monkeys bananas

For many years I have had a particular thought about the way Muslims are today. I believe that many of us (myself included) have lost touch with the universal principles of Islam because we are too immersed in irrelevant particulars. I feel that as we argue amongst ourselves more and more about these particulars, we are drifting further away from the general higher level principles of Islam, and thus from the essence and nature of what it actually means to be a Muslim. A better way to explain this is by using an analogy or two. The first one involves monkeys in a cage.

An experimenter puts 5 monkeys in a large cage. High up at the top of the cage, well beyond the reach of the monkeys, he hangs a bunch of bananas. Underneath the bananas is a ladder. The monkeys immediately spot the bananas and one of them begins to climb the ladder. As he does so the experimenter sprays him with a stream of cold water. He also sprays the other 4 monkeys.

The monkey scrambles off the ladder and all 5 of them sit for a time on the floor, wet and cold and bewildered. Soon the temptation of the bananas is too great and another monkey attempts to climb the ladder. As soon as his foot touches the ladder the experimenter sprays this ambitious monkey with cold water, and all the other monkeys as well. Later when a third monkey tries to climb the ladder, the other monkeys, wanting to avoid being sprayed again, pull him off the ladder and beat him. By now they have all learnt their lesson well.

The experimenter removes one of the original 5 monkeys from the cage and replaces it with a new monkey. This new monkey spots the bananas and naively tries to climb the ladder. As soon as he gets anywhere close to the ladder the other monkeys pull him away from it and beat him. The new monkey has no idea why he is getting beaten, he just now knows not to go near the ladder ever again.

The experimenter then removes a second one of the original monkeys from the cage and replaces him with a new monkey. Again, this new monkey tries to climb the ladder and, again, the other monkeys pull him away from it and beat him…including the previous new monkey who has never been sprayed with cold water, and who has no idea why he is getting involved in all this violence.

monkeys stop

Eventually all of the 5 original monkeys end up being replaced by new monkeys. By the end of the experiment, none of the original monkeys are left and yet, despite none of the replacement monkeys ever experiencing the ice cold, soaking, spray of water, they all have learned the hard way never to try and go for the bananas and to stay away from the ladder, without never actually knowing why, a lesson that has literally been beaten into them.

This analogy is supposed to describe a real scientific experiment, one that is meant to raise profound questions about our tendency to unquestioningly follow the herd. Usually when people mention this story it is in regards to organisations and how many people in companies, especially large ones, continue to do things simply because “that’s how we’ve always done things around here.”

Whether the experiment actually happened or not, it does seem that when you are part of a group, family, religion, club, tribe or whatever, accepted behaviors eventually become the norm, usually without question. After all, no one wants to be beaten, shunned, or sprayed with ice cold water.

I feel that we Muslims of today are the replacement monkeys, only we’ve been replaced many times over, generation after generation, to the point now where many of us do not know why we do the things we do as Muslims. The original context and reasoning has been lost to us. We have no real appreciation of the actual underlying context of any of our actions or rituals. Ideally we should not be monkeys in a cage, not knowing what we are doing, instead arguing over nuanced particulars without understanding greater universalities.

Another analogy involves rocks. A philosophy professor once stood up before his class with a large empty glass jar. He filled the jar to the top with large rocks and asked his students if the jar was full. They said yes. He then added small pebbles to the jar and gave the jar a bit of a shake so the pebbles could disperse themselves among the larger rocks. He asked a second time if the jar was now full, to which the students again agreed that it definitely now was.

The professor then poured sand into the jar to fill up any remaining empty space. He asked his students a third time if the jar was now full and they agreed that it was now not just full but completely full.

jar rocks

This analogy is used mainly in relation to time management principles, with the big rocks representing the more important things, the pebbles are things in your life that are not as important, and the sand is all the small stuff that you are not supposed to sweat. I have also read versions of this story where the professor proceeds to add water after pouring in the sand, but the point remains the same: if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.

So if you spend all of your time on the small and insignificant things, you will run out of room for the things that are actually important. Therefore in order to have a more effective life, you should prioritize important things in your life and then worry about pebbles and sand at a later time. And so forth. For Muslims the big rocks are the universal underlying and overarching principles. We need to fit these into our spiritual jar before trying to deal with lower level, more nuanced issues, such as where exactly to place our hands during prayer, can we or can we not celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), are prawns okay for us to consume, etc. Too much sand, too many pebbles, and nary a rock in sight.

What recently brought this thought to the forefront was a link sent to me by a cousin of mine. The link was to an article about Islam and veganism called The Halal Bubble And The Sunnah Imperative To Go Vegan by Dr Mohamed Ghilan. Written in May 2016, this very lengthy and informative article can be broken down into two sections. Firstly, it is about the concept of veganism when looked at from an Islamic and prophetic perspective. Secondly, and more importantly for this blog post, it is about how in Islam too much focus on particulars have confused our understanding of universals. Perhaps at a later date I will write something about Islam and veganism, but it is this latter aspect that I would like to focus on for now.

