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STRANGE NEW WORLD

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By Mahvesh Murad

In Rachel Heng’s debut, Suicide Club: A Novel About Living, Lea is a “lifer”, a person predicted at birth to live a few centuries with the help of augmented artificial body parts that she must maintain with a steady diet of Nutripacks, Swimlates and visits to the clinics where her organs are kept in optimal condition. In a near future Manhattan, so sanitary and controlled that it may be Singapore next year, Lea lives her life in a series of steady repetitions: work at a high-end organ trading firm, love with a high-end fiancé, plans of a high-end future. Until she spots her estranged father on the street one day, many decades after he left his family and vanished, forever labelled an “antisanct” for having rejected his longevity and the society.

Meanwhile, there is Anja, another lifer who has to watch her mother continue to live as a shell, as her misaligned artificial organs shut down slowly one by one, leaving her a comatose, brain-dead body that is literally fading even though its artificial heart does not stop beating. There is no way out for Anja’s mother, for suicide is illegal, as is assisted suicide. In fact, it’s near impossible to even murder a lifer, given the endurance of their augmented bodies. There is, it seems, no way out of this life once you are born into it.

Anja and Lea meet at a group set up to help people with suicidal thoughts, but this leads them to the actual Suicide Club, where a group of lifers are choosing to live the way they did before this change — eating meat, drinking alcohol, finding a way to end their lives at their chosen time. It’s a dissent, a rebellion against the existing system, and Lea and Anja have to work out who they are and what they really want from this seemingly endless existence. It’s almost strange that there isn’t more of an uprising already, that there haven’t been more rebels against the system. The sheer mundanity of the world of this book should have driven hundreds of people to madness or despair or suicide. Of course, that’s where the titular Suicide Club comes in, but it almost feels like too little too late.

Is this a story about family, about choosing how to live and how to die? Yes. Is it a story about rebelling against societal pressures and the obsession with ‘wellness’ and longevity at all costs? Yes. Is it a story about two women finding a friendship that helps them grow into who they are meant to be, while helping each other vanquish their demons? Yes. Did this narrative need much stronger worldbuilding? Also yes. This is a book that wants to be Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. It wants to be George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it wants to be Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Eventually, when it realises it cannot be any of these, it tries to be Thelma and Louise. But it isn’t capable, it isn’t whole enough.

If you suspend your disbelief for long enough, you can possibly imagine that everyone is heavily brainwashed into believing that living longer is what they truly want, which would be an apt commentary on life today. It also seems that if you get to live longer, you get to astronomically live better as well. You are a member of higher society, you have more “benefits.” How this society actually functions, though, is not very clear. What is the economy based on? How does the government operate? Who even is in the government? When Lea is placed on some sort of suicide prevention watch after she accidentally steps into the road as a car passes, she finds herself being tailed by two “Ministry” men in suits, known only by their initials, whose only job seems to be noting down the minutiae of her life. What is their purpose? Even they don’t seem to know. Is everything deliberately left blank? Is the point for us to think that the government gives people mindless things to do just to keep them occupied for 300 years?

“Did you know the latest SmartBlood(tm) clots in less than a millisecond? DiamondSkin(tm) that will withstand not just the force of a car, as yours will, but a fall of 80 floors.” … “I could jump off right now and they could put me back together again.” — Excerpt from the book

In Suicide Club, America has figured out how to extend lifespans via a test done at birth to see who will be a lifer or not. Is this a sort of Apgar test for genes? Heng does not explain. Why does being a lifer still mean constant body maintenance and replacement of organs with synthetic ones? Is there something in the lifers’ genetic makeup that lets them get body part replacements that the “sub-lifers” can’t? Leave even that aside — why are so many lifers clamouring for immortality if all it offers is an endless entrapment in the same dead-end job while being obsessed with how youthful they look? So that they can eventually be immortal? Yes, it’s a reflection of our world today, but in Heng’s world, relationships, families, friendships — none of these things exist; just a desire to live forever.

The only people who seem to want more are the strangely stilted, supremely rich members of the Suicide Club who try to live a “trad” — traditional — life before choosing when to die. Is there a grand conspiracy of large scale societal brainwashing that makes almost everyone want to live a superficial life forever? Are they secretly being used as batteries for an alien race, a la The Matrix? It would actually make more sense if they were. It’s hard to tell if the incongruity in Suicide Club is a planned absurdism in the narrative, or just another weak link in the worldbuilding.

