Contemporary and Social Issues

Popular Culture and the ‘Search’ for Meaning


Syed  Amer Safir, London, UK

What do the movies The MatrixFight Club, and The Truman Show have in common? 

For one, they all depict characters in search of something to fill the voids in their lives, who are grinding through their office jobs, stuck in the mundane cycles of their everyday routines. These protagonists feel that something is missing; there is an emptiness inside that creates a restlessness which they seek to overcome. And while they seem content on the surface, they struggle to make sense of what purpose their existence actually serves, eventually fighting to break free of the monotony. 

Once the realisation sets in that surely there must be a higher purpose beyond the unfulfilling material world they live in, they set out in search of answers. Albeit in very different ways, they soon find their callings:  in the The Matrix, Neo finds out that he is in a simulation and that robots rule the ‘real world’ while humans are subdued through a virtual existence. Truman in The Truman Show discovers that he has been part of a reality  show since birth, with cameras following his every move in a ‘world’ that is controlled and dictated by the creator of the show, and he ultimately breaks free. And the narrator in Fight Club breaks free from his unsatisfying existence by joining an underground fight club, where the intense physical nature of fighting gives him a sense of gratification and purpose. 

Media, film and literature are littered with these kinds of characters – those who hit a turning point in their lives and struggle with their desire to want something more. 

And popular culture promises to fill this void with a number of systems, philosophies or ideas (the red pill, robots, etc.) that explain why we are here in this world and how we came to exist – explanations that leave God or spirituality out entirely. In the beginning of The Matrix, for example, Neo is reading a book called Simulacra and Simulation, by the post-modern philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who posited that the world we live in is just a simulation.

Whilst getting my university degree, I wrote about the similarities between these three films and their search for meaning in this world. The intervening decade has only made this perspective more relevant, as can be seen on social media. 

Take a quick glance (or swipe) across Instagram Reels, Tik Tok or YouTube Shorts, and one of the most popular genres are motivational and life quotes. Inspirational snippets of advice taken from philosophers, celebrities, thinkers and other successful people are creatively packaged and consumed by tens of millions of viewers. The advice includes anecdotes on how some billionaires wake up at five in the morning, how someone’s major failure led to future success, how someone’s being bullied inspired a ground-breaking idea, and advice on how to attain happiness, how to beat depression, how to lead a fulfilling life – these are just some of the many concepts engulfing these platforms. There are also countless popular podcasts that offer motivational speeches and commentary. I’ve lost count of the number of people I have met who tell me they listen to motivational podcasts during their workouts, their walks or jogs or commutes, searching for perspective on how to live life to the fullest. 

Then there are the celebrities or millionaires, some of whom comment publicly that, despite having access to limitless luxuries through their vast wealth, they remain depressed, unfulfilled, and unhappy. Tyson Fury, 33, the current and two-time world heavyweight champion in boxing (who retired this past April), reported to be worth $65 million, explained in an interview how ‘all the material things I thought would bring me joy and happiness…all the fast cars, all the money, fame, going out with all the boys… it gets very boring. It doesn’t make me happy. It made me very sad – it gave me a lot of depression and I wanted to die. Imagine, I’m 27 years old, and I have more than anyone can wish for…achievements, glory…and I don’t want to live anymore. So material things will never, ever, ever fill that gap. So now I’m happy for being sane every day. I’m happy for training every day. I’m happy to take my kids to school and back. I want to take out the bin…just normal everyday things to keep me level-headed.’

Discussing Islam in Portugal

I was invited to Portugal recently by FIPP, a global media organisation including major magazine publishers, media companies, and content creators, to speak on behalf of The Review of Religions at their World Media Congress 2022, hosted by marketing agency Di5rupt (both of to whom I grateful to). Along with senior management from leading media brands The New York TimesNational Geographic, Netflix, Wall Street Journal, India Today, The Daily Mail, Financial Times, Newsweek, The Economist, Google and many others, this author was given a unique opportunity, through a 25-minute presentation, to explain the modern digital growth of The Review of Religions from a print-only publication to a multi-platform, multi-language media organisation. I explained that The Review of Religions has always been a brilliant magazine since its inception by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) – the articles during his era and shortly after remain peerless – such that leading thinkers like Leo Tolstoy took notice. The only difference today is that we introduced a modern digital footprint to this already incredible legacy. 

My talk was, of course, as per the organisers’ guidelines, centred purely around professional publishing and media techniques on our use of social media, design, videos, exhibitions, new formats for our print edition and the launch of our German, French and Spanish editions. But inevitably, our content had to be mentioned when discussing our development journey, illustrating how we utilised modern techniques to promote articles relating to the existence of God, Islam, tolerance for all religions and so on. 

I had presented a picture of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) on the slide, mentioning why he founded this magazine, and later also an image of His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba), and how his visionary addresses relating to the potential outbreak of a third world war were an example of content that went against the trends at the time they were published. (Now, of course, the possibility of a third world war is, in fact, a trending topic.) This growth and success naturally comes from the ground-breaking guidance from His Holiness, Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, examples of which I have penned in the past, and I hope, will continue to do. 

