MANY ARE THE Muslims of our time that make selling and its manifestations today the moral equal of the principles of sales transactions (muʿamalât) in Islam. They see the discrepancy between commerce in capitalism and Islam as a problem of vocabulary not content, with capitalism’s means expressing the universal norms for which Muslims must only find in their tradition the divine expressions to bless and duly halalize.
But how can this be, in the light of capitalism’s enunciated witness (and all its sister worldly philosophies) that man is the sole worthy arbiter of the life of the world, and worldly increase is the only aspiration worthy of man. Consequently, worldly increase by any means worldly power makes lawful is capitalism’s definition of “good.”
Trade in Islam, in contradistinction, is subsumed in Lâ ilâha illa’Llâh. Muhammadan Rasûl’ul’Lâh. There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. This makes commerce in Islam precisely what every other activity is in Islam, an expression of human beings in mutual worship of God for the sake of worldly and otherworldly increase at once, for the two are in actuality inseparable.
Thus, in trade, as in all man’s activities, God and His Messenger ﷺ are the only arbiters—to the exclusion of all men equally. Moreover, God’s pleasure and admission near Him into His Garden of Paradise is the only ambition worthy of man, God’s vicegerent on earth. This makes “good” ( ḥasanah) in this life and “good” ( ḥasanah) in the Hereafter the simultaneous intent of the Muslim and the simultaneous consequence of Islam’s blessed market transactions in the world.
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Revelation (that is, the Quran and the prophetic Sunnah, or Way, together) inculcates in man this understanding of his elevated purpose as an agent of God and Heavenly good on earth—and this is especially so when it comes to the wealth of the world and how and in what it is invested and why and to whom it is distributed.
But as we have seen in the first part of this reflection, promotion is the central psychic value of the cult of capitalism, an essence that is materialized for propagation by advertising—and there is nothing more socially crucial or formatively prevalent than advertising in our world today.
Culture of Self-Worship
Advertising in our time imprints commodities in the minds of people and thereby enslaves them to the depleting life of consumerism. The projection of persona and repute in such a life become the exclusive criteria for product ownership. For the mind so seized by the consumptive ethos, escape is a heroic feat. This is the advantage that capitalism, a religion of profit, bags through advertising. Its consequence is the creation of a society whose ethics are inevitably reduced to mere worldly trade and commercial purchase.
Among the first of America’s modern critics to digest this inescapable destiny of capitalist culture was Christopher Lasch. The now-passed American cultural historian detailed his ruthlessly honest analysis of its impact on American society in his four-decade old book so tellingly named The Culture of Narcissism.
This culture of self-worship, Lasch tells us, is a society where selfishness prevails in every heart, wherein everyone thinks that everything is for me, and no one is necessary except myself. In such a society, in fact, “mine” becomes equivalent to “myself.”
Naturally, tragedy is the fate of this kind of society. Its method is commercialized minds. Its source is advertising. When all values are made to submit to trade, the heart is commercialized, and that piece of flesh once commercialized will stop at nothing to get hold of everything, for everything becomes the source of being.
Among the immediate social consequences of this mass belief system of acquisitiveness are increased crime (morality being gutted of meaning) and the rupture of our age-old, common ethics. Economic crises, the fraying of human civility, and the unraveling of communalized social order are its indirect, though inevitable, outcomes. America is now a living textbook case for this, a damning thesis being written before our very eyes.
Satvinder “Sut” Jhally, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, goes so far as to call advertising the “religion of capitalist culture.” The opening lines of his book The Codes of Advertising are, in this light, instructive:
It could be argued that advertising is the most influential institution of socialization in modern society: It structures mass media content; it seems to play a key role in the construction of gender identity; it impacts upon the relation of children and parents in terms of the mediation and creation of needs; it dominates strategy in political campaigns; recently, it has emerged as a powerful voice in the arena of public policy issues concerning energy and regulation; it controls some of our most important cultural institutions such as sports and popular music; and it has itself in recent years become a favorite topic of everyday conversation
An analysis of American community serves as sufficient proof of the logical ends of a society whose sacred communication is advertising. The upheaval of crime is so rampant that its sensationalist value, a staple of commercialized news agencies, has been depleted. Seeing increased criminal activities among youth, American sociologists forewarn of the dark future of America. Murder jumped by 43 percent from 2002 to 2007. Children killing with handguns has vaulted 53 percent in the same time period.
