Too Much Choice

In the modern industrialized parts of the world, the mantra is “to maximize freedom means to maximize choice.” In order for us to enjoy freedom, we must have more choice. Choice is not limited to material objects such as clothes, cuisine and gadgets, but also our subjectivity; our gender, sexuality and individual characteristics are now our decision. Being your own individual with your own choices is emphasized. Even Barbie teaches young girls, “real style is about fiercely expressing yourself!” Freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of sexuality etc. have all become markers of a civilized society.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz states that freedom of choice in our modern world has actually left us feeling more dissatisfied. Instead of affording us the joy of freedom, the excess of choice causes paralysis. Whilst his theory has its critics and does not apply to all choices, it resonates with my own experiences in recent decisions.

It also serves to argue for the fixed boundaries provided by religion. Broadly speaking, people are happier when they are given rules and restrictions rather than left to their own desires. Schwartz brings forth the example of two fish. The larger fish says to the small fish, “You can be anything you want to be – no limits.” However, if the fishbowl is shattered so as to allow all possibilities, the fish will be overwhelmed with the paralysis of choices rather than gaining freedom.


Likewise as humans, we need a fish bowl. Absence of some metaphorical fish bowl is a recipe for misery, disaster and chaos. He does not extend this argument to prove religion is the best way to manage society – this is the position I hold. However, this argument explains how, to an outsider, Islam may seem like a list of dos and don’ts, but to Muslims these very restrictions serve to liberate.

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26 responses to “Too Much Choice”

  1. ismail says:

    mashallah excellent, excellent article

  2. scorpius says:

    I often see this argument made, almost verbatim, by Marxists. And it’s interesting to me that the groups decidedly against the Enlightenment are so for limiting choice and freedom. Not saying freedom is easy, and a fishbowl may be comforting; but how do you know what you are truly capable and what life can truly offer unless you jump out of the fishbowl?

  3. Sarah says:

    SubhanAllah, research from Duke University supports your idea about choices:

    Shaytan will not be filtered from this Dunya until the Day of Judgement. Therefore, a choice always exists – and Shaytan will always make his path appear fair seeming. After all, as humans we have been granted free will. It is therefore our responsibility to educate ourselves about the virtuous guidelines that have been presented to us by Allah SWT. The danger lies in believing that “the choice is yours” on the path to building a healthy and successful life. As we can see from this research, choices that are made to seem equally viable (despite knowledge of what is more nutritional) from the stand point that it is socially acceptable to choose either one, these choices have led to an obesity, heart disease and diabetes epidemic. If we fully submit to divine guidance, and very clearly label choices as they are, bad or good, halal or haram, then our decision making confidence cannot be duped when we only allow ourselves to have what is deemed healthy, inshAllah.

  4. Sarah says:

    My point is that we should, inshAllah, teach ourselves that the “less healthy option’ is not an alternative at all. From an islamic perspective, in society at large it is our duty to stop presenting what is halal and haram as viable alternatives to one another available in the same vicinity or choice set.

  5. Hyde says:

    The great illusion is that you have more choices, but that you really do not have more choices. For example democracy, all about equality, freedom, liberty expect you really do not have a choice in saying whether you want it or not!
    Likewise that having 700 tv channels that really are controlled by only four companies is any real choice.

  6. scorpius says:

    The great illusion is that you have more choices, but that you really do not have more choices. For example democracy, all about equality, freedom, liberty expect you really do not have a choice in saying whether you want it or not!

    Two things:

    1) You only get to choose things for yourself. You, individually, don’t get to choose which system everyone else in your system has to live under. That would be dictatorship.

    2) But you do have a “choice” if you don’t want all that equality, freedom and liberty Democracy brings: move to an anti-democratic country! I’m sure North Korea would take you.

    • Hyde says:

      Juvenile argument. If democracy is so wonderful, why are there so many problems in the world ? Last I checked North Korea was not forcing it’s form of life on others.

