Breaking the Shackles of Materialism

by Hassaan Usmani

Today we live in a “market society”. As we all know, the market is a place for buying and selling goods. A “market society” is a society where market values govern the entire lives of the inhabitants of a society (Sandel) which leads to the commercialization of almost all aspects of our lives. For example, when in human history have things such as education, hospitals, and medicine, labor been as commercialized as they are now?

Education is provided just like any commodity (i.e. soaps, chips) in the market. Greater demand equals greater price, and this in return restricts quality education to the rich. Later, graduates leave the university and enter the “labor market” where their precious labor is sold to the highest bidder. Likewise, in today’s time, visiting a doctor’s clinic is nothing like visiting a learned specialist at a time of dire need, instead it is more like visiting a shop.

Similarly, there are numerous other examples of how this logic of the market has infiltrated our entire lives. At no time or place in our society, can anyone claim to be outside of the influence of the market. The market is everywhere! Almost each and every road or street has already been littered with ads. Televisions and newspapers aside, try to scroll down your Facebook feed and just count the number of times you encounter ads. Almost everything around us points us in the same direction; that we need to consume or ‘buy’ more in order to live happier, better lives.

This pervasiveness of markets is now not only limited to what we consume, but it also governs the way we form and maintain relationships in this age. When have human beings lived in a society where the market has been as pervasive as it is now? So much so that today we build and sever relationships with people on the basis of how much economic benefit they provide us, rather than thinking in terms of the ‘spiritual’ growth that these relationships bring. This way, we end up treating other people just like objects to be used and thrown away, regardless of the emotions involved in human relationships. This shows the extent to which the ‘market’ has infiltrated our lives, making ethics and spirituality a secondary concern in our lives, plunging us into a ‘spiritual crisis’ where our choices are dictated by the market or economic benefit.

Now a set of questions confront us about how can Islam stand silent in the face of such moral and spiritual crises? How does Islam guide us in this situation? Or is it even a crisis in the eye of Islam?

Before answering these questions we have to turn our attention towards one important point. Whenever we think of demand, we think of it as something very natural that just exists. Just like a rock exists out there, demand exists. And it has to be satisfied. We think of this as the default, natural way each of us is designed.

However, the Islamic tradition endorses the concept of a nafs (al-Ghazali, “Ihya Ulum al din). Nafs is referred to as the animalistic component of us. Nafs knows nothing about ethics, morality and justice. It simply demands material things endlessly. And by consuming more, you feed it. The more you feed it, the greater its appetite will become and hence the more it will demand. Nafs does not know if you earned your wealth the halal way or by trickery and deceit. Its only job is to demand more and more. And it is our job to purify it! The exact equivalent of what we call “demand”.

On the contrary, in Islam, the concept of ‘Nafs’ changes from an absolute, unbounded need to the one that can and must be controlled. According to the Islamic tradition, we have to undergo a struggle in which we control and purify our nafs, so that it gets disciplined and becomes comfortable with the lifestyle that God wants us to pursue, for example the good traits such as truthfulness, honesty, austerity etc. It is our job to discipline it and purify it! A seminal work in the Islamic tradition on disciplining the nafs is al-Ghaz?li’s Ihya Ulum al din. Nevertheless, one of the first and foremost steps to spiritual development and purification is to discipline our nafs.

There are different stages of disciplining the nafs as mentioned in the Quran, namely nafs e ammara, nafs e lawamma, nafs e mutma’ina. There are various scholarly works such as that of al-Ghazali which elaborate on the methodology of how to pursue the path of spiritual development and purification.

Therefore, according to the Islamic tradition, demand is not something natural. It is an appetite which we ourselves fuel and intensify. It is never satisfied and endless consumption intensifies it endlessly. So it is upon us to control our nafs and make it comfortable with consuming less. We are responsible for its condition. Having a luxurious lifestyle is halal in the sense that no one will be thrown into Hell for having a luxurious lifestyle if he/she fulfills the five basic pillars of Islam and stays away from sin. But if someone wants to aim for the highest ranks in the eternal Hereafter then a luxurious lifestyle is a huge obstacle in is his/her path.

There are numerous ahadith related to this. For example, the Prophet (PBUH) instructing believers to stop eating when one-third of one’s stomach is left empty, the Prophet(PBUH) the Prophet(PBUH) telling his wife Aisha(RA) to take off a cloth from the wall (and) remove a rug from the door kept there by Aisha(RA) for adornment (Ibn Majah Vol. 4, Book 29, Hadith 3349, Sahih & Sahih Muslim, Hadith 2107).

Nevertheless, the market is a place where we are constantly being called towards feeding our nafs. And if we want to even start thinking about purifying our nafs, the first thing we have to do is to momentarily step outside the market. This was pretty well understood at the time of the
Prophet (PBUH) as he is reported by Muslim to have said:

“The most lovable places on Earth to Allah are its mosques, and the most despised places on Earth to Allah are its markets.” (Muslim Book 19, Hadith 1841)

This act of disciplining the nafs was much easier in the earlier times. In ancient Arabia, if you wanted to be free from the influence of the market, you simply had to stay away from the geographical location of the market and sit at home. The dangerous thing about a “market society” is that the market has invaded almost all spheres of society. As we saw before, no one can remain inside the society and claim to be outside of the market, because the market is almost everywhere. The call to buy and consume more and more is everywhere. And when the entire society becomes a marketplace, then the only way to step outside of the market is to step outside of the society itself. This is how much the cost of purifying one’s nafs has increased in today’s time. The notion of a place in the city free from the influence of the market is unthinkable. This might leave some of us thinking that Islam has forbidden us from becoming rahibs (someone who dedicates all his life to worship and stays away from all worldly responsibilities and affairs), and is leaving the market and purifying our soul not a form a rahibania. This is a valid question, however, we have to acknowledge the point that not being a rahib does not mean to be a very good consumer. Sure, we should not become rahibs, which means that we have to engage in worldly affairs and fulfill our responsibilities. At the same time, we have to live inside a market society and purify our souls. And we know one thing for sure, that in order to purify our souls we will have to become “bad consumers” in the eyes of the market. So how do we purify our souls while living in a market society?

This is a question which we can attempt to answer only once we come to acknowledge that in order to purify our souls, we will have to become “bad consumers” in the eyes of the market. We have to stop thinking of ourselves as a mere collection of nafs.

Today’s religious class or the “deendar” people are no different from the rest in this respect. The concept of zuhd (striving to purify one’s soul) is not even recognized as an ideal in life by anyone, regardless of whether one is religious or not. And the ideals of the market are in stark contrast with the ideals Islam puts forth. We have to recognize this before we take any step to purify our souls, in our time.

Bibliography:

“GHAZALI ON JIHAD AL-NAFS.” Sunnah.org, www.sunnah.org/tasawwuf/jihad002.html.

Sandel, Micheal. “The Vital Difference Between a Market Economy and a Society .” Bigthink, bigthink.com/in-their-own-words/the-vital-difference-between-a-market-economy-and- a-market-society.

One thought on “Breaking the Shackles of Materialism

  1. Ume gull says:

    Well written especially reviving the concept of soul

    “mere collection of nafs ” i personally believe we dont take ourselves as above said,’ instead we are overwhelmed by nafs e amara.

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