Lecture by Ismail Kamdar | Transcribed by Zara T.
The lecture can be viewed here.
Asalamualaykum warahmatulahi wabarakatuhu
All praise is due to Allah and may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon His final messenger, the mercy to this universe, the Prophet Muhammad [saws], and for everybody who follows his way with righteousness until the last day.
The topic I have chosen for this session is a glimpse at the life of Aishah binti Abi Bakr [ra]. I have chosen this topic because, very often, we discuss the biographies of scholars, we focus on the biographies of the male scholars. While Islamic history is also rife with for many female scholars of Islam who serve as role models, not just for Muslim women, but also for the Muslim men, as there is much that we can learn from their lives which apply to both genders.
Aishah [ra] was perhaps the most prolific of such scholars, as she was the wife of the Prophet Muhammad [saws]. She was one of the early scholars of his ummah, being from the sahabah, and she is a woman whose scholarship is agreed upon by the scholars of Islam. The ulema have agreed upon her high level of scholarship.
So who was Aishah [ra]? Aishah was the only wife of the Prophet Muhammad [saws] to be born into a Muslim home, rather than converting to Islam. She was born approximately three years after prophethood in the home of Abu Bakr Siddiq [ra]. So she was a daughter of the greatest man after the prophets, Abu Bakr [ra], the greatest of the sahabah. Aishah was his daughter. And she grew up around the Prophet [saws] because her father was the prophet’s best friend. Aishah [ra], we do not know much about her life before she married the prophet, as she married the prophet [saws] at a very young age. And this age, in recent times, has been deemed problematic by many non-Muslims in that it does not agree with the customs of marriages of modern people.
To be precise, the Prophet Muhammad [saws], he wedded Aishah when she was six but they only consummated the marriage a few years later after she had attained puberty. So, this marriage, in modern terms, seems problematic because of the culture we are used to, we are accustomed to. However, when you look at it in the historical context, there was nothing wrong with it because, at that time in Arabia, it was normal for people with such different age groups to get married. It was normal for men or women to get married at a very young age. People used to mature a lot faster in terms of their mental capabilities as they were raised to be husbands and wives, and so at a younger age, they were more prepared for marriage. If the Prophet Muhammad’s [saws] marriage was something bad, his enemies would have been the first to jump on it. But not a single enemy of Islam at the time picked on his marriage to Aishah. And if it was something bad, it would have affected her in a negative way. Normally when a young woman is forced into marriage to someone who she does not like, or she’s forced into marriage at a young age when she’s not ready, she grows intense dislike for that individual who she’s married to, and it stems into hatred. And this is seen in her life later on.
But with Aishah and the Prophet Muhammad [saws], the case is the opposite. Her love for the Prophet [saws] grew so much that she became his most beloved wife. And even after the Prophet Muhammad [saws] had passed away, she became one of the leading scholars to propagate his message to the world, showing that she was a mature woman who studied from the Prophet [saws], and loved him so much that she wanted to be one of the main propagators of his religion. So this marriage is something no Muslim should feel ashamed about or to try and distort historical facts about, it is something that was a blessing for the ummah.
Aishah [ra] was the third woman that the Prophet Muhammad [saws] married. In the early part of his life, he was married to Khadija bint Khuwaylid [ra] and he remained in a monogamous marriage with her until she passed away. After she passed away, he married Saudah bint Zam’ah [ra], an elderly woman, to help raise his daughters. A few months later, he had a dream in which the angel Gabriel presented to him Aishah as his bride. And as we Muslims know, the dreams of the prophets are revelation. So acting upon this dream, he married Aishah [ra] and she became one of his wives.
The Prophet Muhammad [saws] had many wives. This is something which all historians agree upon. And his wives were the best of women. We call them ummahatul mu’mineen, the mothers of the believers. They were the role model women of this ummah. Aishah was one of them.
There’s nothing wrong with the Prophet Muhammad [saws] having many wives. This was something which is normal amongst the prophets and amongst the people of that time. Islam came and put a limit to polygamy and said men are allowed a maximum of four wives if they can treat them with justice. But an exception was made for the prophet Muhammad [saws]. He had up to nine wives at one time because he was a prophet of Allah and he was able to do justice between them. And each of those marriages played an important role in the dawah and in the political situation of the ummah and most of these wives were divorcees or widows whom he had been assisting and caring for. Aishah was the only virgin bride of the Prophet Muhammad [saws]. Every other woman he married was either divorced or widowed. So this automatically made her seem like the special one. And his love for her grew very intensely. So much so that Anas ibn Malik [ra] narrates that, “The first example of true love we Muslims saw was the love between Aishah and Muhammad [saws].” His love for Aishah was so much that the other wives could see it, even though he treated them with equality and justice; but they could see his love for her.
And when he was asked to be just with his love between his wives, he replied that the hearts are controlled by Allah. What was within his capabilities, he was just with, but the hearts are in the hands of Allah , and love is something that Allah controls. Once a sahabi by the name of Amr ibn al Aas [ra] asked the Prophet Muhammad [saws], “Who is the most beloved person to you?” The Prophet Muhammad [saws] said, “Aishah.” So he said, “I’m talking about the men.” The Prophet Muhammad [saws] replied again, and he said, “Her father.” So from here we see that the Prophet Muhammad (saw), not only did he love Aishah, but he was not afraid to express this in public.
We find many stories of the love that occurred between them. We find that Aishah [ra] and the Prophet Muhammad [saws] used to race with each other. There is a narration that when she was a young bride, during the early years in Madinah, when returning from an expedition, she and the Prophet Muhammad [saws] stayed behind. And when the people had gone forward, they raced each other to catch up with the rest of the people. When they had reached the people, Aishah had won the race. Many years later, she had picked up a bit of weight and now the same situation occurred, and the prophet [saws] decided to race with her again. And this time he won and he told her this was for that. So it was a very friendly, a very loving relationship, that they had. For example, on the day of Eid, Abu Bakr walks into the house of the Prophet [saws], into Aishah’s house, and finds that some girls were playing with drums, the hand drums, the duff, and they were singing some songs. So Abu Bakr got very angry and told them they cannot do this in the house of the Prophet [saws]. The Prophet [saws] told Abu Bakr [ra] that it is the day of Eid, let them have fun. So Abu Bakr left and the children continued to play with Aishah [ra] and sing their songs. After these girls had left, Aishah and the Prophet [saws] went outside to the masjid and in the masjid, there were some young Abyssinians who were playing with their spears, putting on a little demonstration. So the Prophet Muhammad [saws], he held Aishah in a way that she could see properly what was happening, and he kept standing there with Aishah in his arms until she was tired and had had enough and she had enjoyed the entertainment and was ready to go back. So the Prophet Muhammad [saws], we learn from this, not only was he loving to his wife Aishah, but he also took out time to have fun with her and to enjoy some entertainment with her, which is something a lot of people don’t realize is part of Islam, that marital couples need to spend time having fun together. That time must be made. You need to take out time for your spouse and enjoy time together. This is something which is from the sunnah.
