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Quran and Sunnah

The Myth of the Naturally Good Muslim

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On a dark and stormy night in the dark cave of man’s mind, Shaitaan once lit a campfire and settled down to tell a story- a myth, in fact.  It went like this:

Once upon a time Islam was revealed to a Prophet of near God-like perfection.  He shared it with his friends, who were all superhumans lacking any embarrassing or inconvenient biological urges.   They implemented it with inspirational dedication, passion, and flawlessness.  Since then it has been passed down through the generations, and only a privileged few are able to embody the wisdom, piety, and errorless rejection of sin that its holiness demands. By Shaitaan, the End.

Shaitaan is possibly millions of years old and pretty damned (literally!) sneaky.  His goal, at the end of the day, is to get as many of us into hell with him as possible, and one of the ways that he does this is by using this myth of effortless, perfect implementation of Islam by effortless, perfect Muslims.

The idea is simple.  Shaitaan says:

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 Do it all perfectly or just stop, because you’re embarrassing yourself.

 In fact, a person like you has no chance of getting into Jannah. 

 In fact, just kill yourself now.  At least it will be over sooner.

His message is so insidious that people all over the world actually give up trying to be better Muslims because they fall short of their own expectations for how effortless and impeccable their Islam should be.  They try hard to implement Islam- they go through the motions even when their hearts aren’t in it, and because they find themselves being pulled in two directions, they assume they’re doing something hypocritical or wrong and they stop altogether.

Shaitaan wants you to believe that there are naturally religious people, and then there’s everybody else.  And the reason why you are having a hard time isn’t because spirituality is one of man’s greatest struggles, it’s because you aren’t one of the beautiful people.  So the sister who yearns for the wind in her hair gives up hijab because she feels like she’s living a lie. The brother who has a beard shaves it because he feels he doesn’t deserve one until he can quit marijuana.  The convert  won’t pray until they’re sure they’ve got all the words right.  All of these are success stories for the myth of the Naturally Good Muslim.  They are Muslims who, instead of realising that struggle was a sign of progress, saw difficulty as a sign of defeat.

Some people do fall for it.  Others- like Imam Sufyaan ath-Thawri- saw through this cheap trick and insisted on praying at night for twenty years even though he wasn’t “feeling it.”

NightJihadImagine if, one day he had just thrown his hands up and said “You know what? I’m not cut out for this, I’ve been praying for twenty years and I’ve yet to find this whole peace and contentment with my salah.  What’s the point? I’m never going to get it right…”

Shaitaan is trying to convince you that because your Islam is less than perfect, you’re a failure who should give up already. In reality, everyone is a sinner and the Jihad of the nafs is a constant struggle for everyone.  The best people aren’t those who sin, but those whose sins cause them to try even harder and draw even closer to Allah next time.  For some people, major sins can be major set-backs.  For others, they are life-changing events that mark the end of heedlessness and the beginning of seeking Allah’s pleasure.

Every Muslim is a combination of successes and failures when it comes to their religious practice.  So as a sinner, you’re in great company!  Everyone, everywhere, accumulates sin on a daily basis, and if everyone like you took Shaitaan’s advice and just killed themselves, we’d all be dead.

O My servants, you sin by night and by day, and I forgive all sins, so seek forgiveness of Me and I shall forgive you. 

-Excerpt from Hadith Qudsi, full hadith here.

Shaitaan wants you to think that the passing grade for this test is 100% and failure is everything else.  But if you believe him, then you’re buying into an insult to Allah.   How? Allah is The Most Merciful, Most Forgiving- Most Loving, Most Gracious, Most Kind- He alone has attained perfection and as The All-Knowing, He knows how and what we’re made of, so by what crazy logic would He mercilessly penalize us for not reaching a standard that He best knows that we can never attain?

Shaitaan might add at this point: well, ok, Allah is The Best.  But you can’t think that you’re getting into Jannah with *that* old sack of a soul.  Have you seen the state of your nafs?  Brother, it is bad.

If you think you’re too bad for Allah to forgive, then you’re grossly underestimating Allah’s capacity for forgiveness.  You’re implying that your teeny-tiny mortal capacity to sin is even greater than Allah’s capacity to forgive.  Please, don’t insult God.  They don’t call Him Al-Ghaffar, The Continuously Forgiving, for nothing.

