Do Material Possessions Equal Progress and Happiness?

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Dhu al-Hijjah 11, 1441 2020-08-01

Special Reports

by Zafar Bangash (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 49, No. 6, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1441)

The predominant global culture of materialism has influenced people’s minds so much that they instinctively equate material possessions with progress and happiness. There is also another yardstick: industrialization. Societies that are industrialized call themselves ‘developed’ and claim superiority over non-industrialized societies whom they call ‘under-developed’! There is another derogatory label used: ‘third world’, as opposed to the ‘first world’.

Let us identify the geographical areas that are called ‘developed’ (industrialized). North America, Western Europe and Japan are automatically placed in this category. Russia and China would also probably (although grudgingly) be included in this category while Eastern Europe is labeled as the ‘second world’. Most Asian and African countries automatically fall under the category of ‘third world’. There are, of course, exceptions. Can countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei really be placed under the ‘third world’ category? What about Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Turkey? Where does Islamic Iran fit into this?

True, on the basis of industrialization, the above countries may not match North America, Europe, China or Russia but they have enormous wealth barring some exceptions (Turkey and Iran, for instance, although they have other assets.)

Before we delve deeper into the question of progress and development, let us look at what brings happiness. While it is generally assumed that material prosperity brings happiness, can anyone deny that parents get enormous joy by seeing their children grow? The first steps a baby takes are a joyful moment for parents. No amount of wealth can replace that. So, happiness is not necessarily a function of material possessions.

Some 20 years ago, a study conducted among the Masai, a tribe of cattle herders in Kenya, found that their level of happiness was as high as that of the top executives on the Fortune 500. The contrast in wealth could not be greater.

The Masai herders have no electricity, air conditioners or piped water in their mud huts. Yet the absence of such amenities did not affect their level of happiness. They were quite content with their cattle as long as they had access to pastoral lands for grazing.

Presented with a 5-cent candy and a $100 bill, a child would readily choose candy because he instinctively puts everything in his mouth. Candy is sweet; the $100 bill has no taste and, therefore, useless from the child’s perspective.

So, there is no direct correlation between material possessions and happiness. This is not to suggest that material possessions are irrelevant. Allah (swt) reminds us in the noble Qur’an that it is He who bestows wealth/possessions on people; and it is He who withdraws them from people (29:62). Whatever Allah gives in an amanah (trust) for which we will be held accountable. Imam Ali (ra) is reported to have said: ‘Zuhd is not that you possess nothing of this world, but that nothing of this world should possess you.’

Let us now deal with the issue of progress and development. Unfortunately, industrialization has come at enormous cost in terms of waste and environmental degradation. The biggest polluters are the US and Europe. Their carbon footprint is huge costing the whole world hundreds of billions of dollars annually. China and India—emerging industrial giants—have now joined the ranks of major polluters. While industrialization benefits a specific country, its costs are borne by the entire world!

Economists consider land, water, natural resources such as minerals, oil and gas and an educated population as essential ingredients for society’s progress. These are definitely important ingredients but lack of resources has not prevented societies from making progress. Japan immediately comes to mind. It has no natural resources yet it has the third largest economy in the world despite being subjected to two atomic bomb attacks during the Second World War. How did Japan achieve such immense progress?

Two factors seem to account for its phenomenal industrial development: highly educated and skilled population base, and great discipline. Japanese trains run with such precision that one can virtually set one’s watch against them. Japanese cars are world renowned for their quality and durability. Compare them to American manufactured cars, and the difference is clear.

There is also another factor working in Japan’s favour. Its people have a deep sense of civic responsibility. This is instilled from childhood. At school, young children are taught to clean their classrooms before leaving for home. This sense of civic responsibility continues into adult life. Every Sunday morning, people in each locality come out with brooms and garbage bags to clean their streets. It matters not whether the person is an ordinary worker, a senior bureaucrat or a professor. Everyone fulfills their civic responsibility. Is there any other country in the world whose people exhibit such sense of civic responsibility?

Muslims familiar with the Prophet’s Seerah would know how he conducted himself. During the building of Masjid al-Nabawi, the noble messenger (pbuh) personally participated in picking up bricks with his companions. In preparation for the Battle of Ahzab, the noble Messenger (pbuh) participated in digging the trench as a defensive barrier against the invading hordes.

For any movement to succeed, the first requirement is sincere and committed leadership. In Islamic terminology, it is referred to as muttaqi leadership. Such leadership has no family, class or ethnic interests. Its role is to serve and guide the people toward their pre-set goal: the Islamic state. In the Islamic movement, people emerge in leadership role not because they covet such a position but because of their learning, charisma and the ability to motivate people. They are chosen by popular acclaim because they develop a broad following.

It is clear that progress and development cannot be confined to possession of material goods only. There are other factors that contribute to development. Societies that cultivate values of compassion and giving to help the less fortunate have a far higher sense of happiness and satisfaction. Non-Muslim Cuba and Islamic Iran fall into this category.

It is time to revise our values and understand that there is more to life than the possession of material goods. These are all ephemeral and will be left behind when we leave our earthly abode.

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