The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.
One of the spiritual and ethical challenges of living in the age of capitalism is avoiding a lifestyle of complete consumerism and materialism. We're constantly stimulated and tempted with advertising that tells us we have to buy the next big thing if we want to be cool and relevant. Every new product is made to seem like it will change our lives forever and that we'll simply be better off if we buy it.
If everyone were able to afford the latest and biggest product on the market that would be one thing, but on average U.S. households go into major credit card debt trying to keep up with the whole consumerist culture. The American economy is largely driven by our willingness to buy what we cannot afford by accruing loans.
Interestingly, some of America's founding fathers and the Prophet Muhammad seemed to be on the same page in their strong warnings against taking on unnecessary debt. For example, Benjamin Franklin famously said, "The second vice is lying, the first is running in debt." Similarly, the Prophet warned, "When a man gets into debt, he speaks and tells lies, and he makes a promise and breaks it." In one of the famous prayers of the Prophet he would ask God for protection against debt and against facing the tyranny of other men in the same breath. Along the same concern, Andrew Jackson warned, "When you get in debt you become a slave." The Qur'an too cautions against taking on usurious loans, in particular, with the longest passage in the scripture dedicated to its prohibition (2:282).
Making decisions on what to buy and how much to buy is not an easy. The key, as with many things, is moderation. The Qur'an describes the righteous servants of God as "those who are neither wasteful nor miserly when they spend, but keep to a just balance" (25:67). The Qur'an condemns those who over indulge in worldliness and, yet, says that monasticism is not something God prescribes (57:27). The problem, though, is that too often the "balance" tilts more toward materialism than simplicity. And, therefore, one of the spiritual and ethical responsibilities of our time is to rediscover an appreciation for living the simple life.
One of the uniting characteristics of spiritual teachers across faith traditions has been their adherence to and preaching of the simple lifestyle. It is no coincidence. To live a simple life is to live a free life. And, to live a free life is to live a life that is more concerned about the spiritual than the material. As the Qur'an puts it, "Wealth and children are the attractions of this worldly life, but lasting good works have a better reward with your Lord and give better grounds for hope" (18:46).
In the Islamic spiritual tradition, the sages teach that what breaks our addiction to materialism is a healthy dose of remembering death. This is not meant to be a morbid contemplation, but more so a reality check on how short the life of this world is and how it pales in comparison to the everlasting life that the soul journeys on after death. Therefore, working day and night to accumulate all these goods only to enjoy just for a little while if at all makes little sense. Joy and satisfaction, instead, come from an internal happiness that no amount of materialism can satisfy. And, this internal happiness cannot be bought, it must be sought.
All of Islam's five pillars of practice direct believers toward considering a simple life. The testimony of faith that there is no god but God is a denial of the world as a god. The five daily prayers are meant to take a time out from worldliness. Almsgiving is a practice in freely giving from your possessions and in learning the art of non-attachment. Fasting is all about self-discipline and freedom from the material. And, pilgrimage is an act of, literally, stripping oneself of worldliness and embracing the life of simplicity.
In these last remaining days of Ramadan, let us reconsider how we earn and spend our wealth and how much we invest in the material as opposed to the spiritual. The key is, indeed and truly, finding the right balance.