By Spahic Omer
(Summary: This study examines the concept of civilisation as a Western construct, juxtaposing it with the worldview and values of Islam. The study determines the place, as well as role, of civilisation in the religious consciousness and historical processes of Muslims. It proposes that the concept be rather Islamized and articulated under the banner of the Islamic notions of ‘umran and hayah tayyibah. The study in addition rectifies several misconceptions surrounding Islamic civilisation – both as an idea and physical reality – the most prevalent of which, perhaps, is the narrative of its golden age.)
It has been explained earlier that the concept of civilisation is a Western construct; that it was associated with colonisation, westernisation and domination; that it was imposed as such on the rest of the world, including the Muslim world; and that in the course of the past two centuries the Muslim mind had to grapple with it and its monolithic mould, producing mixed results. It has also been concluded that Western civilisation is an embodiment of the Western worldview(s) and a constellation of Western moral principles and values, which however are deeply rooted in the de-sacralisation of existence at large (kindly see: https://news.iium.edu.my/?p=140992).
The origins and quintessence of the modern Western civilisation are saturated with the rejection of God and Heaven, obsessive materialism, deification of man and his abilities, and with ethical, together with intellectual, relativism. But following the span of only three or four generations from the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment to the dawn of modernity – according to Albert Schweitzer – serious cracks started to appear in the edifice of Western civilisation. So much so that the early twentieth century witnessed “the signs of the collapse of civilisation” and that “the suicide” of civilisation was “in progress”, soon after which civilisation “abdicated” (Albert Schweitzer).
To Albert Schweitzer, the root problem pertained to the realms of ideas and ethics. Civilisation was collapsing because of the collapse of “the worldview on which our ideals were based”, and because “a real combination of ethical ideals with reality was no longer possible”. At any rate, a series of overwhelmingly distressing problems humanity faces today, which threatens its very survival (such as environmental destruction, endless conflicts and wars, nuclear proliferation, racism, rampant immorality, etc.), are primarily due to the one-dimensional and inept ideological configuration of Western civilisation.
It is but expected that the undying tendencies of the Western man to rebel against spirituality, the sacredness and purity of nature, and his own intrinsic moral, spiritual and even intellectual dispositions, are useful only as far as they go. It is a fundamental principle of life that every unnatural and aberrant course of action leads to proportionately unnatural and aberrant consequences.
Having set himself from the beginning on a collision course with God and Heaven – and with the innate order of things – the modern man inevitably opted for a path of self-destruction. He is in a war he cannot win. As a proverb goes, what goes around comes around. And since he has neither capacity nor will to put an end to the persisting problems, they keep coming back bigger and stronger to bite him.
One then legitimately wonders if Western civilisation, despite its many positives, is an experiment that is proving terribly wrong. Its global ambition and proselytising penchant render all the problems associated with it also global and all the more uncontainable.
It is believed that Genghis Khan once said that only a fool fights a battle he knows he cannot win. This cancels most of the positivity and enthusiasm entailed in Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that mankind is on the verge of the end point of its ideological evolution when liberal democracy as the final form of human organisation and government will become free from grave defects and irrationalities and when all the big questions will be settled. His theory of “the end of history and the last man” may in the end take on alternative and completely opposite undertones. It may yet materialise in the literal sense (sensu stricto).
Indeed, Western civilisation is set to be its own undoing. Echoing this sentiment, Shivaji Lokam titled a book of his as “the Fall of Western Civilisation: How Liberalism is Destroying the West from Within”. Moreover, in the description of the book “the Fall of Western Man” by Mark Collett, it is said that “Western man is a shadow of his former self: his mind enslaved, his body weakened, his spirit corrupted and the courage and bravery he once possessed radically diminished.”
Is there “civilisation” in Islam?
The answer to this question is both “yes” and “no”.
It is “no” because the idea of civilisation with its questionable meanings was conceived in the 18th century. As part of the fast-developing Enlightenment thought, civilisation was understood as a sign of man’s evolution from the stages of rudeness and barbarism to the stages of refinement and sophistication. As Adam Ferguson (d. 1816), a Scottish philosopher and historian of the Scottish Enlightenment, wrote in his seminal book “the History of Civil Society” (1767): “Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilisation.”
By the way, Adam Ferguson was the first who used in English the term “civilisation”. In French, it was Victor de Riquety Marquis de Mirabeau (d. 1789), a French economist and a leading figure of the French Enlightenment. “Civilisation” was created in the milieus of Western colonisation and imperialism and was used for their justification and consolidation.
Hence, Islam and Muslims antedate “civilisation” – as a concept of the hegemony-seeking West and as an assertively valorised phenomenon – by more than eleven centuries. While, at the same time, the Islamic notions of progress, refinement, elegance, civility, success and happiness are profoundly different from that which is served in the name of “civilisation”.
Those Islamic notions were conceived on account of a synthesis of the capabilities of reason and the inspiration as well as guidance of the revelation, and were put into operation in excess of a millennium prior to the advent of the idea of civilisation in the West. What is more, it is becoming increasingly clear that the sustained productive presence of Islam and Muslims on the global stage connoted an assortment of indirect causes that triggered the incubation of conditions which in turn led to the foundation and rise of the modern Western civilisation.
In this manner, Islam and Muslims, in truth, has nothing, or very little, to do with “civilisation”. The idea was imposed on them, and they were dragged into its conceptual and functional domains as part of the West’s incessant colonisation, westernisation and – as the latest episode – democratisation of most of the Muslim lands. Civilisation was a smokescreen for the programs of subjugation, domination and exploitation.
Consequently, some of the greatest crimes in history were committed during the past two centuries, and in the interest of civilisation. The same spirit unfortunately continues unabated even today. What keeps changing are protagonists and modi operandi. The wolf changes his hair, but never his disposition (nature). Edward Said wrote in “Orientalism” that in the process of reawakening and civilising Europe, Islam was turned “into the very epitome of an outsider against which the whole of European civilisation from the Middle Ages on was founded.”
There is “civilisation” in Islam – but conditionally
However, it can be said that there is “civilisation” in Islam, but such is done owing to expediency rather than principle. It is obvious that the prevalent Muslim consciousness and spirituality resisted the onslaughts of civilisation, trying to preserve their own Islamic values and standards of living. The cultural and spiritual identities of Muslims were at stake.
But so aggressively and systematically proselytised and valorised was civilisation in the Muslim colonised lands that absolute resistance, it was feared, could eventually become counterproductive. It could lead to the moods of utter isolationism, pessimism and barren idealism. Thus, more and more people felt inclined to critically study the marvel of Western civilisation and to explore the points where it possibly could meet the purviews of Islam, Muslims and their ways of life, and where it deviated from them.
