A member of our youth group at the local masjid posed this important question to me: “Some people are born with greater talent in persuasion, more influence, and greater ability to motivate others. These individuals have the privilege to do certain things which others cannot and can acquire good deeds which without their talents wouldn’t be acquirable. My question is: is it fair that some who have a passion in certain things and wish to be able to do something which requires certain talents cannot acquire those good deeds just because they are not able, even if they try hard?“
The question reminded me of a few stories from the life of our beloved Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) that might help answer this question. I will mention each of them briefly and then comment on the lessons learned.
The first is the story of the women companions of the Prophet ﷺ who came to him complaining about men, who unlike women can go out onto the battlefield next to the Prophet ﷺ and perform physical jihad (struggle) in the time of war. The Prophet ﷺ taught them—and us after them—a great lesson in the meaning of jihad and how we can all contribute to the integrity of the social construct of our ummah (global community). He told them that their jihad was to be patient with their husbands’ absence and to fulfill their role as responsible wives and mothers at home. This hadith (narration) is one of the landmarks in understanding the role of women is Islam as vehicles and custodians for the trans-generational transmission of the knowledge and tradition of this religion. In addition to that, the hadith highlights the importance of diversity in serving the message of Islam, and that we have different roles working towards the same target, the pleasure of Allah (swt).
Lesson Learned: As a Muslim community our jihad is a more comprehensive concept than defending Islam in the battlefield, and we all have complementary roles in serving Islam: competing for complementation.
The second story is about the companions narrating how they learned their religion from the Prophet ﷺ and how they nourished their iman (faith) and built their Islamic character. One would assume that they learned that by passive diffusion due to the richness of the Islamic environment at the time or by a divine gift to them with the barakah (blessing) of the companionship of the Prophet ﷺ. While these two routes are true, they were not the norm. The companion narrates: “We used to learn our iman from the Prophet ﷺ, the way we would learn the verse from Qur’an.” This means that they actually learned how to become great Muslims, and they actually took their time to become great in da`wah (outreach). A man came to the Prophet ﷺ from the tribe of Daws, angry at his people who refused his invitation for them to accept Islam and asked the Prophet ﷺ to make du`a’ (supplication) on them to destroy them. The Prophet ﷺ raised his blessed hands to the sky and made a du`a’ for them that Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) may grant them guidance and bring their hearts to His religion, giving the man guidance on how to make da`wah. Sure enough, the man learned his lesson, and with his new spirit, most of his tribe accepted Islam. One scholar from our righteous salaf (predecessors) used to say: “I fought against the whims of my desires for forty years, until Allah granted me steadfastness!!” Can you imagine that, forty years worth of work (equivalent to 10 bachelor degrees, and 5 PhDs)?
Lesson Learned: Knowledge of the religion, and modes of da`wah, debate and deliberation is a cumulative process that requires patience, perseverance and a lot of sincerity.
The third story is the story of the poor companion who came to the Prophet ﷺ complaining about their rich believing brothers in Islam who had the privilege of spending in the way of Allah (swt) in charity and in attending to the financial needs of the community while they (the poor companions) were unable to do that. The Prophet ﷺ instructed them to do more remembrance (dhikr), which can in reward amount to what the rich are spending. So the poor companion started doing that, but the rich ones also learned that too, and started doing both, dhikr and spending. The poor companion came to the Prophet ﷺ again complaining that the rich of them now have two routes of khayr (good deeds) and still exceed them in doing good deeds, the Prophet ﷺ acknowledged that indeed, wealth could be a privilege that Allah (swt) gives to whom He wills. To balance this thought, the Prophet ﷺ teaches us that the majority of the inhabitants of al-Jannah (Paradise) are the masakeen (the poor and needy) and the majority of the people of the fire are the extremely rich and arrogant and greedy. This is an important point to balance the previous story: whether it is richness of cognitive capacity or of material wealth, richness is a test from Allah (swt) that many people are unable to withstand.
There are many stories in our daily lives of people who were distracted by their wealth and steered away from the path of Allah (swt)—may Allah (swt) protect all of us and preserve our religion. A man at the time of the Prophet ﷺ used to witness the congregational prayer with the Prophet ﷺ everyday, and was steadfast in his religion. He then asked the Prophet ﷺ to make du`a’ for him that he may become rich (possibly thinking of giving more charity), but the Prophet ﷺ declined, and the reason was that the Prophet ﷺ knew that this man would be subject to fitnah (calamity) if he were to become rich. But the man insisted, and insisted until the Prophet ﷺ made du`a’ for him. He became rich but started missing the congregational prayers and eventually disappeared from the friday prayers! Allah (swt) emphasizes this meaning in the Qur’an in verse 32 of Surat an-Nisa’ the approximate meaning of which is “do not preoccupy yourselves by hoping for what others have, but you don’t have.” This verse, although contextually acknowledging gender differences in the social roles in the Muslim community, is also a general rule for us to follow, inviting us to focus on improving ourselves and making the best of what we have.
Lesson Learned: While we work hard to acquire knowledge of our religion and other capacities that make us stronger, we should be thankful and content for what we are able to achieve, because we never know if “more” for us would be a source of fitnah.
The last story is that of our great imam Abu Hanifah, who before becoming a scholar, used to be a rich silk merchant who was able to have a great business given his great cognitive capacities. These cognitive capacities, however, did not make him the Abu Hanifah that we know, until one of his friends noticed how talented the imam was, and in fact suggested that Abu Hanifah have a shot at seeking Islamic knowledge. Not only that, but it also took this imam a while to find his area of interest within the realm of our Islamic sciences, until he finally decided to study fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) which he then excelled in.
Lesson Learned: Do not try to copy others. Immerse yourself in the righteous environment of seeking knowledge and da`wah and you will find your own unique niche in serving Islam and humanity inshaAllah (God willing).
Allah (swt) knows us best and He knows us more than we know ourselves. He knew us as we were developing embryos in the wombs of our mothers, He knows what is enough and sufficient for us and what might cause us to transgress our limits. He gives each one of the provision that is adequate for us. Let us focus on improving ourselves within our capacities, then trying our best to please him and not worry about the outcome. Our focus should be Allah’s (swt) pleasure, and any other goal is just a means to that. A man was complaining to his teacher that his prayer had no khushoo` (contemplation) even though he was trying hard to improve his khushoo`. The teacher gave him this pearl of wisdom that we should all learn a lesson from. He told him: “ You will never get khushoo` in your prayer until you start worshiping Allah (swt), and not your khushoo`.”
Allah knows best.