The Enduring Ornament of Civilisation

by Sheikh Faid Mohammed Said

We human beings know the history of our kind by reflecting on our own achievements in social, political and cultural development, even as we compare and scrutinise past civilizations through their architectural, scientific and cultural legacies. As important markers of a historical period, these monuments of past civilisations cause us to marvel at them, but they also serve as material for study for scholars and thinkers who hold up the past as a mirror to contrast and compare with our own claims to progress. Scientific and scholarly endeavour in this regard gives reason for both excitement and sober reflection. Fresh discoveries or new meaning may inspire the common inheritors of past civilizations with pride, but the contours of human history should also check complacency, assumptions of ever-lasting power and overweening confidence in their modern equivalents. 

Our efforts to explore and determine cause and effect, a process embraced by Islam, may turn on new meanings and re-imaginings and yet we cannot escape the existential conundrum of life, our purpose and the inexorability of decay and death. In fact the Qur’an demands reflection on the history of humankind and its long progress and also regressions, simultaneously offering sure guidance for individual and collective negotiation of our existence and lessons to draw upon. This is from Adam’s genesis to the paths trodden by the many early human communities that were the seedbed of other civilisations that flowered and then withered over time. 

For this reason the basis of mankind’s religious and socio-cultural history—alongside monotheism and ethics—underlies the explanatory principles of Qur’anic study. As monotheism is intimately connected to the received wisdom about human origins and purpose, a topic that would otherwise necessitate an extensive monograph, it naturally demands brief discussion here. The theme of monotheism in Islam, insisting on God’s Oneness, promotes the understanding that while absolute knowledge of God is beyond our understanding, He is yet comprehensible through His Attributes, readable in Nature and proclaimed through Scripture. His Oneness, evident in unity and purpose, is reflected in His Attributes. The Qur’an itself draws attention to the limits of our knowledge: “I called them not to witness the creation of the heavens and the earth, not even their own creation...” {Q, Al Kahf, 18:51}  We might understand this axiom through a simple analogy. We retain basic information about our birth, in terms of place and time, but the “fact” of time and place is nonetheless knowledge received from others. 

The Qur’an is quite explicit about the stress on human history; the triumphs and travails of, for example, the organic communities of Noah, the ’Aad and the ’Thamud.  We should also note the global civilisations of Egypt and the Greco-Roman worlds, and even the seemingly obscure and yet rich heritage of ’Qataba and Sheba, among others. In the context of the Qur’an this emphasis on human history encouraged a sense of caution that warns against too-high assumptions about power and prestige. We are thereby encouraged to learn from and reflect on the progress of history and urged to remain aware of the significance of permanent struggle and to guard against decline. 

The Qur’an is remarkably timeless in this regard: “Have they, then, never journeyed about the earth and beheld what happened in the end to those who lived before their time? Greater were they in power than they are; and they left a stronger impact on the earth, and built it up even more than these. And to them came their apostles with all evidence of the truth. And so it was not God who wronged them, but it was they who had wronged themselves.”{ Q, Ar Rum, 30:9}  Given that the civilisations of the past projected such power and influence, their legacies were always bound to survive in one form or another and posterity is able to trace and marvel at these achievements. For some, a focus on the arts, architecture, poetry, music and sculpture was important. Yet others concentrated on the development of science and technological progress from medicine to enhanced public works and the rise of urban living. 

What distinguishes civilisation in Islam is the emphasis placed on the development of the individual. That is not to say that Islamic civilization neglected what its predecessors had done. It, too, played its part in skill and invention, prescription of law and maintenance of order, the raising of cities and wealth-creation. But the civilisation stimulated by Islam also conceived its purpose as two-fold, sowing for harvests yet to come. For the law givers and banishers of falsehoods also took great care to ensure the progress of humanity and the environment necessary to its development. 

Libraries and centres of learning held far more prestige than the grandest mosque or the most imposing palace, so that knowledge and understanding were placed at the very heart of a civilisation in which the individual and society were suffused with elevated thought in an environment upholding the highest ethics and practical morals. 

