Man as a Social Animal

January 4, 2023

Bilal Muhammad is a Fellow and Research Assistant at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He is also an MA Candidate at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, B.Ed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and Honors BA in Political Science and History at the University of Toronto. He is an educator and researcher based in Toronto, Canada.

Modern science has shown that some species of organisms have a high degree of sociality. Individuals in these animal populations express complex behaviours, and they tend to associate in social groups and form cooperative societies. Examples include packs of wolves and schools of fish, which cooperate to perform many tasks. Ants and bees similarly form tight-knit colonies with divisions of labour and cooperative care for younglings. The Darwinian thesis is that sociality is developed as a response to evolutionary pressures.

In the Quran it says, “And there is no creature on the earth or bird that flies with its wings except that they are communities like you (umamun amthalukum). We have not neglected in the Register a thing. Then unto their Lord they will be gathered.” (6:38)

Hence, our nation (umma) is reflected in the nations of creatures around us, where we may find similitudes for our own lives. The Quran famously draws lessons from bees, ants, livestock, and spiders; the Arabic language is full of words that relate to camels; and a considerable emphasis on animal welfare is found in the hadith literature. King Solomon has a conversation with his hoopoe (27:20-25). The hadiths also often attribute prayer, supplication, and other quasi-verbal forms of communication to organisms and inanimate objects. The Islamic worldview is almost panpsychist, implying that everything around us is alive, conscious, and sentient. For example, in one tradition, the Sun prostrates beneath the Throne, asking God for permission to rise every morning. In another, a date palm wept from missing the company of the Prophet. In one hadith, a camel complained to the Prophet (s) about the harshness of its owner.[1] The Earth complains, the birds supplicate, even the limbs speak on the Day of Resurrection – the examples are endless.

The scientific community offers different definitions of life, but it generally divides the universe between biotic and abiotic elements. This implies that, in the universe, there are living things and non-living things. Among the living things, some are sentient, and some are not. The universe, however, appears largely to be empirically cold, empty, barren, and desolate. What becomes clear is that, in an Islamic worldview, the universe is teeming with signs of life that cannot always be observed. This may be due to the limitations of our senses; it is as though everything around us has its own spirit that is in constant worship. Some interpret this to be metaphorical – that the objects worship because they submit to the laws under which they were created (physics) – but the sources give these objects a conscience and even means of communication.

That said, it would be foolish to suggest that human sociality is not an anomaly. It is not hubris to say that our verbal and non-verbal communication abilities are superior to all other species on Earth. After all, no other species developed languages, literature, or code. The origin of human speech and writing is still a mystery to experts. Chomsky’s Single Step Theory suggests that a single random mutation in the human brain endowed man with complex thought and language between 60,000 and 200,000 years ago. Natural selection then favoured the speaking humans from their predecessors. According to Yuval Noah Harari, language aided these humans in organizing themselves into much larger groups with collective identities and mythos.[2] The strength in numbers and cooperation allowed these humans to outlive and overpower other groups. Other scientists dispute these claims in favour of further speculation.

The Quran highlights human communication in several instances: Adam is taught all the names (2:31), mankind is taught by the pen (97:3), and mankind is taught elucidating speech (55:4). One of the functions of Friday prayer is to gather people (hence the word Jum`a). The reason why God created different peoples and tribes, despite their racial equality and their common descent from a single pair, is so that we may understand one another (49:13) – perhaps both as a test and a source of mutual appreciation. Even Paradise has a social element, with people sitting on seats facing one another (15:47), houris, and servants.

The Islamic hierarchy is a hierarchy of knowledge and morals (39:9). What is often neglected from these discussions, however, is prowess. When Talut (Saul) was made king, it was not received well by the Jews. Talut was neither from the kingly line nor the priestly line. He was from the descendants of Benjamin, and his family was the poorest among the Children of Israel. The Israelites despised him and didn’t bring any gifts to him (1 Samuel 9-10). In the Quran, God responds by saying that (1) Talut was selected by divine mandate, (2) God gave him superiority in knowledge, and (3) He gave him superiority in prowess. (2:247) It is the same with the Prophet Muhammad (s): the Quraysh were unimpressed with his lack of wealth, and the Jews were unimpressed with his lineage. But intelligence and strength are more intrinsic to a man, while wealth and lineage are more accidental. The former qualities also make for a good leader, while the latter qualities matter less.

Anthropologists and biologists have different hypotheses on the development of human hierarchy. Humans have always lived in groups, where they are more likely to survive and reproduce. Groups cooperated by delegating tasks and meeting collective and individual needs. If a member of the group needed to be punished, they were usually exiled, where they were less likely to survive and reproduce on their own. Brutal, public force was also used to keep the rest of the group in line. A very general rule, with many noteworthy exceptions, is that the greater the sexual dimorphism is in a species, the more likely the species has a prominent hierarchy. The physical differences between the sexes – namely, in their size and strength – gave a preference to males. Once humans developed coercive weapons, men became the primary hunters and warriors, and the best warrior in the group generally rose to the top. The more fit and stronger the warrior, the more likely he would survive longer; the longer he survived, the more life experience he had. Most civilizations, after all, respected their elders – not always because the elder was physically strong, and not always because the elder was weak and in need of help – but because elders were known for their experience, patience, and wisdom. After all, shaykh literally means “elder”, and it is no coincidence that Jung’s archetype of the sage was called the wise old man.

