The Consumption conundrum
The January Sales were once seen as permanent a fixture of the holiday period as any established religious ritual. Year after year you could guarantee to see the pictures of people bravely defying the cold weather camped out on street pavements days before the first morning of the Sale; the mad rush for heavily discounted electrical items and ladies handbags and thousands of shoppers laden with bags filled to the brim with Sale goods. Whilst this familiar sight is less common these days with the rise of Internet shopping and shops having all year round Sales, the buying and shopping frenzy shows no signs of slowing down.
Today, the societies we live in have found new ways to push the extremes of consumerism. Economist and Retail analyst Victor Lebow wrote an astute analysis in 1955, and nothing much has changed since: He said,
“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate”.
This culture and ritual of consumerism has gone so far that despite having the very latest in consumer and technological goods western society remains deeply unhappy, atomised and spiritually bankrupt which no endless browsing, shopping and consuming will erase.
The human cost of consumerism is very rarely ever spoken about but most people are vaguely aware of the fact that there are sweatshops in some of the poorest countries that churn out products day and night in order to feed the insatiable desire we have for more. Details of the practices of major companies producing everything from fashion to electronics are easy to find, yet millions still consume without question. The unsafe working conditions were highlighted with the collapse of the Rana plaza, Bangladesh, killing 1,135 people with 2,515 being injured. The Rana Plaza supplied some of the biggest retailers in Europe and The United States, including Primark and Walmart.
Aside from the human cost of consumerism there are myriad societal problems. The National debt in the UK is circa £1.7 trillion. The phenomenon of debt has become so ubiquitous that it has in recent times increased exponentially. In a six month period in 2015, Aviva Family Finances reported that personal debt went up by (on average) £4000 per household. Debt consumption grew massively at the beginning of 2016, hitting record levels. This was due to access to cheap and fast cash. The overwhelming majority of these loans were personal loans, meaning that the loans were used to buy commodities. Of those personal loans, the vast majority went on purchasing a new car. This increase in borrowing has been repeated across all forms of borrowing; store credit, credit cards and payday loans. The sharpest increase in debt consumption is in the run up to the mid Winter, Christmas festival, when there are days dedicated to superfluous spending. Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals are apparently too good to miss. Unfortunately this debt cycle will keep many people impoverished, with many of them committing suicide to escape from the debt they face.
The Islamic view towards spending and consumption is twofold; one, the Islamic Ahkam (rules) are a guide as to what we are permitted to buy and own and secondly, a broader mentality as to how we should view such material things. In origin, Muslims are permitted to purchase any item that is Halal even if it costs a lot of money. However, that doesn’t mean a believer should spend tens of thousands or millions on sports cars, private yachts and penthouses.
While we are given many examples of Sahabah (RA) and the Prophet ﷺ living extremely aesthetic lifestyles, there were also Sahabah (RA) who had a lot of wealth. Khalid bin Al Waleed (RA) was very well known to like finery, yet this did not stop him from being an incredible force for spreading Islam. Abdul Rahman ibn Auf (RA) was also well known for his immense wealth. It was what he did with it that counted. He did not consume for the sake of consuming. When The Prophet ﷺ asked for money for an expedition, Abdul Rahman ibn Auf (RA) was able to give 2000 dinars, half his wealth.
At the Battle of Tabuk Abdul Rahman ibn Auf (RA) was also able to give 200 ounces of Gold, to which Umar bin Al Khattab(RA) responded by saying that “I have (now) seen Abdur Rahman committing a wrong. He has not left anything for his family.” Clearly, Umar was trying to communicate that Abdul Rahman ibn Auf (RA) should not spend all his money on the Tabuk expedition. To which Abdul Rahman ibn Auf (RA) responded “I have left for them more than what I give and better.” “How much?” The Prophet ﷺ asked him. “What Allah (swt) and His Messenger ﷺ have promised of sustenance, goodness and reward,” replied Abdur Rahman ibn Auf (RA).
Islam does not view wealth or material possessions as evil, but an excessive consumption or acquisition of the very latest gadgets, designer brands or ‘must have’ clothes above and beyond one’s immediate needs should certainly be looked at.
Allah (swt) says,
وَلَا تُسْرِفُوا ۚ إِنَّهُ لَا يُحِبُّ الْمُسْرِفِينَ
“Don’t commit israaf (spending or going beyond the limits imposed by Islam); surely He does not like those who condone israaf.” [TMQ 7:31]
Greater encouragement is given not on spending money or acquiring possessions for oneself, but on giving to others in the form of charity, loans or business investment so that wealth is distributed and blessings are attained. On a state level, the Khilafah will ensure a strong and vibrant economy is in place that meets the basic needs of every individual whilst allowing those who wish to pursue life’s luxuries every opportunity.