      • scorpius says:

        Flawed and juvenile argument. North Korea can’t “force its way of life on others” because their totalitarian system makes them so weak. They very much WANT to force their way of life on others, namely South Korea, but they cannot.

        Also, there are so many problems in the world because it’s the real world and also because so many truly regressive systems exist (in places like North Korea, Russia, Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Iran) which create so much poverty, oppression, death and misery in the world.

        Democracies OTOH (And the U.S. is not strictly a Democracy but it still holds) don’t go to war with each other. So if we had governments which had the consent of the governed worldwide we’d have a lot less problems.

        I can’t believe you’re basically arguing FOR Totalitarian limiting of choice.

        • Hyde says:

          I am not…sure they don’t go to war against each other, but have no problem going war against others who do share their views.

  7. RCHOUDH says:

    Mash’Allah good post! Similar statements regarding choice have been made before too such as the statement, “Truth is relative, not absolute” and “Believe what you want to believe”. All these statements simply do is point towards maximizing one’s freedom and choices in life, with the consequences being what are listed above in your post.

    A good example of how giving someone too much freedom and choices can lead to bad consequences can be seen with some kids are being raised today. Nowadays parents are being urged not to engage in any lax parenting styles (with no form of discipline, no setting of rules and boundaries, no deference to authority). Kids raised in such lax environments often grow up spoiled and lacking in any sense of discipline. While parents should also stay away from becoming too strict, they should also understand their role in enforcing some sense of discipline and authority into their kids’ lives, so that kids realize that having too much freedom is never really good for one’s health and self-worth within the real world.

  8. Jon Solis says:

    When it comes to limiting choice, the real question is who would decide the limits. I, for one, don’t want someone else limiting my choices. Of course when parenting, one tries to limit undesirable choices for one’s children. I may be against tattoos, pornography, smoking, etc., but do I want other people telling me that these options are forbidden or do I want to make these decisions for myself? I would prefer the latter. Religious beliefs serve as an excellent guide, but our failure to follow those beliefs only serves as an example of human frailty and makes us more humble. As an aside, interesting study: Costco found that when they had lots of choices for a type of product they sold significantly less than when they only gave the consumer one or two choices!

    • ZAI says:

      Best comment I’ve read here.
      I agree. The question ultimately becomes “who decides the limits” and “who oversees the overseers”? When combined with the truth that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, throwing the door open on limiting choices leads to dictatorship, totalitarianism, sectarianism, and authoritarianism.

      Naturally a government has to have SOME limits or it would be anarchy, crime, etc., but I would rather a system of check and balances where those limits are themselves limited as much as is necessary for public safety and decorum, rather than expanded ceaselessly to intrude on peoples PERSONAL lives.

      I am not arguing against the writer of the articles nor the various scientific studies points.
      I just agree with Jon that REGARDLESS of those truths, choice should be preserved to the highest
      degree possible while balancing it with law & order, safety, public decorum, etc. Ultimately, that is a never ending process.

      I think Muslims must put aside both
      1.) Socio-political Ideologies that seek to control each and every aspect of peoples lives at a GOVERNMENT level
      2.) The idea that the “work is done”, and now we can sit back and enjoy the ideologically pure society we’ve established.

      The argument might be made, “Well choices are harmful for people both here and in the hereafter”…Yes, and that’s THEIR choice. We’re not empowered to be everyone’s nanny. Some people ARE going to fall off the wagon and do wrong, both to themselves and others. Isn’t that the
      test of Islam? God gave us the guide and he instituted SOME laws, literally called the HADD (limits), to preserve BASIC civil contracts, trade, inheritance,safety and PUBLIC behavior. He did not enable a 24/7 nanny state that intrudes on every single aspect of peoples lives. People are responsible for their choices…but that can only be if they HAVE the choices to begin with.

