An American businessman was once standing on the jetty of a Mexican coastal village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complemented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it had taken to catch them. The Mexican replied, 'Only a little while.' The American then inquired why he didn't stay out longer and catch more fish. The Mexican said he had enough to support his family's immediate needs.
The American then asked, 'But what do you do with the rest of your time?' The Mexican said, 'I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll in the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, Señor.'
The American scoffed, 'I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles and eventually New York, where you would run your expanding enterprise.'
The Mexican fisherman asked, 'But Señor, how long would this all take?' To which the American replied, 'Fifteen to twenty years.'
'But what then, Señor?'
The American laughed and said that was the best part. 'When the time is right you would sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions.'
'Millions, Señor? Then what?'
The American said, 'Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.'1
More Fish Please, We're British!
In his book Happiness, Richard Layard argues that, “once subsistence income is guaranteed, making people happier is not easy.”2 His central argument is that as Western societies have got richer, their citizens have not got any happier. In fact, all the indicators suggest that, despite the increase in living standards and material comforts, we are no happier today than we were fifty years ago.
Britain is only now waking up to the social ills that its “buy now, pay later” culture has brought about. Easy credit and borrowing beyond our means has plunged this country into a huge debt crisis. This, in turn, has caused untold angst and misery for the nation: what with mortgage arrears escalating, more homes being repossessed, bankruptcies increasing, and peoples' personal debts spiraling out of control. Simple wisdoms such as 'if you haven't got the money, don't spend it' or 'do you need to spend' have, for the past decade or so, been sidelined and even bulldozed out of our collective sensibilities. Our culture of unbridled consumerism, rather than being a path to fulfillment, has become a national addiction. 'Crack-consumerism' is the collective substance abuse that we as a nation now indulge in.
How Britain moved from being a nation where thrift was a virtue and debt a vice, to owing a staggering trillion pounds (£1,000,000,000,000) on mortgages, credit cards and other loans, is the subject of some debate. It was less than a generation ago that borrowing money carried with it a severe social stigma. To borrow was to admit to living beyond one's means. But that was then. Today's Britain is one where the moral principles of thrift, foresight and responsibility have been substituted by greed and the cult of instant gratification. Today's Britain is one where the social pressures and economic attitudes that surround us urge us to want more than we need; cajole us to mistake wants for needs. Our culture's current measure of success make us crave for more possessions, more money, more status … more 'fish'.
Yet the very happiness we are promised by buying those designer jeans, that mobile phone or this latest car, is what the next product assures us we do not have until we buy something else. As consumers, then, we end up anxious; unfulfilled; and unhappy – yet consumers nonetheless! “The endless spiral of material acquisition,” says Stephan Law, “cannot in fact make us more content. Like a drug addict, we simply get accustomed to whatever we're getting, cease to derive much pleasure from it, and so start demanding even more. As a result, explains the philosopher Peter Singer, 'once we have satisfied our basic needs, there is no level of material comfort at which we are likely to find significantly greater long-term fulfillment than any other level.'”3
More Fish Please, We're Modern!
It was Gandhi who once said: “The world caters for everyone's need, but not everyone's greed.” Although it has become something of a cliche, I'll say it regardless: If everyone on this earth were to live and consume like the average Briton, we would need three more earths to service this consumerist lifestyle; six more if we all wanted to live like the average American. In his latest book Affluenza, Oliver James speaks of an 'affluenza virus' that is sweeping through the English-speaking world. This virus, he says, is a set of values which make us extremely prone to anxiety, depression and emotional stress, because of placing to high a value on consumerism and wanting to look good in the eyes of others. Whatsmore, he insists, we are now infecting the rest of the world with this virulent virus.4
A consumer-addicted society demands the quick and careless use of materials, and is built on the myth that human happiness can be found on the material plane alone. It also relies on its citizens being detached from, and blind to, the global havoc such a worldview spawns. Here, then, is a gentle reminder of just what we are currently doing to our planet, let alone its people, so as to keep the 'fish' coming in:
Half the world's natural forests are being destroyed, whilst the remainder is being lost by an area half the size of Norway every year. Nearly a third of all the world's cultivable land for growing food has been degraded because of intensive and unsustainable agricultural practices. Although still somewhat contentious, most scientists believe that greenhouse gases and the resultant climate changes have increased weather-related disasters such as droughts, floods and storms, and threatens to raise sea levels, submerge low-lying lands and reduce the world's habitable areas. Seventy per-cent of the world's fresh water is now being used for agriculture; in fact, one in five people around the globe survive on less water per day than is used to flush a toilet. And then, of course, there are the fish. Half of the world's fisheries are now depleted, while another quarter is currently being over-fished. The human tragedy of all this modern greed and consumption is even more grotesque.