Now Aishah [ra], she was the most beloved wife of the prophet [saws], but despite that, she would still get jealous of his other wives. And she was most jealous of Khadija even though Khadija had passed away before her; the reason being that the Prophet [saws] loved Khadija a lot. So much so, that the scholars differ on whether he loved Aishah more or Khadija more. So Aishah narrates that no woman made her more jealous than Khadija even though she had never seen her, because every day the Prophet [saws] would talk about her until one day Aishah got angry and told the Prophet [saws], “Didn’t Allah give you something better than her?” (talking about herself). And the Prophet [saws], he got angry and he replied, “Khadija believed in me when nobody else did, and Khadija was the one who assisted me with her wealth, and she is the one to whom Allah had blessed me with children.” From then Aishah realized that she should not speak about Khadija again. I’m bringing up this story to show that the sahabah, who were the greatest of humanity after the prophets, were also human and they were also subject to the mistakes of human beings and to the emotions that the rest of us feel. Sometimes we paint too beautiful a picture of the sahabah until it seems unrealistic and it seems like something we can’t follow. But when you look at Aishah [ra] and the other sahabah, they were humans like ourselves but they strived to be amongst the best and, as a result, because of this, Allah elevated their status.
There are many other stories of her jealousy, which shows some of her human mistakes. For example, once, when the Prophet [saws] had some of his guests in her house, and one of the other wives had sent some food for these guests, she got very angry as to why she was sending food to her house, and she threw the plate and it broke. The Prophet [saws] did not scream at her, he did not shout at her, he did not get abusive or vulgar, as was his nature. He was the mercy to this universe. He was a mercy to his wives as well. He simply laughed and told his companions that your mother is jealous. And he told Aishah to replace the plate and that was it. End of the story. He didn’t blow it out of proportion, understanding human nature and understanding the nature of co-wives, that they would be jealous of each other.
So Aishah [ra], she was a human being like us but she strived. She strived to be the best. And she was a very gifted woman in terms of her intellect. And this can be seen from the fact that not only did she narrate many narrations from the Prophet [saws], but in many of these narrations you will find that they’re not just narrating, but questioning as well. If the Prophet [saws] would say something, she would ask a question to clarify it. And it was this questioning nature of hers which led her to gain even more knowledge. The scholars of Islam deduct from her life, and from the life of other scholars, that one of the signs of a true student of knowledge is the ability to ask deep questions which expand upon the issues being discussed. So when the prophet [saws] narrated to Aishah the hadith that on the Day of Judgment humanity will be raised uncircumcised and naked, Aishah [ra] asked the question, “Won’t people be looking at each other?” A very good question. And the Prophet [saws] replied, “On that day, the affair will be so severe, people will be so scared of Allah, they wont even think about looking at each other.” So from her question we got to understand just how scary the Day of Judgment is. But these types of questions led her to become a great scholar.
We find that the age most of us spend in school and in our studies, she spent this age in the company of the Prophet [saws] studying under him. So from the age of 9 until 18 or 20, she was in the company of the Prophet Muhammad [saws]. So when he passed away, she now had an ocean of knowledge which she began to share, not just with female companions, but even the male sahabah and the male tabieen used to come and study underneath her and she used to teach them from behind a niqab, but there were those who were mahram to her and they would study with her without hijab. The best example of this was her nephew, Urwah bin Zubair [ra], who was from the tabieen. He was the son of Aishah’s sister, Asma, and husband Zubair bin Awam. Urwah wanted to study Islam and he asked his father, “Who is the best scholar for me to study under?” And Zubair told him to go and study with Aishah because Aishah was the greatest female scholar of her time and Urwah had an advantage that other men did not have. Aishah was his aunt, so there was no need for hijab so he could study underneath her in a much more personal and direct manner. So Urwah began to study under Aishah and became one of her closest students. And he narrates that he had not seen anyone with more knowledge in hadith, tafsir, fiqh, Arabic, poetry, or even medicine, than Aishah, and he had very high respect for her. So this was Aishah [ra]; she became one of the greatest scholars. She became an advisor to the khalifs after the time of the Prophet [saws], and there are many other great stories about her. Indeed you can spend many hours just discussing her life alone.
One story about her life that stands out and is perhaps most often discussed is the story of the great slander. Hadithul ifk. In this story, it happened during the lifetime of the Prophet [saws], Aishah [ra] was on a journey with the Prophet, and as they were returning from an expedition, she left the camp to relieve herself. When she was coming back, she realized that she had dropped her necklace and she went back to pick it up. While she was gone, the people did not realize that she was gone, and they continued with the journey, as she was in a hijab type of carriage and this carriage was being carried, and so people could not see inside and thought she was inside it. When she returned to the place where the caravan was, there was nobody there and she was now alone in the desert. So she sat down on a rock and she began to wait. She fell asleep and while she was asleep, her niqab came off and one of the sahabah who stayed behind, he came riding up on his horse and he saw her and he recognized her because he knew her from the days before the laws of hijab were revealed. So he just said inna lilahi wa inna ilayhi rajioon and she immediately woke up and covered her face and without speaking to each other, he let her get onto his horse and he walked and took her back to Madinah. So here we can see the piety not just of Aishah but of this man as well, that they didn’t even speak to each other out of fear, not just of what could happen, but what people could say because this is the wife of the Prophet and people are looking to try and find fault with him and his family. So in the most purest manner possible, he took Aishah back home.
But the leader of hypocrites, Abdullah bin Ubayy, he saw this and he decided to use this to his advantage to try and slander Aishah. And so he began to spread a rumor that Aishah and this sahabi had naoozubillah, done some kind of sin. And this rumor had spread. Aishah was very sick and she was in her home for a few days and she did not know that this rumor was spreading. When she finally found out about it, she went home to her parents, and she says before that that she realized the Prophet [saws] was being a bit cold; he wasn’t as sweet as he normally is and she couldn’t understand why. When she heard about the rumor, she finally understood and she asked permission to go to her parents’ house. She went home and asked her parents if it’s true that such rumors were spreading, and her parents said that yes those rumors are spreading, and they were very sympathetic, and she stayed there and she began to make duaa. The Prophet [saws], he went around doing some research and investigation to try and find out if there was any truth to these rumors and he finally came to visit her and speak to her and her family, and her family did not know what to say, so she said that, “I know that I am innocent but people won’t believe me, so I leave my affair to Allah. Allah will help me.” And after that, the verses of Surah Nur were revealed. Surah Nur, about 10 or 20 verses of Surah Nur, clarifying the name of Aishah [ra], declaring her chastity, and condemning those who accused her of any kind of sin to hell. When these verses were revealed, her parents told her to thank the Prophet [saws] and she said that she’ll only thank Allah.
Now there are many lessons we can derive from this story. The first lesson is that not only is it important to stay away from sins, but it is important to stay away from such situations or circumstances that can help make people accuse you of sin. Because if people see you doing something which can be interpreted in the wrong way, then they can really easily misconstrue the situation and attack your name. And defending one’s honor and keeping an honorable face in public is all part of the deen.
The next lesson we learn from this story is that the covering of the face was something that the wives of the Prophet [saws] used to do. Scholars differ on whether it is obligatory or recommended. I personally follow the opinion that it is recommended, it is not an obligation, but it is something they used to do, definitely. So for those Muslims who try to stop women from covering their face and claiming it is not from Islam, this story is very clear – Aishah [ra] used to cover her face in front of men who were not related to her.
The next lesson we can derive from this story is that the Prophet Muhammad [saws], he did not know the unseen, except what Allah revealed to him. And this is very important because there are many Muslims who think that the Prophet [saws] had blanket knowledge of the unseen. If he had blanket knowledge of the unseen, he would not have worried, he would not have changed his attitude, he would not have done any investigations, and he would not have waited for wahy. He would have already known that Aishah was innocent. But he was a human who received revelation and only whatever revelation he received, that was the amount of the unseen that Allah allowed him to know.
