Slumdogs of Suburbia


Most people are aware of the hullabaloo being made over a recent film called ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. Although, generally, television can be regarded as a mind-numbing exercise and movie-going a pointless pastime, I thought that this particular movie and its resulting success has a special significance for Muslims living in the First World, if not all people living in the First World.

The Western reaction to Slumdog, from what I have gathered, seems to be one of mixed shock and delight. Shock at the terrible poverty the ‘slumdogs’ have lived through, and delight at the lovely Warner Brothers way the story ended before the credits rolled. Many people were horrified at the conditions depicted in this movie, the terrible poverty and violence young children must face from the time they take their first steps. Some people in India were resentful that a Western movie brought all this to light, winning awards for exploiting the poverty of the Third World.

Apart form the razzle-dazzle buzz of movie stars and the many gatherings where they like to pat themselves on the back and broadcast it for the world to see, I believe that the idea of  poverty behind this movie is important for Muslims all over the world to consider. Not merely because the main character in the movie is a Muslim, but because there are millions and millions of Muslims living in different kinds of abject poverty around the world. Many of the Muslims who have migrated to Western nations can tell you a little something or two about it. Perhaps this is why many people in the Third World, and many of those people who have migrated to the First World, did not find themselves as moved by this movie as Western audiences were. They’ve seen it first hand, whether from simply walking on the street or from peering at it through tinted, air conditioned vehicles. Many people who have lived in Mumbai will tell you that the poverty they see in their daily lives is much worse than what was shown in Slumdog. Indeed, if one was to watch a movie about poverty in India, Mira Nair’s ‘Salaam Bombay!’ is a more accurate and sobering depiction of slum life and the desperation it entails.

However, with regards to the current fascination with Slumdog Millionaire, I believe this movie can prove to be more useful than just providing us with the spectacle of the rampant poverty of the Third World. It can also serve as a mirror. This mirror, if we choose to allow it, can reflect our own dismal state of poverty back to us.

Most of us, by the Grace of God, have never had to live in flimsy shacks that expose us to drenching monsoons or the sordid heat of the Eastern summer months. Most of us, by the Grace of God, never really have to worry about where our next meal is coming from or if we have enough clothes to wear. Most of us, by the Grace of God, have the gift of relatively free schooling that we can choose to extend based upon our own merit, septic tanks and water drainage facilities, hot showers or showers at all, transportation, and space, among the millions of other small things we couldn’t account for if we spent our entire lives trying. The general lack of these amenities is what is known as ‘extreme poverty’, a material poverty that is so intense, that the sheer numbers of people living in the middle of it is a disgraceful slap in the face to humanity on our planet today.

But poverty has existed since the beginning of man, since the dawn of his civilizations and his sense of economic distribution, since the start of his having and his not having. There have always been the rich and poor, and even the very, very rich, and the very, very poor. Most religions and societies have, for the most part, accommodated for this age old divide in the form of alms, taxes, and a basic social compulsion to look after the weakest of the flock. The essential point of religion, in my opinion, is to keep us from descending into a form of poverty that is much, much worse than the kind of poverty depicted in Slumdog Millionaire. This is spiritual poverty.

This is not to belittle the dreadful poverty of street children, or an attempt to diminish it in some abstract, metaphorical way. Nor is this trying to say that poverty exists only in the Third World. There are populations of homeless people living in all areas of the world, in various conditions of insufficient provision, but the fact remains that there are sheer millions, if not billions, of people who live in states of poverty that the average North American would never dream of seeing on his or her street corner.

There are many versions of poverty. The balance of the universe dictates that while little Ali the slum urchin can exist in the streets of Mumbai mired in squalor and material poverty, I too, can exist in middle class North American suburbia, in the midst of slumber and spiritual poverty. My transient needs in this transient world are, by the Grace of God, being fulfilled, but it is through my own laziness and forgetfulness that I remain spiritually destitute. Perhaps little Ali is richer than me; so thoroughly occupied in the savage business of survival he will not have acquired the massive debt of time I have – largely misspent, waiting to be accounted for. Perhaps because every day is such a feat of survival, he wakes up thanking God that he is alive to see another one.

