Imagine a train, exactly 1,001 cars long (shades of the 1,001 Nights!) traversing the great land masses of the Earth on a closed railroad loop, completing a full circuit each year. It passes through frozen, lifeless landscapes everywhere. And it must never stop.
That is Snowpiercer.
Based on a French graphic novel titled “Trans-Snowfall” (1982) (with a hint at the Trans-Siberian Railway), the post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer (2013) was made into a TV series in 2020. The latter is supposed to be a prequel to the movie, so the storylines are different. But the setting is the same.
Sometime in the near future, to prevent climate change and overcome the effects of global warming, scientists release a chemical into the Earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately, the scientists miscalculate, and the planet is plunged into a new Ice Age.
Faced with the impending extinction of humanity, Mr. Wilford, equal parts engineer, genius and eccentric billionaire, conceives a modern version of Noah’s Ark. He builds the railroad loop before disaster strikes, even constructing a bridge between Siberia and Alaska. In effect, the train is a perpetual-motion machine.
On the train there are three classes, First, Second and Third, starting from the front and moving toward the back. Ticketless passengers, who could not afford the prices and forced themselves on the last cars as the train took off, are called “Tailers.” The passengers on the train are all that is left of humanity.
A rigid—and rigidly enforced—social order exists on the train. Kept in line by draconian measures, the Tailers live in unspeakable conditions and subsist on black protein bars made out of cockroaches and assorted insects, while the Firsters enjoy unimaginable (to the Tailers) opulence and luxury. As one character remarks, this resembles a skyscraper laid sideways on a track, or perhaps a pyramid.
But what does the train symbolize?
The Social Pyramid
Snowpiercer is a metaphor for Spaceship Earth, completing a revolution around the sun once a year. The planet travels through the cold, lifeless expanses of space. And the social conditions on the train exactly mirror those that exist in real life. The have-alls, the 1 percent of the 1 percent, are in command of limitless resources, while the have-nots barely survive from day to day. After wealth reaches a certain critical mass, it attains such a momentum that the super-rich don’t have to do anything: it just keeps on growing by itself. Consider the following headline-worthy facts:
- Since 2015, the richest 1% has owned more wealth than the rest of the planet (the 99%).
- If everyone were to sit on their wealth piled up in $100 bills, most of humanity would be sitting on the floor. A middle-class person in a rich country would be sitting at the height of a chair. The world’s two richest men would be sitting in outer space.
- The world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet’s population.
- The world’s richest 1% have more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people.
- Just eight men own the same wealth as the poorest half of the world.
- Meanwhile, around 735 million people are still living in extreme poverty. Many others are just one hospital bill or failed harvest away from slipping into it.
- Every day 10,000 people die because they lack access to affordable healthcare.
- Over the last 30 years [up to 2017] the growth in the incomes of the bottom 50% has been zero, whereas incomes of the top 1% have grown 300%.
- 25,000 people die of starvation each day.
- The 3 richest Americans hold more wealth than the bottom 50% of their fellow citizens. (Oxfam Reports, 2017-2020, Forbes.)
Master Kayhan used to express this in terms of a simile. Three cauldrons in a row, the ones on either end shoot water at each other from time to time. Nothing lands in the middle one. Translation: the rich give to the rich, the poor receive nothing.
The extreme inequality portrayed above is both unconscionable and unsustainable. But what is to be done?
At this point, we might do well to remember Roger Garaudy (1913-2012), the French philosopher who converted to Islam in 1982. His Islam is by no means that of the fundamentalists, but rather that of the Sufi mystics.
Garaudy had an interesting career. He was both a Marxist and a Christian. Marx, a sort of godless Hebrew prophet turned economist, laid emphasis on society, on the collectivity. Jesus, on the other hand, emphasized the individual, the primacy of the person. Garaudy found both indispensable: he claimed that one could neglect neither society as a whole, nor the individual. However, he was unable to reconcile the materialism of Marxism with the spirituality of Christianity.
According to his own account, Garaudy was originally a Christian. When he found out that cartels were destroying millions of tons of milk and burning millions of tons of wheat in order to keep prices high while the poor were starving to death, this profound lack of conscience drove him to Marxism. But this, in turn, had no spiritual side at all: it was dry as a bone.
