My nephews read Animal Farm for their GCSE English literature text. I wish I had read this instead of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies but I guess they have a similar premise and both belong to the same dystopian genre.
Orwell applies a critical lens to life and makes some very accurate observations that stand the test of time – the human condition does not evolve (at least not without revelation and turning back to Allah and His guidance).
I can fully understand now why this type of book is so rich for discussion. Despite being barely 100 pages long, after finishing the book, I feel far from done with it and this forms the basis of a second literary review of the book but this time I’m framing the dystopian story within the Islamic lens which offers transformation rather than mere circumstantial acceptance of a dystopian existence. Where Orwell doesn’t offer a solution and transcendent understanding, thankfully Islam and the last revelation that underpins its theology, does.
There is a reason why Animal Farm has remained relevant and been such a popular text for studying. There is a reason why even the term “Orwellian” has been coined to describe dystopian realities. These are relatable realities. Thus, dystopia forms the basis of much of Orwell’s writing and on a human level, irrespective of your socio-economic and political status, there will be few from whose eyes the dystopian premise of our shared existence can escape.
“We have certainly created man into hardship. Does he think that never will anyone overcome him?” – Qur’an 90:4-5
Everyone experiences struggles, setbacks, failures, injustice. At the highest level and all the way to the bottom level, within each group, there is always a hierarchy and struggle for power, deception and betrayal in attaining and retaining it. You’ll find it in farming communities, you’ll find it in science circles, you’ll find it among medics, academics and assuredly you’ll find it in politics! Indeed what area of life is free from politics and hierarchy? Everyone has heard of the term “kitchen politics” and “family politics”; there is no corner of life that is free from the politics and struggle for power and self determination. And of course therein lies the evasive concept of liberty! There is man’s independent (and narrow) definition of freedom and there is a Divine definition of freedom and the two are literally worlds apart.
In Animal Farm (huge spoilers ahead), Orwell tells the dystopian tale under the guise of farm animals who oust their human masters from the farm and undertake to self govern and emancipate themselves from humankind who exploit them. At first the farm animals are all equal but gradually, a hierarchy develops. Where one of the 7 commandments initially said “all animals are equal”, eventually Squealer (one of the puppeteer pigs under the leadership of the fattening boar, “Comrade Napolean”) adds the words “except that some are more equal than others”. The pigs form the intellectual elite under whose governance all other animals fall (without election). The pigs can read and write whilst the others can barely read up to 4 letters of the alphabet and their ability to recollect is even harder. They are easily taken advantage of and over the years, the layers of deceit from the pigs (namely chief pig Napoleon) grows fatter whilst the condition of the other animals on the farm deteriorates. The gap between rich and poor widens. The burden of labour is on the lower classes whilst the ruling elite work little but control the capital, resources and strategy for governing. Sound familiar?
The lived experience of Orwell in 1947 is the same as our lived experience today. And no doubt, tomorrow’s human experience, too. So it will continue until this world’s expiration [C S Lewis’s Narnia presents the best parallel of worlds and their expiration in this case!]
Orwell does a great job in depicting the human condition but he does not seem to find a transformative tool for humanity. Fear not, I have it aha!
I feel like “Snowball” has come to save the day. I really do wonder what happened to Snowball!
Snowballing tangents aside, returning to the plot. Where do humankind go from here? Orwell doesn’t seem to suggest much and reflecting on the condition of mankind without having a framework and tools with which to transform human beings, merely reflecting isn’t going to achieve much. The One who Created us gave us a manual on how to live with ourselves and others. It’s there for anyone to consult.
So, first let’s start with the precept of liberty. In simple terms, liberty is largely associated with this temporary earthly existence. When we think about our freedoms, we think about them in the context of our current lived experience. Most people (including believers) fail to swiftly connect the current earthly existence to a life after death. We are confined to our worldly experiences and our future worldly experiences. Liberty is about the here and now.
The liberty to go out for a walk during lock-down for example, the restriction in going to get a hair cut for example, the liberty to go get groceries whilst the restriction to go visit elderly family members in care homes or hospitals. All of our liberty and freedom is tied to our earthly existence. If this is the limited scope of our vision, we will struggle to escape Orwell’s dystopian existence and we will find ourselves in a perpetual struggle for perceived earthly freedoms of all kinds. This is how existential crises occur. How peace is jolted from within our hearts despite the answers being within those very chambers. We’d see them if we spent some time cleaning our own hearts. But alas we are very much entrenched in comparing ourselves to others and our relativity is measured against the temporary rather than a sacred and transcendent formula.
You don’t put diesel into a horse to make it run. You don’t consult ‘what car?’ magazine to figure out how to operate your Dyson vacuum. You don’t consult the shampoo instructions to figure out how to tie your shoe laces. Everything created has a creator. An inventor. So too, human beings have a Creator who has sent us a manual on how best to operate. If we operate well; the fountain of utopia can be unlocked within our very own hearts:
“you pleased with God, God pleased with you. Enter inside My servants you have entered My garden” [89:27-30]
A Sufi reading of these ayat [signs not verses] in Omid Safi’s Radical Love examine how the heart of Allah’s servant is itself the earthly vessel of His gardens. Such a Utopian state is achievable and can be nurtured inside the heart of a believer. Perhaps not sustainable and requiring persistent discipline and dhikr (remembrance of Allah) but attainable all the same.
Returning to rights; there are some basic human dignities that intersect between Divine rights and secular human rights as we have come to know them. Things like the right to own property (irrespective of colour or gender). But ultimately there will remain a discomfort and anxiety in a human being who ties his liberty to this ephemeral earthly existence without primarily tying it to the reality of an eternal realm to come. The eternal world must precede our attachment to the ephemeral. Our reaction to our individual and collective experience (tests, trials, tribulations) in this world will have a consequence on the outcome of our eternal abode.