On the authority of Anas (may Allah be pleased with him), who said:I heard the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) say: Allah the Almighty said:

O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind.

O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you.

O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great at it.

Related by at-Tirmidhi (also by Ahmad ibn Hanbal). Its chain of authorities is sound.

Whenever I read that Hadith, it puts a certain picture in my head, and in my primitive photoshop imagination, it looks like this:

Mountain of Sins

Mountain of Sins= Mountain of Rewards for Repentance.

Repentance for a mountain of sins is equal to a mountain of blessings.  So, the greater the sin you’ve committed, the greater the reward for seeking forgiveness.  Knowing that this is how Allah works helps us appreciate how truly generous Allah is in His forgiveness- instead of seeking forgiveness on a level -10 sin and only being returned to a clean slate with 0, we seek forgiveness on a level -10 and in response are given a +10 in its place.  AllahuAkbar.

Shaitaan wants you to forget that Allah is the Greatest- even in His capacity to forgive those who sincerely ask it.  He wants you to think that you only have two choices; perfection or failure, and since perfection ain’t gonna happen, what option does Shaitaan leave you? Killing yourself and getting it over with already.  But, there’s a third option that Shaitaan doesn’t want you to remember:

Between perfection and failure lies your only real choice:  Fight.

Fight shaitaan’s insistence upon your failure, fight your own soul’s inclination to sin, fight your own weaknesses and no matter how hard you’ve been hit or how long you’ve been laying on the ground- get up and keep fighting.  Fight shaitaan as hard as he’s fighting you, as long as he’s fighting you, and don’t stop fighting him until the Angel of Death draws your soul gently away from your body and into the safety of your grave, spacious and fragrant with the winds of Jannah, where you can finally relax a little, reassured and kept company by your good deeds until Allah raises you on Qiyama.

Just because your heart is aching right now, and you’re locked in the seemingly endless cycle of sin, regret, and self-reproach doesn’t mean you’re a lost cause.  It’s actually good news, and here’s why.  The human heart (or soul, or nafs) has three settings according to the Qur’an.

The Lowest, Default Setting: Nafs al-Amarra bis Su’

This cockatiel is obviously set on default.

This cockatiel is obviously set on default.

The lowest level is the Nafs al-Amarra bis Su’ or the soul that is inclined to evil, and a majority of humankind lives in this guiltless, no-regrets, live for the moment mode. This seems to be the default setting for most pop music as well.

And I do not free myself from blame. Indeed the human self is inclined to evil, except when my Lord bestows His Mercy (upon whom He wills). Indeed my Lord is Forgiving, Merciful.” (Surah Yusuf: 53)

Knowing that it’s possible to have varying levels of soundness to one’s heart/nafs- Muslims don’t rely on the soundness of their heart to provide a compass to morality.  It is not your heart’s job to point you towards what’s right, it only points you towards what it wants.  So in a sense, you don’t follow your heart as much as your heart follows you.

Have you seen the one who takes as god his own desire? Then would you be responsible for him? Surah Al Furqan: 43

The Medium Setting: Nafs al-Lawwama

“I do call to witness the Resurrection Day. And I do call to witness the self-reproaching Soul.” Surah Al-Qiyamah: 1-2

This is a soul that battles with its desires, that commits sin and then reproaches itself and tries harder next time.  It has awareness of its shortcomings, but despite its imperfections, it hasn’t given up. Your guilt and self-reproach about the shortcomings in your Islamic practice are evidence of having made progress on your spiritual journey.  The bad news is though, is that Shaitaan is trying to knock you down a notch so that instead of trying harder, you just stop trying altogether- whether because you’ve killed yourself, or because you’ve decided that you’re a hypocrite and you’ve written yourself off as ever being a “good” Muslim.

Alhamdulillah though, Allah has good news for the Reproaching Soul.