It was believed that Western civilisation could not be entirely bad (un-Islamic) and so, unacceptable. It was to be thoroughly examined at all of its philosophical and operative planes, following which there was no harm for its positive aspects to be embraced and integrated into the fluid mosaic of Islamic traditions, whereas its problematic and outright harmful aspects had to be emphatically rejected. If they were proving significant and unavoidable, though, the prospects of purifying and Islamizing certain harmful aspects of Western civilisation, as much as possible, were likewise increasingly promoted, both privately and institutionally.
Many at once scholars and members of the public were encouraged in their viewpoints by the Islamic tenets that God does not burden people beyond their capacities; that necessities permit prohibited things; that hardship begets facility; that permissibility is the natural state of a thing and remains so until there is evidence to the contrary; and perhaps most importantly, that wisdom is the lost thing of a believer, so wherever he finds it he takes it.
In any case, Western civilisation was an undeniable and powerful reality, and was there to stay. The necessity of dealing with it proved as certain. But because people possessed different degrees of Islamic spirituality and awakening, and enjoyed different interests insofar as interacting with Western civilisation was concerned, their reactions vastly differed: from total rejection to total acceptance, with a myriad of less extreme preferences in-between.
It was in this intellectual, cultural, spiritual and even psychological milieu that the concept of “Islamic civilisation” was coined. And naturally, it meant different things to different people. It was – and remained – a topic that divides opinion.
The concept of Islamic civilisation was created and freely articulated most probably in the second half of the 19th century. The first book that contained the expression “Islamic civilisation” in its title was one published in 1905 by an Indian scholar Salahuddin Khuda Bukhsh (d. 1931). The book’s title was “Contributions to the History of Islamic Civilisation”.
Most of the initial ideas and written works on Islamic civilisation were defensive and apologetic in their character. They tried to show that if of late, there was Western civilisation, there was also the civilisation of Islam and Muslims that was centuries-old. Like its Western counterpart, Islamic civilisation, too, endorsed and registered remarkable successes in basically all fields of human endeavour, albeit especially in art, architecture, law, philosophy, literature, science and physical development.
Some people held that both civilisations, in principle, belonged to the same family, epitomising the power of laws of history and the honesty of human endless productive, along with creative, activity. The two civilisations were interconnected, hence compatible, in many ways. It was now the West’s turn to lead the charge in the ongoing civilisational and cultural evolution of humanity, with Islamic civilisation, though substantial and relevant in its heyday, becoming a mere traditional and obsolete legacy. Its model was supplemented by the prescriptions of Western civilisation.
Others, on the other hand, affirmed the concept of Islamic civilisation as an alternative to the forcefully imposed Western model. It was likewise an antidote for the latter’s venom. That was a language both Westerners and the victimised Muslim masses were able to understand. It was thus easy to draw parallels between the two paradigms and to arrive at convincing logical conclusions insofar as the permanent spiritual and moral supremacy of Islamic civilisation, on the one hand, and the artificial as well as deceptive scientific and technological superiority of Western civilisation, on the other, were concerned. Those were the maiden steps towards what could be dubbed an enterprise of “Islamisation of civilisation” in general and “Islamization of knowledge” in particular.
Civilisation, modernism and Salafism
To the latter category belong Jamaluddin al-Afghani (d. 1897), Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905), Rashid Rida (d. 1935), Mahmud Shaltut (d. 1963) and Syed Ahmad Khan (d. 1898), who within the dissimilar contexts and capacities of theirs believed in the plausibility of revival of authentic Islamic civilisation, and that Western cultural and civilisational domination should be countered thereby. They represented a school of thought which called for levelling the field, undertaking “attacking” initiatives as the best form of defence, and that the Western hegemony be confronted in its own intellectual and civilisational backyard.
But how exactly to do that and which dimensions of civilisation were to be focused on first and foremost, remained an unresolved quandary. It yet preoccupies the minds of most contemporary Muslim intellectuals and researchers.
Due to the critical circumstances in which those scholars – and many others belonging to the same period – lived and worked, they were often misunderstood. To their opponents, they were labelled as controversial, progressive, modern, liberal and some even as infidels, but to their supporters, they were visionary scholars, sages, reformers, masters and mujahids.
It is noteworthy that today, despite being called Islamic modernists and the pioneers of the Islamic modernism movement, some of the above mentioned scholars, in particular Jamaluddin al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida, used the word “salafiyyah” for describing their movement and school of thought. That was so because those scholars called for the revival of Islamic thought and civilisation, but chiefly on the basis of the original sources of Islam and in the light of the examples set by the pious predecessors (al-salaf al-salih). As such, they influenced other Islamic groups such as Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and, to a degree, Jamaat-e-Islami in the Indian subcontinent, and Muhammadiyyah in Indonesia.
Later, however, throughout the 20th century, the terms “Islamic modernism” and “Salafism”, with all of their literal and technical connotations, grew significantly apart. The first salafis became the first modernists, while the late salafis became the first antitheses of Islamic modernism. The latter were also called contemporary salafis as the followers of the contemporary Salafism.
Be that as it may, neither side styled itself accordingly. Doing so was a design of those who arrived later at the scene and, more often than not, had genuinely nothing to do with both sides. That christening process was slightly natural, but was mainly the result of the fluctuating local and international political currents. The colonisers and their contemporaneous, together with subsequent, collaborators needed to distinguish on their own terms who was who in the entire scheme of things, what everybody’s calling and aims were, and how much threat – and opportunity – each group and its ideology posed.
Positively, whatever originated from the colonisers was dubious and threatening, containing hidden agendas. Those pioneering scholars did not see themselves as modernists. Such was imputed to them, as part of cleverly manipulating and marketing the phenomenon of modernising (westernising) – and civilising – Muslim peoples. Just as the contemporary salafis did not see themselves, in principle, against the prospects of inevitable and beneficial modernisation and “civilisation”. Such, too, was imputed to them, as part of complex programs aimed at scapegoating and further politicising, plus stage-managing, the fast-developing events.
Nevertheless, all of those scholars were Muslim revivalists and reformers with the same intentions and objectives, albeit with different approaches and strategies. Their common ground has more power to unite people than their differences to divide and keep them apart.
This additionally shows that all those extravagant terms and appellations – including the “civilisation” term – are artificial, qualified, and sometimes even devious. Muslims should be wise enough to rise above the level of artificiality and disingenuousness, and devote their time, energy and limited resources to resuscitating the substance of Islam and improving thus the wellbeing of Muslims. The recent history of Muslim societies should serve as an eye-opening lesson. Muslims, likewise, should fully subscribe only to the designations and tags put forth by the Qur’an and the Prophet’ Sunnah. All other options ought to be ancillary.
