I Have Seen the Past . . . . . . and it Works!

The child who is born – if her parents don’t decide she was just a lustful mistake – only to intuit that her mother and father care more about themselves than their marriage, never mind her. The student whose only ambition is to put what he has learned to some financial end. The middle-aged woman who hides from her mortality with cowardly injections. The wealthy professional who looks back on his life and finds that when he adds it all up – the houses, the cars, the children in their estimable colleges – the sum is less than its parts.

But perhaps, if we consider the internal disquiet associated with such lifestyles, we appreciate a mercy. Perhaps God afflicts us to assist us, to subtly indicate that there is something wrong with our lifestyles. (By virtue of such subtlety, His counsel respects our intelligence, and so preserves that which makes us human.) Even the environment we surround ourselves with and the temper it instills in us, may he such an indication.

In 1954, a Soviet geologist, Vladimir Obruchev, presented his understanding of the goals of “dialectical materialism,” the intellectual basis for Marxism and communism. These goals include increasing man’s life span to 1 50 to 200 years; predicting and preventing natural disasters; artificially reproducing natural resources, such as oil; and even designing new breeds of animals and plants. We recoil at such presumption and fear its consequences. But the failure of communism is not a sufficient tombstone. In Obruchev’s optimism we sense a stealthier demon.

Secular liberalism promises to set the individual free. What it actually does is deny us, as individuals, the formalities, traditions and solace of our social and spiritual life. By divorcing us from these influences, our individuality is rendered meaningless. If we do not owe each other (or God) anything, we only choose to respond to – or neglect – each other (or God). Little wonder that a glance at Obruchev’s goals reveals a neglect of the individual, objective beauty, goodness and dignity. For Obruchev, man is man byvirtue of being part of a species, an evolutionary happenstance. Start believing this and it will decompose you. Then your world.

Stare down a modern building. Check it out from top to bottom. Refuse to lower your gaze. What you see is the sterile reflection of the mechanistic soul who designed it. This modernity is gobbling up America, consuming diversity and regurgitating redundancy. We are becoming the U.S.S.R. that even the Soviets couldn’t become. Americans no longer live in towns, but in zones whose greatest achievements are alienated adolescents and desperate housewives, where every feature is designed not to accommodate man but the vehicle that drives him around. Indeed, one cannot even eat out and be certain it is food. All because we believe man is what his environment assumes: horizontal, inorganic and rootless.

Perhaps this is one reason why, when Western visionaries picture the future, they generally posit horror: nuclear holocaust; radically stratified societies; ruined environments; technologically diminished personalities enslaved to allseeing corporations. It is as if we knowthat we shouldn’t stay on our current path, but lack the wherewithal or the wisdom to change, especially if we see promise in the past. An atomized society is a society without tradition. It fears anything that smacks of age. Though now, some concerned Americans are starting to worryabout the excessive unreality of our lifestyles, while perceptive Europeans see in their declining numbers omens of a serious malaise.

In this situation, Islam would have much to offer, were Muslims not stuck on the same dead-end roads. Throughout the Muslim world, the elite are catered to byrising suburbanization, which is premised on the continued availability of cheap resources which affect the social and spiritual fabric of community life. On one extreme, there is Dubai, whose leaders have been inspired to realize yet another jejune shopper’s paradise, populated by infection-free citizenry. Less a city than a brand, Dubai is shameless excess, built on the back of slave labor – migrant workers who are denied basic human rights and hence dignity, and for what? So the wealthiest of the world’s wealthy can buy themselves artificial islands in magical shapes akin to animal crackers.

At the very least, secular liberalism increases our anxieties. If man is a machine, he is motivated, dismayed and controlled only by what is outside him. But a Muslim must be more – the Qur’an repeatedly says, “On no soul do We place a burden greater than it can bear.” Each believer embodies a unique courage in the face of the tyranny of banality. In other words, though I can allow myself to be acted on like a machine (which is made only to be used), I can also choose to act “We do not test a soul except according to its capacity” (Qur’an 2:286). If I believe that I possess purpose and dignity, I will surround myself with a world of purpose and dignity.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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