Monday, January 19, 2009

Anti-Dunya Vigilantism

There's been some debate related to a past posting on the need to be really careful about becoming too if there is no need to be really careful about becoming too un-worldly. You see, in Islam, both (too much worldliness and too much un-worldliness) can and do lead to problems. Islam teaches us to excel in matters of both the body and the soul. But some among us have large "Welcome" signs on the booth that invites people to matters of the spirit, but install hazard signs, ring loud alarm bells and run hell-fire slide show around the table that deals with matters of this world.

I find this virtue ascribed to "avoiding worldliness" among Muslims troubling for several reasons. First, I think it is asymmetrically applied. Meaning, it has an elevated level of emphasis on one matter relative to other issues of equal, sometimes greater, priority. Secondly, this has UNINSPIRED (if there is such a thing) generations of Muslims into sitting back, even kicking back, instead of engaging with the world. So troubled was Muhammed Iqbal by this attitude that he wrote more than a poem urging Muslim youth to get off their lazy behind, recall their ancestors who embraced the world, who crossed oceans, who hungered for knowledge, who were curious and eager, who took risks and who considered the whole world and all its affairs their own. You can almost feel the pain, the agony in his words, you can sense a soul was on fire. He realized all too well that unless this ummah could shake off that "I choose that world instead of this world" mumbo-jumbo, we'd continue to be fringe players on the world scene.

The way to the next world for a Muslim is 100% through this world. It's not either-or for us, we are citizens of both the worlds and our Lord commands us to engage with this world in a manner that is just so we can inherit the next. Avoiding this world is not an option.

Shortly after 9/11, Carly Fiorina, then-CEO of Hewlett-Packard, spoke of this in a speech (scroll to the bottom where she says "I'll end by telling a story. There was once a civilization that was the greatest in the world.") that has received much attention among Muslims (a fellow Muslim said he wept for hours after reading that speech). She would know, she majored in medieval history and philosophy from Stanford. And the Madieval Age (ending in 16th century CE) is when the Islamic civilization was taking its last gasps of vitality in its losing battle against a defeatist, over-spiritual worldview.

Now, one could argue that just reminding people to avoid the pitfalls of the world doesn't necessarily invite doom & gloom. I disagree. I think the disproportionate emphasis tilts the focus even so slightly but definitively and sets the course of a nation in a certain direction - towards what eventually becomes doom & gloom. This disproportionate emphasis has been applied for more than a few centuries, and as a result, hardly anyone should be surprised, doom and gloom have arrived. They have been parked here for a long time. Just read the headlines. Just read your history books. Muslims, who once set the course of the world, were colonized, humiliated and often dehumanized. To call our present state doom & gloom sounds dramatic, but a civilization has run aground, people! And it crashed centuries back and it is still struggling to lift itself out of its rubble. How's that for dramatic?

Progress has been made and a lot of good work is and has been under way. But most of it is DESPITE the efforts of our "got to avoid the pitfalls of this world" vigilantes. This progress has been made at the risk of seeking the ire of this well-meaning section of our ummah that is, in my view, greatly responsible for the decline, destruction and confused state of this civilization. (I know, strong charges, but I don't use these words lightly, nor is this issue a light issue). If you made a list of the names of those thinkers/leaders and philosophers in the Muslim world who have been called heretic, "socialist" "progressive" (euphemism for "he's headed towards hell") in the last few centuries, you will have listed some of the brightest and best minds God has blessed this ummah. You can go back almost a millennium and you will see this trend.

Someone (you know who you are, I am not naming names :) ) quoted Imam Al-Ghazali corroborating the vigilante position. That's like quoting Paul (Paul as seen through Muslim eyes) as evidence for the doctrine of Trinity. Ghazali, as towering a scholar as he was, as elevated as he may have been in the eyes of His Lord, his piety having few parallels, was still human. Who am I to criticize this great scholar? I am not worth the dust on his feet. But it's not my opinion, it's historic evidence that judges Ghazali. He is the fountainhead of "this world's so dangerous and useless" school of thought. So dominant was his status that the shaikh single-handedly arrested the powerful engine of scientific inquiry, exploration, discovery (all things worldly) in this ummah. Other thinkers and scholars of his time and the generation that came after him saw the errors in Ghazali's thinking, foresaw its dire consequences, many sounded the alarm bells, all in vain. Ghazali's lofty status, his renowned piety, became the basis for the ummah to reject every other viewpoint. The brakes had been applied by that slight asymmetry in emphasis. Over time the great engine ran out of steam, and innovation came to a halt. Muslims were sitting ducks when the colonizers arrived. The rest, quite literally, is history. Many a great civilization has been gutted by strategic mistakes, and sometimes strategy amounts to a slight asymmetry on a seemingly harmless principle or a fine point. We are the inheritors of one such.

