x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Making sense of the world before the eschaton

Contrary to popular notions of progress, the world is winding down. Human nature is not "virtually the same" and the future is not - in every way - superior to yesterday.

No surprises. "This is not your grandfather's world," the advertisement might read. Contrary to popular notions of progress, the world is winding down. Human nature is not "virtually the same" and the future is not - in every way - superior to yesterday. Although we have definitely increased in the quantity of our things, and the human services on tap for the fortunate have been amplified, the world has become a less human place. For example, we are now able to kill more people with the push of a single, unfeeling, unbothered button than ever before. Progress!

"Man is born free, yet everywhere in chains," Rousseau bemoaned. Perhaps his enlightenment project broke material chains for many, but today, still more people than ever continue on in the chains of diversion. And in this state of diversion, by 24-hour cable, tabloid culture, 401Ks, positive psychology and all the news that's fit to "digitise", he is commodified. He becomes a tool, an object, a "resource", a cog in someone else's industry.

The signs mentioned by the Prophet Mohammed, that we have reached the end of history have begun. Fukuyama got that much right. The part about the last man being an executive at Lehman Brothers didn't work out so well, though. We continue to experience a state of loss in the environment, both human and natural. This, along with the turning on its head of once familiar virtue and principle, combines to give the feeling of a silent barren vacuum. It is enough, in the words of Mohammed, the son of Abdullah, "to leave a gentle man confused". Ethics become a "talking point".

We are witnessing a time of hyper-individualism that promotes a self-first ideology with disregard to the public good. The Prophet said: "When you see greed obeyed, every passion pursued, the material world prioritised, and every opinionated person self-impressed with his own opinion, you are advised to keep to yourself and avoid public affairs; because before you are days that will require great patience."

We live at a time in which truth and falsehood are deceptively blurred and public discourse is characterised by flagrant immaturity. To this the Prophet intimated, "a deceptive time will overtake the people, when a liar will be considered truthful; and an honest person will be branded a liar. The treacherous person will be trusted, the trustworthy branded deceitful; and the 'ruwaybidah' will speak." Who are the ruwaybidah they asked? "A superficial man who pontificates on public affairs," he answered.

In another statement, he foreshadowed, "woe to the Arabs for a troubling discord that draws near like a portion of dark night. A man will awake a believer and go to bed a disbeliever. He sells his religion for some cheap trinket of the world." He spoke glowingly to his companions, of those with courage enough to stick to what is wholesome and maintain right action in times to come. "For those among them who would make an effort to do good will be the reward of 50 of you." To which they questioned: "Do you mean of us or of them?"

"Of you," he replied, "because you find help to do what is good and they will find no help to do what is good." I don't mean to paint a grey portrait of our times, but only to say that happiness is not found in things. The quality of life is not in mechanics, technology, stock options or by-laws; instead it is in meaning and being grounded in your centre. The adulation of celebrity cannot replace the warmth of family. These are meanings that are timeless.

Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi