An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson
With an Islamic Twist
When my father was in the hospital earlier this year, a friend of mine gave him a book titled Tuesdays with Morrie as a gift. I immediately wanted to grab it and read it but thought I would wait until the owner of the book got a chance to read it first. After seeing it sitting on my fathers desk for about two months, my desires got the best of me and I dived head first into the text, only to get entranced by its sheer wisdom and practical life lessons.
Tuesdays with Morrie is a book about a dying man giving his last class to a single student. He had always been a great teacher, caring not about grades but about knowledge. He encouraged his students to live what they learned rather than acquire book knowledge that would get them nowhere. After being diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS, Morrie had to learn to live as a dying man (which is the reality of all human beings and not just the terminally ill). Rather than sulk in his own misery, Morrie decided to make death his final project, the center point of his days. He walked that final bridge between life and death and narrated the trip. It is from his narrations and his wisdom that we can find great benefit. We all walk that bridge, but some of us choose to do it blindfolded. Through this article and others to come, I hope to shine some Islamic light on what are now known as Morries Aphorisms so that we all may benefit.
1. Learn to forgive yourself and forgive others
There almost always is a moment in our past that we wish we could simply erase. We wish that the act that we did or the act that someone else did just never occurred. We spend our time dwelling on what we should not have done and what other people should not have done, and we forget to actually live life right now. One of the most amazing examples is the story of when Abu Bakr radi Allahu `anhu (may Allah be pleased with him) forgave his maternal cousin Mistah, who had slandered his daughter, and our mother, Aishah radi Allahu `anha (may Allah be pleased with her). Mistah was extremely poor, so Abu Bakr (ra) regularly provided him with money due to his involvement in the Battle of Badr. Had this been any strange man from the community, the wound inflicted upon Abu Bakr (ra) may have been less, but the fact that it was Mistah who slandered his daughter, a relative and someone whom Abu Bakr (ra) cared for, only made matters worse. Initially, out of anger for the lies Mistah had spread, Abu Bakr (ra) swore to stop providing for him. After all that he had done for his cousin, Mistah betrayed his trust and betrayed his daughter. Allah then revealed the verse:
“And let not those of virtue among you and wealth swear not to give [aid] to their relatives and the needy and the emigrants for the cause of Allah, and let them pardon and overlook. Would you not like that Allah should forgive you? And Allah is Forgiving and Merciful” (Qur’an, 24:22).
After hearing this ayah (verse), Abu Bakr immediately said “Indeed I would love that God forgive me,” and he went back to giving Mistah the provisions he needed.
Sometimes, however, the hardest person to forgive is ourselves. When we commit a mistake, by no means should we take it lightly. The immediate reaction to a mistake is to seek forgiveness from Allah and from the one whom we wronged. Often times the person we wrong is none other than ourselves. If each time we commit a sin we hold a grudge against ourselves, degrading ourselves in our minds, then we will only dive deeper into the ocean of sin. Al-Hassan Al-Basri said, “The World is three days: as for yesterday, it has vanished, along with all that was in it. As for tomorrow, you may never see it. As for today, it is yours, so work in it.” If we spend today thinking about what we could have done better yesterday, then we will never improve our lives rather only dwell in our iniquities. We should do our best to repent, extract lessons from our actions, and then move on to achieve bigger and better things. This brings us to one of Morries next aphorisms:
2. Accept what you are able to do and what you are not able to do
In John Maxwells book Developing the Leader within You, he mentions an important point in his chapter on problem solving. The point that he tries to make is that people need to change their perspectives, not their problems. Just like Maxwell, Morrie realized that this point in and of itself can either build a wall between a person and success or open a path. If we dwell on the things that we cannot change, we may be throwing ourselves headfirst into a pit of depression and stagnation. When we are faced with a problem, rather than thinking ”why me” or “this all just needs to go away”, we need to immediately think what can I do to succeed in this trial. We need to have rida (contentment) with what Allah has decreed for us. For example, when one applies for a job and does not get it, rather than sulking in his own misery or thinking “this was the solution to all my problems” one should reply with ”alhamdulilLah” (all praise is due to Allah). Perhaps the job would have been the means to his demise. Perhaps this job would have busied him from his deen (religion). And perhaps, there is something better waiting for him. Allah says in the Qur’an:
“Fighting has been enjoined upon you while it is hateful to you. But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah knows, while you know not” (Qur’an, 2:216).
The fact of the matter is that we dont know much. Allah has only granted us a tiny fraction of knowledge and with Him lies ultimate knowledge. He knows what is best for us today, tomorrow, and forever. It is He who determines our destiny, and we should remember this when we are hit with a problem. Rather than focusing on what we cannot do,we should focus on what we can do.
A beautiful example from the sunnah (example of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ) that is supported by Morries statement is the thirty-fourth hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ) in An-Nawawi’s 40 ahadeeth (plural of hadith):
“Whoever of you sees an evil must then change it with his hand. If he is not able to do so, then [he must change it] with his tongue. And if he is not able to do so then [he must change it] with his heart. And that is the slightest [effect] of faith.” [Muslim]
The key words that are repeated time and time again in this hadith are fa in lam yastati (if he is not able to do so). To make things clear, the ability to do or not do has been broken down by the scholars into eight different categories. The following four are of these eight:
- The person does not have knowledge to recognize whether or not the act he is witnessing is an evil.
This person is not capable, due to lack of qualification, of stopping the act.
- The person can remove the evil without any resultant evil, and he fears only verbal abuse.
This person is fully capable of removing evil and he falls under the command of this hadith. Verbal abuse does not excuse him to move to the next level of changing with ones tongue.
- The person has the physical ability to act, but he believes that his actions will not result in removing or lessening the evil and expects that he will be harmed in the process.
This person is considered not capable, and he moves to the next level of removing the evil by his tongue.
- The person believes that he cannot stop the evil by acting, but he also fears no harm or resultant evil if he does act.
This person is not completely capable. Some scholars say that he must still act, while others say that it is simply recommended.
From this we see that Islam differentiates between what we are capable of doing and what we are not capable of doing, what we are able to handle and what we are not able to handle, as well as what we are responsible for and what we are not responsible for. When we are faced with any challenge or task, we should take a moment and think about what we are capable of doing in the situation and focusing on that, while making du`a’ (supplication) to Allah to help us.
This idea is driven home in a conversation between two of the main characters in a childrens cartoon movie entitled Kung Fu Panda:
Oogway: My friend, the panda will never fulfill his destiny, or you yours until you let go of the illusion of control.
[Points at peach tree]
Oogway: Look at this tree, Shifu, I cannot make it blossom when it suits me nor make it bear fruit before its time.
Shifu: But there are things we can control: I can control when the fruit will fall, I can control where to plant the seed: that is no illusion, Master!
Oogway: Ah, yes. But no matter what you do, that seed will grow to be a peach tree. You may wish for an apple or an orange, but you will get a peach.
It may seem strange to see Islamic lessons derived from secular books and silly childrens’ cartoons, but as Muslims we should strive to find hikmah (wisdom) in every thing we come across. Never should we let a chance slip through which we could have benefited and created a change, even if it comes from childrens’ cartoon.
May Allah open our hearts to the forgiveness of ourselves and the forgiveness of others, may He give us clarity in our affairs to help us determine what we can and cannot do, and may He place in our hearts a trust upon Him that exceeds any other trust. Ameen (so be it).