Posted by: Dawud Israel | March 29, 2011

The Photocopier as the Modern World

There is something ubiquitously hypocritical about our society. After graduating and starting to work I’ve begun to realize a number of things. You see, you don’t really understand a society unless you experience it from the perspective of the workplace- the overwhelming reality of a modern society. Working in an office takes on many different roles, rewarding those who work hard but because its such an ambiguous space,  so isolated and often uncoordinated, that the office brings out many of the traits that we have hidden away. You never really know what someone else is up to and its not as important as getting the work done, as it is to show what you are doing and that you are working hard.

Much of it is quite frankly predicated on hypocrisy. Its on appearing to work hard. Why is the workplace, like the TV show The Office, such a joke? Its because it is so dependent on appearing busy, that being busy is a virtue because it distracts us from what we really are as human beings. We are limited creatures, and though lately our culture is critical of the man-child, perhaps rightly so, many of us are essentially that- children. No matter how we try and dress it up, we really haven’t experienced much. And we know this at some level, and we know that its OK to slack off as long as others think its OK. If I am OK with your occasional childishness and slackitude then you should be OK with mine as well- its an economy of laziness and downtime. We human beings get sleepy, we get lazy and bored, we take naps and we doze off. We are not complete masters of ourselves. How much of that can really be helped? It seems that we are trying to fit the nature that God made in us, the fact that we are spiritual beings, into this world- the grand into the small. Its a lot like fitting a giant into a small car- he expects it to work in a certain way but it doesn’t because he is too big and all he feels is his own inadequacy, when really that car was not built for his size nor is that car permanent.  Jannah, and not the office is the only place welcoming to our true spiritual nature- the only place durable to our reality and the only place able to accommodate and put up with our behavior.

And perhaps that is why we look so forward and closely to the technology in our daily lives. The photocopier, the printer, the computer, are all extensions of our shortcomings, and completions of our in-completions. Our workplace laziness is magically converted into a 100 page document to show to our boss and we are so thankful for that. The photocopier is such a blessed place. Only though it do we find our competence. It spews out the fruits of our labours instantaneously and impeccably, as a tribute to our good works. The photocopier is the perfect symbol of the American dream- its that, no matter how crummy your effort, this society will still redeem you because of its success, not yours. Whether you photocopy or don’t, it makes little difference…

There is something utterly disgusting about all this. Is this all their is? Much of the workplace and much of our civilization is built on the creation of work– unnecessary work. And at the end of it we go by day by day until we find ourselves in the hospital in the twilight of our days and wonder about the past 50 years and to paraphrase Abdal Hakim Murad, “wondering what that was all about.” I need to mention also something that Naquib al-Attas said:

When a society bases its philosophy of life upon secular foundations and espouses materialistic values to live by, it inevitably follows that the meaning and value and quality of life of the individual citizen therein is interpreted and measured in terms of his position as a citizen; his occupation and use and working and earning power in relation to the state. When in old age all this is gone, so likewise his identity– which is in fact moulded by the secular role he plays — is lost. The three generations that in such wise comprise Western society are forever engaged in the search for identity and meaning of life; are forever moving in the vicious cycle of unattainment; each generation dissatisfied with its own self-evolved values of life; each generation finding itself a misfit. And this condition, we maintain, is what we mean by injustice (zulm). (al-Attas, Naquib. Islam and Secularism, p. 93-94).

Its the tendency for everything modernity has touched to descend into simulacra. The small office is a knock-off of the big CEO office which is a knock-off of some Roman emperors office, which in turn is an imitation of God’s Divine Office. It’s a cycle of parody and when we walk outside the workplace what is there for us? More parody. We enjoy jewelery and fancy fashion only couched by status and prestige. The price on the Tiffanies bracelet made by some foreign 3rd world worker is as fake as the women (and some males and their pets) that wear them. Even these people they seem to know they are fake and surrounded by fakes, and the only thing authentic about them is their beauty, something God given. Its amazing how some rich people have no responsibilities, and pretend acting busy or end up gossiping and hating others, a loathing of others attempt at authenticity.

In some vague attempt to dress it up, they may try and be polite but often their politeness betrays them because they will repeat the same question they asked 20 minutes ago showing they never really cared for it to be answered. They just photocopy a previous thought onto a moment as replaceable and indistinguishable from the previous moment. Its all part of the appearance to appear talking and socializing because that is what people do. In-authenticity. Never mind, trying to find anything out of it besides looking the part. And somehow it whittles down to an empty ritual, like a background noise, that hates silence because the silence demands thought. One rich chap, perhaps the one example I have been speaking of above, listens to Quran in his Mercedes and it occurred to me that perhaps it was not so much out of a religiosity but as a sign of prestige that he would listen to it. This is what the rich Saudis listen to and that is why I listen to it, just as I drive a Mercedes that they drive.

