Understanding and Critiquing Certain Common Sense Moralisms in Modern Society
Serving as a continuation of the series on “7 Deadly Modern Sins and Misunderstandings,” (read part one here) this second section focuses on a less analytical issue: the idea of misjudging ethical prioritization. As in, who do we, at a threshold level, owe moral respect and obligations to, and how do we prioritize these obligations towards our friends, family, community, and spouses?
Exclusivity and Prioritization
Exclusivity and prioritization is a form of ethical responsibility, the practice of putting things in their proper place. Fulfilling the specific rights that individuals are due and differentiating between our works those which require our immediate attention and those which can be given less effort, or can be postponed. This can be understood in three separate yet inter-related principles of prioritization.
1 – The Legal Prioritization of Those Nearest to you
The first, is to prioritize the rights of others at the legal level, and to offer people the rights that are due to them before we try to engage in recommended or supererogatory actions. Take this violation for example: those who volunteer their extra time yet forgo spending any of this time with their children who consequently suffer from a lack of companionship with their parents. When asked why they do this, they say that the community has a right over them, which is in fact an inversion of the Prophet’s ﷺ instruction.
For example, when it comes to charity, Prophetic advice indicates to start with your own family, those nearest to you, and then to move outwards:
Thawban reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “The best coin for a man to spend is the coin spent on his dependents, and the coin spent by a man on his mount in the way of Allah, and the coin spent by a man on his companions in the way of Allah.”
Aisha reported: I said, “O Messenger of Allah ﷺ, I have two neighbors; to whom should I send my gifts?” The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “To the neighbor who is closest to your door.”
This is not to say that we should be nepotistic or unjust towards all others (the problem with nepotism is not in the favoring of family but the misuse of this favoring). Rather, it illustrates the fact that a person owes certain people in their life special and unique prioritization based on their legal proximity. Nowadays this is often usurped by wildly abstract ideals such as political allegiance; if my father voted for Trump, I am no longer engaging with him and have decided to cut him off. In this circumstance, the peer pressure by some recently graduated New York Times intern has overtaken my moral obligation to maintain ties to my father. Abandonment of ties of kinship like this is increasingly common, as are the violation of all sorts of legal obligations, based on reasons as flawed and extraneous as this. Even if I feel a legitimate moral obligation to some far-away third party, such as say the plight of some group in another-continent who I now start spending my spare income, if my own family requires my assistance with that money, then my obligations begin with them.
Furthermore, that obligation is not negated by abstract considerations of what others think of me or my family in fulfilling my family ties (within the legal bounds of shari’ justice that is). If someone considers me a bad person for continuing to maintain ties with my father or mother after they chose not to get vaccinated or something equally as trifling and petty, then the flaw in moral prioritization is in viewing this tangential concern as more weighty than the ties of kinship and not vice versa.
2 – The Extra-Legal Prioritization that is a Consequence of Husnul Khuluq
Beyond this legal threshold, there likes a supererogatory requirement to prioritize certain people, based on what “Husnul Khuluq” (literally good/best/beautiful character) demands. An example that will illustrate this concept is the treatment of one’s spouse. Say you treat everyone in life the exact same, all within the moral guidelines of the Shari’a and simply treat your spouse as you do any other person. Clearly this seems improper — we owe our spouse an intimacy beyond what we give to others. This constant favoritism towards one’s spouse, children, family etc. is a moral obligation. Even when secular, non-religious people complain that their spouse spends too much time outside of the house, they struggle to articulate what exactly they mean. Islamically, we have an immediate legal reference (the rights and obligations framework of the spouse allow us to conveniently articulate a set of black-letter duties) to refer to.
But I argue that it is not actually the failure of these legal duties themselves that the person is necessarily most upset by. It is often an underlying sense of being underappreciated or not seen as the ultimate priority in the other person’s life. This is independent of fulfilling legal duties, which have become a convenient reference by which that emotion can be articulated and rationalized. If these same legal rights are all being met at a minimum level, even a Muslim may be stumped about their negative feelings when they discover their spouse seems to be better friends with someone else (even of the same gender) than with themselves. It is almost as if they seek to say, “should I not be this most important person to you?” Some situations are legitimately difficult, but others are clear-cut: one cannot be “on roads” doing shisha until 2 A.M. with their “day ones” while their wife is waiting at home nor can there be constant “girls trips to X European capital” because it reflects a lack of prioritization — even when legal demands are being met.
