They called it freedom. And freedom is a good word, so we thought nothing of it. Freedom to do whatever they want, to be themselves, to express themselves, to have space; they called it. It sounded like a good thing. After all don’t we all believe that the fight for freedom is the good fight and don’t we support all those who are fighting to gain freedom?
We should have asked, ‘Freedom from what? To do what? What does ‘express yourself’ mean? What is the meaning of ‘space?’
Then we would have learnt that freedom meant, freedom from all restraint, all rules of decency, all that holds the fabric of moral, socially responsible society together. But then, isn’t that what we used to call anarchy?
Yes it is, they said. But then you see, those are the quaint and frankly embarrassingly idiotic and backward, middle class values that we used to live by. High time we jettisoned them and joined the mainstream of modern society in the global village.
They forgot to tell us that in the global village the dominant culture is the culture of consumerism. The culture of consumption. The culture of self-indulgence with the only limit being the spending power of your credit card. They forgot to tell us that in the process of creating this society it was necessary to create a high degree of irresponsibility, a sense that only ‘I’ matter and the rest can go to hell. ‘Each man for himself and the Devil take the last.’ ‘Family’ in this society is a 6 – letter word; a bad word because families epitomize responsibility. And responsibility is another 14 – letter bad word. Responsible people save. They don’t spend. They conserve. They don’t waste. They become sedate. They don’t follow fads and trends. Responsible people don’t support consumerism. They are bad news.
So, the family must be destroyed.
To do that promiscuity and immorality must first be encouraged. But you can’t call it that, can you? That will draw too much flak. So, they invented another phrase – adult consent.
Now being adult is all about taking decisions about your own life without anyone else having the right to ‘interfere’, right? If two adults want to do something who is anyone else, be it society, be it the law or be it religion, to dictate what they can and can’t do? That is the opposite of freedom, right? And the opposite of freedom is oppression, right? And oppression is a bad thing, right?
So adult consent came into being. And we supported it.
Now to take the ‘fight for freedom’ to its next stage and that is, to define who is an adult. Age of consent. 21 years? Too old. People mature long before that. So, 18? Why not 16? Ah!! The joy of a 16-year-old!! But we can’t talk like that. 16 is the ideal age of consent because a person is mature at 16, so why should they be prevented from exercising their right to freedom any longer? That sounds much better.
How do you make promiscuity acceptable in a society that insists on decency and morality? Well the best way is through advertisements, serials and movies. Bollywood, Hollywood and all the commercial product and service advertisements do a cardinal job of chipping away at the bastions of social morals until what was unmentionable a decade ago becomes fashionable in this decade. We call it entertainment. We call it being progressive. We call it being chic and those who don’t subscribe are the squares. That’s the thin edge of the wedge. Once it gets into the doorway, the rest is inevitable, only a matter of time. We thought nothing of a biscuit advertisement that showed a scantily dressed woman lounging languidly on a couch. We thought nothing of an ice cream stick ad which showed a woman holding the stick almost touching parted lips, in a gesture that clearly reminded you of something else. We thought nothing of a pocket PC ad that focused more on the curve of the buttock supporting the pocket than the PC which protruded therefrom. And all the while we comforted ourselves with the thought that after all these were only bill boards featuring some women we did not know personally. So, they can’t hurt us, can they?
We did not see or chose not to see the real agenda – social engineering. Changing the standards of society. Changing what is acceptable and what is not. Changing what is considered taboo and what is not. Moving something from ‘unthinkable’ to ‘aspirational’. You did not think it could be done, did you? Well, just look at the way advertising and films have changed over the last 3 decades and you will see how things that our parent’s generation would have had a heart attack to see don’t even attract a comment from us.