The next lesson we learn from this story is that gossip and slander are from the worst of sins that affect our society. There is a narration that says that backbiting is worse than zina. And really, here we can see the effects of backbiting, how it ruins the lives of good people. That there can be a good man or woman in the society, but people with loose tongues talk ill about them, spread rumors about them, and this affects their lives and it makes life difficult for them. Aishah [ra] was not the only person to be affected by rumors. There were others who were afflicted so badly that it even led to their death.
Look at the life of Imam Bukhari [rah]. In the final years of his life, some of the scholars who were jealous of him began to misconstrue some of his statements and spread rumors that he has wrong aqeedah. And so wherever he went, people did not want to listen to him, as those rumors had spread before him. Finally Imam Bukhari [rah] raised his hands and made duaa. He said, “Oh Allah, your earth is vast, but it has become narrow for me, so choose me for Yourself, take me to You.” And one month later, Imam Bukhari [rah] passed away. What led to his death? Many of the scholars say it was this: slander, rumors, gossip, unfounded accusations. If it can affect the lives of righteous people like Imam Bukhari and Aishah [ra], what about us? What about your neighbor? What about your family members? So this is a warning to every single believer to control your tongue. Be careful what you say about others.
The Prophet Muhammad [saws] said, “Whoever believes in Allah and the last day should either speak what is good or remain silent.” That is the way of the believer. If what you are saying is not good and beneficial, don’t say it. Don’t speak about others. In another hadith he said, “From the perfection of iman is to leave things that don’t concern you.” Don’t get involved in other peoples lives. Who is committing what sin, what is the latest gossip, what is the latest rumor. This is evil and this destroys society. Stay away from this. Stay away from these type of things. This we can learn from the story of the slander of Aishah [ra]. There are many other lessons which other speakers might be able to extract, and other authors will have extracted, as is the nature of the stories of the sahabah and the prophets and the great scholars of the past. Their lessons are not limited.
Aishah [ra], another amazing story in her life happened after the death of the Prophet [saws]. At the time of Uthman [ra], towards the end of his life, there was a great fitnah. And in this fitnah, it actually lead to many Muslims (or so called Muslims) attacking him and assassinating him. At this point in time, Aishah [ra] was in Makkah performing the hajj; Uthman was in Madinah. So the people of Madinah, they chose Ali to be the next khalif, and Aishah and her companions in Makkah were of the view that Ali should first bring the murderer of Uthman to justice and then they would accept him as the khalif. And so Aishah [ra], according to one of the narrations in Bidayah Wannihayah, she went in front of the Kabah and she delivered a lecture about the virtues of Uthman, and she rallied the people to go and speak to Ali about this issue. So Aishah [ra] left at the head of an army with Talha and Zubair by her side to go and speak to Ali. Note that their intention was to speak to Ali and to discuss the issue, not to fight with him. When they reached there, they had a discussion and they came to some peaceful agreement that they’ll accept him as khalif and then he will do what he can to bring the murderers to justice. Some of the hypocrites in the army, when they heard about this peace, they decided to plot and start a war. And so they split themselves up in to either side of the army and began to attack each other. This caused a battle to break out between the followers of Aishah and the followers of Ali. And in this battle, known as the battle of the camel, both Talha and Zubair were murdered and Aishah, she was on her camel in a hawdaj and in order to stop the battle, Ali had his men attack the camel, so once the hawdaj fell, people stopped fighting. And that was the end of the battle. Aishah and Ali came to peaceful terms and that was a regrettable incident amongst the sahabah.
Going back to what I said earlier, the sahabah [ra] were humans and they made mistakes. And these mistakes cannot be held against them. Indeed, we have done a lot worse in our lives to look back at the one or two mistakes the great scholars and great sahabah have done and to hold it against them.
Aishah [ra], in her army were Talha and Zubair, both of whom were given the glad tidings of jannah in this world. And Aishah herself was praised in the Quran. And Ali himself was given the glad tidings of Jannah. So on both sides were righteous people. And we look at them as our righteous sahabah and we say for each of them radiAllahu anhum and we do not attack their character in any way, because they were the sahabah, they were much more righteous than us, and whatever mistakes they made, we just make duaa, “May Allah be pleased with them and may Allah have mercy on them.”
So this was Aishah [ra], a very short glimpse at her life. We looked for a short while at the slander incident. We looked at the battle of camel, a very brief run down. Really the battle alone can take 1 or 2 hours to discuss with all its lessons. Then, we also looked at her marriage.
I’d like to conclude with one more story: the story of Aishah [ra] when she passed away. I read this in Bidayah Wannihayah, that when Aishah [ra] was passing away, Abdullah bin Abbas [ra] requested permission to visit her. So he came by her bedside and he spoke to her and she said that she was fearing Allah. And Abdullah bin Abbas said, “Good news to you.” She said “Why?” He said, “Because you are the one who Allah has revealed verses about you clarifying your name and these verses will be recited until the day of judgment.” And imagine all the good qualities. He said that you were the only virgin wife of the Prophet [saws], and you were the most beloved of his wives, and you were a scholar of Islam, and you were the only one in whose house revelation would descend when the Prophet [saws] was sleeping in your bed, and many, many other virtues he began to mention of Aishah, until she said, “I wish I had died before this or I was something unknown.”
This was paraphrasing the words of Maryam [as] mentioned in Surah Maryam when she was pregnant with Eesa [as] and going through the pains of labor and thinking about what people will say when they see the baby, how would they react. She said the same thing, “I wish I had died before this or I was unknown.” So Aishah [ra], she passed away after this. And from that story we see the high respect that Abdullah bin Abbas and the other sahabah had for her. Because Abdullah bin Abbas himself was a scholar of Islam, the great mufassir of Islam. And he was also a scholar of fiqh but he also looked up to her as a scholar, he also had great respect for her. She was from amongst the mothers of the believers, one of our mothers.
Another lesson we can extract from this story, which also can be taken from the story of hadithul ifk, is that Aishah [ra], she had such a strong connection with the Quran that many a times, her words, her speech, would be from the Quran. So during the incident of the slander, when they asked her what she had to say, she simply said, “I say what the father of Yusuf [as] said: that patience is beautiful and Allah’s help is sought against what they are saying.” So her words were the words of the Quran. Likewise, when she was passing away, her words were the words of Maryam [as] mentioned in the Quran. So she had this strong connection with the Quran that she was able to quote it like that in her own speech, for her own answers, she would quote Quran. And this is a really strong connection that we all should try to have with the Quran.
So the life of Aishah [ra] is a very vast topic and there is a lot that has been narrated about her in the various books of history which, insha’Allah, we can discuss in more detail on a later occasion. This was just to give a glimpse at her life, to get people interested in studying her life in more details, and to extract a few basic lessons that both men and women can follow and to live by.
Aishah [ra] is proof that a woman can be superior to a man in knowledge and in piety and there is no such thing in Islam that all men are better than all women or as some people think, that women are deficient, no. Aishah [ra], she was a proof who lived in this world, that a woman can reach the highest levels of scholarship, she can be extremely pious, she can play a role in politics, and she can be remembered as a righteous Muslim for all time after her.