The fakeness in beauty is nauseating. And its all the more alarming when its infesting the Muslims waters of our consciousness. Like pirañas angrily gnawing away, one Muslim brother I know has his beautician mother thread away all the baby hairs off his face, and he walks around with his plastic face as if he is a player. There is an embarrassing  snobbery in that. He isn’t what he thinks he is, but he doesn’t know he looks like an idiot and he doesn’t know that everybody knows his mum is his cosmetician. And this finally comes back to the fakeness of the immigrant. The internet is littered with videos of immigrants and their attempts at being suave and modern. From failed dancing videos to face-palm fashion statements to trying to be a romeo in bad English, there is something all too distressing about it. This is what modernity and the West has done to the 3rd world, made it dance into a frenzy that forgets that it began and fighting its ending.  What makes it so tragic is how hard they try. The misspelling, the feeble attempts to make it look natural, perhaps because they think to behave white is the default- because of how authentically white they are, or because its somehow ontological to all humans? And its just that, the effort of it all. You’ve put in all that effort, building a theme park in the middle of the desert or a cricket pitch in a place surrounded by slums- you are not so much living a dream of imitating the West, as much as trying to escape your frailty and cultural reality, in the only place you see your escape- in imitating the West. You may have a hundred vintage Rolls-Royces but even a cheap pen betrays your status and privilege but you wouldn’t know it, but an Englishman might. And that Englishman will understand you’d do anything for him.

Why do the women wear so much makeup on Arabic news channels? Why do journalists wear suits in Pakistan? Perhaps even more fake is that they play the part and yet whether its Egyptian government propaganda or real critical talk, the people watching or listening don’t know or don’t understand or don’t even watch. Its yet another parody and the parody of it all is that its an attempt at something photocopied from the West,  its a lot of effort at trying to make it look effortless. But it wouldn’t work, because the Muslim world doesn’t have the photocopier- it doesn’t have that machine that transforms your dilly-dallying into a perfect product of use through sheer virtue of the societies affluence and inconsequentiality of your own work. They may have photocopiers in some offices, of course they do, but the photocopiers aren’t comforting, they only reproduce the difficulties in the rest of society and only reinforce the zulm of the system. Its more literature in an illiterate, uneducated society, and hence more work. Its out of place, and the work in the office is even more out of place because its not going to achieve the change and betterment of that society that it needs. There the photocopiers are reverse photocopiers- they convert hard effort into paltry goods. Or worse, we can say that perhaps some countries themselves are the photocopiers for the West; they take in the crap of the West, like underpaid child labourers, and give you something to sell at a high-cost as a brand-name Nike shoe or Coach purse. And like a photocopier they know how to create an accurate knock-off– they know the West is simulacra but they do it anyways out of necessity and survival. And much like a photocopier they are available at the click of button or more accurately a dial of the phone call. And like a photocopier, they make no objection but are merely thumped hard and start working again! They make no distinction as to what they copy– they are the hijabi Pakistani women working hard sewing sex costumes, perhaps wondering how Westerners use these strange clothing all while in the presence of Quranic verses displayed on the walls. Its the tendency of globalization to make everybody complicit to its crimes, to besmirch even its opponents with its stains, to make sure that if all partake in its blessings, they must also partake in its sins, even if by a crude joke one can’t help but laugh. “Gotch ya!” It’s this complicity and culpability that invades most incisively this space in our soul, to bring us all to the same level, to drag us down from climbing the ladder to paradise.

Returning back to the photocopiers, this isn’t the case in the Arab countries. They have photocopiers and like the West they transform their laziness into good work. No, in Saudi Arabia they quite literally have Qur’an factories. If you are a prince, it doesn’t matter how corrupt you really are, because you are printing off thousands of Qur’ans in your sleep, and it is this society that has redeemed you. It is modernity that has redeemed your faith. This is what salvation among Muslims looks like. A prosperity gospel of sorts. An unearned “may Allah reward you,” because what would He reward you with for this? Perhaps He would reward you with a good deed you actually earned, not one your father set-up ages ago. Wouldn’t that be something! And so there is something of affluence that demands one create work, unnecessary work much like here in the West- like how the “we can do no wrong” Saudis demolish sites in early Islam for fear of shirk, much like the fear of anthrax or swine flu over here, so that they can affirm and believe they have actually done something, and then perhaps 100 years from now another Saudi king will come along and rebuild those demolished sites and be hailed as a renewer. A mirror image of each other in time, photocopying each other so to speak. Manufactured heroics.

