"Small-world" networking in the Qur’an

“…Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.” — (Qur’an 49:13, Asad)

“And among his wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your tongues and colours: for in this, behold, there are messages indeed for all who are possessed of [innate] knowledge!" — (Qur’an 30:22, Asad)

In his book entitled “Ethico-relgious concepts in the Qur’an”[1], Toshihiko Izutzu presents a concise Qur’anic definition of religion as our “…ethical response to God’s actions”. By this definition we are reminded that the practice of Islam implies a deliberate ethical response to the world that has been created around us. The nature of these responses are detailed in the Qur’an. Izutzu, through semantic analysis of the Qur’an details the acceptable spectrum of these ethical responses that fall under the rubrics of divine ethics, and human ethics. While divine ethics concerns itself solely with the attributes of Allah, human ethics in Islam concerns itself with both how humans relate to Allah, and how they relate to each other. The Qur’an is rife with verses that speak to the above mentioned ethical principles, and we are encourage to take these principles and apply them:

“…To each among you, We have prescribed a Law and a clear way … so strive in a race in all virtues, the goals of you all is to Allah…”. — (Qur’an 5:48, Asad)

In the context of the various ethical relationships that are described in the Qur’an, I wish to focus on a very simple human relationship that is described in the two verses that begin this piece. These verses state that human beings have been created in a heterogeneous fashion, and that this heterogeneity should allow us to “come to know one another”. The concept of “knowing one another” is simple enough, and I am sure one can from an intuitive perspective, understand it’s benefits. Knowing one another might allow us to explore both our commonalities, and our differences, and through this understanding we could work together on things that resonate with us. On the other hand, we may also realize that although we may be able to work with each other on some things we might not be able to on others. Furthermore, if we are in race with each other to improve in all our “virtues” (in beneficial qualities) then maybe getting to know one another might help us in this regard. From my perspective “getting to know”, is akin to what I personally understand to be “networking”. Indeed one would need to be living under a rock not to have heard the term “networking”, and it is used widely within the social sciences (social networks), computer science (world wide web), and as a common phrase to denote an activity that extends ones social, political, or professional circle. Networking is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions”. From my perspective “getting to know” involves the exchange of information, and thus I will equate “getting to know one another” to networking.

So what does networking get us, and why should we get to know one another? I will answer this question with another question, a question that plagues the Muslim community, and society as a whole, and is the subject of discussions regardless of ones social or professional arena. The question revolves around the term, and yes you are going to hear it here too, “unity” and why is it that we can not attain it? In the context of this piece let us substitute the “U” word with the term network, since this term is more tangible to us now, and we can, if we wish, understand it in a more practical sense as an exchange of information, ideas, resources etc. In a piece I wrote a while ago I spoke about how little activities can bring about profound changes, and that the Qur’an speaks to this specifically.[2] Small shifts in how one thinks, who one meets, and how one behaves can have profound changes on our social and physical system: on our “network”. As I mentioned in the past, networking does not magically happen because we will it, it comes about by specific behaviors, and these behaviors are detailed as a “a clear way” in the Qur’an. Below I will discuss the idea of “getting to know” or networking as an end in of itself. The motivation to network should derive from the Qur’anic verses that opened the piece. It is important to remember that we exist in an extremely complex environment, so although I can not tell you exactly how networking impacts each individual separately, I will try to convince you there are benefits at the level of the collective and at the level of the individual and everything in between (families, communities etc.

The power of networks and specifically “small world” networks was beautifully described in a three page paper in Nature. Nature is a premiere scientific journal, and papers that appear in this journal usually fundamentally change the way we think about something. The paper entitled “Collective dynamics of ‘small-world’ networks”[3], was authored by a graduate student Duncan J. Watts, who’s PhD supervisor Steven H. Strogatz recently published an excellent book entitled “Sync”, about how things in nature synchronize with each other.[4] As a small digression, the term ‘small-world’, grew out from the results of an experiment performed by Stanley Milgram, who was interested in measuring the “social” distance between people in the United States. We can think of the distance between two people as a length, a length that is defined by the number of people it would take to go from one random person to another random person, through a set of socially connected (networked) group of individuals. So distance here is not a physical distance measured in meters or feet, but in number of people. In the experiment performed by Milgram, it was found that on average one could connect any two people in the United States through five people, and it was through this interesting discovery that the term “six-degrees of separation” was coined. This term refers to the fact that despite the fact that we live in a giant sea of people we are all connected by a relatively short social distance, five people, which when ones begins to think of it , it is rather remarkable.