      • RCHOUDH says:

        I don’t believe that we should be looking at this from an all-or-nothing perspective, in which we either allow the state to become all-intrusive or be completely hands-off. Something can be worked out from in-between, in which the state can and should minimize choices that human beings know to be harmful to society, so as to protect the greater good. Of course some people will still wind up making harmful choices for themselves, in which case as long as they do it in the extreme privacy of their homes, this would not be of concern to the state, since from an Islamic POV privacy is very much to be respected. It’s only something harmful is being committed openly that it becomes a matter for the state to deal with.

        • ZAI says:

          Yes Brother, I agree with your basic principle. Both the original comment and mine pointed out there is a need for SOME government enforcement or anarchy would be the norm. The questions/dangers are in the nuances.

          For instance, you mention “harm”. Define harm brother.
          What exactly is harm? From the position of which madhab? Which scholar? According to the Taliban or Saudis a woman even stepping out of her house or driving is a “harm”.

          Pornography is a good example of this dilemma.
          What exactly is it? You, I or most people might consider it to be anything of an uncovered awrah…well, Muslims stricter than us would consider a woman not covering her face as pornography too. Who decides?

          The relativity of the definition of which brings up it’s own question:
          who gets to decide? Who appoints the deciders? Can the deciders be removed? Can their laws be modified or removed, or is whatever law they pass permanent?

          Remember, the Muslim Islamist groups almost never say they are
          implementing an OPINION of Muslim law. They say it is GODS law period ,and if you try to change it, you’re a kafir, etc., etc. Look at the example in Pakistan w/ it’s so-called “blasphemy” law. That law has been abused in 99% of cases, yet if you even suggest that it be reformed or removed, the following will happen:

          1.) You will be declared a fasiq, apostate or kafir in some angry, frothing sermon.
          2.) Riots..ahem, sorry…”protests” will break out.
          3.) Attempts on your life which result in:
          a.) Death
          b.) Exile and asylum somewhere if you’re lucky

          Long story short…Jon’s comment nor mine are suggesting an impotent government. But what we’re saying is that’s it’s preferable to LIMIT government as much as is humanly possible, not MAXIMIZE it as most of the Muslim political groups…or extremists anywhere of any kind…attempt to do. So what we’re saying is that it’s a very, very, very slippery slope. Extreme caution is required.

          • RCHOUDH says:

            Assalamu alaikum Zai,

            In answer to your question, I believe that from an Islamic context, the answer would be that we look towards first defining an issue in the clearest terms and based on the reality. Then in order to find the right solution(s) for it, we look to uphold the solution that has the strongest evidences (daleel) based on Quran and Sunnah backing it. A state that is run by Islam would then adopt that opinion with the strongest evidences as becoming the solution towards solving a problem. That of course doesn’t mean that members of the general society can’t personally follow their own opinions of course. It just means that the opinion with the most weight would have to be derived using the strongest evidences (daleel) from the Islamic sources of legislation. This goes back to the study of ijtihad and who is most qualified to perform it, of which there are standards. Sorry if this is not very clear I am still in the midst of studying about the concepts of ijtihad and fiqh and so may not have given the most comprehensive answer to your question. Perhaps for more details about ijtihad you can find some articles related to it here on MM In sha Allah.

            BTW I’m not a brother :)

          • ZAI says:

            My apologies for the confusion Sister RCHOUDH.
            You make a good argument and I agree with the ideal.
            What you describe would entail certain prerequisites though:

            1. All parties involved MUST admit that even opinions based on Qur’an & Hadith are still only opinions. They cannot claim to
            speak in the name of God or the Prophet. That being the case, anything they produce must be subject to possible reinterpretation, change or disagreement.
            2. All parties concerned MUST admit that the clear, indisputable
            ayah’s of Qur’an dealing with law and law enforcement are very few. They must limit themselves to these civic verses and not go beyond them in promulgating law, especially interfering with people’s personal beliefs in aqeedah or practice of ibaadah.
            3. They MUST agree that these laws are mostly meant to deal with the public space and not private space, with SOME exceptions concerning issues like protecting children or domestic abuse.
            4. NO VIOLENCE.

