By Aisha Mohsin
“Materialism is an identity crisis”
How intelligently does Mr. Bryant McGill put the whole idea into perspective? Before we discuss why materialism is an identity crisis, we must ponder over what identity actually means and what are the factors leading to its crisis.
What is Identity?
Identity is defined as “a sense of self” or “the distinguishing character/personality of an individual”.
We are all born in a state of fitrah—which means an inherent spirituality and natural inclination to know Allah (swt) and to submit to His will. It’s with the contrary effects of the social circumstances we grow up in, the company we keep, the cultural implications we face, that we tend to articulate a rather personalized version of right & wrong, success, happiness and even self worth. It is ironic though this measurement stick we employ to determine our worth as a human being, is shallow in and of itself. It is totally materialistic.
For instance, if we look for our self-worth in the eyes of others, we are in for a huge disappointment because people change and so does their opinions. We associate our happiness with people’s approval hence a lack of it plummets our sense of self.
Another potentially hazardous measuring stick is the belief that happiness grows in reciprocity of the size of our bank account or the list of material possessions. Sadly, people would go to desperate lengths in acquiring lavish homes, luxury cars, expensive holidays, and branded items, only to satisfy their need to feel worthy. Truth of the matter is, the dire acquisition of wealth is exactly like an attempt to fill a bottomless pit leaving us vulnerable with constantly re-emerging emptiness.
It is imperative to make mention of the role of social media here in forming rather “re-shaping” our identity. With over 2 billion active social media accounts and growing by the minute, connecting to friends whenever we wanted, being able to relate to strangers, viewing pictures, watching videos, debating etc…Wasn’t all of this supposed to make us feel closer than ever? More connected thus happier?
But why is that while scrolling through the pictures and status updates, what we actually go through is depression. Our fingers thoughtlessly give away likes and take away an enhanced feeling of loneliness! What’s left is an insecure, wounded sense of self-worth because comparison is known to breed discontent. It’s no surprise that for the most part, social media is “all-things superficial” (ostentatious life styles, fake face-book selves/identities etc).
How alarmingly dangerous is its role in controlling our happiness is what most people turn a blind eye to? How exhausting is the realization that we crave acceptance, praise and recognition from a place that is advertising false and unrealistic standards of beauty, attractiveness, success and happiness?
By writing this, I do not mean to indirectly invalidate the role of genuine relationships, appreciations and rewards in one’s life but we all know it’s hard not to get carried away by the glittering artificiality of this medium and fully secure our self worth amidst things lacking substance. Suffice to say, what could’ve served as a boost for self-esteem by establishing healthy social-connection turns into a resentful experience undermining one’s wellbeing in general.
Islamic concept of self
Islam places huge emphasis on a healthy and balanced sense of self and links it to one’s spiritual development because lack of self worth can be self-defeating just as having an inflated sense of self can be a gateway to self-obsession.
From a religious perspective, a strong sense of identity emerges from a conscious contemplation of life’s purpose and meaning. So while we should aim to understand our reason of being, it is important to realize that anything materialistic that we achieve in this world can only provide a transient fraction of happiness mainly for the reason that the word itself is temporary and every achievement is fleeting in nature. So logically speaking, our happiness associated with material gains is diminished sooner than we think leaving a shrunken sense of self.
A quick guide to escape materialism:
Islam re-iterates our understanding from a possession-based definition of success to a deeper sense of fulfillment that results from internalizing the following;
- Connecting with Allah (swt)
- Actively pursuing the knowledge of deen & the Sunnah [Prophetic way of living]
- Integrating a conscious understanding of the impermanence of this world into our hearts. Keeping the company of the righteous is the key
- De-cluttering emotionally and spiritually – which means to let go of unnecessary exterior motives allowing more space & time for all things heart & soul opening.
Allah (swt) reveals the true nature of this imperfect world in the most profound manner in Surah Al-Hadid.
“Know that the life of this world is only play and amusement, pomp and mutual boasting among you, and rivalry in respect of wealth and children. [57:20]
In this beautiful Surah above, Allah swt has mentioned different ways this world is playing its part in tricking us into losing our focus of the life of hereafter.
Allah described this life as mere play and amusement. Just reflect on a child playing a game. They get so absorbed in the play that their attention is completely compromised; they lose focus of the passing time, of their needs and daily obligations etc. Likewise, when we invest our time into this world more than it’s worth, we waste our most precious and limited commodity (time, effort, energy) by being oblivious to the fact that with every click, time is running short and that success in the Hereafter is based on how wisely we make use of the time in this world.
Allah (swt) then points towards the way this temporary world has been beautified so that it captivates our attention. The most amazing natural landscapes, cuisines, festivities, basically every conceivable form of beauty are praise-worthy but it’ll sap our concern for the ultimate objective. That’s how distracting it really is.
Allah (swt) also referred to this world as a place of showing off our achievements both tangible (wealth, luxuries) as well as intangible (self-righteousness, titles, positions, beauty) thus highlighting the contingent scope of our happiness. And last but not least, this life is what compels us to compete and compare and build rivalries and contempt.
The big idea is that we are placed in this world full of distractions trying their best to distort our identity and drive us away from our real purpose.
To discourage us from over indulging in this world, Allah (swt) has planted heartbreaks, failures, disappointments, disasters, parting from our loved ones and belongings so that we may never forget that every single thing we earn in this world, be it love, a material possession, esteem, power and position is bound to bite the dust.
Turns out, our only companion will be our deeds and not the hefty bank balance we owned, or the prestigious title we cherished, or the most expensive clothing we ever wore or the vehicle we ever drove or the exotic vacation experience we ever had or the likes and compliments we pocketed, or the ticks of approval we craved, not even the pain we ever endured, the failure we often knew, the fear that crippled us, the pain that filled our heart. ALL of it is bound to be immaterial and irrelevant sooner or later to ALL of us.
Abu Nu’aim reported: Sufyan Ath-Thawri (ra) said:
“Behave well in your private life and Allah will make your public life excellent. Take care of what is between you and Allah, and he will take care of what is between you and the people. Work for your Hereafter and Allah will suffice your affairs in this world. Sell your worldly life for your Hereafter and you will profit in them both together, and do not sell your Hereafter for your worldly life or you will lose them both together.” -Source: Ḥilyat al-Awliyā 7/35
So strive to please Allah swt because it’s Him and Him alone who can fulfill our empty cup. Bless us like no other. Enrich us like never before.