There is intellectual poverty. Take, for example, the following passage from the New York Times bestseller and Pultizer Prize winning book ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’, by Jared Diamond:

“Besides [the] genetic reason, there is also a second reason why New Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners. Modern Europeans and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by television, radio, and movies. In the average American household, the TV set is on for seven hours per day. In contrast, traditional New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive entertainment and instead spend almost all their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults. Almost all studies of child development emphasize the role of childhood stimulation and activity in promoting mental development, and stress the irreversible mental stunning associated with reduced childhood stimulation. This effect surely contributes a non-genetic component to the superior average mental function displayed by New Guineans. That is, in mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners, and they are surely superior in escaping the devastating developmental disadvantages under which most children in industrialized societies now grow up.”

Given the daily battle most of the world must undertake to merely live another day, I can say with some confidence that we would have a tenuously difficult time trying to survive as they do, compared to the ease in which they could perform the everyday functions of our own lives. Consider the 2001 experiment in the slums of New Delhi undertaken by Sugata Mitra, involved in research and development at NIIT, a software and training company. He placed a computer on the wall of his office, opposite a slum, and took note of what happened: completely unsupervised and without assistance, children who had perhaps never seen a computer before in their lives learned how to surf the Internet in eight minutes. Browsing, cut, paste, copy, dragging and dropping, and creating folders were all learned in the space of a few days.

Technically, having been required by the government to attend school until high school, one could say that we are vastly more educated than the poor children in Third World countries who must forgo the luxury of an education, in order to provide for their families. Sitting in a classroom room from the age of five to the age of eighteen, however, doesn’t mean that we are more intelligent. In fact, I am inclined to believe the opposite.  Sure, we learn to read, perform arithmetic, are presented with history, and are given poems to read and think about. But what does all of this mean when people would rather watch television than read books, when mental math has become almost obsolete, and when people may have history book upon history book at their disposal, but not the mental capacity to integrate it with current affairs and politics? What’s the point of thirteen years of formal schooling when we get everything we need to live day to day from the unholy trinity of television broadcasting: ESPN, MTV, and CNN? There is no need to burn or ban books in such a culture, where the vast majority of young people would prefer not to read them anyway.  And even if we were to store the facts of several encyclopedias within ourselves, how would that make us any different from an inanimate object, a book, if we lack the intellectual spark and fire for real action?

Then there is the poverty of emotion. Capitalist societies are built on the essential premise of every individual for himself: in the individual’s triumph lies the benefit of society. However, most indigenous cultures throughout the world, putting emphasis on traditional Eastern cultures, believe in a way of life in which the general health of society reflects the health of the individual. Extended family structures, joint homes, a shared means of living, all of these contribute to a lifestyle which emphasizes cooperation, compromise, and putting the needs of others above the needs of one’s own self. In Slumdog Millionaire itself, the various throngs of street children learn to survive with the help of each other, living and carving out a means of existence collectively, all embroiled in a shared war against the barbarities of daily life in the Third World. These children may become hardened and tough, but they have very good reason to be.

There are so many toys with which to preoccupy and amuse ourselves in our privileged suburban islands and thriving metropolitan centers, we extend our childhoods well into our twenties and thirties, and sometimes, sadly, even into our forties. Primed with so much self-care and attention, and an attitude that places our personal welfare above all, it is only natural that birth rates amongst Europeans and Americans would fall. Who has time to take care of children when it’s so much more fun to take care of ourselves? In a culture where personal satisfaction is so pervasive, we become hardened and unresponsive to the needs and feelings of other people. Isn’t it a little weird how we can be like this, in spite of the fact that our own material needs are so robustly met? This is the poverty of emotion.

People are being brought to their knees by the plummeting  economy: itself a result of individual greed and overreach. Billionaires commit suicide over the stock exchange, but starving children scramble resolutely over garbage dumps with their scrawny legs, in their eyes is a steely determination to claw out an existence. They are alive, and perhaps it is a mercy upon them that they don’t have the time or the quiet to ask why. Even if they couldn’t point it out and tell you in academic language, they value the gift that is their lives. They know survival with the keenness of original instinct, untainted by manufactured wants and superficial desires. They have this feeling, this idea, that Whoever put them on this earth had a reason to, and they may not be able to tell you why they fight every day, but they do. The biology behind such an instinct is a miracle in and of itself. They are alive.

