By Qussai and Elias
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
We like to think of ourselves as independent, with free will and self-determination outside the control of anyone else, but perhaps the environment and social paradigms in which we have live have a greater influence than we imagine.
In the Quran, Allah has highlighted the power of mediums in determining human behavior. A medium in this context is defined as a pervasive environment that collectively shapes people’s thoughts and actions, a paradigm or milieu or set of values shared by a society.
In the chapter of the poets (surat al-shu’arā), we learn from the stories of the prophets that different mediums, or environments, affected their people. Allah mentions the medium of authority between Moses and Pharaoh, the medium of heritage between Ibrahim and his people, the medium of social class between Noah and his people, the medium of power at the time of Hūd and his people, the medium of luxury at the time of Sāliḥ and his people, the medium of lust at the time of Lot, the medium of pure self-interest at the time of Shu’aib, and the medium of language and eloquence at the time of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon them.
After the narration of each story, Allah concludes with the same two verses:
إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَآيَةً ۖ وَمَا كَانَ أَكْثَرُهُم مُّؤْمِنِينَ وَإِنَّ رَبَّكَ لَهُوَ الْعَزِيزُ الرَّحِيمُ
Verily, in that is a sign, yet most of them were not believers. And your Lord is certainly the Almighty, the Merciful.
Surat al-Shu’arā 26:8-9
In the first verse, we can infer the power of mediums in shaping people’s behavior as most of them simply followed their society’s course rather than accept faith. In the second verse is the only medium that related to Allah directly: the divine values of monotheism.
It is amazing that each time monotheism is investigated, the path inevitably leads back to Ibrahim as he was the first to identify the Creator as the eternal medium. Everything else is temporary and dependent upon its Creator:
فَلَمَّا جَنَّ عَلَيْهِ اللَّيْلُ رَأَىٰ كَوْكَبًا ۖ قَالَ هَٰذَا رَبِّي ۖ فَلَمَّا أَفَلَ قَالَ لَا أُحِبُّ الْآفِلِينَ
When the night covered Ibrahim, he saw a star and he said: This is my Lord. When it faded away, he said: I do not like those that disappear.
Surat al-An’ām 6:76
Through his genius and the divine guidance bestowed upon him, Ibrahim disregarded every transient medium as a source of eternal truth. Mediums end or change by following a consistent natural pattern, a cycle of growth and decline, so we should base our thinking on the single source of these patterns instead the patterns themselves.
The delusion of transient mediums is very powerful as it plays only to the outward senses:
يَعْلَمُونَ ظَاهِرًا مِّنَ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا وَهُمْ عَنِ الْآخِرَةِ هُمْ غَافِلُونَ
They know only what can be seen in the worldly life, yet they are neglectful of the Hereafter.
Surat al-Rūm 30:7
They are so powerful that Allah has said most people will submit to them. Therefore, we need to know what the one true and eternal medium is, and how to break free from every other false medium.
The eternal medium is related to the unchanging attributes of Allah, and the ethical values of Islam that are derived from these divine attributes. As believers, we ought to take on the divine characteristics of Allah that are possible for us to emulate.
This idea is found in many of the Prophet’s sayings:
أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ طَيِّبٌ لَا يَقْبَلُ إِلَّا طَيِّبًا
O people, Allah is pure and he accepts only what is pure.
إِنَّ اللَّهَ رَفِيقٌ يُحِبُّ الرِّفْقَ
Verily, Allah is kind and loves kindness.
إِنَّ اللَّهَ جَمِيلٌ يُحِبُّ الْجَمَالَ
Verily, Allah is beautiful and loves beauty.
إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَرِيمٌ يُحِبُّ الْكَرَمَ وَجَوَادٌ يُحِبُّ الْجُودَ وَمَعَالِيَ الأَخْلاقِ
Verily, Allah is generous and loves generosity, he is magnanimous and loves magnanimity, and he loves exalted morals.
Faith in the eternal attributes of Allah is essential in monotheism, as they form the basis of the values we should accept and cherish. Indeed, the Prophet said that Allah has ninety-nine names and whoever preserves them well will enter Paradise.
In Surat al-Shu’arā, Allah shows us that humanity descends into deviancy once it starts basing their purpose in life on transient mediums such as power, luxury, and lust. In contrast, humanity is elevated to a higher way of life when purpose is based upon eternal truths such as justice, mercy, and charity.