The paper I mentioned above by Watts and Strogatz formalized this sociological observation. They investigated social networks, power grids, and the brain (in their paper they dealt with an organism with a much simpler brain than the human, but arguable our brains are organized on the same principles) and found that these entities organized themselves into a “small-world ” despite having so elements to them. Each element (be it a person in a social network, a brain cell also known as a neuron, or power station in a power grid in the United States) was not too far away (distance being measured like in Stanley Milgram’s experiments) from another component of the network. This occurred because although each component was tightly linked to its neighbors, by adding a few random connections to the network you could bring everybody (or every element) in the network closer together. The number of random connections in the network did not need to be very large to profoundly reduce the distance between the components of the network. They were able to show mathematically that by randomly connecting only one percent of the components of a network you could reduce the distance between any two components by 85%. But what was also very interesting was that although a few random connections brings everybody (or component of the network) closer together, you did not change the relationship between small groups of tightly connected components, a property they called clustering. So by adding a small number of random connections, you could massively connect everybody without changing the connections between closely connected components. Since our interest here is social networks what this means might be as follows. Let’s take a normal family for example. Living in a family means that you have very strong interactions with the people in your family, you are “clustered” in the terminology of Watts and Strogatz, because you all know each other, and there is overlap in who you know. Now if one of the family members goes on a trip to Rome, and meets somebody there and through email stays in touch with them, then because of this new connection the traveler’s whole family is now closer to the new acquaintance in Rome. The distance between the family members and the new contact in Rome has been significantly reduced from a social perspective, but the family itself has not changed very much in its connectedness –” in the phraseology of Watts and Strogatz – it’s clustering has remained essentially unchanged. They are obviously not any closer geographically in this network, but they are much closer socially.

This is the structural beauty of small world networks, and the beauty behind getting to know people. A few long range “random” connections brings tightly clustered groups very close together. But is there a real social benefit to networking? The social benefit of these random or weak connections, and the benefit of getting to know people has been studied, and was published in paper with a very catchy title: “The strength of weak ties”[5]. In this study Granovetter discovered that from a professional perspective one is more likely to benefit from acquaintances rather than close friends, since close friends tend to have the same contacts as you do, and they tend to have available to them the same information that you do. The random connection, or in this case an acquaintance, tends to infuse the system with new information, and opens up other parts of the network that might not otherwise have be accessible.

Now what about this “diversity of your tongues and colours”, is there utility in heterogeneity? Phrased a different way, why not make everybody exactly the same, so that we wouldn’t need to network, everybody would look the same, behave the same, and react the same. Well as it turns out, in our “small-world” it is very important that we remain distinct, and unique. In fact if we were in a homogenous social environment it would be almost impossible to navigate our system because we would get lost in a sea of sameness.[6] Hence our unique qualities that identify us as individuals makes us more memorable, and hence helps others and us to navigate our complex social network. The Qur’an reminds us that our uniqueness is not by chance, and we are encouraged to break down our religious, cultural, political, and professional barriers and get to know one another. However, it is difficult for us to break out of our cluster, it is safe there, it is familiar and that is understandable. We all have a fear of change, and there is a fear that something bad may happen to us if we leave the familiarity of our clique. We should however also fear the consequences of not knowing one another. Not knowing means isolation, and isolation means a lack of information exchange. Knowledge is at the heart of Islam, it should be what we seek for constantly as it is this pursuit that brings us closer to understanding our environment, our place within it, our ethical responsibilities, and consciousness of Allah (taqwa). This pursuit of knowledge is as well an ethical obligation in Islam:

“And do not follow anything of which thou hast no knowledge: verily, [your] hearing and sight and mind – all of them – will be called to account for it [on Judgment Day]!” — (Qur’an 17:36, Ali)

So with all this “potential” connectivity what is our place in this network? I use the word potential, since the links within the network are there, ready to be created, awaiting our active effort to animate them. In this regard the Qur’an describes many types of interactions (links), be it towards Allah, our parents, our spouses, our orphans, our communities, and our society as whole. By clearly defining them the Qur’an operationalizes our relationships to the various components of the network and our responsibilities to them. In regards to family, the Qur’an states:

