The Prophet’s Sunnah is not only the second source, right after the Qur’an, of Islamic Shari‘ah (Law), but also the second source, again right after the Qur’an, of which both knowledge and civilization flow. Primarily, the Qur’an establishes the bases and principles of legislation, whereas the Sunnah provides theoretical interpretation as well as example and practical application. The Prophet’s guidance as exemplified in the Sunnah guides Muslims to three basic inseparable aspects of civilization, namely: civilized Fiqh (Jurisprudence), civilized conduct, and civilized structure.
Before attempting to discuss these three aspects of civilization, we should first define the meaning of civilization: To begin with, does the Islamic concept of civilization offer a distinctive and unique interpretation that differs from the ones offered by other civilizations that preceded or followed it? Or do all civilizations stem from the same source regardless of country, time, sex, religion and philosophy in life? There is a general definition of civilization that is innate in the very word, namely, the overall manifestations of financial, scientific, artistic, literary, and social development in a society or in similar societies.
Islam aims at elevating human beings financially, scientifically, artistically, and socially as well as spiritually and morally. The word “civilization” in Arabic is the opposite of the word “bedouinism” or, respectively, savageness and barbarism. Thus, urban life stands against Bedouin life and vice versa. People who live in cities, towns and villages are urban dwellers, whereas, people who lead a Bedouin life are those who live in the deserts sheltered by tents. The Bedouins are notorious for their stiffness, harshness, hardness of heart and the prevalence of ignorance and illiteracy among them. Consequently, Allah did not send down a prophet from among them. Instead, all the prophets He had sent were urban dwellers: of villages and towns. Allah said to His Prophet what means: (And We have not sent before you, any but from among the people of the towns We revealed to them.) (Chapter 12:109)
As we know Islam is represented by both the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunnah and we can see in them a persistent determination to transfer those people into a systematized urban civilization. Islam aimed at elevating them financially, scientifically, artistically, and socially as well as spiritually and morally. This aim required Islam to educate and purify them according to a wise and gradual instructive discipline that was to be carried out by the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) himself.
Among the targets of the Hijrah (flight of the Prophet from Makkah to Medina ), which was prescribed upon the Arab tribes before the conquest of Makkah, was giving a chance for the Bedouin to learn and absorb the new Islamic culture which considers the congregational Prayers as an essential rite. Moreover, it encourages them to attend instructive meetings, to embrace Islamic discipline which covered all aspects of life: eating, drinking, wearing clothes, walking, sitting down and all other major as well as minor aspects of life.
The civilization of Islam has united man to Allah and earth to heaven If we make a comparison, we will see, on the one hand, the Bedouin man who was not in the least embarrassed to pass urine in one corner of the mosque regardless of the fact that the Prophet and his Companions were sitting in it. Yet when people shouted at him, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) stopped them and excused his ignorance and Bedouinism ordering his Companions: “Wait until he finishes his urinating then spill a bucket of water over the place, for you have been sent to make things easy and not to make them difficult.” (Reported by Al-Bukhari)
On the other hand, we would see his fellow Muslim who was instructed, refined and purified by Islam as he approached Rustum, the leader of the Persian armies, and answered his inquiry about the identity of Muslims saying: “We were sent by Allah to bring out whom He wills from the worship of His servants to His Worship alone, from the straitened world to the vast one, and from the injustice of religions to the justice of Islam “
Undoubtedly, Islam was a message of civilization. Its target was to elevate the life of man and set him free from the bonds of “bedouinism” to the freedom of civilization. It is necessary to emphasize that the civilization that Islam wants to build is unlike any other civilizations which focus on the materialistic aspects of life as well as the bodily and sensuous side of man.
Moreover, these civilizations concentrated on the immediate pleasures of life, making worldly affairs their primary concern and the destination of their knowledge, and left no room for Allah or the Afterlife in their philosophy or in their cultural and educational system.
Contrary to them, the civilization of Islam has united man to Allah and earth to heaven. It has dedicated life to preparation for the Afterlife. It has mingled spirit with matter, has struck a balance between the mind and the heart, has wedded science to faith and has cherished ethical sublimity as much as materialistic development. It is justifiable to describe it as a spiritual, materialistic civilization. It is idealistic and real, holy and human, ethical and populational, and individualistic as well as general. Truly, it is the civilization of balance and moderation which was the basis on which a just and distinguished Nation. Almighty Allah described it saying what means (And so We have appointed you as a just and distinguished Nation.) (Chapter 2:143)
Taken from The Sunnah: A Source of Civilization by Prof. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, abridged and edited.