The concept of civilization is questionable. It was conceived in the 18th century.
As part of the fast-developing Enlightenment thought, civilization 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 civilization.
By the way, Adam Ferguson was the first who used in English the term “civilization”. In French, it was Victor de Riquety Marquis de Mirabeau (d. 1789), a French economist and a leading figure of the French Enlightenment.
“Civilization” was a Western construct. It was created in the milieus of Western colonization and imperialism and was used for their justification and consolidation. It was imposed as such on the rest of the world, including the Muslim world.
In the course of the past two centuries, the Muslim mind had to grapple with the concept and its monolithic mould, producing mixed results.
Additionally – and as painfully – civilization was an embodiment of the Western worldview(s) and its moral principles and values, which however are deeply rooted in the de-sacralisation of existence at large.
If the Western mind from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment era was at war with God and Heaven, so was its civilization.
As much paradoxically as expectedly, civilization has often come to be closely connected with conflicts, conquests and dominance.
Since the term was coined, about two-and-a-half centuries ago, many horrible things have been committed in the name of civilization.
There were yet times when the modern “civilized” man behaved like the most primitive and most savage being the planet earth has ever known. He still does.
Islam and Civilization
Inasmuch as the revealed message of Islam emphasizes that:
… the noblest and most honorable 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)” (Al ‘Imran, 185) – civilization in Islam should exemplify those principles, both in theory and practice.
Its ideals and the exigencies of life should forge a resilient and mutually harmonizing partnership. In Islam, civilization (all-inclusive progress, refinement, civility, success and happiness) is tantamount to life, and vice versa.
The ultimate aim of civilization is to produce upright, good, content, dynamic, enlightened, creative and forward-looking individuals.
The order that such people will establish on earth will be a microcosm of a higher existential order of things, meanings and experiences for which they live and whence they derive inspiration and direction.
Surely, civilization 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 scepticism.
However, as expected, Islam addresses differently all the positives that are entailed in the concept of civilization, elevating them yet further. It developed its own ideas and vocabulary.
These two potential Islamic substitutes for the term “civilization” stand out: ‘umran and hayah tayyibah.
‘Umran is the strongest candidate. It in fact could be translated as civilization in its Islamic universal meaning and application. ‘Umran is derived from the Quranic word ista’mara, which expresses the object of man’s creation and his raison d’etre.