It was the sociologist Richard Sennett who said that instability woven into everyday practices in modernity is ‘meant to be normal.’ I don’t know about you, but to me the level of instability and anticipation of looming crises has been quite breathtaking in recent years. We’ve become accustomed to almost a daily supply of harrowing stories of terrorist atrocities, people acting with unbelievable malice, drones and bombs belligerently killing innocent bystanders, anarchy in countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere. Nearer to home, there’s growing mistrust between the haves and the have nots in society, racism, Islamophobia, legitimation of hate speech, and so on. As news of these things reach us, they add to the sense of a runaway world in deep trouble. And to top it off, voices of wisdom and virtue seem drowned out by a virulent lack of realism inasmuch as people defaulting to cynical and pessimistic impulse and neuroticism when the going gets tough.
In light of this, I’d like to pause here for a moment to reflect on the kinds of bubbles we’re in. If, like me, you traverse multiple groups both online and offline, chances are you’ll have seen just how easily people become insular and narrow-minded when news of instability arrives. Like in a football stadium where we hear expletives from otherwise well-spoken people. The need to keep myself grounded leads me question what all this constant feeding of news is doing to my consciousness? Can I oscillate between periods of meditation and engagement? Is it my responsibility to fix things that happen completely outside of my influence or competence? What would happen if, say, I didn’t come across some news of police brutality or a racist gun attack happening in the USA?
Sharing news and analysis isn’t always a virtuous act. Mere awareness and knowing something doesn’t mean that it’s coherent, appropriate or it can in itself establish beneficial outcomes. Interestingly, there’s plenty of research that shows that people can quite easily become less convinced or move further apart as they’re given more information.
As a believer, I’m constantly having to remind myself that sharing unverified information or information that causes people undue anxiety could be sinful. Thus, engaging the news industry’s never ending battle of ideas, analysis and propaganda, requires a minimum standard of scruples, good faith and good intentions.
That aside, our response to news of instability is often a sign of frustration with our own lack of spiritual, mental, institutional and intellectual preparedness to deal with what life throws at us. Of course this is an ever moving target. But there are perspectives we can use to build resilience (some of which I mention below) so that by God’s grace (tawfique) perhaps we don’t fall into heedlessness (gaflah), cynicism, pessimism or a fatalistic mindset.
Firstly, it’s worth comparing our own situation to earlier times. We live in thick carpeted/laminate-floor houses with an unlimited supply of drinking water, temperature controlled air, video on demand at our fingertips, automated machines and devices, a cabinet full of modern medicine and endless supply of food from around the world. There’s no doubt we live better than most kings did in earlier times. Is there something of a disconnect, then, between lamenting the doom hanging over the world, and our actual experience of creature comforts and stability? Are we missing out on opportunities to show gratitude? Is it a question of priority for the right time and place, too?
Secondly, it’s worth appreciating that every generation faces its own challenges. Whatever one’s beliefs are, the nature of our life on Earth is that it has ‘tests’ and uncertainties in its path. Nothing is final until death. And we can be sure that our desires and egos as well as circumstances beyond our control will drive us to moments of regret, hardship and joy and so on. Tests and calamities will befall us, and if one thing doesn’t affect us something else will, as the Prophet explained. The Prophet drew a square and then a line in the middle of it and let it extend outside the square and then drew several small lines attached to the central line, and said: ‘This is the human being, and this, (the square) in his lease of life, encircles him from all sides (or has encircled him), and this (line), which is outside (the square), is his hope, and these small lines are the calamities and troubles (which may befall him), and if one misses him, another will snap (i.e. overtake) him, and if the other misses him, a third will snap (i.e. overtake) him.’
Thirdly, sometimes things remain unresolved and fester in our minds sending us into a spiral of pessimistic and cynical rhetoric. Such moments require taking time out. Here, it helps to keep the company of our loved ones, of ‘elders,’ scholars or ‘murabbi’ (guardian) figures and those who radiate warmth and peace, who bring out the good within us, and imbibe in us a deep sense of desire to do better for ourselves, others and the environment. What they will remind us is that change/idleness, justice/injustice, rises/falls, happiness/sadness, power/weakness, wealth/poverty etc. all exist for a reason. They exist, as scholars say, to differentiate and elevate people who remain, and strive to be, truthful to God, from those who do not. They will also remind us that everything we see happens in ‘order that the Divine names such as Al-Rafi’ or ‘He Who Raises,’ Al-Khafidh ‘He Who Abases,’ Al-Mu’ti ‘He Who Gives,’ Al-Mani’ ‘He Who Withholds,’ Ar-Rahim ‘the Merciful,’ Al-Muntaqim ‘the Avenger,’ Al-Latif ‘the Subtlely Kind,’ and so on – may be manifest.’
Fourthly, it’s worth reflecting, too, that anxiety is a function of uncertainty which in turn is inherent to time. As such, it need not automatically lead to doomsday scenarios. Though, granted, the modern ‘rush culture’ has a tendency to exacerbate our anxieties. But a glance at history perhaps reveals something quite different – moments of experiential meaning in, as one scholar said, ‘When there is nothing, there is still God.’ The Muslim civilization, much like other civilizations, has historically faced it’s highs and lows. Its lows included repeated attacks on the Ka’bah, persecution of the Mihna (833-848), the marauding Mongol destruction of Baghdad (1258) and the Eastern regions, the Spanish Reconquista, plagues, civil wars, wars between rival Muslim powers, imperial colonization and so on. The scale of devastation and uncertainty often led scholars who witnessed them to think that the end of times was imminent. The approach of the year 1000 Hijri was also one such occasion. In response, Imam al-Suyuti (1445-1505 / 849-911 Hijri) examined the events of the end of times foretold in hadith literature and plotted them on a time line. His findings led him to argue that, at best, the end of times would be well into the second Hijri millennium. His point was: no one can truly know when the end of times will be, but fearing that it would be specifically the year 1000 Hijri was unwarranted. Whilst recounted this, a contemporary scholar reflected that if you apply Imam al-Suyuti’s calculations to today, it would perhaps be yet another 250 years or so before the end of times – only God knows for sure.
In the meantime, as I was reminded by one fictional character, whatever instability comes our way, whatever battles we have raging inside or outside of us, we always have choices. It’s the choices that make us who we are, and we can always choose to do what’s right.