So we ask Allah to help the women of this ummah to follow in her footsteps, to help the men of this ummah to follow in the footsteps of her husband, the Prophet Muhammad [saws], and in those issues which are general, to help both the men and women of this ummah to follow in the footsteps of her and her husband, the Prophet Muhammad [saws], and to become just like them, and to be able to not only extract lessons from their lives but to apply it in our own lives till we become walking examples of the sunnah.
Advice To Students Starting A New School Year
I remember driving to college orientation over the summer with my father, may Allah have mercy on him. I was going to be going to school out of state, and at the age of eighteen, this was the first time that I would be living away from home.
We talked about a lot of things, and nothing in particular but one of the stories he shared stayed with me. There was an Imam who had a close circle of students and one of them became absent for an extended period. Upon that student’s return, the Imam asked him where he had been, to which the student replied,
“Egypt!” The imam said to him, “well how was Egypt!”
The student replied, “Egypt is where knowledge resides.”
The Imam responded, “You’ve spoken the truth.”
Sometime later, the imam had another student who also was absent and upon his return, the Imam asked him where he had gone to which the student replied, “Egypt!” The imam said to him, “Well, how was Egypt?”
The student said, “Egypt is nothing but amusement and play!”
The Imam responded, ‘You’ve spoken the truth!”
There were students who had witnessed both conversations and asked the Imam later why he had borne witness to the truth of two antithetical statements to which the imam replied,
“They both found what they were looking for.”
I got the message. University could be a place of incredible learning, engagement with ideas, and can push you and challenge you in the best of ways. It can also be a non-stop party. A blur of heedlessness and hedonism that will bring about remorse and regret for that individual in the Dunya and Akhira.
I think back to that car ride fondly, and I appreciate the predicament of parting advice. A person who will be bidding farewell to someone so dear to them and wanting to give them something powerful that they can hold onto or wisdom that will guide them. Many students in the past weeks have been receiving similar parting advice from their families, and so in this article I wanted to share one of the advice of the Prophet that he gave to a companion that he loved so much.
عَنْ أَبِي ذَرٍّ جُنْدَبِ بْنِ جُنَادَةَ، وَأَبِي عَبْدِ الرَّحْمَنِ مُعَاذِ بْنِ جَبَلٍ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُمَا، عَنْ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه و سلم قَالَ: “اتَّقِ اللَّهَ حَيْثُمَا كُنْت، وَأَتْبِعْ السَّيِّئَةَ الْحَسَنَةَ تَمْحُهَا، وَخَالِقْ النَّاسَ بِخُلُقٍ حَسَنٍ” .
رَوَاهُ التِّرْمِذِيُّ [رقم:1987] وَقَالَ: حَدِيثٌ حَسَنٌ، وَفِي بَعْضِ النُّسَخِ: حَسَنٌ صَحِيحٌ.
On the authority of Abu Dharr Jundub ibn Junadah, and Abu Abdur-Rahman Muadh bin Jabal (may Allah be pleased with him), that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said
“Have Taqwa of Allah wherever you are, and follow a bad deed with a good deed it will erase it, and treat people with good character.” (Tirmidhi)
The advice is comprised of three components
- Fear Allah wherever you are
- Follow a bad deed with a good deed it will erase it
- Treat people with good character
Have Taqwa of Allah wherever you are
Taqwa is the crown of the believer. And it is the best thing that a person can carry with them on the journey of this life, and the journey to meet their Lord. Allah says,
“And take provision, and the best provision is Taqwa.”
عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ، قَالَ سُئِلَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم عَنْ أَكْثَرِ مَا يُدْخِلُ النَّاسَ الْجَنَّةَ فَقَالَ ” تَقْوَى اللَّهِ وَحُسْنُ الْخُلُقِ ”
The Prophet was asked as to what admits people into Paradise the most and he said, “Taqwa and good character.” (Tirmidhi)
And so what is Taqwa?
Talq ibn Habeeb gave a beautiful definition and description of Taqwa when he said,
“Taqwa is to act in obedience to Allah, upon a light from Allah, seeking the reward of Allah. And it is to avoid the disobedience of Allah, upon a light from Allah, fearing the punishment of Allah.”
And so he describes taqwa as having three components; the action, the source for that action, and the motivation for that action.”
To act in the obedience of Allah..
To do the things that Allah commands you to do and to stay away from what Allah prohibits you from doing
Upon a light from Allah..
The source for the action or inaction must come from revelation, a light from Allah. And this should stir us to seek knowledge so that our actions are onem guided by a light from Allah. You’ve made it to University, you are bright, gifted, intelligent and committed to education. Do not let be the one thing that you remain uneducated about be your religion.
يَعْلَمُونَ ظَاهِراً مِّنَ ٱلْحَيَاةِ ٱلدُّنْيَا وَهُمْ عَنِ ٱلآخِرَةِ هُمْ غَافِلُونَ
They know what is apparent of the worldly life, but they, of the Hereafter, are unaware. (Al-Room v. 7)
The prophet (S) said, “Allah hates every expert in the Dunya who is ignorant of the hereafter.” (Saheeh Al-Jaami’)
Make sure that you carve out time to attend halaqas on campus, seek out teachers and mentors who will guide you in learning about your religion even as you are pursuing your secular studies..
Seeking the reward of Allah..
The third component of Taqwa is the motivation: that these actions that are being performed and that are sourced authentically in revelation must be performed for the sake of Allah, seeking His reward, and not for any other audience. That they not be done for shares, or likes or retweets. That a person does what they do of worship, that they abstain from what they abstain from of sin, seeking the reward of Allah and fearing His punishment.
Fear Allah wherever you are..
Meaning in public and in private, online or offline, and when in the company of the righteous as well as when in the company of the wicked, in all circumstances a person must be mindful of the presence of Allah..
عَنْ ثَوْبَانَ عَنِ النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم أَنَّهُ قَالَ : ( لأَعْلَمَنَّ أَقْوَامًا مِنْ أُمَّتِي يَأْتُونَ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ بِحَسَنَاتٍ أَمْثَالِ جِبَالِ تِهَامَةَ بِيضًا فَيَجْعَلُهَا اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ هَبَاءً مَنْثُورًا ) قَالَ ثَوْبَانُ : يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صِفْهُمْ لَنَا ، جَلِّهِمْ لَنَا أَنْ لاَ نَكُونَ مِنْهُمْ وَنَحْنُ لاَ نَعْلَمُ ، قَالَ : ( أَمَا إِنَّهُمْ إِخْوَانُكُمْ وَمِنْ جِلْدَتِكُمْ وَيَأْخُذُونَ مِنَ اللَّيْلِ كَمَا تَأْخُذُونَ وَلَكِنَّهُمْ أَقْوَامٌ إِذَا خَلَوْا بِمَحَارِمِ اللَّهِ انْتَهَكُوهَا
It was narrated from Thawban that the Prophet ﷺ said:
“I certainly know people of my nation who will come on the Day of Resurrection with good deeds like the mountains of Tihaamah, but Allah will make them like scattered dust.” Thawban said: “O Messenger of Allah, describe them to us and tell us more, so that we will not become of them unknowingly.” He said: “They are your brothers and from your race, worshipping at night as you do, but they are people who, when they are alone with what Allah has prohibited, they violate it.”
