Bismillah ir-Rahmaan ir-Raheem
Cultural Analysis of the West - an Islamic Perspective
by Dr. E. Ahmed Tori
One cannot perform an analysis of anything from an Islamic perspective without first understanding two concepts: (1) the purpose of life and (2) the way of life. Islam, literally “submission”, defines the purpose of our existence as solely for the worship of the One True God (Allah). Nothing more. Allah says:
And I (Allah) created not the jinn and men except that they should worship Me (Alone). Holy Qur'an 51:53
Islam is a complete way of life which does not divorce how we work, how we entertain ourselves, or how we treat our neighbors, etc from religion. It speaks to how we run a government, how we buy and sell, and even how we clean ourselves. These are all intricately related and, if done with the correct intentions, are viewed as acts of worship.
To speak of the West, per se, is erroneous unless referring to it as the source of the idea or concept in question. The physical Western world and the cultural Western world are no longer one and the same. The cultural Western world now spreads far beyond the borders of North America and Europe mostly as a result of exportation.
Culture is defined by Webster’s New World Dictionary as “the ideas, customs, skills, arts, etc. of a people or group, that are transferred, communicated, or passed along.” Thanks to remarkable advances in communication and entertainment media technology, culture can be passed on, even manipulated, with ease.
We, in the cultural Western world, live in a time of homogenization. The process is subtle, but it is occurring at an alarming rate. We are transforming ourselves into a sedentary, selfish, entertainment-obsessed, consumer-producer monoculture which is entirely divorced from the prophetic tradition.
Perhaps we are too busy to notice. Or maybe we recognize it, but feel as though there is nothing any one person can do. Or it may have to do with the fact that we send our infants and toddlers to daycare, our children to school, and our elders to adult daycare (or worse, a nursing home). We and our spouses then head off to separate jobs in our separate cars. Essentially, we segregate ourselves based on age. The gaps we create between the generations allow for profound societo-cultural changes to occur quickly and unnoticed. And if they are noticed, they are interpreted out of context.
We are becoming a people who tend to our fleeting passions. If it is clothing, we go from one fashion to the next, somehow all in unison going after pastels this year after chasing earth colors last year. If it is politics we eagerly await the news of a politician’s latest dance with the devil after last year absorbing and regurgitating news about OJ. One “news” item to the next. And so it is with sports. We go from Sunday to Sunday of NFL football or throughout the year from football to basketball to baseball – all laid out in nice time-consuming chunks. Conceptually, we are forced to move from one issue to the next as if life were a long television program, of course, loaded with commercials. In moments, our thoughts might go from what is happening in Jerusalem to which toppings we want on our pizza. In such a setting, it is easy to lose sight of the purpose of our creation.
We live in such a fast-paced culture that we often fail to realize which questions even need asking. At one moment we see cachectic children starving in Iraq and within an instant we see a soap commercial. And then we see women in Bosnia crying about seeing their husbands killed or their daughters raped, which of course, is followed by an ad for the next episode of Friends. Subconsciously, this fragments our worldview. We are unaware of what is cause and what is effect. We begin to ask questions of “how” and “what” rather than “why”. Ultimately we become ahistorical, rarely noting one event's connection with another.
Despite the fact that each “Western” individual may have their own religion, the god of the West is progress. The general assumption is that things get better with time – economic systems, ethics (once called morals), technology, systems of government, human rights, animal rights, law, etc. By assuming betterment with time, one is forced to throw away tradition. The way of the prophets (peace be upon them all) becomes backwards, outdated, and of little value.
The point in all of this is that we are witnessing a complete reversal from our intended purpose - (pardon the pun) Satanic Reverses, in a sense. The prophets (peace be upon them) were humble and we are proud. They were modest and we are flashy. They gave charity in private, we do so to be seen of men. In fact, they gave their wealth to others and we spend our lives chasing more and more. They controlled their anger, while we “release” it. The prophets (peace be upon them) were patient and we are creatures of immediacy. They used their time wisely and constructively and we waste it in excessive entertainment, sleep, and the pursuit of money. They ate their food and drank their water in moderation, while we Super Size our meals. They spoke the truth even when it was against them, while we are loose with our tongues, spreading gossip and slander the moment it reaches us. They verified news before relaying it, but we regurgitate it the instant we hear it. The prophets (peace be upon them) outwardly and publicly called to the worship of One God, while we say, “Religion is personal.” They concerned themselves with the Afterlife and we concern ourselves with this life.
Islam calls to the way of the prophets (peace be upon them all) – to live life in a manner which affords worship through each action, indeed, each thought. And until we live our lives in accordance with that of the prophets we will not be progressing, we will be losing.
By the token of Time (through the Ages)
Surely mankind is in loss,
Except those who have faith and do righteous deeds, and call one another to Truth, and call one another to patience. Holy Qur'an 103:1-3