A civilisation that produced some of the best in arts and sciences, remained conscious of the brevity of time, of the lessons of history, and therefore paid greater attention to humanity and to individual purpose. Such an anthropocentric worldview in turn motivated a still-higher aspiration - harmony with the Divine Attributes. For, if the highest ideals were the fruits of knowledge and understanding, these could only be experienced through virtuous action. The ruler of a vast empire and the commander of armies, the learned scholar and the humble worshipper, the eloquent poet and the wealthy trader might attain short-lived fame and riches but would gain immeasurably more through sincere action that benefited both himself and others. “...And God’s goodly acceptance is the greatest success; for this, this is the triumph supreme!”{Q, At Tawbah, 9:72} It was by means of such elevated thought, invariably matched by action that the civilisation in Islam flourished. It is for this reason that we prefer to employ the term “civilization in Islam” and not “Islamic civilization”. 

The civilization that we speak of also encompassed non-Muslims who were persuaded by its ideals and found certainty in its promise of human emancipation and the release of individual potential. Steadfastly refusing narrow definitions, Islam continues to embrace the idea of “a mercy unto the worlds”. Indeed, one might say that the emphasis on human development, aspiring to the highest ideals of compassion and generosity, to name but two of the Divine Attributes, and not the relative size and strength of nations, trade surplus or military prowess, is what makes human beings civilised. 

The primacy of knowledge and learning, then, is the distinguishing marker of civilization in Islam and striving- after human development is its ultimate objective (not for want of trying, if not always realised). It should not therefore surprise us that the very first Qur’an verses revealed to the Prophet commanded him to “Read, in the name of thy Sustainer, Who has created. Created man out of a germ cell! Read, for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One. Who has taught [man] the use of the Pen. Taught man what he did not know!” {Q, Al Alaq, 96:1-5}They remain wise sayings that speak to us down the centuries. 

On arrival in Madinah, the Prophet sanctioned the building of a mosque, very much intended as the nucleus of all aspects of Muslim individual and social development and not as a narrowly-defined place of communal prayer. 

Many of the early Muslims in both Makkah, where the verses commanding adherents to read had been revealed, and in Madinah could barely relate to use of the pen. Very early on, the Prophet determined that the prime structural task of Islam was individual development grounded in holistic education and expansive learning. He thus taught his companions that mosque construction was a functional affair, not an enterprise that should take up much time or expense, instructing them to “erect a pole, like the pole of Moses”, {Al Haithami; Al Mujma al-Zawa’id: 2/19; and Ibn Katheer; Al Bidaya wa an-Nihaya: 3/214} meaning that the worshipper who connects and communes with God is more important than the building in which he prays. 

The teaching of such values not only affirmed the intimate relationship between God and the worshipper but emphasised the high ideals aimed at in Islam, ideals that promote individual emotions over mere form and function so that the enlightened human being rather than the sacred building becomes the enduring ornament of civilisation. From the very first revelation, the Prophet started a revolution of the human mind that would in time extend way beyond Arabian society and culture. In fact what the Prophet did was to fill his listeners with a deep-seated realisation of the high regard that the individual is capable of feeling for the Creator and he further underlined the privileged closeness between Creator and all created beings with the emphatic statement, “The whole earth is made for me a mosque and sanctified.” {Bukhari: 1/168} Veneration of any symbol of the Divine was to be praised but Islam would have no interest in meaningless pomp and grandeur and the true temple of worship would reside in the heart of the worshipper. The measure of achievement in Islam was to be the gradual raising up of humanity, not the construction of impressive buildings and monuments. 

Only those whose concern is with labels may mourn the end of Islamic civilization with the glittering decadence of Abbasid rule or the end of this or that caliphate, but as long as individuals concentrate on their own personal improvement, civilization in Islam remains an ideal to aim for. Of course, civilisation in Islam, for all its high ideals, was not safe from errors and backsliding, drawing on itself the comforting cliché, “to err is to be human”. 