Back to the beautiful city of Cascais, in Portugal, I had completed the talk. While my aim was not to preach Islam, as I was there in a professional capacity, I found to my surprise that  I was often approached by delegates who wanted to discuss certain religious points, and I would respectfully try to answer them as best as I could. The age-old adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’ proved to be true; unexpectedly, a 19-year-old, the youngest in the audience, came to me after the talk to say how he had a deep interest in religion. He was planning to travel across South America with his friends, was intrigued by our Spanish edition launching from Guatemala, and wanted to learn more about our views. 

I also met a senior director of a world-leading media organisation, who said he had listened to my talk but was an atheist himself. ‘Although I am quite interested to learn more, you can never convince me that God exists!’ Using arguments from Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) and His Caliphs, I told him he was right –I could never fully convince him that God exists through arguments alone. Reasoning would only prove logically that God should exist, but to be fully convinced, required experiencing God, communicating with God, witnessing God answering one’s entreaties. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘I have heard all arguments, and therefore there is no logical reasons either that would make me change my mind.” I proceeded to present some arguments from various writings of the Promised Messiah (as) and his successors and companions, including, Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad’s (ra) book Our God and Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Ahmad’s (ra) book Ten Proofs of the Existence of Allah. He was impressed, but said whilst all of these made sense, there’s one issue that could never change his mind, and that was the question of suffering. I also replied to this issue and we left the conversation there. Later, this same individual posted to his thousand contacts: ‘I’m a staunch atheist, but I have never heard arguments like this,’ and urged everyone in his contacts to learn more.

I also met a president of an iconic magazine title, and we shared ideas and techniques in our meeting. At the end, he asked me about The Review of Religions and the topics we covered. He told me that although he didn’t believe in God, he believed in consciousness and was keenly interested in such topics. What he told me next was even more intriguing. He said that many of his friends were in search of something, some answers to life in general. What that was, they weren’t 100% sure, but they were looking for something regardless. 

Now, to put things into perspective, it wasn’t as if large swathes of the audience were discussing such topics with me afterwards. It was a business conference, and people were there to further their business interests. However, there were certainly enough who spoke to me about religion for me to reflect that this ‘search’ perhaps exists in more people than we would care to think. 

And these conversations weren’t limited to just this particular conference. I remember another publishing industry conference I attended in London earlier this year. I happened to meet the editor-in-chief of a renowned fashion magazine. I did not think for a moment that we would discuss issues relating to religion. I had intended our discussion to focus on magazine techniques, but when I mentioned the name of this magazine, he suddenly stopped and asked about the title with deep interest. He proceeded to tell me how he had a keen interest in religion, stemming from his family background. After a discussion about religion, as we were about to go our different ways, he looked at me and said, ‘we have to represent!’

I find this intriguing for many reasons, but I will share just one here. Twelve years ago the office culture was vastly different to today. Whilst of course there are still countless examples of people struggling through monotonous daily routines in dead-end jobs, a more vibrant, dynamic, employee-friendly office culture has also developed in some companies. Hybrid and flexible working has become the norm, and the older routine of a 9-5 office job no longer applies to the same degree today. Despite this more appealing office environment that has been created in some businesses, many of the questions about life and where we belong appear to remain the same.

Where We Fit In..

Often, when I attend such events around the world, the first question I am asked is ‘Just what exactly is The Review of Religions?’ I tell them that we seek to provide the answers to the biggest questions in life, such as, is there something more to our everyday existence? How can we gain long-lasting, and not short-lived happiness? Is there really a God and if so how can we prove He exists, and why do we need to connect with Him? What happens after we die? I inform them that that our perspective is based on the viewpoint of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), who we believe to be the Messiah of the latter days, or the second coming of Jesus (as). His divinely guided mission was to revive the true and peaceful teachings of Islam and the Holy Qur’an to the whole world. Today we benefit from his fifth Successor, or Caliph (Khalifah), His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba), whose speeches we regularly publish, in which he breaks down difficult religious concepts in a way that can be easily understood and applied to everyday life to our benefit.

To believe in God or not is every reader’s choice, and we firmly believe as it states in the Qur’an, that there is no compulsion in religion. Yet in these pages we will continue providing what we feel are practical, rational and spiritual answers to everyday life questions. Popular culture seems to often acknowledge that people in the world are in ‘search’ for meaning beyond their everyday routine lives, but has tried to fill that void with a range of material ideas and concepts but that are ultimately still temporary solutions. Here at The Review of Religions, we argue that this void can be filled through recognising there is a God Who exists, Who listens to our prayers, and Who provides long-lasting inner peace. Whilst readers benefit from our content, by all means, question it, criticise it and debate it; we would love to engage with all our readers in this platform built on respect and discovery. All we suggest is to keep an open mind and consider the possibilities of the content we provide unbiasedly, and that perhaps this magazine can help in anyone’s search for more meaning.

About the Author: Syed Amer Safir is the Chief Editor of The Review of Religions. 

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