Four Characteristics of a Materialistic Society

‘What has brought you into the Fire of Hell?’ They will say. ‘We were not of those who worshipped God, nor did we feed the poor. And we indulged in vain talk with those who indulge therein. And we used to deny the Day of Judgement.’ (The Holy Qur’an Ch. 74 Verse 43–47)

The features of a godless and materialistic society could not have been summed up more precisely and comprehensively. These are:

1. Failure to perform worship.

2. Failure to feed the poor.

3. Indulgence in vain pursuits.

4. Denial of the Day of Reckoning or accountability.

Before proceeding further, let us remove a confusion, which makes it difficult to truly diagnose the state of a society. Even in societies where the belief in God seems to be strong and prominent and the belief in the Hereafter is an integral part of their faith, such evils flourish as cannot be logically conceived to exist among believers of God and life after death with full accountability.

The question then arises as to why such societies believe in a God and the Hereafter, yet in all other characteristics remain materialistic through and through? The answer to this question is not difficult to find when we examine, in depth, the nature of the beliefs. In fact, just a remote theosophical belief in a God cannot influence the social behaviour of such believers. This is because such beliefs are only academic in nature and is never translated into responsible godly behaviour. How can genuine belief in God cohabit with lies, falsehood, extreme selfishness, usurpation of the rights of the others, corruption and cruelty? The concept of God in such societies is only cosmetic, too unreal and airy-fairy to play an active role in the After life, and accountability is reduced only to a pale shadow of a distant possibility. At every moment of choice, immediate interests always dominate and displace any consideration for the life to come. When we speak of materialistic societies, we do not only mean societies, which have uprightly rebelled against the ideas of God and life after death. Most theistic and atheistic societies may appear to be diametrically opposed in their ideologies, yet, for all practical purposes, they have very close similarities.

Accountability

The Holy Quran, on the other hand, declares:

Everything which you find in the heavens and in the earth belongs to God. He is the Master. He has the right to shape your destinies and your social behaviour. Whether you conceal what is in your hearts or declare it, He would bring you to book and question you regarding your evil thoughts and evil doings, then will He forgive whomsoever He considers fit to be forgiven and punish whomsoever He considers fit to be punished and Allah has the power to do all that He wills.(The Holy Qur’an Ch. 2 Verse 285)

The Holy Quran adds:

Follow not that of which thou hast no knowledge. Verily, the ear and the eye and the heart — all these shall be called to account.(Ch. 17 Verse 37)

Here, by heart, the Holy Quran means the ultimate life force which is behind every human act. Fu’ad, in the Holy Quran, means that ultimate decisive will in man which operates the brain as one operates computers. So that ultimate will is the source of all evil and good and it is that will in the form of a new life after death which, in addition to the ear and the eyes, shall be held answerable.

Let us now study the features of godless societies at a closer range. It so happens that atheism and disbelief in the Hereafter lie vague and undetected in a semi-conscious state. In beliefs, apparently one may continue to subscribe to the existence of God and the belief in the Hereafter, but for all practical purposes, they seem to be non-existent, sometimes it takes a crisis to bring these concealed realities to one’s conscious mind. Sometimes, even generations can live without truly realising the fickleness and fragility of their beliefs. It is at such times that atheism and disbelief in the Hereafter, which had lain undetected and unchallenged, begin to surface. In society already given to indiscriminate and incontinent pursuit of pleasure, the conscious rejection of God and the Hereafter brings the process of moral decay and erosion of values to a rapid head.

The direction of civilization, regardless of which region of the world or which era of human history, is always from the coarse to the refined. Human basic psychological urges, which work as underlying motive forces of human behaviour, remain unchangeable. What changes is the response to those changes. For instance, one’s hunger can be satiated by eating meat or vegetables. The quality and freshness of meat and vegetable varies. One can have them cooked and seasoned in so many ways or take them raw if one so prefers.

As society develops, responses to the fundamental urges begin to evolve and become more and more refined and sophisticated. This process goes on and on, though its pace may be determined to a large extent by economic and political factors of the people. But the vanguard of a society always moves on — sometimes slowly, sometimes at a faster pace.

When a civilization ripens or matures, over-sophistication and some other detrimental phenomenon begin to reverse the tide of this progressive trend. In decadent societies, the direction is reversed from the refined to the coarse. This is a subject of wide application and requires detailed study. I regret that it is beyond the scope of today’s address but I would like to elaborate a few points.