And while critics of this contention may argue that the murder rate has been declining in recent years, this is more a result of hard generational demographics than cultural renewal. In fact, the kinds of senseless, indiscriminate American killing sprees to which we are all witness, and the socially verified categorical targeting of vulnerable, thoroughly stereotyped populations—young black men by authorities, for example—defy this optimistic counterpoint in the most cynical terms.
Sexual transgression is even worse. The typical American man engages in sex for 10 years prior to first marriage, his American woman counterpart for seven. A near universal 96 percent of unmarried Americans indulge in sexual acts, 61 percent of which occur under the age of 13.
Another study, by the National Center for Health Statistics, a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, contends that while 96 percent of all Americans between 29 and 59 have had sex, only about 11 percent of unmarried adults are virgins.
According to a 2006 study led by Lawrence Finer, director of domestic research at the Guttmacher Institute, a New York City-based non-profit organization that studies reproductive and sexual health, 95 percent of Americans have had premarital sex.
That figure, of unmarried sexual activity (not necessarily intercourse) was roughly 50 percent during 1950, already high (although Finer’s study contests this, stating that premarital sex (intercourse) has hovered around the 95 percent rung since the 1950s).
Regardless of when unmarried America really started getting on, what all this shows is that it got underway in the marketing era, meaning that marketing has been efficient enough to make the whole capitalist community sexually divergent and highly exposed to firsthand criminal experience. America’s new phenomenon of young fathers, ages 10 to 12, are, in fact, the offspring of this marketing culture.
“Advertising-sex” (sex as it is merchandised in marketing promotions) has not only spurred increased crime and sexual violation in America, it is the greatest cause for “advertising-sex’s” false conceptualization as “real sex,” which has led to a culture-wide syndrome of unsatisfied sexual lives, itself accounting for more negative and subtle personal and social consequences than can easily be enumerated.
A boon to the commercialization of sex as an industry—sex drugs, toys, porn, and paraphernalia—its markets and shares skyrocketing, “advertising-sex” has, nonetheless, devastated the personal and social outlook of Americans on sex. Virginity, for example, is now stigma. Thus, countless young people are brutalized in its sought-after loss. The notions of sexual chastity and purity in intimate fulfillment are now completely alien. And society as a whole is marked by an aggression often explainable in terms of widespread frustration due to ungratified sexual urges, a cruelty in itself.
Again, Jean Kilbourne in Can’t Buy Me Love:
It is becoming clearer that this objectification [of women] has consequences, one of which is the effect that it has on sexuality and desire. Sex in advertising and the media is often criticized from a puritanical perspective—there’s too much of it, it’s too blatant, it will encourage kids to be promiscuous, and so forth. But sex in advertising has far more to do with trivializing sex than promoting it, with narcissism than with promiscuity, with consuming than with connecting. The problem is not that it is sinful, but that it is synthetic and cynical….We never see eroticized images of older people, imperfect people, people with disabilities. The “gods” have sex, the rest of us watch—and judge our own imperfect sex lives against the fantasy of constant desire and sexual fulfillment portrayed in the media….We can never measure up. Inevitably, this affects our self-images and radically distorts reality. “You have the right to remain sexy,” says an ad featuring a beautiful young woman, her legs spread wide, but the subtext is “only if you look like this.” And she is an object—available, exposed, essentially passive. She has the right to remain sexy, but not the right to be actively sexual.
Which is exactly the right that Islam grants human beings, to remain actively sexual while preserving their dignified status as chaste, pure, and spiritual. And such is particularly the right that Islam grants believing women, who need not choose between celibate renunciation and whoredom. They can be fully active both in the striving of their souls and their passions, within a social framework that honors and safeguards their complete, publicly chaste, privately expressive humanity.