“And of course,” says Law, “ever-rising levels of consumption are impossible to maintain, for the resources we are drawing are finite. Not only are we damaging ourselves by pursuing our addiction to acquisitive materialism, we are also damaging the environment, eventually to the point where it will be beyond repair. Singer argues that we need fundamentally to rethink our attitudes to contentment, and to reject the consumerist model of happiness that is dragging us all to our doom.”5
More Fish Please, We're Muslims!
Islam too has many significant things to say to us about our modern dilemma of consumerism – though this may not immediately be apparent if one were to look at Muslim attitudes toward consumption. Even those outside our faith tradition are starting to point out that we Muslims consume more food during the month of fasting, than we do outside of it! Our craving for more fish, it would appear, is little different than anyone else's.
Yet for a faith that has as one of its cardinal virtues zuhd – asceticism; a worldly detachment where luxury and opulence is shunned in favour of a simple and pious life – one would expect Muslims to be among the least afflicted by what is essentially an atheistic, materialistic, consumerist ideology. Sad, then, that many of us seem only to want to live the migrant's dream and to sit back on our leather sofas; our four or five remote controls at hand for the plasma TV and home-entertainment system; Mercedes parked outside the door; mulling over what improvements to make to our homes next, and to feel pleased with ourselves because we've made it.
Such attitudes don't quite square with the teachings of the Prophet, peace be upon him, who said: “Successful is he who accepts Islam, whose provisions are sufficient for him, and who is content with what God has bestowed on him.”6 Nor does it accord with the spirit of the prayer he would make: “O God, make the provisions of Muḥammad's family suffice their basic needs.”7 As for zuhd, he once remarked: “Renounce the world, and God will love you; renounce what others possess, and people will love you.”8 In fact, “Whoever loves this worldly life,” asserts one prophetic saying, “does damage to his Afterlife; and whoever loves the Afterlife, does damage to his present life. So prefer what is eternal to what is ephemeral.”9
Less there be some confusion here, Islam does not ask its adherents to forsake the material world and to live a monastic life. It does, however, stricture that the material world not become of greater concern to a believer than God and the Afterlife. Such an attitude is culled from the following verse of the Qur'an: “But seek the abode of the Afterlife in that which God has given you, and forget not your portion of the world, and be kind even as God has been kind to you, and seek not corruption in the earth; for God loves not the corrupters.”10
Islam is the great dissident force in today's world. If we are all being dragged to our environmental doom, we need to be the ones applying the brakes. But this is not the place for mere pious sentiments, or being an armchair critic. We need to live the change we want to see in others and in society. This involves sacrifice; of instating the prophetic virtue of zuhd in our lives. We must show, as individuals and as communities, that Muslims have a real alternative to today's consumer madness and the suffering it causes. As Muslims, we must live for the poor and with the poor. We must emancipate ourselves from being enslaved to this deceptive consumerist ideology. In essence, we need nothing short of what Abdul Hakim Murad calls “a prophetic uprising”.
One place to start would be with rethinking our attitudes towards wealth and consumerism. Layard explains in his book how social comparisons; the desire to keep up with the Smiths and the Jones, is an interminable source of stress for most people. He says that studies show that people are concerned about their income and wealth relative to that of others, and how “they would be willing to accept a significant fall in living standards if they could move up compared to other people.”11 “So one secret of happiness,” he unveils to the reader, “is to ignore comparisons with people who are more successful than you are: always compare downwards, not upwards.”12
Informed Muslims will, no doubt, be quick to recall the Prophet's words, peace be upon him: “Look at those who are below you [in wealth and status], do not look at those who are above you, so as not to belittle the favours that God has conferred on you.”13 And that's precisely the point. Our happiness and our being content depend profoundly on our attitudes. For believers, the Prophet's life is the finest example of how to live simply and be content, even when the world is thrown at your feet. His teachings are a treasure-trove of practical wisdoms on how to educate the spirit, yet live functionally in today's material world. And the guidance he brought can help to distinguish between the 'fish' we need and those we merely want. It has the power to direct us towards a life of being content and sufficed, instead of being selfish.
SURKHEEL (ABU AALIYAH) SHARIF
- Cited in Zohar & Marshal, Spiritual Intelligence (London & New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001), p.282.
- Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (England: Penguin Books, 2006), 4.
- The Xmas Files (Great Britain: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003), 68.
- Affluenza (Great Britain: Vermilion, 2007).
- The Xmas Files, 68-9.
- Muslim, Sahih, no.1054.
- Bukhāri, Sahih, no.6460; Muslim, no.1055.
- Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.4102.
- Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 4:412.
- Qur'an 28:77.
- Happiness, 42.
- ibid., 47.
- Bukhāri, no.6490; Muslim, no.2963.