So stop with this "got to be careful with dunya" bit already. If someone were to say "we have to be careful with everything" I shall gladly cede that. The struggle today is to shake that mantle off where one who excels in matters of this world is seen is somehow being corrupt or at any greater risk for hell fire than the one who locks himself in the comfort zone of the so-called matters of spirit.

The irony is, books of hadith are filled with sayings of the Prophet (pbuh) telling us about the great scholar (or the great martyr or the great worshipper) who will will be dragged to hell fire...somehow, it's only that "worldly guy" everyone sees being hellward bound. Meanwhile, generations of youth whom God has blessed with energy and abilities, use the crutch of "avoiding dunya" as justification for their laziness, lack of ambition, avoiding even modest measure of risks and choosing the easier path while a nation rots. They choose a lower level of engagement with this world while their older parents struggle to make ends meet, their neighbors go hungry, their community has trash at street corners that is not cleared, their masajid are flooded with miskeen, young women are begging in their masajid (and in some cases old corrupt men want to marry pre-pubescent girls - well not any more than any other society, but at least in other societies it is ILLEGAL), polio and malaria still ravage our populations, streets are not paved, highways non-existent, public officials are corrupt, our societies are primarily based on tribal affiliations, we have become a nation that settles differences of opinion by murdering our adversaries, fatwas have been issued permitting smiuggling of drugs and suicide bombing.

For the Muslim, fortunately or unfortunately, there is no shortcut or easy path to paradise. I have witnessed the escapist Muslim desire expressed as "let me go on jihad (while my family that needs me here is abandoned)" all too many times. Others retreat into "Islamic work" which barely challenges them but keeps them well within comfort zone. Yet others take pride in being "content with the little God gave us." I want to grab young Muslim men by the collar and push them out into where the heat is so they sweat every day and feel challenged. Why are they so content earning just enough for their own few? Why isn't their soul agitated in this world where there is so much suffering, poverty, diseases, hunger and injustice? Why are they not less sure about whether or not their Lord is pleased with them? Why has the Lord so disfavored them that He has robbed them of ambition?

Thus the idea that "we're not people of this dunya" is one I consider possibly the most dangerous idea of the last thousand idea that has done more than its share of damage already. I don't think it was done with malice, but some of the greatest calamities have been brought about by by folks who had nothing more than good intentions.

As I reflect on colonialism, racism, the Ozone Hole, the World Wars, Consumerism, I wonder what the world would have been like if Muslims had not abandoned their engagement with the world. Detractors will say that the problems of the world are brought about by "worldism" - the very idea I am promoting. Not true, I am asking for BALANCE and MODERATION - perhaps the most critical concept in Islam. Not worldism, but not unworldism either. Not Dunya, but not Anti-Dunya either.

Now you know why I find this "anti-dunya"ism so dangerous. As I contemplate what the world would have been had Muslims continued down the bold path of embracing wordliness and touching and shaping it with the message of mercy that our Prophet (pbuh) was sent with, I get goosebumps and I too curl up and weep for hours. I suspect I am not the only one.

[If you are now wondering what this emotion is all about, I suspect it's because you didn't read Fiorina's speech, so I am copy-pasting the relevant portions here:

"I’ll end by telling a story.

There was once a civilization that was the greatest in the world.

It was able to create a continental super-state that stretched from ocean to ocean, and from northern climes to tropics and deserts. Within its dominion lived hundreds of millions of people, of different creeds and ethnic origins.

One of its languages became the universal language of much of the world, the bridge between the peoples of a hundred lands. Its armies were made up of people of many nationalities, and its military protection allowed a degree of peace and prosperity that had never been known. The reach of this civilization’s commerce extended from Latin America to China, and everywhere in between.

