“That man is really successful.” We usually say this to mean that he has a lot of money or a fancy car or house. We do not usually call a boy in the street cleaning shoes successful, do we? We do not usually say that someone living in a tiny flat in London has made a great success of his life.
We measure success by how many exams we pass or by the kind of university degree we take or by the job we get. Success, according to this scale, means the clothes we wear and the car we drive. Having more and more things, we are judged to be a success. Using this as our standard, though, is settling for second best.
As Muslims, we need to step back from this relentless pursuit of having more, rather than being better. How do we really measure success? Is it by the job we have or the trainers we wear? Is it by the latest mobile gadget or the most fashionable pair of jeans?
It is the custom in the West that whenever a funeral takes place, someone usually stands up and says “a few words” about the person who has died. With the coffin in full view of everyone, a speech is often given.
At these speeches, though, no one says how many pairs of shoes the man had when he was alive. No one mentions how many holidays he took in a year. No one mentions his job or his car or what he achieved as a businessman. What is usually said is that he was a good husband and father, or that he was loyal to his friends and honest at work. In other words, in death, we instinctively know what is important. And it isn’t new trainers!
As Muslims, our whole approach to life is different to the agenda which society sets for us. It is sometimes very hard to avoid following this agenda when everything around us is telling us to do so, but we try.
As Muslims, our number one priority is to please Allah. We have certain obligations which we must fulfill, before anything else. We must, for example, pray five times a day. We must fast during the month of Ramadan and pay zakah, the money due to the poor if we are able to do so.
We must also go on pilgrimage once in our lives to Makkah if we have the resources. These things make us different. We do not do them for personal gain, but for the sake of Allah alone. Without these basic things in our lives, we cannot really call ourselves Muslim.
In talking about success in life, however, it might be tempting to give advice about which courses to take in school or college. It might be tempting to give tips on how to prepare for a job interview, so as to impress our potential employers.
It might even be tempting to advise on how to clinch a business deal or secure promotion at work. Giving such advice, though, if that is all we did, would be selling ourselves short. Of course, being Muslim means that we should be the best we can be at all times, so preparing well for interviews, dressing well, and speaking politely and with confidence should be a natural part of how we behave.
Good manners and a courteous approach to other people are what Muslims should excel at. We can also aim to be the best on the football team, the fastest athlete on the field, or the first in our class. But if we do not achieve these things, it is not the end of the world. They are important, but they are not that important.
In fact, so many things which bring “success” in this world, like being an expert in our field and like giving 100 percent effort all of the time, are part of the message of Islam. Muslims know that they are created by Almighty Allah and that all they do reflects the gifts He has given them. Similarly, all that Muslims do is a way of telling others what Islam is like. The way we behave and the way we speak tells others about Islam, far more than our speeches about faith can ever do.
What’s Expected of Us
Real success for Muslims, though, is not about getting a job or acquiring money, however important these things may be.
For Muslims, the greatest success in life is to do what Allah wants, and this might even put us at odds with what society expects. We are called upon as Muslims, to be honest men and women, no matter what. We are called to promote justice, no matter what the cost and no matter how difficult a position that might put us in. We are called upon more than anything as Muslims to be men and women of prayer. With prayer will come the real success of this life. Through prayer, we see things as they really are, not as others would have us see them.
The ancient Romans used to have the finest system of roads ever known. These roads were straight and well-paved and they enabled soldiers and messengers to be dispatched quickly to any part of the Roman Empire. All roads, of course, led to Rome, the center of the Empire.
The Roman Empire, like all empires after it, has long gone. Once great men, who held sway over the whole of the known world are now not even remembered. Their triumphs and their successes are long forgotten, like the success of all worldly power.
One man or one country holds sway over others for a time, but when their time has come, they once more fade into insignificance and someone else takes over. The Romans, though, have left us with the famous phrase, “All roads lead to Rome.” Nowadays, all roads no longer lead to Rome. For Muslims, however, living always in the presence of Almighty Allah and seeking always to please Him, the phrase takes on a different form.
For Muslims, all roads lead to Allah. That is the success in life, when everything we do and everything we say brings us closer to our Creator.
At the end of our life, we will look back on a life well-lived and see if it has been successful, and we will not judge our success in terms of what we own. As we prepare for that final judgment, when our deeds will be laid bare for all to see, the kind of clothes we once chose to wear will not be important at all. Success, on that day, will be whether or not we responded straight away when we heard the Adhan, the call to Prayer. Success will be judged on that day by what kind of person we were, not on how may things we had.
And somehow, everyone knows deep down that this is the real success. All the money in the world cannot buy happiness. We cannot buy a devoted husband or wife or loving children. People respect honesty and integrity. They look up to people who are wise and they want to be like people who are kind.
Reaching out for success, then, is a lifetime’s activity. It means struggling every day of our lives to be better and more faithful to what we are called to be. The most successful person in all the world has achieved everything when he has managed just one thing: to live as a good Muslim. Let’s hope we can all try to be successful in the same way, too.
First published: July 2012