his human `egohood', thought, human likes and dislikes, and other emotions and feelings associated with man originates under the influence of the social spirit.

It is the social spirit that fills this empty pot and confers personality upon a person. The social spirit has always been co‑existing with man and shall co‑exist with him forever through its manifestations such as morality, religion, education, philosophy, and art. The cultural and spiritual causes and effects, actions and reactions among the individuals take a specific shape due to the influence of the social spirit.

Hence, they are not prior to it. In fact sociology is prior to human psychology. This view is contrary to the former view, which accepts the possibility of human psychology even before the stage of social existence, and regards sociology as belonging to a later development. According to this view, if man had not acquired social existence and sociology, he would not have reached the stage of acquiring human psyche and human psycho­logy.

The first theory is a theory maintaining the priority of individual because, according to it, neither society has a real existence, nor law, custom nor social destiny have an independent reality. Only individuals have an objective existence and are knowable objects in an epistemolo­gical sense. The life and destiny of every individual is independent of that of other individuals.

The second theory is also a theory of the priority of individual. It does not recognize the society as an independent `whole', and also denies an objective synthesis of individuals as a necessary condition of social existence. But it considers the relationship among individuals as somewhat objective, although confined to physical association.

Accord­ing to this theory, whereas society does not have an existence indepen­dent of individuals, the individual alone has a real and objective exis­tence. But according to this view, individuals, being the constituents of a society, share a common destiny just as the components of a machine or an automobile are related and linked together in the form of a mechanical association of cause and effect, their movements being mechanically interlinked. Moreover, society‑that is the group of inter­ related and interconnected individuals‑from the point of view of its specific system of mechanical cause‑and‑effect relationships, has an identity independent of its individual parts.

The third theory, however, emphasizes the reality of individual as well as that of society. This theory recognizes the independent exis­tence of individuals because, according to it, the existence of com­ponents of society (individuals) is not merged into the existence of society. It, also, does not accept any unified existence for society like that of chemical compounds. At the same time, it recognizes the objec­tive reality of society, because it considers the synthesis of individuals similar to a chemical synthesis with regard to their spiritual and intel­lectual makeup.

As a result of this synthesis, individuals acquire a new identity, which is the dominant character of society‑although society is not a physically unified entity. On the basis of this theory, due to the process of interaction between the parts, an entirely new entity has emerged: a new spirit, a new consciousness, and a new will, which is over and above the intelligence, consciousness and will of the indivi­duals, and which dominates the intelligence and consciousness of all its individual members.

The fourth theory believes in the essentiality and absoluteness of social reality. According to this theory, whatever exists is the collective spirit, the collective consciousness, the collective sensibility, the collec­tive will, and the collective `self'. Individual consciousness is nothing but a manifestation of the collective consciousness.

The Qur’anic View

The verses of the Holy Qur’an confirm the third view. As I have stated earlier, the Qur’an does not discuss human problems in our philo­sophical and scientific terminology. Its language and approach is dif­ferent. Nevertheless, the Qur’an views the problems concerning society in such a way that it supports the third view. The Qur’an puts forward the idea of a common history, a common destiny, a common record of deeds, a common consciousness, understanding, sensibility and a com­mon conduct for the ummahs (societies)1

It is obvious that if the entity referred to as `ummah' did not have an objective existence, it would be meaningless to talk of fate, understanding, conscience, obedience, and disobedience with reference to it. It may be inferred that the Qur’an believes in a certain kind of life which is the collective and social existence. Collective life is not just a metaphor or an alle­gory, it is a reality likewise collective death is also a reality.

In verse 34 of Surat al‑'A`raf, the Qur’an asserts:

وَلِكُلِّ أُمَّةٍ أَجَلٌ  فَإِذَا جَاءَ أَجَلُهُمْ لَا يَسْتَأْخِرُونَ سَاعَةً  وَلَا يَسْتَقْدِمُونَ

“And every ummah (society) hath its term, and when its term cometh, they cannot put it off an hour nor yet advance (it).” (7:34)

This verse refers to life and existence that is given a limited period of time, the duration of which cannot be changed. The end can neither be advanced nor delayed; and this life is associated with the nation (ummah), not with the individuals; or else it is evident that individuals of a nation are deprived of their existence individually and separately and not collectively and simultaneously.

