Monday, August 24, 2009

Why Submission - and Islamic Thought - seem so Foreign to Western Thinking

Homer Simpson cursing his fate over lack of beer

Our Western world seems to be obsessed with winning. Try and be your best, we are told. Never give up. Fight for your dreams and ideals.

There is an air of invincible force over the North American spirit that thrives on obstacles and competition; everyone is always on the look-out for self-improvement. “Second-best” just doesn't cut it; it's the consolation price; it's the price invented for losers only.

Although these are great principles that can move forward both the individual and the nation, it also has its peculiar drawbacks. Success becomes often defined and measured by “material success.” Businessmen compete with each other in size and money. Athletes break their necks to break world-records. Bestsellers and blockbuster vie over how much cash they can bring in.

The other drawback exists in the limits we each face. Ignoring them does not make them go away. No matter how much time I may spend on learning an art that is contrary to my talents and abilities – such as drawing - I just won't succeed.

When people tell you, follow your vocation or that you are born for this or that occupation, they acknowledge that in theory, you can be whatever you want to be, but, in fact, you have a much narrower selection regarding your skills. The reality is that some things can be taught and learned while others you are born with.

Yet something that seems contrary to the Western spirit on a rather deep level is submission. Submission means losing control over the outcome and putting them into the hands of a higher power. It is used in religion to refer to God's will who is said to be behind all the major potentially life-changing decisions, the same way a president though democratically elected has (nearly) absolute power over the future of his (or her) citizens.

But many times we do find ourselves in the position of submission, whether we accept it or not. For example, when you apply for a job, the power structure lies on the side of the employer, and you need to submit to the final decision of the manager. No matter how invincible you think you are, no matter how convincing your act may be, like it or not, the manager has the final say in this matter.

Equally, in my own personal experience, I submit stories for publication. My submissions end up on the table of the “all-powerful god-like” editor who decides to publish it or not. Depending on how much pride I have, the rejection will hurt more. I can cry out that life is unfair, that the editor is an ignorant jerk, that nobody these days values a good and well-written story or that my story, plain and simply, sucks.

But since failure is frowned upon, I will keep trying and get into a vicious cycle of undermining the little confidence I had. In the best outcome I will throw out the story and write a much better one and have another crack at this presumably closed and prejudiced business.

When it comes to Islamic mentality, submission is a part of life as the word Islam itself means submission to the will of God. It does not mean that they see themselves as failures and are happy with it, but that they see a higher cause than themselves constantly interacting and maybe even interfering with their plans. When something does not work out the way they hoped, they will simply shrug and say it has been God's will. Fate interposed between my dreams and what is really the best for me, and Fate, or rather Allah, chose the latter. There is no bitter or hard feeling there but simple acceptance.

I personally believe that some things are not meant to be. There are indeed limits, call it fate, God, Allah, or destiny. You can hit your head against the wall as many times you like; it will stand firm in opposition and won't budge. To me a wise man would be flexible and simply steer away, that is go around the wall or simply make a U-Turn.

It does not have to be seen as failure nor done in low spirits. One would say I tried, and it did not work out because it was not supposed to happen. But I still have many other options more suitable for me right around the next corner. As the philosopher Leibniz states, what is providence in the mind is simply fate in the body.


Unknown said...

excellent post. i created a link.

Sean Jeating said...

Dropping by via Hans, and yes: Interesting thoughts.

Did you write viscous (dick-, zähflüssig; klebrig etc.) on purpose, in order to avoid "den Teufelskreis"?

J. Ray Rice said...


Thank you! I needed that!

Arash Farzaneh said...

Thank you very much for all your comments!

@Sean: It was a typo. Thank you for pointing it out ; )

faizalnizam said...

hello there..

I was impressed by this post. and the way how you analyze the submission as done by Muslim is not because of losing control but because we believe there is the highest power that control everything.

the thing is we cannot always get what we want because sometimes what we want is bad for us and what we don't want is actually a good one.

coming to your blog from Blog Explosion.

Fyzal's Territory

Nettychan said...

I've been looking for a philosophical blog to read for ages and I am delighted with this post!

There is such a huge part of life that is about submitting to and accepting things that are beyond our control.

Bourbon Girl said...

I've always had the thinking that things happen for a reason, the way they are meant to, and not everything is to be explained. I've also been known to be submissive in this sense. I give things up to the powers that be because I know I really do not have control, so it will be however it will be.

I think more people would be happy in life if they embraced this thinking. It's not just an Islamic idea. I think all religions have an element of this.


Joyuna said...

Very interesting post. I think Westerners, especially Americans, have a very individualistic way of thinking. I see it in my own thoughts and actions: As much as I dislike it, I often put myself and my own interests first, so I can come out on top. I also get very uncomfortable when I lose control of a situation. I think the idea of submission would be alien to many Americans.

Anonymous said...

excellent post. it's a a good reminder for me... whatever the outcome... persevere and be patient.