EVEN NON-MUSLIM Americans are often amazed at Islam’s ability to inspire reverts to give up harmful habits. Experts on the American prison system admit that conversion to Islam in prison is the single most powerful indicator of likely rehabilitation. Nothing else – no other religion, treatment program, vocational training, psychological counseling technique – comes close.
Reaching Deep Down
As Malcolm X so eloquently put it:
Awareness came surging up in me – how deeply the religion of Islam reached down into the mind to lift me up, to save me from being what I inevitably would have been: a dead criminal in a grave, or, if still alive, a flint-hard, bitter, thirty-seven-year-old convict in some penitentiary, or insane asylum. (Autobiography, 287)
Though I have not done prison time, I can relate to Malcolm’s words. I too was mired in destructive habits, living selfishly and on a road to destruction, when the guidance of Islam reached me, al-ḥamdulillâh, and awakened me to the harmful nature of certain behaviors that I had always taken for granted.
Step One: Guidance on Khamr
One of these behaviors, it should surprise no one to learn, was drinking alcohol. Since I was neither an alcoholic nor an obvious problem drinker, I probably would never have realized the harm alcohol was doing to me had I not encountered the guidance of Islamic tradition, and, specifically, the Qur’anic verses that mention wine and intoxication.
As a non-conformist Irish American intellectual with a weakness for beer and wine, my first response to Islam’s prohibition of alcohol was to try to find a way around it. I discovered verse 67 of Sûrat Al-Naḥl, which describes beverages made from dates and grapes as signs of Allah, and verse 43 of Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, which seems to advise drinkers to wait until they sober up before they pray. (Obviously if you are praying five times each day, including awakening for Fajr, this does not leave much room for drinking – but misguided by the satan of my alcohol craving, I interpreted this verse to mean that alcohol itself was okay as long as you don’t pray when you are drunk!).
But I found it harder to misinterpret Sûrat Al-Baqarah’s âyah 219 which states that wine and gambling have usefulness as well as sin, but that the sin is greater than the usefulness. And then there was verse 90 of Sûrat Al-Mâ’idah, which describes alcohol and gambling as the works of Satan which those who seek success (presumably in this life as well as the hereafter) should leave behind.
Coming to My Senses
I am ashamed to say it took me a few years after reversion to put it all together and arrive at the obvious, common-sense conclusion that all sensible Islamic scholars have known for centuries: Alcohol is ḥarâm. Though made from the glorious fruits of this amazing, Allah-created earth, and though it can provide certain temporary benefits, in the big picture those benefits are outweighed by severe drawbacks. There is no way you can pray properly, or even perceive properly for that matter, if you are polluting your mind with the stuff. We are so much better off without it.
After giving up alcohol and realizing how much that step improved my life, I began to see a deeper logic in the Islamic system of guidance about what is ḥalâl and what is ḥarâm. It seems that certain things that we have come to crave are just not good for us. Giving in to destructive cravings degrades us, while licit pleasures, enjoyed within the bounds of moderation prescribed by Allah’s guidance, can be among life’s greatest blessings.
Step Two: Applying the Principle of 2:219
Thankfully, the Quran and Islamic tradition are there to help guide us toward the ḥalâl and away from the ḥarâm. In some cases, such as alcohol, the guidance is clear and direct. But we can also derive benefit from extending the logic of Qur’anic guidance to areas that are not mentioned directly, as generations of Islamic scholars have recognized.
Verse 2:19 clearly states that the sin in alcohol is greater than the usefulness. Can that principle be applied to other habits? Cigarettes, for example, are very much like alcohol in that they provide a certain amount of pleasure, but that the price of that pleasure – addiction and potentially fatal disease – seems to outweigh the benefits.
The same is true of many other passing pleasures and indulgences. Junk food tastes good, but like tobacco and alcohol it can be addicting, as well as debilitating in larger doses. Anybody who doubts that should see the documentary Super Size Me, which shows, in gruesome detail, exactly what living on McDonalds’s fare for a month can do to a previously healthy person.
And what about addictive technologies like television? Is television ḥarâm (Islamically illegal)? The question may sound crazy. But is it really so crazy to imagine that someday, somewhere, some overweight couch-potato TV addict might find Islam and give up their unhealthy, destructive lifestyle? Is it crazy to think that television’s bombarding us with so much sex, violence, consumerist brainwashing, and celebrity faces and bodies might be incompatible with a way of life based on submission to Allah, and the struggle to be the better person that comes with submission to Allah?
Islam has a long and noble history of producing beautiful art and architecture without the realistic depiction of human faces and bodies. One scriptural source for that tradition is the ḥadîth of the Prophet ﷺ:
The makers of pictures (paintings and tamâthîl, or statues) will be tormented on the Day of Resurrection. It will be said to them: Give life to what you have created! (Bukhâri)
And he said:
Truly, the angels do not enter a house where there are paintings (of living beings). (Bukhâri)
Another source is the Quran’s ban on tamâthîl, statues used as pagan idols. Some scholars believe that tamâthîl means not just idols, but other realistic depiction of humans in image or sculpture, while others disagree.
Obviously technologies for reproducing images have changed tremendously since the time of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. But are those changes all such a good thing? And are image-reproduction-technologies being put to constructive use?
Television seems to be inseparable from human images in virtually every culture. People seem drawn to the cathode-ray tube like moths to flame. They gaze worshipfully at the images of the faces and bodies of celebrities, who are sometimes called ‘idols’ because celebrity-worship is so much like idol-worship.
This celebrity-image-worship keeps people in a state of constant envy of the rich, beautiful faces and bodies they see indulging themselves on television. Women wish they could be as beautiful as these TV idols but know they are not. Men imagine that all women should be as beautiful as these perfect blemish-free images, and are led into dissatisfaction and temptation. Both sexes are brain-washed into craving consumer goods that are sold by associating brand-name products with images of beautiful, hedonistic people.
Correlation with Decline in Culture
Television also poses another subtler threat: It is slowly but surely destroying the culture of the written word. Neil Postman, discussing the imminent demise of literate American culture, writes:
Television may bring an end to the career of schoolteachers, since school was the invention of the printing press and must stand or fall on the issue of how much importance the printed word has. For four hundred years, schoolteachers have been part of the knowledge-monopoly created by printing, and they are now witnessing the breakup of that monopoly. (Technology, 10)
Americans’ lack of understanding of world events is partly the product of their less and less literate, more and more televisual culture.
Content and Usage
Muslims must revive the great tradition of Islamic learning and scholarship. The tradition is based on words and writing and books, not images. Perhaps the Islamic school of thought that bans human representational images is right, and that there is more harm than good in the use of those images. Or perhaps not; perhaps we simply need to avoid the arrogance of imagining that we can give life to the images we create. Perhaps we should just avoid making images of our idols. Perhaps television technology need not be considered ḥarâm or makrûh, its content should be.
Perhaps we just need to use it wisely and in moderation. I do keep very careful watch over my children’s use of our television set which is set up to get Arabic channels through Dish Network’s Arabic package. I hope that the good that comes from their exposure to Arabic, including a Qur’anic recitation channel, will, Inshâ’Allah, outweigh any potential negative influences of television.
In this as in other decisions, we must pray that we are on the right path, and do our best to seek and follow Allah’s guidance.