Leaving a transient medium unchallenged threatens everyone who lives in it, even if they are not interacting with it directly. For the power of false mediums is very subtle and failure to actively resist them only ensures that people will fall victim to them. Trials and tribulations that result from empty paradigms ultimately affect everyone in society:
وَاتَّقُوا فِتْنَةً لَّا تُصِيبَنَّ الَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا مِنكُمْ خَاصَّةً
Beware of a trial that will not only afflict those who did wrong among you.
Surat al-Anfāl 8:25
Within this context, it is from the mercy of Allah that certain mediums are limited, although people seek continuously to expand them:
وَلَوْ بَسَطَ اللَّهُ الرِّزْقَ لِعِبَادِهِ لَبَغَوْا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَلَٰكِن يُنَزِّلُ بِقَدَرٍ مَّا يَشَاءُ
If Allah had extended provision for his servants, they would have committed tyranny throughout the earth, yet he sends it down in an amount that he wills.
Surat al-Shu’arā 42:27
On the other hand, when Allah intends to punish a group of people he lets them indulge in a transient medium:
وَإِذَا أَرَدْنَا أَن نُّهْلِكَ قَرْيَةً أَمَرْنَا مُتْرَفِيهَا فَفَسَقُوا فِيهَا فَحَقَّ عَلَيْهَا الْقَوْلُ فَدَمَّرْنَاهَا تَدْمِيرًا
If We intend to destroy a city, We command its affluent but they defiantly disobey therein. Thus, the word is proven true upon it and We utterly destroy it.
Surat al-Isrā 17:16
Pursuing a paradigm shift towards divine values is the only way to protect ourselves and society at large from the destructive forces of entropy emanating from a false set of values.
The medium in science
Social scientists and phycologists have studied the power of such mediums. Marshall McLuhan, regarded by many as the greatest social scientist in the 20th century, explored human history through the lens of the mediums and came to the conclusion that the medium is the message. In other words, technology and environment powerfully shape our perceptions and behavior.
McLuhan’s research focused on the phonetic alphabet as the greatest invention of humanity through which speech was preserved in symbolic form. He was able to detect the behavior and thoughts of groups of people throughout history based upon whether they used phonetic alphabets or not, and what mediums they used in their communication (oral, reading, writing, printed press, TV, radio, social media, etc.).
Disconcertingly, he predicted that the information age as a medium, with its powerful global communication tools, would return humans to a tribal mentality by the formation of strong insular networks and the weakening of broader cosmopolitan sentiments. As McLuhan found out, people become cogs in the much larger machine of the medium, so by studying the mediums we can more accurately predict social trends and behavior.
Allah mentions in the Quran that the medium is so powerful that people will tend to regress back to it even after they know it is wrong. The negative influences of false values are so pervasive, and the human soul so forgetful, that many people go back to the old ways, despite experiencing a brush with death that makes the transient nature of the medium clear to them:
وَإِذَا أَذَقْنَا النَّاسَ رَحْمَةً مِّن بَعْدِ ضَرَّاءَ مَسَّتْهُمْ إِذَا لَهُم مَّكْرٌ فِي آيَاتِنَا ۚ قُلِ اللَّهُ أَسْرَعُ مَكْرًا ۚ إِنَّ رُسُلَنَا يَكْتُبُونَ مَا تَمْكُرُونَ هُوَ الَّذِي يُسَيِّرُكُمْ فِي الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ ۖ حَتَّىٰ إِذَا كُنتُمْ فِي الْفُلْكِ وَجَرَيْنَ بِهِم بِرِيحٍ طَيِّبَةٍ وَفَرِحُوا بِهَا جَاءَتْهَا رِيحٌ عَاصِفٌ وَجَاءَهُمُ الْمَوْجُ مِن كُلِّ مَكَانٍ وَظَنُّوا أَنَّهُمْ أُحِيطَ بِهِمْ ۙ دَعَوُا اللَّهَ مُخْلِصِينَ لَهُ الدِّينَ لَئِنْ أَنجَيْتَنَا مِنْ هَٰذِهِ لَنَكُونَنَّ مِنَ الشَّاكِرِينَ فَلَمَّا أَنجَاهُمْ إِذَا هُمْ يَبْغُونَ فِي الْأَرْضِ بِغَيْرِ الْحَقِّ ۗ يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّمَا بَغْيُكُمْ عَلَىٰ أَنفُسِكُم ۖ مَّتَاعَ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا ۖ ثُمَّ إِلَيْنَا مَرْجِعُكُمْ فَنُنَبِّئُكُم بِمَا كُنتُمْ تَعْمَلُونَ
When We give the people a taste of mercy after adversity has touched them, at once they conspire against Our verses. Say: Allah is swifter in strategy. Verily, Our messengers record that which you conspire. It is He who enables you to travel on land and sea until, when you are in ships and they sail with them by a good wind and they rejoice therein, there comes a storm and the waves come upon them from everywhere and they assume that they are surrounded, supplicating to Allah sincerely in religion and saying: If You would but save us from this, we will surely be grateful! But when He saves them, at once they commit injustice upon the earth without right. O people, your injustice is only against yourselves, merely the enjoyment of worldly life. Then to Us is your return, and We will inform you of what you used to do.