In Surat al‑Jathiyah, the verse 28 states:

كُلُّ أُمَّةٍ تُدْعَىٰ إِلَىٰ كِتَابِهَا .

“Every ummah (society) shall be summoned to its record.” (45:28)

Thereupon we come to know that not only individuals have a particular record of deeds of their own, but societies are also judged by their own records of deeds, because they, too, are like living beings who are conscious, responsible, and accountable for their acts, as they have freedom of will and act accordingly.

In Surat al‑'An`am, verse 108 states:

زَيَّنَّا لِكُلِّ أُمَّةٍ عَمَلَهُمْ

“Unto every nation have we made their deeds seem fair (6:108)

This verse affirms that every nation evolves its own particular consciousness, its own particular standards and its own particular way of thinking. The consciousness, understanding, and perception of every nation has a specific and distinguishable character.

Every nation judges things according to its own standards (at least in the matters involving practical values and notions every nation has its own special way of perception and comprehension. There are many acts which are `good' in the eyes of one nation and `evil' in the eyes of another. It is the social atmosphere that moulds the taste and percep­tion of the individuals of a nation according to its value‑system.

In Surat al‑Mu'min, verse 5 says:

وَ هَمَّتْ كُلُّ أُمَّةٍ بِرَسُولِهِمْ لِيَأْخُذُوهُ وَجَادَلُوا بِالْبَاطِلِ لِيُدْحِضُوا بِهِ الْحَقَّ فَأَخَذْتُهُمْ فَكَيْفَ كَانَ عِقَابِ 

“....And every nation purposed to seize their messenger and argued falsely, [thinking] thereby to refute the Truth. Then I seized, and how [awful] was my punishment. “(40:5)

This verse is about an unrighteous resolution and decision of a nation. It refers to a collective decision of immoral opposition to truth, and asserts that collective disobedience deserves collective retribution and punishment.

In the Qur’an, there are frequent instances how the actions of an individual are attributed to the whole group, or sins of a generation are associated with later generations.2

In such cases, the people had the same (collective) thinking and the same (collective) will, or, in other words, they had the same social spirit. For example, in the story of the Thamud, the act of hamstringing Salih's camel, which was the deed of an individual alone, is attributed to the whole nation فَعَقَرُوهْا (they ham­strung the she camel).

The whole nation was considered to be respon­sible for the crime. Consequently all of them were considered to deserve the punishment for committing that crime فَدَمْدَمَ عَلَيْهِمْ رَبُّهُم (so Allah doomed them for that sin).

'Ali (as), in one of the sermons of the Nahj al‑balaghah, elucidates this subject in the following manner:

أَيُها النّاسُ إِنّما يَجْمَعُ النّاسَ الرِضا وَ السَخَطُ.

O people, actually that which brings together a community [and imparts unity and a common fate to it], is the common feeling of approval and disapproval.

Whenever any proper or improper action having collective appro­val has been performed, even though by a single individual, the whole society is held responsible for it.

إنَّما عَقَرَ ناقَةَ ثَمُود رَجُلُ واحِدٌ فَعَمَّهُمْ اللهُ بالعَذابِ لما عَمّوهُ بِالرِضّا فَقالَ فَعَقَرُوها فَأصْبَحُوا نادِمين.

Indeed only one man had hamstrung the she‑camel of Thamud, but God included them all in His punishment, because they all condoned his act. So, God has said (in the Qur’an)

They hamstrung her and woke up repentant.”

God sent down His punishment collectively on the people of Thamud, because the whole nation maintained the same position and approved the act of one individual, and when his decision was enacted, it was actually the decision of the whole nation. God, in His Book, has attributed the act of hamstringing of the camel to the whole nation, although the act was performed by one person. It says: “That nation hamstrung the camel,” and does not say that one person from among them committed the sin.

