Islam and the concept of destruction

Are human hands the cause of the Islamic world’s woes? More likely, it is the beliefs and actions of some Muslims that are leading down a dangerous road.

Islam and the concept of destruction AFP PHOTO/NARAYAN MAHARJAN/NURPHOTO

With so much destruction in the Muslim world today, along with other forms of it (war and “terrorism”), one wonders why this is so and if any of it is related to or can be explained in terms of the concept of destruction in Islam, or in Islamic teaching vis-à-vis the concept of destruction. While Islam, like the other two monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity, does believe in the total destruction of the earth at “the end of time,” Islam, as many believers would say, does not condone wanton and willy-nilly destruction, including terrorism. But its detractors, especially outside of the religion, continue to suspect that Islam itself may have something to do with it. The concept of jihad, for example, has been singled out as one culprit, even though Islam sets limits on its execution and defines its greatest version as a fight against oneself.

The concept of destruction

In generic terms, destruction can be defined simply as “any damage to an object, system, being or idea,” which then may include all actions that cause things to change for the worse, whether human in origin, such as murder, robbery or burglary, or natural, such as floods, avalanches, earthquakes and tsunamis. But damage caused by destruction is not limited to “things” in or of nature or a person, but also to the most abstract of things that apply neither to nature nor to humans nor to any physical “thing,” but, according to the definition above, to abstract things, such as systems or ideas. Indeed, the most intriguing and controversial thing about the concept of destruction is one that applies to ideas, because it is in destruction in this sense that Islam may have some explaining to do regarding the prevalence of destruction within its midst today.

History of the idea

The most famous idea about destruction is Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” in his 1942 book “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.” Although it has roots in similar or related ideas propounded by other great thinkers (Hegel, Gibbon, Marx, Nietzsche, Sombart, etc), it was Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” that stirred the intellectual pot the most because he seemed to condone destruction, and posited it as a necessary part of the process toward a higher form of capitalism, or economic progress in general. This concept of “creative destruction,” just like Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” – which also embraced destruction as part of his theory of evolution – would later get so “vulgarized” as to include or justify any destruction as necessary toward human progress, from the gutting of small industries and firing all their workers to the destruction of an entire social and political order. So it is no surprise that even today there are people of power and influence who are still mesmerized by the idea of creative destruction, with its cyclical and inevitable nature. For example, Stephen Bannon, chief strategist for President Donald J Trump, is said to be fascinated with the idea (and need) to “drain the swamp” in Washington and carry out “a deconstruction of the administrative state.” Of course, when you deconstruct, you also “destruct,” destroy the old order, which is what Bannon means. This thinking has been influenced by William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of the 1997 book “The Fourth Turning,” who believe that creative destruction occurs in an 80-year cycle and that one is due now.

Closer to home in Asia, for some members of the older generation, the echo of “permanent revolution” exhorted incessantly by the Communist Party and the founding president of Indonesia, Soekarno, still rings in our ears. Even the current Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, trotted out during his 2014 presidential campaign the idea and need for a “mental revolution,” whose underlying and hidden assumption is also a destruction of the old “mental” – whatever that is or was. The fact of the matter is that it is not difficult to fall prey or succumb to the appeal of not just the “creative” version of destruction but also to the many other forms of it, as nature itself relishes in it, to the suffering of many in their daily lives. So it would be a surprise to no one that religions also grabbed the idea of destruction and incorporated it into the core of their teachings, not only to demonstrate the omnipotence of God, but also the hopelessness of human beings and hence their need to refer and defer to their respective gods.

Destruction within religions

In Hinduism, for example, not only is destruction accepted as normal and natural, it is in fact one of the legs of Trimurti (a trinity consisting of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer), along with creation and maintenance, where a god is presiding over each, and its third and most feared god, Shiva, is in fact the god of destruction. But it cannot be construed that Hinduism condones any sort of wanton acts of destruction, especially by humans; it merely shows its profound understanding of – and fateful resignation to – the role of destruction in life.

In Buddhism, according to a 2012 posting on one casual but very instructive Thai-language blog, The End of the World According to Buddha, “The most fundamental, core belief of the religion is the concept of impermanence: that nothing lasts forever. Everything you own, everyone you know, all the places you’ve been to, your memories, the entire planet, the sun, the galaxy and even the universe, will at some point cease to exist. Even the heavens. The world will end because the seven suns surrounding the earth will burn to a crisp. The trees and other plant lives will also burn away, covering the earth in a layer of ashes; oceans will dry up; all life will die off long before the earth itself is destroyed.” In other words, not just destruction, but total destruction.

The only thing left unmentioned in this idea of destruction in Buddhism is the agent: who will carry out the destruction? Buddha, not

being a god himself, was obviously just making a prediction and left the doer anonymous, indicating that Buddhism merely resigns itself to the possibility of destruction, neither condoning nor elevating it to a theological level. It is therefore interesting to note that the blogger assigns the agent of destruction to science: “And you know, scientifically, that’s possible. And very similar to what scientists say: the Sun will expand, frying everything on earth.” But in the three monotheistic religions, the concept of destruction is more assertive, in the sense that all three religions allow God (capitalized to indicate the one and the same God in which all three religions believe) extreme leeway in imposing destructions of all kinds as part of their theologies. In all three religions, the final destruction of the earth – or the universe – is asserted and painted in gory detail, as part of God’s final solution.