Similarly, it becomes clear how important the initiative of purifying and Islamizing the English language is, insofar as adopting, translating, transliterating and articulating the fundamental concepts and ideas of the Islamic message are concerned. One of those who staunchly supported the initiative and called for “Islamic English” was Isma’il al-Faruqi. The idea represented a segment of his philosophy of “Islamization of knowledge”.
The conundrum of “civilisation”
The same contradicting trends persist even to this day. Muslims are still divided as to how best to cope with the challenge of Western civilisation and how to relate it to their Islamic values, worldview and traditions. Those conundrums manifest themselves as much in the world of ideas as in the world of physical realities. Just trying to define civilisation poses much of a problem.
Which is understandable, in that colonisation, as a matter of fact, never came to an end, and Muslims are still struggling to stand on their own feet. Muslims remain at a crossroads, looking desperately for a cultural and civilisation direction and identity. Without a doubt, the crisis of thought is the biggest threat to Muslims and their civilisational awakening. Everything else pales in comparison with it.
All that prompted Sayyid al-Maududi (d. 1979) to compose a book on Islamic civilisation titled “Islamic Civilisation: Its Foundational Beliefs and Principles”. In it, he explains the central values and standards of Islamic civilisation, aiming to thus facilitate the appropriate understanding and application of the subject. The author also readily discards and corrects some of the enduring misconceptions about Islam and its civilisation. In doing so, he invites further discourses and debates, in order to ensure, once and for all, that nothing but truth is attached not only to Islamic civilisation, but also to the nature of its Western counterpart.
In the midst of those numerous rejecting, accepting, Islamizing, merging, harmonising, etc., efforts by Muslims, civilisation was rendered in Arabic as hadarah and, to a lesser extent, tamaddun. Islamic civilisation was called hadarah islamiyyah and tamaddun islami.
Both hadarah and tamaddun indicate city-dwelling, urbanism, sedentism and sedentary lifestyles only, as opposed to villages, desert and nomad lifestyles. The words clearly demonstrate the influences of the philosophy underpinning the concept of Western civilisation over the philosophy that was developed in connection with the belated development of the concept of Islamic civilisation.
The two given Arabic designations were inadequate for the ways Islam sees and deals with the things that concern civilisation. They were inadequate because they literally translated, and adopted, the correspondingly inadequate Western concept. They were relative and qualified, whereas civilisation is universal and all-encompassing.
The root word of “civilisation” were the Latin words civitas and civis, which mean “city” and “citizen” respectively. Accordingly, city was always the essence and, at the same time, receptacle of Western civilisation. Urbanisation and wide-ranging physical development were its main features. They were its chi. Moreover, in furtherance of civilisation, advanced cities were favoured over the other forms of settlements. Living in cities was equated with being civilised, sophisticated and even cultured. Living elsewhere was less so.
Evidently, inherent in civilisation were tendencies and practices of discrimination. Even though at first sight it was concerning just geographical places – that is, the physical milieus and loci of people’s lives and functions – discrimination often spilled over into the ambits of people’s very lives and their overall wellbeing. Taking into consideration its origins, purpose and goals, it was rarely a case that civilisation produced a good without generating any side effects in the process.
Diagnosing the Muslim malaise
However they may be understood, civilisations are envisaged and built. Their commencement and growth require a master plan. Their main building blocks are ideas and knowledge, combined with and translated into the vicissitudes of life. Their builders are people led by strong, just and visionary leaderships (governments). People, too, are the immediate beneficiaries of their civilisations’ boons, that is, of their own commitments and hard work.
Civilisations cannot be bought, imported, copied, improvised or faked. Whatever is done under any of these pretexts is nothing but fallacy and sheer delusion. It often borders on a caricature.
The main problem with the Muslim world today is that they are a consuming nation (ummah). They consume almost everything, producing very little. But the thorniest drawback is that thought, knowledge and education signify the arena, or “market”, where Muslims are also hungry and busy, and where they completely depend on others (the West).
However, in doing so, they do not wish, nor plan, to cast off the fetters of civilisational and cultural colonisation, and to be free and chart freely their own destinies. Quite the reverse, they do that so gullibly, naively and at times even blindly and irrationally, that they thus perpetuate their status as the Other, second-best, inferiors, mere followers and servants. They yet take pride in that.
By extension, in this fashion Muslims are also consumers of civilisation – Western civilisation that is. However, since civilisation is, and can only be, served as a package, Muslims not only devour the results and facades of Western civilisation, such as “science and manners, arts and crafts, ways of social life, style of culture and conduct of politics, or a conglomeration of these things” (al-Maududi), but also its soul, values and ideological foundation.
And that is where the most painful predicament lies. While consuming Western civilisation, Muslim beliefs, values, morals and life standards are progressively side-lined, and even discarded altogether, in support of some alien and unfitting alternatives. With the intention of securing some external accolades in addition to some internal short-term gains, many Muslims, (mis)guided by their leaders and inspired by the clichés of development, modernity, democracy, “Muslim renaissance” and “Muslim enlightenment”, tragically persist in this unholy crusade.
Needless to say that Muslim youth suffer most from this paralysing difficulty. They are being relentlessly educated, trained, configured and primed to admire, follow and live the essence and products of Western civilisation. All that takes place within the fluid precincts of endless local and international centres, establishments and institutions, which are dedicated for the purpose. Educational systems and institutions, business and commercial centres, entertainment and recreational centres, media establishments and popular culture, lead the way in shaping (alienating and corrupting) the mind, soul and character of especially Muslim youth.
This is regrettably the rule of the day in most Muslim countries nowadays. Concurrently, nonetheless, Muslim youth are being superficially exposed to, and scantily taught, about certain Islamic traditions and norms, which innately – partly or completely – stand at odds with their Western equivalents. Muslim youth learn those things for different reasons, none of which however is related to the core goals of authentic education, Islamization, or acculturation. Rather, such is done for some sentimental, emotional, apologetic and self-exonerating ends.
And we keep wondering why our youth is confused and disoriented, why Muslims with their leaders and governments are generally ignorant, uninspired and directionless, and why in the orb of civilisation-making Muslims are least represented and their voices least heard.
We all know the answer but lack courage and will to admit it and do something genuine about it. Somebody needs to shout, and prove, that “the emperor wears no clothes”.
We feel so comfortable in our inferiority, mediocrity and dependency comfort zones. To follow (and obey) is safe, to lead and be in charge is hard and extremely challenging. It requires guts to do so. It is therefore rightly said that change and real progress begin only when one steps out of his comfort zone, which is nothing but an artificial psychological state.
These mental conditions and behavioural patterns of Muslims beget in them propensities for hypocrisy, dishonesty, apathy and double standards. They weaken them to the core, rendering them ever more vulnerable and bulliable. This in turn creates what Malik Bennabi calls “readiness to be colonised and to accept colonisation”. To him, colonisation of the Muslim world was possible due to colonisation of the Muslim mind, the latter also denoting the root-cause of Muslim widespread moral and psychological degeneration.
