The spread of Islam and critical social mass
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
In the sequence of creation, the word came first and then there was the creation; this word is the divine revelation. This understanding highlights one very important point: the revelation from the creation perspective of creation is timeless, whereas the creation is temporary. This means our understanding of the revelation is necessarily limited by the time and place in which we live.
Yet the revelation will always be true regardless of time or place. For the temporary creation to understand the timeless revelation, a continuous process of reflecting on the revelation must always take place. This process was commanded in the Quran as a group of believers should always be engaged in seeking religious understanding and communicating it to the rest:
فَلَوْلَا نَفَرَ مِن كُلِّ فِرْقَةٍ مِّنْهُمْ طَائِفَةٌ لِّيَتَفَقَّهُوا فِي الدِّينِ وَلِيُنذِرُوا قَوْمَهُمْ إِذَا رَجَعُوا إِلَيْهِمْ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَحْذَرُونَ
There should separate from every division of them a group remaining to obtain understanding in the religion and to warn their people when they return to them that they might take care.
Surat at-Tawbah 9:122
As Allah mentions in the verse, those insights need to be communicated to people so they can be careful as they engage in this life. The question here is how do we communicate such information and knowledge? Or in other words, how do ideas spread?
In reality, new understandings or knowledge are useless until they are used and applied by people. This process is best illustrated through four junctions of human history at which the word of monotheism was about to be lost. Those junctions start with Adam, Noah, Ibrahim, and then the family of Imran, Zechariah, John, Jesus, and Mary, peace be upon them:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ اصْطَفَىٰ آدَمَ وَنُوحًا وَآلَ إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَآلَ عِمْرَانَ عَلَى الْعَالَمِينَ
Verily, Allah chose Adam and Noah and the family of Abraham and the family of Imran about the worlds.
Surat Ali Imran 3:33
At each stage the word was revived by Prophets that Allah sent for that purpose, but the word would also be threatened by their decedents over time. This phenomenon occurs because Allah is the only one who does not change, thus variation, regression, and renewal is an inevitable signature of the creation. Even the strongest of believers cannot be sure their own family members will follow the straight path.
The question now is why did Allah highlight those four junctions as means of preserving the word?
Starting with Adam, regression in his decedents started immediately:
وَاتْلُ عَلَيْهِمْ نَبَأَ ابْنَيْ آدَمَ بِالْحَقِّ إِذْ قَرَّبَا قُرْبَانًا فَتُقُبِّلَ مِنْ أَحَدِهِمَا وَلَمْ يُتَقَبَّلْ مِنَ الْآخَرِ قَالَ لَأَقْتُلَنَّكَ ۖ قَالَ إِنَّمَا يَتَقَبَّلُ اللَّهُ مِنَ الْمُتَّقِينَ
Recite to them the story of Adam’s two sons in truth, when they both offered a sacrifice and it was accepted from one of them but not from the other. Cain said: I will surely kill you. Abel said: Verily, Allah only accepts from the righteous.
Surat al-Ma’idah 5:27
Hence, two camps emerged: those who have faith in the word and those who do not. The existence of both groups is as a natural variation is inevitable in the creation.
As time progressed, the camp of believers was shrinking and true knowledge was being lost for lack of methods of documentation. Here, Allah sends Noah to revive the true word. The struggle continues until the balance was tipped in favor of those who do not have faith, as Noah could not even get the support of members of his household, including his son and wife. Here, Allah declares that the trend is irreversible:
وَأُوحِيَ إِلَىٰ نُوحٍ أَنَّهُ لَن يُؤْمِنَ مِن قَوْمِكَ إِلَّا مَن قَدْ آمَنَ فَلَا تَبْتَئِسْ بِمَا كَانُوا يَفْعَلُونَ
It was revealed to Noah: No one will believe from your people except those who have already believed, so do not be distressed by what they have been doing.
Surat Hud 11:36
Noah responded accordingly and was ordered to prepare for a new era in which the seed of faith would be planted again:
فَأَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْهِ أَنِ اصْنَعِ الْفُلْكَ بِأَعْيُنِنَا وَوَحْيِنَا فَإِذَا جَاءَ أَمْرُنَا وَفَارَ التَّنُّورُ ۙ فَاسْلُكْ فِيهَا مِن كُلٍّ زَوْجَيْنِ اثْنَيْنِ وَأَهْلَكَ إِلَّا مَن سَبَقَ عَلَيْهِ الْقَوْلُ مِنْهُمْ
We revealed to him: Construct the ship under Our observation and inspiration, and when Our command comes and the oven overflows, put into the ship from each creature two mates and your family, except those for whom the decree has proceeded.