The article is one of best I have read in years. Ghilan writes with a deliberate bluntness that make his points very clear indeed, especially the need to have a proper understanding of the overarching principles of Islam before delving into more nuanced and detailed matters. Many Muslims are perhaps unable to see the dichotomy we face of going too deep into irrelevant issues, to the detriment of losing focus on the bigger rocks. The trees end up obscuring the view of the forest. If we are far removed from the main principles of Islam, a religion with a rich intellectual heritage and culture, then this surely begs a simple question: how truly Islamic are we?

For many Muslims chances unfortunately are that if you were born into a Hindu family (for example), then you would probably still be a Hindu. How many of us, in that situation, would know enough about religion and faith to move from Hinduism to Islam? How many of us would move beyond being just spiritual monkeys in that particular theological cage, blindly following the Hindu herd? How many of us would be smart enough to advance beyond just ritual actions and go on to understanding the key principles of faith that hopefully drive us towards Islam (which I consider to be the one true religion)? How many of us genuinely have at least one true connection with God in our lifetimes? How many of us try to learn about Islam not from the internet (Shaykh Google Bin Yahoo), but from an actual shaykh, scholar or imam — a trustworthy and learned individual with a sound, in-depth understanding of faith who is steeped in religious scholarship?

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) summarised all of Islam in one word, al-nasiha, sincere concern. How many of us Muslims today have this sincere concern of Allah, His Messenger, His book, the Muslim ummah, and the rest of creation? True devotion to Islam should therefore come before family loyalty and worldly possessions. Only then can we correctly teach our own children about what to do as Muslims (something many of us can barely do at present), never mind trying to give them a satisfactory and correct reason as to why we should do such things.

The article by Ghilan brought this and other points home for me. It made me take a mental step back from the brink of all that is going on and refocus my faith. Selected quotes are presented below and, whilst the article was not easy to get through due to length and intensity, it is well worth reading in full. I honestly hope it provides as much benefit to you as it did to me. Enjoy!

mohamed ghilan

The Halal Bubble And The Sunnah Imperative To Go Vegan

Dr Mohamed Ghilan, 16 May 2016,

The popular conception of religion seems to be that of a set of rules and regulations that one adheres to. It is a handbook of what to do and what not to do without much attention given to what it all means and what it is about. For many Muslims, Islam is simply an explicit code of not only what to believe, but also how to articulate it in a way that does not get you in hot water with whoever appointed themselves as the gatekeepers of Paradise. Beyond this, Islam is viewed as nothing more than a set of obligations and prohibitions that one must abide by. In effect, when one chooses to fly with Islamic Airways they have to leave their intellect and conscience behind at the airport because these are items displayed on the diagram posted at security checkpoints outlining the prohibited articles to carry onboard.

A result of such a vision is a crisis of faith for many modern Muslims who cannot but find themselves wondering about the rationality of Islam and whether this religion is relevant today. This is not surprising given how an organic religion described by the Beloved ﷺ as one congruent with the Fitra, i.e., the natural inclination towards God and Truth, has been turned into a didactic checklist.

In reaction to this crisis there have been isolated calls to reform Islam. However, most current calls for overhauling Islam as a religion so that it can “modernize” come from individuals who have not made what Dr. Taha Jabir Al-Alwani calls the “mental transition from a preoccupation with particulars to a concern with universals”.

Focusing on the particulars can at times serve as a vehicle to undermine the universals.

The elevation of particulars over universals plays a pernicious role in the continuation of using Islam as a pawn to serve identity politics’ purposes. Neo-traditionalism (or neo-orthodoxy if you prefer) creates a mirage to give the appearance of Islam as the last stronghold against the consumerist monoculture of modernity. In this façade, a Muslim can effectively go through life with some minor religious inconveniences but for all intents and purposes never have to consciously assume the uncomfortable position that God has decreed for Muslims in the Quran: “We have made you [believers] into a middle nation, so that you may bear witness [to the Truth] before others and so that the Messenger may bear witness [to it] before you.” [2:143] The task of bearing witness to the Truth requires one to be socially conscious enough so as to take a stand when they see a tide going the wrong way. But the hyper-legalization of Islam for the sake of identity politics and the desire to be unique for the sake of uniqueness comes at the detriment of one’s awareness of the ethical implications of their choices of action. One salient example of this is in how we choose to eat.

If you were to ask most average practicing Muslims what the Sunnah of moderation in eating is, you will likely get cited the partial Hadith stating, “A third for food, a third for drink, and a third for breathing.” This demonstrates two issues regarding how Muslims’ conception is of the Sunnah today. For one, it is a set of prescribed discrete actions and statements attributed to the Beloved ﷺ, usually devoid of context and removed from a greater way of being. Secondly, it is approached selectively, picking that which does not upset the status quo of how one conducts their life, allowing them to maintain it by only doing minor adjustments without raising consciousness about the validity of fundamental assumptions taken for granted.

