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Islam and Consumerism (1)

Muslim and Shopaholic? Islamic Perspective on Consumerism

Consumerism is spreading like a plague in today’s culture. People turned into tireless shopping machines whose lifestyles center on malls, sales, and new offers. In the words of  Tyler Durden, from Fight Club, the movie:

“We’re consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don’t concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear”.

In the pre-Islamic era, also known as Jahiliyyah (period of ignorance), the Arabs were known for worshipping multiple idols, magnifying their dads and forefathers, adopting all their belief system, in addition to tribalism, racism and sexism.

The Qur’an and the message of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) were revealed not only to solve those problems but also to provide guidance that fits all problems of humanity.

Nowadays, we are experiencing a newer version of Jahiliyyah that revolves around celebrities dictating our lifestyles (replacing idols and the forefathers), using women as sex-objects in advertising (which might not be so different from burying them alive), and the most important ritual that takes place at the temple of consumerism (malls): Shopping!

The H&H Perspective (Halal/Haram)

I know that many people expect answers about every single matter from an H&H (Halal and Haram) paradigm. If you are one of them then you may not want to continue reading this article because you will not find what you are looking for.

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Instead, we will try to examine the etiquette of spending and dealing with money in Islam, and hence will leave the H/H answer up to you, based on YOUR understanding of YOUR situation.

When Jabir Craved for Meat

Jaber ibn `Abdillah narrates that `Umar ibn Khattab saw some meat in his hand. `Umar immediately asked: “What is this, Jaber?”

Jaber replied: I was craving for meat, so I managed to buy some. (It looks like meat was such a luxury item at that time, something we don’t think about these days).

`Umar said: So are you going to buy whenever you crave for something, Jaber? Don’t you fear that the following verse might apply to you:

{And the Day those who disbelieved are exposed to the Fire [it will be said], “You exhausted your pleasures during your worldly life and enjoyed them …} (Al-Ahqaf 46:20)

While some people will counter this argument by quoting the hadith:

“Allah loves to see the traces of His blessings on His slave” (Tirmidhi)

It is interesting to note another narration of this hadith, which is preceded by the following:

“Enjoy eating and drinking without excessive spending and showing off, because Allah loves to see the traces of His blessings on His slave” (Narrated in Al-Mustadrak )

Keeping up with the Joneses

This is a well-known idiom in many parts of the English-speaking hemisphere, which refers to always comparing what you have (house, car, backyard, clothes, etc…) with what your neighbors, the Jones, own.

After starting as a comic strip holding the same name in 1913, this slogan redefined one of the pillars of modern consumerism: shopping and spending to show off and to compete with others, regardless of whether you need the goods or even if you can afford them  in the first place.

In the age of social media and satellite channels, the Jones need not to be your next door neighbors, they might be a random family living on the other part of the world.

They are definitely not happy with what they have (if they really own it) and are trying to compete with their own version (or perception) of the Jones family, and this infinite loop continues endlessly.

No one can claim that the modern capitalism invented envy, which is a trait that existed in human beings since their creation, since the famous story of Habeel and Qabeel (Abel and Cain) (Al-Ma’idah 5:27-31).

In addition, greed was built into the creation of Adam himself (Ta-Ha 20:120). However, there is a big difference between having a negative trait that you recognize and try to cure and fight, and having this trait control your life, dictate the way you identify yourself and you look to others.

Therefore,“Keeping up with the Joneses” defines a culture of consumerism. The consumerism culture is becoming like a fire that is continuously ignited by the fuels of greed and envy.

Rich man with one garment

An interesting long story is narrated in Sahih Al-Bukhari about Ka`b ibn Malik, a rich companion who did not join the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) during the expedition of Tabuk.

To make a long story short, Muslims boycotted him for fifty days as a punishment; no one was allowed to talk to him until further instructions are revealed from Allah in his matter.

After this lengthy period of living alienated from the Muslim society, Allah accepted the repentance of Ka`b (At-Tawbah 9:118) and the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) informed the Muslims about the happy news. 

Now listen to Ka`b himself, narrating how he got the good news:

While I was praying Fajr that morning on the rooftop of my house, I heard a man shouting on the top of Mount Sil`: ‘O Ka`b ibn Malik, rejoice!’

I fell prostrate, and I knew that relief had come.

The Prophet had announced my forgiveness during Fajr. A man came riding on a horse to bring me the news, but the voice of the other man on the mount has reached me first. So when I saw that man I gave him my garment as a way to thank him, and I had only one garment. So I borrowed an outfit and rushed to meet the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him)

While this story has lots of benefits and wisdom to learn from, it sheds the light on one important aspect in the life of the Companions, particularly the rich ones: They did not have a closet full of clothes and had to stand up next to it for half an hour to decide what to wear! Ka`b was known to be rich, and you may refer to the early part of this long story in Sahih Al-Bukhari for more information.

However, it was a well-known practice for them not to buy clothes more than their need (because of their proper understanding of Islam).

We really have to reframe our mindsets on how we define our needs, our budget, and our spending, if we want to achieve something in this world or in the afterlife.

{And do not make your hand [as] chained to your neck nor extend it completely and [thereby] become blamed and insolvent.} (Al-Israa’ 17:29)

About Dr. Mohannad Hakeem
Dr. Mohannad Hakeem is an educator, activist, and author who has studied traditionally under multiple scholars in the Muslim world for the past 20 years. He is originally from Lebanon and currently resides in Dearborn, MI, USA, where he has helped establish multiple community initiatives and organizations, with a focus on youth empowerment and education. His most recent book, "The 40 Hadith on Community Service," draws inspiration from the Quran and the Sunnah to provide young Muslims with an "algorithm" for success and excellence in both the worldly life and the afterlife. In his professional career, Dr. Hakeem earned a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. In this role, he has taught several students, conducted research, and authored 80+ patents and technical papers.