*This post contains major spoilers. If you don’t want the ending or major plot points ruined, don’t read this post.
**The videos linked to in this post may contain objectionable material. Follow them at your own risk.
***To read an extended version of this post with embedded videos from Breaking Bad, please see the post on my personal blog at ibnabeeomar.com.
Breaking Bad is a story of transformation.
It is a story of evolution. A man spends his entire life living one way, and then suddenly goes in the opposite direction.
“Verily the creation of each one of you is brought together in his mother’s womb for forty days in the form of a nutfah (a drop), then he becomes an alaqah (clot of blood) for a like period, then a mudghah (morsel of flesh) for a like period, then there is sent to him the angel who blows his soul into him and who is commanded with four matters: to write down his rizq (sustenance), his life span, his actions, and whether he will be happy or unhappy (i.e., whether or not he will enter Paradise). By the One, other than Whom there is no deity, verily one of you performs the actions of the people of Paradise until there is but an arms length between him and it, and that which has been written overtakes him, and so he acts with the actions of the people of the Hellfire and thus enters it; and verily one of you performs the actions of the people of the Hellfire, until there is but an arms length between him and it, and that which has been written overtakes him and so he acts with the actions of the people of Paradise and thus he enters it.” [Bukhari]
Chuck Klosterman sums it up as,
Breaking Bad is not a situation in which the characters’ morality is static or contradictory or colored by the time frame; instead, it suggests that morality is continually a personal choice. When the show began, that didn’t seem to be the case: It seemed like this was going to be the story of a man (Walter White, portrayed by Bryan Cranston) forced to become a criminal because he was dying of cancer. That’s the elevator pitch. But that’s completely unrelated to what the show has become. The central question on Breaking Bad is this: What makes a man “bad” — his actions, his motives, or his conscious decision to be a bad person? Judging from the trajectory of its first three seasons, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan believes the answer is option No. 3. So what we see in Breaking Bad is a person who started as one type of human and decides to become something different. … what’s interesting is that this transformation involves the fundamental core of who he supposedly is, and that this (wholly constructed) core is an extension of his own free will. The difference between White in the middle of Season 1 and White in the debut of Season 4 is not the product of his era or his upbringing or his social environment. It’s a product of his own consciousness. He changed himself. At some point, he decided to become bad, and that’s what matters.
Whereas shows like The Wire, or The Sopranos may have showcased the decisions of people born into darkness, here we see someone willingly abandon the light for darkness. It’s a core lesson for many of us – to have iman and then consciously choose to take another path. Our ultimate fate is the cumulative effect of our decisions and deeds – and even if we don’t see the consequences immediately (as happens in the show), we will eventually.
1. Intentions and Self-Justification
The story of Walter White begins with cooking meth as a means of supporting his family and paying for his cancer treatments. But intention is a complicated thing, and often gets mixed up with other motives. What’s interesting in the show is how Walt continually considers himself to be doing the right thing. Even when things go wrong, he has an uncanny ability to hit the ‘reset’ button and pretend he’s starting from scratch – as if his previous actions no longer matter. He always hatches a new plan as if to say, “If we just do this, we’ll be ok.”
This is an incredible trick of Shaytan, that we struggle with ourselves when we self-rationalize behavior, that we otherwise know is incorrect.
As the story progresses, Walt does more and more “bad” things. It’s readily apparent that he is seeking fame and recognition. This becomes clear when he talks about Gray Matter, a company he helped found but was bought out before it went big. Here we see how it affected him and stuck with him throughout his life – and in fact became a huge motivator for his actions.
Walt’s self-justification is always that he is doing this for the betterment of his family. It becomes confusing throughout the show where you begin to wonder if he truly believes that, or if he just thinks everyone around him is too stupid to realize it’s a lie. Finally in the last episode, he comes clean about his real intent when he finally tells Skylar (his wife),
“I did it for myself, I liked it. I was good at it. It made me feel alive.”
We don’t always get what we intend for, and that is why consequences matter. People may intend good, and end up with evil actions as a result. One cannot, out of good intention, try to prevent an evil or command a good if a greater evil will result from it.