Muslims cannot grow weary of carrying the banner of humanity, not if they are true to their purpose, for Islam values the human being as the most privileged of God’s creatures: “Now, indeed, have We conferred dignity on the children of Adam, and borne them over land and sea, and provided for them sustenance out of the good things of life, and favoured them far above most of Our Creation.” { Q, Al Israa, 17:70} Islam will have no dealing with dogmas that saddle the human with the weight of despair or explain our existence as a lottery; rather, civilization in Islam instils hope and gives meaning to life by welcoming the high honour of being granted superior intellect and agency. “He it is Who has made the earth easy to live upon: go about, then, in all its regions, and partake of the sustenance which He provides; but unto Him you shall be resurrected.” {Q,  Al Mulk, 67:15}.

If the human being enters this world as no more than a cell, he or she is still valued right from the beginning, for God tells us far more about our identity and origins than the bare information of place and date offered by the birth certificate. “And when We told the angels, ‘Prostrate yourselves before Adam, they all prostrated themselves...” {Q,  Al Baqarah, 2:34} Such high honour from the very beginning and our privileged position in this world do not come without responsibility since the process of civilising and refining that what we call elevated individual thought and intellect also mirrors the growth from cell to a fully developed human being. And having been granted the means to make the most of our time in this world, we are responsible and accountable on many levels for the choices that we make, since our connection or severance from our Sustainer for our treatment of our fellow human beings or of the animals under our command and for the efficient use or mismanagement of the entire universe are noted by our Creator. It is a responsibility that we can neither throw off nor regard as something imposed upon us, but one that we must welcome in the secure knowledge of our exalted origin and purpose: “Know, then, that there is no god but God.”{ Q, Muhammad, 47:19}

Masses of conflicting ideas and the babbling “isms” that they generate may vanish like the legendary Tower of Babel, but the cherishing and generous One who guides us aims at our continued enlightenment, encouraging us to appreciate the value of knowledge and understanding above all other human achievements. “...And God will exalt by many degrees those of you who have attained to faith and such as have been vouchsafed knowledge.”{Q, Al Mujadalah, 58:11}.This is a secure promise and the most eloquent expression of what civilisation in Islam entails. 

God, it seems, has been cherishing humanity in this way all along, from His teaching Adam “the names of all things” {Q, Al Baqarah, 2:31} meaning the ability to understand and discriminate, the ability to choose and the further special distinction of the human being to form conceptual thought. Since discrimination may result in a flawed choice or a momentary lapse, as with the Prophet Adam, God in His generosity granted humanity all the prophets, to be their guiding lights and for their continuing education and for the support of their tribes, nations and civilisations. It is no coincidence that the advent of the greatest educator of all, Prophet Muhammad, came at the point of humanity’s first tentative steps towards the Information Age that is our inheritance. To act as guide and shepherd was, of course, the anointed role of all apostles and emissaries but Muhammad placed teaching and learning at the very heart of his mission. Always quick to respond with mercy, no matter what the circumstances, the Prophet seized just such an opportunity on the battlefield at BaDr With his principal companions suggesting various solutions to the fates of Makkan captives (arguments ranged from customary ransom to on-the-spot-executions) the Prophet intervened to set his own terms. The lives of all of the captives would be spared, the wealthiest among them would be offered for ransom but the poorer among them had something far greater to offer the fledgling Muslim community; each captive Makkan would be obliged to teach ten of his Muslim captors how to read and write—and that intervention was in fact the Muslims’ very first experience of literacy. We might at this point break off to consider the huge difference between the “jihadists” in our time and the Muslims after BaDr Many of the Makkan prisoners joined the Muslim community, so impressed were they by the behaviour and ethics of those who held them captive. 

