Being enslaved to our things
Analysing my belongings really made me think about how we are enslaved to our items, even items of no value. For example, going through my store room, I went through wades of paper and plastic carrier bags (just in case I need a carrier bag when I pass an item to someone), layers of used bubble wrap (just in case I needed to pack something fragile) and the original packaging of electrical products (just in case I move houses) and old DVDs (just in case I wanted to watch that movie again). What an astonishing waste of space. It stressed me out looking at all these messy items lying around in boxes, yet I felt guilty for throwing them out just in case I needed them. Years passed and actually, that need never arose. Part of me said it was wasteful, but the sensible conclusion is that they were junk to be thrown or sent to a recycling centre. The relief I felt when I finally got rid of them was immense. The way the room brightened up after all the garbage was removed was refreshing.
We tend to accumulate so much clutter. Free novelty items, trinkets from here and there, those free drinking cups which are never used, free cosmetic samples which stay in our shelves until they expire. This culture of accumulating is made worse by today’s materialistic culture, where we think that buying stuff will make us happy. Depressed? Binge shopping. Celebrations? More shopping. Annual sales? More shopping. Attending someone’s wedding or a special dinner? Time to shop for a nice dress.
One of the inmates of Jahannam have this trait:
“And collected [wealth] and hoarded.” (Al Ma’arij 70:18)
People surround themselves with things for different reasons. Some people’s houses are so packed with expensive clutter they look like museums – such people are usually motivated by showing off. Some cannot let go of items because they assign too much sentimentality to the item. From the baby’s first safety pin to the school report cards dating back 30 years, these items generally live in boxes until the collector’s death.
There are the impulsive shoppers who buy more than they need and feel that giving away unused items will increase their feeling of regret. There are others who buy new pots and pans, but still continue to use the old ones because they feel bad using brand new items. Someone even bought an expensive waste bin and prohibited anyone from using it – any trash was redirected to a cheaper bin beside it. Some attach so much sentimentality to items that nothing can be thrown away because everything marks a special something – not necessarily a milestone, but because too much meaning is given to each item. These people save every boarding pass, wedding invitation, takeaway cartons from the birthday dinner.
There are the inheritors – those who convert everything into a family heirloom, from a broken watch to cracked china – things which do not and will never have any value, not even antique, sentimental or collectible value. Those who inherit their parents’ clothes and store them as monuments and let them become moth eaten over time. There are others who scavenge other people’s belongings – from frames on the wall to books to empty plastic containers, and hoard it in their houses even when they barely have any room to move.
“He thinks that his wealth will make him immortal.” (Al Humazah 104:3)
Why are people so attached to their possessions? The simple answer is lack of iman, goal, purpose and direction in life. When Allah is absent from the hearts, the inner desires then latch themselves to objects. We presume that material possessions give us joy and we give them more meaning than they’re worth. When we attach our hearts to our possessions, that joy quickly turns to greed. That greed then encourages stinginess, and the more we accumulate, the more discontented we are and less we want to give away. The state of our excesses today as a whole, is so dire that cleaning gurus are cashing in on this phenomenon!
The Qu’ran states the root of the problem in simple terms:
Indeed mankind, to his Lord, is ungrateful. And indeed, he is to that a witness. And indeed he is, in love of wealth, intense. (Al ‘Adiyat 100:6 to 100:8)
Islam tells us not to hoard our belongings. Yet, we hold on to our things because we believe in Shaitan. Shaitan wants us to forget Allah’s promise by making us feel attached and in love with everything, no matter how valueless. He does this from multiple angles. Through our greed, by making us crave for more and more things. Through our emotions, by making everyday objects beloved to us. Through our ambitions, by making us think that we will finally get round to reading that book which has been on our bookshelves for 15 years. Through our fear of poverty, by making us feel that if we get rid of anything, we would be poor. Through a misplaced sense of thrift, where we store aside our brand new cookware and let it sit there for five years because we are afraid of ruining them.
From that, we are distracted and even obsessed by our things. Our houses will be cluttered and our energy, money and time will be wasted on the preservation of things we don’t even use. When we move houses, we will need to find one large enough to store our excess items. We will worry about our books being attacked by the damp. Our cupboards will be crammed to the ceiling with storage solutions for our junk. Even the air quality in our house will be poor because there is no room for the air to circulate.
Any joy related to dunia accumulation is short lived, so we get bored easily and then buy some more to add to our treasures. We then perpetuate this habit by buying too many things for our children. In giving too much importance to our collections, we turn our houses into very expensive warehouses for items which bring us no long term happiness in dunia and akhirah.
This brings to mind the hadith which says that if the children of Adam had a mountain of gold, they would want another mountain of gold and would not only be filled by dust in their stomachs (i.e. in the grave).
Islam promotes a life of simplicity. How would we feel if ever Rasulullah SAW could see our houses and the amount of surplus we have!
Checking if each of your items still brings happiness is a suggested method to sift through our items. However, in Islam, clothes and other belongings are necessities in life to help us achieve a higher goal. They will never spark true joy. All these bounties are just decorations in life, and no more.
Moreover, whatever of anything you are given is (no more than) an enjoyment of the worldly life and its decoration, and that which lies with Allah is much better and far more lasting. So do you not use reason? (Al Qasas 28:60)
When we think material items give us joy, this is when we get confused with the purpose of life – instead of a necessity to get by in life, the accumulation of items becomes our GOAL in life and we devote our time and attention to earn and buy more! Our possessions, including clothing and accommodation are just tools to help us achieve our true goal in life, which is to worship Allah and earn a good place in the Hereafter. If we’re not careful, we will be slaves to our things – they will end up dominating our time and attention, and they will invade our personal spaces, whether in the homes or in our minds.
Attachment to dunia is not limited to attachments to wealth. It is an excessive attachment to anything, even a pencil. Attachment to our possessions, directly or indirectly, shift our purpose in life, our goals, our trains of thought, and even our emotions, away from what we were created for.
Think about the items you love – why do you love them? Are they beneficial to you in your journey in life? Do you spend time worrying about their upkeep? Do your items dictate your budget, living conditions and direction in life? Are all these consistent with why Allah created us?