In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Populism is sweeping the globe as tribalist and nativist movements are turning their societies inward and against their perceived enemies from within and without. Some of them claim their ends, or their goals, are only pure and fair, but the immoral means they use belie their claim. But what is the relationship of means and ends in Islam?
In monotheism, integrity of the Creator is a corner stone proof of his unchallenged dominance. The Creator’s integrity manifests itself in that all that he creates is built upon the same consistent set of universal values and natural laws. Means or methods that contradict universal values not only violate our integrity, they are themselves unnatural. Nature will never fully comply with violations of universal or eternal values as nature is built upon them.
This tenant of monotheism – the Creator’s integrity and consistency – is clearly communicated in Allah’s names and attributes. It also leads to results that are always consistent with the means. For example, we can never arrive at the truth if we follow false means or methods. The means will lead us towards falsehood in this case; the medium we use itself dictates the end, not ourselves. We can only change the results if we accept another medium, for each medium has its results already assigned.
This assignment of ends to means, based on integrity, is what Allah describes as him leading this life from behind (i.e. without being seen):
وَمَا كَانَ لِبَشَرٍ أَن يُكَلِّمَهُ اللَّهُ إِلَّا وَحْيًا أَوْ مِن وَرَاءِ حِجَابٍ أَوْ يُرْسِلَ رَسُولًا فَيُوحِيَ بِإِذْنِهِ مَا يَشَاءُ ۚ إِنَّهُ عَلِيٌّ حَكِيمٌ
It is not for any human being that Allah should speak to him directly except by revelation or from behind a veil or that he sends a messenger to reveal, by His permission, whatever he wills. Verily, he is Most High and Wise.
Surat al-Shura 42:51
Understanding this integrity in monotheism is enough of a justification to reject an immoral means of action regardless of its declared goal. As Martin Luther King Jr., the great civil rights leader, said, “Means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”
The results of any means we use is always in the future, but the integrity of the Creator demands that an end goal must not be contradicted by the means used to achieve it. The means and ends in life are already connected and cannot be separated. Thus, the will of Allah is present in any pure and wholesome means we use to achieve our goals, as he is the one who connected them in this way:
وَمَا تَشَاءُونَ إِلَّا أَن يَشَاءَ اللَّهُ رَبُّ الْعَالَمِينَ
And you do not will except that Allah wills, the Lord of the worlds.
Surat al-Takwir 81:29
Failure to understand and have true faith in monotheism results in the employment of immoral means to achieve a legitimate goal. This is like those who use violent terrorist operations in an otherwise legitimate struggle against oppression. The end result of terrorism is always evil, regardless of what was intended by it.
As soon as we choose a means, the ends are outside our control. The only way to change the end is to change the means we used to arrive at it. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ has also declared that our work is based on what has already been divinely decreed and the “ink” has already dried:
رُفِعَتْ الْأَقْلَامُ وَجَفَّتْ الصُّحُفُ
The pens have been lifted and the pages have dried.
We cannot change the ends assigned to each mean; we can only accept the divine decree by seeking out means that will march towards our desired ends.
This understanding restricts our freedom of choice to the means we embark upon. It also enables us to anticipate the future based upon our current behavior. References in Islam to archeology and past nations are insightful in this respect. They thought that they had control over their destiny, but it was already determined by the means they were engaged in.
Populist movements often espouse extreme views when they declare a noble and legitimate cause, but pursue it through immoral means. What they forget is the ends are the means and the means are the ends.
The impact of the means or mediums on political discourse was predicted by Neil Postman in his book Amusing ourselves to death. The author is an educator, not a political expert, yet he accurately predicted the political discourse we are witnessing 30 years before it took place. His prediction was based on focusing on the means of information and how those means will affect human psychic.
Postman observed that the electric medium (TV, at that time, and social media now) have two distinct factors. First, they provide a fragmented view that does not require consistency from any TV figure. As we watch any TV episode (or Youtube video), it manages to fold time within a limited duration. This gives the illusion that we understand all of the story without diligent investigation.
Second, the electronic medium is instantaneous. Information is not given enough time to settle before we receive a second wave of information that distracts our attention. The instant nature of the electronic age favors the senses over reason, as senses are immediate and reason takes time to formulate.
With such means to convey information, these means already defined what the ends are in that nearly all discourse is a now form of entertainment. Entertainment is a sensational experience that does not require consistency from the events or actors in place. In other words, a fragmented and instant medium of information can provide nothing but entertainment. Even a scientific program through those means is a form of entertainment, Postman notes.
There is no doubt that the current US election cycle has been a form of entertainment and showmanship for many, in which truth matters little or not at all. However, the nature of the electronic discourse has far more reaching consequences than just politics. The current factless discourse has already determined an end for us based upon the current means.
The ends of this age have already been predicted by Aldous Huxley in his famous novel Brave New World. He envisioned a terrifying world full of entertainment, and lack of truth and integrity. Postman put it in his words as, “Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”
Furthermore, he says “the clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation.” In light of this, he suggests that suppressing visual information can be a way to activate the mind in the pursuit of truth:
In studying the Bible as a young man, I found intimations of the idea that forms of media favor particular kinds of content and therefore are capable of taking command of a culture. I refer specifically to the Decalogue, the Second Commandment of which prohibits the Israelites from making concrete images of anything.
In Islam, the suppression of visuals is also accompanied by the commandment of reading as a means to encourage the use of reason.
We cannot escape the fate of being influenced by different mediums, but we can choose which mediums we will be shaped by. If we seek an end that is true, we have to look for a means or medium of truth. From this viewpoint, the idea of “ends justify the means” is naïve and corrupted. Those who do not understand the integrated nature of means and ends act in ignorance; those who do understand act in malice.
We have heard about the story of Robin Hood, who robs from the rich and gives to the poor. Perhaps it works in fables, but in real life the means of theft can never produce positive results. Once we start associating stealing with good, it does not take much more to make us justify theft in other contexts.
What is concerning for us is that those who live among false mediums and evil means will bear their consequences, even if they do not participate in them. As the Prophet said:
كَلَّا وَاللَّهِ لَتَأْمُرُنَّ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَلَتَنْهَوُنَّ عَنْ الْمُنْكَرِ وَلَتَأْخُذُنَّ عَلَى يَدَيْ الظَّالِمِ وَلَتَأْطُرُنَّهُ عَلَى الْحَقِّ أَطْرًا وَلَتَقْصُرُنَّهُ عَلَى الْحَقِّ قَصْرًا
No, by Allah, you must enjoin good and forbid evil, seize the hand of the oppressor, make him follow the truth, and restrict him to what is right.
We have a collective responsibility, then, to not only use just and pure means ourselves but also to encourage others around us to do the same.
Monotheism, properly understood, teaches us to see the integrated whole in all creation; in our social context, to recognize the close relationship between means and ends. Some who claim monotheism, such as Muslims who resort to illegitimate violence or Christians who support a politician who openly lies, cheats, and abuses others. They claim that their ends are pure, but the means they choose only ensure that the ends will be disastrous.
Populism of this variety threatens the peace all over the world. It is the populism of passion, not reason, that entices the crowd and the mob towards collective action against perceived enemies. Only a return to reason – and to reading – can society break free from the grip of “infotainment” and the pettiness it engenders. Life isn’t a game show or reality TV; it’s a serious matter. And when passion rules over reason, Satan steals the show.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.