The power of ideas

Asad Zaman May 19, 2010

Materialistic theories of history suggest that geography and material resources determine the destinies of nations. Karl Marx went further to suggest that even our ideologies are strongly influenced or determined by changes in economic and other material conditions. A delicious irony of history, entirely contrary to his theories and expectations, that the ideas of Marx went on to change the lives of millions of people in Russia and China for more than half a century. Without any material resources or compelling historical necessities, the vision of a classless society which promised to look after every member “according to their needs,” inspired Russian and Chinese leaders. The reality of communist Russia was so different from the idealised vision that there is a legitimate dispute as to whether it was a force for good or evil. However, there can be no dispute that the ideas of Marx, without any material resources to back them up, changed the course of history.

It is only because materialist views have become widely accepted that something as obvious as the power of ideas to change the world needs to be stated, argued and demonstrated. Even more powerfully destructive than the ideas of mathematics and physics which led to the creation of the bomb, are the invisible ideas which allow us to calculate the value of human lives in terms of barrels of oil. Far more than an interplay of material resources, this world is a battleground of ideas, good and bad, which shape our lives and history.

Historians have searched the history of the nomadic Arabs in vain for material causes to explain their sudden rise to world power after the coming advent of Islam. The ideas of Islam, explicitly preaching the equality and brotherhood of all men, which turned the tides of history.

Today the powerful media is spreading many ideas antithetical to the central Islamic message. Ads, movies, magazines and the internet encourage us to enjoy life to the fullest, by adopting a luxurious lifestyle. Islam encourages us to adopt a simple lifestyle, as modeled by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Ads encourage purchase of goods to “be the envy of your neighbors.” Islam teaches us to bury fruit peels so as to not incite the envy of the neighbor’s children, if we cannot afford to share fruits with them. This is in stark contrast with promotion of luxury products at a time when millions are hungry and homeless.

The most important battles of today are for minds and hearts, not the ones for power and oil. Our common enemy is the message of supreme self-interest, combined with complete indifference to others, crystallised in the popular Gestalt Prayer: “I do my thing and you do yours … if by chance, we find each other, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.” Many western analysts have expressed their dismay at the dissolution of the social fabric and breakdown of families caused by individuals “doing their own thing,” without concern for others. The consequences to society in terms of divorce, depression, suicide, crime, alcohol, drugs, random shootings, and myriad others, have been documented in many thick research reports.

We must actively engage in the battle against slick ads and Hollywood movies, which make material goods and pursuit of pleasure, appear far more attractive than they really are. We must teach our youth the ancient wisdom that feeding the poor brings more memorable and meaningful pleasure than the finest meal at the most luxurious restaurant. Love, honesty, commitment, trust, sacrifice and service are needed to build families and communities, which are far superior to lonely lives covered by glamour, glitter and luxury. Strong forces are pushing materialism, hedonism, and individualism, but we still have the cultural resources to win the battle if we try.

The writer teaches at the International Islamic University in Islamabad (
Published in the Express Tribune, May 20th, 2010.


Zahid Asghar | 13 years ago | Reply The point is not to keep a wathch in the affairs of others. It is emphasised that we should come out of environment of apathy (doing ones own things’)and show altruism. Author is trying to make a point in the gloablized context not with reference to a particular country context. It is realised now all over the world that we should come out of culture of selfcentrism but this requires courage and sacrifice. Therefore, there is need to oberve culture of altruism rather that of apathy. For the former we have to pay less attention to our material gains and more to our spirtual purification.
Zubair Faisal Abbasi | 13 years ago | Reply Why ideas lose steam? What happened to the whole idea of 'finding the lost paradise' both in religion and Marxism (again establishing a classless society)? Why 'doing ones own things' leads to shootings, drugs, and what not while 'keeping an eyes on others' (like ourselves - poking noses into every thing other) has also produced the same kind of issues?
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