2. Sin is a Slow Burn
Stole this phrase from Imam Suhaib Webb. It’s an accurate description of how Walt ‘broke bad.’ He didn’t begin by killing anyone or poisoning a kid, but he slowly crept in that direction. Once he made the decision to get involved, he had to continue down that path. Similarly, we see how his wife also ‘broke bad.’ She was at first a model of morality, then she overlooked his activities, then she laundered money, and by the end she asked Walt to murder Jesse and was ready to frame her own brother-in-law. Once she made the initial decision, she became entrapped by her sins and there was no way out.
The story of Barsisa comes to mind,
Walt’s story shares a lot of similarities. The initial decision he makes to cook meth eventually results in him poisoning a child, killing people, and destroying his own family. The show highlights the consequences of his sins.
The creator of the show intentionally highlights this,
Do we live in a world where terrible people go unpunished for their misdeeds? Or do the wicked ultimately suffer for their sins?….If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. I hate the idea of Idi Amin living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end. I feel some sort of need for Biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. ‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.’ [New York Times]
We of course believe that there is an ultimate justice in the next life.
Actions do have consequences. What’s interesting is the decision making paradigm we go through when faced with difficulty. In this case, Walt is tested with cancer. He chooses to start cooking meth. Once he’s done that, other decisions follow from that.
One lesson we can learn is what our reaction to a test truly is. It’s part of our understanding of qadr. When something happens that is not truly in our control, what is our attitude toward it? Do we humble ourselves? Are we grateful? Are we patient? Dissatisfaction with qadr is at the root of sin. It was this dissatisfaction on the part of Shaytan when Adam was created that manifest itself in the form of arrogance.
In the case of one who does not understand this (such as Walt), they have a desire to control everything around them. There are elements of both entitlement and arrogance at play. For us we learn a lesson about tawakkul as well. We do what’s in our control, but ultimately leave everything else to Allah . We know that we can’t control what is around us, and the need to do so is not just a sign of arrogance, but a huge deficiency in faith.
This is further driven by his own ego and pride. It further blinds him to the consequences of his actions. The root of evil is that he always assumes he is right, if everyone just follows his plan, then everything will be okay.
This is compounded with other motivating factors – such as seeking power (as covered above), and also fear. Fear of not providing for his family, a fear of what will happen because he’s not in control. Making a decision based on fear is a characteristic of Shaytan-
Satan threatens you with poverty and orders you to immorality, while Allah promises you forgiveness from Him and bounty. And Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing. [2:268]
In the moment of sin, in the heat of that decision, we cast aside the long term consequences. A sin is not something isolated. It only takes one stupid decision to destroy your life and legacy.
The last point to be made here in terms of the consequences of sin, is that they affect everyone around a person as well. The entire show is an accumulation of decisions.
No one becomes Fir’awn overnight – it’s an evolution.
3. The Rise and Fall of the King
This is an incredible motif in the show. We see the slow rise of Heisenberg into being a king, and then his humiliating fall from grace.
This fall is an inevitable consequence of the arrogance of someone who considers themselves to be of such high authority.
Allah’s Messenger said, “The most awful name in Allah’s sight on the Day of Resurrection, will be (that of) a man calling himself Malik Al-Amlak (the king of kings) [Bukhari].
I heard Allah’s Messenger (S) saying, “Allah will hold the whole earth, and roll all the heavens up in His Rig ht Hand, and then He will say, ‘I am the King; where are the kings of the earth?”‘ [Bukhari]
These are no doubt characteristics reminiscent of Fir’aun,
And [Fir’aun] said, “I am your most exalted lord” [79:24]
We see the rise of Heisenberg slowly as he gains a reputation and further builds his empire. It is a rise at all costs for nothing more than sheer power.
Imam Suhaib Webb commented that the Fir’awnic mentality of Water White is how the bad broke him.
After this rise though, comes the fall.
One of the last episodes of the show is entitled Ozymandias. This is referencing a poem by the same title about the inevitable decline of leaders.