The Feminine Fallout and Social Dissolution
The silence of woman writers and feminists in the matter of making woman a commodity and her beauty a “product” is simply astonishing. Advertisers openly market aggression toward women, while implying that her physical charms determine her personality. This is the origin in the culture of the aberrant notion that motherhood—yes, motherhood—is sinful. This is a by-product of sex as embodying true womanhood.
Thus, as motherhood and age affect the beauty of skin, shape, muscle tone, and the like, mothers and aging women lose, in the parlance of capitalism, their marketing objectivity, in other words, their profitable value. Indeed, the advertising market renders her sexually numb, though nothing is further from the case.
Woman’s body and mind might need emotion-oriented sex, but this is something advertising denies her in a real manner in a social set up where sex is uncompromisingly materialized, objectified, and bio-expendable. For this reason, Kilbourne and other critics condemn the advertising world as positively anti-woman.
Many media experts attribute the fall of the Western family construct to advertising as a major factor. In America, the number of children born out of wedlock or abandoned or lost to fathers in 1960 was 10 million. This jumped to 25 million by 2003. These are mostly children whose fathers are not present in their lives, largely because marriage was never part of the picture. They are not orphans. Thus it is difficult for them to identify their fathers. Others become fatherless through divorce. The American community contributes 2.5 million such “fatherless” children per year to that existing group.
In his book, Fatherless America, the president of the Institute of American Values, David Blankenhorn, notes that the biggest social disaster the American community faces is that of children without fathers. According to a survey by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services in 1993, fatherless children are much more prone and susceptible to narcotic drugs, alcoholism, psychological imbalances, and suicides.
On the basis of his study, Don Eberli, then adviser to President George Bush, along with child psychologist Wade F. Horn, founded the National Fatherhood Initiative in 1996, to solve such problems. In their 1996 survey, they found that 80 percent of participants thought that the biggest social hardship America faces is nothing but children without present fathers.
The articles of the book Lost Fathers: The Politics of the Fatherless in America compiled by Cynthia R. Daniels affirm that the plight of these children is the basic reason for most aberrant social behavior, including aggression, drug and alcohol use, premature pregnancy, suicide, rape, and inadequate education. Another work, Taken into Custody: The War against Fatherhood, by Stephen Baskerville, analyzes the humanist values of the laws that allow children to part from their fathers, in light of the certain difficulties they will confront.
This precipitous loss of fathers is born out by the alarming rise of births to unwed mothers, which has burgeoned from five percent of all births in 1960, to 32 percent in 1995 to as high as 41 percent in 2008 where it currently hovered through 2013, in report analyzed by Childtrends.org, although more than half of these births are to “cohabiting unions,” which does not specifically verify that the fathers are part of that category.
In fact, the younger the woman giving birth, the more likely it is that she is unwed. For the statistical year 2013, a near total 99 percent of teens under age 15 who have babies are not married and a stunning 89 percent of 15- to 19-year olds. Between the ages of 20 to 24, fully 65 percent of women give birth outside of marriage, and 36 percent of women 25 to 29 do so. As many as an estimated 21 percent of women in their thirties giving birth are unmarried, and that number rises to 24 percent for women in their forties.
Moreover, from 1960 to 1970, 15- to 19-year-old women were the cohort showing the greatest increase in unwed births. By 2000, however, that distinction had floated upward to 20- to 29-year-old women. In a disturbing trend, between 2000 and 2010, it is 30- to 35-year-old women who are the fastest growing group of women giving birth outside of marriage.
Then what of these children?
Children are, in fact, parentally love-deprived almost in direct proportion to the advertising they and their parents are exposed to. In Ships Without a Shore: America’s Undernurtured Children, independent scholar Anne R. Pierce, portrays in often poignantly sorrowful terms the ruthless social scourge and familial distress that derives from an “advertisement-nurtured” community. She also exposes the depth of misery experienced by children who are literally advertising-prevented from paternal love:
We have almost abandoned the idea of innocence, and I believe that is bringing about just the ruination of childhood because the wonder of innocence and the wonder with which a child looks at the world is something that’s irreplaceable. Instead…we allow them to be exposed to all sorts of media influence. Some of the things that 6 and 7 year olds are being exposed to would have been considered completely inappropriate for adults only 40 years ago. [It’s] so lurid, so violent, or so disturbing in [its] content.…We’re supposed to believe that the idea of the maternal influence is archaic and sexist. We’re supposed to believe that children don’t really need both parents. We’re supposed to believe that there is no such thing as virtue or right and wrong and, therefore, innocence really doesn’t matter in this progressive world.
