As Muslims, how we get our money and things, and the food and drink we consume, are concerns of spiritual importance. In modern times, however, there are so many problematic aspects to production and consumption, especially in Western countries, that our food and our things taste and feel less pure than we would like.
When I caved in and bought a smartphone a couple of years ago, I thought it was just the result of natural progression. Over time I have come to realise that despite neat apps that let me do things by pressing the screen instead of using pen and paper or my laptop, my “phone” hasn’t really improved my life in any way. Having prayer times and reminders of those times were in large part what made me want a smart phone. Such apps would be obsolete if I’d just learned the proper way of telling the time for prayers, of course.
Thanks to this phone, I could always know what people were eating for lunch, and for a while I obsessively tracked how many prayers I was doing on time, because nothing says “spiritually engaged” more than a list of ticks and a neat graph, right? What bothers me more about my phone than my ability to get distracted by it, is how little I know about the real price I have paid for it: when I bought my phone, I was thinking only of my immediate consumer needs, not about the global effects of unbridled consumerism and capitalism, to which I am contributing.
I once listened to a talk that was asking why mosque imams shouldn’t be able to drive really nice cars. The argument was that Muslims don’t value community leaders and scholars, and should instead wish for them to be most prosperous. I can agree with that sentiment, but my problem with the talk was that it did not even engage with the issue of why anyone should be driving a fancy car. Why should anyone be paying that much for something so useless that is a cause of envy, something that creates peer pressure, something that embodies the arrogance of capitalism and our extreme consumer culture, instead of challenging or rejecting it? We should have higher aspirations for the Muslim community, particularly for those we look to for spiritual guidance.
We talk about restraining ourselves at iftar time during Ramadan, but months later, some famous Muslim speaker will post pictures on twitter of their massive all-you-can-eat rib buffet with their other convention buddies, or display their expensive coffee beans. People should be free to enjoy these things, but to parade and celebrate them online exacerbates the problem of the culture of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and the need for constant validation. Utilising these avenues uncritically is problematic in a number of ways. The constant tracking of where we are, the abysmal conditions in which the labourers who make our phones often are in, and how little they’re compensated for their work – all of this should be on our mind as we evaluate how to minimise the presence of materialism in our lives. I’m not saying we shouldn’t engage with modernity or that we should have a Luddite approach to technology – I am after all writing this on a flashy laptop, in the hopes that this will be on the Internet, and I just confessed to owning a really pricy device. I am however proposing that we should have meaningful conversations about the impact these devices have on our lives and the lives of others, and whether, when they inevitably break down, we should consider replacing them with something other than another device. We should observe and knowingly engage with our society’s transformation, rather than blindly following electronic and communication trends as the last threads of a sense of community, of interaction with nature, and of serious public engagement disappear.
At universities, we focus so much on Islam Awareness Week and similar programmes, which might be good PR opportunities but which do not serve to show how we live as Muslims. We could be channelling this attention and energy to causes that actively show our values to the world, such as concern for the environment. Although a big issue like “the environment” might seem a bit overwhelming, there are many local and small-scale initiatives that tackle some of the critical areas of concern. My mosque now has recycling bins. Maybe we should be inviting charities to our Muslim student clubs and mosques to teach us to take care of our environment better? We Muslims are experienced protesters, and we are already aware of the destructive effects of the oil industry around the world – let’s protest against the destruction of ecosystems by oil industries, and protest against our governments’ values that prioritise the interests of corporations over protecting the natural world that surrounds, sustains and nurtures us.
Although I’m glad that there are halal meat sandwiches available in the university cafeterias, I’m wondering if perhaps our priorities are misplaced if this is our idea of progress and integration. Maybe it’s time for our communities to make it a priority to question modern eating habits? A few years ago I watched a documentary that made me incredibly uncomfortable with my own unchecked consumption habits. Responsible consumption was a prophetic tradition I had neglected, unless it was for “health” reasons. On the few occasions that the Prophet (pbuh) ate chicken, he used to feed and take care of it for a few days before he would eat it, but we’re quite happy to eat animals that have been force-fed, crammed into dirty and dark places, and abused in the most horrific ways. Pre-packaged and glistening chicken breasts are tempting and convenient, but do we need to eat them all the time, and is there a better way to feed ourselves while preserving the dignity of creation? Our level of meat consumption today is unparalleled and unprecedented, even compared to only thirty years ago. According to my grandparents and even younger relatives, meat would be slaughtered once in a while, if they could afford it, and only a small amount would be eaten at a time. It was also unthinkable to have meat in the house without sharing it with others, usually neighbours and more distant relatives. Today, most fairly well-off people, including Muslims, eat meat at least once, perhaps even twice a day, and as more land is used to feed our beef consumption habit, effective means of producing food for everyone are abandoned. With a little bit of effort, we can get all the energy and nutrients we need without eating meat every day, and ensure people in other parts of the world have enough food.
Muslims are doing truly excellent things these days; organic halal food is available in several major cities in both North America and Europe, and people are opting for more affordable learning retreats that enrich communities, rather than the expensive and stall-bedecked conventions. Muslims make up a fairly large part of the population in Western countries; the potential for what we could do with our numbers and consumer power is infinite. Aspiring to better ways of consuming and a more sustainable relationship with nature are central to our tradition, and in the face of a society that encourages the opposite values, Muslims can inspire healthier and more sustainable communities.
 Bihar al-Anwar 65:6