This is a direct reference to the rise and fall of Heisenberg. Despite his reaching the top, there was a humiliating fall from grace- one in which his entire world is shattered around him. This is a universal theme we have seen throughout the course of history. In this show, this fall is the consequence of his actions. This is the justice he receives for his decisions. Because of seeking this kingdom, he loses his family, his wealth, and his reputation. In the end he is a broken man with nothing left, killed by his own stray bullet. It destroyed not only him, but left everyone around him in ruins.
And Walt is a man transformed. If his cackling meltdown in the crawlspace near the end of Season Four marked his transition from Walt to Heisenberg, the slow dolly zoom on his face when Jack shoots Hank was the moment when even Heisenberg disappeared, replaced by something worse. Heisenberg wanted Jesse dead, but quickly and painlessly; this new thing wanted him physically and emotionally destroyed first. Heisenberg was deadly but methodical, vengeful but careful; the creature now taking Heisenberg’s place lashed out wildly, inflicted suffering gratuitously. Most importantly, Heisenberg still wanted to be seen as a family man; whatever Walt is now, he gave up on having a family the moment he saw in their eyes that he’d finally gone too far. (Rolling Stone)
The exact scene showing his ultimate fall.
4. Critical Examination of Wealth as a Blessing or a Curse
The pursuit of wealth, fame, and power is universal. They are motives nearly everyone can identify with. Wealth is an allure that causes man to break his own morality in pursuit of it. Wealth was sought as a symbol of security. A way to provide for his family long after his death. Wealth was also a scorecard by which to measure success. The more he made, the more successful he was – the more he was winning.
Wealth is also commonly seen as a solution to every problem. It is a way to ransom one’s self out of any situation.
Seeking wealth in this manner is an endless pit.
“If the son of Adam had two valleys of wealth, he would love to have a third along with them. Nothing could satisfy him except dust. And Allah accepts the repentance of the one who repents.” [Ibn Majah]
Of course, once obtained, it becomes a burden. First, quite literally in the sense that he can’t even physically move it,
This can be considered symbolism to the story of Sisyphus as well. Rolling the barrel seems almost futile, because there is no way for him to do anything with the wealth (and he ultimately loses the vast majority of it). Throughout the show, the wealth is his security, though he doesn’t realize he has lost all his dignity in trying to hold on to it. This is highlighted in the end when Walt pathetically asks the extractor (Ed) if he would deliver his money to his children after his death, to which Ed replies coldly, “If I said yes, would you believe me?”
The concept of using wealth for ransom was intriguing to me. In the end it seems Walt finally broke one of his own cardinal rules by bringing Hank to the brink of his death – despite their adversarial relationship. In the heat of the moment he offers up everything he has worked so hard for – all $80 million in exchange for Hank’s life, and it is refused.
It’s a stark reminder about the true value of what we accumulate.
Indeed, those who disbelieve and die while they are disbelievers – never would the [whole] capacity of the earth in gold be accepted from one of them if he would [seek to] ransom himself with it. For those there will be a painful punishment, and they will have no helpers [3:91].
And leave those who take their religion as amusement and diversion and whom the worldly life has deluded. But remind with the Qur’an, lest a soul be given up to destruction for what it earned; it will have other than Allah no protector and no intercessor. And if it should offer every compensation, it would not be taken from it. Those are the ones who are given to destruction for what they have earned. For them will be a drink of scalding water and a painful punishment because they used to disbelieve [6:70].
Secondly, it can actually be a curse in that it brings you further away from the very thing you were trying to obtain. Even his own family did not want anything to do with his money. Despite it being a large sum, because of what was attached to how the wealth was earned, they couldn’t bear to even think about it.
After all of Walt’s self-justification about making meth to provide for his family, his family didn’t even want it because of what he did.
No amount of wealth will never purchase what you truly treasure.
5. The Theology of Breaking Bad by Imam Suhaib Webb
This isn’t a singular issue like the previous 4, but this khutbah by Imam Suhaib does a good job of breaking down some major themes with more developed lessons Muslims can draw from them.
Stats not Stories: Problems with our Islamic History
Admit it. You’re bored by Islamic History. Sure, you might say that you find it fascinating, but the likelihood is that you are far more likely to be enamoured by the idea of what Islamic history should be like rather than the history itself.
