بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَـنِ الرَّحِيمِ
I am ‘interrupting’ my Surah Al-Kahf series to write this post because the muse paid me a visit, and like most writers, I cannot stall when inspiration beckons.
I have this habit of intermittently practicing a spiritually refreshing mental exercise that makes my eyes well up with gratefulness to Allah, and my soul feel humbled before His majesty, whenever despondency or anxiety of any kind make their subtle way into my brain.
But first, let me explain why I subject myself to this mental exercise in the first place. It is because of these verses of the Quran:
وَإِذَا مَسَّ الْإِنسَانَ ضُرٌّ دَعَا رَبَّهُ مُنِيبًا إِلَيْهِ ثُمَّ إِذَا خَوَّلَهُ نِعْمَةً مِّنْهُ نَسِيَ مَا كَانَ يَدْعُو إِلَيْهِ مِن قَبْلُ
“When affliction befalls man, he is likely to cry out to his Sustainer, turning unto Him, but as soon as He has bestowed upon him a boon by His grace, he forgets Him whom he invoked before….” [39:8]
وَإِذَا أَنْعَمْنَا عَلَى الْإِنسَانِ أَعْرَضَ وَنَأى بِجَانِبِهِ وَإِذَا مَسَّهُ الشَّرُّ فَذُو دُعَاء عَرِيضٍ
“When We bestow favours on man, he turns away, and gets himself remote on his side (instead of coming to Us); and when evil seizes him, (he comes) full of prolonged prayer!” [41:51]
Basically, in the above two verses of the Quran, Allah mentions a trait of human beings: that when they are troubled in any way, or otherwise in need of help, they turn to Him in prolonged, sincere prayer and supplications. And when He removes their distress or calamity and grants them provisions, they start enjoying their state of well-being, and the blessings therein, to such an extent that they completely forget how they were once in the throes of anxiety, calling upon Allah day and night to grant them relief.
It is because of this, that I try to recall my past problems and trials often, bringing to mind the different kinds of adversities and difficulties I faced when I was younger, because of which I’d pray earnestly to Allah and ask Him to help remove them from my life.
This mental exercise, of remembering not just your past difficulties, but also trying to revisit the emotions and feelings that you experienced when you were going through them, and then recalling how Allah responded to your dua’s and removed those difficulties from your life forever, has an amazing and surefire result: your heart starts to brim with love and gratitude for Allah, and you immediately extinguish and dissipate any negative thoughts of ungratefulness or complaint that Shaitan is putting into your head about your current situation in life.
Often, when I undertake this mental exercise in order to reduce my chances of being counted among the ingrates whom Allah has mentioned in the above two verses of the Quran, I find myself absolutely amazed and enthralled at the way Allah helps His slaves at every step in their lives.
I also find myself pondering upon something else that I have noticed as I grow older: the stark differences in the way the worldly success of religious zealots or evangelists like myself, and those who do not purportedly (or outwardly) follow religion, is celebrated.
This difference is what this post is about. It is a very interesting phenomenon actually. I just hope that I am able to convey it adequately so that others out there in the world (especially this blog’s readers), in particular, the youngsters who desire to practically act upon Islam, are able to recognize the pattern according to which success comes to those who decide to follow this Deen unapologetically and without reservations.
But first, let us recall what “success” in the life of this world actually entails, shall we?
The Definition of Success
When you think of someone who is ‘very successful’, what image comes to mind?
Probably someone healthy, good looking and self-confident, who has a charismatic personality and enjoys popularity and respect among young, peers and old alike. Someone who has made laudable achievements, won distinctive awards, and gained entry into exclusive A-lists in both their education as well as their career. Someone who moves around in all the ‘happening’ social and corporate circles, is well-liked, and whose opinion is not just sought by others, but who also positively influences others with ease. Someone who enjoys fulfilling and holistic biological and social relationships, and succeeds in every role that life throws their way, such as that of student, sibling, spouse, parent, teacher, entrepreneur, mentor, leader, or professional.
