Culture as Contestation: Planting Good Seeds in the Nation’s Soil
Published: February 13, 2020 • Updated: January 17, 2023
Author: Dr. Zara Khan
بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ
In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
For more on this topic, see Black Heritage
Perhaps this is why we Muslims find modern Western art particularly disagreeable and resistant to our contemplation: if art is the crystallisation of a civilisation, then to amble along the corridors of the Tate Gallery is to be confronted with a disturbing realisation. Christianity, when it was taken seriously by the cultural elite, produced significant works, which Muslims can recognise as beautiful, despite the inherent dangers of its love of the graven image. Christianity was sapped by the so-called enlightenment; and now that the enlightenment itself has run its course, the Western soul, as articulated by its most intelligent and most respected artistic representatives, has shifted its concerns to the human entrails. From the spirit, to the mind, to the body—and now to its waste products: a depressing trajectory, and one from which we avert our gaze.
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The good word and the good tree
On the authority of Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him), who said that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, said: “Allah (the Exalted) said: Whosoever shows enmity to someone devoted to Me, I shall be at war with him. My servant draws not near to Me with anything more loved by Me than the religious duties I have enjoined upon him, and My servant continues to draw near to Me with supererogatory works so that I shall love him. When I love him I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes and his foot with which he walks. Were he to ask [something] of Me, I would surely give it to him, and were he to ask Me for refuge, I would surely grant him it. I do not hesitate about anything as much as I hesitate about [seizing] the soul of My faithful servant: he hates death and I hate hurting him.”
What is culture?
Popular culture today
- We live in a products economy and all our products are dispensable. Nothing is to be reused, and reusable things are only to last for a very short time before being thrown away and replaced. These include coffee cups, water bottles, clothes based on ephemeral clothing trends, cosmetics, and electronics.
- More and more of our communities are virtual, as we slowly convert more of our communications to online and social media platforms. One of the gravest dangers of this—and this is not to advocate pulling the plug on technology or social media, but rather to promote responsible, moral, and intelligent use of technology—is that we spend more time on our appearances (i.e., profiles, selfies, check-ins, etc.) than on reflecting on souls for the purpose of self-improvement. A gaze that is turned outwards cannot simultaneously see inward. The latter is something that can only be done in quietude, away from the popular gaze, in intimate dua with Allah and/or with the guidance of a spiritual teacher. Virtual communities also don’t have mechanisms by which we can hold one another accountable—something that families, masaajid and churches, and neighborhoods can do.
- Sexual relations, according to pop culture, are completely unfettered. There is no restriction on sexuality other than mutual consent, and this has become the absolute norm. Various other forms of cultural expression, habit, and symbol enforce this. Anyone with a smartphone and the inclination can engage in fornication or adultery. This ‘freedom’ is actually the removal of our mutual responsibility to enjoin the keeping of truth and patience in adversity.Popular poetry, found in song lyrics, promotes a dismal relationship cycle (or worse, a hookup cycle) in which: a romantic or sexual attraction is sparked ➔ a felicitous coupling occurs ➔ heartbreak (or recycling of partner without heartbreak) ensues, due to infidelity (or some other power to exercise preference) ➔ a new partner helps to soothe the distaste and suffering of the previous cycle/a romantic or sexual attraction is sparked ➔ the cycle perpetuates ad infinitum.
- All cultural notions of power are material; that is, they involve power over something tangible—like people, money, objects, territory, markets, etc. It is the power of conquest, specifically the conquest to fulfill and maximize pleasure, whether that pleasure be buying beautiful clothes, trying a new makeup trend, smoking or drinking, or being in yet another romantic relationship. Or, at the level of socioeconomic priorities, the power to achieve upward economic mobility, financially take over a competing company, or invade and occupy a foreign sovereign country.
- There is no concept in our popular culture that true power is spiritual power. That power lies not in fulfilling pleasures, but in transcending being ruled by them. There is no concept in pop culture that true power is power over the lower self; only power (of the nafs) over others is considered impressive. Religion is considered the opposite of freedom because it can hold you back from what is seen as being your “true” self in one way or another. Increasingly, the only occasion in which pop culture affords value to religious experience is when its expression is somehow being turned on its head. Examples include a gay church, or “finding God” in places and experiences that are inimical to what God commands.
Planting good seeds in the battleground of values
|Pop Culture Product
|Value / Philosophy
of products for consumption
|Greed for more and more
Lack of charity (global supply chain)
Fear of death ➔ No belief in afterlife
|Power = material
|Justice as law of the strong
Earthly kingdom > Afterlife
|No accountability to others ➔ Self-invention
The self as Sovereign
(all rights; no responsibilities)
No consequential belief in afterlife
|Religion =/= Freedom
|Freedom from submission,
not freedom through submission;
indifference to God
|All of the above + Reign of the nafs