The Islamic idea of good life
Western civilisation stems from an array of materialist, humanist, naturalist and evolutionist tendencies. It is by definition anti-spiritual and anti-religious, perceiving those provinces as backward, archaic, restrictive, inhibiting, and as limited to the compass of private and subjective experiences. It is no wonder then that the West and its civilisation are the home of religiophobia, particularly islamophobia. To many in the West, Islam as a complete way of life with an inclusive outlook and global aspirations, plus as the fastest-growing religion in the world, is seen as the only potential challenger and threat to the hegemony of Western civilisation qua colonisation.
That can explain all the former and current hullabaloo concerning Islam, Muslims, and Islamic history as well as culture. That also can explain why Muslims should not wholeheartedly welcome and embrace whatever is served through the agency of Western civilisation. Instead, they must be prudent and selective. They should deal with the prevalent and questionable elements of Western civilisation as something disliked but unavoidable to contend with on a temporary basis and for achieving particular results, until better alternatives are found.
According to the Islamic revealed worldview, things are the polar opposite of what Western civilisation and its anthropogenic or man-made ideologies preach.
In Islam, man was not created except to serve and worship God (‘ibadah), i.e., to submit to the will and authority of God alone, and to live life not of his own accord, but according to the divine plan and guidance of the Creator and Master of all life, including man (al-Dhariyat, 56). Man furthermore was created as God’s vicegerent or viceroy on earth (khalifah) (al-Baqarah, 30), to whom and for whose needs and services everything in the heavens and on the earth had been subjected (taskhir) (al-Jathiyah, 13).
This worldly life constitutes only a single dimension of the multidimensionality of existential reality. As such, this world is but a prelude to the real and eternal life of the Hereafter. The physical reality of this world is transient and conditional. Its relative meaning and significance are tied to the more consequential meaning and significance of the metaphysical world. Yet, its sheer existence is contingent upon the existence of the latter.
On its own, this world is nothing more than a mirage and fantasy. It is a playground for befuddled man’s fancies and whims (Let’s just remember the endless and often boring philosophising by infinite number of philosophers in the East and West, and their inconsistent as well as contradicting concepts and theories). Just as this world should not be pursued at the expense of the Hereafter, the Hereafter, in equal measure, should not be pursued at the expense of this world. Islam does not tolerate excesses of any kind.
There will be no this world without the Hereafter, no physics without metaphysics, no body without the soul, and no success and happiness on earth without the same in Heaven. The goal of man’s existence on earth is to attain through the prescribed servitude and worship the satisfaction and approval of Almighty God, based on which on the Day of Judgement he will be admitted into Paradise (Jannah) where he will live happily ad infinitum.
It follows that God’s pleasure and Paradise are the ultimate objectives of man’s cravings, determination and all work. They are the end of all ends. They are the ends where all other ontological ends lead and where they all converge. Arriving there connotes the rationale of man’s existence and assigned mission, the personification of true happiness, and the validation of actual success.
It is through the prism of this paradigm that this world and everything that transpires therein is to be observed and adjudicated. A good is good, a success is success, a delight is delight, a class is class, and a legitimacy is legitimacy, only if they all are part of and lead to the realisation of the ultimate heavenly good, success, delight, class and legitimacy in the Hereafter.
A segment of man’s honourable terrestrial purpose and mission is to inhabit, “colonise” and settle on the earth (‘imarah al-ard) (Hud, 61). He is to do so responsibly and sustainably. For his merits, man will be abundantly rewarded by his all-Merciful Creator, but for his shortcomings, he will be duly held accountable. The bigger and more detrimental shortcomings, the more serious consequences man will have to face. The matter is so serious that it is correctly held that man’s legacies on earth, coupled with the overall condition of the earth, testify to the quality of man’s stay and operation on earth. If the earth and man’s footprint on it are wholesome, his life and performances are wholesome too, commensurately with the former – and vice versa.
Man lives his earthly life submissively and respectably, taking from and giving back to it, albeit with his eyes permanently fixed on the Hereafter and its ultimate prize. Besides, man is an exceptionally capable, resourceful and creative being. However, whatever he creates – be it an idea, procedure, system, or a physical entity – it is meant only to promote and facilitate the fulfilment of man’s existential purpose. Life is a test. It is a farm, or a meadow, which must be painstakingly cultivated. Harvesting will take place somewhere else.
Man creates means, ways, services and processes that should serve the given ends. Neither ends nor legislative powers are man’s business. His are only executive powers within the context of his worldly status.
Therefore, it is of paramount importance in Islam that a demarcation line be drawn between the infinite authority of the Creator and the limited jurisdiction of creation, between the compelling pragmatism of life and the enticing idealism of man’s mind, between the long-term objectives and short-term interests and means, and between the temptations of the convenience and imminence of the here and now and the “remoteness” of the afterlife. It by no means should be surprising that such transgressions as anthropomorphism, hylotheism, deism, pantheism, atheism, agnosticism, any form of veneration of man or nature, scepticism, etc., are most severely repudiated by Islam.
This way, man’s total being and a compendium of his talents and flairs, including his own material creations, are placed at the service of the spiritual realm. Everything is thus geared towards the latter, pining for it, and steadily progressing towards a union with it and with its profundity and richness.
The meaning of progressive life
What is more, man is created as an innocent and pure being. He is born in the state of his (Islamic) fitrah, or intrinsic nature. He has free will and was furthermore given through holy prophets the divine guidance. This means that man is born on the right (middle and natural) path, and his task in life is just to stay the course without deviating and falling into the abyss of any extremity.
While keeping to his primordial disposition and self, man’s individual and collective duty will be to amplify and diversify means, features and facilities, which will facilitate his recurring day-to-day tasks and functions, and will smooth the overall progress of his life mission. Against the background of this outlook, the ideas of development and refinement (civilisation) would mean to keep placing and nurturing more abundant, better and more efficient facilities, support and help on the road to a total ontological self-actualisation. Whereas backwardness, primitivism and savagery would be the opposite, that is, to keep placing difficulties and obstacles on the same road and so, either considerably slow down or completely hinder the intended progression of man.
This applies equally to the material, ethical, spiritual, intellectual and psychological sides of man. The plan operates at all levels of his individual and collective presence and function. It is not bound by any constraints relating to time and space. Which means that all people, whenever and wherever they live, have equal opportunities to be developed and refined, or backward and primitive. Excessive physical development is not necessarily a good thing. It can be both good and bad, depending on how it is relatable to the spiritual kingdom and man’s role in it.
The ultimate aim is to produce upright, good, content, dynamic, enlightened, creative and forward-looking individuals. Owing to their holistic goodness, they will be at peace with God, self, nature and other people. The order that they establish on earth will be a microcosm of a higher order of things, meanings and experiences for which they live and whence they derive inspiration and direction.