“And hasten to forgiveness from your Lord and a garden as wide as the heavens and earth, prepared for the righteous- Who spend [in the cause of Allah ] during ease and hardship and who restrain anger and who pardon the people – and Allah loves the doers of good; And those who, when they commit an immorality or wrong themselves [by transgression], remember Allah and seek forgiveness for their sins – and who can forgive sins except Allah ? – and [who] do not persist in what they have done while they know.” Qur’an 3:133-135

The very fact that you are aware of your shortcomings, even pained by them- is reassuring proof that you have a Nafs al-Lawwama.  If you didn’t care, didn’t want to care, and didn’t even want to hear about why you should try to give a care- well, that would be worse.  Sure, you’d probably be happier and more “at peace with your self,” as many modern proponents of self-worship would say, but you’d actually be wallowing in heedlessness.

The Highest setting: Nafs al-Mutma’inna

“O you satisfied soul. Return to your Lord pleased with yourself and pleasing to Him. Enter among My servants. And enter My paradise.” (Surah Al-Fajr: 27-30)

You might not be here yet, but that’s ok.  You can still strive to accomplish this.  The Contented Soul, or the Satisfied Soul, is the highest setting for your heart.  It is a place of happiness, peace, acceptance, and sweetness of faith.  It takes hard work to get there, and Allah has good tidings for the Contented Soul but get this- not even the Contented Soul is a perfect soul.  It’s just a very happy one, and very close to Allah. I’d write more about it, but I’ve yet to get there myself. :)

So, in a nutshell:

  • No one is perfect except Allah, so don’t hate yourself for being an imperfect Muslim.
  • You’re not the only one accumulating sin every day that you’re alive, so don’t let Shaitaan pick on you.
  • The difference between a good Muslim and a bad Muslim is not that one sins and one doesn’t- it’s that one seeks forgiveness & tries harder, and one doesn’t.
  • Shaitaan’s trying to trick you into thinking you’re a failure so that you give up.
  • Believing him is the only way to lose.
  • Fighting him is the only way to win.

There’s one more thing that we need to remind you of:

No Soul

On no soul does Allah place a burden greater than it can bear.

That means that whatever situation you’re in -despite how hard it seem and how badly Shaitaan is trying to bring you down- you can overcome this.  You can succeed.  You can find a way- either out or through- that is pleasing to Allah and perhaps even terribly frustrating to Shaitaan.

There is nothing coming that you can’t handle, not because you’re great, but because Allah is the Greatest.  He knows what you’re capable of, and He promised your challenges would never exceed your strengths.  Allah sets us up for growth, not failure. And Allah never, ever breaks His promises.

Shaitaan, on the other hand, has been lying to you.  He’s saying that anyone who’s struggling with deen shouldn’t even bother to try, whereas Allah gives double the normal reward to those who have difficulty reading Qu’ran.  The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him said “The magnitude of the reward goes along with the magnitude of the affliction.” (Tirmidhi)

The more you’re afflicted now- whether it be with stress, illness, financial difficulties, emotional turmoil or self reproach- the more you will be rewarded when you succeed, and the fact that you’re struggling right now isn’t a sign that you should just give up and kill yourself, it’s an invitation from Allah to come closer to Him.

Will you accept?

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Zeba Khan is the Director of Development for MuslimMatters.org and the producer of the newly launched Muslimmatters Podcast, as well as a writer, speaker, and disability awareness advocate. In addition to having a child with autism, she herself lives with Ehlers-Danlos Sydrome, Dysautonomia, Mast-Cell Activation Disorder, and a random assortment of acronyms that collectively translate to chronic illness and progressive disability.

49 Comments

49 Comments

  1. Pingback: afraid | it is written

    • Mariam Mohsin

      August 11, 2014 at 12:48 PM

      Masha ALLAH, just amazing…So we all feel the same all the time I guess. :) I had been discussing this with my sister just yesterday, its like you read my mind.
      JazakALLAH khair :)

  2. BK

    December 4, 2013 at 12:53 PM

    Jazakillah khair sister !

    This is a great nafs-motivation read . When i start feeling low,I would write similar notes and read it to myself for motivation , but this is the best note mashAllah . Henceforth , when I am upset with my failures, I shall try to remember to read this article.

    Wassalam. May Allah help us reach the nafs al mutmainnah status

    • BK

      December 4, 2013 at 12:54 PM

      InshAllah…….