But why do you need a woman’s naked body to sell ice cream? Isn’t that oppression of women? No, it isn’t. You see, she is doing it of her own free will. Just like playing tennis in micro-skirts. Wearing a burqa is oppression. But what if the one wearing the burqa is doing it of her own free will? Not possible. The burqa is not religion. It is subservience. Ask Sarkozy. So, it must be banned. But forcing people to take clothes off is as much oppression as forcing them to put them on, isn’t it? Ah!! You will never understand. But it doesn’t matter, because you don’t matter. You are too old fashioned and out of date.
We watched pre-marital and extra-marital relationship scenes in movies in the name of story line and plot and marveled at the acting skill (after all it is all acting and not real, we comforted ourselves) until suddenly one day our children started to have similar relationships.
When we watched the movie we never thought it would happen in our own home, did we? But then weren’t we accepting the new world order when we paid to watch the movie?
Was it not we who told our children that pre-marital or extra-marital sex were okay, when we watched the movie together as a family? Was it not we who gave our children the message that our morals had changed and that it was no longer necessary for them to take us as role models but instead to take the actors and actresses as worthy of emulation?
Then came television and the lovely serials, ending each day on a note of suspense that ensured that we watched what happened the next day. Bold & Beautiful, which may have been bold but was certainly not beautiful. Relationships of men and women that eventually got so confused that the woman who was once the wife of the father is now the wife of the brother while simultaneously being the paramour of someone else. What freedom!! And where was all this happening and being watched? In our own living rooms. In homes where women were in purdah, extra-marital relationships were displayed in full detail and watched by the whole family completely without shame. Why? Because of course we believed it couldn’t happen to us and what we were seeing was ‘only acting’.
And for those of us who were among the watchers exclusively of National Geographic, talk shows, news and Animal Planet – well you see, it is the commercials that ensure that you can see these shows and what is in the commercials? Pushing the boundaries of desire, daring, challenging norms and making the impossible, possible. Not one of those words that I have used, will you challenge. Not one of them in themselves is objectionable. But look at a commercial – almost anyone of them and you will see each of these concepts in a totally different light. But we didn’t think about that, did we? Because we don’t think, period. And for those who don’t watch any TV at all there are newspapers, magazines and the ever present, ever more daring bill boards.
The thin edge of the wedge that was inserted in the doorway had very effectively worked its way in, and the door was now wide open.
They say that reading biographies is perhaps the best way to learn real life lessons. That is because a biography is a record of practice. Of what worked and what didn’t. The life of Muhammadﷺ is perhaps one of the most well documented in human history.
Having said that one may ask why his life and all the detail is important at all? I am not speaking from the perspective of a Muslim for whom to study the life of Muhammadﷺ and to live his life in accordance with it, is a religious requirement. I am asking this from the perspective of a neutral reader, Muslim or not, who is looking for biographies to read.
The answer lies in the facts related to his life which are public knowledge. Here was someone who in a period of 23 years, took his people from being the weakest, most despised and oppressed in their community to being the leaders and role models in the same community. And he did all that without lies, cheating, corruption, violence or bloodshed. My question is, ‘Would you like to know how to do that? Would you like to know how to bring about not incremental but transformational change in your society? Then read the life of Muhammadﷺ.’
In the words of J. Krishnamurty, ‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’
I don’t think there is anyone, including the 1% who appear to have it all who will disagree that we are very sick. Humanity is sick. The earth is sick. We are all very sick. This is no longer an academic issue for people to write scholarly papers about. It is something that we, the people of the world, need to address recognizing it as the dire emergency that it is. If we don’t, the clock is ticking backwards for us and fast. And the time is very close where we will make our own position as the inhabitants of this earth; not its owners as we like to believe; completely untenable. We need action. And we need it now.
Call it a strange coincidence but 5thCentury Makkah was a microcosm of our global capitalist, pluralist, multicultural, multiracial society. Let me describe the Makkah that Muhammadﷺ was born, grew up and lived in, until the age of 50. That is a long time for someone to spend in one town but that is what Muhammadﷺ did.