This hadeeth is a warning for the person who is quick, eager and ready to violate the limits of Allah as soon as the door is locked, or the curtains or drawn, or as soon as they have arrived in a new place where no one knows them. We will sin, but let our sins be sins of weakness or lapses of taqwa and not sins of predetermination and design. There is a big difference between someone who sins in a moment’s temptation and the one who is planning to sin for hours, days or weeks!
And follow a good deed with a bad deed it will erase it..
When we fall, as we must inevitably due to our being human, the prophet (S) instructed us to follow a sin with a good deed to erase it.
Commit a sin, give charity.
Commit a sin, perform wudhu as beautifully as you can and pray two rak’ahs.
Commit a sin, seek Allah’s forgiveness and repent…
Our sins should not suffocate us from doing good deeds, they should fuel us to doing good deeds.
وَأَقِمِ ٱلصَّلاَةَ طَرَفَيِ ٱلنَّهَارِ وَزُلَفاً مِّنَ ٱلَّيْلِ إِنَّ ٱلْحَسَنَاتِ يُذْهِبْنَ ٱلسَّـيِّئَاتِ ذٰلِكَ ذِكْرَىٰ لِلذَّاكِرِينَ
And establish prayer at the two ends of the day and at the approach of the night. Indeed, good deeds do away with misdeeds. That is a reminder for those who remember. (Surat Hood v. 114)
A man from the Ansar was alone with a woman and he did everything with her short of fornication. In remorse, he went to the prophet (S) and confessed to him. Umar said to the man, “Allah had concealed your sins, why didn’t you conceal it yourself!” The prophet (S) however was silent.
The man eventually left and the prophet (S) had a messenger go to him to recite the aforementioned verse. A man said, “Oh Messenger of Allah is it for him alone?”
The Prophet said, “No for all people.”
And so for all people, sin plus good deed equals the sin is erased. That is a formula to be inscribed in our hearts for the rest of our lives.
Al-Hassan Al-Basri, the master preacher of the Tabi’een was asked,
“Should one of us not be ashamed of our Lord, we seek forgiveness from our Lord and then return to sin, and then seek forgiveness and then return!”
“Shaytan would love to conquer you with that (notion), do not grow tired of seeking forgiveness”
But know that these sins that are erased by good deeds are the minor sins, as for the major sins they require repentance for the many verses in which Allah threatens punishment for those who commit major sins if they do not repent, and so repentance is a condition for the erasing of the effect of major sins.
And treat people with good character
And if Taqwa is the crown of the believer, then good character is the crown of Taqwa, for many people think that taqwa is to fulfill the rights of Allah without fulfilling the rights of His creation! The Prophet in many hadith highlights the lofty stations that a believer attains with good character, for example:
عَنْ عَائِشَةَ، رَحِمَهَا اللَّهُ قَالَتْ سَمِعْتُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَقُولُ “ إِنَّ الْمُؤْمِنَ لَيُدْرِكُ بِحُسْنِ خُلُقِهِ دَرَجَةَ الصَّائِمِ الْقَائِمِ
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: By his good character a believer will attain the degree of one who prays during the night and fasts during the day. (Tirmidhi)
عَنْ أَبِي الدَّرْدَاءِ، قَالَ سَمِعْتُ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَقُولُ “ مَا مِنْ شَيْءٍ يُوضَعُ فِي الْمِيزَانِ أَثْقَلُ مِنْ حُسْنِ الْخُلُقِ وَإِنَّ صَاحِبَ حُسْنِ الْخُلُقِ لَيَبْلُغُ بِهِ دَرَجَةَ صَاحِبِ الصَّوْمِ وَالصَّلاَةِ
Abu Ad-Darda narrated that the Messenger of Allah said:
“Nothing is placed on the Scale that is heavier than good character. Indeed the person with good character will have attained the rank of the person of fasting and prayer.” (Tirmidhi)
Let no one beat you to the taqwa of Allah and let no one beat you to beautiful character.
You’ve come of age at a time in which the majority of our interactions are online, and in that world harshness and cruelty are low hanging fruit seemingly devoid of consequences.
The Prophet said, “Whoever lives in the deserts becomes harsh.” (Abu Dawood)
And social media is a desert, it is an experience where we are all alone, together.
So choose gentleness over harshness, choose forgiveness over vindictiveness, choose truth over falsehood and protect people from your harm.
For the Prophet said, “I am a guarantor of a house in the highest part of Jannah for whoever makes their character good.”
May Allah make us from them.
Challenges of Identity & Conviction: The Need to Construct an Islamic Worldview
He squirmed in his seat as his Middle East history professor–yet again–made a subtle jab about Islam, this time about the jizyah. This professor claimed to be pro-Arab and pro-Islam and was part of a university department that touted itself for presenting history and narratives that are typically left out of the West’s Eurocentric social studies sequence. Still, she would subjectively only present an Orientalist interpretation of Islam. Ahmad* sighed. He felt bad just thinking about what all his classmates at this esteemed university thought about Islam and Muslims. He was also worried about fellow Muslims in his class who had not grown up in a practicing household-what if they believed her? He hated how she was using her position as the “sage” in the room to present her bias as absolute truth. As for himself, he knew deep down in his bones that what his professor was alleging just could not be true. His fitrah was protesting her coy smile as she knowingly agitated the few Muslims in her class of one-hundred-fifty. Yet, Ahmad had never studied such topics growing up and felt all his years of secondary education left him ill-equipped as a freshman in college. He tried to search for answers to her false accusations after class and approached her later during office hours, but she just laughed him off as a backward, orthodox Muslim who had obviously been brainwashed into believing the “fairy tale version” of Islam.
Asiyah* graduated as class valedictorian of her Islamic school. She loved Biology and Physics and planned to major in Engineering at a top-notch program. While both family, friends, and peers were proud of her (some maybe even wishing they were in her shoes), they had no idea of the bitter inner struggle that was eating away at her, tearing her up from the inside out. Her crisis of faith shook her to the core and her parents were at their wits’ end. While she prayed all her prayers and even properly donned her hijab, deep down she felt……..sort of….……atheist. Physics was her life–her complete being. She loved how the numbers just added up and everything could be empirically proven. But this led to her greatest anguish: how could certain miraculous events during the time of the Blessed Prophet have occurred? How could she believe in events that were physically and scientifically impossible? She felt like an empty body performing the rituals of Islam.
An Unwelcome Surprise
Islam is a way of life. Its principles operate in every avenue of one’s life. However, English, History, Science and Mathematics are often taught as if they are beyond the scope of Islam. It is commonly assumed that moral teaching happens, or should happen, only in the Islamic Studies class. Yet, if we compare what is being taught in the Islamic Studies class with what is being taught consciously or unconsciously in other classes, an unwelcome surprise awaits us. Examining typical reading material in English classes, for example, reveals that too much of the material is actually going against Islamic norms and principles. Some of the most prominent problems with traditional English literature (which directly clash with Islamic moral and ethical principles) include: the mockery of God and religion, the promotion of rebellion against parents and traditional family values, the normalization of immoral conduct such as lying and rude behavior, and the condoning of inappropriate cross-gender interactions. Additionally, positive references about Islamic culture are either nonexistent or rare. Toxic themes of secularism, atheism, materialism, liberalism, and agnosticism are constantly bombarding our young Muslim students, thus shaping the way in which they view and interact with the world.
