Civilization is generally defined as an advanced state of the development and organization of human society, encompassing culture, science, technology, industry, government and urban development. The concept of civilization, and attempts to precisely define it, kept changing throughout history (as man was getting more and more advanced and civilized). It is still used in several ways, signifying different things to different people, as a result of additional socio-politico-economic characteristics that people started associating civilization with and wanted them to be included as part of the criteria for defining civilization. Human history, by and large, is seen as an upward movement from primitive conditions to civilization.
Undoubtedly, this perception is an upshot of the theory of evolution by natural selection, whose framework has been adopted as the foundation for a cumulative understanding of the majority of sciences, especially life sciences and their numerous branches. Evolution is regarded as the greatest unifying theory in most of those sciences. According to the same theory, man, too, originated from apelike ancestors over a period of approximately six million years. Human civilization was the net result of the whole process, which, nonetheless, keeps evolving in response to the dynamic forces of the infinite development of human society and its organization and function.
However, some scientists believe that human species has reached its biological pinnacle and is no longer capable of changing. Controversial as it is, the view entails that both culture and civilization will be greatly affected thereby. In the worse scenario, their development will also grind to a halt. In terms of life quality, this is the best it is going to get.
Others, on the other hand, argue that evolution is ongoing and that humans as well as their civilizations are still being influenced by powerful evolutionary forces. Evolutionary events are unpredictable. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next and where we are headed.
In contrast, Islam holds that man is created by Almighty Allah. There was no such thing as Godless evolution, as put forth by the proponents of the above view. Man is created as an honourable being. He is God’s vicegerent on earth to whom and whose services everything in the heavens and on the earth had been subjected and made subservient. Man is tasked with such a noble mission that it, if properly carried out, can elevate man to degrees higher than those of angels.
It follows that man is created civilized, or at least with a propensity to become civilized, for civilization is not solely concerned about a state of the material development and organization of human society. Surely, civilization is more consequential, meaningful and holistic than that.
Every person in every time and space is born with essentially the same foremost physical, intellectual, spiritual and moral capacities and qualities. Everyone’s task is to cultivate those abilities and merits, and put them in the service of God as well as humanity. As a being endowed with a remarkable heavenly mission, man is to be judged only in terms of his successful implementation – or otherwise – of the same. The inclusive legacy that man generates in the process of discharging his vicegerency mission is what Islam recognizes as civilization.
It goes without saying, therefore, that at the heart of civilization, both as a concept and sensory reality, stands man with his principled mission, dignity and total wellbeing. Civilization is not about material things, assets and possessions, unless they are generated and employed only to serve the former. They are but civilizational means; the former is the civilizational aim.
A good civilization means a definite testimony to, and evidence of, a community’s ontological success story. Every community’s failure to produce such a successful narrative, inscribed on the pages and various aspects of its civilizational output, connotes ontological primitiveness and backwardness, irrespective of where and when such a failure occurred. That means that the earliest communities on earth could be as civilized as the most contemporary ones could be backward and primitive.
In other words, genuine civilization signifies heavenly success and the attaining of Almighty Allah’s pleasure in this world and the Hereafter. Similarly, primitiveness signifies heavenly failure and the incurring of Allah’s wrath in this world and the Hereafter. It is on account of this, for example, that all Muslims regard Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the first and most exemplary generation of Muslims as most civilized who lived most civilized lives, in that they were best people and most successful with regard to the fulfilment of their earthly mission. They are now in the most sublime companionship of the Hereafter, enjoying the fruits of their efforts and struggles. And that is exactly what every Muslim’s ultimate aspiration is: to succeed and become thus civilized. On that note, a community’s material progress, which is marred by its people’s epidemic spiritual and moral decadence, will alone never genuinely appeal to a true Muslim.
During Prophet Muhammad’s life and mission, there were two overwhelming superpowers of the age: the Persian and the Roman Empires. However, he was never awestruck in the slightest by the power or achievements of either of them. On the contrary, he saw them as the epitomes and promoters of the wrong ways, so they needed to be corrected. In his letter to Heraclius, the Byzantine emperor, the Prophet (pbuh) among other things wrote: “I invite you with the invitation of Islam. If you accept Islam -- you will find peace, God will give your reward in double. If you turn away, you will bear the sin of the Arians.”
Genuine civilization should benefit the whole of mankind, and its wholesome legacy never to fade away from the annals of history. Civilizations cannot yield dark ages and universally depressing episodes in human history. By the same token, they cannot be associated with widespread and unjustifiable destruction, bloodshed, corruption, manipulation, oppression and injustice. Nor can they be founded on such principles as “might is right”, “the survival of the fittest”, “double standards”, “the law of the jungle” and “the exploitation of the weak by the strong”, benefiting and serving a group of people, but causing misery to others. Indeed, those are the unmistaken characteristics of truest primitiveness, backwardness and barbarism.
One of the main problems with modern West-driven civilization is that it is excessively Godless, materialistic and hedonistic. Its exclusive target is physical pleasure, comfort and convenience, often adopting unnatural and perverse ways. However, it is a transcendent tenet that unnatural and deviant ways always lead to proportionately unnatural and aberrant outcomes. Some of the most alarming consequences of the unnatural and aberrant ways in modern civilization are environmental degradation, depletion of natural resources, destruction of ecosystems and extinction of wildlife, unsustainable cities, urban development and architecture, lack of genuine contentment and security, and sedentary lifestyles.