Makkah was a town with one single claim to fame – the Ka’aba. This is the House of Allahﷻ built by Ibrahim (Prophet Abraham) and was a place of pilgrimage from times immemorial. Access to the Ka’aba was open to anyone who wanted to come. The environs of the Ka’aba were declared a sanctuary with all killing, hunting and fighting banned within that sanctuary. This was the main reason why Makkah developed as a town, because it was a safe haven for everyone from any of the many frequently warring tribes.
Another similarity that 5th century Makkah had with our modern society is that it was a world of business. Businessmen were its leaders and they ran the town. Acquisition of wealth was the primary concern. Makkan society was materialistic based on a free market economy. Markets were not regulated by any central authority. Traders charged the best price they could get, hoarded in times of scarcity and sold at great profit and bought goods from as far afield as Syria and Yemen to sell in Makkah. Makkah being as sort of aggregator of people from all of Arabia, was a great seller’s market where high prices could be commanded as goods sold in Makkah were simply not available in any other part of Arabia. That is how Makkan traders became its nobility and created a sort of oligarchy. You can draw similarities with our capitalist society today and see how close 5th century Arabia was to most of our 21st century world.
Makkah was also a multicultural and pluralistic place as all centers of trade tend to be. That is because if you want to promote trade you must make it easy and safe for people from multiple origins, belief systems and cultures to coexist peacefully. All that is good for business. And so it was. In Makkah, the local people mostly worshipped idols. But Jews, Christians, Magians all came and went from Makkah, each practicing his religion without any interference from anyone else. Very much like what happens in most Western countries today. And for the same reason; it is good for business.
The reason I’ve spent so much time on drawing a picture of Makkan society of the 5th century showing its similarities to our 21st century society is because I want to hypothesize that because Muhammadﷺ despite being a person with almost no resources, support or political power, could bring about a complete transformation of his society, then we have reason to hope that the methods he used can work today for us as well.
To quote Alphonse de Lamartine, in his book, ‘History of Turkey’ who said, “If greatness of purpose, smallness of means and astonishing results are the three criteria of a human genius, who could dare compare any great man in history with Muhammad?”
Muhammadﷺ didn’t focus on bringing about any materialistic changes in the lives of people. The changes he brought about ideological, ethical and moral, changed not only their lives but also changed the structure, laws, freedom and behavior of Arab society. Muhammadﷺ brought about changes in the way people thought, in their ideals and benchmarks which led to a change in what they considered important, which in turn led to a change in their behavior which brought about a change in society. As they say, it all begins at the top; in the mind. Once we change our attitude, our behavior changes which leads to perceptible results in and around us. All change must begin with us internally, with how we view the world, what we want from it, what we find satisfaction in and what we are prepared to do (and not do) to get it. We need to define the meaning of a ‘good life’, and be clear about what investment we are prepared to make, to get it.
I mention this here because in our race today, to garner all resources for oneself without a thought about others, we have created a society that is crying out in pain and grief. It is inconceivable to imagine that the resources of the world can possibly be concentrated in the hands of so few, but as they say, ‘fact is stranger than fiction’. I can imagine the derision if any author dared to suggest that 62 people would own 50% of global assets and the rest of the world would watch silently. But that is not fiction. That is fact. For perspective, let me state that a bus has 65 seats excluding the driver’s seat.
What was the change that Muhammadﷺ wrought in his society?
In my view, there are three major principles that he promoted:
1. Accountability to Allahﷻ from whom nothing is hidden
3. Spreading goodness all around
This is the essence of the religion he brought, Islam. That is why he said, ‘The best of you is the one who is the most beneficial to all people.’
Let us look at each of these principles in the life of Muhammadﷺbriefly.
1. Accountability to Allahﷻ from whom nothing is hidden
What makes a mistake a crime is that the criminal knows that what he is doing is illegal, immoral and wrong. People don’t commit sins, oppress others, commit violence or evil because they don’t know the difference between right and wrong. They do it because they think they can get away with it. Muhammadﷺ taught that this belief is a fallacy because no matter what we think, speak or do is known and seen by our Creator to whom we will return and to whom we must give an account of what we did.