How can I justify saying this? Well, lets take any other aspect of life that you are definitely not bored by. The latest Star Wars movie perhaps, Super Bowl 50 or all 7 Harry Potter books. Anything at all. Odds are that you can remember a lot about them in vivid detail. But if you’re asked the same thing about pretty much any aspect of Islamic history, the details are likely to be nowhere near as clear or captivating.
Relax. For once, it is not your fault.
Islamic history is the poor cousin of the Islamic sciences. It can often be poorly taught, poorly understood and even more poorly preserved. The blame for this partly falls on the shoulders of the Islamic historians themselves. Apart from some notable exceptions, many Islamic history books are dreary affairs over-filled with numbers, dates and exceptionally long names of individuals who sound very similar.
It is not that Islamic history itself is boring. On the contrary, I would make the case that no other history is as palpitation inducing, full of giddy highs and dramatic – seemingly bottomless – lows. However, even the most amazing thriller can go from awe to yawn if the main focus is on the factual details rather than the story itself.
In 2007 Deborah Small at the Wharton School of Business conducted an experiment to see how people would react to a charity campaign that was presented primarily using facts and figures as compared to the same campaign presented as a story. The outcome wasn’t even close. Stories trump stats every time. Or, as Stalin would say “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” He should know. He was kind of an expert on the subject.
In fact, we don’t need to look to modern research to prove this. The Quran itself is full of stories and lessons, but short on details. How many animals made it on to the Ark? Where exactly did Khidr live? What was the name of the Pharoah that was the arch-nemesis of Musa ? The lack of facts and figures detracts nothing from the power of these stories and their ability to inspire and transform those hearing them.
Allah was explicit on this point when it came to the stories of the Companions of the Cave. Allah admonishes those who debate on the exact number of those in the cave saying “Now some say they were three and the fourth one is their dog and some will say they were five and the sixth one is their dog, guessing randomly at the unseen.” It is unfortunate that we don’t heed this lesson when it comes to how we teach our own Islamic history.
Maya Angelou said ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ If we want our Islamic history to be relevant and life-changing, we need to put away the facts and figures and bring out the monsters and legends.
Five Courageous Ways To Respond To Anti-Muslim Hatred
By Fatima Barkatulla
It was the day after the second Paris attack. Our local Muslim school sent parents a text-message telling them that security guards would flank the school gates the next day. Messages were flying around, complete with fuzzy CCTV footage of Muslim women who had been verbally or physically attacked in public places, in the climate of hatred and fear that seemed to hang like a cloud over us.
My sons, proudly wear traditional garments (thobe and white skullcap) when going to certain classes at the Mosque. It is the uniform for their Qur’an class. It’s of course not obligatory for them to wear it but they normally do. They were about to set out and catch a bus when a sense of dread came over me as I realised how vulnerable they looked and how so visibly ‘Muslim’. People had been fed a drip diet of negativity surrounding Islam and Muslims. The heinous crimes of some of our co-religionists, playing on 24-hour news channels had contributed to that climate. It would only take one angry person…
In that moment I considered telling my sons to pop their jeans on instead, reserving their traditional garb for when they were safely inside the mosque. In that moment I was terrified at the power I wielded as a parent to influence their mindset with a word I might utter. And in that moment, I bit my tongue and decided to choose Tawakkul and empowerment and banish victimhood and fear.
There was no real danger. Most of our fellow citizens are not full of hatred. Most of them do know a Muslim well enough to know better. I believe much of the fear-mongering that goes on in Muslim circles, is manufactured and perpetuated by people continuously forwarding unconfirmed scare stories to one another (or perhaps people infiltrating our lists and groups, maliciously intending to spread panic).
In the aftermath of these attacks it’s important to continue living as you normally live day to day as much as possible and since my sons usually do wear these clothes to the mosque without issue, I didn’t want to introduce the idea of hiding being a Muslim to them.
It’s not about fanatically holding onto garments. Indeed if there is real and present danger we should take the precautions necessary and should not put our children at high risk. However, this was about the attitude we seek to instil in the next generation of Believers.