Here, I would like to add that in most societies, even today, someone’s success on the family level is gauged by the happiness and longevity of their marriage – who they marry and when, how many children this marriage produces, and whether it brings into creation a happy, healthy, ‘picture-perfect’ family or not, with both spouses achieving much together as a team in addition to whatever they accomplish on an individual front. In the East, especially, a person’s success is judged tremendously upon this factor — whether or not they are happily (and productively) married.
Last but not least, one of the greatest hallmarks of someone’s worldly success is the amount of wealth they own, no matter how it is gauged or reflected viz. their net worth; the size(s) and location(s) of their residence(s); the value of their businesses; the types and number of their cars and/or other assets.
At a certain lofty stage in life, when a successful person has surpassed that superfluous level of wealth that they or their succeeding generations could ever need or use, they are able to reach the ultimate level of worldly success: that of self-actualization. This involves philanthropy and humanitarianism – or helping those who are lesser privileged all around the world, by contributing their time, energies, ideas, talents, and enterprising efforts towards making this world a better place. This is the elusive, ‘self-actualizing’ stage of success that very few are able to reach during the life of this world. However, when considering success only from a worldly point of view (and keeping the life of the Hereafter out of it), this stage is considered the ultimate level of success that a person can ever achieve.
“Practice” of Islam and Worldly Success
One of the primary reasons people hesitate from acting upon the tenets of Islam is (besides obviously their lack of belief and conviction) the fact that practicing Islam openly, wholly, and publicly, almost immediately results in a loss of the benefits of this world on a personal level.
It changes your social ‘image’ overnight, which inevitably brings on antagonism from people (not-very-nice “You too, Brutus?” looks), based on their personal opinions about your perceived religiosity and beliefs, and in many cases, even abandonment by old friends – especially those with whom you refuse to argue/debate about your religious practice.
It is a fact that Islam brings with it many restrictions and rules, regarding but not limited to: the means of earning and spending one’s income; one’s social interactions, especially with the opposite gender; one’s dress code and ethics; the way one uses one’s tongue; what one eats and how; and of course, how can we forget, the methods of entertainment one uses to relax and enjoy leisure. These restrictions are just the tip of the iceberg, but I will not mention the other, more personalized ones that come into one’s life when one becomes religious, since they are more of a private matter, and do not affect one’s life in public as much as the ones above do.
In short: when you become religious, – bam! Your test of steadfastness and resilience in the face of opposition, especially the kind of opposition that adversely affects your social, academic and corporate life, starts almost immediately.
And that, my dear, symbolizes just the beginning of the “glitch” that comes into your life.
Fasten your seat-belt, kiddo. You’re in for some turbulence on this ride.
The Testing Phase
Think of Prophet Yusuf (عليه السلام) floundering in the well. Think of Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم) being thrown out of his beloved hometown, Makkah. Think of Prophet Ayub (عليه السلام) in the throes of debilitating illness and disease.
There are many people who, when they study the Quran or go through any life-changing, heart-humbling spiritual experience that makes them want to revert completely to Islam, inwardly vow to themselves, or intend, to henceforth relinquish everything from their personal actions and lifestyle that angers Allah or constitutes His disobedience.
They decide to bring about a complete 180 degree turn into their lives, promising themselves and Allah that they will “go the distance” and weather any trials and tests that He throws their way in order to test their sincerity and truthfulness in remaining loyal and true to their intentions to submit to His religion.
That is when, and that is also precisely why, He tests them. To see if they are truthful or not:
أَحَسِبَ النَّاسُ أَن يُتْرَكُوا أَن يَقُولُوا آمَنَّا وَهُمْ لَا يُفْتَنُونَ
“Do people think that on their [mere] saying, “We have attained to faith”, they will be left to themselves, and will not be put to a test?”
I get asked this question a lot: “Why does Allah test us? Why does He make us endure bad things in life if He loves us?”
The answer is simple: to see if you believe in Him or not, no matter what. To see whether you are a truthful, loyal and sincere devotee; or if you are a two-faced, fickle, spineless liar who is just in it (Islam) for the temporary benefits and the spiritual uplift. To see if you are willing to give up everything to gain His pleasure, if He so asks: even if it means sacrificing your logic, your desires, your worldly prestige, honor, wealth, dignity, loved ones, and even your physical security to please Him.