Muhammadﷺ taught that good and evil are absolute values. They don’t depend on who does them or who these are done to. He taught that human values apply to all humans, not only to Muslims. On the contrary Muslims have an additional responsibility to act according to the values of their religion because they believe in Muhammadﷺ and in Islam.
He said to his daughter Fatima, ‘O! Fatima, don’t think that you will be favored by Allahﷻ because you are the daughter of His Messenger. You will stand before your Creator on the basis of your own deeds.’
Muhammadﷺ was known among his people even before he started preaching Islam as As-Sadiq ul Ameen – The Truthful and Trustworthy. And that is what he taught his followers; to be truthful in every aspect of life. Someone asked him, ‘Is it possible that a Muslim may be a coward?’ He replied, ‘Yes.’ They asked, ‘Is it possible that a Muslim may commit adultery?’ He replied, ‘Yes.’ They asked him, ‘What is it that a Muslim cannot possibly do?’ He replied, ‘A Muslim cannot tell a lie.’
He taught that virtue and vice are absolute values. They are not relative to your personal worth, religion, race or anything else. Right and wrong don’t depend on who does them. That is why truthfulness is the basis of all goodness. He held himself to this value of truthfulness to such an extent that when he was migrating to Madina from Makkah and his life was threatened, he still had valuables that his enemies had entrusted him with. Before he left, he gave them to his cousin Ali bin Abi Talib and instructed to return them to their owners. What can you say about the truthfulness of someone who was trusted by his own enemies?
3. Spreading goodness all around
Muhammadﷺ said to his people, ‘The best of you is the one who is best to his neighbor.’ He didn’t say, ‘Muslim neighbor’. He said, ‘Neighbor.’ In Islam, there is no distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims in respect of the rights of citizenship.
He said, ‘A Muslim is responsible for the welfare of his neighbors, up to seventy houses on either side of his house.’ Imagine a society that is based on this value of responsibility to one’s neighbors.
On another occasion, someone asked him how he could determine if he was a good man. Muhammadﷺ said to him, ‘If you neighbor says that you are good, then you are good. If your wife says that you are good, then you are good.’
Finally, on the issue of women’s rights which everyone today accuses Islam of denying. Women in Muhammadﷺ’s time were treated as property owned and inherited by men, to be used and abused at will. Women had no rights at all. Many Makkan people buried their newborn daughters to escape the cost of raising a girl child. Sounds familiar in today’s context? Let us see what Muhammadﷺ gave women in the 5th century.
1. Right to own property and income and to keep whatever she earns without sharing anything of it.
2. Right to be paid to bring up her own children including nursing them.
3. Right to marry anyone of their choice.
4. Right to divorce the husband even without his consent and to have this written in the marriage contract.
5. Wife need not serve his parents or family at all.
6. Right to receive the Mehr (bridal gift) and not to pay any dowry at all.
7. Right to retain the Meher if she gets divorced. It remains her property to do with as she likes.
8. Right to inherit from her parents, children and husband.
9. Wife has a right in the husband’s property and income. It is the duty of the husband to support the wife unconditionally. He has no right in her income or property, even if it was purchased with his money.
The reality is that to this day many of these rights are denied to women in so-called advanced countries which don’t operate under Islamic law.
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that Muhammadﷺ left for us all, Muslim or not alike, a way of life, a code of conduct and behavior that is as applicable today as it was in his time. It is my contention that if people followed his way, then we would be able to cure the sickness of selfishness, cruelty and indifference that we are plagued with and create a society based on compassion, mutual responsibility and accountability to Allahﷻ from whom nothing is hidden.
Now, how’s that for a new world order?
This article was published in the Daily Mirror, Colombo on December 12, 2016.