Discuss a book from the Western tradition that has had particular significance for you. What makes this book great in your view? What impact has this book had on how you think?
‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding is a novel that holds particular significance for me. A beloved friend of mine had gifted me a copy of the book two years ago, and this academic year, I had been asked to teach it to one of my classes, during my first half-term as a teacher at an Islamic secondary school.
In my view, what makes this book great is its inherently discursive nature. It allows the reader to explore a handful of fascinating philosophical dichotomies – Good Vs. Evil, Nobleness Vs. Savagery, Appearances Vs. Reality, and more – in addition to other considerations surrounding human nature, social organisation, and, from a Muslim reading of the novel: Dunya-based realities.
‘LOTF’ is a fundamentally allegorical text (whose contents have come to serve as a good metaphorical reminder, for me, regarding the truth of this world) in which a group of schoolboys who find themselves stranded on a ‘paradisiacal’ island must now decide on how to live; what to do: they must consider survival-based needs, as well as those pertaining to social organisation and cooperation. And while, for instance, frolicking and light-hearted entertainment would appear to be the foremost consideration for certain characters (namely, for Ralph, at the start at least), shelter, survival, and being in a good position to be rescued would appear to be the main consideration for others (in particular, for Piggy, the character whose defining trait is clearly made to be intelligence). Rather tellingly, Piggy’s “specs” (symbolic, perhaps, of his unique capacity for Baseera – insight) are what is used in order to ignite fire, in the story.
The motif of fire is of central importance in this text: it is closely associated with goodness – in terms of community, cohesion, hope, and direction (in opposition to chaos, disunity, alienation and violence) and, quite literally, with warmth and illumination, and with survival — the ultimate goal of being rescued. In the Qur’an, also, Allah (SWT) analogises Īmān with a fire that must be kindled and maintained; if we do not actively tend to and nurture it, we may be left in darkness: “deaf, dumb, and blind,” and with severely diminished hope of ultimately being saved.
As Ralph comes to realise: “The fire’s the most important thing […] Without the fire we can’t be rescued. I’d like to put on war-paint and be a savage. But we must keep the fire burning […] So we must stay by the fire.”
Dunya, in contrast to Jannah, is, undoubtedly, a difficult place. It is, essentially, less of a paradisiacal island, and more of an arena – an abode of continual tests and tribulations. Here, we have been imbued with great Purpose. To worship our Lord; to be as excellent as we can bring ourselves, by His grace, to be; to make good – and even excellent – choices with the various forms of wealth that we have been given (beginning with that of Time). We ought to do all we can to prevent the fire’s extinction; to keep it burning, in awe, fear, and gratitude before our Creator.
In ‘LOTF’, a number of thoroughly interesting ideas surrounding human nature are interrogated, for example: how hierarchies – legitimate structures of authority – and rule systems are necessary in order to ensure stability – to prevent devolution into anomie and immorality; how the human being is known to don and hide behind masks, which liberate us from “shame and self-consciousness” – how we thus come to look “no longer at [ourselves]”, but at “awesome stranger[s]”; the dangers of attempting to democratise truth, as well as those of coming to favour fleeting sensory pleasures – self-serving thrills – over seeking out, and living in alignment with, Goodness.
“And what is the life of the Dunya, except the enjoyment of vanity?” [Qur’an, (3:185)]
In the novel, when Beelzebub – the titular ‘Lord of the Flies’ – attempts to divert Simon away from his tendencies towards contemplation and more intentional behaviour, and towards what Beelzebub euphemistically refers to as “fun”, he (Beelzebub – who is known in the Islamic tradition as ‘Iblīs’) exclaims:
“We are going to have fun on this island. Understand? We are going to have fun on this island!”
Thus, to the innocent young characters, gradually, significant immoralities are made fair-seeming. Characters who initially (seemingly ‘innocently’) attack tree trunks become increasingly desensitised to the moral weights of senseless and violent acts, and amass enough bloodlust with which to kill a pig. Simon and Piggy are also later murdered, in cold blood:
Even our ‘small’-seeming misdeeds can be – or become – significant.
I also thoroughly enjoyed thinking about – and discussing, with my students – the theme of leadership in the novel. In the novel, and in the Islamic tradition, the concept of a good leader is presented as one who exercises deep care for each of their constituents, including those of perceived lesser social status: the “littluns”. They instate the rules – and embody the ethos of what they represent – and also follow them; they are strong and confident, and also exercise gentleness, humility and patience. In matters of leadership, (to follow Muhammad (SAW)’s example) the emphasis ought to be on serving God and on serving the people, in lieu of our own egos. Stature is of importance, and so too, critically, is intelligence – but not when it is bereft of spiritual morality.
Like unwitting schoolboys on an island, we are human beings in Dunya. We are here for a while, and we have these fundamental yearnings to go Home. Here, we have a world that is decorated with vegetation, and with seas; rock formations, and stars. We have been given the gifts of Time, and of our intellects (which, if we use them properly, form the key distinguishing feature between true nobleness, and true savagery) as well as our individual strengths and weaknesses: personalised blessings, and tests. Here, perhaps, our goal ought to be to keep the fire – of Baseera, rationality and morality – alive: aflame.
[To quote Ralph once more,]
“After all we aren’t savages really and being rescued isn’t a game”.
With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.