Embrace the social teachings of Islam by rethinking modern individualism.

Embrace the social teachings of Islam by rethinking modern individualism.

Individualism & the Destruction of Community

An epidemic of loneliness and emptiness is sweeping across the Western world. Increasingly considered by doctors and policymakers as a public health concern, it is feared it could lead to a rise of numerous health problems, ranging from heart attacks to cancers.  Last year British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a minister for loneliness, while a study by the Economist found in September found that 22% of  Americans and 23% of Britons reported always or often feeling lonely. In Korea, young people have taken to filming themselves eating so as to have dinner with others virtually, while in Japan, the  rent-a-family industry is allowing some to temporarily live out the relationships they lack.

While the cause of loneliness is often attributed to the breakdown of traditional family structures, the analysis goes little further, failing to address the rampant individualism and its roots in the secular liberal paradigm.

On Liberal Theory

In considering the evolution of this phenomenon, its necessary to recognise that whilst over the past few hundred years, liberal theory has branched out into a broad spectrum of interpretations, they inextricably trace their roots back to Enlightenment thinkers. The founding fathers of liberalism, such as John Locke and Charles de Montesquieu, laid the intellectual groundwork that nation-states such as the US, built their political and economic frameworks upon. Core concepts of classical liberalism have found modern interpretations to the social and political structures we interact with daily, and so in evaluating modern day individualism, a brief look at its origins and development is necessary.

Classical liberalism has a fundamental premise; that every human is the supreme and absolute master over himself and property. It maintains that liberty and property are in essence the same, and that all rights, including liberty rights, are forms of property, and by extension, property is a form of freedom (1).  Individualism is a core philosophy underlying liberal theory. The protection of individual rights from coercion, be it from political or religious entities, is of utmost concern. In other words, the aqeeda of classical liberal thought is that the individual is, in the words of John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government, “equal to the greatest and subject to nobody.”(2)

“New” liberalism, which found grounding in the late 19th – early 20th centuries, shifted its primary concern to the development of social justice in addressing economic inequalities (3). The seeds of new liberalism were planted with the works of John Stuart Mill, a leading  figure in modern liberal theory. Rather than securing individual freedom through property ownership, Mill argued that freedom must be ensured exclusively through the promotion of individual happiness(4), and he is predominantly known for his defence of individuality through utilitarian ethics, thus shifting the philosophical landscape from that of a political nature to moral one. To what extent does society, including political and religious entities, have the right to limit the freedoms and actions of individuals? According to Mill in his work On Liberty, “the individual is not accountable to society for his actions in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself.”(5)

As such, if one so chooses to drink themselves into an early death, abuse drugs to the point of debilitation, or engage in sexual promiscuity with varying partners, Mill argues that the individual is free to engage in such acts as only the individual can judge what will maximize their utility, or in other words, their own happiness, insofar that it does not infringe on the fundamental rights of others.

This premise is one of many established normative views of secular liberal society that uphold the rights of the individual at the expense of little else. However, this exaggerated veneration of individual autonomy has, in many ways,  backfired on the West in its pursuit of a progressive egalitarian society.

To predicate a philosophical discourse on emphasizing the rights of individuals without similar, if not more, emphasis on the responsibilities of the individual to the collective, is a recipe for the disintegration of the social and moral cohesion of society.

A critical analysis of how individualism has been a central force in the destruction of society is far overdue.

Up until recent history, extended familial and social networks was vital in maintaining the psychological and spiritual health of individuals and their communities. Loneliness as a social phenomena was practically unheard of. A Pew Research study cites that 28% of those dissatisfied with their family life report feeling lonely often. The study further elaborates that one in five Americans who don’t know their neighbours report feeling lonely most or all of the time. Individuals who have been divorced or never married are twice as likely to experience frequent loneliness than their married counterparts(6).

According to another Pew research study, one-in-five women will pass her childbearing years without having a child in comparison to one-in-ten in the 1970s (7). Attitudes towards choosing to not have children have become an acceptable norm,  as women and men alike see child rearing as nothing more than a hindrance to their individual autonomy.

The Children’s Society, a UK-based charity organization conducted a national research study called The Good Childhood Inquiry surveying over 30,000 individuals, including 20,000 children, trending the physical, social and psychological well-being of children across the country for over a decade.  The 2018 report of this study cites that satisfaction with family relationships has the strongest influence on the happiness and well-being of children in comparison to below average levels of happiness in children who had weaker relationships with their parents. What is deeply troubling about this pattern is that girls showed a greater need for healthy familial relationships than boys to feel happiness and satisfaction in life(8).

The Islamic perspective

These phenomena are merely symptoms to a greater and more menacing pathology. A hyper-individualistic culture that hails the rights, needs, and goals of the individual as far superior to that of the collective leaves the most vulnerable of society, in particular the elderly and children, exposed to physical and psychological neglect.

Liberalism’s claim to individualism as the only medium to true self-discovery and development, coupled with modernity’s agonizing struggle to grasp the concept of the Self, or even develop a coherent explanation of consciousness, leaves us in a predicament. The increasing prevalence of depression, anxiety, social disorders and overall lack of purposefulness has been the paradoxical effect of individualism.

Islam, on the other hand, invokes a timeless conception of the human nature and consciousness. That in our innate disposition, our fitrah, we have the ability to recognize the self-evident reality of our existence; to acquiesce the truth of Allah as our Master and Creator, and fulfill, to the best of our limited ability, our responsibility as His vicegerents on earth to the rest of creation.

In contrast to modernity, the Islamic metaphysical tradition does not deny human nature. In fact, it recognizes the positive and negative impulses of Man and delineates a path to elevate the former, and temper the latter. Man is thus freed from servitude to his carnal and material desires, and reorients his internal gaze to One who sustains his very existence. Our ultimate satisfaction can only come as a result of our servitude to God, rendering the pursuits of the brief pleasures of this life useless in the long run.

