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Challenging Selfishness

Challenging Selfishness

Issue 98 November 2012

In our world of increasing need the answer has to be found in relentless giving despite cultural discourse calling for an end to altruism.


 “Those who adopted the abode and faith before them love those who migrated to them, and they find no need in their souls for what the migrants were given. They give preference [to others] over themselves, even though they have serious needs. Whoever can ward off the stinginess within his soul, they will be the successful ones.” (55:59)


A glance at the daily headlines alerts us to a number of crises, which collectively urge us to question the soundness of the course that has been charted for the ship of humanity. The Arctic Ocean is forecasted to be ice-free as early as the year 2020. Such a development will have devastating consequences for already frightening climate change scenarios. Many species of fish are threatened with extinction due to overfishing, pollution and other direct or indirect threats precipitated by human activity. Rapidly eroding biodiversity in other areas such as plant species, reptiles, amphibians and bird populations threatens the stability of all known ecosystems with unforeseen consequences for all life on earth.


At the level of human society, we see unprecedented disparities between the wealthiest and poorest members of most nations, to say nothing of the obscene extremes between the wealthiest and poorest nations themselves. Internationally, unnecessary wars are being actively prosecuted in, or threatened against, some of the poorest nations on earth. The social fabric of a formerly stable nation, Syria, is being ripped apart before our very eyes. Tens of thousands of innocent people are being killed in Mexico owing to violence whose ultimate cause is the insatiable appetite of Americans for illegal drugs. We can go on with this sordid litany, however, most of what we could mention is well-known.


Perhaps, what is most saddening about this situation is the response by some of the wealthiest members of the most powerful and influential nations. Increasingly, we find the wealthy and powerful responding to the various crises besieging our world with either crass callousness or benign neglect. Few are the members of the influential sectors in the West who can stand up and take meaningful action on behalf of the poor and fewer still who can resist the temptation to become defenders of a deeply flawed and troubled system.


In Europe, nothing better symbolises a reflexive commitment to a troubled status quo than the European Union being granted the Noble Peace Price at a time when its economic policies are threatening to open the door to the type of nationalist passions and demagoguery that plunged Europe into two World Wars. In America, we find most conservative political elites, whose ranks are growing, increasingly advancing a rabid individualism that glorifies selfishness, and belittles altruism. The result of this situation is a politics of “me” and “mine” that is eviscerating the safety net that formerly mitigated some of the most pernicious effects of unbridled individual and corporate greed.


One of the most influential intellectuals informing the thought of those elites is the controversial atheist novelist, Ayn Rand. In a signature line, taken from one of Rand’s most influential speeches, Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World, she posits, “If any civilisation is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” Rand sees altruism as an oppressive force that can only be justified by mysticism, which, in her view, died with the advent of the Renaissance. Hence, she sees any effort to justify altruistic behaviour as an effort that proceeds, vampire-like, from a philosophical, moral and epistemological grave. The dangers inherent to such an approach to human life should be obvious.


A question for us Muslims to ask ourselves is, “What can we offer the world in this critical area at this crucial juncture?” In beginning to answer this question, we need to understand that altruism, which has been defined as an unselfish concern for the welfare of others, is at the very heart of what it means to be a Muslim in a human society. The Ansar (Helpers), the inhabitants of Madinah who had accepted Islam, gladly received into their city and homes those Muslims who were forced to flee from Makkah, in many instances leaving behind everything they possessed. 


They are described in the Qur’an by the following words, “They give preference [to others] over themselves, even though they have serious needs.” (59:9) This phrase calls our attention to a very important point. Not only were those Helpers willing to sacrifice to assist their brothers and sisters who migrated to them from a distant city, they were willing to do so even though they themselves were in need of the things they were extending to others. Theirs was a case of the poor helping the poor. We might even say, the poor helping those poorer than themselves.


Today, throughout the Western world, we hear ever louder cries from ever richer elites that they have no obligation towards the poor. Hence, all government “entitlements” paid for, allegedly, by taxing the wealthy, should be eliminated. Such cries have no moral or theological basis in Islam. Almighty God reminds us in the Qur’an, “And in their wealth there is a well-known right, for those [poor] who ask and those who refrain from asking.” (70:24-25) In other words, God has established a right owed to the poor in whatever we may own. When that right goes unfulfilled, we are literally stealing from the poor. By withholding what we owe to the poor, we are not only chiselling away at the bonds of brotherhood that bind us into a vast human family, we are also slowly eroding our individual humanity.


When asked, “Which manifestation of Islam is best?” The Prophet Muhammad, replied, “That you feed people and that you greet people; both acquaintances and strangers.” Could there be a greater impetus for Muslims to be organising soup kitchens and food pantries? We cannot claim that we do not know the recipients of our assistance as an excuse for inaction, for the Prophet Muhammad, urged us to feed even strangers. 


The Prophet and his Companions were teaching us a lesson that we have witnessed repeatedly throughout history, namely, those who have the least oftentimes are those who give the most. The noted American journalist and social critic, Chris Hedge, writing about the dehumanising devastation found in Camden, New Jersey, one of the poorest cities in the United States, relates a moving account of Lallois Davis. The elderly Davis refuses to allow her faith or her humanity to be crushed by the crime, drugs, bleakness and desolation existing all around her. Helping to prepare meals for some of the many homeless inhabitants of Camden, she extolled, “The poor have to help the poor because the ones who make the money are helping the people with money.”


Davis reminds us that the altruistic spirit that moved the Ansar is still alive in our world. However, it is under assault from the false prophets of selfishness and greed, false prophets whose ministries are confined to the wealthy and powerful. 


To preserve altruism, we will have to strive mightily to preserve its foundations. One of its greatest foundations is love. The Helpers are described as loving those who migrated to them. In other words, love helped empower them to avoid the selfishness that lies within the human soul. Our love can help us to conquer the selfishness in our souls. Our love can push us to continue to give, to share and to care in order that others may live better and more meaningful lives. Our love can help us to preserve the Qur’anic message of altruism.


However, for our love to accomplish those lofty tasks it has to be real and to be real it has to be nurtured and strengthened in all of our relationships. It must define how we treat our children, parents, spouses, friends and neighbours. It must push us to stand in solidarity with those who have been marginalised economically. It must push us to plead on behalf of the tyrannised masses whose voices have been drowned out by the deafening thud of bombs or ripped away by shrapnel. It must lift us above the all too easily travelled low-ground of self-righteousness and carry us to the high-ground of humility, introspection and service.


If we can be people of love, we will be people who continue to give, to share and to care. We will be altruistic people. However, we must carefully nurture altruism, one of the greatest gifts of the prophetic legacy to humanity, and pass it on to unborn generations so that they too can fittingly call themselves “human”. l


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1 Comment


Mansour Ansari

25 Oct 12, 14:00

This article is Imam Zaid Shakir at his best. He takes the concept of altruism and gives it such a natural Islamic context. I continue to grow as a Muslim when I am able to see such scholarship. Nice to know about Emel.

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