It is interesting to observe in traditional cultures, especially in the Muslim world, that the marketplaces are comprised of rows of businesses dealing with the same product. In America, it would be considered foolish to open a business in proximity to a business already selling the same product. In Damascus, everyone knows where the marketplace for clothing is. There are dozens of stores strung together selling virtually the same material and fashions. Not only are the stores together, but when the time for prayer comes the merchants pray together.
They often attend the same study circles, have the same shaykhs, and are best friends. It used to be that when one person sold enough for the day, he would shut down and go home and allow others to get what they need. This is not make-believe or part of a Utopian world. It happened. It is hard to believe that there were people like that on the planet. And they exist to this day, but to a lesser extent. They are now old, and their sons have not embraced the beauty of that way of doing business. Today’s business culture glorifies cut-throat strategies, in which it is not enough to do well; destroying the competition is encouraged and celebrated.
This is covetousness puffed up to an obscene degree. As a result, whole societies are wounded spiritually; for the business culture is never contained among the merchants, but flows through the veins of a nation. The Imam says that for this reason we need to purify ourselves of these vile characteristics like covetousness. What makes the process difficult is living in a time when the abnormal is made to seem normal. The Quran warns that Satan seeks to adorn things before human eyes, so that we do not see things for what they are. As such, even covetousness is adorned. It is stripped of the stigma it so rightly deserves; it has now been placed under the rubric of “smart business.”
The terminology changes, though the essence survives shamelessly. The Prophet said that “competition is the disease of civilizations.” The propagation of the philosophy of “us against them” will spare no one, neither “us” nor “them.” According to that world view, everyone is considered “them” to someone else. Unnecessary competition grows into animosity. That’s how deep and insidious this disease is. Covetousness leaves one with the feeling of desiring more, which leads to a culture that can never be satisfied.
The Greeks differentiated between types of desire. They had a concept called eros, which is a longing for something which is never really fulfilled—wanting more and more. The Prophet said, “Nothing will fill the mouth of the son of Adam except the soil of his own grave. If he had one mountain of gold, he would only desire a second.” The Prophet also said, “Two people will never be satiated: seekers of knowledge and seekers of the world.” Covetousness, if it is not for God and His religion, will be for worldly things.
Imam al Mawlud next personifies desire and says “If you could ask desire about his trade” it will answer “earning humiliation!”. As for its father, it would say : “Doubt concerning the divine apportioning [of provision],” meaning being skeptical about how material provisions are allotted to different people.
Excerpt from the English Translation of Imam Al-Mawlud`a Matharat al-Qulub (Purification of the Heart).