Submission, faith, service. Having submitted to Allah SWT, faith increases, and the natural outcome is the desire to serve other people and the rest of creation. Service can be volunteering, making dawah, doing relief work, or any activity that helps others and increases the common good. But so is service found in the small, mundane details of one’s day and interactions with family, friends, and colleagues. Responding to your child’s tantrum with patient firmness rather than an outburst of your own, or answering your wife’s complaint that you didn’t call to say you’ll be late for dinner by telling her you are sorry rather than getting defensive and provoking more drama – these choices to deal with people according to the amanah (trust) retained by believers, are also important ways of serving others.
Having submitted to Allah SWT, faith increases, and the natural outcome is the desire to serve other people and the rest of creation
Fulfilling the amanah means that one strives to apply all the injunctions of God and to live according to divinely decreed moral precepts. One makes daily effort to be “trustworthy,” that is, worthy of that trust or amanah. Prophet Muhammad was known, even before the call to prophethood, as al-amin (the trustworthy one). And the Qur’an tells us, “Those who faithfully observe their trusts and their covenant…these indeed are the inheritors. Who shall inherit Paradise and dwell therein forever” (Quran 23:8, 10-11). The Prophet has been reported to have said, “There are four things which, if you obtain them, and you have nothing of the many worldly things, you still are no loser: [Those four things are] guarding of trust, telling the truth, good morals, and lawful sustenance” (Musnad Ahmad). The guarding of trust, being trustworthy in everyday affairs, is so important that, according to hadith, “Four traits [are such that] whoever possesses them is a hypocrite and whoever possesses some of them has an element of hypocrisy until he leaves it: the one who when he speaks he lies, when he promises he breaks his promise, when he disputes he transgresses, and when he makes an agreement he violates it, even if he prays and fasts and imagines that he is a Muslim” (Muslim).
Distrust Breeds Corruption
When we say that service is found in the small, mundane details of one’s day and interactions with family, friends, and colleagues — being trustworthy in all those affairs — the opposite is also implied. If we demonstrate trustworthiness in all its attributes, we are investing in the common fund of trustworthiness. And if we demonstrate untrustworthiness, we contribute to that fund’s depletion. To put it another way, goodness replicates itself just as corruption breeds further corruption. That is why we are cautioned about choosing well who we befriend: “A person inevitably follows the faith of one’s friends; therefore be careful in choosing your friends” (Abu Dawud and al-Tirmidhi). Human beings tend to imitate those around them. So in an environment of high morals and good character, people tend to be inspired to emulate those around them. And in an environment of low morality and corruption, people tend to justify their own moral lapses and slide into cynicism, pessimism, and/or immorality.
In an article by Morris and Klesner, Corruption and Trust: Theoretical Considerations and Evidence From Mexico, the authors state, “Analysis of political corruption, particularly in countries where corruption is endemic, suggests a vicious circle wherein corruption breeds a climate of distrust that in turn feeds corruption. …” That observation equally applies to the U.S. and, in fact, the trust quotient in the American population is at an all-time low. A survey in 1972 found that 50 percent trusted others. An AP-GfK (Associated Press; GfK is a large research company) poll conducted in 2013 revealed that less than one-third of Americans trust other people. Social science calls this metric the “social trust” and when that is low, corruption increases.
We can understand that easily on the level of politics. But it also applies on the level of individuals, families, and communities because corruption includes not just wrongdoing but also a debasing of the character through cynicism, hopelessness, pessimism, and misanthropy. Consider the story of Ahmed (a composite story drawn from many true-life cases). A young man in his early twenties, Ahmed lived in a city with a sizeable Muslim community but one which was small enough that everyone knew everyone else. He had a reputation as someone who could not keep a job for long, who did pray and fast but in everything did just the minimum necessary to get by. He had dropped out of college and appeared to have no ambition or willingness to improve himself or his situation. He had told family members many times the reason for his lack of desire to improve himself was that everyone he knew was so messed up, hypocritical, or foolish, in his view, that he just didn’t see any point to making effort to attain anything good. He had witnessed while growing up the many disagreements among various members of the community, the political dramas and manipulations, the backbiting about and ostracizing of those who didn’t fit the bill — women who didn’t wear hijab, men who didn’t have beards, those who questioned too much, and on and on and on. Even those considered upstanding members of the community, he had seen one or another getting into some dispute and then display a side of his character that was quite mean-spirited. Some would engage in arguments, shouting insults and condemnations at those who disagreed with their position. Others he saw as bending the rules of morality whenever it suited their purpose, engaging in backbiting or lying or cheating and using some justification to excuse their wrongdoing. All of that had an impact on Ahmed as he grew up and now he felt cynical and pessimistic about human beings, about himself and his own life, and life in general. He no longer trusted in the elemental goodness of human beings.