  3. ahmed

    December 4, 2013 at 12:56 PM

    I thought I was the only one who went through the described internal struggle. When I would wonder if any of the righteous predecessors went through struggles like mine, I’ve gotten the thought: of course not, they were “righteous.”

    This article really hit home for me. I’m sure Shaytaan must have tried to come in the way of you writing the article in one way or another. JazakAllah Khair for writing this article, sister Abez.

  4. Said Hasan

    December 4, 2013 at 1:14 PM

    JazakaAllah khayr sister for your kind beneficial wise advise.
    I love to be excellent and reach the level of Ihsaan.
    An obssession for perfection = failure
    A desire for excellence = success

  5. Amatullah

    December 4, 2013 at 6:18 PM

    BarakAllahu feek ukhty! MashaAllah this is amazing! Great reminder and eye opener! May Allah make us among the nafsul mutmainnah! Amiiin!
    This is a goox insight into Shaaytan’s plot and better ammunition for us! <3

  6. Manna

    December 4, 2013 at 9:54 PM

    JazakAllahu khyr. BarakAllahu feek. Excellent reminder!

  7. nina arief

    December 4, 2013 at 10:02 PM

    Lovely read !! and very inspirational..

  8. Debra

    December 4, 2013 at 11:22 PM

    Assalamu alaikum.

    Barak Allahu Feek. Nice post.

    I was looking for a way to email you personally, but gave up.
    I have a small suggestion. Please review this statement:

    But, there’s a third option that Shaitaan doesn’t want you to forget about it:
    Between perfection and failure lies your only real choice: Fight.

    I think you might have changed your mind on the wording at some point while editing and lost the meaning you intended. I think you mean that Shaitaan WANTS you to forget to fight. So, maybe you meant to write,

    But, there’s a third option that Shaitaan doesn’t want you to REMEMBER:
    Between perfection and failure lies your only real choice: Fight.

    or

    But, there’s a third option that ALLAH doesn’t want you to forget about it:
    Between perfection and failure lies your only real choice: Fight.

    or something along those lines.

    If i am wrong, please forgive me my errors and clarify for me my misunderstanding.

    Fi amanillah

    • Abez

      December 4, 2013 at 11:27 PM

      AssalamuAlaikum Debra- well spotted, you are 100% correct! Thank you for pointing that out, we’ll make the changes asap. :)

  9. mohibullah

    December 4, 2013 at 11:59 PM

    Was amazing ,lovely read and very inspiring .Jazakallah o khair

  10. Ismail Kayode Olaoye

    December 5, 2013 at 4:27 AM

    Jazakumullahu khairan Sister,

    May Allah answer all your prayers. He (SWT) owns the neurons and all other cells in our bodies (including your son’s); May He take control of these and heal your son bi qudratihi…As for your mum, may Allah grant her His Hidayya….Keep this up. May Allah preserve you and us.

  11. Ayisha

    December 5, 2013 at 5:00 AM

    Thank you for this inspiring post. It really came at a time I really needed to read such a post to remind me not to despair and always go back to Allah to ask for forgiveness anytime.

  12. Muhammad

    December 5, 2013 at 9:05 AM

    Salaaam, do you have a facebook page?

    • Abez

      December 5, 2013 at 9:13 AM

      Walaikum Assalam brother- sorry, no public FB page but I do have a blog?

  13. saniya

    December 5, 2013 at 10:21 AM

    jazakillah kharun sister for such beautiful and intriguing reminder.

  14. Kayvee

    December 5, 2013 at 12:17 PM

    Mashallah this was a great post.

    My halaqa teacher used to always give the examples of Abu Sufyan and Umar (ra).

    Both of those men were at one point a staunch enemy to Allah, His Messenger and Islam.

    They even wanted to kill the Prophet as one point.

    And yet, Allah guided them out of their mercy.

    Alhamdulilah none of us are in that state where we want to harm the prophet

    And If Allah can guide people like Abu Sufyan and Umar who originally were haters of Islam, then there is hope for us too.

    And today we consider Umar and Abu Sufyan as the Companions of the Prophet.

    The underlying message here is to Never lose hope in the mercy of Allah

    Allah says that His Mercy is greater than His Wrath.

