One of the schools of philosophy that occupies itself with the study of human society and development is the school of the French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857). Comte classified the development of human thought as falling into three successive phases: theological, metaphysical and scientific. Each of these intellectual phases is accompanied by a social phase, so that the phases of societal development are also three in number: the military, the legal and finally the technological phase.


COMTE’S CLASSIFICATION is not definitive in nature and it varies according to the variety of societies that exist, although for all types of human society the developmental phases remain the same.

Human society began their understanding of nature by explaining it through the action of external forces and through accounts of human personifications of these forces toying with nature and humankind. In this way the earliest stirrings of religious sentiment took shape, and which later developed into the worship of one god or a plurality of gods. Such societies were simple societies characterised by a spirit of aggression.

Following on from this theological phase was the metaphysical phase in which those personified external forces were turned into vague abstract forces. Here rationalism began clearly to manifest itself and along with it proof and logic made their appearance in the process of explaining nature. During this period society was characterised by the appearance of systematic law-making and the laying down of boundaries on logical and rational bases.

The last of Comte’s phases is the scientific phase, in which mankind discovered the methodology of logical deduction and experimental proof, at a time when logical thought on its own was no longer adequate. During this phase societies developed a technological capacity, and were able to make use of scientific discoveries.

These, in simple terms, constitute Comte’s three phases, phases which pair intellectual development with social development. Since 2003 I have developed this scheme on into four phases, the fourth being technology in step with the globalised society whose early beginnings we are now witnessing. Comte’s paradigm, it should be said, was constructed on the basis of the Western development he witnessed, and so the scientific phase was listed as his third, final phase.

If we turn back to our subject – Arab-Muslim society – we find that before the rise of Islam this was a tribal, warlike, polytheistic society of superficial culture, features characteristic of the first phase of Comte’s scheme. Following the rise of Islam and the formation of the Arab-Islamic state the pattern of thought and society began to develop in the direction of urbanisation, and Arab urban centres duly arose in Baghdad, Cairo and Muslim Spain. Quite naturally, the pattern of intellectual development tended towards the maximum employment of rationalism as befits the metaphysical phase.

Intellectual setbacks in the 10th century led to a halt in societal and intellectual growth

Various rational intellectual schools began to make their appearance in step with this historical phase. The intellectual handling of the holy Text appeared as a developmental necessity and as one stage in society’s intellectual development. In other words, it was not an intellectual luxury or a departure from the familiar. This intellectual development marched in step with a scientific resurgence that was in harmony with its age and related to this chronological period of development in the direction of rationalism. Islamic societies were thus fully prepared to witness their development in a natural context.

But the situation did not continue its natural development in that intellectual setbacks setting in about the 10th century AD led to a halt in societal and intellectual growth, and consequently in the development of society itself. There had been a natural opportunity opened up for cultural and intellectual development towards scientific thought, in that the scholars of Arab-Islamic culture had laid down at the time early foundations for scientific thought only for these to be strangled at birth and their seeds subsequently transferred to the West. Intellectual and civilisational development in the West subsequently took its natural course and ushered in the scientific intellectual phase (logical objectivity), which in turn led to the strengthening of the scientific enterprise in all corners of life.

After the end of the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman state the final phase of the Arab-Islamic intellectual closure and cultural regression came to an end. But this did not place these peoples in the mainstream current since they had not yet been primed to live with and handle the requirements of the 20th century, be these scientific or social or political. When these societies entered the 20th century human culture had already made very great strides in all the various aspects of life.

No one grasped the depths of the tragedy lived by Arab-Muslim societies

There had been developments in scientific achievement and scientific institutions, in political thought and political institutions, in social awareness and social institutions in harmony with the nature of society. No one at the time grasped the depths of the tragedy being lived by these Arab-Muslim societies that had been closed off from the world for centuries and were still prisoners to time. The Islamic mindset that had become established after the intellectual collapse of the 10th century was a solidified, ideologized mindset, one that shackled thought and prevented it from passing beyond the red lines set down by Islamic thinkers. It was a mindset that had nothing to do with religion since these red lines only made their appearance centuries after the call to Islam.

Present-day Arab-Muslim societies are as far removed as can possibly be from the scientific/intellectual  or social/technological phase. They are still tottering between theological and metaphysical thought according to Comte’s yardstick. This is not to say that there are no élites here and there, but the predominant thought in society, one which powers these Arab-Islamic societies is the same one that obtained during the period of the 10th-century cultural cut-off. Following the First World War these societies made efforts to bridge the time gap, but the depth and extent of the chronological hiatus made it impossible to bridge in a matter of years or even decades, what with its limited capacities and its lack of a program to cope with the difficulty of the situation. For it is far harder to retrain societies than build them up from fresh. Growth programs are fruitful in primitive societies since they are basically unimpeded by their time, and growth can take place on virgin soil, whereas in societies that suffer from cultural regression the task becomes extremely difficult.

Social and political developments in the region ensure that any modern attempt at construction risks collapse – or at best distortion, delay and obstruction – in addition to political defeat and military reverse. This is the natural result of huge cultural gaps and regressions in all spheres, and of society’s structural inability to accept modernity easily. The features of resurgence in Arab-Islamic societies are not focused on any structure of society that might qualify it to shoulder its burdens, since what is being built is made up of nothing more than worryingly superficial cultural cosmetics.

At a time when developed societies are progressing technologically, and globalised science takes us beyond the scientific phase, Arab-Islamic societies have yet to exit the second, metaphysical phase.

Main image: Auguste Comte, whose Law of Three Stages was one of the first  theories of social evolutionism

Departure of the last Ottoman caliph Mehmet VI, closing an era of cultural regression