The Art of Living

In the Arabic language, the word “deen” is often misinterpreted as standing for religion. Rather, the original translation of this word equates to “way of life.” In the Islamic discourse, one’s way of life stems from a book or from the lack of a book. As Foucault wrote, madness is the absence of an oeuvre. Through military and economic preponderance, the American way of life has overtaken other cultures in the world. Many countries seemingly cannot withstand the magnetism of the American way of life. Through military and economic power, the United States has hyper-centralized its power in order to fragment and individualize society through coercive diplomacy and to replace older cultures that are based on the collective will and the community with individualism. Aristotle wrote of the family and the cycle of taking care of parents in old age the way parents took care of their progeny in infancy. With nursing homes and extreme individualism as a means of state domination over individuals in America, the natural way of life that was once subscribed to by the Ancient Greeks, Romans, and others has largely been lost.

Many people are in search of “the good life” and seek to develop “the art of living” in today’s world. As mentioned before, Islamic discourse suggests that the art of living and the good life must stem from a book, because a book is the source of discourse and ultimately it is one’s discourse that shapes one’s lifestyle. Profits often take precedence over first causes and principles, and as a result one creates a disconnect between economics and health with lifestyle when in reality the three issues are interconnected. The question is one of lifestyle and figuring out how to live the life we are given for eighty or ninety years depending on one’s life expectancy. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, everything is settled except for the question of how to live.

William Haseltine, a former Harvard University medical professor, argued that behavior and lifestyle shapes one’s health outcomes. In his words, science cannot pull out magic tricks from beneath the sleeve to solve a health or social crisis. Only cognitive and social behavior can prevent another health or social crisis. Cognitive behavior and lifestyle have either improved or worsened for people during the coronavirus epidemic because it provided an opportunity to either reflect and change or to deny and worsen. The economic and social crash associated with the coronavirus epidemic also shows that the way of life around the world was unsustainable. These crashes are embedded in our existing economic and social system. There is always talk of “sustainable development” and so forth, but no action follows because the book and thus the correct discourse is unavailable in order to address global issues and problems.

The overriding factor that has made life in today’s world unsustainable is hyper-militarization and the wanton use of violence around the world in recent years. Towards the end of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. connected the race issue to hyper-militarization and the thirst for violence before his tragic death in 1968. Hyper-militarization and violence are largely a top-down program initiated by the elites against ordinary people. It was Jefferson who argued that the degeneration of an entire society is caused by the corruption of the elites. As Catherine Wilson writes:

“Chance discoveries are still possible, and human ingenuity is seemingly inexhaustible. But the search for power and gratification by the few at the expense of the many is an inevitable feature of civilization that could be better controlled than it is, even if it can never be banished once and for all.”

Wilson adds that “modern governments are the successors of originally kleptocratic, clan-based regimes that relied on secrecy, conspiracy, violence and intimidation to obtain and retain power and wealth and to practice violence against another group.” Unless governments shed these malign characteristics, according to Wilson, corruption and violence will continue to spread in society. Indeed, elite corruption and the usurpation of the nation’s resources by the elite has led to a situation of hyper-militarization and societal chaos that needs to somehow deescalate. As Adis Duderija writes:

“A progressive Islamic worldview also strongly resists neoliberal market economics, which advance the interests of the global military-industrial complex, because they are responsible for creating great disparities between the Global North (with its lingering colonial and imperialist past) and the Global South. They also inform the forces that reduce a human being to primarily a consumer, a homo economicus.”

The aesthetic and natural way of life in the Western world began with the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans before social degeneration and elite corruption spread in their societies. Following a natural way of life, after all, is a choice, and there is no compulsion in following the way. Liberal discourse, when analyzed comparatively, largely comes from Quranic discourse but with certain shortcomings. Nevertheless, both liberal and Quranic discourse repudiate Marxist and populist discourse in large measure. Basically, the liberal, Quranic, populist, and Marxist discourses are the prevailing discourses of the world at the moment, with each of them stemming from a book or a set of books. Shortcomings in society stem from the neglect of books that propagate first causes and principles or their misinterpretation. According to Duderija:

“The sacred scriptures cannot offer us an unequivocal, clearly accessible, and once-and-for-all valid understanding of God through the simple process of reading an interpretation. Instead, the human interpreter – with her subjectivities and contingencies – is the most significant determinant of this continually evolving, dynamic process of interpretation mediated by reason. There is, in other words, an organic and dialectical relationship between revelation (i.e., texts) and reality (i.e., contexts).”

The role in which the law of attraction plays in shaping reality is still a matter of dispute. Marcus Aurelius said: “The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.” This quote suggests that the principle of “mind over matter” is indeed valid. John Dewey, an American philosopher, believed that only education can rectify human behavior and character. Yet, with the proliferation of schools, reading material, as well as the spread of the internet and technology that makes learning widespread, anarchy and chaos still lingers in our societies because corruption is a human tendency and inclination that is hard to curtail. Even the most principled systems of governance like the government of the “rightly guided caliphs” at the peak of the Islamic empire collapsed due to human corruption. Muslims now believe that only a savior known as “Al-Mahdi” can rectify the international system and mitigate the global anarchy and chaos that stems from basic human corruption.