Such is the quintessence of modern lifestyles that they indirectly on a personal level breed depression, anxiety, scepticism and a myriad of unhealthy habits and practices. The situation is so severe that it almost amounts to a painful slow suicide. For example, according to a study, in almost half of developed countries, one out of every two people is overweight or obese. These populations are expected to get even heavier in the near future, and in some countries two out of three people are projected to be obese within 10 years. In some Muslim countries in the Middle East, where westernized lifestyles are being embraced like never before, 75 percent of the population is overweight and well over a third is considered obese.
Undeniably, that is the obesity epidemic of global proportions.
Since man is born with fitrah (the natural disposition/inclination/sound human nature that Allah instilled in mankind), incessantly yearning for acknowledging and worshipping the Creator and Master of all creation, Almighty Allah, he is intrinsically civilized, enjoying an inborn penchant for genuine civilization. Man thus needs only to stay the course and remain true to himself while discharging his terrestrial duties towards himself, God, other people and the whole of creation. He is commissioned but to construct, nurture and sustain elements of civilization, appreciating first-hand their immediate and countless benefits. Man cannot rebel against himself and plunge into the abyss of backwardness, savagery and chaos in the name of whatever phony alternatives he may invent instead.
It was due to this that no sooner had Allah created Adam, the first man and Prophet on earth, than He taught him “…the nature of all things; then He placed them before the angels and said: ‘Tell Me the nature of these if you are right.’ They said: ‘Glory to You, of knowledge we have none save that You have taught us: in truth it is You who are perfect in knowledge and wisdom.’ He said: ‘O Adam, tell them their natures.’ When he had told them Allah said: ‘Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of heaven and earth and I know what you reveal and what you conceal?’" (al-Baqarah, 31-33).
Having been taught the names and nature of all things, and having been given ultimate guidance, ensuring that whoever followed it experienced neither fear nor grief, Adam was a civilized man. He likewise provided a civilizational blueprint for people to follow and be as civilized during his time and afterwards. Because of this status of his, even angels were asked to prostrate themselves before Adam.
Moreover, Adam knew and possessed everything he needed to succeed on earth. And he did succeed, and is now enjoying himself in Paradise (jannah), which is the only wish of each and every truth seeker and follower from every generation. That is the only goal they live and build civilizations for. But along the lines of the theory of evolution, Adam, as the earliest human being, would have been most primitive and backward, living as a savage in a cave, which is both preposterous and blasphemous.
Prophet Nuh (Noah)
Nuh was either the second or third prophet in Islam, perhaps nine generations after Adam. His epoch, together with that of Adam, represents the dawn of human existence and civilization on earth. Nevertheless, he demonstrated that he was highly civilized. What he was calling people to was nothing but the creation and enjoying of a profoundly virtuous civilization anchored in the metaphysical truths that had been revealed to him by the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. He was calling people not to be deceived and regress towards primitiveness and backwardness.
He thus used to tell his people: “O my People! I am to you a warner, clear and open; that you should worship Allah, fear Him and obey me, so He may forgive you your sins and give you respite for a stated term: for when the term given by Allah is accomplished, it cannot be put forward: if you only knew” (Nuh, 2-4).
Also: “Ask forgiveness from your Lord; for He is Oft-Forgiving; He will send rain to you in abundance, give you increase in wealth and sons, and bestow on you gardens and bestow on you rivers (of flowing water)” (Nuh, 10-12).
After they had rejected him, Nuh, as part of his continuous admonitions to his rebellious people, disclosed some extraordinary truths which could be known and articulated only in highly sophisticated and civilized societies. He told his people, for example, that Allah had created them in different stages (Nuh, 14); that Allah had created the seven heavens one above another in harmony (Nuh, 15); that Allah had illuminated the moon in the midst of the seven heavens, and made the sun a lamp (Nuh, 16); that it is Allah Who had made them grow like vegetation from the earth, and that Allah will then take them back to the earth, and again remove them from it at the resurrection (Nuh, 17-18); that Allah had made the earth a wide expanse (or a spread out carpet, or a bed) for them, so that they could go about therein, in spacious roads (Nuh, 19).
Furthermore, Nuh in the end constructed an ark (ship) which via its size and function attested to a high level of civilizational awareness and sophistication, even though the ark was built under Allah’s supervision, inspiration and guidance (Hud, 37). The ark is said to have been about 150 meters in length, 25 meters in width, and 15 meters in height. But it is also said that it was about 600 meters in length, and 300 meters in width (Tafsir al-Tabari).
Be that as it may, the ark accommodated for about 150 days a small group of believers, and was loaded with “a couple -- male and female -- from every kind” (Hud, 40). “From every kind” could mean both animals and plants (Tafsir al-Razi), in which case the ark was a bank containing all life samples, or models, in pairs. The samples were needed to repopulate and fill the earth after the great flood that engulfed either the entire face of the earth, or a limited, but huge, area, over which all life was destroyed.
The ark had to have enough provisions for all life forms for about 150 days. Its conditions had to be perfect and conducive to all, in order that the life forms could be sustained during the same period. Preparing, organizing, loading, maintaining, unloading and finally letting the same life forms resume their normal lives on earth after the flood, posed unconceivable logistics challenges and necessitated the existence of exceptional “scientific” specialized knowledge. Repeating the feat may not be possible even today.