Suicide Club: A Novel About Living

By Rachel Heng

Henry Holt and Co., US

ISBN: 978-1250185341

352pp.


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Opinion

Reviving Muslim Intellectual Position in the World

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By MANSOOR ALAM

According to the Quran a nation cannot hope to recover from its abyss unless it changes its inner self (called Nafs) by the Quran). Stopgap measures or doing patch-up job only to treat the symptoms (as many Muslim leaders seem to advocate) would only prolong suffering and would not cure the disease. A nation needs a fundamental change in its outlook, in its psychology, and in its attitude if it truly wants to change its destiny. The Quran says:

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? (13:11) – Allah does not change the condition of a people unless they change their inner selves. This is Allah’s law of change (8:53).

This change is required because a people going through a period of downfall suffer from slavish mentality: “They have hearts wherewith they understand not, eyes wherewith they see not, and ears wherewith they hear not. They are like cattle, – nay more misguided: for they are heedless (of warning).” (7:179)[Yusuf Ali]
A nation suffering from the mental maladies mentioned in the above verse cannot hope to recover its power of original thinking without changing its inner self. And without the power of original thinking, a nation that is down and being pushed around, as we are, cannot acquire power over its own world let alone acquiring power over the forces of the outer world.

Our individual scientific achievements, although worthy of appreciation, are without a central cohesive organization and really do not count much as far as recapturing the Muslim nation’s lost glory is concerned. These individual Muslim achievements are part of the grand scheme of whatever organization (for example, NASA) they may happen to be working for. For Muslim scientific achievements to be effective (like producing their own space shuttle), there needs to be an organizational structure that is organically related to the body of the Muslim Ummah, which possesses unique life of its own and not dependent on others.

One way to achieve glory in science is through the philosophy of secularism being practiced by the West. The West achieved its scientific prowess only after giving God and Caesar their separate dues, and by assigning them two separate arenas of human thought: one for scientific thinking – done by people of science, and the other for religious thinking – done by people of religion. One was not allowed to interfere with the other. Religious people took charge of the Church and its hierarchy, and the science people took charge of Science and its hierarchy – resulting in polarized society.

Therefore, if we are serious about changing our condition then we need to analyze our current situation. No matter how many Islamic conferences and workshops we organize and attend—and proclaim Allahu Akbar (Allah is Great!); no matter how many Hajj pilgrimages we perform and chant AllahummaLabbaik (O Allah! Here I am); no matter how much we pray and fast and recite the holy Quran; no matter how much we praise our Prophet (PBUH) and his companions; no matter how much we ask Allah to improve our condition; things will not improve for the Muslim Ummah— although all of the above are important—if we continue to tread the same path we have been on for the past thousand years, ever since we lost our preeminent position in the world of knowledge.

Our actions speak louder than our words. Our past actions have brought misery and consequent collapse of our knowledge base. If all we do is try to preserve our status quo, then how can we expect to recapture the glory of our historic achievements? How can simply repeating words (even if they are Quranic words) and performing religious rituals (even if done with sincerity) uplift us intellectually in this world? Intellectual advancement of any community requires hard work, dedication, conviction, commitment, organization, discipline, perseverance, creativity, innovation, and, above of all, unity of purpose and harmony in efforts.

Are we as a Muslim Ummah doing these things or simply claiming to be ‘practicing’ Muslims by performing the five pillars as a ritual while all the time trying—individually—to move up the economic or political or professional ladder? Why would Allah change our condition when we treat Islam as a ritual and are mostly interested in personal advancement? This is simply not the way of Allah. As noted above we need to make some fundamental changes in our outlook and psychology if we are serious about reclaiming our lost knowledge base (13:11).

But what is knowledge? This question is not as obvious as it seems. The Prophet (PBUH) used to constantly pray: “O Allah! Advance me in knowledge (20:114).” This means that knowledge is something special and sacred in its own right; and that advancing in knowledge is a challenge in which even our Prophet (PBUH) sought Allah’s help.