Surely, civilisation is about people, not things; about spirit, not matter; and about the permanence, rather than transience, of life. It is about the truth and certitude, not about falsehood and doubt.
All people have virtually equal opportunities to succeed, or fail, in life (to earn – or not – God’s pleasure and His Paradise). Certain material facilities and circumstances can be advantageous, or otherwise, but in no way can alter the fundamental uniformity and nature of things. Almighty God’s justice, love, kindness and generosity preside over all. The Qur’an retells that nobody can frustrate or cause failure to God’s will and plan.
Since the inception of his terrestrial stay, man always enjoyed the needed capabilities and facilities to live a decent and responsible life, was always exposed to right and wrong, knowledge and ignorance, light and darkness, and to guidance and misguidance, and was free to think and to freely make his choices.
Suffice it to say that the first man on earth, Adam, was a prophet of God. Like all other prophets – and such as followed in their footsteps – he and his life pattern served as the embodiments of all goodness, wisdom, honour and virtue. Inasmuch as Adam and all others succeeded in life, they were perfectly civilised. To theorise otherwise and dwell on the subjects of primitivism, backwardness, rudeness, inadequacy, prehistory, caves, etc., signify nothing but an impact of the stifling materialist, naturalist and evolutionist thought. It signifies anti-civilisation.
From the moment it was imposed on the Muslim mind and his cultural identity, civilisation – and everything that goes with it – was supposed to mean precisely this. It was expected to be promoted only in this light. Which in most instances was the case, but the systematic interferences of the physical and virtual colonisers blurred the matter to such an extent that only their viewpoints became practically discernible.
If we have to talk about Islamic civilisation, it must be in full accordance with the Islamic notions of good, honourable and progressive life. Concomitant with this, Islamic civilisation’s meeting and diverging thrusts with other civilisations ought likewise to be credibly expounded.
That said, in Islam, man is born civilised and is bidden to remain as such. In the process, he is expected to attend to the secondary and complementing aspects of his civilisational enterprise, such as art, architecture, science, technology, crafts, manners, socio-economic systems and norms, deeming them as no more than supplements to, and palpable representations of, what civilisation really is. The identity of his civilisation centres upon its intellectual, spiritual and moral foundation and core. Everything else originates therefrom. Once accomplished, the outer branches and leaves of civilisation are envisaged to return to the latter’s soul for validation and acceptance.
Islamic alternatives for the term “civilisation”
Inasmuch as the revealed message of Islam emphasises that “the noblest and most honourable of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous (god-fearing and pious) of you” (al-Hujurat, 13); that “Allah does not look at your appearance or wealth, but rather He looks at your hearts and actions” (Sahih Muslim); that “the life of this world is but amusement and diversion and adornment and boasting to one another and competition in increase of wealth and children” (al-Hadid, 20); that “the things that endure, good deeds, are best in the sight of your Lord, as rewards, and best as (the foundation for) hopes” (al-Kahf, 46); and that “the life of this world is nothing but a provision of vanities (goods and chattels of deception)” (Alu ‘Imran, 185) – civilisation in Islam should exemplify those principles, both in theory and practice. Its ideals and the exigencies of life should forge a resilient and mutually harmonising partnership. In Islam, civilisation (all-inclusive progress, refinement, civility, success and happiness) is tantamount to life, and vice versa.
However, as expected, Islam addresses differently all the positives that are entailed in the concept of civilisation, elevating them yet further. It developed its own ideas and vocabulary. These two potential Islamic substitutes for the term “civilisation” stand out: ‘umran and hayah tayyibah.
‘Umran is the strongest candidate. It in fact could be translated as civilisation in its Islamic universal meaning and application. ‘Umran is derived from the Qur’anic word ista’mara, which expresses the object of man’s creation and his raison d’etre.
Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) uses ‘umran exactly in that sense. He speaks about “civilisation” per se, but roughly three and a half centuries before the word “civilisation” was even coined. Hence, Muslims should have continued using ‘umran in Arabic throughout, and should have later anglicised, Latinised, Germanised, Gallicised (Frenchified), etc., it – that is to say, universalised it – and should have carried on applying it as such the whole time.
‘Umran is much more comprehensive than hadarah and tamaddun. It is as much a total phenomenon, almost a proper noun, as a definite noumenon (to borrow Emanuel Kant’s expression). It is practically an absolute and unmodified concept. While hadarah and tamaddun, on the other hand, are mere conditions, coupled with descriptions, of ‘umran. As if their existence is contingent, depending on ‘umran.
In Ibn Khaldun’s thought, therefore, hadarah and tamaddun mean no more than “city-living and sedentary lifestyle”, as a dimension and character of ‘umran. In addition, one of Ibn Khaldun’s foremost conclusions is that the qualities of hadarah and taraf (luxury) are the natural destinations of ‘umran and its organic evolutionary trajectory. They spell its rapid decline and ensuing collapse, after which it cries out for renewal.
Hence, Ibn Khaldun articulates such expressions as hadarah al-‘umran (the city-dwelling, urbanism and sedentism of ‘umran) and al-‘umran al-hadari (‘umran described in terms of city-dwelling, urbanism and sedentism).
However, it must be borne in mind that to Ibn Khaldun, and according to the totality of his philosophy of ‘umran, if there is al-‘umran al-hadari, there is also al-’umran al-badawi (‘umran described in terms of villages, desert and nomad lifestyles). The latter is the embryonic form of the former. It denotes the elementary index of ‘umran in general.
Put another way, if there is ‘umran (civilisation) of cities, towns and other forms of human settlements, there is also ‘umran (civilisation) of desert – or Bedouin civilisation – “as found in outlying regions and mountains, in hamlets near suitable pastures in waste regions, and on the fringes of sandy deserts.”
All this shows that neither hadarah nor tamaddun is suitable to exemplify all the meanings and values enclosed in the Islamic vision of civilisation. ‘Umran is the closest to fit the bill. Hence, “Islamic civilisation” should be “Islamic ‘umran”, al-‘umran al-islami in Arabic.
In many circles, however, the significance of ‘umran is narrowed down and diffused to mean “built environment, construction, settlement, development, growth, culture, society, urban affairs, inhabited-ness and populous-ness”. Jamil Akbar, for one, in his studies on Islamic architecture and urbanism identifies built environment (the man-made environment as the setting for human activity) with ‘imarah al-‘ard (inhabiting and developing the earth, i.e., generating ‘umran).
There is also in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia the Saudi Umran Society, which is located within the College of Architecture and Planning, King Saud University in Riyadh. The chief objective of the Society is “to deal with the different urban affairs in addition to constituting a forum that would gather specialists and those interested in the field.”