A cursory glance at the fruits of this world’s life will reveal that, any other blessing that is worth even a little bit, is obtained by paying the same kind of “price”: that of sincerity, hard work, sacrifice, and in some cases, even laying down one’s life for the attainment of self-sufficient affluence, prestige, honor, dignity and long-term fulfillment of purpose.
The more prestigious the university, the more difficult it is for a student to get into it (and also to stay in it). The more honorable and well-paying the profession, the harder a person needs to study and work to get qualified in it and successfully practice it. The better the bodily health and fitness a person desires, the harder they have to work at exercising and staying fit, even if it means sacrificing their favorite foods from their diet (no matter how much they love eating those foods).
No pain, no gain.
The same applies to the pleasure of Allah – which is the most precious blessing that anyone can obtain in this life and the next. In order to gain it, you need to endure pain, just like you have to for acquiring other, more transient blessings.
Now, back to the “glitch”.
There was a time in my life, when I too, decided that I would act upon my Deen no matter what, come what may. This was when I was studying the Quran in depth and detail, properly, as a student under a teacher, for the first time in my life.
There were many colleagues and classmates of mine who felt the same way during this ‘golden’ phase of our lives, when we were studying the Quran together and enjoying the spiritual “lift” and rejuvenation of faith that it was bringing about in our souls.
We were so sure of our intentions of hitherto abstaining from ever angering Allah again; of giving up everything from our lives that would displease Him; of working for the cause of His Deen by propagating to the best of our abilities and talents whatever knowledge of Islam we were gaining; and, for those of us who were still single, of marrying a religious man who’d help us achieve all of these lofty goals and allow us to bear and raise righteous offspring in whose life gaining the pleasure of Allah would be top priority.
Many of us set out with such noble intentions and inner ‘vows’ when we grudgingly reached the culmination of our Quran diploma course and thenceforth resumed our ‘normal’ lives.
And that was precisely when each of us was tested; each according to the levels of their sincerity and steadfastness. We came across the “glitches” and started weathering them, each our own way.
Make or Break
Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to please Allah without displeasing any of His creation? To look, act and behave like everyone else, to do whatever you want to, when and as you want to, without losing out on Allah’s pleasure and any of the blessings of this world?
Welcome to the fool’s paradise of your own delusional mind.
We all wish that were the case, don’t we? But it is not.
This world is not perfect; it is a sojourn of tests and trials; difficulties and calamities, peppered with phases of well-being and prosperity.
Bring to mind the sine curve (yes, I was a bit of a math geek in school. Can you believe I actually liked trigonometry? ) in which the troughs represent the difficulties that life throws our way, and the plateaus (or mountains) represent the good times.
Durning the plateaus – the phases of happiness, peace, security, health, abundance of blessings, achievement of goals, and prosperity, – we all like to enjoy ourselves and do whatever we want to. Most of us, unfortunately, tend to ‘forget’ Allah during these smooth phases of life, and promptly stop worshipping Him.
Think the bling-infused cousin’s wedding over the winter holidays, in which you danced to hip-hop at every dholki, ignoring your pricking conscience that was silently and repeatedly reminding you how you had promised to Allah whilst making dua to Him during your last Haj/umrah that you’d stop dancing at weddings from then on.
“It is just this one time. Big deal. Everyone is dancing, even portly Jibli Uncle over there!”
Think graduation day; job promotion day; the day you got married to the person you wanted to marry; the day your first baby was born, perfectly healthy and without complications.
At every such happy occasion, as you basked in the warmth of achieved objectives and acquired blessings, you inwardly and silently thanked “God” inside your heart of hearts for granting you these blessings. As your heart brimmed with gratitude, you promised to repent soon and give up all the things in your life that you know He must be angry at you about.
“I know you are out there somewhere. You have given me so much. Thank you! I will come back to you God, I promise.”
You kept going on making such excuses until life hit you with one of its lows; one of the troughs in the sine curve.
Loss in love. Failure in exams. A job letdown or demotion. A miscarriage or stillbirth. Divorce. Loss of a loved one. A life-changing accident. A brush with death. An illness.
Suddenly, as fear, distress, angst, pain and anxiety enveloped you, making everything go dark and your heart feel like it’ll tear apart, you turned back to Allah in earnest prayers, because everyone else, especially all your friends (those who danced with you at the dholki’s), seemed to have no time or inclination to help you now, when you were going through bad times.