The self-satisfied view of Islam’s culture as all law and punishment, rules and regulations, simply fails to grasp the true meaning of the civilising mission, which the Prophet based on knowledge and learning. The convoluted relationship between moral obligation and legal duty should not concern us here but we are reminded of the heavy emphasis the Prophet placed on enlightenment through education: “Seeking knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim.”{ Ibn Majah, Sunan: 1/81}And on a more expansive note: 

“What is the matter with people that they do not teach their neighbours, nor make them aware, nor encourage them to do good, nor forbid wrongdoing? And what is the matter with people who do not learn from their neighbours? By God, people are expected to teach their neighbours and make them aware and encourage and admonish, and people are expected to learn from their neighbours, or punishment will fall on them in this world.” {Tabarani, Tafsir (S. Al Hijr)}

Here in fact is the authentic voice of Islam, far removed from the thunderous sounds associated with biblical traditions. The Prophet was ever-mindful of his own role as the last of the guiding lights and his concern was to add his own spirit of care and compassion to common morality. Here we find the “Seal of the Prophets” intent on spreading his message so as to bring about the advancement of society through civilising values. He does not threaten punishment in an after-world but warns against paying for wrong-doing in this present world, and by wrong-doing he means the falling away of humanity, the slide back into barbarism, into darkness. More meanings surface when read at the same time as the Qur’anic history-lesson to “...behold what happened in the end to those who lived before their was not God who wronged them, but it was they who had wronged themselves”.{ Q, Ar Rum, 30:9}  It is not brimstone and thunderbolts from Heaven that threaten humanity with punishment in this world, rather it is mankind’s tendency towards moral decay and self-destruction. Instead of good neighbourliness, friendly relations and dialogue, we have class struggle and social inequality rooted in a lack of education and civic rights, corporate greed and economic depression, the ever-present danger of international conflict and the threat of ecological destruction. The Prophet knew that there would not be another light after him to guide humanity, so he and his teaching would have to illuminate the world. 

So civilisation in Islam means enabling the individual to fulfil his destiny by maintaining harmony in the universe, for all Creation is attuned to this harmony: “The Heavens extol His limitless Glory, and the earth, and all that they contain; and there is not a single thing but extols His limitless Glory and praise: but you fail to grasp the manner of their glorifying Him! Verily, He is forbearing, much-forgiving!”{ Q, Al Israa, 17:44 } His loving care of the human race has been there all along, sustaining and guiding humanity towards goodness, which is synonymous with civilization. The civilized human being will then feel and demonstrate concern for every creature in this vast ecology, extending kindness to fellow human beings as well as to all other organisms great and small, wild or domesticated. Contemporary thinking is apt to imagine that animal rights follow from human rights and are the outcome of distinctly modern legislative measures. This is certainly true to some extent and yet as long as fifteen-hundred years ago the Prophet famously enjoyed close relations with animals, including pet-names for his camel and horse. It is also true that he once corrected a woman who deprived a pet cat of food,{Bukhari: 3/1205} and praised a man who had provided a thirsty dog with drinking water.{Bukhari: 2/833}

Such good behaviour extends to conscious and unconscious parts of the universe, although our conceptions of what constitute apparently living or conscious creatures are quite limited in light of God’s declaration that “the Heavens extol His limitless glory...but you fail to grasp the manner of their glorifying Him”.{ Q, Al Israa, 17:44 } Long before our own modern concerns about environmental damage through heavy industry, about climate control, depleted fish stocks in the world’s oceans or even the scarcity of water, we find the Prophet, proclaiming, “Whosoever revives a dead land, it is his.”{Tirmidhi, 1378; and Abu Dawud; 3083} A proclamation of this kind might appear problematic when we are reminded of the unconvincing excuses advanced by colonisers in the recent past or modern corporate greed. In the context of the 7th Century, however, in the drought-prone oases and dry deserts of Arabia, such a call to make productive use of natural resources held social value as much as individual gain. These are among the ideal characteristics of “civilised Man” promoted by Islam, and these are the achievements and also the as yet unachieved aims of civilisation in Islam. 

When civilisation in Islam was solely centred on raising Man’s stature the first recipients of the civilizing experience of revelation migrated from the Arabian Peninsula to spread the message and enlighten others and the rapid and long-lasting success they achieved in this undertaking was due entirely to their civilized conduct. 

