“Virtue does not consist in whether you face towards the East or the West; virtue means believing in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets; the virtuous are those who, despite their love for it, give away their wealth to their relatives and to orphans and to the poor, and to travelers and those who ask for charity. The virtuous are those who set slaves free, and who attend to their prayers and pay the alms, and who keep their pledges when they make them, and show patience in hardship and adversity, and in times of distress. Such are the true believers; and such are the God-fearing.”
-The Qur’an 2:177
I’ve been struggling with this verse all day. It’s one of my favorite verses of the Qur’an, but it left me pondering an existential-crisis-inducing question.
How can you possibly be virtuous today?
In our post-industrial age of perpetual technological bombardment, is virtue even possible?
How do you find virtue in your actions in the endless cacophony of pop culture and superficiality?
Does virtue even matter? Or, as post-modern philosophers would argue, is the idea of virtue a nonsensical, moral boundary that can be dispensed with in our era after the supposed death of God?
Here, I disagree with the post-modernists, but that’s where my distress comes in.
Bad pun, sorry.
I consider one of the most important moments of my life to be the moment I stopped thinking personally and started thinking politically.
Politically meaning with regards to social relationships and social structures.
When I was around 15 or 16, I walked by a television that had been left on in an empty room. Immediately as I passed, on came one of those missionary evangelical Christian commercials.
“For the price of a cup of coffee, you can feed this child for a week.”
Despite the self-serving, imperialistic, evangelizing message of the commercial, it has influenced me more than perhaps any other single moment.
The images of the sick, impoverished children haunted me.
I suddenly realized that these were real people.
Not on some intellectual level, but on a true, deep, visceral level.
It made me ask the most important question that someone could possibly ask.
Why is it that children around the world are starving and are in need of a mere 65 cents in order to get food?
Why is it that my clothes are made (mostly) by poor women across the world, but never in my own country?
Why is it that so many innocent people are dying needlessly in wars across the globe?
But, more importantly,
Why is it that I’m not?
Today, nine years later, on the first day of Ramadan, I’m stuck asking those same questions.
The amount of money I give to charity is a pittance compared to my income. The shirt I’m wearing as I write this was made in India. Perhaps it was made in a city that I visited last year as a rich, white, awful tourist. And, as everyone knows from the news, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Honduras, The Central African Republic, Egypt, Myanmar, Thailand, Somalia, Mexico, Libya, Pakistan, Nigeria, Yemen, and South Sudan aren’t doing so hot right now.
That’s why being virtuous is important to me. How can you look at the world with callous indifference?
The United States is funneling money and weapons into Syria and Iraq.
This only makes sense if you consider the fact that the U.S. clearly wants the Syrian conflict to continue.
And why would the U.S. government ever want that?
Like an empire?
And how can you be virtuous when you live in the center of an empire at its peak?
George W. Bush’s State of the Union in 2002. I’ve had a difficult time watching that clip for years.
Something about it makes me want to cry.
I’m not sure whether it’s the fact that Bush said that in an apparently sincere way or if it’s the insidious policies he pursued that contrasted that statement. How do you say Muslims are people and then subsequently drop bombs on Muslim children?
Maybe it’s just the way he said “Allah“, as though we worship some alien god.
Maybe it’s all of those things simmering together in a minute of intense emotion.
Honestly, it’s not easy to be a Muslim and an American.
Not because I feel discriminated against. Not because I’ve ever felt the racist backlash against Muslims. Not because I’ve ever felt the micro-aggressions and evil glances for my attire.
But for me, the difficulty is reconciling my beliefs with how I live my life.
For me, the difficulty is in being virtuous.
How can you possibly be virtuous today?
As an American, the ability to live a virtuous life sometimes feels as though it has been stolen from me.
The taxes I pay go to funding militant groups and corrupt governments across the globe.
The gasoline I buy props up oppressive dictatorships and monarchies in the Middle East.
And any money I put into the economy by purchasing any item directly fuels this entire system of imperialism and capitalism.
It’s easy to feel helpless.
But for the next 29 days I will try my best to think deeply politically.
As a human being, thinking politically means opposing the structures and hierarchies that lead to mayhem, war, and genocide.
It means acting upon that base compassion for others and being mindful of your words and deeds.
It means recognizing the world as it is, but striving to continuously make it better.
This Ramadan is my fourth. It gets easier every year. From dawn to sunset, over a billion Muslims go without food or water.
In order to fulfill the divine injunction on all able Muslims to fast.
In order to remember the poor and the hungry.
In order to empathize with those who are suffering.
In order to increase self-reflection, humility, patience, kindness, and strength.
In order to find an outlet to be virtuous. Or at least to learn virtue.
In order to be like the Prophet Muhammad – may God’s peace and blessings be upon him.
In Surat al-Imran, the 3rd chapter of the Qur’an, it says:
“Say, ‘If you love God, follow me and God will love you and forgive you for your sins. God is most forgiving and most merciful.'” (3:31)
The goal is to be the best person you can be. If not, then why bother living?
On the first day of Ramadan, my true love gave to me some guidance when I felt lost.
InshaAllah, that will only continue.