Unique Characteristics of Islamic Civilization

Some of those who have written about the history of civilization defines civilization as “a social system which helps man to increase his cultural output.” Civilization consists of four main elements: economical resources, political systems, moral traditions, and science and arts. The development and progress of civilization require many factors such as geographical and economic factors, and psychological factors such as religion, language, and education. The collapse of civilization stems from factors that are the opposite of those which lead to its rise and development; the most important of these destructive factors include moral and intellectual decadence, lawlessness and breakdown of social systems, the spread of oppression and poverty, the spread of pessimism and apathy and the lack of competent and sincere leaders. The story of civilization began when man first appeared, and it is a long chain that one civilized nation passes on to those who come after it. Civilization is not unique to any one land or race, rather it stems from the factors we have mentioned above. There is hardly any nation that has not written some of the pages of the history of civilization, but the thing that distinguishes one civilization from another is the strength of the foundation on which it is built, the great influence that it may have, and the benefits that humanity may enjoy as a result of its rise. The more universal a civilization is in its message, the more humane it is in its inclination, the more moral it is in its direction and the more realistic it is in its principles, the more lasting will be its impact on history, the longer it will endure and the more it will deserve to be honored.

Our civilization is a link in the chain of human civilizations; some civilizations came before it and others will follow. There were factors that contributed to the rise of our civilization, and there are reasons for its decline, but this is not the topic under discussion here. Rather, before we examine the wonders of this civilization, we should discuss the serious role that it played in the history of human progress, and how much it contributed to the fields of belief, science, ethics, rule, art, and literature, and how it had a lasting impact on humanity of all peoples and in all places. The most important thing that attracts the attention of the one who studies our civilization is that it is distinguished by the following features:

  • It is based on a foundation of absolute oneness in belief. It was the first civilization that proclaimed the message of One God Who has no partner or associate in His rule and dominion; He is the Only One Who is worshipped and He is the Only One Who is sought. You [Alone] we worship, and You [Alone] we ask for help [for each and everything]. (Al-Qur’an 1: 5)
    • He is the One Who honors and humiliates, Who gives and withholds, and there is nothing in the heavens or on earth that is not subject to His dominion and held in His grasp. This sublime understanding of the concept of oneness has a great effect in raising the level of mankind and of liberating the masses from the oppression of kings, nobles, powerful men, and the clergy; in reforming the relationship between rulers and subjects; in guiding people to Allah Alone, Who are the Creator of the universe and the Lord of the worlds. This belief also had a great effect on Islamic civilization which is virtually unique among all civilizations before or since in that it is free from all forms of idolatry and of idolatrous literature and philosophy in its beliefs, rule, art, poetry, and literature. This is the reason why Islamic civilization refrained from translating the Iliad and the best of idolatrous Greek literature. It is also the reason why Islamic civilization fell short in some of the arts of sculpture and image-making, despite its prominence in the arts of inscription, engraving, and architectural adornment. Islam, which declared war on idolatry and its manifestations, did not permit any expressions or relics of idolatry from ancient times to exist in its civilization, such as statues of great men, righteous men, Prophets, or conquerors. Statues are one of the most prominent features of ancient and modem civilizations because none of them took belief in oneness to the extent that Islamic civilization did. This belief in oneness has an impact on all the foundations and systems produced by our civilization. So there is unity in its message, unity in its legislation, unity in its general aims, unity in humanity in general, unity in the way of life and pattern of thinking. Researchers studying the Islamic arts have noticed a unity of style and taste in different kinds of art, so that a piece of Andalusian ivory, a piece of Egyptian textile, a piece of Syrian pottery, and a piece of Iranian metalwork, despite the differences in their forms and ornamentation, all have the same style and character.
  • The second of the characteristics of our civilization is that it is human in its inclinations and objectives, universal in its ambition and message. The Qur’an declared the oneness of mankind despite the differences in their races, places of origin, and abodes. Allah, the Almighty, says: O’ mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily, the most honorable of you with Allah is that [believer] who has most Taqwa [i.e. he is one of the Muttaqoon (the pious)]. (Qur’an 49: 13)
    • When the Qur’an declared this universal oneness of mankind with regard to truth, goodness, and dignity, it made its civilization the factor that brought together all the brilliant minds of all nations and peoples over whom the banner of Islam flew. Hence, whilst every civilization may be able to boast of its brilliant sons of one nationality, only Islamic civilization can boast of the brilliant minds from all nations and peoples who built it. For Maalik, Ash-Shaafi’i, Ahmad, AI-Khaleel, Seebawayh, AI-Kindi, AI-Ghazali, AI-Faraabi, Ibn Rushd, and their like were all of the different origins but they were among the brilliant minds through whom Islamic civilization gave to humanity the marvelous intellectual products of sound human thought.
  • The third of the characteristics of our civilization is the way in which it gave prominence to moral principles in all its systems and fields of activity, and never abandoned these principles or used them as means of benefitting a state, a group or an individual. In ruling, in science, in legislation, in war, in peace, in economy, in the family; it paid attention to these moral principles in legislation and in implementation of laws. In this field it reached a high level that has never been attained by any civilization before or since. The Islamic civilization left behind a legacy in that field which deserves to be admired for it alone, among all civilizations, guaranteed the happiness of man in the purest sense, not contaminated with any misery.
  • The fourth of these characteristics is that it believes in knowledge in the truest sense, based on belief in the purest principles. So it addressed the rational mind and the heart at the same time, it provoked emotions and thought at the same time. This is an advantage that has not been shared by any other civilization in history. The reason why this particular characteristic of our civilization is to be so admired is because it was able to establish a state system based on principles of truth and justice, based on religion and belief without religion becoming an obstacle to the development of the state and the progress of the civilization. Rather religion was one of the greatest factors in its development. >From the mosques of Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Cordoba and Granada the rays of knowledge shone into all parts of the world. Islamic civilization is the only one in which religion was not separated from the state even though it was spared the misery that resulted from the mixing of the two as happened in Europe in the Middle Ages. The head of state was the Khaleelah (Caliph) and a leader of the believers (Ameer al-Mu’mineen), but he ruled in accordance with the truth, and legislation was left to those scholars who were specialized in that field. Each group of scholars had its field of specialization, and all of them were equal before the law. Superiority was determined by one’s level of taqwa (piety) and service to people: “By Allah, if Faatimah the daughter of Muhammad were to steal, Muhammad would certainly cut off her hand.” & “All of mankind are the family of Allah and the most beloved of them to Allah is the one who is most beneficial to his family.”

