Disclaimer: I read Quran in the light of science, philosophy, ethics, and public policy. This is not a theological discussion, but some rational thinking shaped by the Quran.
When a baby is born, is born completely helpless. Nevertheless, he or she is a consumer. So much so that having a baby is becoming more of less affordable category in the West. As a family and society, our responsibility is to make the baby a contributor when he or she is grown up. Therefore, we need to give him/her two things: skills for work and moral values for behavior.
Before, things had been easy. Someone would get the skills from fields and factories, and the morality from religions. Unfortunately, in the West, at some points of the history, men of the religion had had an unholy collaboration with the men of power to perpetuate their dominion and oppression. The common human interest, rational thinking and technological advances gave the fight and won. The people got rid of kings and clergies and in the process, organised religion became a bystander casualty.
Now the question arose, from where would we get the morality, guidance, and consolation? The response was, “we will get it from culture”. The scriptures were replaced by the culture and education. The problem is that the science and education can explain why someone is sad but can’t provide the consolation. Our universities can provide information but not assistance. If the sadness becomes pathological, there is hospital. If it becomes criminal, there is prison. If it breaks your relationship, there is counseling services. However, there is no place to go for the consolations and solaces that one is craving for.
To make ourselves busy with business, we went to the market, where we found ginormous number of things to make our life easy and comfortable. We could buy anything and everything if only we had money. It led us to another market – the labor market. Where we would sell our toil for money with the hope that enough comfort would bring us happiness.
Thus, we replaced our traditional society with some marketplaces by a market society. Our consuming power became the driver of our progress. As a nation, we are measured by how much we produce of the goods and services. As an individual my worth is how much comfort I can buy. Alas, comfort is costly. We need to work harder and longer to maintain it.
In the market, there is no room for goods, values, and loyalties, only for commodities, prices, and competitions. Before, if someone had stayed longer with any service provider, he or she would get customer loyalty benefits. Now if anyone does not check the premium every six months, or does not change the service providers often, would be quietly ripped off.
Our spiritual realities and feeling have no values in the marketplace. Nevertheless, we can buy and sell our biological well being. As a result, we are healthier than ever and live longer than ever. We produce so much that our problem is no more the lack of supplies of our needs, wants and desires but how to manage our waste. Our problem is no more food and energy supplies but overeating and overheating.
Technologies have enabled us to separate our recreation from procreation. It has freed our pleasures from responsibilities. We have options to choose between body and mind, between relationship and commitment. Until we can buy or sell, we are fine. But the deception of the century is that the comfort has not brought us happiness and tranquillity, rather its pursuits left us with full of anxiety for job insecurity and low esteem.
It is the irony of our time, when people are free to choose their partners, able to live without marriage and have relationships without commitments, pornography became one of the largest entertainment industries. How can the pornography be a dominant cultural product in the sexually liberated societies? We wanted to be free of freedom with meaning and purposes. Rather, we are becoming free of cheap and worthlessness.
In the age of social media, we are lonelier than ever. While we are connected to the world, we are losing connections to ourselves and to our families. In Australia, the annual suicide rate is ten times higher than of murder. While the number of murders is decreasing, the number of suicides is increasing year by year. Behind every eventual suicide, there are another thirty failed(?) attempts and countless suicidal thoughts.
This is not a unique Australian problem. The pattern is even emerging in the affluent classes in the Muslim majority countries like Bangladesh. In a welfare state like Australia, many of our women don’t find either time, resources and/or stable relationship to have a baby. The demography across the western world is in reverse tree.
Consumerism requires eternal growths beyond any limitations. While the natural resources are plenty but limited. When machine took over the muscle powers, it helped women to be in the labor market ‘en masse’. Now the combination of machine and artificial intelligence (AI) is threating both men and women with mass unemployment. For any routine work, machine with AI will always be faster and better than human. Many predict that our societies will soon be full of useless people and a very few uber men among their midst dictating the rest how to live their lives.
Already we can see their prototypes among the creators of Facebook, Google, and Uber. They don’t tell us what to do. Nevertheless, we all do how they want us to do. Without being employed, we all are voluntarily working for them. Nowadays, we are apparently unable to enjoy ourselves even a simple cup of coffee at a good café in the town or eat a mundane pizza without giving a profit margin to the Facebook.
There has always been a fundamental question; can money buy the happiness? There have always been also many answers to this question. Behavioral economics is telling us that yes, money can buy the happiness but up to a certain limit. According to the recent studies, personal happiness increases with the increase of his or her annual income up to $75000 in the USA (1). Beyond, further increases in income provide more comfort, more personal satisfaction but not more happiness. For the Europe, this threshold income is $35000 per annum (2). Neither in the USA nor in the Europe these are considered a good middle-class income respectively.
These findings are nothing new. It has been known as Easterling paradox since 1974. The paradox in the observations has been; while the growing income makes people momentarily happy, their happiness does not keep growing in the long run as their incomes continue to grow.
We must realise the difference between comfort and happiness. The former is material, while the letter is spiritual. Our pursuits for the comforts have become the main source of our unhappiness. We must redefine our pursuit. We need a healthy break from our consumerism. We need a healthy break and fasting from the essential things of our lifestyles to find out how can we live with less materials?
As such, Muslim month of fasting could be and should be a great opportunity, at least for the Muslims. It consists of staying away from the three most elemental things of life: food, drink, and intimacy during the daytime. These are not some extras. Life cannot live without them for long. However, our indulgences for them make the life burdensome. Where is the line between the needs and indulgence depends on our consciousness?
“O you who have believed! Fasting is prescribed for you—as it was for those before you—so perhaps you will become God-conscious” (Al-Quran 2: 183).
In the Quran, verily the purpose of the fasting is described as to develop the human consciousness of God – being accountable for an eternal life before and beyond our material realities. It is a month-long obligatory practice to develop the habit of conscious behavior.
Ironically for the majority people in the Muslim world, the month of fasting is also the time for maximum culinary indulgences. This is the unwanted outcome when we de-link our rituals from its rationales. It is becoming one more cultural product of our market society. If we don’t stop it now, like Christmas our fasting would be soon taken over by the consumerism and marketing.
We need an universal and collective spirit of fasting to pause and think, how can we de-link our consuming practices from the consumerism, our necessary uses of materials from the materialism, our physical well being from the worshiping of our bodies and narcissism, our personal relationships and responsibilities from the individualism, our national prosperity from the nationalism, our diversities and uniqueness from the corporate globalism and finally our human values and social capitals from the market society and its capitalism.
- Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton (2010), High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being, PNAS, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1011492107
- Gabriela Mihaela Muresan, Cristina Ciumas and Monica Violeta Achim (2020), Can money buy happiness? Evidence for European countries, The International Society for Quality-of-Life Studies (ISQOLS) and Springer Nature B.V, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11482-019-09714-3