“…for thy Sustainer has ordained that you shall worship none but Him. And do good unto [thy] parents. Should one of them, or both, attain to old age in thy care, never say "Ugh" to them or scold them, but [always] speak unto them with reverent speech, and spread over them humbly the wings of thy tenderness, and say: "O my Sustainer! Bestow Thy grace upon them, even as they cherished and reared me when I was a child!" — (Qur’an 17:23-24, Asad)

In regards to orphans, and the needy which we are unlikely to know anything about:

“True piety does not consist in turning your faces towards the east or the west – but truly pious is he who believes in God, and the Last Day; and the angels, and revelation, and the prophets; and spends his substance – however much he himself may cherish – it – upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggars, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage…” — (Qur’an, 2:177, Asad)

Importantly, one should note that the interactions described above always initially refer to our relationship to Allah which is then followed by defining our relationship to our fellow human beings. If you picture this network of connections then we are all connected to Allah, and at the same time we are connected to people through our human network. From a network perspective if one aspect of a network is massively connected it is called a hub, in this case the hub is Allah, and rather interestingly hubs serve an important purpose; they make the network rather resistant to random failures.[7] Staying connected to the hub, in other words remaining God-consciousness is mentioned repeatedly in the Qur’an:

“Remain conscious of God, and seek to come closer unto Him, and strive hard in His cause, so that you might attain to a happy state.” — (Quran 5:35, Asad)

We also need to stay connected to ourselves:

“…and be not like those who are oblivious of God, and whom He therefore causes to be oblivious of [what is good for] their own selves: [for] it is they, they who are truly depraved!…” — (Qur’an 59:19, Asad)

And finally staying connected to one another as described above, and enunciated in the verses that begin this piece, completes our network.

In the parlance of quality improvement (improving upon ourselves):

“…Consider the human self, and how it is formed in accordance with what it is meant to be, and how it is imbued with moral failings as well as with consciousness of God! To a happy state shall indeed attain he who causes this [self] to grow in purity…” — (Qur’an 91:7-9, Asad)

So then what is the “process” by which we implement this network and bring about self improvement which is then reflected in the network.

It starts by knowing ourselves, and effecting change within ourselves:

“…Verily, God does not change a person’s condition unless they change their inner selves;…” — (Qur’an 13:11)

In this process we make an internal change, self-directed, self-motivated, which is then facilitated (or catalyzed) by Allah and by being conscious of Him.

Our consciousness of Allah and knowing our ethical responsibilities by understanding the prescriptions of the Qur’an directs our insights to see where we can improve ourselves. Then by knowing each other we propagate and reinforce these changes while building our network. Interestingly Allah uses “din” (a word we usually translate to mean “religion”) to refers to both and inner experience, which for every Muslim begins with the self-surrender to Allah, and an outward manifestation, through ones behavior. This outward behavior then defines the network – the community –” with both the inward and outward aspects of din reinforcing each other.

So wherever you may be, a social situation, at work, or when you have finished your prayers, consider but one facet of the manifestation of din as an active process of getting to know those around you (networking) : who they are, what they hope for, wish for, and aspire to. Like everything in the Qur’an (as mentioned in the verse that opened this article):

“…for in this, behold, there are messages indeed for all who are possessed of [innate] knowledge!” — (Qur’an 30:22, Asad)


[1]. Izutsu, T., Ethico-religious concepts in the Qur’an. 2002, McGill: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

[2]. Valiante, T.A., Butterflies in Islam: Why a little is a lot. 2003, http://world.mediamonitors.net/content/view/full/1947/

[3]. Watts, D.J. and S.H. Strogatz, Collective dynamics of ‘small-world’ networks. Nature, 1998. 393(6684): p. 440-2.

[4]. Strogatz, S.H., Sync: how order emerges from chaos in the universe, nature, and daily life. 2003, New York: Hyperion.

[5]. Granovetter, M.S., The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 1973. 78(6): p. 1360.

[6]. Kleinberg, J.M., Navigation in a small world. Nature, 2000. 406(6798): p. 845.

[7]. Albert, R., H. Jeong, and A.L. Barabasi, Error and attack tolerance of complex networks. Nature, 2000. 406(6794): p. 378-82.