'Do Muslims make good consumers?' - Live Dialogue

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Yusuf Progler

Shawwal 17, 1422 2002-01-01

by Yusuf Progler

Is the consumerist lifestyle environmentally sustainable?

What is the future of consumerism?

Posted Questions and Responses

Name:

Mira

Question:

Salaam Ustad. In Islam, we have the concept of "Zuhd", which contradicts the nature of consumerism. Why is it then that Muslim societies are considered consumer societies?

Answer:

Salam Mira, and good question. Actually there are many things in Islam that seem to contradict consumerism, and so your question gets to the point quickly. But first we might want to talk a little bit about what is consumerism, so we are all on the same page. There are two different types of consumerism. One is associated with shopping and advertising, the other with consuming in general, which can include consuming ideas, thoughts, practices, behaviors, what have you. On one level, a consumer society is that which likes to shop a lot, but on another level a consumer society is a derivative society, one that has no sense of itself other than what it consumes, and this can be with respect to knowledge, education, technology and many other things. Muslim societies at one time were highly productive, but in recent centuries they have become highly derivative, and have become consumer societies in both senses of the word. How and why that happened is an interesting historical question, but I noticed some other questions and that you also posted this question twice, so let me look at a few other questions and get back to this one again on the second pass. Thanks!

Name:

Hadi

Question:

The culture of consumerism seems to be part of the modern life for all nations, Muslim and non-Muslim. How is it possible for Muslims to avoid this dominating culture?

Answer:

Good question, thanks Hadi. And to some extent you are correct, consumerism, especially in the sense of shopping and advertising, is a feature of modern life in many places around the world today, regardless of religion or culture. But the interesting thing about consumerism is that, while it can be seen as a dominant culture in some ways, it is rarely if ever forced. Imagine the absurdity of people being herded to some junk food giant to consume their weekly quota of fatty burgers and gaseous soft drinks, or being required to go to shopping malls every week for the latest techno-excesses. It kind of takes the fun out of it! Because consuming is voluntary, for the most part, we have to ask a question about why people have become so attracted (addicted?) to consuming. Part of the answer is that consumerism sells a whole way of life, and for those with the money, anything can be bought. But it is not a class issue entirely, either, since you can find the poor in some places clamoring just as much to hop on the consumption bandwagon, though by different means. In other words, consuming is an attitude. As for changin this attitude or avoiding it, the answer is not difficult to find, but it is difficult to carry out. The way to avoid consumerism is to, well, avoid consumerism! That is, learn to live without so many things. Learn to live the simple life. Focus on what you need, not what you desire. I think desire it at the core of a lot of this. Owing to the highly paid psychologists and public relations experts, the consumer industries have learning how to push our buttons, and how to create new buttons we didn't even know we had. We have to undo that assault on our personality. But you can only do that if you are convinced that life is better without consumerism. That is not easy, since consuming, broadly defined, has deep roots in modern Muslim culture. In addition to the shopping sort of consumerism, which really only emerges in America before spreading around the world in the past 50 years, the general cultural sort of consumerism is more pervasive. Look at the history of the Ottoman Empire, or other Muslim regions such as Egypt or Iran in the 19th century. They all sent students to the West to "consume" the latest knowledge and technological contraptions. That is a major turning point for us, and has something to do with war and commerce, and the temporary supremacy of the West in those areas. But our societies learned to be consumptive in those early years, and derivative of knowledge, education, technology, cultural habits, and so it was only a matter of time before, with the emergence of advertising-based consumerism, we became fully converted in the past 50 years.

Name:

Mira

Question:

Salaam Ustad. In Islam, we have the concept of "Zuhd", which contradicts the nature of consumerism. Why is it then that Muslim societies are considered consumer societies?

