Individualism & Collectivism
By Muhammad Burdbar Khan
March 01, 2013
IN the last 100 years, the world has seen a unique struggle between the two ideologies of capitalism and communism. Only a generation ago hardly anyone could think that this struggle would vanish within a decade.
Yet this is what has happened. It is widely believed that capitalism and communism abided by beliefs in individualism and collectivism, respectively. Furthermore, these two systems also represented the excesses inherent in these opposite creeds. Also, both were secular in nature and distanced themselves from any religious beliefs.
During the middle and later part of the second millennium, in the struggle between religion and the state in Western societies, everything religious came to be associated with dogma and persecution by the very nature of religious aristocracy and its high-handedness in that part of the world. However, the close relationship of religion with the state did not prevent Muslim societies from flourishing during the very time when Western civilisation was supposed to be in the “dark ages”.
In sharp contrast to what we find in these systems, Islam presents a fine balance between individualism and collectivism.
In the Islamic concept of the universe, man has been appointed a vicegerent (Khalifa) on this earth by God and everything has been given to him in trust (Amanah). As part of society, he has to perform his duties while being conscious of that trust.
As the Holy Prophet (PBUH) said: “Each of you is a keeper or a shepherd and will be questioned about the well-being of his fold” (Bukhari and Muslim).
The dynamics of earlier Islamic scholarship do not place any barrier between the religious and the secular. Moreover, there is an emphasis on education that not only leads to individual progress but also helps in developing a civilised society.
From an Islamic perspective, there are three concepts we need to consider for an individual and his development: tarbiya, tadib and taalim relating to individual development, understanding of society along with the inculcation of right social behaviour, and the right process of learning and knowledge transmission, respectively.
Islam endeavours to maintain a balance between an individual and society. It believes in the freedom of a man and holds everyone personally responsible and accountable to God. We find verses in the Quran pointing to this.
Islam aims to promote such individual freedom that is geared towards the betterment of society and harmony in the community. Islam does not approve of an economic and political system that suppresses the individual identity for the benefit of the community, as it happens in the communist social system.
Nor, on the contrary, does it favour a system of unbridled economic and social freedom, as in the present Western capitalist systems, which give individuals carte blanche to achieve their objectives at the expense of the larger community.
By following the middle path, Islam calls upon individuals to accept certain restrictions in the interest of society before they are left free to regulate their own affairs.
As the Prophet said: “Live together, do not turn against each other, make things easy for others and do not put obstacles in each other’s way” (Ahmad).
Islam has wisely proposed certain duties for individuals towards society after safeguarding their individual rights. Furthermore, while catering to the rights of the individual, Islam asks individuals, in turn, to work in the service of the community. In this regard, individuals have to think about others and cannot live in luxury in an Islamic society when there are others who live in penury and want. The Prophet once said: “He is not a believer who takes his fill while his neighbour starves” (Bukhari).
Nor can a true Muslim flourish at the expense of others or by exploitation as is the norm these days. Again there is a Hadith in which the Prophet said: “A Muslim is one from whose tongue and hands the Muslims are safe” (Bukhari and Muslim).
The concept of individualism and collectivism is also finely displayed in the five pillars or obligations of Islam — declaration of faith, prayers, fasting, Zakat and Haj. By removing social hierarchies and barriers, these five duties show the obligations and duties of Muslims.
Besides, these emphasise the rights and relationships of individuals while encouraging the spiritual, moral and social development of individuals and the community at the same time. The five daily prayers remind the believer of his place on this earth vis-à-vis his relationship to God. Mandatory fasting not only inculcates habits of patience in humans but also makes them aware of feelings of hunger and thirst felt by the poor, thus creating a feeling of social empathy.
Similarly, the concept of Zakat requires that Muslims make mandatory deductions from their wealth for redistribution among the poor thus leading to social welfare. As stated in the Quran: “In their wealth the beggar and the destitute have their due right” (51:19).
Haj is a microcosm of how humanity ought to live in this world. During Haj, millions of Muslims assemble around the Kaaba in Makkah from all corners of the world where they spend prescribed days praying to God and living in complete harmony with others without any consideration of gender, race, class, status, etc.
The intended result through all these five duties remains individual and societal development. Islam, thus, always endeavours to maintain this fine balance between individuality and collectiveness.
Muhammad Burdbar Khan is member of the adjunct faculty at Stirling Management School, University of Stirling, Scotland