We can and should give our money, our time, and our resources to alleviate the poverty of our brothers and sisters, whoever they are and wherever they are. There is not a doubt that if all of us were to extend such an effort, we could reasonably eliminate it off the face of the earth. However, this will take time and mobilization, there is really no practical, immediate way to lift the eleven million street children of Mumbai out of the poverty they live in. The immediate action we can take, however, is with ourselves. We cannot take our material gifts for granted and succumb to a perfectly voluntary state of spiritual poverty.  We do not have the luxury of fighting for our everyday survival as an excuse for our spiritual lassitude. We have no excuse at all.

We must accept the charity our brothers and sisters living in poverty give to us, when they give us a mirror to look into ourselves. We are in no place to deny this priceless gift. Perhaps, if we can effectively use this mirror, we can raise ourselves out of our stupor and be able to return the favor in whatever puny ways we can.

There are many different kinds of poverty. The poverty of the intellect and emotion are just two examples, but two major ones that I see contributing to the worst poverty of all: spiritual poverty. And I know, as I am sure we all know, how acutely one can feel the poverty of spirituality. It is in the name of this poverty that pharmaceuticals make billions of dollars in anti-depressant sales, self help gurus rake in the big bucks, and empty New Age movements are all the rage. It is an attempt to alleviate this poverty, that people try to identify with this hip hop rapper, that punk rock band, this lifestyle guru, that brand of clothing and accessories. All of these things are more than just the luxuries of the First World, they are active indicators of an epic spiritual poverty.

There are people who live in the filthy mental slums of their own making, reveling in the squalor of stupidity and sloth. There are people who live in the putrid slums of their egos, encased in a world where their intellect has been amputated by the machinations of their own arrogance. There are people obsessed with perpetual fun and reverie, people who live entombed in slums dedicated to their desires.

The vast majority of these people do not live in the slums depicted in Slumdog Millionaire.

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10 Comments

  1. fatima says:

    wow. Jazakallahukhairan for this post
    beautifully articulated mashaAllah

  2. Noor says:

    How about a link we can donate to or something….? Got me all anxious and helpful now.

  3. Suhaib Webb says:

    Asalamu alaykum,

    Sr. Anam always drops it mashallah!

  4. “There is no need to burn or ban books in such a culture, where the vast majority of young people would prefer not to read them anyway. “
    you hit the nail.
    Mashallah, that was very passionately written, the last paragraph summed up the article really well.

  5. Muslema says:

    Assalamu Alaikum,

    Sister Anam, I really enjoyed this post. Jzk for the intense reflection. I was encouraged to watch the film after seeing your reflection, and I wanted to add a few of my own to your eloquently expressed thoughts.

    1- I started to think about the forced suffering, humiliation, and oppression of poor people. It made me think about Mecca and how children are mutilated and sent for begging around the Kaaba, and also the black market in America where especially the vulnerability of illegal immigrants are exploited. You read stories of people waking up only to realize organs have been removed from their bodies, while others are forced into prostitution. In all of these cases, those who are oppressed as a result of their poverty feel that there is no where to turn for protection. Their governments either turn a blind eye (as in India or Mecca) or they may risk greater loss in going to authorities by being deported to other countries where conditions are worse (like illegal immigrants in America). I started to think about different countries, Muslim and non-Muslim, and how the fact that such heinous crimes can continue to exist in the world today, is an insult to every one of us.

    2- I began to think about the responses of non-Muslims to the problem of this type of suffering, and I can't help but feel, as a community we, the Muslims, are disgracefully behind. Alhamdulilah, we have relief agencies, but what I think is needed above and beyond that, are systematic campaigns and services to defend these violated human rights, whether they happen to Muslims or non-Muslims– we have a responsibility to really be as “vicegerents” to help maintain and protect humanity from such evil.

    3- I thought about how our masajid in America are full of people who are busy with mostly dealing with personal problems. Many of these problems are symptomatic of people not knowing how to spend/use their time. They occur because as a community, we haven't learned to be ABOUT something. That is, to be raised with a training of self-sacrifice not simply to help a problem, but to commit to seeing that problem solved in your own life-time. Whether it happens is in the hands of Allah (swt), but that personal resolution and spirit is what has always helped change history. What made whites in the 60s and 70s help stand together and go to jail defending the rights of African Americans? What makes some rich people go to completely ignored and neglected populations that the world and media have forgotten about, only to live through difficult and dangerous circumstances, so they might help feed and provide medicine for those who suffer? What gives these people such heart? Should not the resolution and Zuhd of the Muslims be greater than that? Do our communities suffer from meaningless/shallow things because we have chosen NOT to struggle for greater things? When the Rasool (saw) was asked about Abu Bakr's great position and favor, he (saw) responded that it is not that Abu Bakr in more in prayer and fasting than the other, but because of something that had settled in heart. History can only change by people who have heart, and know how to use it. “Allah (swt) does not change a people until they change what is in themselves.” Great “Islah” needs even greater heart.