Answer:

Salam again Mira, you are correct to make the connection with zuhd. Though Muslims rarely took this concept to the extremes that you can find in other religions, shunning the world completely (including marriage and families) it is a valuable concept for this discussion and it can be the key to formulating an Islamic response to consumerism. But having a concept is only half the battle, since the difficulty is putting it into practice. The consumer lifestyle offers untold luxuries for those who can afford it, and once addicted to that lifestyle, it is hard to let it go. There are some questions to pose, though. Asking, "What do I really need to be happy?" is a good place to start, since consumerism of the shopping variety sells happiness. But are consumers really happy, or are they just getting a quick rush until the next purchase? Seeing this in terms of zuhd has its ups and downs, since we cannot argue that to live a pious and ascetic lifestyle is required by law, though it is highly recommended. In the end, I think we have to develop a voluntary response to consumerism, not a legalistic one. Again, the weakness of consumerism is that it is voluntary. We can step out as easily as we have stepped in, once a commitment is made to do so.

Name:

Shahed

Question:

The environmental crisis is due to the modern way of life, and human beings destroyed their environment themselves. What is the Islamic view on this issue?

Answer:

Salam Shahed, thanks for the question. You are correct to say that the environmental crisis is due in large part to the modern way of life, and humans are one of the few species that consistently "foul their own nest." Consumerism destroys the environment in two ways, first by depleting resources and second by piling up garbage. So somehow the key to understanding this aspect of consumerism is to ask about why we need to use up so many precious resources and why we make so much garbage. And, you are right, it is not just a problem for Muslims, it is more a problem of humanity. But because consumerism is a cultural behavior and embodies certain attitudes, it can be adjusted at the site of culture. What seems clear is that to avoid a further environmental crisis, everyone has to think deeply about this problem. Reaching into the traditions of various religions is one way to do this. In fact, if you really look at them carefully, most religions teach frugality and the simple, pious life. Consumerism is the opposite. It is complex and loud. Consumerism caters to base desires, and like Islam, most religions are suspicious of catering to base desires, if not downright prohibiting it. The danger is that we can rationalize our catering to desires in terms of "progress" or "modernization" but this is only an illusion. The best place to start is by asking, "What do I really need in life?" As far as specific Islamic views on this, there are many. Some Muslims advocate consumerism as a form of freedom and "seeking knowledge." But I think they miss the point, and are not seeing consumerism in its broader contexts, and miss the key element of its connection to the environmental crisis. That is a simple connection to make: consumerism depletes resources and causes global inequaliyt between the haves and have nots, which has been shown to lead to war, and consumerism creates a tremendous problem of pollution and garbage, which is a form of "fowling our own nest," which is highly aberrant behavior to most species. The answers are there, however. At its best, Islam advocates a simple, pious lifestyle, and a way of living and thinking that is some what detached from the world, though conscious of living in the world.

Name:

Omer

Question:

Can you talk about how Islam's ethical framework effective tackles the problem of consumerism.

Answer:

Great question, thanks Omer. This is a deep topic that we can only address with a few broad strokes in this context. Ethics is basically about how to live in the world, and it is about relationships among people and between people and the environment. An ethical response to consumerism would really ask some serious questions about the viablity of a lifestyle that has been shown time and time again to be exploitative and destructive. For every shopping mall that goes up in one place, there are poor people somewhere else whose resources (including labor) are being exploited to feed the voracious habits of consumers in those malls. In Islam we have strong tradition of social solidarity with all sorts of ethical guidance, and an ethical standpoint on consumerism would have to move beyond the question of individual rights and responsibilities, and look at broader contexts and frameworks that look at intertwining rights among people in different locales and between humanity and nature. But again, the weakness is not with the religion of Islam, there is plenty there to study and discover, some of which has already been raised in this dialogue. The problem is making a commitment to put it into practice. That can start with a single step. In many ways, in the Islamic tradition thought and action are linked. We are sometimes out of balance, thinking too much and not acting enough. The answer to consumerism is simple. You don't need a lot of studies. We have to make a commitment to live a simple life, to examine how our acts of consumption in the name of our own desires have impacts on other people and the environment, and ask ourselves if we really want to continue living that way. That is the core of ethics in action. The evil genius of consumerism, in all its varieties, is that it somehow hides these kinds of questions and keeps us focused on listening to and satisfying our immediate desires.