AFP PHOTO/FACHRUL REZA/NURPHOTO

And in no other religion is God’s prerogative (or His hand) more visible in the act of destruction than in Islam. Not only is God responsible for the destruction of the earth at the end of time (Qiyamah), but also is the active agent in all other “smaller” destructions such as floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons and forest fires. Islam even asserts that God imposes these kinds of destructions as a form of punishment to transgressors, warnings to sinners or a test for shaky believers. Many human civilizations ostensibly have been destroyed in the past to make examples of them: Noah’s tribe with a great flood, the peoples of Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone, and ancient Egypt by famine.

Destruction within Islam

But in one of the most important verses in the Koran, God deflected his responsibility to destruction and pointed to mankind: “The destruction on land and at sea is caused by the hands of man (Al-Qur’an 30:41).” There are now more than seven billion humans on earth, but about 1,400 years ago, about the time when God revealed or sent down the above Koranic verse, there were likely no more than a few hundred million humans. There were other creatures already here long before humans, and yet God singled them out as the sole agent of

destruction, way before any sign of significant destruction had taken place anywhere on land or at sea.

And God singled out the hands of those humans, from the hundreds or more organs that he gave them, even though the brain (or human mind) is more powerful. God himself often emphasizes it is the most important tool or means to understand and interpret his verses in the Koran, judging by how many end with “for those who use their minds” or “can think.” Unfortunately, although the brain is the most formidable of the organs that God gave humans, it is also the most destructive. The same technologies that the human mind has invented have made life painful and miserable too; the human mind also invented other technologies whose sole purpose is not to just kill but to destroy everything. “How strange man is!” said the famous Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. “His touch defiles and yet he contains the source of miracles.”

So, while the human mind has given man both the power to do good and the technologies to do bad or evil (depending on our point of view), why did God say human hands are the culprits of destruction? One answer is that this is not unusual. People are not always impressed with brains and what they do. “Many people would rather die than think; and that is what they do,” said the great British philosopher Bertrand Russell. Many others view brains with suspicion or don’t always admire or appreciate people who use their brains too much, and this can be seen from the constant exhortations for us not to always use our mind. People even denounce those who use their brains or do too much thinking, saying they should use other senses such as their conscience, feelings, emotions, empathy, sympathy or even “guts.”

This ambiguity toward the mind is not confined to average people, but even to highly educated and supposedly more “rational” people. They are also affected by the constant struggle between the brain (“reason”) and emotion (“passion”). This conflict in fact ran for hundreds of years in Europe and elsewhere, influencing the so-called Renaissance and creating the war of ideas that ended with the victory of “the age of reason” and the age of enlightenment, and the emergence and progress of science and technology.

The hands of destruction

Interestingly enough, God does not only consider human hands as the most destructive but also the least trustworthy, even the dirtiest. First, to pray, God tells Muslims to wash or do ablution, and to start only with the hands, and in between the same hands must be washed all the way to the elbows, even if the elbows are not known to be the source of dirt or the chance of having committed any impure or sinful acts. God’s mistrust of human hands is so complete that even if we steal, he wants our hands cut off; even if we steal millions with just the touch of one finger (like in a cybercrime), God wants our whole hand cut off too.

This is all understandable because, and in general, no one can deny that man’s hands are the troublemakers and deserve to be called the source of destruction by God. Not only has man destroyed things but he has also begun to “play God” with his genetic science, with far-reaching consequences to the concepts and practices of creation, human conception, childbirth and even death.

Conclusion

In the grammars of most languages (especially in Arabic, the language of the Koran), words very often have two meanings: the true or “literal meaning,” and the metaphorical or “figurative meaning.” We can therefore guess or interpret God’s intention that the “hand” in the Koranic verse above should be taken figuratively. So God may have meant man as a whole is the source of destruction on earth.

But because man can never really know God’s real intentions, we can only guess at the real meaning of the word “hands” or the role of human hands in destruction. So God may have also intended to blame the human race or mankind as a whole, as indeed all of God’s predictions on their destructive tendencies are evident today: the oceans, rivers and lakes are polluted because of human mischief; forests are depleted; animals have become extinct; and even the weather is changing.

In fact, according to some scientists, all nine ways humanity could bring about its own destruction – nuclear Armageddon; global ecophagy; destruction by nanorobots; artificial intelligence; robopocalypse; artificial superintelligence; a particle accelerator accident; anthropogenic global warming ; and World War III – track back to human hands. In that context, God’s statement in the Koranic verse above is not surprising at all, but a sign that God can see from afar the effects of human hands on earth. Indeed, the Koranic verse above may not have been a condemnation of man or his hands, or an indication that God had put man’s fate on the inevitable road to destruction. Instead, it could be a sign of his disappointment, as humans were made as the best of all his creatures (Al–Qur’an, 95:4).

Man being man, or humans being humans, however, they bought the Koranic verdict chapter and verse and proceeded to do what was thought to be God’s bidding through self-fulfilling prophecy. As such, the destruction taking place in the Muslim world today may not be because it is Islamic, but due to humans’ misreading of their own fate, converting what was essentially a divine warning into a fateful destiny through a superficial reading and reckless acts of collective self-deception and arrogance.

 



"Ziad Salim is a retired Canadian academic and a former project officer at the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah."

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