It is the duty of every Muslim therefore to acquire knowledge throughout life—so much so that on the Day of Judgment we will be held accountable for it. “And pursue not that of which thou hast no knowledge; for every act of hearing, or of seeing or of (feeling in) the heart will be inquired into (on the Day of Reckoning).”
The words hearing and seeing refer to human senses and the Arabic word ??????? (heart) refers to our mind. Hearsay is not knowledge because our senses and mind are not involved in arriving at the conclusion. Plato said that knowledge gained through the senses is not reliable, whereas the Quran says that anything not verified by the senses and mind cannot be regarded as knowledge. This shows how valuable sense perception is in Islam.

The Quran puts extraordinary emphasis on objective knowledge. The revelation of the Quran may be

The importance of inductive reasoning is so great in the eyes of the Quran that at numerous places it calls those who do not use it as animals—and even worse than animals: “For the worst of beasts in the sight of Allah are the deaf and the dumb, those who understand not.” (8:22) “Many are the Jinns and men we have made for Hell: They have hearts wherewith they understand not, eyes wherewith they see not, and ears wherewith they hear not. They are like cattle, nay more misguided: for they are heedless (of warning).” (7:179) “Or thinkest thou that most of them listen or understand? They are only like cattle; nay, they are worse astray in Path” (25:44). “Ah! Ye are those who fell to disputing (Even) in matters of which ye had some knowledge! But why dispute ye in matters of which ye have no knowledge?” (3:66) [Yusuf Ali]
A beautiful hadith of the Prophet (PBUH) may also shed important light on this issue. The Prophet (PBUH) is reported to have said: “O Allah! Grant me knowledge of the ultimate nature of things!” [“Allahummaarinahaaqa’iq al-ashyakamaa hiya.”] Are we, as followers of the Prophet (PBUH), practicing this hadith in our daily lives? Are we trying to acquire the knowledge of the ultimate nature of things and then teaching its importance in Islam to our youth? Who are the real Ulema in Islam: the religious scholars, or those who have knowledge of the ultimate nature of things?

The Quran says: “Seest thou not that Allah sends down rain from the sky? With it We then bring out produce of various colors. And in the mountains are tracts white and red, of various shades of color, and black intense in hue. And so amongst men and crawling creatures and cattle, are they of various colors. Those truly fear Allah, among His Servants, [Ulema] who have knowledge: for Allah is Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving.” (35: 27-28) [Yusuf Ali]

In fact, the current bifurcation of knowledge into Islamic and non-Islamic is alien to Islam itself. When the Prophet (PBUH) exhorted his followers to acquire knowledge—even if they had to travel to China—he did not distinguish between Islamic knowledge (represented by religious scholars) and non-Islamic knowledge (represented by scientists). This division of knowledge is rather a later creation in Islam. Striving for knowledge without creating any contradistinction between outer and inner worlds is an Islamic duty of all Muslims. In the ultimate nature of things these two worlds reside in perfect harmony. When the Prophet (PBUH) said that those who travel to seek knowledge get ten rewards for every step, he meant that seeking knowledge is a divine act in itself. We should therefore teach our children that when they learn any subject in school or college they are, first and foremost, engaged in a divine act and prayer. All other career benefits that eventually accrue from learning should be considered side-benefits.

We need to go back to the way of the Prophet (PBUH) and use this integrated or holistic approach to knowledge which, apart from giving us power over the natural world, also deepens our faith in the non-physical world. The Quran emphasizes that signs of Allah in the Universe are meant to strengthen the faith of believers: “Verily in the heavens and the earth, are Signs for those who believe. And in the creation of yourselves and the fact that animals are scattered (through the earth), are Signs for those of assured Faith.” (45: 3-4) [Yusuf Ali]

Our ancestors read these verses and laid the foundations of science, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, geography, sociology, anthropology and science of history among other things. Every sign of Allah in the Universe inspired them to deliberate and ponder, which deepened their faith in Allah. We, on the other hand, read these same verses and move on. At most we think that we have earned the mercy of Allah in the other World by reciting these verses while simultaneously living in this World at the mercy of others. Our ancestors dedicated their lives to discover the signs of Allah (i.e., forces of nature) and proved to humanity the Truthfulness of the message contained in these verses (according to verse 41:53). As a result, they became leaders and torchbearers of knowledge in the World. We, on other hand, abandoned that tradition and consequently are groping in darkness – and trying, if at all, to illuminate our way with borrowed light.

