THE modern world is a strange place. While man has achieved commendable advances never before seen in history, hundreds of millions of people still live below the poverty line. While in some ‘developed’ states people line up to buy the latest iPhones, in others the wretched of the earth scramble for a meal. While some put on grotesque displays of wealth, others live in penury. Such are the contradictions of modern society.
But is this the natural order of things, for the few to live in plenty, while for millions of others to starve? It is not, according to the Quran, where the Almighty says in Surah Qasas that “it was Our will to favour those who were oppressed in the land”. What, then is ‘stopping’ God’s will from being done? Perhaps it is our avarice and love of all things material that prevents many of us from being the instruments of divine will that can provide succour to the oppressed.
The Holy Prophet (PBUH) warned mankind over 14 centuries ago about the fleeting nature of the world, and the dangers of attachment to all things material. For example, in one hadith love of the world is termed the “root of all sins”. In another hadith related by Imam Jafar al-Sadiq it is stated: “The example of the world is that of seawater; the more a thirsty person drinks from it, the thirstier he becomes until it kills him.”
We see the dangers of worldly attachment all around us; in our families, in our society, on the global stage, where supposedly enlightened nations are now threatening each other with nuclear annihilation. We see it in excessive focus on the individual, in the promotion of selfish, self-centred and wasteful lifestyles based on vapid consumerism. The fact is that modernity without a spiritual worldview is little more than a reflection of man’s worst instincts.
The Prophet (PBUH) warned mankind about the fleeting nature of the world.
In this regard, French Traditionalist thinker René Guénon, who later converted to Islam, says in his monumental work The Crisis of the Modern World that “modern civilisation aims at creating ever greater and greater artificial needs” while going on to observe that “how could men to whom equalitarian theories have been preached fail to react when all around they see inequality in the most material order of things”.
Of course, all modernity is not to be shunned. For example, these words are being typed on a machine that is the fruit of the modern age. Modernity, per se, is not the problem; worship of the material while forgetting man’s spiritual character is the real issue. As man becomes more and more ‘modern’, he forgets his spiritual self and immerses himself in self-centred pursuits, oblivious to the suffering of others.
Revelation — Islam in particular — on the other hand says that man is but a temporary visitor to this world, and that the time on earth should be used as a field to sow what is to be reaped in the hereafter. If man constantly and actively remembers the Day of Judgement, he would shun evil traits such as oppression, deceit and selfishness. That is why the Holy Prophet (PBUH) has constantly reminded mankind to remember akhira (the hereafter).
But does remembering akhira mean that one should grab their rosary and prayer mat and head for deserts or forests to pray and meditate, constantly thinking about the afterlife? Not at all. In fact, Islam dislikes monasticism, and as per Islamic irfan (gnosis), man should live in this world, while constantly working for the hereafter, and remembering the Day of Judgement. Some people misinterpret this view by focusing only on outward rituals, yet forgetting the inner battle with one’s nafs to control base desires. In fact, in hadith the “battle with the self” is termed the “major jihad”.
What does all of this translate to practically? This can mean that we only take from the world what we need; become our brother’s keeper; learn to forgive and forget, and appreciate the blessings we have while thanking Allah, and making sure our brothers, sisters and neighbours have enough to get by. As opposed to this spiritual, Islamic worldview, as Guénon has succinctly put it, in the materialistic worldview “only the strongest, in the most narrowly material sense of the word, have a right to exist”. The truth of this statement can be gauged by the war, suffering, and poverty we see even in societies that are much richer than ours.
Therefore, Allah’s final message propagated by the Noble Prophet is still available for all those who seek to drink from the fount of eternal wisdom, and want release from the materialistic prison we have trapped ourselves in.
This writer lacks the words to portray the beauty of the final Messenger and his divine message. But the late Sufi poet of Ajmer, Ambar Shah Warsi, put it very eloquently: a translation of his verses reads: “My religion, Ambar Warsi/ By God is the love of the Prophet/ My zikr-o-fikr is but this:/ Salutations on him and his progeny.”
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2022