The stakes are too high to not give it our all.
One of the beautiful things about the biography of the Prophet (may God bless him and his family and grant them peace) is that it shows how the Prophet directly addressed the individual needs of his followers. For example, on numerous occasions, people came to him and asked which deeds were the best, and he gave multiple answers. Scholars of hadith tell us that this was because each answer was tailored to the questioner – what was best depended on the situation of the person. A person with two elderly parents might be told that respect and caring for parents is the best of deeds, while another without parents might be told that fighting in the path of God was best. The Prophet took context into consideration, as well as the psychological needs of the questioner. We can see this beautifully in the following hadith:
Ibn Hanbal recorded Abu Umamah saying that a young man came to the Prophet and said, “O Messenger of Allah! Give me permission to commit zina [sex outside of marriage].” The people surrounded him and rebuked him, saying, “Stop! Stop!” But the Prophet said, “Come close.” The young man came to him, and he said, “Sit down,” so he sat down.
The Prophet said, “Would you like it for your mother?” The young man said, “No, by Allah, may I be ransomed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither do the people like it for their mothers.” The Prophet said, “Would you like it for your daughter?” He said, “No, by Allah, may I be ransomed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither do the people like it for their daughters.” The Prophet said, “Would you like it for your sister?” He said, “No, by Allah, may I be ransomed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither do the people like it for their sisters.” The Prophet said, “Would you like it for your paternal aunt?” He said, “No, by Allah, O Allah’s Messenger, may I be ransomed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither do the people like it for their paternal aunts.” The Prophet said, “Would you like it for your maternal aunt?” He said, “No, by Allah, O Allah’s Messenger, may I be ransomed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither do the people like it for their maternal aunts.”
Then the Prophet put his hand on him and said, “O Allah, forgive his sin, purify his heart and guard his chastity.” After that the young man never paid attention to anything of that nature.
The Prophet did not shy away from the spiritual and psychological needs of this young man, but addressed it clearly. He brought back to his mind the implications of what he was asking for, and how it relates to the general principle of loving for others what one loves for oneself. He made him confront the selfishness of his own desires, and helped him to see things from a wider perspective. Once he had made it clear in the young man’s mind that what he was requesting was deeply problematic, he also spiritually intervened on his behalf, by which he was healed from the disease of his heart.
Many scholars teach us that the refinement of our hearts is obligatory. It is something we must do, just like staying away from the haram and doing our obligatory worship. We should look for qualified teachers to help us do this, but if this is not available, then one should find a sincere brother or sister in faith to help and provide counsel on this path. For regardless of whether one has access to truly trustworthy helpers or not, one must confront the reality of their inner state. A statement attributed to Ja’far al-Sadiq states, “Whoever does not have a preacher within his or her own self will not benefit from the preaching of others.”
The Qur’an states:
God already knows everything about us, so what we have to do is admit it to ourselves and to God. This may sound easy and simple, but it is not, because it means we have to confront our deepest fears and struggles. In the case of the hadith mentioned before, perhaps we think that the young man just haphazardly asked the Prophet such a provocative question. But I think that is probably unlikely. It is much more likely that he struggled with it in private until he felt like he couldn’t control himself, and went to the Prophet in a state of deep confusion and turmoil. The fact that he was willing to speak openly about it indicates that he was probably at his wit’s end, didn’t know what else to do, and was looking for a way out as a last resort.
This internal struggle is a common feature of our human experience. Many of our life experiences are so painful and challenging, it is easier to bury them deep within – to lock them away as a means of survival, and try to forget about them. It is much harder to openly confront them and try to overcome them. But as we progress towards the Light of al-Nur, God will make us confront them whether we like it or not. This can be deeply painful, but we can take comfort in the words attributed to the Prophet: “Never is a believer stricken with a discomfort, an illness, an anxiety, a grief or mental worry or even the pricking of a thorn but God will expiate his or her sins on account of their patience.” The path of inward rectification requires that we overcome these obstacles by facing them head on, with both courage and trust in God.
The Prophet (may God bless him and his family and grant them peace) speaks of these sorts of realities in the following hadith, related in the book al-Adab al-Mufrad by al-Bukhari:
Jabir ibn ‘Abdullah said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah say, ‘If anyone has three of his children die young and resigns them to Allah, he will enter the Garden.’ We said, ‘Messenger of Allah, what about two?’ ‘And two,’ he said.” Mahmud ibn Labid said to Jabir, “By Allah, I think that if you had asked, ‘And one?’ he would have given a similar answer.” [Jabir] said, “By Allah, I think so too.”
For the mother and father who have lost a child at a young age – one of the greatest griefs possible – confronting the reality of loss with the light of faith becomes a means to Paradise. When God decreed that their children would die, there was nothing in the whole universe that could be done to prevent it, so the Prophet counseled the parents to “resign them to Allah.”