When societies begin to degenerate or become top-heavy and lopsided with over-sophistication, they begin to topple down and return to the same crude animal answer to their urges. This may not be visible in every social and cultural activity, but it is almost always pronounced in human relation and style in the pursuit of pleasure. A brief study of man in his responses to sex will demonstrate the case in point. Around the basic instinct to reproduce through sexual regeneration, pleasures are associated by nature in the entire animal Kingdom. What we find different in human society is a gradual departure from the mere satiation of crude desires to a gradually more refined attitude to the fulfilment of animal urges. Nature never desired sex as an ultimate object. The ultimate object has always been reproduction and propagation of species. Sex was only secondary to it. When societies become decadent, the role is almost reversed.

The gradual development of the institution of marriage, the rites associated with this institution and the taboos regarding the inter-play of male and female sexes, may be considered by a sociologist to be a phenomenon resulting from a natural growth of society and unrelated to religion. But, whether the growth is directed from on high or a random phenomenon moving forward by itself, there is no denying the fact that gradually the responses to satisfy the fundamental urge become more and more sophisticated and involved.

Growing promiscuousness in male and female relationships is again symptomatic of the same malady. It is not just a permissive, liberal attitude towards sexual relationships but there is, indeed, much more that goes with it to change the entire atmosphere of this extremely important sphere of human interest and activity. Debates about the legitimacy or illicitness of such relationships are looked down upon as a thing of the past. Of course, there are many staunch religious-minded groups, which go on discussing this issue. But during their discussions on the media, one cannot fail to observe that such old-fashioned, rigidly religious-minded people are being reduced to a minority of insignificance.

It is becoming much more fashionable in the West to consider sex as a natural urge which should be responded to without any inhibitions. A traditional coyness associated with talk amongst women is becoming a thing of the past. Nakedness, exposure, display, unabashed discussion and confession are considered only as public expressions of truth.

Nobody seems to take the trouble to extend the same argument to other natural human urges. Is it not a natural animal urge, common to humans as well, to possess that which one likes? Is it not, again a natural animal urge to feel angered and agitated and to release these emotions in the wildest possible terms? A weaker dog would be impelled by the same urges as the stronger but whereas the stronger would bite, the weaker one would bark at the least.

What are those taboos in society — the codes of civil behaviour, the concept of decency, etc, which keep interfering with the free expression of natural urges? Why must sex be the only motive force which should be given a free licence to express itself without regard to tradition, norms, decency, appropriateness, and the question of belonging or otherwise? What we observe today is a phenomenon, which has to be carefully discerned and analysed. What we call permissiveness in sexual relationship is being expressed in the form of a growing tendency to steal and rob in other areas of human activity, and to injure and hurt others. The uninhibited pursuit of pleasure with perverted tastes emanates from the same decadent tendencies which are demolishing the noblest edifices of civilization and returning mode of life back to square one.

Not only do we observe a prolific growth of rites, taboos and do’s and don’ts imposed upon individuals by societies, but also we find an indulgence in romance and courtship playing a vital role in this area. Poetry, literature, art, music, styles, fashions, displays, love of fragrance, and growth of decent and cultivated behaviour are all by-products, if not entirely, at least to a degree, of the same fundamental urge in the form of social responses. A time may come when a future generation begins to rebel against and reject the achievements of society attained after thousands of years of progress. This rebellion may not take the form of the total rejection of everything. Yet the discerning eye cannot fail to notice the movement in this direction. Hippyism, bohemianism, sadism, growing violence associated with sex and the return of sexual behaviour to its original, beastly, crude aspects are but a few examples of the reversal of trends mentioned before.

One only has to venture out to watch a group of rebellious, unkempt youths living in their communes to realise what is happening to the younger generation. Filth and stench seems to have replaced cleanliness and fragrance. Immaculate dress has given way to shabby, ‘couldn’t-care-less’ clothes. Gone are the days when a minute spec on one’s attire could cause immense embarrassment. Worn-out jeans, specially torn to reveal the flesh underneath, are becoming far more valuable than a new pair of trousers. Of course, not all of society shows such extreme signs of dissatisfaction with the past or traditional heritage, but when a disease sets in, the entire body may not always be ulcerated. A few ulcers appear here and there and these reveal the underlying diseased state or malady. Irresponsibility begins to grow. Indiscipline and disorderliness begin to be the order of the day. More signs of decadence begin to surface in different areas of human interest.