The scope of ‘umran should be significantly widened.
Ibn Khaldun’s science of ‘umran
As a small detour, on account of Ibn Khaldun’s visionary disposition, his science of ‘umran – as he explicitly calls it at the beginning of his “Muqaddimah” – is not just a system of sociology. Rather, the same stands as a general framework for theoretical as well as applied science of human society and its civilisation (‘umran).
Ibn Khaldun’s methods were based on pragmatism. He was not an idealist. He studied ‘umran and its eternal laws the way they are, nothing more and nothing less. His historical, naturalistic and inductive modes of argumentation prevented him from falling into rampant anti-intellectual traps. He deliberately avoided “political utopianism”. In a way, he was an empiricist.
As far as ‘umran is concerned, Ibn Khaldun’s realism and practicality obliged him not to dwell extensively on abstract and ideal models. He did not really care to evaluate the events, people and outcomes in relation to what and who was more, and what and who was less, Islamic. As if he left judgments to God. That might be a reason why his book sections end with such emphatic declarations as, for example, “God gives success and guidance”, “God knows better”, “God inherits the earth and whomever is upon it”, “this is how God proceeds with His creatures”, etc.
But he gave frequent hints as to what “Islamic ‘umran (civilisation)” and other forms of the same could be. For instance, when speaking about human ‘umran (civilisation) as a whole, requiring political leadership for its organisation, he clearly differentiates between the model based upon the religious law which is divinely revealed by God, and the model that is based solely upon rational politics.
In the first scenario, people are obliged to submit to the divine revealed law “in view of their belief in reward and punishment in the other world, (things that were indicated) by the person who brought them (their religious law).” In the second scenario, people are obliged to submit to the human-made law “in view of the reward they expect from the ruler after he has become acquainted with what is good for them.”
Ibn Khaldun then proceeded to affirm in most unequivocal terms: “The first (type of rule) is useful for this world and for the other world, because the lawgiver (Almighty God) knows the ultimate interest of the people and is concerned with the salvation of man in the other world. The second (secular type of rule) is useful only for this world.”
‘Umran as a state of mind and soul
Islamic ‘umran (civilisation) is a state of mind and soul, subtly woven into a pattern made up of time and space dynamics. A complex and all-embracing whole is thus created. Neither pole can aptly operate, nor achieve its potential, on its own. That is why the Qur’anic notion of isti’mar (the natural goal of which is ‘umran) is preceded by the commandment of ‘ibadah (worshipping God alone) and the affirmation of God’s Oneness (tawhid) (Hud, 61).
In order to bring the matters of ‘umran (inhabiting, developing, enjoying and sustaining the earth) close to man’s heart, man is then in the same Qur’anic verse reminded that he too was created from earth. Tacitly man is reminded that he was created as God’s vicegerent, or viceroy, on earth and as the earth’s guardian. Which means that people’s ‘umran is them and they are their ‘umran. A good ‘umran benefits only them, whereas a bad ‘umran affects nobody else but them. ‘Umran is an unmistaken testament of people’s earthly success or failure.
Considering the inborn nature of man and the constant, in consort with turbulent, fluctuations of life, man is destined to oscillate between civilisational rises and falls, and between victories and defeats. But he should learn his lessons and should always come back stronger and more determined. What matters most, under all circumstances, is the state of his mind and soul; it is his character and integrity. That being so, in the same Qur’anic verse, having made mention of isti’mar (‘umran), God reminds people to repeatedly ask forgiveness of Him and to turn to Him in repentance, for He is “always near, ready to answer” (Hud, 61). Without the divine guidance on-board, there can be no totally good and progressive civilisation (‘umran).
Islamic ‘umran (civilisation) could also be called hayah tayyibah. The feminine word tayyibah (its masculine version is tayyib) is derived from the Arabic verb taba/yatibu, which means to be “good”, “pure” and “upright”. Related to the verb are the noun tibah, which means “goodness”, “purity” and “righteousness”, and the adjective tayyib, which means “good”, “pure” and “righteous”.
God says in the Qur’an; “Whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, while he is a believer, We will surely cause him to live a good and happy life (hayah tayyibah), and We will surely give them their reward (n the Hereafter) according to the best of what they used to do” (al-Nahl, 97).
By hayah tayyibah it is meant a life full of appropriate meaning, value, respect, purity, goodness, contentment, ease, facility, lawful provisions, God’s blessings and His pleasure. By its very nature, this type of life is a precursor to hayah tayyibah in the Hereafter.
It goes without saying that hayah tayyibah can be the desired condition of ‘umran (civilisation) and also its equivalent, both conceptually with regard to semantics and practically. It can be both a means and an end. It can be an alternative word for “Islamic civilisation”.
Whatever the case may be, it must be mentioned that in Islam, the word tayyib is very comprehensive and profound. It signifies a world of its own, so to speak.
To begin with, the Qur’an calls a good, clean and productive land al-balad al-tayyib. It yields rich produce by the permission of God at all times (al-A’raf, 58). In a similar way, all things, occurrences, dealings, environments, as well as persons, that are tayyib (good, clean and productive) can only lead to and generate more tayyib.
Tayyib is an antidote to depravity and all sorts of impurity. It incessantly breeds only more tayyib, just as “barren soil (land, life systems and milieus) yields nothing but poor produce (or it springs up hardly anything useful)” (al-A’raf, 58).
Moreover, behind everything that happens in the heavens and on the earth stands Almighty God who is Tayyib (the Good, the Pure, the Kind and the Source as well as Bestower of all goodness, wholesomeness and purity) and who accepts only that which is tayyib (good and pure) in deed, saying and thought.
God likewise blesses people with good provision, making only the good, pure and beneficial things lawful (tayyibat), and prohibiting the bad ones whether in food, drinks, deeds, manners and beliefs.
This leads to the creation of good, pure and virtuous men (tayyibun) and women (tayyibat) who are bent but on living good, pure and virtuous lives. They do things that are good (tayyib), shunning the bad or evil ones (khabith). They heed the words of their Creator: “Not equal are things that are bad (khabith) and things that are good (tayyib) even though the abundance of the bad may dazzle you. So be mindful of Allah, O people of reason, so you may be successful” (al-Ma’idah, 100).
In addition, God supports good and pure men and women (tayyibun and tayyibat) with the good, authentic and firm word of faith (kalimah tayyibah). The word is compared to “a good tree (shajarah tayyibah), firmly rooted, reaching out with its branches towards the sky” (Ibrahim, 24, 27). Those men and women will be rewarded on the Day of Judgment with Paradise and its goodly and splendid mansions (masakin tayyibah) (al-Saff, 12).
