Yawar Baig: ‘What middle class morality?’

“You knew you would be upset; why did you attend?,” asked my son and a friend, separately. “Because I’m a masochist,” I replied. It wasn’t the real reason, but afterwards I felt that perhaps I am.

The event in question was a lecture by a scholar from India, Yawar Baig, who annually visits South Africa and dishes out all kinds of free and paid advice to Muslims here: from business (which I hear he is very good at) to politics (which, it seems to me, he’s not). I attended because I thought it might be an opportunity for engagement, especially since I remembered a letter he had penned to South African Muslims before the 2014 general election strongly advising us to vote for the ANC because it would benefit the Muslim community; and because his topic for this event was about the way forward for South African Muslims. I had strenuously disagreed with the 2014 missive for its misreading of the South African politico-social reality, and for its arrogance in prescribing to a community foreign to the letter writer, sections of whom he visits once a year, about political strategies they must adopt, what was good for them, and which political party they should support. I also attended because, frankly, there aren’t enough forums for decent political dialogue among South African Muslims and I thought this might be an opportunity for a vigorous grappling with critical issues. I was wrong.

In some respects I was glad that Baig did not speak politics, for that would have reinforced my perception of his 2014 letter. (It is sad that South African Muslims still feel that a guru imported from outside the country – with the right clothes or command of the right language – has authority enough to be able to advise/prescribe on the best way forward on such domestic issues.) Unfortunately, however, the bulk of the speech was an insulting diatribe that addressed a tiny section of the Muslim community (the so-called Indian middle class – especially businesspeople).

The main task of the South African Muslim community, according to Baig, is to grow the middle class. Because, he argued, only the middle class possesses morals and ethics. The upper classes are too greedy to have any concern for morals, and the working class… well, doesn’t care, because their only concern is “how do I keep myself alive”. “If there is no middle class,” he opined, “there are no morals and no ethics… That is why we refer to them as ‘middle class ethics’.”

Why is it difficult for anyone to realise that such comments are profoundly insulting (including to large sections of Al-Qalam’s readership), hurtful, and quite despicable. As someone who grew up in a working class home, with working class parents, and whose values were shaped in a largely working class context (admittedly with some contribution by certain middle class comrades), I certainly felt insulted. Perhaps for someone who addresses life’s challenges as a businessperson (Baig is a management and business consultant) it makes sense. His approach was about identifying that which “will be beneficial to you as an individual, and to the Muslim community as a whole”. I wondered then what had happened to the Qur’anic imperative to “stand out firmly for justice, even against yourselves, your near relatives… [and] against rich or poor”. This verse – part of the working class morality I inherited – emphasises that morality is not about profit but about values of truth and justice. These values are not trite; they bear repeating and remembering.

Morality

What had happened to the notion that all human beings are born in state of fitrah, purity, which – if lost through one’s family or environment – can be reclaimed through struggle? Does only the middle class have access to this fitrah; does the working class have no access to morality and ethics except as presented to them by the middle class? What kind of elitist hogwash is this, I asked myself.

The Qur’an certainly does not regard morals and ethics in this way. Of course, the Qur’an was revealed when classes – as we understand them today – did not exist; they emerged in this form during the industrial revolution. But if we were to impose today’s “classes” on the community of Nabi Muhammad (s), some from that community who we greatly admire and from whom we strive to take our values, morals and ethics were definitely not “middle” but “working class”. I am thinking of people such as Abu Dharr; Bilal; Ammar; Sumayya… But before all of them, I am thinking of Muhammad (s) himself: the working man who sold his labour to a merchant class woman before marrying her, but who remained with his “working class values” all his life. Upon his death he did not leave behind a large “middle class” material legacy. During his life he repeatedly prayed to live among the poor (the “working class”?), die among the poor, and be resurrected on the Last Day among the poor. It was also he who, it is reported, claimed that the majority of hell’s inhabitants will be the rich (the merchant class). Should this not make us cautious about attributing such great morality and ethics to the middle class? (The vacillating middle bourgeoisie, according to Marx, because they have such a problem maintaining their values, morals and ethics.)

It is such a distorted notion of the role of social forces that then informed Baig’s response to a question about how Muslims might gain [political] leadership in South Africa. (Why Muslims want leadership in South African society leaves me confused, especially when we have such a problem exercising leadership within our own community.) For this, he replied, Muslims must gain credibility. And the way to do that is to set up venture capital funds and finance African entrepreneurs! This is truly an example of middle class mis-morality (and, perhaps, even immorality). He is correct: one should gain leadership through earning credibility (and respect). But that does not come from throwing money around to “grow the middle class”; it comes from being part of, and engaging in the struggles of our people in this country. And we have many examples of South African Muslims doing exactly this: Muslims who threw themselves into the struggle of the poor and working class; who sacrificed and suffered, and through that were awarded with respected, credibility and even leadership. There is no morality in leveraging “credibility” and “leadership” through the use of one’s wealth.

It is unfortunate that in our quest for “benefit” we are so willing to forget the values we have inherited from the Qur’an and the life of the Nabi Muhammad, values which emphasise justice, truth and solidarity; values which do not devalue people on the basis of their wealth and do not judge people’s possession of morals and ethics on the basis of their class or social position; values which have been transmitted to us by both rich and poor people, and whose transmitters include many who are “working class”. Such forgetfulness makes a mockery of Islam and the role of Muslims.

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