It is essential to remind here that mere approval of a sin, as long as it remains a verbal approval alone and practical involvement has not occurred, is not to be considered as a sin. For example, a person commits a sin and another comes to know about it before or after its committal and approves it, even though the approval leads to the stage of resolution but is not translated into action, it is not a sin as the resolution of an individual to commit a sin, which is not translated into action may not be considered a sin.

An approval is considered as participation in sin when it plays an active role in its planning and execution. The collective sins belong to this category. The social atmosphere and the social spirit favour the occurrence of the sin and support it. If one of the members of a society whose approval is a part of the collective will and whose decision is a part of the collective decision commits the sin, it is here that the sin of an individual becomes the collective sin. The above quoted passage of the Nahj al‑balaghah which refers to the contents of the Qur’anic verse, explains the same fact. It is not merely the approval or disapproval which is regarded as participation in the intention or committal of a sin.

The Qur’an occasionally associates the acts of an earlier generation with the latter generations. For example, the action of an earlier nation, namely the people of Israel, has been associated with the Israelites of the Prophet's age, and the Qur’an says that these people deserve igno­miny and wretchedness because they slew prophets unjustly. It is not so because in the view of the Qur’an they were the offspring of the same race, but because they represented the same evil social spirit. It has been said that “human society has more dead than living. 3

It means that those who are dead participate in the formation of every age more than the living. Therefore, it is also said that “the dead rule the living more than before.”4

In the Qur’anic exegesis, al‑Mizan, it is argued that if a society has a single soul and the same social thinking, it is as if a single indivi­dual. In this case, members of society are like the bodily organs and faculties of one organism, intrinsically and physically united, and are amalgamated in the form of a single human personality in thought and action. Their pleasures and pains are like the pleasures and pains of one person and their bliss and adversities are like the bliss and adversities of one person. This discussion is further continued on the following lines:

In its judgement on nations and societies having religious or national pre­judices or having a unique social thinking, the Qur’an regards the latter genera­tions punishable for the actions of the earlier generations. A present genera­tion is regarded accountable and punishable for the actions of those who have passed away. In the cases in which people had the same social thinking and the same social spirit, the Divine Judgement could not be otherwise. 5

  • 1. `Allamah Tabataba'i, al‑Mizan, vol. II, p. 102.
  • 2. Following Qur’anic verses are referred to:

    فَوَيْلٌ لِّلَّذِينَ يَكْتُبُونَ الْكِتَابَ بِأَيْدِيهِمْ ثُمَّ يَقُولُونَ هَـٰذَا مِنْ عِندِ اللَّـهِ لِيَشْتَرُوا بِهِ ثَمَنًا قَلِيلًا فَوَيْلٌ لَّهُم مِّمَّا كَتَبَتْ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَوَيْلٌ لَّهُم مِّمَّا يَكْسِبُونَ 

    “Woe, then, to those who write the Book with their hands and then say: This is from God, so that they may take for it a small price. Therefore, woe to them for what their hands have written, and woe to them for what they earn. “(2: 79)

    ضُرِبَتْ عَلَيْهِمُ الذِّلَّةُ أَيْنَ مَا ثُقِفُوا إِلَّا بِحَبْلٍ مِّنَ اللَّـهِ وَحَبْلٍ مِّنَ النَّاسِ وَبَاءُوا بِغَضَبٍ مِّنَ اللَّـهِ وَضُرِبَتْ عَلَيْهِمُ الْمَسْكَنَةُ ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّهُمْ كَانُوا يَكْفُرُونَ بِآيَاتِ اللَّـهِ وَيَقْتُلُونَ الْأَنبِيَاءَ بِغَيْرِ حَقٍّ ذَٰلِكَ بِمَا عَصَوا وَّكَانُوا يَعْتَدُونَ

    “Abasement shall be pitched on them, wherever they are come upon, except they be in a bond of God, and a bond of the people; they will be laden with the burden of God's anger, and poverty shall be pitched on them; that, because they disbelieved in God's signs and slew the Prophets without right, that, for that they acted rebelliously and were transgressors.” (3:112)

  • 3. Auguste Comte, as quoted in Raymond Aron's Main Currents in Sociologi­cal Thought, vol. I, p. 91.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Al‑Mizan, vol. IV, 112.