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Opinion

Interstellar and the Theory of Relativity

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By Fatima Altaf

“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within a glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star … Light upon light.” [24:35]

In 2014, Hollywood Director Christopher Nolan created an astounding cosmic tale – Interstellar – arguably the most accurate and fascinating practical depiction of Einstein’s theory of relativity to date. Set in a futuristic time frame, with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne as the movie’s science adviser, it focused on the concepts of gravity and time dilation central to the General Theory of Relativity. It provided an actual glimpse into the physical as well as psychological implications and repercussions that interstellar space travel would inevitably have on the lives of astronauts if they set out to discover and uncover cosmic mysteries. While the movie helped understand the main concepts and raise a general interest about relativity, it also proved to be a bit of a conundrum, particularly for those who were unfamiliar or just vaguely familiar with the theory. The fact of the matter is that Einstein’s theory is rather intricate, and relativity is indeed not an easy concept to grasp.

Einstein came up with the final version of his renowned theory of relativity in the year 1916, a development which altered the face of theoretical physics and astronomy forever. Supplanting the two centuries old Newtonian mechanics, it completely transformed our pre-existing views of the laws of nature, of time and of space. Whilst the Special Theory of Relativity pertains to elementary particles and their interactions, it is the General Theory that explains the Law of Gravitation on a cosmological level, as well as concepts such as kinematic and gravitational time dilation. The absolution and constancy of the speed of light is also one of the central principles of the theory.

Quite interestingly, if we analyse the theory of relativity from a purely philosophical point of view, it appears that the theory has somewhat overthrown the veil of classical materialism from the face of science, and has brought it closer to ‘Reality’, in the spiritual sense of the word. The great Muslim Philosopher Allama Muhammad Iqbal, in his philosophical analysis of Einstein’s theory, spoke of it in the following words in his famous work, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam:

“The theory of Relativity by merging time into space-time has damaged the traditional notion of substance more than all the arguments of the philosophers. Matter, for common sense, is something which persists in time and moves in space. But for modern relativity-physics, this view is no longer tenable. A piece of matter has become not a persistent thing with varying states, but a system of inter-related events. The old solidity is gone and with it the characteristics that to the materialist made matter seem more real than fleeting thoughts.” [Reconstruction, Lecture 2]

The most interesting phenomenon in the theory of Relativity is the constancy of the Speed of Light. The point to be noted here is that in almost all Holy scriptures, God has likened His Presence to Light (Noor), a concept which was probably never better apprehended than it can be now, in light of our recent and latest understanding of the nature of light. According to Iqbal, Light is the closest thing to the Absolute, hence the example of Light in Holy Scriptures, including the above-mentioned well-known “Light Verse” of Surah Noor.

“Personally, I think the description of God as light, in the revealed literature of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, must now be interpreted differently. The teaching of modern physics is that the velocity of light cannot be exceeded and is the same for all observers whatever their own system of movement. Thus, in the world of change, light is the nearest approach to the Absolute. The metaphor of light as applied to God, therefore, must, in view of modern knowledge, be taken to suggest the Absoluteness of God and not His Omnipresence which easily lends itself to a pantheistic interpretation.” [Reconstruction Lecture 1]

Another important concept contained within the theory is Time Dilation. By definition, time dilation is “a difference in the elapsed time measured by two observers, either due to a velocity difference relative to each other, or by being differently situated relative to a gravitational field.” To paraphrase, time appears to move more slowly for an observer moving at or near the speed of light, or near a strong gravitational field. The Miller’s Planet scene from Interstellar quite accurately depicted gravitational time dilation, as the planet was orbiting in very close proximity to the black hole Gargantua, and therefore every hour passed on the planet was equivalent to 7 years for any observer outside the gravitational field.

The Quran has addressed the issue of time quite extensively; there are multiple verses which speak of time, which can now be better and fully appreciated in light of Einstein’s theory.

“Allah rules the cosmic affair from the heavens to the Earth. Then this affair travels to Him a distance in one day, a measure of one thousand years of what you count.” [32:5]

This verse is actually referring to Angels, who oversee the affairs of the universe and the cosmos under Allah’s Command, and then carry the reports of these affairs back to Him. Angels have been described in the Quran as creatures made of Noor or Light, and thus would indubitably travel at the speed of light, causing kinematic time dilation to occur. Hence, keeping the time and age of this revelation in perspective, when people generally travelled by foot, or on horses or camels, a day of travel from the Divine perspective, would be perceived closer to a thousand years on earth.