  15. The Perfumed Veil

    December 5, 2013 at 12:25 PM

    This article really helped me. When I have trouble committing to prayer, I remember that we don’t always have to “feel” it and just keep going. Being a perfectionist gets in the way, but reading things like these lets me see everyone is going through the same struggle.

  16. Kayvee

    December 5, 2013 at 12:41 PM

    Dear Sister,

    I heard of this along time ago. I hope it is beneficial

    http://www.autismtreatmentcenter.org/contents/about_son-rise/history_of_the_son-rise_program.php

  17. Yasmeen

    December 5, 2013 at 1:13 PM

    JazakAllah Khayr! I feel like this often but have never actually realized that this was a trick of the shaitaan, or that this was even happening to me. For example, I would tell myself to commit to praying all the sunnah and nafil prayers everyday. However, when it would come time I would think “I didn’t even feel the sweetness of the fardh prayers. I’m not even doing those right and I wanna add more?” Then I wouldn’t. Or if I would set my alarm to pray tahajjud and would dread it going off at night I would think praying tahajjud wouldn’t mean anything because I’m dreading doing it and I have to force myself to.

    So I would like to thank you for bringing this to my attention and having me realize that this is what is happening and that its fine to feel these feelings. And most importantly, to not have these feelings drive me away from doing any good deeds. The quote from Imam Sufyan ath-Thawri really hit home for me.

    • Abez

      December 5, 2013 at 1:45 PM

      Wow- sister- your example was far better than the few I put in the article. SubhanAllah, Shaitaan can be such a tricky jerk!

  18. Zaid Syed

    December 5, 2013 at 1:33 PM

    Very good article ma sha Allah. An imaan booster. May Allah reward you with Nafs Al mutmainnah!

  19. Javaid

    December 5, 2013 at 3:41 PM

    JazakAllah Khair sister,

    Great narrative. Brought tears to my eyes. May Allah swt give you the reward. May He give complete health to your boy and guide your mother to Islam.

  20. soad

    December 5, 2013 at 4:33 PM

    Jazak allahu Khayre sis, this is something I really needed to read. Subhanallah, such an eye-opening article that speaks directly to the soul. Shaytan’s tricks are something i’m sure we can all relate to. Please write more insightful articles of this nature.

  21. Aminah

    December 5, 2013 at 6:53 PM

    Alhamdulillah for sharing this article. This answered lot of my worries. May Allah always be with you and your family. Aminn.

  22. Animashaun Oluwasegun

    December 5, 2013 at 8:25 PM

    May Allah forgive us and guide us all.

  23. Mahnoor

    December 5, 2013 at 9:43 PM

    I always have the thought of being a perfectionist get in the way of doing what I want to do. This article reminded me that all Shaitaan wants me to do is give up, and will end up turning me away from Allah. The Prophet (P.B.U.H.) had never gave up, which is why I shouldn’t either. Jazak Allah Khayr sister! May Allah bless you and your family for as long as you live! Ameen!

  24. kayvee

    December 6, 2013 at 10:52 AM

  25. Aasia

    December 6, 2013 at 10:56 PM

    Jazaki Allahu khairan Ukhtee for this much needed reminder. Truly we must never give up on attaining what Allah wants us to attain.

  26. Pingback: The Myth of the Naturally Good Muslim | The Imperfect Muslim

  27. Abubakr Jr.

    December 8, 2013 at 3:37 AM

    Salaaam,

    Great article, kinda long, but good material.

    SOMEONE MAKE AN INFOGRAPHIC WITH THE THREE NAFSES (Nufoos?) PLZ – I’d do it but I have finals to study for :D

    Also reminded me of that poem from Musky Misc ” Nafs Alamara… Gonna Do what I wanna”

  28. Abubakr Jr.

    December 8, 2013 at 3:43 AM

    Also, this line was priceless, mA. “…guiltless, no-regrets, live for the moment mode. This seems to be the default setting for most pop music as well.” I imagined Demetri Martin narrating this, lol, not sure why.