            If we these things can be agreed to, I accept the paradigm you’ve laid out. But sister, you must admit that 99% of the “Islamic” political groups do not follow it. What they envision is an intrustive, authoritarian and totalitarian state, without consent and through forced minority rule if necessay and with no hesitance in employing oppression, arrests, and violence… that will intrude on and control every single aspect of people’s lives and in their minds produce a conformist, ideologically “pure” society…an utopia of their own imagination. We’re not not going to get to what you’ve outlined with these groups.

    • Hira Amin says:

      Salaam – the article was about the effect of having too much choice in your life, particularly in commodities. For example when buying a new house, sofa, winter boots or car insurance! It is interesting that the comments have swayed to “who decides the limits” and Islamic governance in the 21st century – a much more complex and intricate issue. I agree with the above comments, and would like to add that while we can discuss theoretical matters, the fact remains that the autonomy to practice this theory is also a significant issue in todays global politics that has to be taken into account.

      • ZAI says:

        Salaam Sister,
        My apologies if the comments went off on a tangent. It wasn’t my intention to distract from the main focus of the article. Infact, as I said in my original comment
        I agree with your analysis of the issue and find the study to be interesting. There is a lot to be said for unlimited choices not only producing unhappiness, but also how this effects the modern economy, environment, working conditions, etc.

        That being said, unfortunately among Muslims, the tangent is necessary.
        As Muslims, we no longer have the luxury of ignoring the problem in our community pertaining to Islamist politics. Your intent or the intent of the researchers had nothing to do with governance, but Islamist groups will MAKE it about governance. They would use it as “proof” for the necessity of their heavy handed totalitarian ideologies. This is an unfortunate reality, but reality…so I felt the disclaimer was necessary.

        • Hira Amin says:

          WS. No alhamdolilah tangents are good :)

          I was quite surprised as the digression, but you are correct in asserting that Islamists use this to justify dictatorships – relevant tangent indeed as some agree with their totalitarian ideologies.

  9. ahsan arshad says:

    mashallah-I agree

  10. RCHOUDH says:


    I agree with your prerequisites, seeing as they are based on Islam also. Hopefully In sha Allah either the parties currently calling for Islam will change their ways in order to comply with these prereqs, or a new party is formed with these prereqs already in place.

  11. I was with you all the way, and relating this article to my recent experiences, until I got to section 3, “Perspectives”. Just because a decision is not a religious one – between halal and haram – doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter. Some of the most ordinary life decisions can still be paralyzing. Bigger decisions – what college to go to, who to marry, what sort of business to start – can be agonizing. It’s unfair and simplistic to dismiss them as unimportant.

    • Hira Amin says:

      Jazak Allah khair for your comment. I completely agree with you – the decisions when there are many halal options are at times more difficult than when it is between haram and halal. The actual article is also about the former types rather than the latter type. What pushed me to write this was the difficulty I was experiencing in ordinary life decisions. The main point was that psychologists show that having more choices makes it even more agonising for the reasons outlined above.

      The point in the perspective part is not to dismiss these types of choices or deem them as unimportant. It was just to say if you are feeling too overwhelmed by choice and both options are halal, then in the grand scheme of things keeping things in perspective- our life purpose in mind, fleeting nature of this world and our final abode is in the akhira etc etc – makes it easier for us to choose.

  12. Andy says:

    Interesting article here. I can definitely relate to some aspects of it as I have seen first-hand what people do with too many options. However, I think that it can be different for certain people as they can put limitations in for themselves. People do not always need rules and regulations to guide their lives although for some people it is necessary. Part of the problem that is not addressed is how much the world has changed. A few hundred to a few thousand years ago, one did not really have the choice to do what they wanted. There were fierce class systems, limited resources, and there was no exposure. Today with the internet, you can find endless possibilities from the four corners of the globe. Thus, you are exposed to a lot more things making it more difficult to find something that fits you. Also, we are told far to often by society to aim for this “dream world” so we often get caught up in finding something that is perfect. Therefore, many people go on endless searches for things that do not exist. Much of this, has come from new marketing techniques.

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