Most contemporary Arab and Islamic societies have been living in a state of instability since political institutions began to form in the twentieth century. This instability began to intensify after the first half of the twentieth century so that it now constitutes a threat to social and political entities.


TWO DISTINCT PERIODS govern the present in Arab and Islamic societies and these, taken generally, are: the period of cultural interruption extending close on ten centuries, and the period of initial opening up to contemporary human civilization – extending to almost a century and beginning after the First World War. In this sense the First World War constitutes the dividing line between the two eras in the contemporary history of these societies.

During the first period the intellectual stagnation and its accompanying cultural inactivity had a major impact on fostering a type of negative social stability. For over the centuries a closed and stagnant societal culture had taken shape, one that was very far removed from the modern culture characterized by dynamism and humanitarian trends.

The second period is one where there was an attempt to catch up with modern civilization, and this represents a phase of aspiration. This aspiration phase is a stage of positive stability, one that these communities might well wish to achieve. But an effort such as this cannot provide them with the elements necessary for construction. Some material potential might here and there be available to them, but the social and intellectual capacities and pre-requisites are entirely absent. For this kind of social stability depends primarily on an accumulated cultural edifice. One of the most important concepts in this edifice is that the foundation ground should be solid enough to support the considerable weight of the building, and just as the building increases in height so the need for greater solidity and depth correspondingly increases. The construction process is not one merely of laying the foundations but rather demands that continuity and care be taken in its preservation and development. The foundation for the edifice here is social culture. In any case, the social culture gap between the two levels is very wide.

And here we find that the present period finds itself located between two contradictory levels of social stability. The first level was pre-World War I and was characterized by stagnation and social inactivity. The second level saw access to modern and contemporary identity and the elaboration of a new structure. This phase was a virtual phase, one whose forms varied according to the conception of the social ideology that sought to design them. The phase intervening between the two levels is the transition period which these societies are now experiencing. It is a period of transition between two phases that are entirely unlike each other and chronologically far removed.

Building a stable contemporary society is not just a matter of modern cities and luxury cars

During this transitional period social culture becomes stressed and unstable. It is a period characterized by social turmoil and great instability as a result of the wide time gap between the two levels. It is a period marked by intense conflict between a past that has been deeply-rooted socially for centuries, and a modernity with all of its demands. It is a stage of seeking for a modern and constructive identity, a phase of moral, intellectual and political turmoil. And, as with any search operation, it evinces instability as it attempts to attain this identity and is forced to undergo numerous changes and adjustments. But on the societal level it goes hand in hand, unfortunately, with blood, victims and the demolition of what went before, even if the construction of the structure is finally achieved.

The first to employ the term ‘social physics’ was the French philosopher Auguste Comte,[1] in whose writings scientific reasoning (physics) came to be applied to social studies. In any case fluids (liquids and gases) are characterized physically by the property of instability. In the second half of the last century the plasma physicist David Bohm put forward an idea for the similarity of plasma (ionized gas) to human society.[2] Within this frame I developed my own views on a societal model constructed upon the mechanics of plasma.[3] Some researchers in the field of ​​society and politics have found in the model that I have proposed the possibility of interpreting some social phenomena, while others have seen in this model a kind of holism. In light of this model one can say that the efforts and energies of these societies have for too long now been held in chains, akin to the force of water held back behind the walls of a high dam. In such a state the water is held in check in a dormant, stable condition, but the moment the dam collapses a state of upheaval and instability will follow, with a period of turmoil persisting throughout the ensuing transitional period. This will be followed in turn by a period of quiescence, calmness and renewed stability.

Modernity requires a societal preparation capable of creating a society with a contemporary culture

The transitional period is one where pent-up forces become dissipated and, on the societal level, whenever thought has been held in check for centuries and exercised only within the confines of a limited and restricted paradigm, a stagnant social culture takes shape, one that is inflexible and resistant to modernisation. A hard, difficult period of transition may therefore be expected.

Several schools of thought have dealt with the development of society and social culture, and I personally lean towards the school of August Comte. Comte distinguished three phases to the evolution of human thought and society[4] with the Metaphysical Stage constituting the second phase. But the third and final evolutionary stage is the scientific Positive Stage. As a result of rapid global developments and their social effects, I have assumed the existence of a fourth stage, a Technology Stage[5] that follows on from the Scientific Stage. In the light of this yardstick there is a significant chronological gap between the Metaphysical and Technological Stages. The prevailing social culture in these Arab Islamic societies harks back as a whole to the Metaphysical Stage while the urge towards modernisation and contemporaneity is directed towards the Technology Stage.

In these societies generally there are two kinds of cultural difference. There is a patent and highly pronounced cultural divide between the city with its values, its social culture and its standard of living, and the village with its low standard of living and its deeply conservative values. There is also a clear and highly significant cultural divide between a city that seeks to bring itself up to date with everything, and cities in developed states that undergo cultural evolution smoothly and free of artificiality. These differences are responsible for the great transition (or migration) from low to high, or the migration from the village to the town, or the migration from the city towards the West.

With the addition of the stability factor the process of transition takes on another, more accelerated form. In this form these societies basically demonstrate levels of effort that may be intensive but are not programmed towards construction and development due to chronic cultural disruption and the social impact of culture. As a consequence, the potential investment of this effort in constructing a civilization, if it is carried out directly and without the requisite preparations or social qualification, will be a troubled and inefficient investment. This is what we see represented in the frequent cycles of construction and demolition (coups, revolutions and wars, reorganization operations and the disruption of values) and the absence of any accumulation that could lead to ongoing development and construction at an accelerated pace. And this is in addition to the efforts made by ideologised agents to divert the energies of the young toward activities far removed from the physical building up of their society, if not actively targeted against it!

Building a stable contemporary society is not just a matter of modern cities and luxury cars or the employment of technology and suchlike. All of these modern phenomena are products of developed societies and a sophisticated social culture whose experience has accumulated over time. There is no doubt that modernity requires society to be pre-prepared in such a way as to enable it to create a community with a contemporary culture and one that is capable of importing new systems and adapting them to its own conditions, one that can sustain them and invest time in overcoming the huge gap that that community is attempting to bridge. For it is contemporary social culture that is alone able to bring about a positive and effective era of stability.

[1] A. Comte (1853), The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, Trans. Harriet Martineau; Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd. London (1893), vol. I, p. 6.

[2] M. Wilkins (1986), Oral history interviews with David Bohm, 16 tapes, undated transcript (AIP and Birkbeck college Library, London), 253-254.

[3] M. I. Sanduk (2009), Does Society Exhibit Same Behaviour of Plasma Fluid?, PhilPapers.

[4] A. Comte, op. cit., pp 1-2.

[5] Sanduk M., Is the Technology a New Way of Thinking?, The Journal of Technology Studies, Volume XXXVIII, Number 2,  2012.

Main image: ‘The foundation ground should be solid enough to bear the weight of the building’ – a young man ponders a collapsed building in Cairo

Auguste Comte (1789-1857), pioneer of ‘social physics’