Because of the basic human corruption that overtakes civilian governments, there is always the possibility of there being military rule even in the United States. Due to the recent social strife in the United States stemming from police brutality, we are inching ever closer to military rule in the United States unless a form of leadership arises that can address the grievances of the American public against their government. As mentioned in previous essays, major conflagrations can occur because of small and petty incidents that happen to be underpinned by major spiritual crises. In the case of George Floyd, a 20-dollar bill set off a wave of unrest throughout the United States and pitted the people against the government.

Reforms are also needed in America’s foreign policy. Hannah Arendt wrote that major powers have a very basic foreign policy, which consists of either making other countries subservient, or using force against those who resist subjugation. Amidst a global pandemic and civil unrest at home, American elites care more about Hong Kong and Ukraine than the fate of their own country. Overall, the system is not working for people. In fact, when one reads Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” one can confidently conclude that the system is working against ordinary people, thus leading to anger and frustration on the part of the masses. The elite use the military and police to act as a buffer between themselves and ordinary people in order to shield themselves from reprisal. In every case of civil unrest, the underlying issue is the class differences between the elites and the masses. Furthermore, orientalist discourse is largely about caricaturing people from Africa, Latin America, and Asia and using these caricatures as a pretext to conquer these groups. As John Perkins wrote in a book titled “Confessions of an Economic Hitman,” government officials in the United States and other Western countries

“funnel money from the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other foreign “aid” organizations into the coffers of huge corporations and the pockets of a few wealthy families who control the planet’s natural resources. Their tools include fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex, and murder. They play a game as old as empire, but one that has taken on new and terrifying dimensions during this time of globalization.”

Perhaps a new approach needs to be applied in dealing with foreign groups that would preserve the basic dignity of these groups while preserving American interests.

Wise men of the past gave us invaluable wisdom that desperately needs to be preserved. Prophet Muhammad said that a believer is someone who lives a long life and does good things. Henry David Thoreau wrote that sticking to the essentials in life such as food, clothing, and shelter would direct one’s energy and focus on what is most important, which is reading and writing for the sake of what is known as “bibliotherapy.” It is believed that Sir Winston Churchill wore the same clothes everyday and ate the same thing every day in order to focus solely on his work and strict routine. Humans, after all, are what the Quran call “stewards of the earth,” an identity that can only be understood through exhaustive education.

Conservative thought leaders of the past such as James Madison and Edmund Burke believed freedom could only be preserved through being steadfast in one’s moral and religious responsibilities as well as maintaining “proportionality” between worldly and spiritual life. William James wrote that “happiness in the absolute and everlasting is what we find nowhere but in religion.” As Marcus Aurelius said: “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.” Aurelius also added: “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

            No matter one’s circumstances, gratitude is the default state given that circumstances can always be worse than what they are at the present moment. Gratitude is the single most important factor in what is the determinant of one’s social reality, which is character. Prophet Muhammad said: “I have come for no other purpose than to rectify your character.” Plutarch said: “In words are seen the state of mind and character and disposition of the speaker.” According to Teddy Roosevelt: “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.” Helen Keller sums up the importance of character in the following manner: “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

            Often times, the Bon Vivant is considered the standard bearer for “the art of living.” The truth, however, is that simplicity is beauty, and it is aesthetics and beauty that is the goal of the mind. It is the theory of what constitutes aesthetics and beauty that led the CIA to promote Jackson Pollack’s poststructuralist art as a repudiation of “Soviet Realism.” However, connoisseurship and modeling on Instagram has reached the edge of morbidity in this day and age. While Anthony Bourdain taught us that the beauty of life consists of “gastro-diplomacy” and meaningful conversations, imitators have taken hedonism to new heights. One can enjoy the world without resorting to hedonism. Prophet Muhammad said: “What is most dear to me are women, perfume, and food.” Since food options were limited on the Arabian Peninsula, Prophet Muhammad replaced food with prayer.

Aesthetic pleasure, given the heights of hedonism reached in the postmodern age, has been rendered meaningless. Nothing possesses the same level of passion and thrill that existed in the past. Everything has become meaningless and tedious in one way or another. Boredom is now the prevalent condition in an era of heightened standards of living, and as Bertrand Russell wrote, Western youth are rendered powerless and comfortable in today’s world. Even writing and propagating the good is rendered futile. As Marcus Aurelius implored: “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

Yet, we need a savior and a leader to guide us towards the good, lest we fall into the abyss of self-righteousness and moral depravity. Until the leader and savior arises, we must cling onto our only source of salvation, which is belief and specifically the belief that God is with broken hearts and the downtrodden. After all, the world is a testing ground for belief. Through love, the Western womb is now pregnant with Eastern spirituality. Love helps us realize that everyone is in the same boat, in the sense that everyone is trying to survive in an uncertain world. The key is to see the silver lining in every situation and to understand as Epictetus did that everything which happens is for the overall good. In the end, hardship is always followed by ease.

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