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FaithSociety

Strategic Statue Smashing – Lessons from Prophet Abraham (as)

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FaithSociety

Strategic Statue Smashing – Lessons from Prophet Abraham (as)

There is little point in smashing an idol if the ideology still survives…If the minds of the people aren’t swayed, if they don’t themselves logically and sincerely accept that the idol that they were honouring is undeserving of respect, honour, and reverence, then it is absolutely pointless chopping away the weed whilst the roots remain.

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There is little point in smashing an idol if the ideology still survives…If the minds of the people aren’t swayed, if they don’t themselves logically and sincerely accept that the idol that they were honouring is undeserving of respect, honour, and reverence, then it is absolutely pointless chopping away the weed whilst the roots remain.

Tear down every statue of every racist in every country, but racism’s roots stretch far deeper than the foundations of a statue; it is interwoven with each society’s culture and many contemporary institutions. Statues are a form of modern-day idolatry. They are symbols of the entities our society has been taught to love and admire, and symbols of the ideals to which we have been encouraged to aspire. They need to go.

But the ideas they represent must first be comprehensively crushed either before we take down the statues or, if we’re clever about it, through tearing them down. 

We have inherited these idols from the generations that came before us, often innocently, but as we grow older, we find ourselves questioning so much our parents do. But why does there come a point where we stop questioning? Why are patriotic symbols a no-go zone? Of course, there should be an etiquette of how to go about it, but too often we treat what came before us as infallible.

The story of Abraham (as) in the Quran, and many of the other Prophets, deals with the issue of idolatry. The Quran is clear in its rejection of idol worship: it is senseless, in that people worship what their own hands have created.

When the Prophets ask their people why they worship these things that they themselves made, which brings them no harm nor good, the people respond again and again “We found our ancestors doing this.” They have accepted these idols without question even if it makes no sense to them and so the Quran asks repeatedly, “Will you not use reason?” Apparently not then… and still not now.

We are still idol worshippers. Idolatry isn’t simply bowing down to statues: idols and gods come in many forms. Islam considers anything to which a person devotes himself to be a god and an idol. It can be a statue, it can be your own desire, it can be another person, it can be an idea. The 20th-century psychoanalyst Carl Jung recognised this as well when he said that “whatever value a person or a society places above everything else effectively becomes their god” [paraphrased].

So, whether it’s the nation, one’s family, or any “ism” such as capitalism, communism, patriotism, feminism, liberalism, or racism, any of these things can become a god. Pursuing the goals of these ideologies or defending without question one’s nation and family (even if they are in the wrong) is a form of servitude. Islam teaches us that everything in creation is a slave of God, that is inherent in creation’s nature.

The human being, however, has a choice of what he devotes himself in this world. The human being can choose to serve God (Allah – literally meaning “the Being that is (inherently) worthy of worship”) or he/she can choose to serve some other entity. Ultimately, however, the return is to God, to the only true Being that has power, to the only true Being that deserves worship.

Devoting oneself to the nation, or one’s family, for example, is not inherently or necessarily wrong. However, if a family member commits a crime, or is unjust, and we find ourselves defending him/her, then we have committed injustice, gone to excess in our devotion, and made the family into a god. If we blindly defend fallible people and faulty man-made ideologies and beliefs which cause suffering, then we are oppressors in the land. And the root of our oppression is idolising and deifying that which did not deserve to be deified.

There is little point in smashing an idol if the ideology still survives. But smashing idols can bring attention to the faulty nature of the belief system. Abraham did this. It wasn’t mindless. He destroyed all the statues except the biggest one and, when questioned, said that the biggest one had destroyed the others. This made a point. Mindless smashing won’t get us very far. If there is to be smashing of idols, it should at least be tactical smashing along with education. If Winston Churchill’s statue is to be brought down, society must first learn why he is not deserving of respect. 

If the minds of the people aren’t swayed, if they don’t themselves logically and sincerely accept that the idol that they were honouring is undeserving of respect, honour, and reverence, then it is absolutely pointless chopping away the weed whilst the roots remain. I mentioned that Allah means that Being which deserves worship. Why? For a multitude of reasons: Allah has no shortcoming, Allah is independent and needless, Allah is Just, Allah is beautiful and the source of all beauty… and so on.

We are all slaves to something. We cannot escape it, but we must first recognise it. If we view the pursuit of wealth as the most important thing, then money becomes our god and every avenue that provides it becomes an underling god. If it’s pleasure and endorphin rushes, then there are plenty of gods to satisfy that longing. Have you seen for example how our society is beyond borderline obsessed with football, celebrity culture, film, gaming, or some other endless running in circles (both literally and metaphorically)?

I am reminded of a visionary line from George Orwell’s 1984: “Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.”

Islam teaches us to transcend this. These acts are the pursuit of the lowest self: the nafs, the animalistic soul. There is a godly aspect in us as well. God breathed into the human being from his own spirit. It cannot be explained in simple words: its aroma pervades the poems of the mystics, but its beauty can only be tasted through action.

The root crisis of our society is a metaphysical one. We don’t know where we’re going. We’ve lost touch across the world with guiding traditions from Buddhism to Islam to Christianity. And we’re not interested in figuring out what to do about it because we’re too entertained by shadows on a cave wall…

The Quran comments on the absurdity of how humans go about pursuing the world:

“Know well that the worldly life is but a play and an amusement, and a show of beauty, and exchange of boastful claims between you, and a competition of increase in riches and children. (All this is) like a rain, the growth of which attracts the farmers, then it withers, and you see it turning yellow, then it becomes straw…And what is the worldly life except the enjoyment of delusion?” (57:20).

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