In many ways the photocopier has done more damage than we realize. It has photocopied our grainy, detailed world with its nuances into a cheap black-and-white vision of the world; what is known as ideology. But like our modern Islamic books the jump between the presence of ink and the absence of the blank has become a void. How did they go from nothing to something? Where is the process, the real everyday reality, the experience, the time and place, the movements and step into righteousness that I can follow and trace? Those words are on the page but they seem to say less and less the more they write, because they seem to distance Islam from the present. We have been short-changed in that regard, and even our ideas take on the image of cheap photocopy, easily copy-pasteable. And if someone demands to know more than what is being communicated (read: photocopied), then we are outraged. The human story in Islam is not something a photocopy can give us, nor can books alone give us that, but the presence of a teacher- a human being can. For no matter how much a teacher imitates the past, he is different. A thousand men make no sujud and yet no two sujuds are the same.

And this is similar to how we do our Islamic work, printing off posters, fliers and things pretending that they will be as understandable to non-Muslims as they are to us. But it only goes around the real work and does rarely accomplish anything other than being a cheap imitation of commercialism. Even the people that run these organizations take on a business-bent and operate as if it were as CEOs. Money and Islam can mix, but if we let them mix too readily, they take on the image of the corporation and only reinforce and strengthen the materialistic vision of the West. That is why we continue to affirm, as if to try and convince ourselves, that monetary success is not real success- that the Life of the Hereafter is better, and yet, again, those same volunteers are trying to find a way to balance their Islam to make it a means to worldly success. In their minds, perhaps, the gaze of the CEOs perched from high in their ivory towers is more piercing and heavy than the Gaze of the Almighty. And so the commercialism makes our Islamic work pretend work, for show, or as something to put on our resumes as volunteer work, since in the comfort of our middle-class lives we don’t feel the alarming need to spread Islam. Islam today, is as much a product of that same photocopier, that somehow a conference we lazily attend, floating down an escalator, will transform our dirty hearts into clean pure hearts like a drive-thru carwash. Similarly, I’ve already criticized Islamic writing is low in quality but high in volume, here.

I guess I will stop there but I think I better understand the hadith where God does not see the dunya worth even the wing of a fly.

Subhana kallahumma wa bihamdika ash-haduana la illaha illa ant astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk, ameen.


  1. about 95% of my family back home are like the people you described in this piece. they criticize us for trying to practice islam to the fullest, telling us that since we live in the west, we should be beach-blond and partying instead of wearing hijab and getting involved at the mosque. they tell us that they would kill to come to canada and that we’re wasting our blessing of living here.
    i wish they could realize how silly they’re making themselves look, striving for this image that they will never get.
    may allah guide them and jazak allahu khairun for putting my thoughts into words…
    saving this!

  2. One of the most refreshing and thought provoking posts I have read in a long, long time. Thank you for this well thought out piece.

    I think it all boils down to whether or not our intentions lie with the dunya or akhira. The more we love this world, the more we delve into its materialism, and the more we seek the pleasures of akhira, the less hedonistic our outlook becomes. But I did enjoy the office analogy :).

  3. Thank you for the well thought out article.

    Is it fair to expect spiritual fulfillment in our work though? We are spiritual, social, emotional, mental and physical beings, and for each aspect of our lives, we fulfill those needs in a variety of ways. I am not saying that we should remove Islam from the workplace, but use it as the principle to guide us. Everything has it’s place. But sometimes it is best imo to put your head down, and clear your mind of distractions, and complete the work at hand, even though it may seem spiritually unfulfilling. It’s what growing up is all about.

    The same can be said for life in the west. We’re here to carry on our lives the best we can, provide for our families, all while maintaining our Islam and inshaAllah excelling in it. But to view it as intertwined, where you want to attain spiritual benefit from your involvement in the secularised west seems like it would lead to a life of unbalance and constant stress due to being unfulfilled, because the west can’t give us that. Only Islam can give us that spiritual filler. Islam can be adapted to western culture, but at the end of the day the west is governed by secular principles; it may be able to satisfy our other needs, but not our spiritual needs, which should be separate and personal and in balance with our lives imo.

  4. May Allah reward you greatly.

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