The value of archaeology in Islam
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
The role of archaeology in Islam has taken on more scrutiny in the modern period as the ruins of ancient civilizations are unearthed and the story of previous nations is reconstructed. What should be the believer’s attitude toward archaeology?
The representation of monotheism developed from heritage to rationalism as humanity advanced far enough in time to observe certain patterns in the ever repeating creation. This led monotheists to the belief that the consistent natural laws of creation are evidence that everything came from one source, Allah the Creator.
Ibrahim, peace be upon him, was the first human being in record to rely on rational thinking to uncover the true nature of the creation and its relationship with the one Creator. The approach of Ibrahim was revolutionary at a time when heritage was weakening as over time people became more and more distant from the original message.
Nevertheless, humanity was able to accumulate a collective experience from passage of time. The generational observations of stable and repeated patterns in the creation was crucial to establish consistency as the new medium sustaining the message of monotheism. Allah says in this regard:
أَوَلَمْ يَرَوْا كَيْفَ يُبْدِئُ اللَّهُ الْخَلْقَ ثُمَّ يُعِيدُهُ ۚ إِنَّ ذَٰلِكَ عَلَى اللَّهِ يَسِيرٌ قُلْ سِيرُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ فَانظُرُوا كَيْفَ بَدَأَ الْخَلْقَ ۚ ثُمَّ اللَّهُ يُنشِئُ النَّشْأَةَ الْآخِرَةَ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ
Have they not considered how Allah begins creation and then repeats it? Verily, that is easy for Allah. Say: Travel in the land and observe how He began creation, then Allah will produce the final creation. Verily, Allah has power over all things.
Surat al-Ankabut 29:19-20
On the surface, these verses encourages us to look at the patterns in the creation. If cycles and phases are constant in nature, we can reasonably infer that this creation will be followed by another in the Hereafter. Tracing creation all the way back to the beginning, we know that everything started from a single point in time and space. If everything had a definite beginning, then something must have initiated the chain of events. That is the Creator.
However, these verses have another subtle but profound meaning that only emerges if the verses are parsed in Arabic. Allah encouraged us to study the creation with the command “travel” (sīrū), which refers to walking and is derived from the same root as the word “biography” (sīrah). Other words could have been used, but this one has a specific context. The parsed meaning is that we ought to travel a path to observe a series of events and reconstruct the story.
Furthermore, Allah asks us to travel “in the earth” (fī al-arḍ) and not on the earth. The parsed meaning here points to the significance of geological and archaeology discoveries as a means of uncovering the story. Studying the ruins of ancient civilizations is a tremendously valuable piece of the puzzle. This can be inferred by the parsed meaning of another set of verses:
قُلْ سِيرُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ فَانظُرُوا كَيْفَ كَانَ عَاقِبَةُ الْمُجْرِمِينَ
Say: Travel in the land and thus observe how the criminals met their end.
Surat al-Naml 27:69
And in another verse:
قُلْ سِيرُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ ثُمَّ انظُرُوا كَيْفَ كَانَ عَاقِبَةُ الْمُكَذِّبِينَ
Say: Travel in the land and then observe how those who denied met their end.
Surat al-An’am 6:11
These two verses are very similar, but the parsed meaning revealed a subtle difference. In the first verse, the word “thus” (fa) is used to mean “then,” whereas in the second verse another word is used for “then” (thumma). As the Arabic language does not have absolute synonyms, the meaning is slightly different. In this case, word fa indicates an immediate “then” and thumma indicates “then” after a period of time.
The parsed meaning of the first verse asks us to travel a path of archeology to uncover the endings of civilizations that had ruins of huge structures. The verse tells us that we will be able to reconstruct their story once their ruins are uncovered, as they relied on mediums of strength and advancement. Those mediums will be apparent upon first seeing of their ruins.
In the second verse, Allah asks us to travel a path of archeology to explore that endings of nations that denied the message sent to them. The verse informs us that understanding the value system of such civilizations will take time after first seeing of their ruins, as values are more subtle and require time to be inferred from ancient ruins.
Hence, the first verse refers to civilizations that have left huge structures that represented a life devoid of Allah’s values. These structures are easily found and observed. The second verse refers to the more hidden attitudes of past nations that ended their existence.
Reconstructing a nation’s attitude from archeological findings is not a trivial matter and it will take a long period of time and work before the story is constructed. The question here is why does Allah want us to dig up ruins of previous civilizations and reconstruct their biography?
This question is answered in three successive verses:
اللَّهُ الَّذِي خَلَقَكُمْ ثُمَّ رَزَقَكُمْ ثُمَّ يُمِيتُكُمْ ثُمَّ يُحْيِيكُمْ ۖ هَلْ مِن شُرَكَائِكُم مَّن يَفْعَلُ مِن ذَٰلِكُم مِّن شَيْءٍ ۚ سُبْحَانَهُ وَتَعَالَىٰ عَمَّا يُشْرِكُونَ ظَهَرَ الْفَسَادُ فِي الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ بِمَا كَسَبَتْ أَيْدِي النَّاسِ لِيُذِيقَهُم بَعْضَ الَّذِي عَمِلُوا لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْجِعُونَ قُلْ سِيرُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ فَانظُرُوا كَيْفَ كَانَ عَاقِبَةُ الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلُ ۚ كَانَ أَكْثَرُهُم مُّشْرِكِينَ
Allah is the one who created you, then provided for you, then will cause you to die, and then will give you life. Are there any of your partners who do anything of that? Exalted is He and high above what they associate with Him. Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea by what the hands of people have earned so that He may let them taste a part of what they have done, for perhaps they will repent. Say: Travel in the land and thus observe how those before met their end. Most of them were idolaters.