Corrective Lens: The Worldview of Islam
We need our children to develop an Islamic worldview, one that provides a framework for Muslims to understand their world from the perspective of the Qur’an. It is impossible for the Islamic Studies classes alone to successfully teach Islamic behavior and nurture moral commitment unless the other classes also reflect the Islamic worldview- an outlook that emphasizes the idea that all our actions should be focused on pleasing Allah and doing good for ourselves and others. Therefore, the majority of what is taught in all academic disciplines should be based on Islamic values, aiming to improve the life of the student by promoting sublime ethical conduct. The unfortunate reality is quite the opposite: a typical child in a school in the West spends a minimum of 576 periods (16 periods of core classes/week * 4 weeks/month * 9 months) of classroom instruction annually on academic subjects that are devoid of Islam and contain minimal teaching of morality that aligns with Islamic principles. How much Islam a child learns depends on whether their parents choose Sunday school, Islamic schools, and/or other forms of supplementation to provide religious knowledge. However, rarely does that supplemental instruction undo the thousands of hours of the atheistic worldview that children soak in by the time they finish high school through the study of secular subjects. By not having an Islamic worldview and not having Muslims’ heritage and contributions to humanity infused into the teaching of academic subjects, we witness the problems experienced by the likes of Ahmad* and Asiyah*–problems that plague modern Muslim youth.
Identifying the Unlikely Suspect
This realization is perhaps the missing piece in the puzzle when it comes to our bewilderment: how are large swaths of youth from some of the kindest, sweetest, practicing Muslim families going astray and getting confused? When we shepherd our flock and find one or more of our “sheep” lost and off the beaten path, we think of the likely suspects, which include negative influences from peers, family, movies, social media, etc. We may even blame the lack of inspiring role models. We are less likely to suspect that the very literature that our children are consuming day in and day out through our well-intentioned efforts to make them “educated” and “sophisticated” could cause them to question Islam or fall into moral abyss.
Ibn ‘Umar reported that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, “All of you are shepherds and each of you is responsible for his flock. A man is the shepherd of the people of his house and he is responsible. A woman is the shepherd of the house of her husband and she is responsible. Each of you is a shepherd and each is responsible for his flock.”
Islamic Infusion in Academic Study as a Solution
There have been efforts across the globe to infuse Islam into academic study of worldly subjects. Universities such as the International Islamic University of Malaysia(IIUM), which has a dedicated “Centre for Islamisation (CENTRIS),” is an example. At the secondary school level, most brick and mortar Islamic schools do offer Arabic, Qur’an, and Islamic studies; however, few Muslim teachers are trained in how to teach core academic subjects using principles of Islamic pedagogy.
How exactly can educators infuse an Islamic perspective into their teaching? And how can Muslim children have access to high quality education from the worldview of Islam, taught by talented and dynamic educators?
Infusing Islam & Muslim Heritage in Core Academic Subjects, According to the Experts:
- Dr. Nadeem Memon, professor of Islamic pedagogy, states that for a pedagogy to be Islamic, it should not contradict the aims, objectives and ethics contained in revelation (Qur’an) and should closely reflect an Islamic ethos that is based on revelation, the sunnah of the Prophet(pbuh), and the intellectual and spiritual heritage of his followers. It should also effectively develop the student’s intelligence (`aql), faith (iman), morality and character (khuluq), knowledge and practice of personal religious obligations (fard ain) and knowledge, skills and physical abilities warranted by worldly responsibilities and duties (Ajem, Ramzy and Nadeem Memon, “Prophetic Pedagogy: Teaching ‘Islamically’ in our Classrooms”)
- Dr. Susan Douglass, expert in Social Studies, promotes a panoramic study of the world by global eras–emphasizing the interdependence of nations–rather than an isolationist civilizations approach (which in Western societies focuses only on Western civilization). Such study includes Islamic history and Muslims’ contributions to humanity throughout the ages.
- Dr. Freda Shamma, pioneer in promoting culturally inclusive and ethical literature, emphasizes that English classes should carefully select literature aligned with Islamic moral values and include works by both Western authors and those from other cultures, i.e. literature that 1-features Muslim main characters and 2- is authored by Muslims.
- Dr. Nur Jannah Hassan at CENTRIS, stresses that Science classes should be designed to awaken the student’s mind, to inspire a complete awe of and servitude towards the Creator and Sustainer, to instill the purpose of creation, vicegerency and stewardship of the earth and its inhabitants, to enable students to decipher God’s Signs in nature and in the self, to infuse responsibility in sustaining balance and accountability, and should include Muslims’ legacy in the field.
- Dr. Reema alNizami, specialist in Math Education, advocates that Math classes should instill creative thinking, systematic problem solving and an appreciation of balance; include a survey of Muslims’ contributions to the field; and utilize word problems that encourage charitable and ethical financial practices.
Technology Enables Access to Islamically Infused Schooling for grades 6-12
Technology has now enabled this Islamic infusion for middle schools and secondary schools to become a reality on a global scale, alhamdulillah. Legacy International Online High School, a college preparatory, online Islamic school serving grades 6-12, whose mission is “Cultivating Compassionate Global Leaders”, offers all academic subjects from the Islamic worldview. Pioneered by leading Muslim educators from around the globe with background in Islamic pedagogy and digital learning, Legacy is the first of its kind online platform that is accessible to:
- homeschooling families seeking full-time, rigorous, Islamically infused classes
- Public school families looking for a part-time Islamic studies or Arabic sequence
- Islamic schools, evening programs, and Sunday schools that are short-staffed and would like to outsource certain courses from the Islamic worldview
- Schools and entities needing training/workshops to empower Muslim educators on how to teach from the Islamic worldview
Strengthening Faith & Identity in College and Beyond
For those seeking supplementary resources to address the most prevalent hot topic issues plaguing young Muslims of our times, Yaqeen Institute, whose initial publications were more targeted towards a university audience, is now working to make its research more accessible to the general public through both its Conviction Circles initiative and its short videos featuring infographics.
Another online platform, California Islamic University, offers a comprehensive course sequence which allows college students to graduate with a second degree in Islamic studies while simultaneously completing their undergraduate studies at any accredited community college or university in the United States. Qalam and AlMaghrib Institute also offer online coursework in Islamic studies.
What We Hope to Avoid
While volunteering at his son Sulayman’s* public school with ten student participants, Ibrahim* was saddened when he met a young boy named Chris*. When Chris met Ibrahim, he piped up and eagerly told Ibrahim, “my grandparents are Muslim!” Through the course of the conversation, Ibrahim realized that he knew Chris’ grandparents, a very sweet elderly couple (and currently very practicing) who had not made the Islamic worldview a priority early on in their children’s lives. A mere two generations later, Islam is completely eliminated from their family. *names changed
Legacy IOHS recommends the following to Muslim families/educators and Islamic schools:
- Instill in our children a strong grasp of the foundational sciences of Islam, while preparing them with the necessary contemporary knowledge and skills
- Teach our children in their formative years to view the world (including their “secular” academic study) through the lens of Islam
- Follow this up with relevant motivational programs that assist them in understanding challenging issues of today and coach them on how to respond to the issues in their teenage years.