Mosaics of Alexander the Great and marble statues of Caesar depict these two leaders as elite warriors brandishing coercive weapons in order to appeal to the self-interest of himself and his fellow warriors. Rome had the coliseum, and Ancient Meso-Americans like the Incas and Aztecs had graphic public beheadings and executions. Both Plato’s academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum had gymnasiums because both thinkers viewed sport as a key component of education. Jahiliyya and the early days of Islam were fraught with battles where men would prove their mettle. Wrestling, archery, racing, and horseback riding are all part of the prophetic Sunna – all of which have a competitive component that creates hierarchies of prowess.

Outside of governance, these power manifestations – although brutal at times – serve to keep men productive. Men must consistently demonstrate their usefulness both in their specialized disciplines and at large. After all, since men generally desire women, and since women are generally hypergamous, men must seek the kind of power that does not compromise the group. That power cannot just be brute force because humans are social animals, and brawn is only one form of social merit. Likewise, women must compete with one another in merit to attract a useful man. A 2020 cross-cultural study of status-affecting characteristics found that the traits most important in men include honesty, intelligence, leadership, creativity, good articulation, resources, kindness, bravery, and industriousness.[3] The same study found that the traits most important in women include attractiveness (which is usually an indicator to a woman’s fertility, general health, and youth), domestic skills (cooking, parenting, and cleanliness), fidelity, and chastity. Women’s status rises when they attract high-status men.

While individuals make choices that move them up and down social hierarchies, there is also a level of providence that can endow men or women with distinct advantages or disadvantages. Some are simply predisposed to a higher IQ, trait openness, extroversion, inherited wealth, beauty, and an ability to handle a high degree of stress. God gives power and wealth to some as a test, and He gives weakness and poverty to some as a test. The rich must endure the envy of the poor and the temptations of wealth. The poor believers once came to the Prophet (s) and complained that the wealthy believers had more opportunities to do good works than them. So, the Prophet (s) gave them the Tasbih Fatima so that they could recite it after their prayers to gain additional good deeds. Soon thereafter, the wealthy believers learned this Tasbih, and they began reciting it as well. The poor came back to the Prophet with this, to which he said, “That is the grace of God: He bestows it upon whomever He wills.” (62:4).

The Prophet Muhammad (s) had all the aforementioned cross-cultural status-affecting characteristics: his people knew him to be truthful, he would speak to people at their level of intellect,[4] [5] he led his religious and political community to a resolute victory in his lifetime, his words were succinct yet comprehensive (jawami` al-kalim), he bestowed mercy on all (21:107), he would fight on the front lines while warriors hid behind him,[6] and he partook in all forms of labour. Divine mandate would have been sufficient in establishing his authority, but God further demonstrated his superiority in every arena of life.

What’s relevant to our study is that the aforementioned characteristics are not limited to primitive might. Human dominance hierarchies are not purely (or even primarily) violent. Honesty is a commitment to what is rational, factual, and real, regardless of where the chips may fall. Intelligence is one’s grasp on reality. Eloquence is a manifestation of an orderly mind, a confident and relaxed demeanor, and the ability to listen to and understand one’s audience. Success is, in part, a product of perseverance and diligence. Mercy is the basis of family, friendship, and society at large. Like some species, inclusive fitness in humans requires us to take care of our kin if we would like to see individual and collective success. God did not make us a species that was limited to mischief and the shedding of blood (2:30) – He made a hierarchy that was subservient to objectivity, merit, and providence.

Truth is not subservient to power. There were prophets who were overcome by their community, and there were false prophets that seized power through their lies. The veracity of Islam and the right of an authority are not determined by a series of political victories, but by a commitment to truth, morality, and competence. Even in the scenario where evil reigns, falsehood is inherently self-defeating (17:81) and cannot stand the test of time. It perishes because it violates every characteristic that humans innately value. Man is, after all, a social animal, and no social animal will tolerate an antisocial beast for long.

[1] Sunan Abu Dawud, Volume 3, Page 233, Hadith 2549

[2] Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, pp. 26-27.


[4] Ghazali, Ihya’ `Ulum al-Din, Volume 1, Page 144

[5] Al-Kafi, Volume 1, Page 23, Hadith 15

[6] Musnad Ahmad b. Hanbal, Volume 1, Page 172

Published Date: January 4, 2023
Category: Social Commentary

Bilal Muhammad

Bilal Muhammad is a Fellow and Research Assistant at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He is also an MA Candidate at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, B.Ed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and Honors BA in Political Science and History at the University of Toronto. He is an educator and researcher based in Toronto, Canada.
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