One day he and his best friend were at the house of a new mutual friend and that friend’s grandfather came in from the backyard just as the young men were sitting down to eat a snack. They invited the elder man to sit with them. They talked for a time about various topics and the grandfather asked the boys many questions about their lives. He seemed genuinely interested in each of them. Ahmed’s best friend spoke about his college classes and his ambition to get into law school for sustainability and environmental law. The old man encouraged him about his goals and said that any career that supported the common good was honorable and worthy. He then told the youth that in his view, true education must bring about “the flowering of goodness” in each student so that they could strive to be just and compassionate and contribute to the welfare of humanity. Ahmed wondered if the elder man was sincere. His words sounded beautiful but words, he knew all too well, can deceive. So many appear humble yet hide hearts that betray goodness. The elder man then spoke about his experience as a boy in a small village when the villagers built a new school for the children — “I always remember the mules who carried the sand and other materials needed to build the school. They worked so hard, carrying heavy loads for hours each day and never complaining. I appreciated then, and still do, their hard work and contribution to providing the building where the children could be educated. And yet, it seemed to me that the others in my village took the mules for granted while I could feel their fatigue at the end of a hard day’s work.”
Ahmed was fascinated as he listened to the elder man expressing a thankful attitude for the work of mules — with even the hint of tears in his eyes! He knew that these were the words of a sincere and humble man, a man who strived to be just and compassionate. The grandfather then told the boys, “As a young man, I was self-assured, full of enthusiasm, and used to pray to God to help me change the world. Then when I was 40 years old I realized that my life was already half over, and I was honest enough with myself to admit that I had influenced no one and changed nothing. So I prayed to God to help me change the people closest to me, all of whom had so many imperfections and harmful habits. Still no one listened to me… Now I’m an old man and I can tell you that it took me fifty years of life to make my du’a simple and to the point — I ask God to give me the strength and determination to change myself.”
Ahmed felt Inspired by the grandfather and trusted in his sincerity. Over the next few months, he decided to enroll in classes at the local community college with the possibility of earning a teaching degree. He was as amazed as anyone in his family at his change of heart. He wanted to educate children! Here was a grandfather, the elder with the sweet soul who wanted nothing more than to bring about the “flowering of goodness” in the souls of students, and to make others aware of the need for justice and compassion for all of God’s creatures. Then there was the young man who had spent years refusing to change, declaring his disenchantment with the human race. Yet he found within himself the incentive and determination to move out of a dark labyrinth of cynicism and self-defeating habits of thought — simply upon an afternoon’s chat with the wise grandfather!
When trust is present, there is a great sense of safety and comfort and authenticity in the relationship, and that is what we all yearn for
Trust Inspires Optimism and Belief in Goodness
One could say that encountering one individual who showed the simplicity of humbleness, sincerity, and genuine caring restored Ahmed’s innocence, his willingness to believe in goodness and be hopeful about himself and others. Now some readers might be saying “What?! That’s farfetched that one afternoon’s encounter with a nice elderly man changed Ahmed’s life.”
Then consider the hadith: Anas, RAA, reported, “A man once begged from the Prophet (pbuh) and he gave him enough sheep to fill a valley. He returned to his people and said, ‘Enter Islam, for by God, Muhammad gives with no fear of poverty!’ People would go to the Prophet wanting only worldly goods, and would find before the day was out that their religion had become dearer and more precious to them than the whole world” (Muslim). We see in this account how people were, in a life-changing way, moved and inspired by Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. It was his character and personality infused by a spiritual refinement and depth that moved those people who went with a self-serving motivation, “wanting only worldly goods,” and ended up, in a single day, experiencing a spiritual surrender “dearer and more precious to them than the whole world.”