Surat al-Mu’minun 23:27
The story of the flood and the rescue of the believers would be famous among the following generations. Nevertheless, the flood did not take place because of unbelief, as it has existed before Noah and does not harm Allah in any way. Rather, it happened because the balance had tipped and the trend toward unfaithfulness was irreversible without divine intervention.
Given that all of humanity was located in one place at the time, in Mesopotamia, it is most likely that the flood only happened there and not over all of earth as commonly believed. Allah knows best.
After the water receded, a group of believers spread out again and variation started to appear in their decedents again. Ibrahim was sent to revive the word of monotheism and was faced with the same resistance. The balance again tipped against him as his people attempted to burin him to put his cause to rest for good:
فَأَرَادُوا بِهِ كَيْدًا فَجَعَلْنَاهُمُ الْأَسْفَلِينَ
They devised a plot for him, but We made them the most debased.
Surat as-Saffat 37:98
However, instead of the rest of humanity being wiped out, Allah ordered Ibrahim to leave to a safer place:
وَقَالَ إِنِّي ذَاهِبٌ إِلَىٰ رَبِّي سَيَهْدِينِ
He said: I will go to my Lord and He will guide me.
Surat As-Saffat 37:99
Ibrahim moved to be with his nephew Lot where he would maintain a low profile, but Lot would be sent to another town:
فَآمَنَ لَهُ لُوطٌ ۘ وَقَالَ إِنِّي مُهَاجِرٌ إِلَىٰ رَبِّي ۖ إِنَّهُ هُوَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ
Lot believed him and said: Verily, I will emigrate to my Lord, for He is the Almighty, the Wise.
Surat al-Ankabut 29:26
By time Ibrahim appeared, human civilization extended beyond Mesopotamia, which gave Ibrahim and Lot the ability to leave, an advantage that Noah did not seem to have. But again, the balance tipped against them as Lot was unable to bring members of his family to the side of faith:
فَأَسْرِ بِأَهْلِكَ بِقِطْعٍ مِّنَ اللَّيْلِ وَلَا يَلْتَفِتْ مِنكُمْ أَحَدٌ إِلَّا امْرَأَتَكَ ۖ إِنَّهُ مُصِيبُهَا مَا أَصَابَهُمْ
Set out with your family during the night and let not any among you look back, except your wife for she will be struck by that which strikes them.
Surat Hud 11:81
Since they were at the geographical edge of civilization by then, the word was preserved by the few believers who cultivated the seed of faith. For the word to be planted again, a new generation had to emerge but some of them would return to the same pattern of regression:
قَالَ إِنِّي جَاعِلُكَ لِلنَّاسِ إِمَامًا ۖ قَالَ وَمِن ذُرِّيَّتِي ۖ قَالَ لَا يَنَالُ عَهْدِي الظَّالِمِينَ
Allah said: Verily, I will make you a leader for the people. Abraham said: And of my descendants? Allah said: My covenant does not include the wrongdoers.
Surat al-Baqarah 2:124
The descendants of Ibrahim would again follow the same trend and the balance will tip against faith. After several generations and many subsequent Prophets, Zechariah would lament that there was no longer anyone to inherit the wisdom of divine revelation:
وَإِنِّي خِفْتُ الْمَوَالِيَ مِن وَرَائِي وَكَانَتِ امْرَأَتِي عَاقِرًا فَهَبْ لِي مِن لَّدُنكَ وَلِيًّا يَرِثُنِي وَيَرِثُ مِنْ آلِ يَعْقُوبَ ۖ وَاجْعَلْهُ رَبِّ رَضِيًّا
Verily, I fear the successors after me and my wife has been barren, so give me from Yourself an heir who will inherit me and inherit from the family of Jacob, and make him pleasing to You, my Lord.
