Clash between Spirituality and Materialism

Quranic solutions to overcoming excessive love of the world

We live in a society that is materialistic, yearns for more and more of things, physical pleasures, and fame. We know that in excess these can be destructive forces, how do we dampen them? Here I have selected a chapter, Surah Al-Kahf of the Glorious Quran that provides a powerful answer. This is from my new translation of the Quran, which will be published later this year, Insha Allah.

Surah Al Kahf was revealed between the Eighth and Tenth year of the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) mission. Its central theme is the contrast between spiritual and the material world, the paradox of the two, one permanent the other temporary, one mysterious and hidden, whilst the other manifest and superficial. We are tempted by the attractiveness, taste and the benefits of the material world but fail to recognise the importance of the spiritual life. This contrast is exemplified by five moving stories in the Surah, each one of them representing a feature of spiritual and material life. Each account from human history is followed by a terse and illuminating commentary which instils the love, the Majesty and Grandeur of Allah in the reader’s mind. Allah says, “Surely what is on Earth, We have made attractive in order that We may test, which of them does best deeds” (Al Kahf: 7).

The five stories are:

  1. The story of the sleepers of the cave. This is about young men of faith who were serious believers, unwilling to compromise their faith. They challenged the society’s evil, abandoned their families and loved ones to save their faith from an oppressive ruler. The story illustrates Allah’s power of resurrection, bringing dead to life and human loyalty and the power of faith.
  2. The story of the poor and the rich man draws attention to the attitude and the behaviour of the worldly man; proud, greedy, self-centered, and insensitive. The lesson taught is, “Wealth and children are beautiful decoration of this life. However, good deeds will remain with your Lord and become a source of excellent reward and hope” (Al Kahf: 46).
  3. The story of Prophet Adam and Satan explains the real cause of spiritual sickness, following Satan, the sworn enemy of humanity, who is the root cause of human misery, so beware of him.
  4. The fourth story is about Prophet Musa and Khidr, the sage who explains the paradox of outward actions and inner meanings; what appears to be harmful turns out to be beneficial, a loss becomes a gain. The story reinforces the proverbial saying, “A blessing in disguise”. Mohammed Asad observes, “The theme of spiritual awakening…is shifted to the plane of man’s intellectual life and his search after ultimate outward appearance and inner reality are shown to be vastly different so different that only mystic insight can reveal what is superficial and what is real”. The lesson is accept Allah’s will, since His plan is full of wisdom and follow the way of the blessed Messenger (peace be upon him).
  5. The story of Zul-Qarnayn, the mighty ruler of the East and West, counters the notion that the world must be abandoned for spiritual growth. It is not necessary to abandon the world to gain Paradise. What is needed is Allah-consciousness all the time.

What is the connection between the five stories?

These stories deal with five major types of trials and temptations of life that individuals face:

  1. The despotic leaders: The young men feared that the Emperor would forcefully convert them. Our faith too is always being challenged by the society around us, how well we face these trials, determines the strength of our faith. The protection is in the company of righteous people and to develop a strong and faithful community of believers around us.
  2. Wealth: The temptation of wealth is strong, man’s love for it is intense, and when it comes face-to-face with religious obligations, sometimes we succumb to our wealth, unable to sacrifice it, unable to spend it for good. The solution given here is, avoid attachment to the world.
  3. Temptations of Satan: Satan tempted our father and mother, Adam and Eve. He tempts us all the time. How can we protect ourselves from these temptations? Trust in Allah and always looking for His protection.
  4. Knowledge: Competence and skills can lead to arrogant behaviour, the protection against this is humility, recognising one’s weaknesses and the example of the humility of Musa is an excellent role model for us.
  5. Power and influence: Corrupts and leads people to commit atrocities and the protection against corruptive power is to be sincere and genuine in one’s desire to serve others.

In each of the five stories we see rivalry between good and evil, a tussle between right and wrong. These five types of trials are a thread that binds together these stories.

There is a lot of movement of people in Surah Al Kahf, people moving from place to place. The young men escape from the town and climb to the top of the mountain. Whilst in the story of the rich man and the pauper they walk to the orchard, in the case of Musa there is travelling by boat and foot, whilst the adventures of Zul-Qarnayn moving from East to West with his army are fascinating. Could the Quran be hinting to the fact that success lies in people moving from place to place and travelling? Goodness is promised in movement and searching for Allah’s gifts.