Name:

Hoda

Question:

If we consider consumerism as an inevitable feature of modern life, and seek its origin in the individualism that is somehow the basis of modern civilization, does it mean that the modern civilization is contradictory to Islam?

Answer:

Salam Hoda, and thanks for the question. Consumerism is in many ways a feature of modern life, and it is based in the expanding sense of individuality, which quickly gets connected with notions of freedom and politics. The Americans have been quite good at making the connection between a consuming activity like shopping and the idea of liberty, and many people have taken that connection for granted, and failed to question it. But your question takes this notion further, asking, by way of extension, if modern civilization is contradictory to Islam. What a bold step! Let's say yes, for now, and I can already hear the army of apologists lining up to counter that, but let's say yes for the moment, and take this a bit further. If modern civilization is contradictory to Islam, if that can be demonstrated, then what? It is hard to escape modernity for the time being, it is so all-encompasing and total, it leaves little space for alternative perspectives, except to write them off as backwards or reactionary. But modernity is fragile, in many ways, and consumerism and the environmental crisis are the weak points here. What is modernity without consumerism? So, rather than rejecting something as monolithic as modern civilization, we can ask more pointed questions, like what are the implications of stepping out of the modern system of consumption? Who are the people that have done that already, and what are their stories? Are they happy and prosperous without the trappings of modernity, including consumerism? This is, in a way, a call for study and reflection. It is one thing to recognize contradictions, but it is an entirely different matter to act on that recognition. This is where the two strands of consumerism I mentioned above come together. The recent shopping variety of consumerism is only that latest phase of a process that starts two centuries ago. Schooling is a form of consumerism, as are most institutional services. They teach people to be passive, to seek only what is being offered or advertised, but never to move beyond that narrow framework to explore new possibilities. That is the real pathology of consumerism. An antidote to consumerism is to think about production. What have we produced, personally and socially, in recent years? Do we even know how to produce anything? Re-defining and re-discovering different forms of education and production are good places to begin to escape the chains of consumerism.

Name:

Nasr

Question:

Thank you. Your replies are enlightening. Human beings seem to be addicted to consumerism and maybe never ask themselves what they really need in life. Does this discussion mean that the human being in nowaday 'sworld are far from their humanity?

Answer:

Thanks for the question, Nasr. Interesting formulation, that we are somehow addicted to consumerism. You have already identified the main issue, that of asking what we need, not what we want. Wants and needs are two different things, and consumerism does not want you to focus on needs. It focuses on creating inadequacies and wants, which are ever changing and never satisfied. As to whether this means we are somehow losing our humanity, that is a startling connection. We had a dialogue on this very point last week, and I think you might find it interesting to read that. If our definition of humanity involves knowing limits, being in tune with nature, and becoming aware of the difference between wants and needs, then maybe yes, we have lost a little bit of our humanity. If we take a bigger definition of consumerism, as I have been trying to develop here, which includes consuming knowledge and services from institutions, then we have in a sense become even more dehumanized. In my view, anything that takes us away from nature is somehow dehumanizing, and anything that causes us to commit senseless or unconscious acts of violence against ourselves and our fellow human beings is somehow dehumanizing. But modernity and advertising are somehow too slipperly to allow this kind of discussion to get very far, since their advocates will ask silly and specious questions like, "What do you want us to do, move back into the caves and jungles?" The very fact that people can take seriously such questions means that they have already normalized consumerism - of thoughs and practices as well as products - that they are unable to envision any alternatives to the sad state of reality that we find ourselves in today.

Name:

Hamda

Question:

Salaam, in your point of view, can the modern Muslim consumer affect or influence the Western supplier? Because what’s prevailing now is that the Western supplying power is influencing us. So, can we, by the fact that we’re a huge consuming power, have a direct effect on the supplier one day? And how? Thank you.