The secular dystopian reality has only a nihilistic outcome, there is no transformative model that has worked. Just look at the passage of time from Orwell to us, today. Has mankind made any progress or indeed, can you not perceive how the further away man has gone from his Creator, this has only hindered his transformation and engendered the disparity between rich and poor. Napoleon has only gotten fatter. Mental health, suicide, depression and all the maladies that are inextricably linked to the spirit starved from its Creator, have grown. Such maladies were not reported during the times of belief; hearts were stronger in their convictions and doubts of a point and purpose to life were scarce.
The spiritual model relinquishes servitude to this earthly existence and instead submits and surrenders rights to God. Allah. The One Almighty Creator, The Most High.
As a Muslim (surrendered to Allah and His last message and last messenger), if someone steps on my dignity and usurps my rights, I know that I have a day in court scheduled already. I know that my lifespan on earth is merely an afternoon in the grand scheme of my life in the hereafter.
“It will be, on the Day they see it, as though they had not remained [in the world] except for an afternoon or a morning thereof.” – Qur’an 79:46
I will try my best, along with my family, friends and community to fight for my rights and the rights of others, but at the end of the day, I am surrendered not to the outcome of winning them back but to the reality that this life is temporary and if I am oppressed, I will come out a winner in Allah’s court.
Don’t take this as an instruction that Islam doesn’t enjoin on us to fight for our rights and in particular to fight for the rights of the downtrodden! Not at all.
“O you who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives. Whether the person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly – if you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do.” – Qur’an 4:135
It is merely a case that Islam recognises that this dystopian existence is the only way that this life will play out; that’s what happens in a test environment; mistakes are made and some people cheat in the exam. The people that make mistakes (all of us!) have the opportunity to seek forgiveness, to turn back in repentance and the people that cheat (pigs) can also repent but if they are persistent in their cheating, they will reinforce the seal upon their hearts that prevents them from seeing beyond the consumption of this earthly existence.
“As for those who disbelieve, it makes no difference whether you warn them or not: they will not believe. God has sealed their hearts and their ears, and their eyes are covered. They will have great torment.” [Qur’an 2:6-7]
When you surrender to this world, you will only perceive dystopia. Many believers hold out to some Arundhati Roy style illusion of utopia being a possibility here:
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” – Arundhati Roy
It isn’t. This is just the place where you give it a go, you’ll see glimpses of it here and there but it won’t last because this world is supposed to perish. Don’t labour on it but rather labour in it. Don’t focus on the outcome and result here, rather, focus on Allah and upholding the rights He has enjoined upon you and remember that He created everything in duality. Just as day follows night, just as the moon lights up the night sky whilst the sun hosts the sky with light during the day time, so too, there is another existence that is opposite in nature. A dystopian temporary earthly existence is followed by a Utopian eternal heavenly existence. Or it might be hellfire – there is duality in the hereafter, too. Just as there is a parallel creation to us existing even now (Jinn).
These are all signs of Allah and in these signs is yaqeen (certainty) and access to Utopia (in this life and the next) for those who surrender to Him.
Orwell hits a raw nerve and I believe that nerve will remain exposed for the remainder of man’s time on earth. This time and our liberties can only be ensconced when we tie their meaning to God’s plan for us.
“Thus, a good man, though a slave, is free; but a wicked man, though a king, is a slave. For he serves, not one man alone, but what is worse, as many masters as he has vices” – Augustine
“Every soul will taste death, and you will only be given your [full] compensation on the Day of Resurrection. So he who is drawn away from the Fire and admitted to Paradise has attained [his desire]. And what is the life of this world except the enjoyment of delusion.” – Qur’an 3:185
“Everyone upon the earth will perish, And there will remain the Face of your Lord, Owner of Majesty and Honor. So which of the favors of your Lord would you deny?” – Qur’an 55:26-28
“Know that the life of this world is but amusement and diversion and adornment and boasting to one another and competition in increase of wealth and children – like the example of a rain whose [resulting] plant growth pleases the tillers; then it dries and you see it turned yellow; then it becomes [scattered] debris. And in the Hereafter is severe punishment and forgiveness from Allah and approval. And what is the worldly life except the enjoyment of delusion.” – Qur’an 57:20
When you are enslaved to Allah you are no longer enslaved to yourself or this ephemeral existence and its endless distractions. You do your best to uphold the rights of others, in particular those more downtrodden than you and you busy yourself in good works and His remembrance. Islam is simple. It is people that are over complicated.
Measuring against the Qur’an, it will be the likes of Boxer (the hard working horse) who will win in the end whilst Napoleon and his puppets will be cast into the fiery pits of hell. Quite frankly where all pigs belong!
Surah Balad provides the answer [as does the rest of Qur’an but this surah in particular paints a succinct picture]. Reflect on these ayat:
“I swear by this city, Makkah – And you, [O Muhammad], are free of restriction in this city – And [by] the father and that which was born [of him], We have certainly created man into hardship. Does he think that never will anyone overcome him? He says, “I have spent wealth in abundance.” Does he think that no one has seen him? Have We not made for him two eyes? And a tongue and two lips? And have shown him the two ways? But he has not broken through the difficult pass. And what can make you know what is [breaking through] the difficult pass? It is the freeing of a slave. Or feeding on a day of severe hunger. An orphan of near relationship. Or a needy person in misery. And then being among those who believed and advised one another to patience and advised one another to compassion. Those are the companions of the right. But they who disbelieved in Our signs – those are the companions of the left. Over them will be fire closed in. – Qur’an 90.”
Everyone is enslaved to something except the one who is enslaved to Allah.