Surat ar-Rum 30:40-42
In the first verse, Allah establishes that He is the Creator, the Giver and Taker of life, the Sustainer, and the Resurrector. According to the thought of Ibrahim, all of this occurs within the consistency of Allah’s actions. In the second verse, deviation from the monotheistic value system is linked to harmful behaviors and thus corruption in all aspects of life. In the third verse, the final destiny of a once thriving civilization is revealed and linked to ideologies and behaviors that contradict monotheism.
As all of us are living in the present time; we can only see existing value systems and related behaviors. At the same time, we cannot see the end point of the cycle in which a civilization ceases to exist. For us to realize what would happen if values and behaviors are not corrected, we only have the stories of previous nations studied through revelation and archaeology.
After linking a nation’s values to its final outcome, the fourth verse comes as a solution:
فَأَقِمْ وَجْهَكَ لِلدِّينِ الْقَيِّمِ مِن قَبْلِ أَن يَأْتِيَ يَوْمٌ لَّا مَرَدَّ لَهُ مِنَ اللَّهِ
Thus, direct your face to the upright religion before a day comes from Allah that cannot be repelled.
Surat ar-Rum 30:43
The answer is to adhere to the values and practices of monotheism, lest the judgment of the Day of Resurrection take us by surprise. The ruins of civilizations who failed in this matter are a sign for us, as Allah says:
فَتِلْكَ بُيُوتُهُمْ خَاوِيَةً بِمَا ظَلَمُوا ۗ إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَآيَةً لِّقَوْمٍ يَعْلَمُونَ
Those are their houses, desolate because of the wrong they had done. Verily, in that is a sign for people with knowledge.
Surat an-Naml 27:52
Even the preservation of the Pharaoh’s mummified body is a sign for the believers:
فَالْيَوْمَ نُنَجِّيكَ بِبَدَنِكَ لِتَكُونَ لِمَنْ خَلْفَكَ آيَةً ۚ وَإِنَّ كَثِيرًا مِّنَ النَّاسِ عَنْ آيَاتِنَا لَغَافِلُونَ
Today, We will save you in body that you may be a sign to those who succeed. Verily, many people are heedless of Our signs.
Surat Yunus 10:92
A variety of recently discovered artifacts from ancient Egypt provide an important window into the past, and a vivid reminder of what happened to that once great and powerful civilization.
A believer’s attitude toward archaeology
We recently saw news of extremists, claiming to be Muslims, who destroyed a number of valuable artifacts and ruins in the name of monotheism. Yet, the Quran encourages Muslims to travel the earth and discover these items. Their preservation has tremendous value in terms of religion, as a record of previous nations, as well as a matter of history, anthropology, and the general knowledge of humankind. The weakness of their arguments is only matched by their hypocrisy in selling these “idols” on the black market to fund their military campaign.
Understanding the record of previous nations is vital to seeing the link between monotheism, values, and the life cycle of a civilization. Their stories are “signs” for the believers, and their remains are not only belong to the believers; they belong to all humanity. Paradoxically, destroying the idols worshiped by ancient civilizations erases any chance from learning monotheistic lessons from their experience.
Even if we assume these artifacts are idols that are worshiped today (which they are not), the believers should still not endeavor to destroy them. Allah says:
وَلَا تَسُبُّوا الَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِ اللَّهِ فَيَسُبُّوا اللَّهَ عَدْوًا بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ
Do not insult those they invoke other than Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge.
Surat al-An’am 6:108
The message of monotheism is meant to be spread by rational thought and not force. If Allah tells us not to insult their idols, then how much worse is it to destroy them with bombs? The result has been exactly as Allah warned: the people have cursed Islam because humanity’s priceless heritage has been destroyed by those who claim to be Muslims.
Believers should approach the study of archaeology with humility and a sense of reflection. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, once passed by the ruins of a civilization and he said:
لَا تَدْخُلُوا مَسَاكِنَ الَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا أَنْفُسَهُمْ إِلَّا أَنْ تَكُونُوا بَاكِينَ أَنْ يُصِيبَكُمْ مَا أَصَابَهُمْ
Do not enter the houses of those who wronged themselves except weeping, lest what afflicted them afflict you.
Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 3200
The Prophet told us to reflect upon the ruins, but he did not issue a general order to destroy them.
Most ancient archaeological sites in the Middle East, near the cradle of civilization, have been in the custody of Muslims for more than 1400 years. They have been preserved or left alone without interruption from one generation after another. The assaults on these sites are nothing but criminal acts supported by false and invalid arguments. The values of Islam are only represented by the Quran and the practice of Prophet Muhammad. For those who pay attention, the message is loud and clear.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.