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CRUCIBLE: Lifestyle and Social Formation

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/24 January) – The idea of creation’s perfection, which has been eloquently articulated several times in the Holy Qur’an allowed Muslim scholars to develop a theory in Islamic thought that conceives the universe or cosmos as alam kabir or macrocosm and man as a cosmic replica representing as alam saghir or microcosm; yet, the two worlds are conceived as embraced in the One. In the “Divan,” Shems of Tabriz wrote: “I have dispensed with duality, and seen the two worlds as One.”

Man is, as the Qur’an verdantly describes him, created from the highest mold and carries the potential of perfection. As aid to realize such potential, man has been provided with guidance (hidayah), prophets and kitab or revelation to serve as guidepost so s/he would persistently maintain or reflect the principle of order and perfection in creation.

The Qur’an mentions a number of times how s/he has been given all the amenities in creation – food, water, and so on – especially those lawful and good; so that s/he is be able to sustain herself/himself and appropriate the quest for perfection. For instance, the Holy Qur’an says:

“O ye people! Eat of what is on earth lawful and good and do not follow the footsteps of the Evil One, for he is to you an avowed enemy.”

Unlike animals, men are given precisely the guidance so that his or her potentiality would reflect the perfection present in the order of things. Through time, however, the guidepost has been persistently challenged as men evolved varying forms of social formation; they would have to continuously adapt and innovate with new lifestyles in each stage of social formation particularly as determined by such big chunks of stages like communal, feudal, and capitalist order.

In period where society is in its primitive or agricultural stage, the lifestyle of people reflects that stage of social formation as shown in the entrenchment of feudalism for many centuries; at times, there evolved some kind of symphony in people’s lifestyle with their social condition. But as the world turned more capitalist and consumerist, lifestyles of people have been radically altered losing the symphony they used to have. The disjuncture between the two (i.e., lifestyle and social formation) heightens the disorder between macro and micro dimension of relation between man and creation/nature even as it has been continually disturbed with new challenges through time.

Frequency of strokes

This is the frame of my personal reflection amongst my relatives and friends who have suffered sickness particularly stroke despite their relatively younger age – in their 40s or early 50s. I could count with my fingers the number of friends and relatives who had suffered strokes recently. This is unlike a generation or two ago, where old folks hardly experienced even going to clinics and hospitals.

I remember my late grandfather who died in his late 90s. I did not have any memory of him getting sick or being brought to hospital. Chewing betelnut was his past time since becoming a farmer before World War II. When he grew older, he loved walking barefoot around the town of Jolo. It was only after his haj (pilgrimage) in the late ‘70s when he began wearing sandals.

Whenever my grandfather is stressed or not feeling well, he has his own way in healing himself. He would gather some herbs from the beach or plants near the seashore. He would dig a big hole and make a fire therein in our garden. He would put the herbs in a bowl and placed it over a fire. Then he would sit over slightly close to the bowl and enclosed himself with a “tadjung” or a big cloth in such a way that the smoke would engulf him. It would last for several minutes and hours until he heavily perspires. This is usually his therapeutic ritual in certain month. He remains sturdy until the last breath of his life.

When my grandfather was about to pass away, he felt a minor headache. He went to the bathroom to clean himself, took a bath and performed his ablution. He went back to his room and performed his eisah prayer. Then he lay down on his mat. That was it. He passed away that moment.

This is not the case of our time – just a generation or two generations after. As observed, friends and close relatives suffer from debilitating stroke and paralysis even in their younger age. Some of them suffer terribly in their deathbed for a long time.

Overweight and obesity

In the same vein, I have relatively similar observation in my three or four visits to Saudi Arabia especially in the Haram area. I observed many Arab men and women as young as 20s or 30s suffering from being overweight and obesity. It is easy to identify them: they do Penguin walk around the Haram. From my vantage point, they have physical difficulty in performing their religious obligations, though their will to visit and pray in the sacred sites is praiseworthy. I saw many of them in both Makkah and Madinah.