Islam also does not view the individual as an abstract entity separate from the collective without any attachment or responsibility to the whole.  At the very core of the secular liberal argument for individualism is the denial of Divine accountability. Islam holds that Man is not a stand alone agent divorced from the cosmos with nothing to answer for and no one to answer to.

Our tradition recognizes the rights and needs of both the individual and the collective, and does not neglect one at the expense of the other. As such, the Muslim is not one who approaches relationships invoking their rights in isolation; rather the Muslim comprehends their obligations to others, as well as the accountability they hold to Allah (swt) in upholding goodness and standing firmly against injustice. The secular liberal’s amnesia to this truth is sufficient in exposing the flaws of their worldview.

It is to our own detriment that we forfeit our immediate and extended social attachments in the name of individual freedoms. Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, the prominent Islamic scholar and thinker, states “the moral coherence of much of the shari’a can only be understood when we recognize that it presupposes a family model”.

Traditionally, the foundational building blocks of Muslim society was the family unit which extended further into vast interconnected communal relationships. The emphasis Islam provides on maintaining silat al-rahm, ties of the womb, obligates family members to keep in touch, and we are strongly encouraged to overcome disputes and tension. Similarly we are taught of the importance of kindness to neighbours, as evident in so many actions of the Prophet, and even something as simple as greeting fellow believers on the road, whether we know them or not.

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) even discouraged his companions from travelling alone or seeking isolation (9). Commenting on this narration, the famous mufassir and historian Al-Tabari said, “This is discouragement in the form of discipline and guidance, as it is feared that one alone might succumb to loneliness and isolation, yet it is not unlawful. The lone traveler in the wilderness and likewise the lone resident in his house are not safe from succumbing to loneliness, especially if one is afflicted by bad thoughts and a weak heart.”

This emphasis on maintaining a network of social attachments provides individuals with a sense of identity, belonging, and fulfilled the heart’s natural longing for companionship.

Despite objection from the liberal narrative, our identities are, to a certain extent, defined by our relationships. Above all, our very existence is defined by our relationship with the One who Created us; we as Allah’s servant and He as our Lord and Master. The greatest honour Allah bestowed upon the children of Adam was to define us in relation to His Majesty.

This individualistic philosophy is far more pervasive than one may perceive; to the extent that it has subtlely permeated the minds and hearts of Muslims collectively. The widespread acceptance of secular liberalism compounded with the crisis of knowledge among Muslims has, for the most part, allowed this shift in the ideological plane to go unnoticed and even supported, by a large number of Muslims. This can be observed in men and women emulating the preferences of wider society; choosing to delay marriage or children for non-crucial reasons, devaluing family ties particularly those with more elderly or distant relations, and the prioritisation of ones career at the expense of all else.

A renewed understanding of Islamic creed, ethics, and metaphysics as the source of our first principles is crucial. As Muslims, it is imperative that we know from where and from whom we are taking our first principles. If the foundation of our beliefs are rooted in secular liberal thought, then it comes to no surprise that our conclusions to social and cultural phenomena are in line with secular liberalism. The liberal conception of the individual has set the precedent for a hedonistic culture. Unironically, many of those caught in its web are in painful search for meaning and purpose in this transient material realm.

Our response to the social ills of the age as Muslims is to rekindle a sense of genuine concern and empathy for our fellow brothers and sisters in humanity as taught by our beloved Messenger (pbuh). Rather than seeking to conform our social practice, we should uphold the value of family and community in an era that constantly overlooks them. We must also recognise that a system that destroys the social fabric of its populations can never be truly successful, in the West or the Muslim world.

The central truth of the reality of our existence, that has been torn out of our spirits by the modern human project, can only be filled by the transcendent sacred teachings of Islam and the example of our beloved Messenger.

Disclaimer: This piece provides a brief summary of some key concepts in liberal theory that are relevant to the topic discussed and is in no way an exhaustive explanation nor representation of liberal thought in its totality, its contextual history, and its theories.

      1. Gaus, Gerald, Courtland, Shane D. and Schmidtz, David, “Liberalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2018/entries/liberalism/>.
      2. Locke, John. Two Treatises on Government. London: Printed for R. Butler, etc., 1821; Bartleby.com, 2010. www.bartleby.com/169/.
      3. Gaus, Gerald, Courtland, Shane D. and Schmidtz, David, “Liberalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2018/entries/liberalism/>.
      4. Brink, David, “Mill’s Moral and Political Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/mill-moral-political/>.
      5. Mill, John Stuart. “On Liberty”. London: Longman, Roberts & Green, 1869; Bartleby.com, (1999). www.bartleby.com/130/.
      6. Loneliness linked to dissatisfaction with family, social and financial life”. Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (2018). https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/12/03/americans-unhappy-with-family-social-or-financial-life-are-more-likely-to-say-they-feel-lonely/
      7. “Childlessness up among all women, down among women with advanced degrees”. Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (2010). https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2010/06/25/childlessness-up-among-all-women-down-among-women-with-advanced-degrees/#fn-758-2
      8. “The Good Childhood Report”. The Children’s Society, London, (August 2018). https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/what-we-do/resources-and-publications/the-good-childhood-report-2018
      9. Ibn Umar reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, prohibited isolation, that a man spend the night alone or travel alone – Musnad Aḥmad 5618. Sahih according to Ahmad Shakir

    This article was originally published at www.qarawiyyinproject.co and has been reprinted with the permission of the Qarawiyyin Project as well as the author, Ilham Ibrahim, founder of Qurtuba Online. 

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The Sila Initiative helps you embrace the social teachings of Islam by rethinking modern individualism.