And this civilization was driven more than anything, by invention. Its architects designed buildings that defied gravity. Its mathematicians created the algebra and algorithms that would enable the building of computers, and the creation of encryption. Its doctors examined the human body, and found new cures for disease. Its astronomers looked into the heavens, named the stars, and paved the way for space travel and exploration.

Its writers created thousands of stories. Stories of courage, romance and magic. Its poets wrote of love, when others before them were too steeped in fear to think of such things.

When other nations were afraid of ideas, this civilization thrived on them, and kept them alive. When censors threatened to wipe out knowledge from past civilizations, this civilization kept the knowledge alive, and passed it on to others.

While modern Western civilization shares many of these traits, the civilization I’m talking about was the Islamic world from the year 800 to 1600, which included the Ottoman Empire and the courts of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, and enlightened rulers like Suleiman the Magnificent.

Although we are often unaware of our indebtedness to this other civilization, its gifts are very much a part of our heritage. The technology industry would not exist without the contributions of Arab mathematicians. Sufi poet-philosophers like Rumi challenged our notions of self and truth. Leaders like Suleiman contributed to our notions of tolerance and civic leadership.

And perhaps we can learn a lesson from his example: It was leadership based on meritocracy, not inheritance. It was leadership that harnessed the full capabilities of a very diverse population–that included Christianity, Islamic, and Jewish traditions.

This kind of enlightened leadership — leadership that nurtured culture, sustainability, diversity and courage — led to 800 years of invention and prosperity.

In dark and serious times like this, we must affirm our commitment to building societies and institutions that aspire to this kind of greatness. More than ever, we must focus on the importance of leadership– bold acts of leadership and decidedly personal acts of leadership..."]


Anonymous said...

Generally agree with this post.

But it sounds too much like a doctor prescribing the same pill to anyone with any disease.

"I disagree. I think the disproportionate emphasis tilts the focus even so slightly but definitively and sets the course of a nation in a certain direction - towards what eventually becomes doom & gloom."

The key word here is "disproportionate". To the Muslims thriving economically yet largely disconnected with their faith, the disproportion is different from the Muslims EXCLUSIVELY concerned about the afterlife.

They need very different pills.

ThinkingMuslim said...

I am sorry if it is not AMPLY SELF-EVIDENT that we are talking at A MACRO level, at a CIVILIZATIONAL level. An analogy would be, when the US Federal Reserve decides to lower or increase the Federal Funds Rate, it's done in response to some AVERAGED economic measure/trend and to bring about some average change in the economy. You don't fault them for not thinking of its implications on Donald Trump or Joe The Plumber :) Make sense?

Anonymous said...

"at A MACRO level, at a CIVILIZATIONAL level"

How does that make a difference when it comes to addressing my point?

You are committing the same mistake that you accuse the so-called anti-dunya vigilantes of: implying a sense of self-righteousness while glossing over the fact that YOU may have a thing or two to learn from the anti-dunya clan.

But I won't shoot the message for the messenger. I favor a balance.

I do think that going after one extremity(no-dunya) by introducing another extremity(all-dunya) is much better.

Anonymous said...

I do think...

should be

I do *not* think....


ThinkingMuslim said...

Honestly, it addressed your point 100% and spot on. However, if you do not see the point, I will just let it rest. Thanks for not shooting me :)

And it's great to meet another who concurs with my view that all extreme approaches are faulty.

ThinkingMuslim said...

> implying a sense of self-righteousness while glossing over

A'oodhu billah minash shaitan ar rajeem.

kat said...

Interesting post. I agree.
Freedom of choice comes with responsibility. Our wordly needs and spritual needs should be balanced. However, that balance is different for everyone. ---that is, some can engage with the world assertively and yet retain their spiritual balance---others cannot---it is best to allow differences and view everyone with tolerance and compassion.

Naeem: said...

AA- Kat,

Whoah, slow down there cowboy! Your comment makes way too much sense and my experience tells me that comments that make sense are not greatly appreciated on this blog. :-)

ATM - your calls for balance and moderation are not new. The problem is that too many people fall into the two extremes (dunya and anti-dunya).

My only condition (as I stated in your previous post) was that before we begin striving for success in dunya, we should simply be aware of its pitfalls.

That is starkly different from saying that we should avoid dunya altogether. Surely, I wasn't calling for that extreme, was I?