From a linguistic perspective, the word Sunnah in Arabic refers to a path that is constantly trodden. According to the legal definition, it refers to the sayings, actions, and affirmations of the Prophet ﷺ. In his text on the foundational principles of Islamic Jurisprudence, Muhammad ibn Ali Ash-Shauokani (1759-1839) combines the linguistic and legal definitions in commenting on the Prophet ﷺ’s command to follow his Sunnah by saying that it refers to the Prophetic Way. In other words, Sunnah is not just a list of isolated actionable items one gets to mindlessly check off. It is a path one sets on and a way of being in the world. To act in a Prophetic Way entails a synthesis of the Prophet ﷺ’s life so it becomes possible to answer the question, “What would the Habeeb do?

In order to understand what moderation means we must turn to the Beloved ﷺ’s life and statements. Many Muslims are familiar with the story related in the collection of Bukhari of the three companions: one announced he would fast everyday, the other affirmed he would pray every night till sunrise, and the third said he would become celibate. In hearing about this the Beloved ﷺ called them and after confirming their intentions he rebuked them. He told them that he is more conscious and fearful of God than they were, yet he fasts on some days and does not on others; he prays some of the night and sleeps the rest; and he marries women. He followed this by declaring that this was his way, and whoever rejects his way is not of him.

A key lesson derived from this Hadith is that the Beloved ﷺ did not go to extremes in his life. His actions were deliberate and after his migration to Medina he was in a position to live the most extravagant life similar to that of any ruler, or to live the most impoverished life similar to that of a monk. This point needs to be emphasized because when it comes to eating and food choices there is a common modern retort that the early community of the Beloved ﷺ was poor and did not have access to some of the luxuries of modern life. Although they did not have access to the technologies we have today, they most certainly were not poor. In fact, given that their wealth was based on physical entities (gold, silver, land, horses, camels, etc.), it can be argued that they were wealthier than today’s Fortune 500 whose much of their wealth is typically nothing more than numbers on screens that could disappear if a financial crisis such as the one in 2008 strikes again.

While the ultimate purpose of creation as taught in the Quran is to recognize God and worship Him [51:56], the immediate purpose of creating human beings is to be God’s vicegerents on Earth. “[Prophet] when your Lord told the angels, ‘I am putting a deputy on Earth,’ they said, ‘How can You put someone there who will cause damage and bloodshed, when we celebrate Your praise and proclaim Your holiness?’” [2:30] It is fascinating that the angels’ already knew enough about the potential of the dark side of human beings that they could not see them as a creation in any other way. However, after God demonstrates to the angels what is special about Adam we are reminded later in the Quran of an essential aspect that governs the Earth in which we live: “He has raised up the sky and has set the balance so that you may not transgress in the balance: weigh with justice and do not fall short in the balance.” [55:7-9]

As we continue to transgress the Divine balance for the sake of satisfying our insatiable stomachs we not only bring harm to the natural order on Earth, we also fail in fulfilling our duty as stewards. This is not only a matter of having to answer to God. Beyond the environmental damage we are causing, the people and animals we abused just so we could have a barbeque or a walima will also seek us out for retribution on the Day in which neither wealth nor children will benefit.

The impact of eating animal products on the Earth both on land and in the ocean makes the only ethical eating lifestyle to observe today a vegan one where all animal products, including eggs and dairy, are eliminated from our diet. In light of what we have done to the planet and the animals because of our lust after meat, we can no longer claim as Muslims to be witnesses to the Truth while continuing to contribute to the perpetuation of such abuse and transgressions. Ethicists define three levels of the moral response to a presented question or situation: expressive, pre-reflective, and reflective. The expressive level is the most primitive one at which the individual expresses unanalyzed emotions and feelings, which in and of themselves do not establish a justification for the directed course of action. At the pre-reflective level the justification is made by reference to what may be termed a normative or a conventional rule. In the context of eating meat and some Muslims’ negative response to veganism, the justification for continuing to eat meat is by simply referring to the fact the Prophet ﷺ ate meat. The defining feature of a pre-reflective response is the lack of critical analysis of normative or conventional rules being used to justify actions and resistance to examine the overall coherence of such actions. Finally, the reflective response is one in which the conventional rules are examined and synthesized in light of the presented question or situation. At this level it is not sufficient to quote a single Hadith or verse of the Qur’an devoid of historical context and how it applies to a current one in light of other verses and Hadiths. This is a level at which the particulars need to be analyzed in light of universals.

Religion is not a ticket to become somnambulant as one mindlessly applies a rulebook. It is a call to waking up and being conscious of how one engages with the world. Being religious and following the Sunnah in modern activist parlance is another way of saying one is “woke”. There is a price being paid for the dietary decision one makes, and it is not limited to the one displayed at the cash register. In a Hadith related in the collection of Muslim the Beloved ﷺ is reported to have said, “God is pure and does not accept anything but that which is pure.” The food we eat is energy that is in turn directed towards acts of worship dedicated to God. Consciousness about diet entails recognizing that we have a relationship with the food we eat. When we ask why we are having trouble getting for Subh on time or why we find trouble concentrating in our prayers or sweetness in reciting the Quran, the first thing we should look to is our food. If that energy is not pure and is derived by means of abuse and transgression against the balance, we should not be surprised about having trouble in forming a connection with the Merciful.

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