The pursuit of pleasure in every sphere of life requires change and novelty to provide a greater kick. Things, which used to satisfy in the past no longer, do now. Smoking and traditional intoxicants fail to provide the kick, which the progressively restless society requires. Drugs of all sorts begin to appear and no measure whatsoever taken to suppress the menacing trend of drug-addiction is enough. Yet, the drug addict requires a still greater kick. So a stronger, more addictive and lethal drug like crack is invented.

In the area of music, the same trends have gradually set in during the last few decades of this century. A study of the development of music over recent centuries, as against the rapid and decibel eruptive changes witnessed during the last few decades of this century provides interesting and intriguing data for comparison.

I do not personally know much of music and should be pardoned if some of my remarks are considered alien to the realities of the world of music. My intuition would make me believe, however, that the progressive development of music, during the last few centuries in the West, has been in the direction of the sublime, exquisite and noble. Such music brought peace to the mind and heart simultaneously. The best music was that which identified and submerged completely with the latent music of human mind and soul. Harmony and peace were the ultimate goals, which the evolution of music pursued. Of course, there were passages in the works of great composers and artistes, which created images of volcanic eruptions, typhoons, thunderbolts and a sense of commotion, which tallied, with the external phenomenon of nature. Its memories were stored and preserved indelibly in the memorising mechanism of life. At times, its climax reached such crescendos as if the whole universe was about to burst apart. Yet the audience sat motionless, drowning itself in the deluge of music, without moving a muscle or batting an eyelid, until, suddenly pindrop silence fell. Only then would the hall explode into tremendous applause. Even the most powerful music, highly charged with emotion, would not turn the listener into a violent, eruptive, and rebellious being. The message of all music was sublime, peaceful and harmonious. The best in man was brought out and awakened; the worst was banished.

Alas! During the last few decades, we observe a different phenomenon altogether. The ears of the contemporary generation are deafened with music capable of arousing coarse and rudimentary passions of life. A disturbed and restless generation finds itself only attuned to such music as makes them go mad. The more violent the music, the more popular it would be. Again, I should be excused for any observation borne out of my ignorance of the world of classical and popular music, but of one thing I am sure and it is that violence, rebellion, madness and vandalism etc. are fast corrupting the noble human faculties.

Professor Bloom, who must be credited with some knowledge of Western music, seems to agree with me in his book The Closing of the American Minds when he laments the erosion of the sensibilities of adolescents of the contemporary age who, in his words, are brutalised by constant exposure to rock music which he dismisses as junk food for the soul. There are many visible and palpable signs of this diseased state of society, which are gradually making the life of man more disturbed and lacking in contentment, satisfaction, peace and security. Man may deny the existence of God as he pleases but he cannot deny the existence of an all-powerful nature, which knows well how to punish crimes committed against it.

In all materialistic societies, the major factors responsible for progressive growth and proliferation of evil are about the same. Some discussion has already preceded; so, we shall briefly enumerate the responsible factors to serve as reminders. These factors are:

1. Growing atheism;

2. An enfeebling of the belief in a real powerful God Who takes live interest in human affairs and the way human beings shape their conduct;

3. A progressive weakness in the beliefs in traditional and ethical values; and,

4. A growing tendency to forget the end and to treat the means as ends in themselves.

This is a situation, which prevails, in all the so-called ‘civilized’ or ‘advanced’ societies of the world. Slowly, as moral and ethical values continue to wither, they begin to influence the legislative and executive process of governments. When there is no God-made law to be accepted, and absolute ethical values and noble traditions are challenged and defied daily, any legislation to discipline moral behaviour also becomes lax and more accommodating. The very platform, on which laws pertaining to moral behaviour are founded, begins to slip away.

A comparative study of legislation in this area over the last few centuries would effectively prove the case in point. Gone are the days of Oscar Wilde when homosexuality was considered a crime by society, which would most mercilessly punish it. Gone are the days of chastity not being just a virtue but a social trust which, if violated, would be brought to account. This softening on crime is no longer seen as alarming. That is the problem.

The definition of crime itself is undergoing fundamental change. That, which was considered a crime yesterday is no longer so. That which was concealed for fear of shame or reprimand is disclosed and displayed with great pride. If this philosophy was sound and worthy of survival then all the religious, ethical and moral philosophies may be considered obsolete and unwanted. They no longer serve any purpose in the contemporary age.