All this can only take place in a context that is infused with an amalgamation of the heavenly and earthly goodness, virtue and integrity. That context with its people and their productive ways of living becomes a quintessence of everything good and positive. It becomes a pure, good and happy land whose soul and individuality are its ‘umran (civilisation). That land is described as tayyib and the life in it as tayyib too. Its ‘umran oozes the same mood, and hence can be characterised only as tayyib as well.
No wonder that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) called Madinah – the first Islamic city where the first and most exemplary Islamic ‘umran (civilisation) was realised – Taybah or Tayyibah. In doing so, the Prophet (pbuh) wanted to teach people essential lessons concerning the actual meaning and scope of good life and what its development, orientation and refinement penchants ought to be.
The Prophet (pbuh) called Madinah Tabah as well, whose meaning is similar to that of Taybah and Tayyibah. Apart from what has been said beforehand, the Prophet (pbuh) named Madinah taybah and tabah perhaps by analogy with the Qur’anic reference to the successful and prosperous homeland of Sheba which was called baldah tayyibah (a land most goodly, pure and happy) (Saba’, 15).
Substance versus form, and quality versus quantity
The Qur’an is very particular about the authentic import of ‘umran (civilisation). It clearly distinguishes between substance and sheer form, and between quality and mere quantity. Hollow forms and vain quantities are useless. They deceive their devotees, blinding them and incapacitating them from truly moving forward. Such a state of affairs is perilous in the extreme.
The Qur’an repeatedly warns, for instance: “Do they not travel in the land, and see what the end of those before them was? They were superior to them in strength, and they tilled the earth and populated it (and built upon it) in greater numbers (‘umran) than these (pagans) have done, and there came to them their Messengers with clear proofs. Surely, Allah wronged them not, but they used to wrong themselves. Then evil was the end of those who did evil, because they belied the signs of Allah and used to mock them” (al-Rum, 9).
Commenting on this verse, al-Maududi categorically stated: “This contains an answer to the argument of those who regard mere material progress as the sign of a nation’s being righteous. They argue like this: ‘How is it possible that Allah will make fuel of Hell those people who have exploited the resources of the earth on such a large scale, who have constructed wonderful works on the earth and given birth to grand civilisations?’ The Qur’an refutes this argument, thus: ‘Such works of construction have been built before also by many nations on a large scale. Then, have you not seen that those nations have perished along with their civilisation and their grand and magnificent ‘works’? There is no reason why the Law of God that has so treated in the world the mere material progress of a people lacking the right belief and conduct, will not treat them likewise in the next world and make them fuel of Hell’.”
God also says in the Qur’an: “So how many a town did We destroy while it was unjust, so it was fallen down upon its roofs, and (how many a) deserted well and palace raised high. Have they not travelled in the land so that they should have hearts with which to understand, or ears with which to hear? For surely it is not the eyes that are blind, but blind are the hearts which are in the breasts” (al-Hajj, 45-46).
“And how many a generation have We destroyed before them who were better in possessions and (outward) appearance?” (Maryam, 74).
“The ‘Ad (people) rejected the messengers. When their brother (Prophet) Hud said to them: ‘Will you not guard (against evil)? Surely I am a faithful messenger to you; therefore guard against (the punishment of) Allah and obey me. And I do not ask you any reward for it; surely my reward is only with the Lord of the worlds. Do you build on every height a monument? Vain is it that you do. And you make strong fortresses that perhaps you may abide eternally. And when you lay hands (on men) you lay hands (like) tyrants. So guard against (the punishment of) Allah and obey me. And be careful of (your duty to) Him Who has given you abundance of what you know. He has given you abundance of cattle and children; and gardens and fountains. Surely I fear for you the chastisement of a grievous day’” (al-Shu’ara’, 123-135).
At any rate, on closer inspection, most ancient “civilisational” stories and their manners do not tell us how things are to be done, but rather how and why they are not to be done. Those “civilisational” legacies serve as signs of the spiritual and moral bankruptcies and failures of their authors. They are not to be admired, but pitied and learned from.
The same mistakes should not be repeated by the current and future generations. But the modern especially Western man, it seems, learned nothing. He obdurately walks in the footsteps of all his arrogant predecessors who in the end were wiped off the face of the earth and became buried under the rubble (junk) of history: forgotten, ignored, despised, loathed, cursed, and their accounts used for some vain pursuits and amusement.
This explains why the Prophet (pbuh) was never impressed, even in the slightest degree, by his Roman (Byzantine), Persian and other contemporaries. On the contrary, he perceived them as sources of most improprieties and wrong he had been sent to counter. Civilisation-building is a serious business. It cannot be inspired by, nor associated with, myopic, prejudiced and personal programs.
Balad, madinah and qaryah
Towards the same end is the Qur’an’s categorisation of the concepts of balad, madinah and qaryah.
Balad or baldah means any designated space or part of the earth, irrespective of whether it is developed or not (whether it features ‘umran or not). It occurs in different forms 19 times in the Qur’an.
Madinah simply means “city”, including smaller towns, with all of their physical aspects and features. It also includes a way of life characteristic of cities and towns. There is nothing inherently either complimentary or judgmental in the word as regards the character of madinah’s ‘umran. Madinah and mada’in as plural are mentioned 17 times in the Qur’an.
Qaryah also means “city”, “smaller town”, and even “village”. It occurs in different forms 57 times in the Qur’an. However, a significant additional sense, most of the time, is attached to it.
One of the meanings of qaryah’s root word, qarw, is to “be persistent”, “unified” and “joined” in a thing or a method. When a group of people are ‘ala qarwin wahidin, they are on the same path and do the same things. Put another way, they are on the same wavelength, sharing similar interests and opinions. In a qaryah, people live in the same way and share basically the same things, including their ‘umran.
Therefore, according to the Qur’anic message, when the residents of a city or a town – or most of them – reject their prophet and his divine teachings, their settlement is customarily – not exclusively, though – called qaryah. That is the case because those people adopted a similar thought and performance pattern. They were ‘ala qarwin wahidin. In this way, their innocent settlement with all its innocent constituents was transformed into an arena of malevolence and sin. Of the 57 Qur’anic references to qaryah, 45 are of a reproving genus.
Accordingly, in the Qur’an, only qaryahs, or qura as plural, have been punished and destroyed. No balad (baldah) or madinah has been destroyed. Only when a balad or madinah morphed into qaryah, was action taken. This means that human settlements, from simple villages to sophisticated cities, with all their ingenuous and necessary features, conveniences and services, in essence, are justifiable and permissible, and remain so until proven otherwise by means of certain human acts. Evaluating a civilisation (‘umran) can similarly be done through the lens of this same principle.
To further corroborate the point, it is notable that sometimes a same settlement is called qaryah in the context of its inhabitants’ misbehaviour, but is called merely madinah or balad (baldah) in the context of its ingenuous municipal self.