ThinkingMuslim said...

> my experience tells me that comments that make sense are not greatly appreciated on this blog

The quality of your jokes and has greatly improved over the years, masha'Allah!

> before we begin striving for success in dunya, we should simply be aware of its pitfalls.

And that is what I call the EVER SO SLIGHT ASYMMETRY. While I fully agree with the pitfalls and the need to be aware and careful, I think by selectively pointing it out (do you say the same when you hear someone is going for Hajj, intending to peform i'tekaf?)you impose a bias and the bias has a definitive overall impact, not all of which is good.

Naeem: said...


Lemme get this straight - you're calling for a 1:1 correlation in our struggles for this dunya and for the akhira?

So I should ignore the countless verses in the Quran where I am being warned against the alluring 'zeenat' of the dunya? Did I miss the verses where Allah (swt) is warning against working too much for the akhira??

Because I was always under the impression that our ultimate goal is the akhira and this dunya is worth less than a fly's wing...silly me.

ThinkingMuslim said...

If this dunya was truly worth les than a fly's wing, as the words imply on surface (ignoring context), God wouldn't have sent His messengers to struggle, to suffer at the hands of their people, sometimes be slained...God would not have revealed His books, urged people to do good, to conduct their transactions fairly, etc. God is clearly a witness to so much human drama, and relates and reminds us of so much of it, of so much heartache, takes sides, calls judgement, and expresses His rage over issues...surely, o silly you, a fly's wing ain't worth all that?

If this dunya wasn't worthy anything, then we would have seen the Companions of the Prophet (pbuh) lock themselves up in the two Holy Mosques and spend their time remembering "akhirah." (I am taking a veiled swipe at the TREND it has become among young people to frequently go on Umrahs...well I guess not so veiled anymore am I?). Very few of them are buried in Madinah.

For every verse you cite me about zeenat (lure) the dunya, I will cite you one that instructs us on meeting your WORLDLY obligations.

ThinkingMuslim said...

> you're calling for a 1:1 correlation in our struggles for this dunya and for the akhira?

I find this compartmentalization itself faulty. We don't and shouldn't live in silos of the Here and the Hereafter. Just like knowledge was divided into silos of "deeni" and "non-deeni" for centuries we have had people reading and memorizing without comprehending a word of the Qur'an. I am arguing that to the Muslim it's one - this life and the Hereafter. Our fate in the next world is determined by how well we dischagrge our obligations in THIS WORLD...and running from our obligations, trying to take short-cuts, and avoiding this world isn't taught in Islam.

Naeem: said...


That's all good and well, but you failed to address the simple fact that this 'faulty' compartmentalization was taught to us in the Quran:

"Nay (behold), ye prefer the life of this world; But the Hereafter is better and more enduring."

Please, ATM, do not build up a strawman here...I'm not advocating accepting mediocrity or laziness in our 'worldly' studies or employment. Of course our deen dictates striving for perfection in whatever we do in this world, but let us not go to the extreme of painting the two (dunya and akhira) as moral equivalents.

When preaching your message bro, (which I agree with for the most part), you need to craft it carefully.

ThinkingMuslim said...

Bro, do you realize that that you first ascribe words and ideas to me that I never wrote and then you warn me to be careful?

By the sheer fact that the Herafter is eternal instantly renders any equivalence between the two worlds meaningless. Only a lunatic would argue the 1:1 equivalency.

BUT, we don't build our Hereafter by abandoning our obligations and INVOLVEMENT and EMBRACING of this world (many Muslims think we do).

We are required to shape this world so it becomes a more just and peaceful place (many feel it is virtuous to "avoid the world"). Note: I am not advocating nor ascribing any virtue to accumulating wealth or power.

For centuries Muslims have become marginal players on the world scene because they take a perverse interpretation of the verse you quoted. Their departure from the world scene was bad for the world as a whole.

Young Muslims today who become content in focusing on ritual worship and spiriual pursuits...I am raising caution that if that is driven by escapism, as I suspect many are, they are living in a false sense of security. Not only is going and engaging yourself in this dunya NOT (any more dangerous than many acts of "worship") despite what people with perverse silo-view might have told them, it has the potential to be one of the highest forms of worship and way to be endeared to God.