“Humanity had been a single community…” – Did Religious Beliefs Evolve Over Time?

Shaykh Ali Muhammad al-Salabi

Allah says: “Humanity had been a single community, and Allah sent (unto them) Prophets as bearers of good tidings and as warners, and revealed therewith the Scripture with the truth that it might judge between people concerning that wherein they differed. And only those unto whom (the Scripture) was given differed concerning it, after clear proofs had come unto them, through hatred one of another. And Allah by His will guided those who believed unto the truth of that concerning which they differed. Allah guides whom He will unto a straight path.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 213]

Many Western researchers maintain that human beings did not come to know the religious creeds they know today all at once, but rather that their religious beliefs evolved and developed over a stretch of many millennia. It is not surprising that people would come to this conclusion who do not have at their disposal revelation from Allah that expounds for them the history of religious thought in clear and unambiguous terms.

What is surprising is to see these ideas being advocated by people who consider themselves – and are recognized by others – as Muslim researchers. Among them is `Abbâs Mahmûd al`Aqqâd, the author of a book entitled Allah, which explores the origins of religious belief. He holds that the religious beliefs of people progressed in accordance with the advancement of their scientific knowledge.

He writes: “The earliest beliefs of the people were in conformity with their way of life, as was their scientific knowledge and their level of technology. The earliest scientific understandings of people and their earliest artifacts were no more advanced than their earliest religious beliefs and practices. Neither were they more accurate.”

Indeed, he considers their religious evolution to be more difficult than their scientific advancement. He writes: “It makes sense that human attempts with religion would be more arduous and protracted than their attempts made in the path of science and technology. This is because the nature of existence in the absolute sense is far more difficult and remote a subject than the investigation of specific problems of the physical world which science resolves on some occasions and technological progress resolves on others.”

Likewise, he argues that the concept of God did not come to people all at once: “If we look to the origins of religions in the earliest days of paganism, we do not find an absence of religion, nor that they were seeking something impossible. It simply shows us that the comprehension of the greatest of all realities is something that cannot take place within a single historical era.”

He then goes on to present the opinions of various researchers regarding the origins of religious belief. Among those researchers are those who argue that the reason religious beliefs came about was on account of people’s weakness before the forces of nature. Other researchers focus on totems, arguing that some tribes would take an animal as a totem, claiming that it the father of their tribe. Others might take a tree or a rock and treat it as something sacred.

Unfortunately, these and many other theories proposed by researchers in the West have been circulated by other Muslim writers like Mustafâ Mahmûd and have been embraced by a number of Muslims studying in this field. They have fallen into error for various reasons:

1. They assume that people were guided to religious belief on their own without someone to guide them and teach them. Anyone who holds this assumption is forced to draw the conclusion that people’s concept of Allah developed in the same way that their scientific and technical knowledge developed.

2. When they researched into early religions, they found only those deviant and corrupted faiths and made those religions their focus of study. How could they arrive at the truth when all they were looking at were essentially examples of deviations from the true religion.

The Qur’ân is the Only Source that Accurately Explains the Origins of Religious Belief

There is no book on Earth that accurately describes the origins of religion besides Allah’s Book. The Qur’an provides us with an abundance of information on the topic.

There are many reasons why we cannot hope to acquire accurate knowledge on this matter from any other source.

1. We know little about human history more than five thousand years ago. We know far less about what took place when we go back ten thousand years. Going back even further, our historical knowledge quickly drops to nothing. Therefore most of the information about the origin of religions is lost to us.

2. The facts that people have inherited from the past have been mixed with a lot of falsehood, submerged in oceans of forgery, additions, and alterations. We can see this clearly in that attempting to write a wholly accurate historical account of a person or a group of people of our present times is one of the most difficult of tasks. How much more difficult is it to try and deal with a topic that stretches back to the dawn of human history?

3. An important aspect of the history of religious belief is not of Earthly origin. Its domain is with Allah. Therefore, the one who can give us an accurate account of this history without any doubt is Allah.

“Nothing on Earth or in the heavens is hidden from Allah.” [Surah Âl `Imrân: 5]

The Qur’âns Account:

Allah teaches us that He created Adam as an independent and complete creation and then breathed in him of his spirit and made him to live in Paradise. Allah permitted him and his wife to eat of whatever they like except the fruit of one tree. Then Satan, their avowed enemy deceived them and convinced them to eat from that tree. In obeying their enemy, they disobeyed their Lord. Allah sent them out Paradise to the Earth. Before doing so, Allah promised them that he would send down to Adam and to his progeny guidance from Himself, so that they would know their Lord, know the Law, and know what is expected of them.

Allah also promised that those on Earth who respond favorably to His guidance will be guided and will attain everlasting felicity in the Hereafter. Likewise, he forewarned those who would be haughty and disobey that theirs would be wretchedness on Earth and disgrace in the Hereafter.

Allah says: “We said: Go forth from this (state) all; so surely there will come to you a guidance from Me, then whoever follows My guidance, no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve. And (as to) those who disbelieve in and reject My communications, they are the inmates of the fire, in it they shall abide.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 38-39]

Allah also says: “He said: Go down hence, both of you, one of you a foe unto the other. But when there come unto you from Me a guidance, then whoever follows My guidance, he will not go astray nor come to grief. But he who turns away from remembrance of Me, his will be a narrow life, and I shall bring him blind to the assembly on the Day of Resurrection. He will say: My Lord! Why have You gathered me (hither) blind, when I had sight? He will say: So (it must be). Our revelations came unto you but you did forget them. In like manner you are forgotten this Day.” [Sûrah TâHâ: 123-126]

The First Generations Were upon Monotheism

After Adam and Eve came to the Earth, they and their progeny were upon pure monotheism.

Allah says: “Humanity had been a single community, and Allah sent (unto them) Prophets as bearers of good tidings and as warners, and revealed therewith the Scripture with the truth that it might judge between people concerning that wherein they differed.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 123]

When Allah says that humanity “had been a single community”, He is referring to a community of faith. All people were upon monotheism and the religion of truth.

Abû Umâmah relates that once, a man asked Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and asked him: “Had Adam been a Prophet?”

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) answered: “Yes.”

The man asked: “How much time passed between him and Noah?”

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) replied: “Ten centuries”

[Sahîh Ibn Hibbân (6190). Mu`jam al-Tabarânî al-Kabîr (8/188-119 #7545). Mustadrak al-Hâkim (3093). Al-Hâkim says: “This hadîth is authentic according to the conditions set forth by Muslim.” Sheikh Muhammad Asad al-Dârânî says: “Its chain of transmission is authentic.” – marginal notes to Sahîh Ibn Hibbân (14/69)]

Ibn `Abbâs said: “between Adam and Noah were then centuries, all of which were upon Islam.” [Tafsîr al-Tabarî (2/335-336)]

If we assume that the century being referred to here is one hundred years, then we are dealing with at least 1000 years. It might even have been longer, since Ibn `Abbâs specifies the meaning to be ten centuries “upon Islam”. There might have been more centuries wherein deviation had occurred.

It is also possible that the Arabic word qarn that means “century” is being used here in this hadîth to mean “generation”. The word appears with this meaning in the Qur’ân.
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