Importantly, argument is not based on the legal requirements of different relationships, but a certain kind of spiritual-sentimental structure which is underpinned by those legal requirements. As in a wife does not care for her husband, nor a husband for his wife, with the sentimental attachment of a contract (as in none), but that of some deeply committed emotional and heartfelt devotion to one another. This is natural in any marriage and cannot be sufficed by the purely legal considerations of threshold duties and obligations. And yet this kind of meta-duty, itself seems to be an obligation, since spouses are meant to live with each other in kindness. A parallel example would be how the Prophet ﷺ has particular sunnan, and then a kind of meta-sunnah of preferring the afterlife and its affairs over this life (which is reflected in every increasing grounded and practical sunnah).
Much of the development of contradictory trends such as “open relationships” and pick-up artistry seems to be based on a fear of the sheer level of commitment marriage requires. It is regarded as better to either have a non-relationship or simply move from one partner to the next in quick succession before any emotional attachment forms, because the level of preference required to make a marriage work is discordant with modern conceptions of choice, autonomy, availability, and fluidity. By this I am referring not just to the legal responsibilities, but the sentimental deference that marriage assumes in an Islamic worldview.
When rights-preference is misplaced, immense negative feelings such as being underappreciated or undervalued inevitably develop, even if all legal requirements are met. A useful conceptual tool here, beyond the pure threshold of Usul-ul-fiqh, would be “Husnul Khuluq,” or the best of character. Quoting Imam al-Ghazali on the disciplining of the soul, Shaykh Abdul Hakim Murad goes over some hypothetical examples of what this would look like . For example, Husnul Khuluq is to precede your wife or husband in their duties, if they get up to clean the dishes, you precede them and do it first. Or to overlook their faults to an excessive degree — Al Ghazali offers the humorous example of an Arab noble woman passing gas in front of her husband who then pretends he did not hear it. There is another extreme example of a man who pretends himself to be blind, so that his wife who had some facial deformity is not caused insecurity. The point of these examples, which are themselves exaggerated, is not a perfect emulation but understanding a certain spirit of good-character beyond simply the threshold of Usul-ul-fiqh. Legally, it may be possible for me to yell at my spouse — but good character indicates I should not make use of this right. Legally, I may have the right to spend time away from them out of necessity — but good character indicates I should prefer them (based on various other considerations).
This prevents the kind of resentment or deep-seated idea that I deserve more, that my spouse is not good enough, or a generalized ingratitude and anger towards the spouse. Legally, Islam dictates a kind of explicit-preference as part of one’s social-relations, a reflection of our innate nature and morals, and an avoidance of the development of resentment in these relationships. One way to do this is to legally prefer them above others, as is their right. This is evidenced by commands to give charity to those nearest to us first and to express our preference towards them in maintaining your ties and love. This does not mean we abandon others and external responsibilities, but that we ensure the emotional state of those nearest to us remains intact. The second part of this is a more sentimental in nature, which is indicated by a kind of good-character or a constant attitude of pleasing them and pardoning them. If my spouse makes a mistake, I should overlook it without so much as even a reference. If I have the right or capacity to prefer someone above them in some way, unless it is an obligation in and of itself, it may be better not to make use of that right.
Thereby prioritization or exclusivity must be taken into consideration both at the legal-level, and with due consideration to the demands of supererogatory good character in any circumstance, from any relationship.
3 – Internal Accounting and Understanding Prioritization as Delusion
The fundamental question then becomes: how exactly do we prioritize? When do I determine for example, that X act is indeed what I should be pursuing in a given moment and Y task is some kind of distraction. At minimum, one should learn their legal obligations regarding different kinds of relationships (spouses, parents, fellow Muslims, neighbors etc). One should then try and fulfill them as best as possible and negotiate and reconcile wherever a conflict appears. However, there exist some internal considerations the believer can make, that often appear when prioritization is needed or lacking. Say for example that I am able to easily offer 40 rakat of Tahajjud (the night prayer) every night, yet I cannot forgive a specific person who wronged me some time ago. In that sense, it is entirely possible that my prioritization of the night prayer, which my self inclines to, is a distraction or preventing me from pursuing the more difficult and pressing affair of forgiveness. Similarly, although there is great zeal in global movements and revolutions often this is manifested specifically as a kind of distraction or justification for not fulfilling other priorities. My relationship with my family may be difficult for example, and it is far easier to organize protests and engage in “radical” politics than try to reconcile with them. In that sense, part of prioritization is internally reflecting upon what it is that we should be doing but are not.