We are told of the vastness of Paradise and Hell in the Quran. Keeping in mind the structure of Cosmic bodies as well as the stated size of the Angels and Allah’s Throne in the Quran, it can be inferred that Paradise and Hell are immense structures, much like the massive Black Hole Gargantua in Interstellar. According to the theory of relativity, time dilation occurs near vast structures due to their strong gravitational fields. Hence, the slowing down of time in Paradise and Hell relative to the passage of time on Earth may be seen as an example of Gravitational Time Dilation.

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Opinion

Message and Method of the Prophet

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By ABDUL WAHID HAMID

Some of the major aspects of the mission and method of Prophet Muhammad are eloquently presented in a speech which one of his companions, Jafar ibn abiTaalib, made to the Christian ruler of Abyssinia in Africa in the year 616 CE. Jafar was the spokesman of a group of early Muslims who had sailed across the Red Sea and sought asylum in Abyssinia from the persecution of the pagan Makkans:

“0 King,” he said, “We were a people steeped in ignorance, worshipping idols, eating the flesh of dead animals, committing abominations, neglecting our relations and ill-treating our neighbors, and the strong among us would oppress the weak.

“We were in this state when God sent to us a messenger from among us, whose descent and sincerity, truthfulness, trustworthiness and honesty were known to us.

“He summoned us to worship the One True God and to renounce the stones and idols we and our fathers used to worship apart from God.

“He ordered us to speak the truth, to fulfil all that is entrusted to us, to care for our relatives, to be kind to our neighbours, to refrain from what is forbidden and from bloodshed.

“He has forbidden us from engaging in obscene and shameful acts, from speaking falsehoods, from devouring the property of orphans and from vilifying virtuous women.
“He commanded us to worship God alone and to assign no partners unto Him, to pray, to pay the purifying tax and to fast.

“We deemed him truthful and we believed in him, and we followed the message he brought to us from God…”

From Jafar’s speech on the mission and method of the Prophet, we see that the first thing he stressed was the worldview of Tawhiid, the worship of the One True God. To be on the straight and natural way, the human being’s first duty is to gain or regain a correct knowledge of and belief in God. From this knowledge he will come to accept the wisdom and authority of God. From this will spring correct action.

As an indication of this method of the Prophet in bringing about individual and social transformation, his wife Aaishah is reported as saying that the Prophet did not start by telling people not to drink wine and not to commit fornication and adultery. He started by telling them about God and the Hereafter until they had firm belief in them. It is only then he told them not to drink or commit adultery and they obeyed him. “Had he started by telling them not to drink wine or not commit adultery; they would have said, ‘We will never abandon them?”

From Jafar’s speech, we learn that the Prophet encouraged all the natural moral virtues such as truthfulness, kindness, generosity, and justice. And he condemned all the naturally repugnant vices such as false speech shamelessness, adultery and fornication, ignorance, and oppression.

There is also the testimony of Jafar on the truthfulness of the Prophet. Both before and after he became a prophet, Muhammad had unchallenged reputation of a person who was always truthful and trustworthy. For this he was known as As-Saadiq and Al-Amiin respectively.

In fact, mission and method fused in the Prophet since we are told by Aaishah: “His character was the Quran.” To reject the Prophet is to reject the Quran and to reject the Quran is to reject the human being’s only authentic source of Divine guidance.

The importance of the Quran and the example of the Prophet Muhammad plays a vital role in forming a valid and satisfying worldview for the human being in whatever time or place he or she may live. Since the Quran is the final and complete message of God to humanity and since there will be no prophet after Muhammad, it is especially important for people everywhere to discover or rediscover the meaning and relevance of the Quran to their lives. Whether you live in the north or the south, the east or the west, whether you live in the so-called developed and advanced world or the underdeveloped and impoverished world, whether you are a male or female, young or old, the Quran has a message for you. In fact, it is the message for you.

The Quran stresses the Oneness of God and the duty of the human being to acknowledge and worship God alone. If we approach the Quran with sincerity it reveals the age old questions about the nature of the human being, the purpose of his life and the various choices and destinies open to him. In other words: Who are we? What are we doing here on earth? And where do we go from here?

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