Simple Things Can Have Big Effects
Edward Lorenz, while a mathematician and meteorologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s, entered 0.506 rather than the full number of 0.506127 as part of a number sequence in a computer model he had designed to predict weather using mathematical equations to represent changes in temperature, pressure, wind velocity, etc. Lorenz found that the shortcut number produced an entirely different weather pattern from the one predicted when using the full 0.506127. In a paper published in the New York Academy of Sciences in 1963, Lorenz wrote “One meteorologist remarked that if the theory were correct, one flap of a seagull’s wings could change the course of weather forever.” At a later time he changed the causal agent from flapping seagull wings to those of a butterfly. The phenomenon came to be called the butterfly effect. The miniscule change in the atmosphere produced by the motion of the butterfly’s wings could theoretically alter the path or severity of a tornado in some distant location. This is a reference to the phenomenon known as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions.” Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the tiny variation in the initial conditions of the weather system would not have occurred and the trajectory might have moved in an entirely different direction. One set of conditions produces one outcome and another set of conditions produces another. But note – the differences in the initial conditions may be subtle and tiny. Tiny variations can affect complex systems!
A story about burned toast illustrates how simple things can have big effects. “When I was young, my mom and dad sat down to eat breakfast while I was playing nearby. I could tell that my mom had burned the toast, because I could smell it. I wondered what my dad would do — eat the toast or complain. Yet all my dad did was reach for his toast and smile at my mom, and as usual, thank her for the breakfast. I remember watching him smear butter and jelly on that toast and eat every bite! My mom apologized to my dad for burning the toast and I’ll never forget his reply: ‘Honey, the toast is just food to fill my stomach but you fill my heart. I appreciate everything you do.’ He smiled and reached for her hand and I felt like the luckiest child in the world!”
Now rewind the story to the moment that the mom and dad sat down to eat breakfast. Let’s say this time the dad said, “What the heck is wrong with you, you burned the toast again. Can’t you do anything right? Forget it – I don’t need breakfast” and with that he picked up his jacket and left, slamming the door behind him. Imagine how their child would feel: insecure, sad, and anxious. How would this affect her in school that day and the next? Would she pay attention in class? Would she feel sociable or withdrawn? Would she know how to handle herself if someone teased her or criticized her? Now imagine the dynamic between mom and dad: the dynamic in the first story —or — the dynamic in the second story, repeated again and again throughout the growing-up years of this innocent young girl.
“Humility is nothing but truth, and pride is nothing but lying”
Trauma Can Rewire the Brain
Researchers have found that some traumatic experiences, even minor ones, can actually rewire the brain, altering the normal activity of the neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that relay messages throughout the brain and body. They are responsible for many things including moods, sensations of pain and pleasure, energy level, appetite, and quality of sleep. An (indisputably cruel) experiment was done by researchers Maier and Geer in 1968, in which dogs were put in cages and given mild shocks through a grid on the floor of the cage. After a dog became resigned to the shocks and chronically curled up in fear, the shocks were eliminated on one side of the cage. The dog was dragged to the safe side where he would feel no shock. But time and again the dog immediately returned to the shock side and to the curled up, immobilized position. What is fascinating is that it took 30-50 draggings to the safe side before the dogs were willing to remain on the safe side and begin to respond in a normal way.
In humans, this “chronic curling up in fear” state is called learned helplessness. Any trauma in which the individual felt that he or she had no choices, had no sense of control, in the face of the event or situation, is what can result in changes to the neurotransmitter receptor sites in the brain. Two researchers, Villanova and Peterson, analyzed 132 studies of learned helplessness in people and they concluded that “Calculations suggest that the effect in people may be even stronger than the analogous effect in animals….” In addition, humans who experience this learned helplessness have emotional responses to the trauma that vary from anxiety to anger to depression and can subsequently become chronic.
Trusting Other People
We should, therefore, take seriously the major and the minor breaches of trust that occur so commonly on the everyday level. The fact is that we all have beliefs and expectations about how the people in our lives will, or should, behave. When that confidence is shattered, we feel that trusting in that implicit social contract has been violated and it can set us up for a lifetime of inability to trust other people. While this is a very common human experience, we are not stuck and helpless in this perplexing and sad condition.
One man had been betrayed by family members in a business deal and it left him feeling unable to trust other people. This inability to trust was stymieing all his relationships. He felt unable to make himself vulnerable to anyone and risk being hurt and disappointed again. But making a decision to trust another person does require courage and willingness to be vulnerable. We may have built up defenses over the years to avoid being hurt again if we have had our trust betrayed too many times or in a traumatic way. These defenses, however, can be dismantled with time, just as they were erected over time. And we should consider that the one who deceived or hurt or betrayed us probably was likewise betrayed in their own life. The incentive to deepen the capacity to trust comes from the reality that all relationships center on mutual trust. Without that, there can be no true connection of souls. Parent and child, husband and wife, friend and friend — what can be more heartbreaking than being physically together but emotionally and spiritually disconnected. When trust is present, there is a great sense of safety and comfort and authenticity in the relationship, and that is what we all yearn for.