Over the Channel in France, with its aggressive secularism, it has become commonplace for many Muslims to hide their Islam. Britain’s Muslims, including my sons, are confident and very comfortable expressing our faith and culture, Alhamdulillah. This is home and we aren’t guests here. The vast majority of our compatriots are respectful towards us and, especially in the vibrant melting-pot that is London, we have grown up together, laughed, cried, learned and played together. We grew up being told to express our culture and be ourselves.
In the 80s racists used to abuse us for having a different skin colour – which we couldn’t hide. They would hurl insults at my mother for observing hijab. That overt racism is largely gone. But the point is this: Our parents didn’t persevere through the tough times that they faced, only for our generation to lie down as soon as we face some pressure!
By all means let us teach our children to take the normal precautions any child should. Teaching them the very powerful duas and supplications for going outside as well as the du’a when facing fear, and the du’a for resolve, were my first port of call. But I refuse to instil cowardice in their hearts and will continue to teach them to hold their heads up high as Muslims in a world where their faith is misrepresented.
I see parenting as a calling. Children are the ultimate carriers of our values beyond our own short lives. Most of us still hear our mothers’ voices in our heads, giving us the occasion telling-off or reminding us to do the right thing. Most of us subconsciously ask ourselves what dad would have done. We may of course reassess some of those values, rejecting some and adapting others. However, a parent’s attitude and philosophy of life is no doubt a most powerful factor in setting a child’s direction in the world.
So how will I be teaching my children to respond to anti-Muslim hatred? What do I hope their attitude will be, growing up in 21st Century Britain?
The key messages I will be giving my children are:
First: Have faith in Allah’s plan. Our tradition teaches us that everything, however difficult it may be for us to understand, happens for a reason and happens by the will of God. It teaches us that through Sabr – patiently persevering upon the straight path, through hard work and prayer, we will see the fruits of our efforts.
Second: Never be afraid to be different. Some of the greatest people in history went against the grain. They were immensely unpopular and often persecuted. In the end, their unwavering, patient, perseverance for justice shone through. We have an example of that in the great messengers of God such as Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, peace be upon them. And in recent times we have the likes of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X – who fought injustice, were persecuted or killed for their cause, but morally triumphant as eventually the world caught up with them.
Third: Be politically engaged. Outrage at injustices around the world is natural. But how you allow that to manifest itself is pivotal. The Qur’an tells us that we must live up to being “the best people extracted for the sake of humanity.” The conditions for being amongst the best of people are that we must enjoin the good, beginning with ourselves and forbid what is wrong and have faith in God. Loving ones country means sometimes holding a mirror up to it and with wisdom, speaking truth to power.
Fourth: Be socially engaged. Contribute and give to society positively with all your heart and with all of your talents. Serve your neighbours, serve your fellow citizens. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ would go the extra mile to reach out to people and fulfil their needs, to feed, to clothe, to share a burden. He never encouraged us to live in ghettos, happy with our own piety. Mixing with people, sharing, caring, giving, getting involved with the issues of society is his example and your duty.
Fifth: Seek deeper knowledge of scripture from traditional scholars who are also forward-thinking. The Qur’an has a context to it. Reading ones own interpretations into it willy nilly gives a warped understanding. We see the catastrophic effects of that in lands where injustice is being justified by ignorant Twitter and Facebook muftis interpreting revelation. Our tradition is rich, it gave birth to one of the greatest civilisations in history. Don’t be rash. Don’t be a hothead. The energy of youth needs to be tempered by the wisdom of scholars and elders. Our faith needs a generation of leaders who have depth of understanding and a wealth of wisdom in order to traverse the murky waters that may lay ahead. Be that generation.
بِسْمِ اللهِ ، تَوَكَّلْتُ عَلَى اللهِ وَلَا حَوْلَ وَلَا قُوَّةَ إِلَّا بِاللهِ
“In the name of Allah, I place my trust in Allah and there is no might nor power except with Allah.”
The Prophet ﷺ told us, when we say this, an angel will say: “you shall be defended, protected and guided”. (Abu Dawud)
And this wonderful du’a which every one of us should memorise! It is protection from facing ignorance or harm when going out! Make sure your kids have memorised it!
