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Societal Structure

Societal Structure

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson will provide information on how religion has influence on societal structure.

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Source: Fair Use: The Qur’an: Translation. Trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Elmhurst, IL: Tahrike, 2000. Print.

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Hello, and welcome to Societal Structure. In a previous lesson, Social Convention, we looked at the values, and the habits, and the customs, and the unspoken agreements, rules of etiquette, et cetera. And we saw how they interacted with religion, religious traditions, and values, and how these religious values sort of operated behind the scenes, in a way, functioning as kind of a white noise that is present but not really noticeable anymore. Well, today we'll look briefly at other aspects of society that are not so behind the scenes sometimes, focusing on how religion might influence social equality and social inequality.

Many of the world's religions can be linked to the reality of social equality and social inequality. Take a look at our first key word, equality, the state of being equal, the treatment of all persons in the same way under the law. Naturally what comes to mind when considering this value and this ideal of equality is its opposite, inequality. And most everyone can see, and maybe even feel, the presence of equality and/or inequality in their lives and in the people around them.

Often the discrepancies and inequalities can be linked to the various religions. In other words, some religions have histories that reveal a pattern of unequal distribution of power, privilege, and prestige.

For example Roman Catholic missionaries traveled with Spanish Conquistadors to Latin America in the 15th century. Church and state and military might rode on one horse. And although they were initially few in number compared to the poor indigenous peasant population, there took place a sweeping religious conversion that set the ground for political and economic colonization.

Under the might and the power of the Spanish crown, peasantry and power and privilege were at opposite ends of the spectrum. And this authority, power, and prestige often associated with the conquest of a people, and a land, gold, and other resources, this was thus accomplished through the conversion of beliefs and religious values from indigenous beliefs to Catholic beliefs.

In the history of India, you can also see this discrepancy of power and prestige. In the Hindu tradition, there is something called the caste system. This is our final keyword. The caste system is a social system in which one's place in society is determined by one's birth, often via the social status of one's parents.

And although there is inequality, it's a bit different from the example we just saw in Roman Catholicism and Latin America. In the Hindu tradition, these inequalities come from within the religion itself and its spiritual belief structure. So if the caste system reveals inequalities in the structure of society, it is nevertheless imposed from within the religion which is intimately linked with the indigenous culture and society.

And as we've been focusing on the inequalities for the moment, in the example of Roman Catholicism and indigenous Latin Americans, there were two very different belief systems that came face to face. And the dominant force came from outside the religious belief system of the majority.

And to conclude today, let's look at an example of equality from within the tradition of Islam, from one of the final sermons of the prophet Muhammad. "Oh, people! Listen to me in earnest! Worship Allah. Say your five daily Prayers, Salat. Fast during the month of Ramadan, and give your wealth in Zakat. Perform the Hajj pilgrimage if you can afford to. You know that every Muslim is the brother of another Muslim. You are all equal. Nobody has superiority over other, except by piety and good action."

So in the sixth century AD on the Arabian Peninsula, this was a revolutionary concept-- radical equality. And it was a founding principle of the religion, and it immediately affected the structure of equality in society. Men and women were understood to be equal in the eyes of Allah. And under certain interpretations, this founding principle has truly traveled the spectrum from radical equality to the felt presence of inequality, and different gradations of experienced inequality.

But as we've seen in other lessons, no religion seems to be immune to these apparent contradictions-- material for reflection and study. Happy trails.

Terms to Know
Caste System

A social system in which one's place in society is determined by one's birth, often via the social status of one's parents.


The practice of militarily powerful nations' taking military and political control of another nation, state, territory, or unsettled land.


The state of being equal; the treatment of all persons in the same way under the law.