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Civilization: Materialistic or Spiritual?

Lately, I have been occupied with reading a number of books by various authors on the Muslim civilization, be it during its prosperous and flourishing periods or otherwise. It goes without saying that this civilization represented huge advancement in the life of mankind across several centuries.

However, I have noticed that there are some people –Muslims and non-Muslims alike– who cast doubt on the value of such civilization under the pretext that it represents nothing if compared to the wonders of modern western civilization with all its innovations and conquests in the area of science and technology.

Therefore, I found it necessary to tackle such underestimation of our civilization and its influence when it was paramount and duly seen by others to bring happiness to humanity and life. Indeed, this is the real objective of all and each human civilization, namely, to draw man nearer to the peak of happiness and continuous joy. In this domain, what our own civilization has achieved cannot be compared to any other human civilization, be it in the east or west.

He who reads about the history of human civilizations will find this as clear as the rays of the sun on a bright sunny day and will find unquestionable proofs and evidences that defy any challenge or attempt to look it down.


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Civilization defined

Civilization, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, represents “An advanced state of intellectual, cultural, and material development in human society, marked by progress in the arts and sciences, the extensive use of writing, and the appearance of complex political and social institutions.”

It is notable that this definition of civilization excludes a very important, rather, crucial aspect of development that is the spiritual aspect without which nothing can really be described as beneficial!


Foundation of western civilization

It is an established fact that western civilization came into being through the contact between the west and the Muslim civilization through the Arabic institutions in Andalusia (now Spain) and other Muslim similar regions. Yet, a fierce and long struggle between the church and science began; a matter which eventually ended with the victory of science. During that period, scientists, philosophers and thinkers suffered from imprisonment, torturing, hunting and being charged with infidelity.

Back then, the western civilization was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy with its pagan and materialistic disposition side by side with the severe enmity toward religion and bitter hatred toward the church’s authority as well as representatives. Consequently, the basis on which the western civilization has been founded was pure materialistic apart from the spirituality of religion and its influence on the souls of individuals as well as the public.


Evaluating Civilizations

Two important factors need to be considered when assessing and comparing civilizations:

First: Each civilization has two constituent elements: a materialistic element and an ethical element.

As for the materialistic element, there is no doubt that any recent civilization is superior to all past civilizations as it takes from the ones that preceded it and bases on the achievements of previous civilizations be it intentionally or automatically. Yes, indeed, this is one of the laws set by Allah, the Creator of the universe, for the development of life and its means!

Given this, no one should have demanded the Pharaonic civilization, for example, to have achieved the like of what the modern western civilization has achieved, especially when the former declined and faded away many thousands of years ago!

Were it valid for us to compare between civilizations on the basis of the achievements in the material, technical and technological aspect, it would then be our right to despise and disesteem all past civilizations as the current one has innovated much and much of life facilities and luxurious means which were unknown to all past civilizations which even had never dreamt of obtaining even a tiny amount thereof. Given this, one can assuredly say that the material element of civilizations does not fit to be the basis for making any valid comparison between them in any way.

In the Ever-Glorious Qur’an, Allah the Almighty gives us some examples of those past peoples and civilizations who surpassed their contemporaries in the aspect of material achievements, yet they were unbelievers and disobedient. Therefore, the torment of Allah was sent upon them leaving nothing but some of their traces to be a sign for those who contemplate. Allah the Almighty says :

{Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with ‘Aad –

[With] Iram – who had lofty pillars,

The likes of whom had never been created in the land?

And [with] Thamud, who carved out the rocks in the valley?

And [with] Pharaoh, owner of the stakes? –

[All of] whom oppressed within the lands

And increased therein the corruption.

So your Lord poured upon them a scourge of punishment.

Indeed, your Lord is in observation.} (Al-Fajr 89:6-14)

As for the ethical and moral element, it is the element with which civilizations are constantly remembered and through which these civilizations could have performed their mission, namely, bringing happiness to humankind and taking them away from fears and pains.

Our great Muslim civilization has surpassed all former and later civilizations in this respect. Indeed, this is an achievement for our civilization to be remembered with up till the end of days.

In other words, it suffices our civilization to have achieved that over a long period of time through history; as the objective of a civilization, as stated earlier, is to bring happiness, ease and security to man.

Emphasizing and commending this spiritual element of civilization, Allah the Almighty praises the Muslim ummah for and stipulates for its goodness and superiority in this present world that they observe the spiritual responsibility of enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong:

{You are the best nation produced [as an example] for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah.}(Al `Imran 3:110)

He, Glory be His, also shows in another ayah what a civilized ummah should do and care about when He establishes it on the earth. Allah says :

{Those who, if We give them authority in the land, establish prayer and give zakah and enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong.} (Al-Hajj 22:41)

Second: The valid basis for comparing between civilizations cannot be the material measurement, or the quantity, or the numbers, or the territorial properties, or luxury in terms of living, inhabitation, nutrition or clothing. Instead, civilizations are to be compared according to the impact they had on humanity.

This is quite similar to the battles of war which should not be compared on the basis of the equipment and numbers each army had. To prove this, the decisive battles and wars in the ancient and middle history would look something very small when compared to the battles and wars of WWII for example, as far as the number of troops and means of fighting are concerned. Yet, those past battles and wars still have their significant value in history due to the great role they played back then in the history of humankind.

Battles such as Badr, Hittin, `Ein Jallut and Qadisiyyah, all of which were decisive battles in history and, hence, they were recorded with letters of light in the books of history. Neither the fewness of the warring armies’ numbers, nor the simplicity of their arming has ever diminished the value of such great battles in any way.

Finally, one should not ignore the fact that the Muslim ummah which established the great World civilization is described in the Qur’an by the Most Just Ruler and the Most Truthful One as the bestummah that has been raised up for mankind. Now, let us be up to the expectations and up to what the Almighty praised us for through working towards restoring our past glory and reviving our hearts to do what we are commanded to do by Allah the Almighty.

About Dr. Ali Al-Halawani
Dr. Ali Al-Halawani is Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Translation Studies. He is an author, translator, and writer based in Canada. To date, Al-Halawani authored over 400 original articles on Islam and Muslims, most of which can be accessed on and other famous websites. He has recently started to self-publish his articles and new books, which are available on Amazon and Kindle. You can reach him at [email protected].