Yet as is often the case when reading the West’s, and particularly America’s, most trenchant and sincere social analysts observing their societies’ catastrophic moral problems from within, one is stunned by their inability to come to terms with its ultimate sources and their meek or even ridiculously lame recommendations to simply stem the social and moral carnage. They never seem to recognize the fact that materialist obeisance in the name of “free market” capitalism—a misnomer completely debunked by the financial collapse and public “robbery-rescue” of 2008—is responsible for these societies’ steady disintegration.
These communities, and their cultures, are rich, abundant, creative, highly structured, sophisticated, powerful, and even visionary. But for all this, their hollowing out and subsequently increasing fragility is obvious and palpable.
The “free” trade ethic as America (actually the global wealth elite) bends it into a creed of belief, and the West with it, and the marketing techniques formulated to sustain this, constitute the real reason for all of these social disasters.
We Muslims ought not shy away from pointing out that the emperor is, in fact, buck naked, that this worship of profit in the West’s (and really the world’s capital societies) is a direct result of its disconnection with correct belief in the Oneness of God and His divinely revealed guidance, and particularly because of the distracted absence and deliberate distortion of the model of a messenger, the Messenger, for all people in these latter days; namely, Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.
This is the reason the proposed solutions of these otherwise trenchant and insightful sociologists and culture critics utterly underwhelm, failing both in scope and practical application, because they are willfully or neglectfully unable to address the root cause of the diseases of the heart they see all around them. They do not know or outright deny the true and only God and His Final message to humanity, the Quran, and the Last of His messengers, Muhammad ﷺ.
In divine truth’s stead, we are left to the whisperers of capitalism, the slinking marketing men, and their knot-blowing advertisement incantations.
The Child and the Human Difference
Some are likely to think that to pinpoint advertising as the basic reason behind this social decadence in America, the West, and that increasing part of the world globalized in its image is a gross or simplistic exaggeration. My rejoinder is that any study that critically examines how social ethics come to consensus in Western societies, and the influence of advertisement in this process, will be sufficient proof to clear up any and all such doubts.
The human baby is born different from other animals entirely, in the sense that it comes into the world without almost all necessary information imprinted in its brain and in its mind to go on. It gathers its information, slowly, from the environment it lives in. From birth to age three is the most important period of brain development.
The brain of an adult man carries about one hundred billion neurons. The number of neurons is somewhat less at birth. But significant change occurs, not in number, but in neuron associations. The junction between two neurons, the synapse, increases in both number and density with development. The rate of this growth is much greater and most spontaneous up to age three. Thereafter, growth becomes stable and continues until age 10.
During this decade, each neuron establishes its association with ten thousand adjacent neurons. Thus, one trillion synapses are formed by age 10. The information received from the environment is stored in these synapses. The child forms its responses and moral stands based on this stored information. That means a man brings his ethics into conformity in a lifetime with the information he largely gathers in the first 10 years of his life.
In sum, a child develops its basic social ethics by age three. By 10, it outlines these in detail. And everyone responds to the events of life according to the limits of this ethical framework. It is not unfair, then, to say that this early information gathering is in some ways determinative—not necessarily of the way one will respond, but of what they will respond to and with.
The child watching television alone or with parents up to age three builds his view of the world in accordance with the knowledge obtained from that experience, at least in part. Thus the American Academy of Pediatrics, combined with the American Psychological Association, has published no less than 3,000 papers on the aggressive moods of children stemming from media exposure. That’s a ton of proof.
The Kaiser Family Foundation study of media habits in 2005, for instance, states that an average American boy between ages 8 and 18 uses up around 44.5 hours per week in front of the television, computer, and other means of entertainment. A 2014 study by the same foundation, showed a media use increase to 52.5 hours a week, or 7.5 hours a day.