We pray that with the above, we will have fulfilled our duty in shepherding our flock in a comprehensive way, with utmost care. It is Allah’s help we seek in these challenging times:
رَبَّنَا لَا تُزِغْ قُلُوبَنَا بَعْدَ إِذْ هَدَيْتَنَا وَهَبْ لَنَا مِنْ لَدُنْكَ رَحْمَةً ۚ إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ الْوَهَّابُ
‘Our Lord, do not let our hearts deviate after You have guided us. Grant us Your mercy: You are the Ever Giving. [Qur’an 3:8]
رَبَّنَا هَبْ لَنَا مِنْ أَزْوَاجِنَا وَذُرِّيَّاتِنَا قُرَّةَ أَعْيُنٍ وَاجْعَلْنَا لِلْمُتَّقِينَ إِمَامًا
‘Our Lord, give us joy in our spouses and offspring. Make us good examples to those who are aware of You’. [Qur’an 25:74]
يَا مُقَلِّبَ القُلُوبِ ثَبِّتْ قَلْبِيْ عَلَى دِيْنِكْ
“O turner of the hearts, keep my heart firm on your religion.”
Freda Shamma has a M.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, and an Ed.D. from the University of Cincinnati in the area of Curriculum Development. A veteran educator, she has worked with educators from the United States, South Africa and all over the Muslim world to develop integrated curricula based on an Islamic worldview that meets the needs of modern Muslim youth. She serves as Curriculum Advisor for Legacy International Online High School.
An avid student of the Islamic sciences, Zaheer Arastu earned his M.Ed from The George Washington University and completed his training in Educational Leadership from the University of Oklahoma. his experience in Islamic education spans over 15 years serving as both teacher, administrator, and dean of innovation and technology. He currently serves as the Head of School for Legacy International Online High School.
Grit and Resilience: The Self-Help vs. Islamic Perspective
I don’t really care about grit.
Persevering and persisting through difficulties to achieve a higher goal is awesome. High-five. We should all develop that. No one disagrees that resilience is an essential characteristic to have.
Somehow, this simple concept has ballooned into what feels like a self-help cottage industry of sorts. It has a Ted talk with tens of millions of views, podcasts, keynote speeches, a New York Times best-selling book, and finding ways to teach this in schools and workplaces.
What I do care about is critically analyzing if it is all that it’s cracked up to be (spoiler alert: I don’t think so), why the self-help industry aggressively promotes it, and how we understand it from an Islamic perspective. For me, this is about much more than just grit – it’s about understanding character development from a (mostly Americanized) secular perspective vis-a-vis the Islamic one.
The appeal of grit in a self-help context is that it provides a magic bullet that intuitively feels correct. It provides optimism. If I can master this one thing, it will unlock what I need to be successful. When I keep running into a roadblock, I can scapegoat my reason for failure – a lack of grit.
Grit encompasses several inspirational cliches – be satisfied with being unsatisfied, or love the chase as much as the capture, or that grit is falling in love and staying in love. It is to believe anyone can succeed if they work long and hard enough. In short, it is the one-word encapsulation of the ideal of the American Dream.
Self-help literature has an underlying theme of controlling what is within your control and letting go of the rest. Islamically, in general, we agree with this sentiment. We focus our actions where we are personally accountable and put our trust in Allah for what we cannot control.
The problem with this theme, specifically with grit, is that it necessitates believing the circumstances around you cannot be changed. Therefore, you must simply accept things the way that they are. Teaching people that they can overcome any situation by merely working hard enough is not only unrealistic but utterly devoid of compassion.
“The notion that kids in poverty can overcome hunger, lack of medical care, homelessness, and trauma by buckling down and persisting was always stupid and heartless, exactly what you would expect to hear from Scrooge or the Koch brothers or Betsy DeVos.” -Diane Ravitch, Forget Grit, Focus on Inequality
Focusing on the individual characteristics of grit and perseverance shifts attention away from structural or systemic issues that impact someone’s ability to succeed. The personal characteristics can be changed while structural inequalities are seen as ‘fixed.’
Alfie Kohn, in an article critical of Grit by Angela Duckworth, notes that Duckworth and her mentor while studying grit operated under a belief that,
[U]nderachievement isn’t explained by structural factors — social, economic, or even educational. Rather, they insisted it should be attributed to the students themselves and their “failure to exercise self-discipline.” The entire conceptual edifice of grit is constructed on that individualistic premise, one that remains popular for ideological reasons even though it’s been repeatedly debunked by research.
Duckworth admitted as much in an interview with EdSurge.
There was a student who introduced himself having written a critical essay about the narrative of grit. His major point was that when we talk about grit as a kind of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ personal strength, it leaves in the shadows structural poverty and racism and other things that make it impossible, frankly, for some kids to do what we would expect them to do. When he sent me that essay, of course, I wanted to know more. I joined his [dissertation] committee because I don’t know much about sociology, and I don’t know much about this criticism.
I learned a lot from him over the years. I think the lesson for me is that when someone criticizes you, when someone criticized me, the natural thing is to be defensive and to reflexively make more clear your case and why you’re right, but I’ve always learned more from just listening. When I have the courage to just say, “Well, maybe there’s a point here that I hadn’t thought of,” and in this case the Grit narrative and what Grit has become is something that he really brought to me and my awareness in a way that I was oblivious to before.
It is mind-boggling that the person who popularized this research and wrote the book on the topic simply didn’t know that there was such a thing as structural inequality. It is quite disappointing that her response essentially amounted to “That’s interesting. I’d like to learn more.”
Duckworth provides a caveat – “My theory doesn’t address these outside forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” This is a cop-out we see consistently in the self-help industry and elsewhere. They won’t deny that those problems exist, they simply say that’s not the current focus.
It is intellectually dishonest to promote something as a key to success while outright ignoring the structures needed to enable success. That is not the only thing the theory of grit ignores. While marketing it as a necessary characteristic, it overlooks traits like honesty and kindness.
The grit narrative lionizes this superhero type of individual who breaks through all obstacles no matter how much the deck is stacked against them. It provides a sense of false hope. Instead of knowing when to cut your losses and see a failure for what it is, espousing a grit mentality will make a person stubbornly pursue a failing endeavor. It reminds me of those singers who comically fail the first round of auditions on American Idol, are rightly ridiculed by the judges, and then emotionally tell the whole world they’re going to come out on top (and then never do).
Overconfidence, obstinance, and naive optimism are the result of grit without context or boundaries. It fosters denial and a lack of self-awareness – the consequences of which are felt when horrible leaders keep rising to the top due, in part, to their grit and perseverance.
The entire idea of the psychology of achievement completely ignores the notion of morality and ethics. Grit in a vacuum may be amoral, but that is not how the real world works. This speaks powerfully to the need to understand the application of these types of concepts through a lens of faith.
The individual focus, however, is precisely what makes something like grit a prime candidate to become a popular self-help item. Schools and corporations alike will want to push it because it focuses on the individual instead of the reality of circumstances. There is a real amount of cognitive dissonance when a corporation can tell employees to focus on developing grit while not addressing toxic employment practices that increase turnover and destroy employees physically and emotionally (see: Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer).
Circumstances matter more than ever. You’ve probably heard the story (of course, in a Ted Talk) about the famous marshmallow test at some point. This popularizes the self-help version of delayed gratification. A bunch of kids are given a marshmallow and told that if they can avoid eating it for 5 minutes, they’ll get a second one. The children are then shown hilariously trying to resist eating it. These kids were then studied as they grew older, and lo and behold, those who had the self-discipline to hold out for the 2nd marshmallow were far more successful in life than those who gave in.
