As I was reading Madame Bovary (1875) by Flaubert these past two weeks, the verses 103-104 of Surah Al-Kahf kept coming to mind: “Say,[O Muhammad],’Shall we [believers] inform you of the greatest losers [when it comes to their deeds]? They are those whose effort is lost in worldly life, while they think they are doing well in work.” The novel dramatizes Emma Bovary’s pursuit of the 'exquisite' of always longing for more: nicer furniture, dinnerware, clothes and even a more exciting husband. Emma’s discontent makes her a comic victim of a materialistic ideology that leads the people, who do not possess the spiritual, psychological and intellectual means to process it, to lose touch with reality. I remember when I first read the novel, when I was 15 years old, feeling scared of being like Emma; scared of not finding fulfilment in life, of always wanting more, of never feeling content.
Those who wear themselves out in this dunya (worldly) life are ultimately seeking happiness. Emma thinks that refinement comes from the objects you put in your home: Every night she places a different candle holder, reads different magazines, obsesses about décor, and she even talks about buying mouth-rinsing bowls for the dessert course. The problem that many people fail to see is that refinement is an expression of an already achieved quality of heart and mind. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessinge be upon him) said: "Richness is not having many possessions. Rather, true richness is the richness of the soul.” 1
Some might think it is ignorance that leads to discontent, stemming from a lack of access to culture or technology. Emma is a voracious reader which in itself is admirable; she reads religious texts and romances and she satirically emerges convinced that life is going to follow suit. Like many of us today, she is formed by these scripts that become a lens through which she sees the world. This is not a happy notion, as we would like to think of our own subjectivity as something free and spontaneous. In reality however, this suggests that we are always schooled, schooled in ways that have nothing to do with our formal education, schooled in the sense that we have either read or internalized certain kinds of doctrines, certain kinds of stories, and that they shape and govern how we feel. Emma read about sentimental fiction, the religious hunger for bliss and for ecstatic states, she read about knights and languishing maidens that swoon with happiness. "She needed to derive from things a sort of personal gain, and she rejected as useless anything that did not contribute to the immediate gratification of her heart"(31). In many ways, as I was growing up in the United States during the 80’s, I too was shaped by the Breakfast Club culture of the time (still love that movie by the way). If a new copy of Teen Beat was out I had to have it, and if Molly Ringwald started wearing vests over baby-doll tops I had to do that too. Looking back I remember that no matter how up to date I was, how many friends I had, or how many cool things I owned, I could never feel safe. I did not have true contentment, that feeling that even if you were to lose all that you have, you would still be all right.
A lot of us, just like Emma, start out in life with the view that bliss, passion and ecstasy are going to be the norms, and when that does not happen we feel cheated. And so one of the questions—a severe question that Flaubert raises: does life cheat us? —is what people may instinctively ask themselves. But the more frightening alternative explanation is that our words cheat us, our concepts cheat us; we have all the wrong tools to survive dunya. I leave us with this hadith by our beloved Prophet (peace and blessinge be upon him): “Whoever is mainly concerned about the Hereafter, Allah will make him feel independent of others and will make him focused and content, and his worldly affairs will fall into place. But whoever is mainly concerned with this world, Allah will make him feel in constant need of others and will make him distracted and unfocused, and he will get nothing of this world except what is decreed for him.”2
1. Sahih Bukhari, Book 76, Number 453.
2.Tirmidhi, Hadith 2389.
By Reima Yosif , 05 May 2014