Often times, problems in correct prioritization occur directly as a result of failing to engage in such internal accounting. Why am I pursuing X task over Y task (even if these are both say, religiously neutral or good acts)? Often the answer is that one of them is more difficult, or for example one of them is naturally easier for me and so then I abandon the one that is more difficult for me. This is not to be confused with aptitude itself. For example, it is obvious that some people may find dhikr more intuitive and rewarding than learning Usul-ul-fiqh, and vice versa, even though both are rewarding. But neither of them should be used as a convenient excuse to forego the other.
Prioritization then occurs at three levels. The first is the legal consideration of what my obligations are and to whom, and to what extent I have fulfilled these in relation to non-obligations. The second is the sentimental consideration that we discussed, or the extra-legal considerations of how people I owe threshold legal-responsibilities to often expect and deserve, under the spiritual framework of Islam, a Husnul-Khuluq that I should prioritize. The final consideration is accounting for motivation. Namely, is the reason I was prioritizing activism over spiritual purification perhaps that the latter was more difficult and time-consuming? Perhaps part of my moral confusion stems directly from the inability to confront my nafs’ tendency to delude myself into thinking I am engaging in good, when in reality I am using a lesser good as an excuse to step away from the more pressing and greater good.
This is a very practical tool that can help us not just identify the potential spiritual gaps in our practice, but also the things we should be pursuing that we are not. Perhaps I was not fulfilling my spouses or parents or brothers rights not because some other consideration had taken my attention, but because I specifically used that more convenient good as an excuse to push away and distract myself from the more difficult and higher good. This is a common ploy of the nafs when it cannot push us to evil, to delude us away from the most immediately relevant good we should be pursuing. Similarly, circumstances then result in which someone is, with good intention, launching political revolutions and intellectual revival projects of Islam from their basement, while not having basic commitments to the prayer, spiritual purification, their family ties, and their immediate obligations taken care of.
The Expanding of the Moral Circle
Another explanation as to why this confusion in prioritization often occurs, is the seemingly infinite extension of our moral circles. Peter Singer refers to our moral circle as those things for which we have moral concern (he himself is a culprit of this excessive expansion in my view). The right-wing uses this immediate principle of serving “those nearest to you” to construct ethno-nationalist and particularist philosophies, conveyed through statements such as “we owe nothing to anyone other than our own — a hungry orphan will be helped only on the basis of whether he is of my tribe or family.” Clearly, this selfish perversion of the principle is itself morally incorrect.
Moral obligation begins at home but expands outwards — there is no wall at which it ends, Islamically. While I am requested to begin with my neighbor there is no corollary to end there, and the Prophetic example reflects a generalized concern for every person in difficulty or need. On the other hand, the left-wing extends this moral circle far too wide by assuming that “we owe some abstract good to some anti-police protestors on the other side of the world, so I will miss my own child’s school performance to join a feel-good demonstration in the streets.” This is based primarily in a rejection of obligations that are not chosen by the individual themselves. My family has rights over me that I had no choice in contracting, whereas my support for this anti-police protest is freely given. As such, family is not inherently valuable, and in fact may even be oppressive, given the lack of my autonomous choice in contracting out its terms and obligations. Even worse, family requires me to display certain virtues of patience, resilience, honor, etc. without the fanfare and applause that comes with more public celebrations of solidarity. In that sense the left-wing conception of moral worth often favors the distant as opposed to the near as a corollary or consequence of choosing the easy over the difficult (paradoxical as it seems).
In fact, the left has widened the moral circle to such an extent that it includes even animals, plants and abstract ideas such as the environment, cosmos, and space, as worthy of moral consideration and worthy of rights that must be fulfilled by everyone. A number of op-eds and surveys note a growing number of millennials abstaining from having kids or many kids, citing concerns that it would harm the environment.  This seems more like a neurotic obsession with media-constructed phantasms of global collapse than it does of legitimate moral consideration of an inability of fulfilling the children’s rights or of harming the environment. I do not mean to deny that we have moral responsibilities to animals and the environment as stewards of the Earth, rather I argue that fulfilling the rights of the animals and the environment cannot come at the cost of the moral health of those nearest and most vulnerable to us, or of society as a whole. Say for instance, in an Islamic context, if a society was to decide that unfortunately due to the climate-crisis we can no longer have children, this would negate explicit commands and recommendations of the Prophet ﷺ to have many kids because he ﷺ wants to see his Ummah as the largest on the Day of Judgement.
