Civilisation, from its definition, aims at developing more of the social, cultural and material aspects of human life, while religion aims at emphasising the importance of the spiritual dimension and the final destination of man in the hereafter.
AS long and complex as human history is, an interesting aspect is the dynamic relationship between religion and civilisation and how they impact each other.
No doubt historically, both religion and civilisation have contributed to a great extent in enhancing human life. Islam, in particular, is an example of a religion that has played a tremendous role in building a great civilisation as history can attest.
How do we look at similarities and differences between religion and civilisation?
Religion, as commonly known, emphasises the belief system – especially that which is connected with God and spiritual realities.
It projects the true world view of life which guides the value system and ethical conduct of human beings. In Islam, religion also provides detailed practical injunctions in every dimension of human life.
On the other hand, civilisation reflects the advanced and finest stage human beings have reached in their social, intellectual and cultural life in this world.
The Oxford Dictionary defines civilisation as “the stage of human social development and organisation which is considered most advanced”, while Merriam-Webster defines it as “the condition that exists when people have developed effective ways of organising a society and care about art, science, etc”.
Those more concerned about the difference between the two may find that both are incongruent and, at times, problematic. The reason is simply that they seem to have different emphases.
Civilisation, from its definition, aims at developing more of the social, cultural and material aspects of human life, while religion aims at emphasising the importance of the spiritual dimension and the final destination of man in the hereafter. Sometimes, religion is even viewed as an obstacle to civilisation.
Such a contentious opinion is maintained by several intellectuals and thinkers who had contributed to the development of modern civilisation.
Karl Marx, for example, alluded to this point through his oft-quoted “religion is the opium of the masses”.
Earlier, Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, might have had the same inclination when he declared that “God is dead”.
Similarly, Michel Foucault, the French philosopher and historian, who echoed Nietzsche on the nature of religion, expressed rather unfavourably that “morality (religion) is the creation of the weak to deter and limit the strong”.
While the thinkers’ views may be valid, on the one hand, if they were referring to certain deviated practices among religious followers, on the other, it is obviously misleading to pass such judgments on religion as a whole, given the contributions religion has made to the well-being of human beings throughout time.
One obvious fallacy of such a view is its oversight of the fundamental similarity between the two.
A prominent characteristic that unites both religion and civilisation is that both share the same end, mainly in bringing the state of human life to the highest and finest level, with religion aiming at a broader and higher objective of encompassing the betterment of human life not only in this world, but also the world to come.
Having said that, it should be noted that for those who believe in the truth of religion, its understanding is not only confined to mere belief and rituals, but also geared towards building a civilisation.
For that to take place, the understanding of religion must fulfil the following criteria:
First, religion should neither be too rigid nor exclusive to embrace and practise. While religious principles are constant and unchanging, its details should be open to adaptations.
There must be flexibilities in the application of its principles in different contexts, particularly the ever-changing environment.
Oftentimes, people get confused between religious principles and details which consequently lead to conflicts over unnecessary matters.
However, not being exclusive does not mean compromising the truth of the religion. We can still uphold religious truth while appropriating its manifestation in line with the contexts surrounding its practices.
Secondly, religion has to provide ample room for reasoning necessary in scientific and intellectual pursuits, that, in the latter, is not contradictory to or non-parallel with the values and principles that religion espouses.
Otherwise, disharmony will set in, particularly between religious and scientific-intellectual truths. In the case of Islam, religious values remain instrumental in colouring the dimensions of life.
Thirdly, the understanding of religion should not be separated from the higher perspectives which relate to its raison d’etre. In Islam, the bigger picture, called maqasid syar’iyyah (higher objectives of syariah), is the ultimate reason why religion is revealed to human beings.
Based on Quranic descriptions, the reason behind all religious injunctions is to preserve the well being of human beings which can be summarised as the five basic human needs of religion, life, intelligence, progeny and property. A proper understanding of these aspects will enable consistency between belief and practices among religious followers.
Thus, with the given guidelines, we are probably able to appreciate more the meeting points between religion and civilisation.
> Dr Mohd Farid Mohd Shahran is Senior Fellow at Ikim’s Centre for Economics and Social Studies. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.