Surat Maryam 19:5-6
Allah responded to Zechariah’s prayer by giving him a son, but who would not have children after him:
يُبَشِّرُكَ بِيَحْيَىٰ مُصَدِّقًا بِكَلِمَةٍ مِّنَ اللَّهِ وَسَيِّدًا وَحَصُورًا وَنَبِيًّا مِّنَ الصَّالِحِينَ
Allah gives you glad tidings of John, confirming a word from Allah and who will be honorable, chaste, and a prophet from among the righteous.
Surat Ali Imran 3:39
That John would not have children signifies a shift in preserving the word from the oral tradition to the new medium of the written, unalterable word. Jesus would serve as a transitional step towards the final written revelation to be delivered to all of humanity.
For all this, the question before us now is how the true understanding of the Quran can be renewed and new insights discovered.
The tipping point
As we can see in the four prophetic junctions of history, the irreversible trend towards unbelief occurred when there were not enough believers to uphold the faith. Their limited number also means their skill set was limited. A prophet by himself cannot promote the idea of monotheism without the help of diversely skilled companions. A threshold amount of committed believers is needed to achieve a social critical mass that can grow as a religious movement. In each case in which Allah intervened, that critical mass diminished to the point it was nearly wiped out.
In his famous book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell investigated the spread of ideas, fashion, crime, revolutions, and diseases. He observed a systematic pattern in which the process of spreading is the same wherever it appears and is mainly dependent on three types of people: connectors (socially active people), mavens (experts who develop ideas), and salespeople (people with the power of delivery).
The process of spreading an idea depends on the quality of these three categories of people involved. He notes that “in a given process or system some people matter more than others,” (p.19) and further explains that “the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” (p.33)
Within this context, we can understand one reason why Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, asked Allah to guide Umar ibn Al-Khattab or Abu Jahl, both of whom were his enemies at the time:
اللَّهُمَّ أَعِزَّ الْإِسْلَامَ بِأَحَبِّ هَذَيْنِ الرَّجُلَيْنِ إِلَيْكَ بِأَبِي جَهْلٍ أَوْ بِعُمَرَ بْنِ الْخَطَّابِ
O Allah, strengthen Islam with one of two men whom you love more: Abu Jahl or Umar ibn Al-Khattab.
The strength and skills that both men possessed were what Prophet Muhammad needed to complete his prophetic mission. Indeed, the support of Umar tipped the balance in favor of the believers enormously and Islam spread far through him and his example.
Since regression is a natural and inevitable force, Muslims are not exempt from it. Muslims will be subjected to this natural law the same as other nations. The rise of violent extremism is a symptom of this breakdown, as it represents an outright denial of the core values of monotheism.
In fact, the Prophet understood this well and he foretold us that the message would be distorted by conflicts:
فَإِنَّهُ مَنْ يَعِشْ مِنْكُمْ يَرَى اخْتِلَافًا كَثِيرًا وَإِيَّاكُمْ وَمُحْدَثَاتِ الْأُمُورِ فَإِنَّهَا ضَلَالَةٌ فَمَنْ أَدْرَكَ ذَلِكَ مِنْكُمْ فَعَلَيْهِ بِسُنَّتِي وَسُنَّةِ الْخُلَفَاءِ الرَّاشِدِينَ الْمَهْدِيِّينَ عَضُّوا عَلَيْهَا بِالنَّوَاجِذِ
Whoever lives among you will see many disputes, so beware of newly invented matters for they are misguidance. Whoever sees them must adhere to my tradition and the tradition of the upright, guided successors. Bite onto it with your back teeth.
At the same time, Prophet Muhammad acknowledged the process in which new understandings of the message would emerge and a group of believers would be engaged in promoting them:
مَنْ سَنَّ فِي الْإِسْلَامِ سُنَّةً حَسَنَةً كَانَ لَهُ أَجْرُهَا وَأَجْرُ مَنْ عَمِلَ بِهَا مِنْ بَعْدِهِ مِنْ غَيْرِ أَنْ يُنْتَقَصَ مِنْ أُجُورِهِمْ شَيْءٌ
Whoever institutes a good practice in Islam will have its reward and the reward of whoever acts upon it without detracting from their rewards in the slightest.
The process follows the pattern that Allah embedded within creation: variation, regression, and renewal. By seeking a critical social mass with a diversified set of skills and talents, we can move towards renewing divine values and protecting our communities from the destructive force of entropy.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.