But discerning media-use time has become immensely complicated, since children now often use more than one media device at the same time. So those 7.5 hours a day of measured media use actually yield more like 10 hours and 45 minutes of media content exposure in the same time period (the 7.5 hours) per child on average.
The implications of such media saturation are profound, linked by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) to a tangible drop in education performance and an increase in bad health behaviors. And it starts early.
By 29 months, the more television exposure a child has, the more likely he or she is to have those poor school and health results, including a seven percent decrease in classroom engagement per hour of television consumption, and a 13 percent decline in weekly physical activity. Add to that repertoire of aberrant behaviors a 10 percent jump in classmate victimization and a 5 percent chance of high BMI (body mass index) and you begin to see tip of the generational catastrophe looming.
Perhaps the most profound finding in the study is the most glossed over, namely, that children now spend more time consuming media than they do with their families, their schools, and even in sleep.
These findings are augmented by the studies of L. Rowell Huesmann, head of the University of Michigan’s Institute of Social Research’s Aggression Research Program. By age 18, an American man has seen about 200,000 scenes of aggression through television, out of which 16,000 are murders.
A 15-year-long study establishes that childhood TV-violence viewing leads to aggressive and violent behavior that persists into adulthood. A 17-year-long study shows that as compared to teenaged boys who grew up on a lighter TV watching diet, those who watched more TV are likelier to commit acts of violence.
And while the witness to violence that TV facilitates for children and teens is frighteningly high, the sex that boys and girls behold through media is manifold times more than this. Good thing American parents have been thoughtful enough to “enrich” the bedrooms of two-thirds of the children with television and cable networks.
Reportedly, a staggering 83 percent of the programs that fascinate our children between 8 and 18 offer some semblance of sex appeal. Of these, 20 percent overtly portray graphic sex scenes. On average, an American boy watches at least six to seven sex scenes per viewing hour. Is there any wonder, then, about the attitude and worldview that advertising is nurturing in our young?
Indeed, capitalism has appointed the ad agency precisely to mold the future generation of the human community for its profit purposes. Media, the most effective weapon of mass colonialism, is sustained by advertising. Television and radio are entirely dependent on ads. The major income base of periodicals is ads. At least 80 percent of the income of newspapers is linked to ads. The film and entertainment industry is propelled by ads. Advertisement corporations are the sponsors of sports, national celebrations, and virtually every other effectual programing.
The point is that it is impossible for the proponents of the capital-driven free market to take steps against advertising, even if they know it is destroying families and making society immoral. Hypocritical though it may be, President Bill Clinton highlighted this reality, stating: “The single biggest social problem in our society may be the growing absence of fathers from their children’s homes,” an advertising-linked phenomenon we have already addressed.
Yet in the 20 long years since that statement was made, America—with all its wealth, power, prestige, creativity, and can-do feeling—could do nothing fruitful against this social disaster or any others like it because their real roots thoroughly permeate America’s controlling capitalistic lifestyle—and in the end, as we can now all bear witness, East and West, capitalism, when it comes to parting the people from their dwindling wealth for the sake of the anointed power elite, has one single-minded ethos: Just do it.
Herein lies secular materialism’s material difference as compared to the golden social moral of Heavenly religion, represented in our world now by Islam; namely, Just do justice. Or, in the meaning of the Quran:
O you who believe! Be most upright in upholding justice, bearing true witness for the sake of God alone—even if it is against your own selves, or your parents, or your nearest relatives, regardless of whether one party is rich and the other is poor, for God is most regardful of what is good for them both. So do not follow whim such that you pervert equity. For if you distort testimony or turn away from the truth, then, indeed, ever is God all-aware of all that you do. (Sûrat Al-Nisâ’)
To refine a phrase uttered by public scholar Cornell West (who in his statement harkened to the Christian ethos of “love”)—Justice is what taqwa looks like in public.
And taqwa is nothing less than the dread fear of God because one knows one will be held everlastingly accountable.
part three Islam’s Market Mandate—Trade Without Exploitation