At the end of the Second World War, Garaudy was sent to a prison camp in Algeria. The French commandant wanted him dead for disobeying his orders. Yet the Moslem soldier charged with the task refused to execute Garaudy, thus placing his own life in jeopardy, and helped him escape. When Garaudy asked him why he had done that, the reply was:
“I’m a Moslem. I can’t take the God-given life of an unarmed man.”
This unconditional obedience to a higher authority than the commanding officer left a lasting impression.
Until then, Garaudy had viewed Islam as merely a tribal religion. This response led him to research it in greater depth. What he discovered convinced him that the aims of both Marx and Jesus could be achieved, without revolutionary upheaval on the one hand and without renouncing the world on the other.
A fairer distribution of income, Garaudy realized, was possible through one of the Five Pillars of Islam: the Alms-tax (zakat). The alms-tax, he wrote,
But consider: the Prayer is a most intimate moment with God, it is a personal, spiritual matter. Yet the alms-tax cannot be more social. Thus, the Koranic verses unite the spiritual with the material, they combine the individual with the social.
And here we reach the crux of the matter. For as Master Ahmet Kayhan explained: “If human beings valued spiritual instead of material wealth, they would achieve everything they desired by material wealth. There would be no wars, there would be brotherhood, there would be happiness, they would win everything.” (Bayman, The Teachings of a Perfect Master (TPM), p. 177.)
Washing Your Money
According to God, everything we earn is not ours alone: the poor have a rightful share in our earnings. If we usurp their share, this is unclean. In order to cleanse our money, we have to give the poor their due, in accordance with the ruling of God. If we fail to do this, there will be consequences, as attested by vast experience. We will lose that money or more under less desirable circumstances.
The annual alms-tax rate has been set at 2.5 percent, or one-fortieth, of one’s excess wealth, after all needs have been taken care of. It looks as if the poor will always be with us. But this amount, if everyone chips in, is enough to save them from destitution. The Prophet said: “If more were necessary, God would have prescribed a higher amount for the alms-tax.” Indeed, in the time of the Caliph Omar Ibn Abd al-Aziz (a.k.a. “the fifth Rightly-Guided Caliph”), one alms-tax collector could not find anyone to give it to. So this is possible. And one-fortieth of the huge wealth of our super-rich is enough to raise everyone out of extreme poverty. (On the other hand, nothing prevents you from giving more, should you so desire!)
God allows the iniquities of this world for a reason: so that we can do good, so that we can right wrongs. Master Kayhan related a Saying of God: ‘I love man very much, I serve man by the hand of man.’ (TPM, p. 97.) Our hands are God’s hands.
The Meaning of Community
Garaudy further writes:
Here we should recall that the French word “membre” also encompasses the meaning “limb,” that is, an integral part of an organic whole. And this brings to mind the Saying of the Prophet: “In loving, pitying and protecting each other, the faithful are like one body. When a limb/organ of a body is ailing, all the other limbs/organs suffer insomnia and fever as well.” (Bukhari, Adab, 27.)
That is the true meaning of community. Otherwise, what you have is—as Frank Sinatra once said in a movie—“a bunch of people living at the same address.”
The Prophet and the Poor
Master Kayhan relates:
Someone has to tell our Prophet. Abu Bakr said, ‘I won’t do that.’ So Omar told him after the Noon Prayer. Our Prophet said: ‘As you wish.’ That’s all. They specified a neighborhood, about five minutes’ walking distance.
After midnight, the Prophet of God got up and went there. He did the Wakeup Prayer [before the Dawn Prayer], he consoled them, both he and they shed tears. ‘Don’t worry, everything’s going to be all right. I’ll clothe you, I’ll feed you.’
It’s almost morning, the Prophet of God is nowhere to be found. Aisha is apprehensive, too. Somebody came and said, ‘He’s there. He’s alive, don’t worry.’ They went, he’s talking. Omar said: ‘Forgive us, Messenger of God. Did we make a mistake?’ The Prophet: ‘Yes, Omar, you made a very great mistake. I came with the poor, I’m with the poor, I shall go with the poor. Wherever the poor are, there I am. My business is with the poor.’ (TPM, p. 299.)