    4- It reminded me of a comment from my article on Mariam. One brother commented that some sisters want to become Sheikhas or save the world so they avoid marriage. I think IF sisters feel that way, it's actually a commentary on the state of our brothers. The fact that a sister would feel that she has to choose between pleasing Allah in a very serious way and marriage, means she has lost hope in finding a partner who has similar goals and who would help her to accomplish them. There's a book that talks about ulema who preferred knowledge over marriage. I don't think any human wants to live alone, but some people have such a great passion to serve Islam, the norms of their time make them fear the consequences of marriage on their devotion and ability to serve. And this happens to both women and men. It might be ambitious, but I think a way to address it, is having enough good examples in our community where people feel the norm is that marriage enhances one's ability to serve Allah (swt), for both brothers and sisters. I have met children of parents who for example, provided aid to people in refugee camps, or the husband and wife both studied together and are contributing to global legal discussions that effect the spiritual, intellectual and even economic well-being of the masses, and have been amazed. Subhan Allah, the children of these people are on another level, may Allah continue to bless their families! When the Muslim personals reflect singles seeking partners to accomplish specialized goals for Allah (swt), instead of skins colors, racial backgrounds, and preferred academic abbreviations next to the potential's name, we will have even more hope than we have now insha Allah. As Allah(swt) says in the Quran, “Give victory to Me, and I will give you victory.”

    5- These slums exist in part, because our masjid going Muslims, let alone the ones that don't go, have neglected the Akhirah, and Allah's pleasure as the ultimate goal of our existence. I guess these are the spiritual and intellectual slums you were discussing. The physical slums are a result of the metaphorical ones, subhan Allah. We think about life much like others' think about the American dream– the acquisition of personal stability and happiness through material things. From education to marriage to work and children, life is seen only as a way to satisfy personal comforts. Serving others is an exception to the rule, and even then, it is only when it conveniently fits into one's schedule and planned vacations. The Rasool (saw) foretold the times where Muslims will be persecuted, and the reason would be love of this world. What has to be realized by our masses is that the whole world suffers when Muslims are absent in fulfilling our collective duties. Even the rich and comfortable suffer subhan Allah. I wonder how much depression, weight gain, and family problems would decrease if people chose to live for Allah (swt) alone. Yes there are difficult tests in this type of life, but as Imam Al-Banna mentioned once, “The people of struggle are much happier in their struggle, than the people of play are with their play.” The overly comfortable tend to seek happiness in the wrong things, and then wonder why they feel empty and sad. Anyone who was meant for a noble mission can only feel humiliation and hollowness, if they turn it down for a lowly one.

    I apologize for the long comment. I never intended for it to be so long…subhan Allah, your reflections on the movie really struck me, and got me going….

    May Allah help us listen to speech and follow the best of it. If anything in this comment is wrong, it is from me, and I ask His forgiveness.

  6. Zubair Khan says:

    Wa alaikum assalam wa jazakillahu khayr ukhti Muslema,

    I really appreciate your thoughtful insight on this article. I just wanted to comment on point number 4. I apologize but this is a theme that I've seen over and over on this website of blaming the brothers, asking “aina rijaal, aina rijaal, aina rijaal?”,.. you get the point. To be honest with you, I think it's more of a cop out if a sister doesn't want to get married “for the sake of Islamic work.” As you said, there are a lot of couples who are serving Allah (swt) together and marriage has enhanced their abilities to work for the sake of Allah. I know A LOT of brothers that are rock solid in their deen and are dedicating their lives in Islamic Work. So I really think it's unfair to pin the sisters fear of getting married on the “state of the brothers.”

    I apologize if my comment sounded harsh and I hope and pray you can continue to benefit us with your knowledge and wisdom.

    Wa Allahu 'Alam.