Choosing not to trust — once one has reached adulthood and realizes that we have the choice to trust or not — is the path to isolation and sadness. Choosing to trust is the way of enrichment and love.
Deciding to Be the One Who is Trustworthy
We all want to have the most trustworthy parent or spouse or friend. But the Islamic amanah leads us to make the decision to be the one who does what it takes to cultivate a character that is trustworthy and can be the good example, the motivation, and the succor to people in our lives. Even if so many around us bend the rules – lie a little, cheat here and there, break promises, exceed bounds during disagreements, and violate trusts in a myriad of ways – we can make the conscious decision to be the one who fulfills the trust and thus bring help and relief to the disabled souls around us. There is a great story in the book, Action is Desire and Ability, by Jawdat Saeed, which illustrates this. The story begins with a Sufi going into the desert to worship God and to spend time in contemplation. On the way he saw a bird with a broken wing. He wondered how the bird got his sustenance in that barren place with such a disability. Then he saw another bird swoop down and give the bird food. The Sufi said to himself, “why bother to travel and work – Allah will give me sustenance as He provided this bird.” So he went into a nearby cave to pray and contemplate and stayed there for a number of days. Meanwhile a wise man heard about this Sufi and went and found him in the cave. The Sufi told him with excitement about the disabled bird and his insight that Allah SWT would provide whatever he needed. The wise man said, “Woe to you! Why did you choose to be like the disabled bird? Why didn’t you choose to be like the strong healthy bird that brought the food to the one in need?” The Sufi instantly recognized his distorted thinking and thanked the wise man.
Can I Trust Myself?
The issue of being able to trust others and the issue of making the choice to be the one who does what it takes to cultivate a character that is indeed trustworthy — these connect undisputedly to one thing: can I trust myself? Am I courageous enough to be not only honest with others but also with myself, acknowledging both my own strengths and my weaknesses so that I can work to improve myself in weak areas? Can I depend on myself to do what is productive in my daily living and to be self-compassionate when I fall short? Am I true to my word because I am true to myself, my values, beliefs, and goals? Do I keep my promises because I recognize how powerful it is to fulfill that trust and how devastating it is to another soul to betray a trust?
Trusting myself, however, goes further. It means that when another person betrays the trust that I have in him or her, I trust myself, that I have the strength to deal with that disappointment, frustration, and sadness. It means that I have the courage to convey my feelings to that person, done respectfully and with dignity, always staying with the bounds of mature disputation. It means that I trust in my capacity to forgive and move on.
If I focus more on trusting myself (just like focusing more on my own shortcomings rather than on those of others), I will be better able to accept that trusting other people is a mixed bag. Each one has frailties in some or another area of life and in their relationship with others. I can’t control other people’s behavior. What I can control is my choice to be the one that others find utterly trustworthy. In a very real way, those who are not trustworthy, are disabled souls.
One cautionary note is relevant here. Many who take on the goal of purifying the self become harsh with themselves and/or with others. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “Make [things] easy, not difficult…” (Bukhari). Associate Professor of Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin, Kristin Neff has done extensive research on the concept of self-compassion. She points out that self-compassion is very different from self-indulgence or the lowering of standards with regard to behavior or goal-setting and achievement. She writes, “I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent. They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.” Her studies show that harsh self-criticism and negativity destroy motivation. Self-compassion is about caring about ourselves and doing what is beneficial and healthy. And when falling short of that objective, one puts the error, mistake, or sin into a balanced perspective and fortifies one’s ongoing determination to do better. When there is a beautiful merging of self-compassion with conscientiousness, each trait supports the other and enhances the totality of one’s life endeavor.
Make “What is Better” the Imam of the Soul
The determination to do “what is better” might be said to stand at the center of good character. The meaning of good character, writes Imam Al-Bayhaqi in The Seventy-Seven Branches of Faith, (as translated by Abdal-Hakim Murad): “…is the inclination of the soul towards gentle and praiseworthy acts….This he (the believer) does with a contented heart, and without feeling any resentment or hardship. When he deals with other people, he is tolerant when claiming what is his right, and does not ask for anything which is not; but he discharges all the duties which he has towards others. When he falls ill or returns from a trip and no one visits him, or he gives a greeting which is not returned…or he does a good turn for which he is not thanked, or joins a group of people who do not make room for him to sit, or speaks and is not listened to…and in all similar cases, he does not grow angry, seek to punish people, or feel within himself that he has been snubbed, or ignored; neither does he try to retaliate with the same treatment when able to do so, but instead…responds to each one of them with something which is better, and closer to goodness and piety, and is more praiseworthy and pleasing…he makes ‘what is better’ the imam (leader) of his soul, and obeys it completely.”