اللَّهُمَّ إني أَعُوذُ بِكَ أَنْ أَضِلَّ أَوْ أُضَلَّ ، أَوْ أَزِلَّ أَوْ أُزَلَّ ، أَوْ أَظْلِمَ أَوْ أُظْلَمَ ، أَوْ أَجْهَلَ أَوْ يُجْهَلَ عَلَيَّ
“O Allah, I seek refuge with You lest I should stray or be led astray, or slip (i.e. to commit a sin unintentionally) or be tripped, or oppress or be oppressed, or behave foolishly or be treated foolishly.” (Abu Dawud)
 ‘thaub’ is sometimes called a dishdasha (it is a long, dress-like garment worn by men in the Middle-East). ‘Thaub’ is the more commonly used name for it in the Muslim community.
Science Not Art: Problems with our Islamic History
Let me introduce you to Hassan. He is an artist with an imagination that runs wild with more creativity in his little finger than most of us have in our whole lives. He spends his spare time in art galleries and exhibitions. He enjoys experimenting with different pantones to find the right shade of green for his latest artwork. So far, he’s your typical artist, except for the small fact that he’s a medical student.
Like many children of first generation immigrants, Hassan was prodded towards a stable career in healthcare rather than the decidedly less secure world of being an artist. His innate artistry is out of place in the sterile world of Medicine, but he accepts this trade-off for the security that a career in medicine brings.
Much like Hassan, I contend that Islamic history is art trapped in the world of sciences.
While Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t being busy leading the Rough Riders or being President, he made the same case for history in general. Every civilization and culture views history through a different lens. While the Europeans classically treated History as a category within literature and the Hindus as often indistinguishable from mythology – Muslims took an entirely different approach. When it comes to fields of Islamic studies, we tend to classify the most important as sciences. Tafsir, Ilm al hadeeth, Tajweed and Fiqh are all researched and taught with the same precision and accuracy as physics or maths. There is relatively little room for artistic license or experimentation.
This is a strength especially when it comes to the studies that make up the bedrock of the faith and are used to decide the rules and regulations that govern it. However, problems arise when subjects that don’t naturally fit into the scientific category are reclassified as such. One such example is Islamic history. Our history has often been subjected to the same rigorous standards as those applied to other Islamic sciences. Anything that doesn’t meet the highest standards of verification and authentication can potentially be downplayed or treated as suspect.
This view of history was pioneered by none other than the father of historiography Ibn Khaldun, who was frustrated by the “uncritical acceptance of historical data.” It comes as no surprise to find out that Ibn Khaldun was a jurist before he found fame in later life as a historian. However, history is not merely data to be proven or interpreted in a narrow set of ways. History is the art of putting together bits of information from the past and weaving together a narrative that gives us an insight into the motivations and actions of those that preceded us.
For instance, History as science will tell us that the Moghul Empire finally collapsed due to a range of socio-economic factors afflicting the corrupt Moghul state combined with the overwhelming military superiority of the British. While that may technically be accurate, History as art would explain the fall as a perfect storm of threats compounded by the tragic but unexpected outcome of an aging Emperor’s affections for his ambitious and treacherous young wife Zeenat Mahal. The former view is based on empirical evidence but wholly uninspiring and devoid of the human touch, while the latter is pieced together based on some facts, some extrapolations and based on the characters of the personalities involved.
Skeptics from the scientific school of thought will read the above and fear that this is a call to legitimise superstition and fairytales. It is not. The reality is that the majority of our history, or any history for that matter, will fail to pass the benchmarks that we must necessarily use for our sciences. The result of this is that there are swathes of our history that are simply looked upon as second class and therefore not prominent.
Maria Konnikova argued the same point cogently in Scientific American. There needs to be a paradigm shift in how we see and classify Islamic history. Islamic historians should feel comfortable in the freedom to discuss and teach aspects of our history that may not be 100% verifiable, but that fit within the broad construct of our traditions. We need to explore and cultivate the vast fertile expanses between irrefutable evidence based facts and pure fiction. Should we do so, we will reap a rich harvest of engaged and inspired Muslims who can take lessons and inspiration from our past and use it to guide our future. That’s hopefully something that even the most dedicated scientist would find it difficult to argue against.
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