The examples given so far may seem somewhat extreme, or perhaps even arbitrary. But they compel us to see that Islam was given to us not so that we could live in some fantasy world, divorced from our real issues. It was given to us to provide the means by which we can confront the that which is contained in the depths of our hearts. Regret, fear, the pain of loss, despair, agony, envy, weakness, lust, humiliation and the desire to humiliate, greed, hopelessness – these are some of the things that reside in our hearts, and until we have unearthed them, and brought them out to be grappled with, we are avoiding what really matters.
What is so disturbing at this moment of human history is that people who could care less about such struggles are the most widely influential, wealthy, and powerful. There are very few people, for example, on the Forbes list of most powerful people that are in any way exemplars of this process in any way, shape or form. Which is precisely why making it a priority is a revolutionary act. If the whole world is going to go to Hell, at the lead of people who could care less about the diseases of their hearts, then choosing to delve into our hearts for the sake of God is an act of eternal resistance to the lies of this temporary world.
To be clear, doing the right thing is only part of the struggle – adopting the right attitude of heart can be far more challenging. As our life unfolds however it does, can we become those who truly trust in God, the mutawakkilun? When disappointments appear, can we become truly those who are patient, the sabirun. When our bodies yearn for something that is forbidden, can we truly control ourselves, and be considered from the muttaqun? Outwardly and publicly, we may still be fighting the good fight. But inwardly and privately, where is our heart with our Lord?
The pillars of something are like the foundation – they make everything else possible, but they are just the beginning. As a philosopher might say, “they are necessary but not sufficient.” In this way, the 5 pillars of Islam provide us with a context, but they do not answer the deeply personal questions which are at the core of our being. Someone told me, “I think Islam is very compelling, but I struggle to believe in God, because if God is real, then God is to blame for my suffering and the suffering of others, whereas if this is all just an accident, then no one is to blame, and I can just chalk it up to bad luck and move on.” This may have been one of the most honest theological statements I have ever heard from anyone. This is precisely where the theological meets the personal, and it is a dynamic that all of us intuit on some level.
Ultimately, the answers of Islam revolve around inspiration and hope in the face of the inevitability of pain, loss, and suffering. God is arham al-rahimin, The Most Merciful of those who show mercy. If we could think of the greatest possible situation in this world, going to the limits of our ability to dream of a good life, then God has already thought of something far better to give to those whom God chooses. This reality is evoked by the prophetic words:
“A man from the people of fire who was enjoying the best pleasures of this world will be brought and dipped once in Hell, and God will tell him: ‘O My slave, did you ever enjoy yourself in the worldly life?’ This person would respond: ‘No, I never enjoyed any pleasure.’ Then a man of the people of Paradise who was the most miserable of this world will be brought and dipped into Paradise once, then God will ask him, ‘O My slave, did you ever experience any misfortune in this worldly life?’ The person would reply: ‘No, I never experienced any unhappiness at all.’ [related in Sahih Muslim]
Belief in these realities is essential to self transformation – otherwise every loss in this world will increase us in frustration at the state of society and resentment towards the nature of the universe. The truth is, it is God who gives and takes away, not the world. The one you love will only love you back if al-Wadud, The Loving, puts love in his or her heart for you. The money that you crave will not reach your hand unless al-Razzaq, The Provider, decrees that the hiring supervisor chooses you over other qualified applicants. The power that you hope to wield will only be manifest if al-Qadir, the Powerful, blesses you with it. The child that you hope to have will never exist unless al-Khaliq, the Creator, places it in the womb of its mother. The oppressive ruler that you hope to restrain will only be restrained by al-Mani’, the Preventer. This is reality – this is la ilaha illa Allah.
For there are moments in life when good and beauty seem destroyed, and evil and ugliness reign. Anyone who has contemplated the events of Karbala knows this like they know the veins on the back of their hand. And if that was the fate of people far better than anyone reading this message – such as Imam Husayn and Lady Zaynab – then that means there is no guarantee for us of a nice life. The hardships that weigh humanity down may continue and increase, if it is God’s wisdom for that to be the case. People of evil may hoard more power and wealth for themselves, without any seeming check on their corruption of the Earth. But hope is always there, in the freedom we have to give our hearts to God.
I cannot see the future. I do not know if the hardships will increase or relief will come like rain, unexpected and joy producing. What I know is that I am free now to give my best to God. There is no crushing rock on my chest in the desert of the Arabian sun, with only the freedom of my tongue left to call out “Ahad! Ahad!” Rather, I can still write. I can still read. I can still be there for my family to the best of my ability. I can still teach. I can still pray. I can still fast. I can still give charity. I can still do so many things.
But what does God want most of me right now, and am I willing to do it? The freedom to give one’s heart to God is not like the intoxicating freedom that you feel on a Friday night when the work week is done. It is more somber, and sometimes it hurts more than anything. Because maybe what we really want is not what God wants for us. Or maybe what we want from God is not what God is giving us right now. And so we have to find that clarity, with God’s help, where we can say the words attributed to the Prophet:
O God, whatever You have blessed me with that I love, then make it give me strength to undertake that which You love
and whatever You have withheld from me of what I love, then make it a free space [in my heart] to be filled with what You love
Seek that clarity with everything you have, for the stakes are too high for anything less.