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Are You Helping Others, But Harming Yourself?

“Soul work nourishes community work, and it nourishes family work. And all work begins with the heart. So the most effective work you can do for your community or family stems from nourishing your own heart and soul.”

—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah

In reflecting on our respective soul tribes in this world, I asked this question of social influencers who take pride in being a blessing to others: “But Are You a Blessing To Yourself?”

Think of the stereotypical politician who gives charity and feeds the poor only when the cameras are on, as a way to win votes. In this “good deed” of charity, the candidate does not sincerely seek any nearness to God in this world or the Hereafter. This is one obvious example of being a blessing to others while not being a blessing to oneself.

Nevertheless, though this insincere “good deed” ultimately harms this man’s soul, this negative spiritual reality doesn’t change the fact that the actual act of giving charity and food does indeed benefit the lives of others in a tangible way. This charitable act might even inspire others to be sincerely generous themselves.

However, beyond securing votes in an election, this ostensible generosity doesn’t benefit the “charitable man” in any meaningful way. Consequently, if he continues living in this way, he is taking a soul path that will ultimately harm him in this world and in the Hereafter.

What Is Your Blessing Doing For You?

In reflecting on the weighty reality of soul paths and what this means for our own individual spiritual experiences, I wrote this reflection in my journal as a personal reminder to myself:

If you are blessed—or tested—with being a blessing to others, be sure to sincerely ask your heart each day, “Am I a blessing to myself?”

Helping or inspiring others can be so fulfilling at times, that we genuinely imagine that it is nourishing the self. But it is not.

Yes, being a benefit to others can certainly increase our soul-nourishment. But it is not soul-nourishment itself. All self-nourishment begins with our intimate relationship with our own soul and its connection to our Lord. Everything else (whether good or bad) stems from this.

So if we are engaged in healthy soul-nourishment, everything we do in sincerity thereafter merely deepens and increases this spiritual purification within. But if we are not engaged in healthy soul-nourishment (which is the very definition of sincerity), everything we do thereafter merely deepens and increases the spiritual darkness within—even if the act itself is “good” and even if it brings genuine benefit or inspiration to other people’s lives.

How Would I Know This About Myself?

One sign that you could be falling into benefiting others at the expense of yourself is this: You exhaust yourself with charity and community work—or in serving your spouse and family— but you regularly miss prayers or delay them unnecessarily. Or you rush through prayers or pray with very little concentration. Or reading the Qur’an isn’t part of your daily routine. Or you don’t strive to memorize Qur’an or understand it in the way it was revealed.

Why? Because almost all of your time is spent in servitude to others.

When we are in the habit of spiritual self-neglect due to our sacrifice for others, we often view our “selfless” lifestyle as something good or praiseworthy. However, this perspective itself is a sign of ghuroor, spiritual self-deception.

Those of us who fall into this spiritual self-deception genuinely imagine that our extensive and exhaustive community work or “family commitment” makes up for our lack of spiritual work. In this way, we deceive ourselves into believing this trade-off is somehow for the greater good—a “sacrifice for the sake of Allah” so to speak.

But it is not. It is merely spiritual self-deception in one of its most obvious, cliché forms.

Though this form of self-deception is rooted internally and emanates from a fractured, unhealthy spirit, one external sign beyond our own fractured spiritual practice can be our lack of meaningful presence with our loved ones—or our meaningful presence with only our loved ones or anyone else other than ourselves.

Regarding our lacking meaningful presence with loved ones, here is where the stereotype of the heroic community activist who is an emotionally (or physically) absent parent is quite apt. Or it could be the award-winning educator who has no time or energy to patiently educate his or her own children in the way he or she does with other people’s children. Or it could be the sheikh or imam who genuinely imagines that his wife (and children) should patiently and humbly accept his consistent absence (emotionally and physically) due to the “higher purpose” of his service to the greater Muslim community. It could even be the dedicated mother who is physically present for everything with her children but is emotionally and spiritually absent due to her lack of soul-care.

Naturally, these manifestations of lacking soul-care are different from someone struggling to maximize or enhance their soul-care due to the multitude of their duties to community and family.