But to make “what is better” the imam of the soul and obey it completely, one must commit to honesty with oneself for that leads to humbleness. The opposite is the egoism that deludes the self, takes other people’s offenses personally, as attacks upon it’s dignity and merit, and then indulges in feeling victimized, slighted, snubbed, ignored, condescended to, rejected, cheated, or emotionally wounded in any other way. That egoism also makes excuses for its own wrongdoings, projects one’s own issues on others, and cares more about it’s prideful place in life than in truth, justice, and compassion. Vincent de Paul, born in 1580 in France, became known as “Helper of the Poor.” During his lifetime many babies were abandoned in Paris each year. He was so moved by the tragedy of these babies that he established an orphanage for them. He became well known as a person of conscience and the King appointed him to head a council to nominate individuals to important positions. Even people of wealth and power were influenced by his teachings about repentance, forgiveness, and the love of God. The people observed his manner of living, his humbleness and kindness, and many of the rich came to him with the desire to change their lives according to his example. He organized a charity to utilize their energies and resources in caring for the poor and the sick. Someone once asked him “What is humility?” He answered, “Humility is nothing but truth, and pride is nothing but lying.”
It Comes Down to Trust in Allah SWT
Facing the uncertainty of life and of the future and the variabilities in our relationships requires faith in the elemental goodness of life and the ultimate laying open and recompensing of all things on the Day of Accountability. On that day the true nature of each action and every relationship will be laid bare and all good will be recompensed. Every ill deed will be accorded what it deserves as well, including the mercy of Allah SWT, if He so wills. If we do not find the satisfaction and resolution of difficult and disappointing events, circumstances, or relationships in this life, we will find that, insha’Allah, in the life to come. The Qur’an says, “Those who believe, and whose hearts find satisfaction in the remembrance of Allah – for without doubt in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find satisfaction – for those who believe and work righteousness is every blessedness (tubaa) and a beautiful place of final return” (13:28-29). Tubaa is a comprehensive word in Arabic, whose meaning includes an internal state of satisfaction and joy, peace of mind, tranquility of heart, and serenity of conscience. So we can risk disappointment and sorrow in this life because we trust in Allah SWT and His promise of the Day when all things will be properly resolved and recompensed with absolute justice and the prevailing of mercy.
If we cultivate trust in Allah SWT, we can cultivate trustworthiness in our own character and therefore trust in ourselves, and then we can enter into the willingness to trust others by letting down our guard and being vulnerable despite the risk of rejection or unkindness or betrayal. In so doing, we will be showing those in our lives who are not yet so dedicated to self-transformation what that process —what that maturity found in taking the high road, in making “what is better” the imam of one’s soul — looks like. We can choose to be the exemplar of trustworthiness and so set in motion, if only in the smaller circle of our own life’s geography and circumstances and personal interactions, a different way of being and living, one in which trust is the standard and betrayal of trust the exception. And so we move through life aware that around the next corner might be good fortune or disaster. But we keep on moving and striving because we have faith and because we trust. We are on an epic journey …
Hummingbirds are tiny creatures, weighing anywhere between 2 and 20 grams (a penny weighs 2.5 grams). In fact, the Bee Hummingbird, native to Cuba, is the smallest bird in the world with a body length of two inches. Yet, these tiny animals migrate great distances every year. While they are largely tropical birds, after the last ice age they expanded their range of habitation into the U.S. and southern Canada. When the temperatures plummet in winter, they retreat southward, going “home” across the Gulf of Mexico and down the coast into Central America. This is an epic journey for such a small creature, but it answers the call to survive, to seek a more salutary habitation for the winter months, and to follow the ancestral pattern of migration. Like the hummingbird, we journey against the odds to discover our true selves, to bring to light our deepest devotion, and to follow the ancestral pattern of migration. This migrating might not be upon the earth’s surface but within our own being, in the depths of soul purification. “… Thus he whose migration was for God and His Messenger, [then] his migration was for God and His Messenger…”
We are on an epic journey home.