Answer:

Salam Hamda, what a great question. You are talking about the politics of consumerism. In the absence or deterioration of other forms of politics, including the erosion of political participation in the modern democracies, consumer activism is one way to fill the void. And, in places where there are few outlets for politics, but where there is a relatively comfortable or affluent lifestyle, the possibilities are huge. The key is not to frame it as a political party or movement, since that will immediately raise suspicions and get it labeled and even banned as being in opposition to the often paranoid ruling elite in many non-democratic societies. The key is to use the weaknesses of consumerism as a point of political leverage. Nobody can be forced to be consumers at the point of a gun. It is absurd if you think about it. Imagine an armed escort at the mall to make sure you do your patriotic duty of consuming your daily quota. Not gonna happen, and if it does, it means it is no longer consumerism, anyway. One important step is to define the "we" of consumers. Who are they and why do they do what they do? If you are going to ask people to stop consuming, can you offer them a convincing reason or alternative? In recent years, consumer boycotts have been somewhat effective ways to send political messages in the absence of, or in addition to, other channels of political participation. But those are not directly addressing the problem of consumerism and the environmental crisis, since when the political problem is solved or forgotten, it is back to the malls. To correctly harness the political power of consumerism, one would have to move beyond boycotts, thought they are effective tools. What we are talking about is a shift in lifestyle, especially in the affluent societies, that is based on a sense of mutual responsibility to one's fellow humans and the world we all share. In one sense, and this is back to the question of ethics and simplicity, consumerism is based in selfishness and greed, which are not looked upon kindly in any religious tradition. Can we move beyond the notion of individual priviledge and into the realm of collective responsibility? I think health and education are two good areas that are ripe for exploration in terms of this discussion, and which need to be developed in addition to the obvious political tools such as boycotts and sanctions.

Name:

Hamda

Question:

Salaam, in your point of view, can the modern Muslim consumer affect or influence the Western supplier? Because what’s prevailing now is that the Western supplying power is influencing us. So, can we, by the fact that we’re a huge consuming power, have a direct effect on supplier one day? And how? Thank you.

Answer:

Salam, I already answered this question, but since it looks like the time for submitting questions has expired, and this is the last one, let me take this opportunity to first thank everyone who participated and made this a (hopefully mutually) stimulating experience. But Hamda's question also deserves further reflection, since she is making the crucial connection between thought and action. What I can say for now in response to this question is, yes we can make a difference. To the extent that the dominant global powers like America rely on our addiction to consumerism for their own economic well being, we have tremendous power in our hands. But to harness that power is more tricky. First people have to be awakened, and this has to be done in a way that will not seem overly political (even though it is about politics) nor too directly confrontational. In the war bettern negative and positive spins on things, the consumerist forces have far more resources to make it seem like those of us who are ranting about consumerism as politics are somehow boring and dull people, "party poopers" as the slang would term us. That is the death of any movement in a media driven age. To sidestep that, a wide variety of creative responses are necessary, and there have to be multifarious responses that can make use of all the tools available to consumers worldwide, which includes creating solidarity with our fellow humanity and the natural world we all share, as well as the use of boycotts and sanction, but which can also include finding and supporting alternative lifestyles that are outside the matrix of consumption.

Name:

Hamda

Question:

Salaam, in your point of view, can the modern Muslim consumer affect or influence the Western supplier? Because what’s prevailing now is that the Western supplying power is influencing us. So, can we, by the fact that we’re a huge consuming power, have a direct effect on supplier one day? And how? Thank you.

Answer:

OK, that's it for today. Stay tuned for the next dialogue, and keep the questions coming in. Let me end with just a couple of quick plugs. "International Buy Nothing Day" (www.adbusters.org) is coming up at the end of November, and it is increasingly becoming a fun and informative way to counter the banalities of consumerism. And, to learn more about alternative ways of thought and action, join the Multiversity Group (groups.msn.com/multiversity), where you will find resources in the areas of Occidental Studies, Educational Activism, and Indigenous Knowledge.

Courtesy: www.msanet.org

Privacy Policy  |  Terms of Use
Copyrights © 1436 AH
Sign In
 
Forgot Password?
 
Not a Member? Subscribe

Loading...