    Holla at me admins #doubleposting #slickerthanoliveoil #come-at-me-bro…ther

  29. salma

    December 8, 2013 at 8:01 PM

    What a beautiful article, I needed this, its so crazy because it is such a simple formula, however it further reflects the shaytaan’s goal to make us forget! and our nature to forget also, may Allah reward the person/people who wrote this, and those who posted and shared it attain the highest status, and the highest Jannah, the best in the life and the next. Ameen

  30. reema

    December 9, 2013 at 2:17 AM

    Alhamdulillaah…awesome…just awesome. Love you sister Abez for the sake of Allaah. You are too special *hugs*

  31. Dini

    December 10, 2013 at 4:23 AM

    Masha Allah, thank you very much for this wonderful reminder.

    You article brought me in tears. May Allah SWT blesses you, aameen yaa Rabb.

    Wassalamu alaykum..

  32. Pingback: Talha Muhammad Tayyab (talhatayyab) | Pearltrees

  33. Student129

    December 10, 2013 at 8:04 PM

    Salaam and Thank You so much dear sister for a wonderful and informative article! May Allah Bless You for your good works inshaAllah.
    One thing my husband told me that I won’t ever forget, is to teach myself to catch the shaytan. By catching shaytan he meant to be one step ahead and to be constantly aware of my own thoughts, emotions and in turn actions. By being in the constant present, always aware, we can catch the shaytan when he is trying to fool us. Eventually, if you catch the shaytan enough, it will try more sophisticated tactics to diverge you from the Right Way, but we have to keep striving, inshaAllah.

  34. silent_observer

    December 10, 2013 at 10:57 PM

    Very well expressed..JazakAllah Khair for the article and reminder- ‘Fighting him is the only way to win.’ its a continuous battle with him,so many tricks he uses to deviate our minds, constantly pouring thoughts and not letting us become still…Surely would like to watch him burn in hell for troubling us humans so much!

  35. atiya

    December 15, 2013 at 1:31 PM

    Jazakillah khair sister for this amazing article !!! Needed this reminder ”No one is perfect except Allāh, so don’t hate yourself for being an imperfect Muslim.”

  36. Naushad Shafkat

    December 15, 2013 at 2:36 PM

    Have only finished reading a quarter of this and my eyes filled up. Not only is this well written it has substance. Really inspiring and full of hope for us all -hope which is in very short supply if not actually extinct. Going to share it with everyone I know for this is just BRILLIANT!

  37. nousheenkhan

    December 16, 2013 at 12:04 AM

    jazakAllah very very nice article. iman booster may Allah SWT gives u reward and grant all of us nafs e mutmainah,and success us in fighting with shaitan ameen

  38. GregAbdul

    December 16, 2013 at 8:46 AM

    asa,

    love your story and just wanted to add: I am a convert and I will never forget learning to pray. I had to hold a book in front of me for the times I would forget what to say or do in the beginning. I was told not to do it, but I did it anyway and kept at it. My prayer still needs work, but al hamdulillah, I have not given up yet.

  39. Aisha

    December 22, 2013 at 8:36 AM

    MashAllah I REALLY enjoyed reading this article alhamdulillah. And I’d never heard of that quote by Imam Sufyaan! جزاك الله خيرا sisters for the article :)

  40. Malik Junaid

    October 2, 2014 at 5:28 AM

    Jazakallahu khaira … Wallahi i feel so much peace n tranquility in heart after reading this article. This article fills me with lots of hope n enthuaism to fight harder now insha allaah… May Allaah bless you

  41. madiha asif

    March 24, 2015 at 3:37 PM

    Jazak Allahu khairan katheera . I feel so peaceful in my heart after this reading .. someone ask me ques …and I got ans here . . Thanks again.

  42. Andre

    August 7, 2016 at 5:20 PM

    Thank you so, so, SO much for this ! I come back here and read this often… I struggle with obsessive compulsiveness which, among other things, leads me to believe there’s no hope I can be a good Muslim, there’s no hope, et cetera despite trying my best to do what (I hope!) Allah wants me to.. this is an enormous source of comfort for me when I’m struggling with these difficulties.

  43. Sameera

    September 15, 2017 at 12:37 AM

    This saved my life. Allah swt will bless you so much for this. Inshallah we can meet in jannah, ill be working best I can now. Thank you so much ❤❤❤❤

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