By Louiza Chekhar
As the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) held his hand, `Umar ibn Khattab radi Allahu `anhu (may Allah be pleased with him) told the Messenger of Allah ﷺ, “You are dearer to me than everything except my own self.” When the Prophet ﷺ replied that `Umar would not be a true believer until he loved the Messenger more than everything including himself, `Umar thought for a moment before confirming: “By Allah, you are dearer to me than my own self.”
This beautiful story, recorded in Bukhari, was taught to me to show how important it is that we love Allah’s Messenger ﷺ wholeheartedly – but our religious texts are rich and multi-faceted, and there is hardly a Qur’anic ayah (verse) or hadith (tradition of the Prophet ﷺ) which cannot teach us multiple lessons. It was a friend of mine, gently berating me for the pressure I put myself under to please others and conform to their expectations, who pointed out the flipside to this narration: that it is okay if the person you love most, after Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) and His Messenger ﷺ, is yourself.
Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true” – and this had always struck me as selfish and self-centred. People always seemed to use this idea, of ‘being true to oneself,’ to defend the decisions they made which hurt the people around them. What makes any of us so special that we can justify disregarding the wishes of others and putting ourselves and our desires first?
The first mistake we make is thinking that ignoring our own dreams and plans for the sake of those around us will enable us to benefit or serve them better. The boy who studies medicine rather than the English literature he loves because his parents want him to be a doctor, the woman who always dreamed of being a teacher but agrees when her fiancé asks her to leave work and stay at home…they do it because he thinks it will make him a better son, and she wants to be a good wife. But look a couple of years into the future, and the boy is struggling with his studies, snapping irritably at his parents and spending as much time outside the house as possible; the woman is miserable and frustrated, feeling resentful towards her husband and acting cold and distant with him. Everyone else in their households can feel the tension and nobody is happy. These are not imaginary scenarios – I know these families.
The second mistake we make is thinking that Allah (swt) asked us to do this. As the hadith above shows, it is okay to love yourself. Of course, Allah (swt) does tell us to be good to our parents, spouses, children and those around us in society – but He also places limits on the extent to which others can make decisions about our lives. Parents cannot force their children to marry, women cannot be prevented from attending the mosque, and no-one can command others to sin.
This second mistake leads to a consequence even worse than the breakdown of family and friendships – the deterioration of our relationship with Allah (swt) Himself. When we believe that He has commanded us to suppress all our own wishes and plans in order to serve others, we not only end up resenting those people when we are unhappy – we resent Him too. We no longer thank Him gratefully, praise Him or pray to Him lovingly, because we believe He is the One who commanded us to make the choices which have left us miserable. Simply put, we cannot give generously and wholeheartedly, either to other people or to Allah (swt), when we are unfulfilled and frustrated, harbouring resentment and ill feeling towards them. Loving and being true to ourselves is not selfish; it is a means towards enabling us to love and be good towards others.
This is not to say that life with others should not involve compromise or some sacrifice for their sake – give and take is crucial, so long as it is not just about one or the other. Deep down, we know ourselves and our intentions. We know when we are being selfish and ungenerous, and need to fight our nafs (ego). We also know what the vitally important things to us are – the dreams and desires which we can’t ignore, even for those we love most, because suppressing them will kill something inside us.
And of course, this doesn’t mean giving in to unlawful desires – so any kleptomaniacs reading this, don’t go on a shoplifting spree because you‘re being ‘true to yourself’! – but if your personality traits and ambitions are halal (permissible), like studying literature or being a working wife, remember that Allah (swt) created you and He created those dreams. He made sure that we knew the stories of hundreds of diverse Sahaba (companions of the Prophet ﷺ) so that we would understand that there are many ways to be a good Muslim man or woman – from `A’isha the scholar and Khadijah the businesswoman to Fatima, the devoted homemaker; from Khalid ibn Walid the warrior and Hassan ibn Thabit the poet to `Uthman ibn `Affan the trader radi Allahu `anhum (may Allah be pleased with them all).
As Imam al-Ghazali said, “The key to knowing Allah is to know your own self.” It is up to us to choose our path and negotiate that with the people around us. Having that conversation might not be easy, and perhaps they will be disappointed at first. But those who really love you – and that includes Allah (swt) – will want you to be happy, and your happiness and contentment will enable you to give unreservedly and ungrudgingly to them in return, pleasing them too. That Shakespearean line I first thought of as ‘selfish’ turns out to be a vital part of becoming a truly generous and selfless believer.
Sometimes we think poorly of a particular value or principle because the examples we see for it to date have shown it badly. An example I offer is ‘optimism’. Now my natural bias is pessimism – or maybe, realism. I know optimism is a positive trait, especially for Muslims, and the Prophet Muhammad had it.
But I couldn’t appreciate it in my heart, because I associated optimistic people as being also heedless and irresponsible, taking people along on unrealistic ventures, and then when it doesn’t pan out, it’s the responsible, less optimistic people like me who sticks around to clean up while the optimistic people go off on some other ambitious new thing.
Then I met someone who had a quiet, grounded kind of optimism, who bore the brunt of consequences of overly-confident decisions patiently instead of the people he had taken along with him, but otherwise the optimism sustained him through a lot of difficulty. It was frankly among the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, and I suddenly understood why our Prophet’s optimism was so charismatic. I changed my mind about ‘optimism’ immediately, with just a single example overturning all the poor examples I’d seen before. Sometimes we think a trait is selfish, but that’s only because we don’t know how to do it properly. 🙂
Brilliant article. I think as mothers especially we struggle with being true to ourselves. We are put under a lot of pressure by others to devote ourselves to raising our children, so finding time to nurture or develop our own interests and talents can be difficult and sometimes not supported. I constantly feel conflicted about whether I’m making the right decisions either for myself or my children. My perception is that it is more acceptable in the community for men to be more ruthless in their pursuit of their own dreams and self development than women. Does anyone else feel that women are encouraged much more by society to be selfless and put others first than men? Sometimes I wonder if it is better to put ourselves first and be dedicated to our own development both in terms of dunya and akhira after all we will be standing on our own in front of our Lord on the last day and will justify our actions and how we spent our time on our own. We cant hide behind our children or partners. Anyway just a few thoughts I wanted to throw out there.
Mashallah what an enlightening way of looking at things. Thanks for the great article, may Allah(swt) reward you and may He make it easy for us all to be true to ourselves, ameen.