The driving force in nature, common to both the animate and inanimate world, is the universal and all-powerful principle of crime and punishment and goodness and reward. In the inanimate world, this principle can be discerned to be operational in the unconscious operation of the laws of nature. In the animate world, evolution prior to the creation of man, was driven by the same principle which acquired a semi-conscious or semi-dormant state. As one travels through the lowest rungs of evolutionary stages up to man, the journey seems to be from the less conscious to the more conscious. In evolutionary terms, the principle of crime and punishment and goodness and reward is described as survival of the fittest. Throughout the whole evolutionary process, this remains the driving and motive force, which constantly pushes evolution forward and upward.

It is inconceivable that when this process had reached its consummation in man, the best of creation, and consciousness had acquired horizons beyond the wildest fancies of sub-human fancies; suddenly the principle of crime and punishment should be lifted and rendered obsolete. If there is a higher goal for creation, there has to be some accountability without which the whole exercise would be rendered meaningless.

It is extremely surprising that sometimes the greatest of intellectuals and visionaries fail to see an obvious and self-evident truth like this. Such is the case of Albert Einstein, the architect of the theory of relativity, who observes

I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the object of his own creation, whose purposes are modelled after our own — a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty.

If there is a God, the Lord Creator Whose existence Albert Einstein could not deny, and if all the scientific laws operating in His creation are devised, created and governed by the same creative Supreme Being, it is inconceivable for Him to abandon the ultimate object of His creation by lifting the principle of crime and punishment and leaving man to wander in the chaos of undisciplined and unaccountable behaviour.

As far as the second part of his observation is concerned, it is obvious that he failed to understand not only the role of crime and punishment in the progressive development of creation, but also completely misunderstood the meaning of man having been created in the image of God. Man is created in the image of God not as a perfect model of God on earth. Were that so, the world would become more than a heaven on earth and all human beings would be exactly alike. It is debateable, of course, whether such a place would be worthy of being called heaven or boredom, where there is no variety, change or difference between odour, colour and hue — instead a calm, multitudinous sea of colourless identical drops. That is not the meaning and purpose of man having been created in the image of God.

This phrase is rich in profound wisdom and speaks of the potential with which man has been endowed. It speaks of the ultimate noble goal which man must constantly endeavour to achieve. That goal is to be as perfect as man can possibly be, by acquiring godly attributes and emerging more like God. It is not a fixed goal, which one can reach and then, basking in the glory of having become the image of God, stay put there. As God is unlimited or limitless in His attributes, so every journey to Him remains limitless. The perfection in this context only means moving towards perfection from a lower order of things to a higher order of things.

God is the Most Perfect, the Most Just, the Most Gracious, Ever Merciful, All-Seeing, All-Knowing, the Lord Creator and Master of the Day of Judgement. All praise belongs to God. The Holy Quran states:

Allah is He beside Whom there is no god, Knower of the unseen and the seen. He is the Most Gracious, the Ever Merciful. Allah is He beside Whom there is no god, the Sovereign, the Most Holy, the Source of Peace, the Bestower of Security, the Protector, the Mighty, the Subduer, the Exalted. Holy is Allah, far above that which they associate with Him. He is Allah, the Creator, the Maker, the Fashioner. His are the most perfect names. All that is in the heavens and the earth glorifies Him. And He is the Mighty, the Wise.(Ch. 59 Verse 23–25)

It is such a God Who created this universe. He does not suffer from human frailties. The Holy Quran repeatedly asks the believers to reflect on His Signs. For instance:

Blessed is He in Whose hand is the kingdom and He has the power to do all that He wills, Who has created death and life that He might try you — which of you is best in conduct; and He is the Mighty, the Most Forgiving, Who has created the seven heavens in order, one above the other. Thou canst not discover a flaw in the creation of the Gracious One. Then look again: Seest thou any disparity? Look again, and yet again, thy sight will return to thee frustrated and fatigued.(Ch. 67 Verse 2–5)

Having understood the significance of the words the image of God, when one looks back at the entire forces of the creation of the universe — from the time of the Big Bang to the present day — the entire journey of creation from the unconscious to the conscious, in fact, is a journey to become the image of God and to develop in man godly attributes.

Excerpted from Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues by Mirza Tahir Ahmad (pp 66–79)

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