Defining Success, the Islamic Way

Published February 2, 1990

By Anwer S. Ahmed

Muslims might think to ask, “How should we define success?” This question is important because the desire to succeed is one of the most potent forces which drives our actions. In fact, most of our energies are spent in the struggle to succeed. Success can be defined relatively. For example, in school we define success based on our academic performance relative to our classmates. In business, success is defined as gains relative to those of the other companies in the same business. Academics define their success by the number of publications in prestigious journals relative to the publications of other academics. As Muslims, we define success in Islamic terms. For us, the real success lies in gaining Allah’s pleasure and being rewarded in the akihra, or the hereafter. That is to say, Islam’s definition of success is rooted in the religious and spiritual world.

However, this does not mean that a Muslim should abandon this earthly world and become a hermit. It simply means that our actions in this world should be primarily aimed at attaining a good place in the hereafter. The Qur’anic term for success is falah. Allah promises falah for those who are believers. For example, in Surah al-Muminoon Allah says: “Indeed successful are the believers” (Qur’an 23:1). In the opening verse of Surah al-Baqarah, Allah says that the Qur’an is a book of guidance for the righteous, and that they will attain falah. Therefore, falah is the goal to which the Qur’an leads the believers. It is important for every Muslim to understand what falah means. The Qur’an explains the term falah in Surah Ash-Shams: “By the soul and the proportion and order given to it, and its enlightenment as to what is wrong and what is right, truly he attains falah who purifies it, and he fails who corrupts it” (Qur’an 91:7-10).

This tells us that falah is the result of purifying, training, and developing our soul or self in such way that it chooses what is right and what is good. Failure to develop ourselves will lead to loss (termed as “khusur” in the Qur’an). Allah says: “The balance that day will be true. Those whose scales [of good deeds] will be heavy will attain falah, and those whose scales will be light will lose themselves because they wrongfully treated our Signs” (7:8-9). These verses make clear that if we don’t attain falah, we’ll end up losing our souls; and that the only way to attain falah is through recognizing and accepting the Signs of Allah and that includes, especially, His guidance.

Guidance in How to Attain Success

Allah SWT provides guidance as to how can we attain falah and avoid loss: “O you who believe, bow and prostrate and worship your Lord and do good, that you may succeed. And strive for Allah with the striving due Him… (22:77-78). The Qur’an further says: “By time! Indeed, human beings are in a state of loss [khusur] except those who believe, do good deeds, enjoin truth, and enjoin patience and constancy” (103:1-3).

The first condition for the attainment of falah is that we have eman, or belief. The details of
eman are discussed in several verses of the Qur’an and in the hadith. It is important to recognize that eman is not simply a matter of verbal proclamation. We are not real believers until eman enters our hearts and is reflected in our everyday speech and actions. Believing in Allah means recognizing Him
as our Creator and Sustainer, and the Master of the universe who has absolute control over
everything. Therefore, no other being deserves our worship. And accepting Allah as our Creator and Sustainer means that we should be grateful to Him at all times. Furthermore, we should love Him and seek to please him.

Allah says: “Say, ‘If your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your spouses, your relatives, wealth which you have obtained, commerce wherein you fear decline, and dwellings with which you are pleased, are more beloved to you than Allah and His Messenger and striving in His cause, then wait until Allah executes His command. And Allah does not guide the defiantly disobedient people” (Qur’an 9:24).

The second condition for falah, which naturally follows from attaining eman, is the doing of good deeds. Good deeds can be broadly classified into two groups: (1) acts of worship and (2) the fulfillment of our obligations to others. The acts of worships are known as the pillars of Islam. Unfortunately, too many people restrict Islam to the performance of these acts of worship and neglect the doing of good deeds. In fact, the acts of worship train us for our broader responsibility and must be viewed as an objective in themselves, but also as a means to an end. For example, observing the fast is fulfilling a duty ordained by Allah. But it also trains us to practice restraint and learn to postpone gratification. At the same time, it helps us to feel the hunger and thirst of those who are needy and thus, strive to alleviate the suffering of others.

We fulfill our obligations in acts of worship and also our obligations in fulfilling the rights of others. These rights range from the rights of parents and relatives to the rights of non-Muslims and every member of society, whether weak or strong, poor or rich, ignorant or knowledgeable, stranger or friend. Islam clearly defines the rights of every member of the society and that it is our duty to respect and honor those rights.

Anwer S. AhmedAuthor Anwer S. Ahmed lives in Rochester, New York and he is a Ph.D. student in finance at University of Rochester, New York.

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