Originally posted May 30, 2013
Umar. Abu Hurayrah. A’isha. Abu Bakr. These are among the giants of our Ummah (community). We’ve been hearing their names and stories since we were children and they still continue to inspire us.
But there are others – the seemingly “average Joes” so-to-speak. Some whose names only Allah (swt) knows, whose legacy remains unappreciated. Quantity-wise, they may not have contributed to the level of the well-known companions. Yet the fact that Allah (swt) has preserved their stories for us show the quality of their work. The common attribute of the three examples in this article is that of relevancy. They each saw a need in the community and did what was within their capacity to help, sometimes without even being asked.
In today’s culture, we are often pushed into what is known as the “founder mentality”. The idea that you have to be the first, the CEO of an empire, invent the latest technology, write a bestselling book. Society expects a tangible legacy from us. Yet in rushing to be the first, we often compromise on quality. Programs, websites, and institutes are started with enthusiasm and soon they are no longer doing any work. The emphasis on simply building does not give equal importance to sustaining yourself and your work. The focus becomes success, as defined by society, and not on doing significant, relevant, and quality work.
Instead of focusing on becoming a “founder”, look to the example of these seemingly “average Joes”. They had something to offer and Allah rewarded them for their sincerity and for their quality. Oftentimes we hear a story of an unknown Muslim who did something extraordinary that we now remember them for – perhaps it was the man who secretly cleaned the masjid at night which was only realized after he passed away. Or perhaps a brother or sister provided a safe space when the community really needed it. We know these stories and they make us feel good, but do they inspire us to produce quality work?
An important concept here is Tawfiq. Tawfiq is oftentimes translated as “success” but it means much more. One of the Prophets, Shuaib `alayhi salaam (peace be upon him), says:
ۚ وَمَا تَوْفِيقِي إِلَّا بِاللَّهِ ۚ عَلَيْهِ تَوَكَّلْتُ وَإِلَيْهِ أُنِيبُ
“And my success is not but through Allah . Upon him I have relied, and to Him I return.” (Qur’an 11:88)
Tawfiq is the coming together of all means that enable a person to achieve some good. Sometimes we have the opportunity to do good, but we do not have the ability. Other times we have the ability to perform good, but don’t have the opportunity. Tawfiq is the ability AND the opportunity to do something, and that is when all the means come together so one can do good, and this is only from Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He).
Tawfiq teaches us that we should not seek validation for our deeds through people. Not only is this insincerity, but we may end up being gravely disappointed. Perhaps a person does a great deed for the sake of praise, but what happens when that sought-out praise does not come? Do they discontinue the good work? Do they become despondent? Or bitter? Does it mean you are unsuccessful if no one praises you or recognizes your actions? These are important questions we should ask ourselves when we make our intentions.
A Safe Space
Al-Arqam ibn Abi al-Arqam radi allahu `anhu (may God be pleased with him) was a young man who accepted Islam early on in Makkah. He was not one of the wealthiest or most popular of his tribe but he provided a seemingly simple service during a time of great need. The early Muslims needed a safe place to pray, meet, and hear the revelation. They faced widespread persecution and mockery, so they could not meet in a public area. Al-Arqam (ra) had something to offer: his home. His home had a discreet entrance which allowed Muslims to come and go without looking suspicious or giving away their new meeting spot. His home became known as the first university in Islam because it became the center of knowledge. Al-Arqam, who most likely is not the first sahaba we think of when we think of legacy, taught us to work within our means. He (ra) may not have had money or prestige, but he used what he had available to him to spread the message and help those around him.
What do you have at your disposal which you can use to be like Al-Arqam?
The custodian of the masjid of the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) was an elderly woman. She was not assigned this position by anyone, rather she assumed it on her own. The narrations which share her story sometimes mention that they did not know who she was. One narration tells us that her name may have been Umm Muhjan. The main thing they knew about her was that she ensured that the masjid of Rasul Allah ﷺ was clean and tidy.
