CRUCIBLE: Lifestyle and Social Formation (Last of two parts)

Turbo capitalism and consumerism

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/25 January) — The term lifestyle is quite vogue. It is generally understood as popular or fashion-related concept. Actually, it is a sociological term coined in 1950s by Alfred Adler describing certain state of a person defined by individual identity, wealth, environment, technology, and so on.

From the concept itself – lifestyle or numtu l-hayah – suggests creativity or innovation in man’s ways. With social formation defined with today’s “turbo capitalism” and consumerism, lifestyle of individuals could be dictated by high-paced change. From early morning to late night, we are bombarded with barrage of information and media reports, which are mostly suggestive in creating certain lifestyles that sustain the lower nafs while subconsciously hooked into capitalist interest and consumerist culture. We could hardly handle them.

Oftentimes, we are enticed to embrace consumerism leaving us helpless and vulnerable unable to do critical appraisal of things thrown to us. As a result, it leaves our physical body dependent on externally induced products and images, while making us more static and sedentary. The idea of life as dynamic and as perpetual movement and struggle is stifled. Our ways run counter against natural order of life.

Without us knowing our life is dominated by an ideology, which we probably think as neutral; in reality, it has already intruded into our own psyche. It dictates our system, our food intake, health, and so on. If not framed along the idea of balance and moderation, our body would not be able to cope and would eventually succumb to excesses like overweight and obesity. We thus become easy candidates for strokes, heart attacks, paralysis, and so on. Our traditional sense of balance and equilibrium has been lost. This is the idea why we said that today it is our “style” that determines our life rather than our life dictating our ways and norms. The disjuncture between our lifestyle and our environment persists. It is no wonder we are very much vulnerable as we easily suffer with different sickness and disease.

This brings me into a view regarding the need to maintain equilibrium or balance in ourselves – a perspective, we said, is reflective of a broader macrocosm, and yet, it has been severed because of prevailing social conditions even as we are hardly able to cope with them. Oftentimes, the challenge opens the floodgate for exploitation by varied business and commercial interests with the popularity of beauty saloons, spas, yoga, and fitness centers these days. It does not mean that we view negatively these all sorts of wellbeing centers. We simply mean that there are concepts and techniques of traditional aesthetics that we can develop. They are not only cost effective; they promote a more creative and balanced lifestyle.

Oftentimes, too, we become unmindful of the fact that Islam has intrinsic ways into which we are able to maintain balance and equilibrium in our life. The idea of aesthetics does not only apply in physical dimension but in our spiritual and moral appropriation as well. Simply adopting our lifestyle to fads and what’s popular while important to some degree, could hardly penetrate into or soothe the inner recesses of our life. Indeed, craving or maintaining certain lifestyle could develop our physical selves; but if it borders on obsession, it becomes sickness, a disease by itself.

The irony of life is that it is governed by continuing process of degeneration (the process from birth to old age). On the contrary, the nafs or self with its potentiality is constant; it is governed by inner aesthetic and moral pendulum. If empowered, it could persist like a candle alighted and could resist dictates from social condition. A person having this value could suffer physical degeneration like anyone else, but as s/he lives a balanced life, it is likely s/he would be immune from strokes or heart attacks and other diseases.

In a sense, the relationship between the nafs and our body is paradoxical. Whereas we want to develop ourselves and make ourselves healthy, fit, and beautiful; yet, with surety, our life will end and transfer to a new phase – the barzakh or ithmus – as a gateway to another “life.”  In other words, developing our lifestyle entails balancing with the demand of our “aesthetic self” while developing our morals as well. Unfortunately, it is easier said than done. The two “ways” clashed perpetually. Why? I think the dictate of the lower nafs is becoming stronger these days that we hardly see the importance of our quest for spiritual and moral growth aggravated by increasing assault with our increasingly capitalistic and consumerist orientation.

Pangalay, kuntaw, and silat

Let’s take our case closely when we get sick for instance. Our recourse is usually to go to hospital or clinic and to avail medicines that are already packed in capsules or tablets; in reality, the main components of such medicine are taken originally from nature like herbs. There is no problem with availing them, but there are already added elements on them during the processing that might already be harmful to us. This is not to mention the possibility of us becoming dependent on those drugs.

Even as we are already hooked into believing that sickness is a liability that has to be cured or extirpated from our system, the more we could not view it from higher plane. We look at sickness as an invasion; we look at it too negative.

Whereas if we look at the perspective of Islam, even disease or sickness has certain functions in terms of reminding us of our vulnerability and limitedness, at times, even giving us some form of expiation. From strictly secular view, expiation may be meaningless, as it is simply understood as psychological feeling. Yet, from other vantage point, the idea of expiation is actually empowering; it is a mode of transforming lemon to lemonade.

There is a hadith of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) from Abu Said al-Khudri. The Prophet said: “whenever a Muslim is afflicted with a hardship, sickness, sadness, worry, harm, depression, even a thorn’s prick, Allah (SWT) expiates his sins because of it.”

In another hadith according to Bukhari in the “Adab al-Mufrad,” the Prophet said: “Expect good because Allah (SWT) makes a believer’s sickness an expiation for his sin and a period of repose. For a disbeliever, falling sick he is like a camel whose owner ties and then it loose; it does not understand why it was tied nor why it was freed.”

The idea being is that our prevailing lifestyle gives us certain kind of worldview that is too linear with too constricted view about life, divorced from the workings of nature. We could not see some negative things that happen in our lives also as a way of developing us. For instance, if we see wrinkles appearing in our face, white hairs growing in our heads, we view them negatively. They affect our self-esteem and confidence. Instead of saying alhamdulillah (praise be to Allah) admitting that indeed we have to be thankful to Allah (SWT) we reach this stage of our life, we rush to spas, to fitness centers to rejuvenate ourselves. Again, there is no problem with this; yet, if we are not moderate, more so, if it becomes our obsession, this, in turn, becomes a form of sickness by itself.

Truth is, we have our own indigenous tradition both in Islam and in our own culture, a reason why Prophet Muhammad (SAW) even encouraged his sahabah (companions) to develop their mastery in archery, in horseback riding, and so on. This is for them to maintain agility and physicality. Incidentally, we have rich tradition of performing arts in Philippine South that have both physical, therapeutic, and spiritual aesthetic like our traditional dance – the pangalay. We also have tradition of martial arts like kuntaw and silat that are time-tested and deeply embedded in our culture. These can make us fit, agile, and healthy.

[A slightly revised Friday Khutbah delivered at the Institute of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines on 17 January 2014. MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines].