O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted. [Sûrat Al- Ḥujurât, 49:13]
I REMEMBER A time (when I was much younger) when I used to think that all Muslims should fit an ideal mold, and that mold was, of course, determined by the scholars (shaykhs) I took knowledge from at the time. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate more and more the diversity of the Muslim community. Very little about my fiqh opinions has changed since those days; some things I have changed my opinion on, but whether I took a laxer or more stringent opinion is really about fifty-fifty. What has changed though is my attitude toward people. I’ve learned to appreciate the diverse personalities, characteristics, and talents of all the people I know and also of those I don’t—but know of.
Of course we should all look to the Sunnah of the Prophet to understand what it means to be an ideal Muslim, but we should also look to his community to understand how he appreciated and cultivated the various characteristics and talents of individuals within his ummah. Was Bilal not the mu’adhdhin; was ʿUmar not known for his stalwart attitude against the opposition of the Prophet? Abu Bakr was a man of compassion and companionship but also an impeccable leader and genealogist. Al-Zubair was valiant if not a little overly tough and his sister-in-law ʿÂishah was a scholarly, enthusiastic youth. Khadîjah was wise, dignified, and intuitive; Nusaybah bint Kaʿb was a warrior; and Abû Hurayrah had a fondness for cats in addition to his fondness for collecting Hadith. Ibn ʿAbbâs was an incredible scholar.
When we look at the biographies of those around the Prophet ﷺ, we should be struck at the rich tapestry of individuality we see that was woven together by the common fiber of Islam. It is ignorant to think that the ideal Muslim society is one in which individuality is muted, and that the more alike we function, the better. The ideal Muslim society should be one in which we unite to pray our daily salah in the same masjid, fast and share ifṭâr together, perform Hajj as one, marry with respect for differences of opinion and sensitivity to different cultures, and also one in which we appreciate and encourage individual talents and personalities to flourish.
Finding Our Forte
For many of us who have come from holding a group- or personality-centered attitude about Islam, we may still be struggling to “find ourselves” as we have been busy focusing on someone else’s personality and trying to fit a mold that made us an ideal follower of that person. Being part of a group is okay, but we need to ask ourselves whether we are part of this group for the reason that it is enabling us to evolve or for the reason that we are receiving an emotional benefit because we don’t really know what else we should be doing. We need to step back and reflect on who we really are; what are we passionate about, what are our talents?
Some people may have a love for academia and analysis, in which case taking the path of a student of knowledge is ideal. Other Muslims are less knowledgeable but have great people skills and a passion for outreach, in which case grass-roots daʿwah is a great fit. Finally for some, they are passionate about a particular humanitarian cause, so being an activist for this cause comes naturally. But after being a scholar, dâʿi, or social activist, what else is there? Are these three threads the only weave for the fabric of the ummah?
There are many doors to goodness. [Saying] ‘Glory to God,’ ‘Praise be to God,’ ‘There is no deity but God,’ enjoining good, forbidding evil, removing harm from the road, listening to the deaf (until you understand them), leading the blind, guiding one to the object of his need, hurrying with the strength of one’s legs to one in sorrow who is asking for help, and supporting the weak with the strength of one’s arms – all of these are [forms of] charity prescribed for you. — Prophet Muhammad, Fiqh Al-Sunnah, Volume 3, Number 98
Over the past year I have been part of a few groups online, consisting of writers and artists. Fiction has always been a powerful way to touch people’s lives and to deliver a message, one may argue—even more powerful that non-fiction because of the emotional impact of fiction. Many great writers are fulfilling their own passion for the pen while providing a much needed niche of Muslim fiction. Others are painters, photographers, illustrators and creators of every stripe. One may not think that creativity is that meaningful, but the collective effect of all such little things can be profound. Those trendy, modest abayas or that contemporary, hand-lettered ayah hanging in our living room does provide a feel-good vibe associated with our din. Our kids love the smooth, quality look of Islamic educational tools as much as teachers.
Let’s not also forget how important technology is in our daily lives, and who doesn’t love the Quran prayer app or that beautiful adhân on our phone? Things we’ve never dreamed of have yet to manifest. In the field of mental health, there is a great team of Muslim psychiatrists who have started a counseling center, and still others are working individually to help counsel Muslims. And what about becoming Muslim foster-parents? One may beg the question, does every contribution have to be “Islamic” for it to be valuable to the ummah? Of course not. Simply benefiting humankind is a laudable goal.
Finally, let us remember a talent that some people have that is often overlooked, especially in a social media age when people want to hear sound-bites and see pictures, and that is the talent of being a great worshipper. Many of the “quieter” biographies of the community of the Prophet belonged to people whom Allah blessed with a love for the worship of Allah. These people feel enthusiastic about prayer and dhikr, they find they are most at ease in solitude, and would prefer to recite the Quran alone than to give a khuṭba or rally for a cause.
One of the most noteworthy examples of someone with this beautiful forte is Maryam. From a young age she spent all her free time in prayer and worship of Allah. Then, Allah tasked her with being the mother of Prophet ‘Isa and facing down people who would accuse her of zina. Another example of a great worshipper is the grand-daughter of the Prophet, Zainab. After accompanying and supporting the male members of her family until they were martyred at Karbala’, and speaking in their defense before their enemies in arms, she spent the last years of her life being a great worshipper and taking care of the orphaned and widowed members of her family.
One unique quality about those who have a talent for great worship is that Allah will give some of them a heavy and noble task at some point in their lives, and it is by virtue of their strong connection with Allah through all of their years of worship that they are able to be successful
Left Brain or Right Brain Forte?
Most of us have heard of “left brain” and “right brain.” Of course, all people use both hemispheres of their brain, and some people use both in equal proportion, but most people have a tendency toward a dominant side, which more or less means that we have a predisposition toward certain, natural talents. In brief here is a description of the right and left hemispheres of the brain:
- In general, the left hemisphere is dominant in language: processing what you hear and handling most of the duties of speaking. People who “think in words” are left-brain dominant. Math, logic and memory are also the specialties of the left-brain, in addition to analysis and computation.
- The right hemisphere is mainly in charge of spatial abilities, face recognition and processing non-verbal cues and emotions, as well as interpreting tone. The right side comprehends visual imagery and is the source of creativity, imagination and visualization. Motor skills for fine arts and understanding rhythm are also found here.
Knowing this distinction, we can better make use of our strengths, rather than trying to deliver “across the board” with mediocre results. What inspired me to write this article was actually seeing the two differing dominances in two of my children. As a home-school teacher, it is important for me to design a learning experience that plays to their strengths and challenges their weaknesses. What I discovered was that how each of my children want to connect with Islam is a by-product of their natural predispositions as well.
One of my children is very worship-centered, and that child connects with Islam through the emotional experience of worship, such as prayer or going on umrah or fasting. Naturally this made me happy. My other child is very academically oriented and logic centered. Initially I fretted that this child did not seem to enjoy ʿibâda, and was also peppering me constantly with questions about God, science, and so on.
I was anxious about this, but then I found that this child loved listening to lectures by shaykhs with an academic background. What he was searching for were the tools for intellectual analysis and he felt excited and connected to Islam in that Islam does provide a “way of thought” and emphasizes human logic. It was important for me to provide him with material that caters to his forte rather than trying to get him to fit the same mold as his sibling.
I pray that we are all able to find our forte, not only for the benefit of our ummah, but because having a passion and pursuing it is a source of happiness that breathes fresh air into our connection with Islam. Happy self-discovering!