  7. Anam M. says:

    Assalamulaikum!
    Thanks for mentioning this, it's a good idea to put up a link. Everyone has their personal preferences in terms of giving charity, but I personally think that the Edhi Foundation is a trusted and reliable place to donate:

    http://www.edhifoundation.com/

    There are various Red Crescent societies people can choose to donate to as well.

  8. Anam M. says:

    Walaikumasalam Sister Muslema,
    Thank you so much for taking the time to present your thoughts, you brought up some very important points in terms of how behind the Muslim community is in social work and aid societies. I thought that Point 3 was especially profound…especially where you said that 'we haven't learned to be ABOUT something' and 'Do our communities suffer from meaningless/shallow things because we have chosen NOT to struggle for greater things? '

    I totally agree 100%, and I think it's high time we as the Muslim community get over our infantile teething stage and become serious people. We especially need to avoid self pity like the plague.

    Jazak Allah again for your points, they having given me a lot of food for thought!

  9. Muslema says:

    Assalamu Alaikum Br. Zubair,

    While I think you're right– sisters and brothers of a common cause and spirit can be found, I don't think it's healthy to refer to anyone's fears as a cop-out. It's a genuine fear of perceived norms. There are brothers who are just as afraid of marriage getting “in the way” so instead of seeking a partner before they start a particular path, they wait until they are done. I think instead of saying, “Don't be afraid” to either sisters or brothers, we need to see what can be done to help develop trust within the community. Sometimes sisters live in a community where they don't see other married women able and encouraged to serve Islam. The wives of community leaders sometimes speak in a way that is disheartening to other sisters about their negative experiences at home. Sometimes active brothers see their fellow active brothers get married, and then disappear from the masjid and Islamic work. I heard one imam say, “Marriage takes more people out than the government!” In Fathi Yakkan's book, “The problems of the Dawa and the Daiyah” he mentions two milestones that occur the life of Islamic workers. If they pass them/handle them appropriately, they usually continue, and if they don't, they usually stop. He mentioned 1) Marriage and 2) Accumulation of wealth and children. I mentioned the book about ulema who avoided marriage through history. I actually think its a historic and well-grounded fear, not simply present in the 21st century activists who seek to cop-out. Again, as a happily married sister (Alhamdulilah), I can't believe that anyone WANTS to be alone. Good sisters (and brothers) I know want to be married, but they're just scared of their lives changing for the negative with regards to their services for Islam.

    Also, sometimes people (women and men) can be very practicing individually but their attitudes toward family life debilitates their own happiness. I was really shocked to see religious people think and do some crazy things towards their spouses. When lots of otherwise good people fall into such mind-sets/actions it creates a culture of mistrust.

    It doesn't help Islam, Muslims, the world at large for our young people to have mistrust and fear/avoid marriage. I agree with you that it's not the answer. However, I am less likely to blame people for their fears. I don't think it will help them. Rather, I want to find a way to open their hearts again, and give them the courage to try. How exactly, I am unsure of still. Sometimes I think indegenous Muslims who are happily married and in the service and practice of Islam, should be the ones giving the marriage workshops/advice.

    The one who helps two righteous young people get married in Islam, receives a palace in Paradise. Br. Zubair– I have a list of great sisters, you have a list of great brothers– maybe we can both email them to a sister I know who is helping people to get married in America based on personal contacts only. She actually has a very long list of sisters, and is looking for a list good brothers to match them up with.

    Alhamdulilah that our discussions might lead to some beneficial action insha Allah. Alhamdulilah, that Allah opened a way for that to happen!

    Your comments are well-taken, no worries insha Allah. The frustration is perfectly understandable. And, I think your list of good brothers may be of greater community benefit than anything I have contributed to the discussion :) Jazak Allah Khair.

    WS,
    Muslema

  10. qoofi says:

    Assalam alaikum
    Mashallah, nicely writen. I think people in these country who are well off or even the working middle class has become desensitised to the abject poverty around them while the westerners are kept away from the real world, in bubbles where you are bound to find something to your liking if you surf the channels. The apathy is mindboggling. As far as muslims in the west are concerned, sadly many of them are happy enough to have dodged the bullet and satisfied living the American dream! Infact most are bent on denying any connection to these places. Our spiritual poverty is just an extension of our materialistic, consumer driven, nhilistic existence.This world has taken precedence over the real life after this one.

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