Moreover, the Master said that the world can sustain up to 100 billion people. Most of the Earth, he said, is empty expanse. So, while increasing global populations are the cause of concern for some, there is nothing to be afraid of as long as resources are stewarded properly.
The Role Prophets Play
One can, perhaps, infer the existence of God by reason alone. But this dry, rational knowledge is not enough. And one would have to live many lifetimes to infer more about God’s ways.
So, in order to make things easy for us, God has conveyed knowledge about Himself and how to live in this world via certain selected human beings. Listen to William Blake:
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day.
One of the greatest good deeds is to have compassion or empathy, and to act accordingly. And one of the worst things is hardness of heart. The Master said: “The greatest thing is to control the self. The second greatest thing is to feel compassion towards all creatures. The third greatest thing is to fulfill the principles of Islam to the letter.” (TPM, p.129.)
Compassion should not be reserved for loved ones or human beings alone. One day, a visitor found Master Kayhan gazing out the window. “There’s a dog out there that has gone hungry for three days,” he said. “I’m trying to find someone to feed it.”
Stone-heartedness towards animals is one of the reasons that led to the coronavirus pandemic (see sidebar).
The 2020 Pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 highlighted the fact that intensive livestock production provides a hotbed for breeding viruses. Factory farms, especially of poultry, compress a great number of fowl into a confined space, such that each bird lives out its life in a space smaller than letter paper, wallowing in waste. Under these conditions, fecal contamination is unavoidable, and viruses thrive in feces—in their numbers, their kinds, and their evolution into deadlier pathogens. The same holds for herds and wet markets. Health officials are not exaggerating when they compare the living conditions of these animals to those of medieval cities. We condemn our livestock to living in concentration camps. Picture the chickens in a modern henhouse as human beings, and you will see what I mean.
Farm animals confined to pens in which they can barely move are often denied even a modicum of straw bedding, being forced to lay down on cold concrete. If you think that such heartless cruelty inflicted on literally billions of animals is not going to result in blowback, you’ve got another looong think coming.
In animals as in humans, stress suppresses the immune system, enabling viruses and bacteria to proliferate. We act as if we think animals are already dead. But they’re alive: they have souls and nervous systems, they feel, they experience pain. A famous philosopher was deluding himself when he thought that animals are robots.
Moses asks God: “Will You destroy us for what the fools among us have done?” (7:155). Sometimes, innocents suffer along with the guilty—perhaps for not having prevented (or at least, raised their voice against) the injustice of the latter, in accordance with the principle to “enjoin the good and forbid the evil.”
Instrumental reason tells us to maximize our profits and minimize our loss, but instrumental reason is blind to anything other than money. We’ve become like the one-eyed Cyclops lurching around after Odysseus put out its eye. This is what happens when you lose your moral compass.
In altering the traditional ecology of farm animals, where they could graze in open spaces, we have created the conditions for our own undoing. We have violated the balance of nature. And as someone once said, nature always has the last laugh. We may be thankful that the 2020 pandemic did not claim more lives than it did.
(For further details, see Michael Greger, How to Survive a Pandemic (New York: Flatiron Books, 2020).)
Compassion should be extended even toward the enemy, as the following account illustrates.
The Prophet and the Enemy in Combat
‘Your brother and an enemy soldier are wounded in war. You have a glass of water in your hand. Which one would you give it to?’
They all reply, ‘To our brother, O Prophet.’ ‘Okay,’ he says, ‘they’re both hungry, and you have a bite to eat in your hand. Who do you give it to?’ They say, ‘To our brother.’
‘That’s not the right answer,’ he says.
Abu Bakr and Omar ask: ‘What would you do, Messenger of God?’
‘Even if he had attacked me in person, I would give a drop more than half a glass to the enemy soldier. He can get up and draw his sword again if he wants to.’ (TPM, pp. 67-8.)
* * *
“Whatever you are,” says the Buddhist Dhammapada, “is the result of what you have thought.” And the Master said: “If man is corrupt, the entire world is corrupted.”
What is needed is a profound change of mind and heart: a “hard rethink” to reorient our fundamental outlook on life.
Unless and until that happens, the train we are on—our own train—will keep on hurtling toward the precipice.