“You have to care about your soul more than you care about the specifics of the temporary comforts and tests God will give you in this world. That’s what it boils down to. This is what we need to teach our hearts, and this is what we need to teach our souls…”
—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah
“I can’t do this anymore,” the woman told me. “All this praying and fasting and staying away from sex, hoping I’ll get married one day. What’s the point? I’m thirty years old, and I don’t even know how it feels to be touched. And right now all I want is for a man to touch me. What if I never get married? All those things we’re taught about being patient and obeying Allah so we can have a good life aren’t true. I haven’t experienced any of it. But you know who has? All my friends who broke every rule. While I was praying, they were partying. While I was fasting, they were feasting. While I was lowering my gaze and being a ‘good Muslim girl,’ they were out sleeping around. But now they’re the ones with husbands and children and big houses and lots of money. Meanwhile I’m alone, broke, and with no marriage prospect in sight. So I don’t see the point in following the rules anymore. All it’s brought me is misery and loneliness.”
It broke my heart listening to my Muslim sister’s emotional pain. I wished I could take the pain away from her. I wished I could tell her that she’d have everything she dreamed of one day. But I couldn’t. So I just told her the truth—the truth she should have been taught in her earliest lessons on Islam. “But we don’t obey Allah so that we can have a good life in this world,” I said. ”We obey Him so that we can have a good life in the Hereafter.”
“But can’t I have a good life in both worlds?” she asked in frustration.
“Yes,” I said. “But it’s Allah who defines what that looks like for us.”
Putting Things Into Perspective
I remember reading a quote by Yasmin Mogahed that really resonated with me: “The secret to happiness is to not make it dependent on that which can be taken away.”
However, so much of what we’re taught about our lives in this world, even from many spiritual teachers and imams, is that we’ll be granted worldly happiness and materialistic success if we’re “good Muslims.” Or if we just have enough faith. I’ve even heard advice from fellow Muslim entrepreneurs that equated our income with the state of our souls.
“If you think good of Allah, He’ll grant you all that you want in this world,” they say. “You just have to trust in Him.” While I certainly believe in both the power and necessity of thinking good of Allah, as well as our heart’s need to trust in Him, I grow very uncomfortable when these tools for spiritual nourishment and soul purification are used to achieve very specific worldly outcomes.
It’s not that I believe that we shouldn’t strive for worldly success. Quite the opposite. In fact, I personally believe that we need to do a much better job at securing economic independence as Muslims, if for no other reason than we shouldn’t be relying so heavily on those outside our faith to sustain our families and communities.
Once during a keynote speech I gave about increasing our wealth in this world, I shared this advice: Don’t use your belief in the Hereafter as an excuse to settle for failure and helplessness in this world. When the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and the Companions lived simply, it was because they were generous with their wealth and worldly success, not because they didn’t have any. And it certainly wasn’t because they didn’t work for wealth and success in this world.
I then shared this ayah from Qur’an, which has been translated to mean: “But seek, with that (wealth) which Allah has bestowed on you, the home of the Hereafter, and forget not your portion of legal enjoyment in this world. And do good as Allah has been good to you, and seek not mischief in the land. Verily, Allah likes not those who do mischief” (Al-Qasas, 28:77).
Thus, it is upon us as believers to strive our level best for the best in this world and the best in the Hereafter, while seeking from this materialistic world that which is blessed and halaal for us.
However, as we strive for worldly success, we need to approach this noble goal with a different mindset than we do ultimate spiritual success in the Hereafter. If we do not, our spiritual lives will suffer tremendously, and we will continuously be confused when things don’t turn out the way we expected.
Why We Get So Confused
Here’s a reminder I wrote to myself in my personal journal, in hopes of protecting my heart from the unnecessary turmoil that would befall it if I didn’t keep this world in proper perspective:
You know why we get so confused? Because we think of success in this world how we should think of success in the Hereafter. Allah promises us very specific rewards in the Hereafter due to our soul work, and we promise ourselves very specific rewards in this world due to our dunya work.
Relationship advisors share tips that promise long-lasting, loving marriages—or for knowing when someone is right for you. Business gurus share tips for having plentiful wealth and a successful business—or for ways to be without debt and financial struggle forever. Even some spiritual teachers go as far as to tell you that all of this worldly happiness and success is promised to you if you’re a “good Muslim.”
