Islam and the concept of destruction
July-September 2017
By: Ziad Salim

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.

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