This is the religion on which our civilization is based; there is no privilege given to a clergyman, noble or rich man. Say [O’ Muhammad]: ‘I am only a man like you … (Qur’an 18:110)

  • The last of these unique characteristics of our civilization is this amazing religious tolerance which has never been seen in any other civilization that was based on religion. If a person does not believe in any religion or any god, it is not strange for him to regard all religions as being equal and to treat the followers of all religions fairly; but if a person follows a religion and believes that his religion is true and that his belief is the best of beliefs, then he wields the sword and conquers cities, taking power and sitting in the position of a judge, but his belief in his religion and his pride in his belief does not cause him to be unfair in his judgements or to deviate from the path of justice, or force people to follow his religion … it is strange to find such a man in history, so how about an entire civilization which is based on religion but was the most tolerant, just, compassionate and humane civilization known to history! This is how our civilization was, and we will mention dozens of examples later on. It is sufficient here to note that our civilization is unique in history because it was established by one religion but it was for all religions. These are some of the unique features of our civilization when compared to the history of other civilizations. Hence, it was admired by the whole world and loved by free and intelligent people of all races and religions, at the time when it was strong and when it was ruling, directing, educating and teaching people. When it collapsed and was succeeded by another civilization, the way in which people looked at it changed. Some began to look down on it and others admired it. Some spoke of its virtues and some went to extremes in criticizing it. Thus, the views of western researchers differ concerning our civilization. They would not have done that were it not for the fact that they – the ones who set the standards and whose opinions are followed – are in a position of strength and are behind the steering wheel of civilization nowadays, whereas those who are being judged, along with their civilization, are in a position of weakness and are the ones whom the strong are planning to rob of their resources and to rule their country with avarice. Perhaps this is the attitude of the strong towards the weak, whom they despise and belittle. This is what the strong have always done throughout history, apart from us when we were strong, for we were fair towards people, strong and weak alike, and we acknowledged virtue in easterners and westerners alike. Our history of exemplary characteristics includes fairness in judgement, purity of intention and sincerity of conscience.

It is unfortunate that we did not really notice the bias of the strong against us or their unfairness in judging our civilization. Many of them were either religious fanatics whose prejudice blinded their eyes to the truth, or nationalist fanatics whose nationalistic pride made them refuse to attribute anything good to anyone who was not of their nation. But what is our excuse for being influenced by their view of our civilization? Why do some of our own people look down on a civilization to which the whole world bent the knee for many centuries? Perhaps the excuse of those who belittle the worth of our civilization is that it is nothing when compared with the wonders, inventions, and scientific marvels of modem civilization.

Every civilization consists of two elements: a spiritual and ethical element, and a material element. With regard to the material element, undoubtedly each civilization supersedes those that came before. This is one of the laws that Allah has decreed for the development of life. It is nonsense to expect an earlier civilization to have reached the level of the material development of a subsequent civilization; if that were acceptable, then it would be permissible for us to look down on all the civilizations that came before our own, because of the things that our civilization has invented and the means and manifestations of civilization that were not known to any of the earlier civilizations. So the material element of civilization can never be the basis for differentiating between them. It is the spiritual and ethical element that makes civilizations endure and enables them to bring happiness to mankind and save mankind from fear and pain. Our civilization surpasses all previous and subsequent civilizations in this regard, and it reached a level that has never been matched in any age of history. This is enough to give our civilization a lasting impact. The purpose of civilization is to enable man to reach the highest degree of happiness, and in this regard, our civilization managed to do what no other civilization in the east or in the west managed to do.

Civilizations are not measured by materialistic standards or by quantities or areas, or by luxurious standards of living, food, and clothing. Rather they are measured by the impact they have on human history. The same applies when we speak of battles and kingdoms; they are not measured by the size of the battlefield or the numbers of soldiers. The decisive battles of ancient times or of the Middle Ages cannot be compared to the battles of the Second World War, for although the numbers of soldiers and the means of fighting may appear insignificant, they are still regarded as important historical battles because of their far-reaching effects. The battle of Cannae in which the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal defeated the Romans is one of the battles that are still studied in the military colleges of Europe to this day. The battles of Khaalid ibn al-Waleed in the conquest of Syria are still studied and admired by western military experts, and for us, they are golden pages in the history of military conquest in our civilization. The fact that the battles of Cannae, Badr, AI-Qaadisiyah, and Hitteen happened so long ago does not make people ignore that they were decisive historical battles.


The divine scriptures are God’s beacons to the world. Surely God offered His trust to the heavens and the earth, and the hills, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. And man undertook it.
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