And to prove they’re right, they’ll point to the perceived “success” in their own lives or in someone else’s—thereby taking credit for God’s work by saying these blessings are due to their own efforts.
But the life of this world doesn’t work like that.
You cannot gift your qadar (God’s decree) to someone else, no matter how convinced you are that they should follow in your footsteps to have success, wealth, or a lasting marriage. The result didn’t come from you, so someone following your advice won’t grant them your life path.
Yes, we can benefit from each other’s journeys, experiences and advice, but we cannot duplicate others’ results. And we shouldn’t even want to. Because we have no idea what trials await our souls and our families if we taste the result of someone else’s definition of “success.”
There are only two things that every soul is promised in this world: earthly trials and inevitable death. So if you want “foolproof” tips that promise success, then look to divine guidance on how to patiently endure worldly suffering and gratefully appreciate worldly blessings. And through this, bi’idhnillaah, you’ll learn how to attain the only success that really matters in the end: meeting your Lord in a state of sincere submission and faith, and then finding that He is pleased with you.
What Are You Teaching Your Heart?
The Companion Sahl bin Sa’d As-Sa’idi (may Allah be pleased with him) said that a man came to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and said, “O Messenger of Allah, guide me to such an action which, if I do, Allah will love me and the people will also love me.” He (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Have no desire for this world, and Allah will love you; and have no desire for what people possess, and the people will love you” (Ibn Majah).
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) also said, “Whoever makes the world his most important matter, Allah will confound his affairs and make poverty appear before his eyes and he will not get anything from the world but what has been decreed for him. Whoever makes the Hereafter his most important matter, Allah will settle his affairs and make him content in his heart and the world will come to him although he does not want it” (Sunan Ibn Mājah 4105, Sahih by Al-Albaani).
When I reflect on the spiritual beauty and soul nourishment in these gems of prophetic advice, I can’t help but notice how these directives are in stark contrast to what we are being taught today with regards to securing wealth and material success, even in Muslim circles. So much of the advice we receive on attaining worldly success is about using the tools of soul purification (such as worship and obedience to Allah) as a means to gain tangible worldly outcomes—like a lasting marriage, plentiful wealth, the perfect body, and so on.
In many cases, this sort of advice stems from us looking at the worldly happiness and success of the disbelievers and hoping to secure the same “happiness” and “success” for ourselves. With this mindset, we study concepts like “the law of attraction” and “channeling the energy of the universe,” and then attach our hearts to these ideologies in order to get what we want in life. Then we seek to make Islamic spirituality align with all of this, while pointing to how Allah promises to answer our supplications and how He is how His servant thinks He is.
We even shame those who remind us to focus on the Hereafter, by painting them as extreme ascetics who shun everything of this world and want to “sit around” in poverty and consider it piety. While there are certainly fringes of Muslims who have this misguided understanding of zuhd (spiritual detachment from this world), the issue goes so much deeper than that.
In this, no one is suggesting that we abandon seeking wealth and worldly comforts or happy, long-lasting marriages. Rather we must sincerely ask our hearts: Are we being honest with ourselves when we link Islamic spirituality to attaining specific worldly results? Is this what our Creator is teaching us? Is this what prophetic guidance is teaching us?
If our answer is “no” to these last two questions, then this weightier question remains: Why then are we teaching this to our hearts?
Which World Is Your Heart Attached To?
To be clear, the problem here isn’t that we are relying on Islamic spirituality to attain worldly success. Rather the problem is that we are making this worldly success our starting point and focus in life. While Islamic spirituality definitely includes divine prescriptions for attaining worldly success, all of these means are channeled through the lens of nourishing our souls, pleasing Allah, and placing the Hereafter above this world.
This is so much the case that nearly everything in the Qur’an and prophetic teachings points to this one foundational perspective on worldly success: True success in this world is attached to our willingness to let go of our wealth, worldly statuses, and even our own loved ones, if this is what it takes to save our souls and obey our Creator.
Allah says what has been translated to mean: “Say, ‘If your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your wives, your relatives, wealth which you have obtained, commerce wherein you fear decline, and dwellings with which you are pleased are more beloved to you than Allah and His Messenger and striving in His cause, then wait until Allah executes His command. And Allah does not guide the defiantly disobedient people” (At-Tawbah, 9:24).