Surat Yunus 10:21-23
The medium might even take precedence over the tribal or communal loyalties we might expect.
Adam Grant in his book Originals reports a fascinating study in which minorities are more likely to betray their own people in hopes of conforming to the medium of the majority power. This phenomenon has been observed throughout history, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin that fictionalized the cooperation of some Africa slaves in racist slavery or some colonial subjects who benefitted from imperialism at the expense of the locals. Ironically, the oppressed are just as inclined to repeat the same injustices as their oppressors. After all, both the oppressor and oppressed are living within the dominant social environment of injustice that shapes them.
Hence, the reality is that giving immediate authority to people recently freed from oppression is dangerous, as a period of rehabilitation is required until such people can conform to divine values. Even if they had been harmed by the medium, they still lived within it, were shaped by it, and must consciously reject it. We can infer this wisdom in the lives of many Prophets, as Moses came of age away from the Egyptian elite, Jesus came of age outside the hierarchy of the Pharisees, and Muhammad would often seclude himself in the cave of Hira away from the vanities of worldly life. Their time away from negative social environments helped them to internalize divine values and subsequently lead the reform of their societies.
The solution to transient mediums
How can we break free from dominant negative social paradigms? To find a solution we need to look at how they take over in the first place. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow explored how our minds operate with respect to different mediums. Our minds think in two ways. The first system is a process of snap judgments, thinking on “auto-pilot,” as if saying what you see is all there is. The second system relies on methodical and rational analysis, looking at deeper realities beyond what appears on the surface. To break free from a false medium, then, we need to apply the second and higher way of thinking.
The brilliance of Ibrahim is that he escaped the false medium of his people by applying a higher way of thinking, of reflecting rationally upon the patterns of creation. This requires more energy and effort and sometimes sleepless nights, but the only way to see the eternally true and divine medium is to investigate beyond superficial appearances. Allah endowed us with reason and intellect in order to use them, not to suppress them or ignore them.
If we understand this point, then we can use this knowledge to affect change at various levels of society. At the political level, we need to understand that unjust rulers are merely a symptom of the greater unjust paradigm that dominates society. Pharaoh was powerful and was worshiped as a god in ancient Egypt, not because he had this power within himself, but because he misled people and the masses supported him:
فَاسْتَخَفَّ قَوْمَهُ فَأَطَاعُوهُ ۚ إِنَّهُمْ كَانُوا قَوْمًا فَاسِقِينَ
So he fooled his people and they obeyed him. Verily, they were defiant sinners.
Surat al-Zukhruf 43:54
Oppressive rulers only reflect the desires of their people, as Ibn Al-Qayyim writes:
فإن ساتقاموا استقامت ملوكهم وإن عدلوا عدلت عليهم وإن جاروا جارت ملوكهم وولاتهم
If the people are upright, then their kings will be upright. If they are just, then they will be just with them. If they are tyrannical, then their kings and authorities will be tyrannical with them.
Thus, the method of reform is not to decapitate the head of the monster, as some people think. The unjust medium is like a hydra; if you cut off one head, another quickly grows in its place. If you remove or assassinate an unjust ruler, then there are still a hundred other tyrants waiting in line for his throne.
On the contrary, true political change can only occur from the bottom-up at the grass-roots level. If the people accept the true eternal medium, the ethical values of divine revelation, then they will not tolerate a tyrant and they will nominate a leader who will uphold their values.
Whatever problem we are confronted with, we first have to investigate the medium or social paradigm that underpins it and controls it. Changing the medium and replacing it with the true medium is the only lasting way to solve the problem. Any other method of social reform is destined to fail, as it only treats the symptoms while ignoring the underlying disease.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.