|Materialism: Devouring our dignity||
“As long as one is shackled to materialism, one can never attain dignity in life,” stated Hojatul Islam Ibrahim Kazerooni during his Muharram lectures.
Materialism, the philosophy that nothing exists beyond material substances and that everything, including our thoughts, feelings and awareness, can be explained in terms of such matter, predates the Greek philosophers Epicurus and Democritus. Historically, materialism as a philosophy, denies the existence of God and the soul, putting it in direct conflict with the teachings of Islam and the other two Abrahamic faiths, Christianity and Judaism. However, in its more common modern usage, materialism refers to the cultural view held in high esteem by the Western world that material success and progress are the highest human values.
That modern materialism, fostered by the unhindered greed of corporations and the consumers’ desire for instant gratification, is derived from the earlier philosophy of materialism is easily seen. One scholar, Majid Fakhry, believes the cornerstone of modern Western materialism was laid in the Middle East by Arab Philosophers such as al-Razi and Ibn Sina: Fakhry writes:
“In due course the Arab philosophers’ preoccupation with the study of nature, as well as their rejection of creation ex nihilo conditioned European thought and laid the foundation for the rise of materialism in the West”.
That materialism is engrained in American culture is beyond doubt, as are its dehumanizing negative consequences. America leads the Western world in murders, violent crimes, incarceration, divorce, abortion, single-parent homes, obesity, teen suicide, drug consumption, cocaine use, and pornography. American materialism allows one man, Bill Gates, to possess a net worth equal to the total net worth of the bottom 50 percent of American families while 20 percent of those families live in poverty. Such a materialistic society is clearly shackling an ever-increasing number its citizens in poverty and in so doing, is devouring their dignity.
The dignity of persons is purported to be of paramount value in European and American cultures. In Europe, dignity is embedded in the constitutions of many nations, and in the United States, it is often considered an inherent constitutional right by many jurists. However, the cutthroat capitalistic economic system in effect in these lands, with its emphasis on materialism born of greed and nurtured by competition, is diametrically opposed to values of human rights and dignity, for a materialistically shackled person, writes Ayatollah Dastghaib Shirazi, “is prepared to be humiliated for worldly wealth. That is, he even becomes a slave of money. He betrays trusts and does not fulfill the rights of others”.
While the United States may have been founded on lofty ideals of a free society with equality and social justice for all citizens, its history of genocide against Native Peoples, enslavement of Blacks, and Eurocentric immigration policies stands in sharp contrast with values of human dignity. This historic dignity expropriation has continued into the present era by discrimination against minorities in employment, housing and lending, and by racial profiling and oppression, all of which have materialistic underpinnings.
Moreover, Americans love to flaunt their wealth. American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen referred to this in his 1899 book “The Theory of the Leisure Class”, in which he coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption”. Referring to the phenomenon, Veblen wrote, “Unproductive consumption of goods is honorable, primarily as a mark of prowess and a perquisite of human dignity; secondarily it becomes substantially honorable in itself, especially the consumption of the more desirable things.”
In short, rich Americans like to buy costly things to boost their egos and show them off in front of those who are less fortunate, thereby damaging the dignity of the latter. Such shopping is routinely done by wealthy Americans who rely on investments as their primary source of income, unlike most of the world’s citizens who must work long and hard to provide for their families the barest of necessities. Even during the financial “disaster of 2008” when 10 percent of Americans were out of work, only one quarter of this group of luxury item shoppers cut back on their purchases of upscale goods and services. Presently, one-third of the affluent Americans who belong to this exclusive clique of high-end consumers have joined its ranks since the credit meltdown.
Perhaps the most repugnant display of materialism in the West occurs during the Christmas shopping season, which extends from the American holiday of Thanksgiving in late November to Christmas on December 25. While gift giving at this time of year was an old English tradition imported by the early American colonizers, corporate capitalism has turned the custom upside down. Originally involving the giving of gifts by the wealthy to the poor and servants, the tradition has transformed into manipulative materialistic exchanges between persons trying to impress and gain favor, each by outspending the other on presents that neither really needs. As far as the poor and destitute who are unable to provide for themselves much less buy gifts for others, they are simply left out in the cold, devoid of dignity.
Concerning the intention of materialistic gift-giving, Veblen explained, “Since the consumption of these more excellent goods is an evidence of wealth, it becomes honorific; and conversely, the failure to consume in due quantity and quality becomes a mark of inferiority and demerit.” Further on, Veblen clarified the capitalistic motivation, “The aid of friends and competitors is therefore brought in by resorting to the giving of valuable presents and expensive feasts and entertainments.”
So much for the West and its materialism, which is devouring the dignity of its own people, but what about Islam? In Islam, human dignity is intrinsic, since human beings are considered to be Allah’s vicegerents on earth. As the Holy Quran says:
“We have bestowed dignity on the children of Adam…and conferred upon them special favours above the greater part of Our creation”. (Surat Al-Isra. 17:70)
As Muslims, our main goal should be success in the Hereafter and not amassing wealth in this world. Indeed, the Holy Quran warns us about the excessive accumulation of riches:
“Those who hoard gold and silver, and do not spend it in the way of Allah, inform them of a painful punishment.” (Surah Al-Tawbah 9:34)
Elsewhere, the Quran warns us:
“Abundance diverts you, until you come to the graves.” (Surah Al-Takathur, 102:1-2)
To emphasize the dangers of materialism, the Quran brings the story of the rich Israelite Qarun (Korah), who oppressed the poor just like the moneyed materialists in the West. Korah possessed so much wealth that even strong men had difficulty merely carrying the keys to his treasures!
“Indeed, Korah was of the people of Moses, but he oppressed them; and We had given him so much treasure that its keys would have been a burden to a group of strong men.” (Surah Al-Qasas 28:76)
He was even warned by the elders of his own people not to behave this way, rather he was advised to do good deeds with his money and to plan for the Hereafter.
“Then, his people said to him, ‘Do not rejoice (in your riches), for Allah does not like those who rejoice. And seek by means of what Allah has given you, the future abode, and do not neglect your portion of this world, and do good [to others] as Allah has done good to you.” (Surah Al-Qasas 28:76-77)
Like affluent Americans, Korah loved to flaunt his wealth, and those people of his time who were shackled to materialism envied him and wanted to be like him.
“So he went forth to his people in his finery. Those who desire this world’s life said, ‘O would that we had the like of what Korah is given;” (Surah Al-Qasas 28:79)
As a result of his arrogant behavior and misuse of wealth, Korah, his riches and his possessions were swallowed up by the ground in an earthquake.
“So We caused the earth to swallow him up and his house,” (Surah Al-Qasas 28:81)
So as Muslims, how can we break the shackles of materialism and achieve the intended dignity in life? By using our wealth to elevate the oppressed -- those whose dignity is being devoured by materialism -- for Allah wants to show them favor as the Quran states:
“We desire to show favor to those who are oppressed in the land, and to make them leaders and to make them inheritors.” (Surah Al-Qasas, 28:5)
And spending money to help the oppressed even results in material gain for the giver, for Imam Sadiq (AS) relates that the Prophet (S) said, “Give charity since it will cause an increase in your wealth”.
So by using our wealth in the way of Allah; paying our Zakat (alms-tax) and Khums (one-fifth levy), giving Sadaqa (charity) and by engaging in Jihad (striving) to eliminate unjust differences between rich and poor, we can break the shackles of materialism.
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