Known as Muslims, these migrants crossed frontiers as liberators, emancipating tribes and nations from slavery, injustice and tyranny. Instead of the fire and sword carried by traditional conquerors they touched lives with care and compassion and raised high the torch of learning in the most distant lands. Muhammad al-Bukhari, whose Sahih collection is a byword for Hadith scholarship, virtually put Bukhara in central Asia on the map. Sibawayh, himself a Persian, standardised Arabic grammar and most of the students of Abdullah Ibn Abbas, one of Islam’s leading early scholars, were the children of freed slaves. 

If all nations in Islam, irrespective of caste, colour or creed, enjoyed the trappings of “civilisation”, it was because the New Man, that is Civilized Man, had nobler aims than mere personal enrichment or national aggrandisement. History tells us that the material wealth of the lands under the sway of Islam remained intact and in certain situations increased, but the Arabian Peninsula remained an unusually sleepy collection of oases, including Madinah its spiritual home, and placid market towns including the focal point of worship, Makkah. The twin centres of Islam never housed imperial palaces or armed garrisons, nor attracted journeymen and adventurers. 

Muslim rule extended across the vast continent of India, yet Islam still remains a minority religion in that country. Christians and Jews fled a Europe dominated by an all-encompassing Papal regime, a backwater of feuding princes and robber barons, seeking refuge and the best of higher learning in Muslim Spain and North Africa and later paving the way for Europe’s own Enlightenment. Civilisation in Islam was not without its fair share of pomp and pageantry and had its own sophisticated state institutions, public services and the high standards of living associated with that level of development. Above all, civilisation in Islam was synonymous with the flowering of art and science, it was not only the wonder of its own time but the precursor of our world today. Topkapi and the Taj Mahal are the world’s heritage and rightly so. They certainly cannot be claimed as exclusively Islamic. Rather the absolute importance of education and learning was the mark of Civilised Man, who in turn is the as-yet incomplete achievement of Islamic civilisation. 

Discussion of ethical values becomes unnecessary where the individual is installed at the heart of a God-centric universe. Human development and self-realisation are the aims of Civilisation in Islam, yet we must conclude with a brief remark related to this and also with reference to our past, present and future. The raising up of the individual is the recipe for human happiness because knowledge of our origin gives meaning to, and hope for, our present and future states. 

We may struggle to grasp that feeble human beings started life as the objects of angelic reverence in a higher realm but an awareness of God’s love and watchful care and our own destiny should prompt gratitude and an appropriate appreciation on our part. God certainly provides more answers than our own birth certificates or the theories of those who disbelieve in Him. As they say, “How could it be, that He who has created all should not know all? He alone is unfathomable, all- aware!”{ Q, Al Mulk, 67:14} The Creator, to whom we trace our origins, therefore knows what is good for us and He granted us absolute choice when He provided us with the abilities to think and reason. Furthermore, He sent guiding lights, one after another, across the span and history of our species, showing us the right path, the path that enables us to rise above ourselves. But not only guiding lights, He has also extended to us a direct line of communication so that we are never alone, never without connection, in our appeal, “Guide us to the straight path.”{ Q, Al Fatiha, 1:6} Should we forget the teachings of the guiding lights, the prophets, or fail to connect by asking Him directly, then that very ability to reason with which He has equipped us enables us to know Him and His daily and hourly working in the universe. That, and the oft-repeated lessons of history, awaken our consciousness and sense of purpose. In His words: “O you who have attained to faith! Remain conscious of God; and let every human being look to what he sends ahead for the morrow! And again, remain conscious of God, for God is fully aware of all that you do. And be not like those who are oblivious of God, and whom He therefore causes to be oblivious of their own selves: it is they, they who are truly debased!”{ Q, Al Hashr, 59:19}


Sheikh Said was raised in Eritrea, where he was educated by Sheikh Hamid (May Allah have mercy upon him), the Senior Judge of the Shari’ah Court in Asmara. He later moved to Madinah al Munawarah, where he continued his studies under Sheikh Atiyyah Mohammed Salim (May Allah have mercy upon him), the Resident Scholar of Masjid ul Nabawwi and Senior Judge of Madinah. See bio on page 118.