She was so diligent in her cleanliness that none other than the Prophet ﷺ noticed her absence after a week or so. When the Prophet ﷺ asked those around him what had happened to her, they informed him that she passed away a few days prior and she was already buried. The Prophet ﷺ became visibly upset – an important detail in the story because the Companions rarely saw him upset. He ﷺ asked why no one had called him so that he could visit her and pray the funeral prayer for her. They informed him that he was sleeping and they did not want to wake him. He asked those who knew to take him to her grave where he then prayed for her.
This woman did what she could do and she did it well. She was not asked to clean the masjid, but she took it up as a small, consistent job she could do for the community. Only Allah knows, but perhaps at the time she did not think much of her actions. Now we have narrations upon narrations which highlight her story as a time when the Prophet ﷺ exclusively prayed at someone’s grave after they had passed.
A greater lesson is that being a custodian is underappreciated. Cleaning up after others is not only tiring but it is downright messy. We know that Islam teaches us to be clean – physically, spiritually, and in our surroundings. Therefore those who engage in this act of ensuring and maintaining cleanliness should be respected. We should not think of this job as menial or turn up our noses at it. It is because we view custodial services as lowly that we do not respect the servicemen and women who maintain a high standard of cleanliness at nearly every public building we enter. But if a building was not clean, we would notice that immediately and maybe even file a complaint. Even the Companion (ra) did not think much of her job at the time. The Prophet ﷺ taught us a valuable lesson in not only noticing her absence but praying for her because of her quality and standard of working. He ﷺ taught the Companions, and us as a result, to appreciate people for whatever they do, even if it seems small or meaningless to us. We do not know how great it is in the eyes of God.
What small action can you do that is often overlooked as a good deed?
Even in the Qur’an, Allah (swt) has preserved the stories of these seemingly “average Joes”. One man’s story in particular is highlighted in Surah Yasin.
Allah (swt) tells us of a nameless man who hears and responds to the call of three Prophets. These people, who are also nameless, were so staunchly against the message that Allah (swt) sent them two more Prophets as support for the first Prophet. Not only were these Prophets `alayhim sallatu wa sallam (may Allah send his peace and blessings on them) threatened, their people thought of them as a bad omen and curse. Then the story of our seemingly average Joe begins:
“And there came from the farthest end of the city a man, running. He said, ‘O my people, follow the messengers. Follow those who do not ask of you [any] payment, and they are [rightly] guided. And why should I not worship He who created me and to whom you will be returned? Should I take other than Him [false] deities [while], if the Most Merciful intends for me some adversity, their intercession will not avail me at all, nor can they save me? Indeed, I would then be in manifest error. Indeed, I have believed in your Lord, so listen to me.'” (Qur’an 36:20-27)
Why does Allah (swt) tell us this man came from the farthest end of the city but does not tell us his name? He was not from the city, and this is one of the reasons why his work is significant. It means that he was pretty much what we would call today a “country bumpkin”. If someone from the countryside came to a metropolitan city, calling people to worship God, what would the response be? This man probably had a country accent, wore simple clothing, and was considered lower class. The fact that he put himself out there for the sake of Allah (swt) even though he was a social outcast shows how amazing his story and dedication is. He defies the social norm of class, talking directly to the city folks who most likely looked down upon him. He had the guts to breakdown their arguments in a respectful way and tell them: listen to what I’m saying! For his sincerity and work: “It was said, “Enter Paradise.”’ (36:28) This simple, determined man intended to do one small action—to help the Prophets by calling the community to God—and Allah (swt) immortalized his story so generation after generation can benefit from his strength and courage.
Is there someone in your community who is in need of support that you can help in some capacity?
Perhaps it is natural that we are attracted to the larger, more tangible legacies. We may feel that these grand gestures mean that they are worth more or mean more. However, we find grand acts are not that emphasized in the Qur’an and Prophetic tradition. The Prophet ﷺ tells us, “The best of deeds are the ones done with consistency, even if they are small.” (Bukhari) The emphasis is on producing work that is consistent, significant and of quality. This teaches us that Islam calls for productivity in a way that promotes and cultivates personal and spiritual growth. Does this mean that Islam is against large, tangible legacies? Not at all. Islam says that you make a sincere intention towards a goal, you put in the necessary work, and Allah (swt) will take care of the rest.