When this ‘low’ refuses to pass over for a few months or years, you decide to go for umrah to ask Allah to give you what you want, and to grant you relief from your painful distress.
“Please, God, I know you are out there. You listen. You forgive. Please, please let me get married to him/her (or) Please let my father survive through his surgery (or) Please let me have this baby without complications. I promise to repent and change my ways this time, after you grant me this request. I promise!”, you wept.
It is during such lows that life throws our way, that Allah invites us to come back to Him – for good. Without wavering or turning back upon our words; without breaking our promises of sincerity.
He gives us a chance to repent and renew our faith; to give up all those things that we know we are doing wrong.
But in order to check whether we will fulfill our pious intentions of submission and claims of undying loyalty once we pass through the life-trough and ascend up into the plateau (period of blessings) again, He tests us.
And some of these tests end up being decisive make-or-break as far as most of us are concerned.
The Ones Who Make It
Many sincere believers, however, are able to weather the stormy trials that Allah sends their way in life. They are the ones who meant it when they said that they’d stick to the Deen of Allah through thick and thin, no matter what; come what may. Allah tests them more severely than He does the fickle ones. This means that their tests are more severe; and perhaps more long-lasting.
What I mean to say by the “several year glitch” included in the title of this post, is that the test of a sincere believer (the apparent ‘glitch’ that Allah places in their life) lasts for several years.
In other words, the mills (of the success that is sure to come their way once they pass their trial) grind quite slowly. Success does not come to them overnight. Rather, it takes several years; maybe even two decades.
This is the way the Prophets prevailed over the stringent times when they were tested by Allah. It took 13 years for Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم) to come back to Makkah as a victor. It also took Prophet Yusuf (عليه السلام) many years – perhaps two decades – to go from being a floundering young teen thrashing about in the darkness of a well, to a stoic, articulate, poised and commanding government official/minister in Egypt, at the peak of his physical strength and manhood, who unflinchingly negotiated the terms and conditions of grain sale with his unsuspecting older brothers.
The Silence of Critics Means You Have Arrived
تَاللّهِ لَقَدْ آثَرَكَ اللّهُ عَلَيْنَا وَإِن كُنَّا لَخَاطِئِينَ
“By Allah. Indeed Allah has preferred you above us, and we certainly have been guilty of sin!” [12:91]
Yusuf’s brothers were rather large-hearted and frank enough to honestly admit to him, on his face, that Allah had made him excel over them, and that they had been sinners in the past regarding what they had done to get rid of him. They admitted their past folly to his face, completely awestruck by what they saw him to have become after all those years they’d presumed him dead.
However, very few – if any at all – of the people who depreciate fledgling religious zealots today, are so generous with their subsequent admissions of past vile behavior.
Be they critics, skeptics, ex-friends, or even well-wishing loved ones who try to discourage you from becoming too religious because they do not want to see you suffer i.e. whoever antagonizes, ostracizes or discourages you for adopting the path of Islam as a way of life, – none of them will be brave or truthful enough to admit defeat, when all their claims about you turn out to be wrong in the future,- when they see, with their own incredulous eyes, how Allah eventually grants you every kind of blessing and success that you (or they) could have ever hoped for, or wanted (and then some more).
Although such people are at the fore when any young, single person starts to show inclination towards reverting to Islam, advising the latter ‘sincerely’ not to go all the way into Deen; to remain ‘moderate’; to not relinquish the duniya completely for the sake of the Akhirah etc.; when conversely, down the road, their claims turn out to be wrong, and after braving the trials sent by Allah, the same religious person whom they tried to dissuade from practicing Islam ends up achieving so much success that he/she bypasses most, if not all of, their peers in terms of worldly blessings, these critics and skeptics do not say “لَقَدْ آثَرَكَ اللّهُ عَلَيْنَا”.
Instead, they just remain quiet.
On a Personal Note
As I said at the start of this post – I like making myself recall my past adversities in order to feel the warm glow of gratitude that envelops my heart as I realize how Allah relieved/rid me of them. Sometimes, I transport myself back 10 years from today, and remember the young, 24-year-old, single girl who was treated rather disdainfully at almost every social gathering, by peers and elders alike, when embraced Islam hook, line and sinker.