What is so profound about this ayah is that Allah mentions our attachment to our loved ones and spouses before He even mentions our attachment to our wealth, property, and businesses. This in itself should be a deep lesson to our hearts that even when our religious advice fixates on having success in our family relationships and marriages, this is imbalanced if it is not filtered through an understanding that we might one day need to sacrifice these relationships to save our souls.
But if our hearts are attached to this world more than the Hereafter, how is this even possible?
Be Willing To Let Go Of It All
A couple of years ago, my then twenty-year-old daughter came to me excited about starting her own business. Naturally, as an entrepreneur myself, I was excited for her, and I offered my full support and prayed for her success. And I continue to.
However, I cautioned her:
If Allah blesses you with wealth, be sure not to get too attached to it. Because everything in this world is a trial, even our worldly blessings. Everything we seek or receive in this world should be used as a means of nourishing our souls and securing success for ourselves in the Hereafter.
So keep in mind that anything you love or are granted in this world, Allah will test you with it. This is to see if your heart values that worldly blessing more than you value Allah’s Pleasure and the Hereafter. So while it’s a tremendous blessing to be granted lots of wealth, if it ever comes to choosing between your soul and your wealth, you must be willing to walk away from it all if it means protecting your soul.
Once, the Companion Abu Dharr Jundub bin Abdullah (may Allah be pleased with him) said: “I advise you to fear Allah and obey Him (with taqwaa), and I advise you to adhere to the Qur’an, for it is a light in the dark night and a guidance during the day. So implement it no matter how much struggle and poverty you have to face. If a calamity befalls you, put your wealth forward to protect your religion, and if the calamity continues, put forward your wealth and your life to save your religion [but never risk your religion]. For the ruined is he whose religion is ruined, and the robbed is he whose religion is taken. And know that there is no poverty after Paradise, and no riches after the Fire” (Adh-Dhahabi, Siyar A’laam an-Nubalaa, 3/174).
God Isn’t Handing Out Stickers for Good Behavior
One of the things I remind myself is that we shouldn’t look at our worship of Allah like we look at the extrinsic reward system of this world, wherein we’re given stickers and rewards for being “good girls and boys.”
Getting worldly wealth, success, and happiness isn’t a mathematical formula where you input prayer and good deeds and then lots of money or the perfect marriage is the output. Allah is not our personal “servant,” bank teller or wish-granter, whose only role in our lives is to give us what we ask or demand from Him. Viewing our relationship with Allah in this way is not a sign of faith or tawakkul (sincere trust in Him). And it isn’t even thinking good of Him. Rather it’s a sign of entitlement and arrogance—and ignoring His divine attribute of being our Rabb, the Master and Owner of our lives.
In truth, Allah owes us nothing in this world. Yet we owe Allah everything—including our very souls and lives. It is we who are His servants and who are obligated to do what He asks and demands of us, not the other way around.
Yes, in this spiritual servitude, we are also granted many of the things we seek and desire of this world. But this is not because it is owed to us. It is because of Allah’s Mercy, Generosity and Compassion.
You Get What You Strive For
Allah says what has been translated to mean:
“Whoever should desire the transitory things [of this life], We hasten for him from it what We will to whom We will. Then We have made for him Hell, which he will [enter to] burn, censured and banished. But whoever desires the Hereafter and exerts the effort due to it while he is a believer, it is those whose effort is ever appreciated [by Allah]. To each [category] We extend – to these and to those – from the gift of your Lord. And never has the gift of your Lord been restricted. Look how We have favored [in provision] some of them over others. But the Hereafter is greater in degrees [of difference] and greater in distinction” (Al-Israa, 17:18-21).
He also says:
“…And whoever desires the reward of this world, We will give him thereof; and whoever desires the reward of the Hereafter, We will give him thereof. And we will reward the grateful” (Ali ‘Imraan, 3:145).
So as we seek the transitory enjoyments of this world, let us strive to be spiritually honest with regards to our ideas of the happiness and success during our brief sojourn here—before we are lowered beneath the ground.
O Allah! We ask you to purify our hearts from unhealthy attachment to anything of this world, and we beg You to grant us the best in this world and the best in the Hereafter. And O Allah, Ar-Razzaaq! We beg You to grant us blessed provision and wealth in this world, and to remove the dunya from our hearts and place it in our hands!
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.
Copyright © 2019 by Al-Walaa Publications. All Rights Reserved.