Prioritizing as a Delusion, or Justification of Evil
And further, there is a kind of inner-reflection of sincerity that should occur whenever we prioritize this way. The famous story of the Yemeni young man, Uwais al Qarni, is known to most Muslims. The young man wanted to join the Prophet ﷺ for jihad, and thereby become a sahaba, and he wrote to the Prophet ﷺ regarding this. He mentioned he had an ailing mother, and the Prophet ﷺ advised him to instead take care of his ailing mother. The subtext here is that Uwais had a sincere desire to become a sahaba, and to join the Prophet ﷺ for jihad. Let us hypothetically consider a different situation. Another young man did not want to take care of his mother, so he used Jihad as an excuse to leave that obligation, while still feeling morally vindicated. When we prioritize and through whatever means we have end up choosing one option over the other, are we making the choice of Uwais al Qarni, an almost begrudging acceptance of our true ethical responsibility, or are we simply rationalizing the desire to escape some other obligation while remaining morally justified. Much of the anti-life discourse seems to be of the second-kind. Possible evidence of this is the fact that the same generation Z that is so concerned about the environmental future of the planet, is the rapid consumer that would put all previous generations to shame. Can we imagine a shift towards a post-industrial and environmentally transformative, sustainable, and harmonious society, if it requires us to give up much of the luxuries of modernity that we cherish? It seems easier to say I will simply not have kids instead, and can continue to enjoy the fruits of industrialized Western society (considering the vast majority of this anti-natalism is peculiarly centered in the West, especially countries with incredibly high-living standards), while justifying this turn towards consumption which is the actual concern for the environment.
It is always strange to me that the most convenient options are often painted as simultaneously the most “brave” and revolutionary. Voicing an opinion already shared by the entire establishment class, such as Greta Thunberg does (not necessarily implying that it is wrong), then labels you as the paragon of virtue and bravery. Simultaneously choosing not to have kids becomes a brave choice to save the environment. Interestingly the same demographic who agree with the premise that we should not have kids to save the environment (mostly generation Z and some millennials), are also overwhelmingly likely to say that kids are a burden: they would much rather travel and be free, seeing family and marriage as restrictive forms on the more free, libertine, and creative aspects of human expression. In that sense the more convenient option is reconceptualized as something bold, brave, beautiful. Very few of this specific group of people who occupy both premises simultaneously (which is I’d argue the vast majority of people who occupy premise 1, but not necessarily premise 2) then engage in some kind of grand sacrificial project for humanity. Their great mission to save the planet by not having kids is replaced with a mindless consumerist schizophrenia that may be even more damaging than climate change, since it appears entirely normal and acceptable.
The Moral Circle as Fetish
However, not all are false believers. There are some true believers, those who really do want to sacrifice everything for the environment or whatever other cause is the current focus of our moral concern. And they are often willing to do this at the cost of human-wellbeing itself. Complex degrowth programs to deindustrialize the world, campaigns to reduce “overpopulation,” a severe reduction in our living standards, the choice to not have a family and to shame those who do, all become acceptable measures by which the moral circle can properly be upheld, since the environment is now part of it. The moral circle has expanded so far that moral suffering of legitimate persons is allowable, as long as abstract ideals such as “sustainability” are upheld. Granted, sustainability is meant to refer to human populations flourishing as well, but there is, increasingly, a fetishization of the “environment” as an agent unto itself, deserving of moral rights that supersede those necessary to offer humans.
The West has fully realized, ironically through its rejection of Christianity, the Nietzschean critique of Christianity’s anti-life tendencies (as in those anti-life tendencies Nietzsche saw in Christianity). For example, “Don’t have children because you have to care about the ecosystem and environment” is a common motif that structures much of the contemporary “anti-life” discourse. The environment is owed much by a person, that much is true, but to prioritize it as some abstract agent deserving of more consideration and preference than one’s own offspring is not something that promotes civilizational flourishing, in an Islamic context. Forceful sterilizations (for example castration) were traditionally a punishment meted out by tyrannical kings, now it is trans mutated to the ethical choice made by the smart and savvy progressive thinker just doing their part to save the dolphins. More and more there is this opposite trend to the opportunist mentioned in the previous section, here a true believer who thinks that every comfort of our eyes that is available to Bani-Adam must be excised so that abstract considerations such as sustainability and “the environment” can persevere. Policies that limit population growth, that greatly reduce our living quality in relation to food stuffs (recommendations we start eating insects for example. Notably, I am not against reducing our living standards, that would be beneficial for us, but it must be structured in a spiritual project of asceticism and not a kind of anti-civilization anti-natalism which assumes human beings have somehow negated their right to dignity) are the norm here.