A new study found that a child’s ability to hold out for the second marshmallow had nothing to do with the ability to delay gratification. As The Atlantic points out, it had much more to do with the child’s social and economic background. When a child comes from a well to do household, the promise of a second marshmallow will be fulfilled. Their parents always deliver. When someone grows up in poverty, they are more attuned to take the short term reward because the guarantee does not exist that the marshmallow would still be there later. The circumstances matter much more than the psychological studies can account for. It is far easier to display grit with an entrepreneurial venture, for example, when you have the safety net of wealthy and supportive parents.
Valerie Strauss writes in the Washington Post that grit discourse is driven by middle and upper-class parents wanting their spoiled kids to appreciate the virtues of struggling against hardship. Unfortunately, this focus on character education means that poor students suffer because less money will then be spent on teaching disadvantaged students the skills they need to be successful. Sisyphus, she notes, had plenty of grit, but it didn’t get him very far.
Strauss asks us to imagine if a toxic dump was discovered near Beverly Hills, and our response was to teach kids how to lessen the effects of toxins instead of fixing the dump.
The grit discourse does not teach that poor children deserve poverty; it teaches that poverty itself is not so bad. In fact, hardship provides the very traits required to escape hardship. This logic is as seductive as it is circular. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is seen as a virtuous enterprise whether practiced by Horatio Alger’s urchins or Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs (bootstrapping is a common term in technology finance circles). And most importantly, it creates a purported path out of poverty that does not involve any sacrifice on the part of the privileged classes. -Valerie Strauss
This approach is a way to appear noble while perpetuating the status quo. It provides the illusion of upliftment while further entrenching the very systems that prevent it. We see this enacted most commonly with modern-day Silicon Valley style of philanthropy. Anand Giridharadas has an entire book dedicated to this ‘elite charade of changing the world’ entitled Winners Take All.
The media also does its fair share to push this narrative. Stories that should horrify us are passed along as inspirational stories of perseverance. It’s like celebrating a GoFundMe campaign that helps pay for surgery to save someone’s life instead of critically analyzing why healthcare is not seen as a human right in the first place.
Islamically, we are taught to find ways to address the individual as well as the system. Characteristics like grit and delayed gratification are not bad. They’re misapplied when the bigger picture is not taken into account. In the Islamic system, for example, a person is encouraged not to beg. At the same time, there is an encouragement for those who can give to seek out those in need. A person in debt is strongly advised to pay off their debts as quickly as possible. At the same time, the lender is encouraged to be easygoing and to forgive the debt if possible.
This provides a more realistic framework for applying these concepts. A person facing difficulty should be encouraged to be resilient and find ways to bounce back. At the same time, support structures must be established to help that person.
Beyond the framework, there is a much larger issue. Grit is oriented around success. Success is unquestionably assumed to be a personal success oriented around academic achievement, career, wealth, and status. When that is the end goal, it makes it much easier to keep the focus on the individual.
The Islamic definition of success is much broader. There is the obvious idea of success in the Hereafter, but that is separate from this discussion. Even in a worldly sense, a successful person may be the one who sacrifices attending a good school, or perhaps even a dream job type of career opportunity, to spend more time with their family. The emphasis on individual success at all costs has contributed to the breakdown of essential family and community support systems.
A misapplied sense of grit furthers this when a person thinks they don’t need anyone else, and they just need to persevere. It is part of a larger body of messaging that promotes freedom and autonomy. We celebrate people who are strong and independent. Self-help tells us we can achieve anything with the right mindset.
But what happens when we fail? What happens when we find loneliness and not fulfillment, when we lack the bonds of familial solidarity, and when money does not make us whole? Then it all falls on us. It is precisely this feeling of constriction that Allah , give good news to those who are steadfast, those who say, when afflicted with a calamity, ‘We belong to God and to Him we shall return.’ These will be given blessings and mercy from their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided.” (2:155-157)
Resilience is a reflex. When a person faces hardship, they will fall back on the habits and values they have. It brings to mind the statement of the Prophet that patience is at the first strike. He taught us the mindset needed to have grit in the first place,
“Wondrous is the affair of the believer for there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone except the believer. If he is happy, then he thanks Allah and thus there is good for him, and if he is harmed, then he shows patience and thus there is good for him” (Muslim).
He also taught us the habits we need to ensure that we have the reflex of grit when the situation warrants it –
“Whoever would be pleased for Allah to answer him during times of hardship and difficulty, let him supplicate often during times of ease” (Tirmidhi).
The institution of the masjid as a community center provides a massive opportunity to build infrastructure to support people. Resilience, as Michael Ungar writes, is not a DIY endeavor. Communities must find ways to provide the resources a person needs to persevere. Ungar explains, “What kind of resources? The kind that get you through the inevitable crises that life throws our way. A bank of sick days. Some savings or an extended family who can take you in. Neighbours or a congregation willing to bring over a casserole, shovel your driveway or help care for your children while you are doing whatever you need to do to get through the moment. Communities with police, social workers, home-care workers, fire departments, ambulances, and food banks. Employment insurance, pension plans or financial advisers to help you through a layoff.”
Ungar summarizes the appropriate application of grit, “The science of resilience is clear: The social, political and natural environments in which we live are far more important to our health, fitness, finances and time management than our individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. When it comes to maintaining well-being and finding success, environments matter. In fact, they may matter just as much, and likely much more, than individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. A positive attitude may be required to take advantage of opportunities as you find them, but no amount of positive thinking on its own is going to help you survive a natural disaster, a bad workplace or childhood abuse. Change your world first by finding the relationships that nurture you, the opportunities to use your talents and the places where you experience community and governmental support and social justice. Once you have these, your world will help you succeed more than you could ever help yourself.”
The one major missing ingredient here is tawakkul (trust in Allah). One of the events in the life of the Prophet that epitomized grit, resilience, and perseverance was the Battle of Badr. At this occasion, the Companions said, “God is enough for us: He is the best protector.“
“Those whose faith only increased when people said, ‘Fear your enemy: they have amassed a great army against you,’ and who replied, ‘God is enough for us: He is the best protector,’“ (3:173)
This is the same phrase that Ibrahim , while displaying the utmost level of resilience, said when he was thrown into the fire, and it was made cool.
There is a core belief in Islam about balancing between fear and hope. Scholars advise when a person feels despair, they should remind themselves of the traditions that reinforce hope in Allah’s forgiveness. When a person feels themselves sliding further and further into disobedience to Allah, then they should remind themselves of the traditions that warn against Allah’s punishment. The focus changes depending on the situation.
Grit itself is a praiseworthy characteristic
There is no doubt that it is a trait that makes people successful. The challenge comes in applying it and how we teach it. It needs a proper level of balance. Too much focus on grit as a singular predictor of success may lead to victim-blaming and false hope syndrome. Overlooking it on the other hand, enables a feeling of entitlement and a victim mentality.
One purpose of teaching grit was to help students from privileged backgrounds understand and appreciate the struggle needed to overcome difficulty. Misapplied, it can lead to overlooking systemic issues that prevent a person from succeeding even when they have grit.
Self-help literature often fails to make these types of distinctions. It fails to provide guidance for balancing adapting the advice based on circumstance. The criticisms here are not of the idea of grit, but rather the myopic way in which self-help literature promotes concepts like grit without real-world contextualization. We need to find a way to have the right proportionality of understanding individual effort, societal support, and our reliance on Allah.
Our ability to persevere, to be resilient, and to have grit, is linked directly to our relationship with Allah, and our true level of trust in Him.
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