It is one thing to struggle to memorize as much Qur’an as you’d like because of your long list of responsibilities during the day, and it is quite another to rarely if ever pick up the Qur’an on a daily basis, even if only for a few minutes. Similarly, it is one thing to struggle to have the peace and quiet you crave for Salaah, and it is quite another to rarely if every pray on time or with any concentration. Similarly, it is one thing to struggle to pray every Sunnah prayer throughout the day, and it is quite another entirely to rarely if ever pray any Sunnah prayer on any day.

When our faulty worship goes beyond what our service to others really requires of us, this isn’t praiseworthy “sacrifice for the sake of Allah.” It is unhealthy self-neglect, no matter how sincere we imagine ourselves to be in serving our community or family.

It’s Not Sincere, and It’s Not For the Sake of Allah

Here’s the truth about spiritual self-harm under the guise of praiseworthy sacrifice in servitude to others: There is nothing in the realm of human choice—and I mean absolutely nothing—that sacrifices the spiritual health of your soul that could also be labeled as sincere or “for the sake of Allah.”

There are no exceptions to this—none whatsoever—especially when this neglect affects our basic spiritual obligations such as Salaah and interacting at least minimally with the Divine Book of guidance that is supposed to anchor every part of our lives.

And here, I’m not talking about battling circumstances beyond your control such as serious health conditions (whether physical or mental) or having overwhelming responsibilities such as raising your children or working to feed your family, such that so little time is left for you in the day. But even these uncontrollable circumstances do not excuse any soul from at least minimal spiritual nourishment—unless the pen has been lifted from you for some reason (i.e. the angels are no longer recording your deeds).

Put simply, your service to others will bring you no ultimate benefit if you are not first “servicing” yourself. This is true for our emotional experience, and it is even more so true for our spiritual experience.

Allah says what has been translated to mean, “Say, ‘Shall We tell you of those who lose most in respect of their deeds? Those whose efforts have been wasted in this life, while they thought they were acquiring good by their deeds.’ ” (Al-Kahf, 18:103-104).

Though these ayaat refer directly to “do gooders” amongst the disbelievers, this type of spiritual loss can also affect “do gooders” amongst the Muslims.

‘But I’m Not a Bad Person’

One of the main reasons that soul-neglect in service roles is so widespread and causes so much harm is that we see ourselves as “good people” while we are in this cycle of spiritual self-harm. In our subconscious (or conscious) minds, we have stereotypical ideas of “good people” and “bad people,” and we know that we are not “bad.”

While this might be true—at least according to our own notions of goodness and badness—the issue of spiritual health isn’t about static categories of “good” and “bad.” It is about our individual lifestyles and the conscious choices we make each day, some of which can nourish our souls and others which can harm our souls.

Moreover, human categories of “good” and “bad” are not static realities, hence the necessity to focus on our good and bad choices instead of whether or not we’re good or bad people. In any case, even “good people” can harm their souls, and even “bad people” can nourish their souls—thus resulting in “good people” turning bad and “bad people” turning good. Therefore, focusing on the spiritual ramifications of our daily habits and choices is a much healthier focus than defending or justifying our spiritual negligence through claiming we are “good people.”

Allah says what has been translated to mean, “…So ascribe not purity to yourselves. He knows best who fears Allah and keeps his duty to Him” (An-Najm, 53:32).

In this divine reminder is a tremendous lesson to the truly sincere heart: It is a part of emaan (true faith) and submission to Allah to never label yourself (or anyone else) as being spiritual pure or a “good person” in the absolute sense (unless Allah or His Messenger, peace an blessings be upon him, labeled them as such).

Our focus must always be on striving to be spiritual pure as defined by Allah—by fearing Him and keeping our duty to Him—instead of claiming to be spiritually pure. This is because true spiritual purity is reflected in each soul taking personal responsibility to be ever conscious of the Master of the Day of Judgment, and thereby serving Him first and foremost.

This spiritual servitude to Allah alone is ultimately the only essential “praiseworthy service” in this world—no matter who else we dutifully serve in our community or family, as we first nourish and “serve” ourselves.

 

Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. In 2019, she launched UZ Soul Gear, a passion project fueled by her love of both art and inspirational reflections. UZSoulGear.com offers apparel, wall décor, and more, aimed at supporting and inspiring the soul-centered lifestyle.

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