I recall the caustic comments; the derisive facial expressions; the inaudible clucks of tongues accompanied by the pityful shakes of cocked heads as they muttered, “What a waste. So talented. Hiding herself in that drab burka. Not talking to so-called ‘non-mahrum’ men. Refusing to work at a job for the same reason. A financial burden on her parents, whom no eligible bachelor in his right mind would agree to marry. What a waste!”
They predicted nothing but failure on an individual level for me. Some went ahead and tried to warn me “sincerely” about the surefire worldly loss that awaited me in life if I continued to practice Islam the way I had started to.
“Sadaf, don’t change…I can feel you slipping away…”
Ten years ago, my “glitch” had just begun. A thriving career, happy marriage, academic achievements, a healthy family? No, not for me. I’d probably fade away into a nameless existence somewhere, hiding myself (pun not intended) from the eyes of the public, out of the sheer shame of having chosen to live in strict accordance with Islam, and hence, forever disqualifying myself from possible accreditation into any of the cliques in which productive, confident, successful and “A-list” people rubbed shoulders with each other socially, for business, or for leisure.
After the trying years of the several-year glitch pass, and when most critics turn out to be glaringly wrong in their predictions viz. Allah grants a religious person honor, wealth, knowledge, family (spouse and kids), stability and all the other hallmarks of success, these critics never say, “لَقَدْ آثَرَكَ اللّهُ عَلَيْنَا”. This is even more so if they are elders (especially authority figures who opposed their child or ward from pursuing the path of Deen).
So this post ends with a message for all my young readers out there – all those teens or twenty-something singles, who passionately want to revert to their Deen and live a life of superlative submission and exemplary work upon the path of Allah.
Those who want to leave behind an extraordinary legacy of sacrifice for the sake of Allah; who want to be anything but ordinary, ‘normal’, average Muslims apologetically making do with fulfilling just the basic obligations of their faith.
My message to you is: remember! You will be tested with a ‘glitch’ in life – the severity of which will be directly proportional to your sincerity towards Allah and His Deen,- a glitch that will detrimentally affect your persona, material assets, achievements, career progression and family life.
There will be days when even you will be plagued with pangs of despondent self-doubt, wondering whether Allah is hearing your dua’s at all; or whether he has forgotten all about you.
During the sodden years of this ‘glitch’, your critics and antagonists (especially the progressives, atheists and agnostics among your friends and family) will have a field day with your honor and dignity.
You will be mocked, reviled and insulted. And then, a lot more unfavorable things will also happen. Some of your loved ones might turn cold as ice towards you (including your parents, siblings, or childhood friends) and stay that way for a long time. They will leave your side and might give up on you for good.
However, many years later, when all their dark, dismal predictions regarding the worldly repercussions of your religious practice turn out to be wrong, and mingle with the blinding dust that the galloping hooves of your achievements stir up, remember – you will receive no concessionary mentions along the lines of “آثَرَكَ اللّهُ عَلَيْنَا” or “إِن كُنَّا لَخَاطِئِينَ”. No one will even come forward to congratulate you, hold a party in celebration of your achievements, nor pay you emotional tributes in speeches at grandiose celebratory ceremonies (not that you want or desire any of these in the first place – but just sayin’).
When, years or even decades down the road, you have weathered the storms sent your way by Allah, and He has proved your critics who doubted your eventual success blatantly wrong, you will not hear anything. Not a peep.
As you then sit and recall your past difficulties to refresh the memories of how Allah helped you every step along the difficult way of treading the path of His Deen, as your heart overflows with gratitude and your eyes brim with tears of love for Him, you will marvel at the stark silence: the silence of the initially wagging, critical tongues. The now awestruck gazes on faces, their eyes lowered and averted out of respect. The subtle slinking away of former tongue-clucking nemeses as they avoid eye contact and conversation.
All you will receive when Allah grants you honor and dignity, in return for the humiliation and disdain that you tolerated for His sake for years, – will be the deafening silence.
And that is when you’ll know that you have arrived.