Moreover, in two Qur’anic surahs (chapters): Yasin (verses 13, 20) and al-Kahf (verses 77, 82), one settlement is called in a single context both madinah (implying its civic individuality) and qaryah (implying its people’s misconduct). Such is the precision, dynamism and richness of Qur’anic expositions.
In passing, the city of Makkah is metaphorically called umm al-qura (the Mother of all settlements). The meaning could be twofold. Firstly, in the restricted sense of qaryah as mere city or town, Makkah is the most important, most inspiring, most influential and most looked-up-to settlement.
Secondly, since the Qur’anic verses in which the idiom umm al-qura was presented (al-An’am, 92; al-Shura, 7) were revealed in Makkah when the city was under the control of polytheists who at that time violently rejected Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his mission, eventually expelling him therefrom, the same idiom might have contained some disapproving undertones. It might have meant a city whose majority of people were united (‘ala qarwin wahidin) in rejecting and mistreating the Prophet (pbuh) and his little followers. But after the peaceful conquest of Makkah, towards the end of the Prophet’s successful mission, the second meaning was completely given up in favour of the former. It became obsolete.
What is the golden age of Islam?
The concept of the Islamic golden age is one of the most widespread misconceptions about the general meaning of civilisation and Islamic civilisation in particular. It refers to a period of Islamic history approximately from the 8th to the 13th century, which is characterised by a remarkable scientific, cultural, economic and educational flourishing. It has put Islam and Muslims on the map. Dozens of books and articles have been composed on the topic.
The subject concerns the inauguration and prolific functioning of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, the translation movement that targeted the world’s classical knowledge, the government’s lavish patronisation of knowledge-seeking and scholars, the emergence of various institutions, and Muslims reaching unprecedented heights in various religious and worldly sciences, making them world leaders par excellence.
Despite the fact that most things said about the “Islamic golden age” are in principle true, needless to say that the concept is an outcome of the Western colonial thinking. It was tinted with its ideological colouring. It was part of Orientalism as a European invention, aimed at “dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient” (Said).
The issue is two-pronged.
First, the Westerners observed Islam and Muslims exclusively through the perspective of their own narrow criteria. They tried to bend the civilisational performance of Muslims to the categories of their civilisational templates. However, when the former, naturally, refused to be bent, their misunderstanding intensified. They became more intrigued, yet frustrated.
Relying solely on subjective benchmarking, the Westerners were able to identify in Islamic civilisation only some of its exterior manifestations (branches and leaves), such as those concerning science, technology, art, architecture and economic prosperity. Divorcing themselves from their immaterial underpinning and substance, even those, more often than not, were gravely misunderstood.
As a result, the overarching spiritual, ethical and humanising dimensions of Islamic civilisation were excluded. By way of illustration, people were able to see certain material advances realised during the professed golden age, but did not pay as much attention to the fact that Islamic spirituality was more than ever on the decline, authentic scholarship was in disarray and on the loose, Islamic orthodoxy was sporadically in jeopardy, and that political decentralisation and fragmentation, which perpetuated the scourges of disunity and schism, were the rule of the day.
Muslim, especially Aristotelian, philosophy and theosophical, or pseudo, Sufism – which for obvious reasons never enjoyed wide currency within the mainstream of Islam – were also high on the agenda because they could be easily aligned with the interests of mind colonisation. Coupled with myriads of premeditated misunderstandings and outright fabrications, they were often promoted in lieu of Islam’s true spirituality and intellectualism. They were seen as the zing of the “golden age”. Their modern popularity is largely due to the efforts of Western scholarship, rather than that of Muslims. Anyhow, the myth, mystery, and in present age, distortion as well as misrepresentation, of the Orient had to live on at all costs.
Second, most Western scholars have come to hold that “Islamic civilisation is a continuation of past civilisations, especially of the Roman and the Greek civilisations, and that the Arabs shuffled the old elements in a new way and just changed their appearance to make it seem a different civilisation” (al-Maududi).
Islamic civilisation was seen as an intermediate and “messenger” between classical antiquity and the nascent phases of modernity. Hence, Shelomo Goitein titled his 1963 article as “Between Hellenism and Renaissance – Islam, the Intermediate Civilisation”.
Stressing how Islamic philosophy is perceived in the Western intellectual tradition, Seyyed Hossein Nasr recaps this outlook thus: “Islamic philosophy appears as simply Graeco-Alexandrian philosophy in Arabic dress, a philosophy whose sole role was to transmit certain important elements of the heritage of antiquity to the medieval West.”
In other words, apart from being a supply line and a conduit of various intellectual outputs, together with cultural forms, to the West, which might otherwise have died out, Muslims and their civilisation also conveniently plugged the holes in the ways the history and disposition of Western civilisation were presented.
As such, in a way, Islamic civilisation – which already had its heyday (its golden age) – is a part of Western civilisation. It became upgraded and surpassed by the latter. And in conformity with all the conventional codes and laws of inference, Western civilisation is only to chart the course. Everybody else, especially Muslims, are to follow, or at best, play a secondary role. That logic, at the same time, serves as the basic tenet of current globalisation which, predictably, is often seen as global westernisation.
The first person who used the idiom “the golden age of Islam” was Josias Leslie Porter (d. 1889), an Irish minister, missionary and traveller (mainly for proselytisation purposes), in his “A Handbook for Travelers in Syria and Palestine” (1858). He speaks about Saracenic (Islamic) art whose “best specimens are, like Mohammedanism itself, rapidly decaying.” He then remarked that Damascus was rich in such buildings which, however, were mere “relics of the golden age of Islam, long since passed.” As innocent as it may seem at face value, the idiom was a poisoned cup.
In truth, the Prophet’s time and the time of his immediate successors represent the golden age of Islam and its civilisation. It was then that every aspect of Islam, as the guidance and framework for ultimate success and happiness in both worlds, was most genuinely accomplished, regardless of how its material displays were conceptualised and interpreted by subsequent generations. It was then furthermore that Islam and Muslims were in the best of conditions insofar as their status and mission were concerned.
It is not exaggerating to say that every authentic good Muslims enjoy today, and most authentic goods the world enjoys today, are due to the civilisational feats of the earliest Muslim generations. That is why every sincere Muslim reminisces about those times, wishing and trying to bring its spirit to the dismal contemporary context. Which is the only way to bring about a “Muslim renaissance”.
The Prophet (pbuh) said: “The best people are those of my generation, then those who come after them, then those who come after them. Then, there will come people after them whose testimony precedes their oaths and their oaths precede their testimony” (Sahih al-Bukhari).
Also: “Do not revile my companions, for by the One in Whose hand is my soul, if one of you were to spend the equivalent of Uhud (mountain) in gold, it would not amount to a mudd (a basic unit of measurement of mass) of one of them, or half of that” (Sahih al-Bukhari).***