Spiritual Explorer: Soul Searching From Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah
Editors Note: This article is part of a series. Follow along as Jacob explores widely different cultures and places and delves into the spirituality, history, and people that make these places unique.
Since first leaving the city of my birth to explore the world, I’ve always maintained a desire to be in the world’s most progressive cities. I recognized a need to see and experience firsthand the applications of measure deemed the forefront of human advancement.
Measures of human achievement, such as religious tolerance, social equality, economic stability, health, culture, and other defining measures have historic and fascinating paths leading from city centers and spreading from country to country.
To explore the world is to accept the knowledge of its strengths and its faults. When the skeletal remains of bygone eras resurface or are recollected, we can speak of them far more objectively. The emotional attachment to a place no longer called “ours” diminishes with time.
We’re able to look at controversial time periods and places with less bias, and it becomes easier to critique and explore from multiple vantage points the elements of their success. Equally so, we may perceive the significant ailments that led to their downfall.
Exploring Dubai From Multiple Vantage Points
In both the Quran and the Bible, God promised Abraham that the descendants of his son Ishmael would found a great civilization. It seems that this promise has been fulfilled and maintained unto the present time.
On a human scale, Dubai has achieved impressive feats. However, to say whether the cost on a similarly human scale is acceptable or not is difficult. In a spiritual sense, there is no greater cost known to man than the loss of his soul or his spiritual well-being. Islam is the most prominent religion in Dubai, but the lifestyle here appears far more reflective of secular values than might be expected in a Muslim country.
Standing on a man-made island, in view of an astonishing collection of some of the world’s tallest buildings, I am drawn strongly to wonder. Has the desire to be at the forefront of innovation and opulence led to a spiritual decline in Dubai?
Searching for Historical Parallels
In different periods of study I’ve researched civilizations at the height of their dominance, such as Egypt, Rome, and the German Third Reich. Recently, I took interest in some older works which parallel the construct of Catholicism to that of the purportedly pagan religion of Babylon. The construct, hierarchy, imagery, and era-specific influence of these two religions are incredibly similar on some points, and it was an interesting topic of reflection for me.
The decline of the Babylonian civilization in a modern, popular context is often associated with hedonism, greed, and, from the Christian biblical perspective, what amounts to general wickedness. At the height of the Babylonian civilization came the attempt to build a tower so high that it would stretch itself up into the heavens themselves.
In the story of the Tower of Babel, I see comparison to my interpretation of Dubai. This interpretation accumulated on many levels, from physical, to emotional, and also in my spiritual response. The story of Babel teaches that God’s ire was drawn, not by the physical reality of Babel’s tower, but by the competitive nature and arrogant spirit in which the tower was constructed. God’s warning of the danger in thinking that human achievement can best God’s creation is clear. His punishment in the story is swift and severe. The tower of Babel is reduced to rubble, and the entire population dispersed to the far corners of the Earth.
I do not refer to this story of Babel in an attempt to relegate this narrative strictly to a Christian or Biblical perspective. Rather, I recognize its potential as a parable with a clear underlying principle, capable of application across faiths. Adding to this my desire to observe and be a part of human progress, it leads my spirit to question which elements of progress do in fact challenge God’s plan for His creation?
The Human Cost of Progress
It is abundantly clear that there is no shortage of progress in this place, on many different levels. And there is no doubt that Dubai represents an impressive amount of progress in its region, and in the world.
In all of the great civilizations of the world you see that progress has come at the cost of many human lives. Through war or exhaustive effort, people have died to build, expand, and sustain every major civilization to date. I say this not to condone human exploitation as a practice, but mention it as a point of historical objectivity. It’s possible that Egypt could have built the pyramids without slaves, or that the United Kingdom may have reached its prominence without colonizing half the known world, but they didn’t.
The diversity here creates a climate of tolerance. It strikes me as an ideal similar to that in which the United States was founded. People of all races from the world over are drawn to Dubai because of the economic opportunities, nonexistent taxes, and high quality of life. To build such an extraordinary place in such a short period of time has required an inexhaustible source of cheap labor, perpetually supplied primarily from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines.
Unsustainably High Levels of Energy Consumption
In the first article of this series I raised the question of costs associated with the swift urban development of Dubai. Together with some reading in my research, I also spoke with an engineer who is a current resident. It seems that sustainability has only very recently entered the conversation.
The resulting disturbance to vast tracts of sea and land to build this impressive infrastructure must have an environmental impact. What the aftermath may bring from such unsustainably high levels of energy consumption per capita is completely unknowable in an immediate sense, but the danger seems very tangibly real.
In a city full of modern wonders, the greatness of which is unrivaled in many instances, another thought of danger occurs. The environmental impact may be more than physical. Despite the high achievements evident in Dubai, is it possible that such unsustainable and dangerous activity has damaged the souls of its creators?
The Paradoxical Hand of God
And yet, paradoxically, just last Saturday I was riding with a friend past his favorite mosque near this famous man-made island called Palm Jumeirah. As we drove, my friend described to me how at evening prayers the setting sun extends its dying rays of light through semi-translucent panels of the otherwise modestly built mosque, creating a scene of reverence and awe by none other than the hand of God.
Striking me once again, as it has increasingly done so during my visit, I find that, contrary to my expectation to find it distasteful, Dubai is truly an incredible place.
(Top image note and source: Dubai cityscape at night, by Jacob Sneed)
Follow Jacob’s series “Spiritual Explorer” as he delves into unique cultures, spirituality, history, and people of the places he travels. Let us know whether you agree with his impressions.
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