The Christian rejection of the physical world exemplified by monasticism, extreme asceticism, vows of celibacy etc. is then replaced by a progressive worshiping of it. In the history of Christian Western society, civilization has always been in tension with man’s nature because man was thought to aspire towards the kingdom of God through humility and asceticism — he had to reject the world in a physical and spiritual sense to save himself and reach salvation. In modern society, the same anti-life tendencies materialize, only this time we are asked to reject civilization precisely to save the natural world instead of ourselves (and ironically, one must ask; save it for what? Is there some implicit telos nature is meant to conform to or recognize? If so, is this not a religious metaphysics and morality repackaged under an environmental fetishism?). I am referring here to the more extreme conceptions of environmental politics as requiring a rejection of both sustainability frameworks (which are also concerning from an Islamic perspective, however that is tangential) and frameworks which prioritize human consumption and industrial capacity over environmental preservation and continuity. In this more dystopian ecological reality we are required to sacrifice much of what human society consists of to begin with — children, families, homes, cities, etc. to make room for the Earth itself to live out its natural process’. The idea that there may be more value in having a family than saving your local rainforest becomes anathema to this conception of the environment itself being an actor worthy of moral consideration equivalent to that of humans.
Fortunately, Islam and Islamicate societies seem to be continuing strong even in the midst of anti-life march towards collapse. Still, that insight of prioritization requires some level of vigilance and consciousness, which Muslims must develop in regards to prioritization and moral circles. The environment, animals, distant people, friends etc. all have rights upon each of us. But these rights must always be contextualized. A sign of the end of times alludes to the inversion of priority amongst those who hold rights over us. Some are rude and hostile to their parents but act saintly towards their friends. Some undermine their own spouses, children and families to pay credence to abstract concerns and less relevant parties such as community organizations or social causes as important as they may be. Placing responsibilities and people in their correct place and fulfilling their required preference or exclusivity is the basis of moral relationships and societies.
This responsibility of prioritizing can be understood at multiple levels then, with considerations being made for possible obstacles and delusions. We begin with our base and threshold legal obligations, which we can learn in our Usul-ul-Fiqh for example. Simply learning and then implementing them is also a way of sacralizing relationships we must fulfill regardless — if I know for example the various rights a Muslim brother has over me, and then that my spouse has, or my parent has, my consciousness when engaging with those rights becomes one of divine service and practice (the putting of knowledge into action also refines both knowledge and action in a way that cannot happen separately).
Then, I look at the supererogatory requirements of good character and how those affect the prioritization of different affairs, relationships, and virtues in my life. Finally, we try to understand prioritization as it relates to tasks which are more difficult, which our nafs wants us to avoid, and then pursue them. If reciting the Qur’an is difficult for me while studying usul-ul-fiqh is easy, I should try and increase my practice of the former (or vice versa). Often it is that which our nafs tries to avoid in good works that has the most benefit for us. Through this we also begin to unravel certain delusions by which we assumed we were prioritizing good, but were actually using good as an excuse to avoid a greater good. The delusions and forms of narcissism by which many contemporary psychological frameworks justify their prioritizations of certain tasks over others is also to be avoided. Many times, the revolutionary movement trying to overthrow some global problem is virtuous, but an escape from the even more difficult problems of our own characters, which exist in a much smaller nexus yet are more difficult to address. Most dangerous of all is the actual moral inversion itself in actuality, namely thinking abstract ideals such as the “environment” or “state” have rights over you greater than family for example, or that a commitment to some emotionally-fulfilling cause of this sort then justifies legitimate harm to actual moral agents. The balancing of the moral circle between extreme extension and contraction becomes a fundamental part of a Muslim’s ethical journey, informed by our legal and spiritual tradition — understanding that while we have obligations to animals, nature, governments etc., these cannot override our obligations to family and fellow-man at a more intimate, personal level.
About the Author: Faizan Malik is a student studying political science in Toronto. His interests include Islam, critical theory, and liberalism.
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