How much work is work enough?

2 April 2005

It is the culture that actually maketh the man – and there is something common to all cultures: work. Virtually all cultures and societies valorise work and in response, utopian idealists of past ages have sought, rather disastrously, to banish work from our lives by promising that by working very hard to create a socialist utopia in some nebulous future we can live lives of unadulterated hedonism. Utopian fiction is replete with these unrealistic projects going back to classical Greek times.

As Muslims, the exemplar of course is our Prophet, peace be upon him. In a famous hadith (tradition) he is reported to have kissed the callous hands of a companion who had come from the hard physical labour of felling a tree fro firewood, while his brother claimed to be at the mosque engaged in worship. The Prophet knew the spiritual value of a day’s work for his family and community.

Everyone deserves a decent living. Yet working to impress, achieve status and gain the right to conspicuous consumption goes against the ethos of our faith. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating a life completely devoid of modern conveniences, for it is part of our way of life to celebrate our blessings by a modest indulgence as a way of showing our gratitude to our Creator. We have to constantly strike the balance between overindulgence and miserliness both to ourselves, and to those we are morally bound to care for.

At the centre of this balancing act is the head of the household, who, in many societies is still the man. He is expected to be the embodiment of all the virtues – a man of superhuman qualities at once an ideal husband and a loving father, a ceaseless provider and a flawless role model. He does not help himself by creating the impression that he can handle all situations, and that it is only miracles that take a little longer with him. When the pressure to deliver on these promises grows to match the fantasy that he has created about himself, super-dad breaks down!

We have become too enamoured of the ostentatious life of the new globalised man epitomised by the rapper and megabuck sports celebrity. We have set the bar too high for our hardworking Ahmed, Ali or Hussein. He is dreaming his way up to the top, but failing to reach the target; he retreats into drugs, indolence and the general culture of irresponsibility. He no longer can captain his domestic ship through the tempestuous sea of contemporary life.

Chances are that our Joe Muslim might not have been tutored in the same ways of household leadership through religious teachings, education and an awareness of the modern world in which we are living. He is virtually lost without even knowing it. Muslim men are not alone in this struggle to find balance. This is a modern global archetype to be found in many societies and communities. The trouble is that Joe Muslim is often detached from the wider community. When he begins to get more involved in civil society, he might be able to mitigate his problems. Muslims have to learn to network and reach out to others. There is strength in male solidarity, which the Muslim male must rediscover.

Joe Muslim is capable of reinventing himself given the right conditions. But the starting point is education. What I do advocate is hard thinking on the part of Muslims on how to come out of this social bind, or as some have alleged, this disease. If we strongly feel that this is a widespread disease, then we have to find a cure, and as the famous hadith of the Prophet has it, every disease has a cure lurking somewhere, if only we look hard enough.

Sometimes the grass seems greener on the other side, but it’s not. Did you know that Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Mahatma Gandhi, despite being great thinkers, were irresponsible fathers? The former, in spite of writing a great book, Emile, on how to bring up children, abandoned his own and led a life of sheer hedonism, being constantly supported by wealthy European aristocratic women who were his serial lovers. As for the latter, his eldest son was a confirmed drunkard who staggered to his father’s funeral in a state of inebriation and got there when Gandhi had already been cremated. Perhaps Joe Muslim doesn’t have it so bad.

by Mohamed Bakari

This article was first published in the Fatherhood section of Q-News, Edition 355, April 2004,