I carried this idea of an increasing disjuncture in lifestyle and social formation in the Arab world resulting in the increase of health-related problems particularly among women. According to Dr. Mona Al-Munajjed, a sociologist, author, and adviser on women and gender issues, the number of overweight and obese people is very high particularly in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. She said:

“In spite of new standard of beauty, people around the world are getting fatter. The percentage of people classified as overweight (exceeding in weight with an articlebody mass index of 25 plus) or obese (very fat with an articlebody mass index of 30 plus) has increased globally. And the situation in the GCC countries is especially bad, as overweight and obesity rates have shot up alarmingly during the past decades. In particular, women have become fatter than men in the region.”

Quoting from WHO data in 2008, Dr. Al-Munajjed found out:

“The prevalence of overweight among GCC men was estimated at around 78 percent in Kuwait, 73 percent in Qatar, 71 percent in the UAE and Bahrain, 69 percent in Saudi Arabia, and 57 percent in Oman. The prevalence of overweight among GCC women was almost similar to the rates for men: Kuwait 79 percent, the UAE 71 percent, Bahrain and Qatar 70 percent, Saudi Arabia 69 percent, and Oman 54 percent. Although Europe also suffers from an increase in overweight population the prevalence of overweight among women is much lower (United Kingdom 61 percent, Germany 54 percent, Norway 51 percent, France 45 percent, Switzerland 40 percent) and even more so in Asia (Malaysia 46 percent, Philippines 28 percent, Indonesia 26 percent, and India, 12 percent).”

This is as far as overweight in GCC is countries. It is also relatively similar as far as obesity. The data is quite alarming. The same pattern shows that GCC countries particularly amongst women have high rate of obesity. Even if Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and other South Asian countries like India show lesser percentage as far as overweight and obesity are concerned, per observation amongst friends and relatives who suffered from strokes suggest that this phenomenon of overweight and obesity is indeed a global problem.

Inside out, outside in

The data proves our impression that changing lifestyles of people are hardly able to cope with present social formation or vice versa as the latter imposes new demand or pressure, leaving people developing lifestyle that contravenes nature and the general order of things.

Today’s social formation destroys the old lifestyle of Arabs from their previously nomad, pastoral and agricultural condition impacting heavily on their way of life especially their health and wellbeing. The cause is multi-faceted. Majority of them are socio-economic factors particularly today’s development of “turbo capitalism” and the popularity of consumerist culture; the transformation of rural areas to urban areas; the birth of culture of immobility despite fast pace development of information and transportation.

There develops thus a new form of sedentary culture amongst them reinforced with a lifestyle that is essentially aimed to make the nafs or self crave for more material appurtenances with minimal physical exertion required while they become too dependent on machine and technology. With their persistent culture of hiring servants or house-help, doing household chores and other home-based activities is increasingly minimized. The body is not able to store enough energy and discard unnecessary fats and other elements; it is deficient of metabolism to keep oneself fit and healthy. The threat of overweight and obesity lurks around. Age-old formula of faith tradition in developing an individual from inside out has been transformed into developing him or her from outside in. Instead of our nafs determining our lifestyle, it’s the other way around.

As a sociologist, Dr. Al-Munajjed is more concerned with looking at demographic, economic and medical dimensions of overweight and obesity as far as GCC countries are concerned. She said further:

“These high rates of obesity in the GCC countries are a major cause for concern, presenting a major challenge to society. The health risks of obesity are numerous. Being fat greatly increases the risk of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, cerebral and cardiovascular diseases and cancer, all potentially fatal, as well as causing serious joint problems.”

She underscored the causes of overweight and obesity as due to:

“oil wealth; the GCC countries have witnessed incredible socio-economic developments: high per capita income, lifestyle changes, rapid urbanization, increasing number of supermarkets, and a shift to consumerism. This has been accompanied by a transition in nutrition, with diet more often based on fast food and an excessive intake of fats, meat, sugar, and carbohydrates alongside a deficiency in fruits, vegetables, and grains.”

While it is true in GCC countries, I think, this observation reflects in many countries including those in Southeast Asia. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines.)

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