Way back in the Palaeolithic era of 2007, a summer of anticipation lead to the unveiling of the world’s first iPhone. Steve Jobs took to the global stage to present his humble offering to lovers and haters alike. This was a world before the App store and before the rise of social media. The phone was basically a glorified iPod touch with phone calling features, it only had 2G capacity and the camera was a mere 2 megapixels.
Regardless, many a fiery debate was taking place. “No way will you catch me blowing £500 on a fad, that’s so mainstream”. The final two words were spat out like a surprise cardamom pod in your biryani. This was followed by “I’m sticking with Android, I’m counter culture”. In a world of throwaway capitalism, we create our own ideas around what is mainstream versus what is edgy and ‘different’? Ironically, they’re both products on the same shelf.
“Android is hardly counter-culture is it?”, I began gently. “Counter-culture would surely be not owning a phone at all… or maybe finding a Nokia 5110 fossil on eBay?”
The values, ideas and foundational beliefs of your society make up ‘mainstream’ attitudes. Being counter to that runs deeper than things like donning a pair of Doc Martens or getting a face piercing.
True counter-culture is to fundamentally live by a values system which is not affected, eroded or compromised by the fleeting winds of ‘today’s world’.
And in this spirit, it is impossible to miss that every single Prophet in our tradition spoke to communities who were fundamentally opposed to their message at the core. Their mission was to completely uproot the core beliefs people accepted as standard and counter it. They got to the heart of prevailing attitudes and displaced them with the unpopular, socially challenging and ‘unprofitable’ messages of Tawheed. The last and most blessed of all the Prophets, Muhammad sal Allahu alayhi wa salam, was no exception to this. He personified the essence of counter-culture in its truest, most profound manner.
Here are some of the ways that true counter-culture manifested despite the hostile and homogenous norms of the age:
Muhammad: A Prophet who defied Orthodoxy
- In a time where lineage and clan protection was everything, Muhammad found himself orphaned and then passed from the care of an aged grandfather to an uncle. He tasted vulnerability at his earliest ages.
- In a time where society was consumed with tribal scuffles, blood feuds and factions looking out for ‘their own’, Muhammad saw through the utter injustice of these loyalties and resisted aligning with anyone.
- In a time where the youth and elders alike were given to rampant alcoholism, womanising, gambling and wiling away evenings in live “poetry grand slam” shows to mock others, Muhammad would often take leave. He found comfort in the outskirts of the city where he would retreat to meditate alone. He knew there was more to life than hedonism and needed relief from its ugly impact on society.
- In a time where women were considered inferior to men in all public dealings, Muhammad gratefully took on the job of delivering trade goods for an older, socially-powerful female boss.
- In a time where “worthy women” for marriage were young, submissive and unmarried virgins, Muhammad accepted a marriage proposal from this same female boss. An incredible woman, 25 years his senior, previously widowed and with children. He never found bliss in marriage like it ever again.
- In a time where your worth in society had to be matched with your material possessions, Muhammad lived throughout Prophethood in a home where “fire would not be kindled for a month” as he and his family subsisted on water and dates.
- In a time where people were quick to draw distinctions between “them and us”, Muhammad modelled respectful conduct: When a funeral procession passed in front of Muhammad, he stood for it. His companion asked him quizzically “He is a Jew?” (i.e.: not one of “us” Muslims) to which Muhammad confidently replied “Was he not a living soul?”
- In a time where animals were not considered as having rights to any degree, Muhammad ensured their careful and ethical treatment. When asked whether there was reward for serving the animals, he immediately confirmed “There is reward for serving any living being”.
- In a time where the brute force of hyper-masculinity was celebrated as the highest achievement of a man, Muhammad drew people’s attention to what true strength was: “The strong man is not the one who is strong in wrestling, but the one who controls himself in anger”.
- In a time where gender roles were considered to have very little overlap, Muhammad was a practical and involved member of his household. His wife commented “He was like any other human being, cleaning and mending his garment, milking the goat, mending his shoes, serving himself and being of service to the family until he heard the call for prayer- then he would go out and pray in the mosque”.
- In a time where neighbours were seen as an inconvenience, Muhammad emphasised their rights and the need for attentive community relations saying “the one who sleeps contentedly while his neighbour sleeps hungry is not one of us.”
- In a time where dark-skin was used as a method of insult and the “pure” blood of certain ethnicities was celebrated, Muhammad worked tirelessly to eliminate race-consciousness to the point where he chose race as his final topic when speaking publicly before his passing:
“An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab and a non-Arab has no superiority over an Arab. Also a white person has no superiority over a black person, nor does a black person have any superiority over a white person- except by piety and good action…Do not therefore, do injustice to yourselves.”
- In a time where the idea of One God was not profitable enough and people preferred to make idols in their own images instead (either physical or through their self-love), Muhammad eagerly drew everybody’s attention back to God alone and the numerous paths to His Pleasure:
“God has mercy on those who are merciful. If you show mercy to those who are on the earth, He Who is in heaven will show mercy to you.”
Truly living on a different path…
As believers, we often feel we live in a world which can run counter to the most basic aspects of our goals as Muslims. We live in a society of instant gratification, but work for a life to commence after we leave earth. We live in the age of ‘me’ and ‘ego’, yet we know the secret of sincerity are deeds done in secret, guarding them from public view, let alone praise. We live with physical needs and desires, yet strive to access spiritual aspirations. We live with eternal souls, encased in the transient mortal shells of our bodies.
It’s time to get comfortable living, growing and committing to what is ‘counter’ when the ‘mainstream’ of the age rips you, not so subtly, away from the path we need for spiritual success. All the Prophets walked this path, facing greater loss than we could imagine. Truly being counter-culture is to interrogate the assumptions your society is based upon and realign it according to the needs of your soul. There you will plug into a spiritual sukoon worth more than any fleeting pleasure this world can throw our way.