Youth often struggle between a balance of responsibility towards self, versus responsibility towards others. Their…
Navigating Values in a Complex Secular Society
Editor’s Note: This article is the third part of a four-part series covering Islam’s perspective on humankind’s relationship with God, the development of our identity therein, and interaction with the people, the world, and the changing circumstances around us. In this piece, we reflect on how we can maintain faith and submission to God considering the immense challenges that society creates for us.
For part one, please see the following link: Servitude in Islamic Tradition
For part two, please see the following link: The Many Realms of Servitude
Growing and cultivating our souls amid all the distractions we face as Muslim communities living in a complex secular society can be challenging, and the gap between recognition of right and wrong is ever-expanding. Today, different complicating factors influence our sensibilities. Because we often align with a particular identity (“right” or “left,” for example), we may feel forced to accept all of that identity’s accompanying stances and values, some of which may run counter to our Islamic teaching. This inherently could cause us to begin to shift our perspectives and worldview to a “side” while consequently shifting us away from the Prophet’s teachings and the examples of his Holy Household.
In addition, popular culture informs our sense of right and wrong through entertainment and mass media, even if the people we interact with are Muslim. As a result of our media consumption, we become desensitized to certain images, actions, and ideas. When these ideas and behaviors enter our worldview and are painted in a positive light, we begin to internalize these behaviors as positive and reinforcing. Collectively, our environment has a powerful effect on what we think is right or wrong.
So how then can we embody true servitude in a society which at times may be antithetical to Islamic values and tradition? The response is two-pronged. Firstly, we must understand the reality of the One we are serving and the origins and reasons for our values as transmitted by God to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp) and the Ahl al-Bayt (pbut). We covered these issues in the first and second articles of this series which you can find here: Servitude in Islamic Tradition and The Many Realms of Servitude. Secondly, as covered in this article, we must develop a critical eye and discerning insight into the underlying assumptions of arguments that may seem attractive or plausible, but in reality only cater to our nafs, the base, desiring segment of our souls.
Reject Human-made Categories
A manifestation of servitude is putting God first in deciding not only our affairs but also the way we conceive of them. As noted above, the division of values into groups, parties, or ideologies is part of what can confuse us as Muslims, especially when we may not have a firm grounding in the way Islamic values are derived. Once we do have that solid foundation, we can confidently reject categories and contentions that are human-made and ultimately subject to change.
The values of the societies we live in are always evolving; the platform of any given political ideology, for example, just twenty years ago was completely different than what it is now. Similarly, practices or positions which were acceptable or unacceptable just twenty, fifty, or one hundred years ago are legislated differently now. We cannot be a community that bases our values on the changing whims and tides of society’s fluctuating political and social sphere and forever subject ourselves to the prevailing circumstances that surround us. Rather, it is important that our religious values are our anchor, as they will allow for us to be resilient through time. Thus, we must not construct our entire identity and moral character around a transient category that is subject to change. Even if we align with certain causes or groups, we always do so out of servitude to God and an understanding of the values that has provided us to maximize our worldly and otherworldly gain. We have a set of values that are unchanged and divinely inspired but that are kept in conversation with the changing times through the continuous process of ijtihad —the deductive process used to derive law—among our jurists, maraje. These values all have a common goal, which is to perfect our affairs and souls through serving our Creator.
Understanding How Values Are Created and Inculcated
In Islam, all actions prescribed and forbidden by God have a common goal, to raise our rank and purify our souls. The latter only comes through serving God, because God knows and understands both our nature and the nature of this world and the next. Therefore, His prescriptions for us maximize our worldly and otherworldly benefits. Secular thinkers and groups derive their values from different frameworks than the Islamic ethos. At the core of all principles in Islam is obedience to God, whereas the core of many secular worldviews contributes to cultivating principles of obedience to the self or indulgence in its base desires as long as they do not infringe on the ability of anyone else to act on their own desires. Taken to its logical conclusion, this ideology permits a human being to engage in any behavior despite its negative effects on the self. There is no right or wrong outside of what a human being thinks is right or wrong. Secularism, it is important to keep in mind, is born from the principles of the Enlightenment, which was a moment in European history of response to centuries of religious compulsion, persecution, and warfare. Thus, this ideology is human-made, time-specific, and flawed.
In Islam, the goal of life is not for a human being to maximize their material and physical pleasures in this world. Islam operates under the assumption that a human being has a higher moral purpose in this world and a higher spiritual potential that they can maximize in the next. The values taught to us in the example of the Prophet (pbuh&hp) and the Ahl al-Bayt (pbut) are those which balance human desires with a higher moral calling. Servitude is not only for the sake of worshipping God (e.g., prayer, fasting), though that would be sufficient, but it puts us in balance with this world and the next. Servitude places us in the correct place in the order of the world, as those who strive for justice and the well-being of others and the Earth, and moreover, as those who worship God by obeying His instructions with the goal of maximizing our potential in every realm of our existence (i.e., personal, social, etc.) and drawing nearer to Him. In the same way that we cannot excel athletically without physical exertion, our servitude to God requires effort because it places limitations on our worldly behaviors and ultimately maximizes our success and happiness.
How Do We Keep Our Values Aligned with Divine Will?
- Perfecting Our Faith: If we truly believe that God, Islam, and the Infallibles’ examples are representations of truth, then we will strive to manifest and enact that truth. Through increasing our religious literacy to cultivating our spirituality through ritual, our intentions will become pure and will have the support of God in our quest for understanding.
- Control Media Consumption: Everything we see, read, and listen to becomes a part of our psyche and affects our worldview. We cannot un-see or un-hear anything. Our minds and intellects are precious vessels and blessings from God. We must consider what we allow to enter them, and always be careful and vigilant.
- Consider Arguments Critically: When presented with an explanation for a behavior, policy, or idea, we should ask ourselves, “Does this argument assume the existence of God or the existence of souls? What premises does this argument have? Does this justification feed my nafs?” By asking these questions, we can see beyond what is popular and manifest what is true in our path to servitude, God willing.
Society is changing rapidly today; what was not acceptable before is acceptable now. For this reason, Islam remains unchanged, like an anchor that keeps a ship from drifting, reminding us always of where we should be. It is imperative for us to revert to our roots–the foundational teachings found within the Quran and the instruction of the Messenger (pbuh&hp) and his immaculate family (pbut).
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