“You know when I started feeling better? When I stopped feeling bad about feeling bad.”
—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah
“Why do you and your husband have only one child? Are you trying to have more? Or is it because you don’t want any more children?”
These questions began when my daughter was around five years old, and they continued until she was a teenager—when I made the decision to distance myself from most people. Each time someone asked me this question, I felt a bit more uncomfortable and a bit more violated. The truth was that for years, I was experiencing loss after loss during pregnancy, and some of the losses had been life threatening for me, leaving me hospitalized for days.
Naturally, I didn’t want to divulge all of that. It was hard enough going through this painful trial, let alone having to say it out loud every time a sister decided that delving into my private life was an interesting way to pass time at a social gathering.
Most often, I would just offer a gentle smile and say something like, “It’s not my decision. It’s Allah’s.”
But that wouldn’t satisfy them. “What do you mean?” they would say, forehead creased as they took a sip of tea or a forkful of food, staring at me, waiting.
Inside I was a storm of emotions. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I had answered their question and shared more than I had any obligation to, and still, this wasn’t enough. The waiting silence in the room told me that these women genuinely felt that delving even deeper into my private life was the most natural topic of conversation in the world.
If I didn’t respond right away, they would get more specific. “Are you using birth control?”
Are these sisters serious? I’d think to myself. “Like I said,” I’d repeat. “It’s not my decision. It’s Allah’s.”
“So you’re not using birth control then?” they’d say, either oblivious to my growing frustration or seeing my feelings as insignificant in light of their “right” to know what was happening in the privacy of my home.
There were times that I’d grow annoyed and just blurt out how I’d loss several pregnancies and that this was really beyond my control. In my naiveté, I genuinely imagined that sharing this painful part of my struggle would shock the women into shame and silence, and put an end to all the questioning.
But it didn’t.
They would gasp, utter some du’aa, and then get right back to asking even more questions about my private life. “Are you seeing a fertility specialist for this? Are you doing ruqyaa’ in case this is sihr or ‘ayn? Are you praying to Allah to heal you and give you more children?”
Then after all their violating questions came the unsolicited advice: about what fertility specialist to use, what I should recite over myself to protect myself from jinn, how I should never despair of Allah’s Mercy, how something similar had happened to so-and-so, and how they did such-and-such.
All the while, I’d nearly lose my appetite for the untouched plate of food that I still held in my hand. I just wanted to go home and never come to any social gathering again. Each one felt too much like a cruel interrogation session. Never did it feel like any of these relentless questions and unsolicited advice sessions were really about helping me so much as they were about satisfying these women’s insatiable curiosity—and their personal need to feel like they had all the answers to every problem in my life.
I always left these gatherings feeling so small, humiliated, and exposed. At home, I’d chide myself for not being strong or savvy enough to shut the conversation down before it got to this point. But I was struggling with just how to do that because all my various attempts had failed.
It was as if there was no solution except to be so firm and rude that these women would be shocked and offended into silence. But even then, I knew that the topic would merely shift from my private life to my “bad character,” except I wouldn’t be included in the latter conversation. Besides, I didn’t want to have to become emotionally unhinged just to protect my privacy and peace.
There really was no winning in this.
So I eventually took my power back by simply removing my presence from these gatherings altogether.
‘But You Really Shouldn’t Give Up’
Despite distancing myself from the toxic social gatherings, I had a couple of friends who felt I shouldn’t just give up on the idea of having more children. They were convinced that my attitude of being satisfied with Allah’s qadar (divine decree) was really just me losing faith when I should instead be putting my full trust in Allah’s power and mercy.
This perspective confused me because in my mind, I was already putting my full trust in Allah’s power and mercy. I felt that my lack of restlessness about this was the very essence of being content with my Lord’s qadar, no matter what He decided for me.
“If you really trust Allah, you should go to a fertility specialist,” my friend insisted.
“But I don’t want to,” I told her.
“But you shouldn’t give up like that,” she said. “Having sincere trust in your Rabb means you are doing everything you can to have more children, instead of just waiting around for whatever He decides. Allah helps us when we help ourselves.”
Deep down, it really didn’t matter to me one way or the other if I had more children, but her words really got to me. I felt like I was less of a Muslim for not actively seeking to have more children. I felt like I was living in spiritual self-deception to view my contentment with my small family as sincere contentment with Allah’s decree. Consequently, I began to doubt whether or not I had any real faith in Allah at all if I wasn’t taking the active steps my friend insisted I should in order to have another child.
It was in this state of guilt and shame that I decided to make du’aa and pray Istikhaarah about actively seeking to have more children.
A few weeks later I was hospitalized—again—for an emergency surgery. Then the doctors told me that it would be dangerous to ever get pregnant again. By this time, I had lost six children during pregnancy.
Go Big or Go Home?
Today, I’m still healing from all the emotional and spiritual messaging that tells me that “true faith” means constantly seeking more and more from this world, even when my heart is content with what I have. I’m still healing from all the emotional and spiritual messaging that tells me that having “true faith” means trying to conquer the world, even when my heart is content with the small world inside my home.
“Go big or go home!” they say. “If your dreams don’t scare you, then they’re not big enough!”
There was a time that hearing these “motivational messages” was actually motivating to me. But today, not so much.
Nevertheless, I can appreciate these messages from afar. This is because I know that for some people, these words are actually beneficial and inspirational. But for me, they mostly just make me feel a bit sad and exhausted.
I remember once reading a post on the @shewriteswoman Instagram account that said something like, “People who say, ‘Go big or go home’ seriously underestimate my willingness to go home. I mean seriously, it’s like my only goal.” This made me smile and chuckle just a bit, and I immediately reposted it because it resonated so much with me.
Emotional healing itself can be so exhausting that many days, it really is a tremendous feat to just get out of bed and make wudhoo’ so you can pray with at least a semblance of concentration.
When you’re going through a difficult time, you can really begin to feel like a huge failure when every single “success story” or “motivational quote” is about people making millions of dollars or building some amazing business or traveling all over the world, when your biggest accomplishment is just getting a few more hours of sleep at night.
True Success Is Conquering Your Nafs
My heart just doesn’t understand why “success stories” are consistently about celebrating only big, flashy goals. My heart just doesn’t understand why “motivational messages” are consistently about seeking more and more from this world ad infinitum.
My heart just doesn’t understand why we don’t view the act of just waking up with sincere faith in your heart—while having a renewed commitment to improving yourself—isn’t viewed as the greatest achievement in the world.
Because without emaan and consistent self-betterment, no other achievement really matters, no matter how big and flashy it is.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t see anything wrong with big and flashy goals, and I see nothing wrong with seeking to conquer to the world, so to speak. But I’m learning that it’s much more victorious and commendable—spiritually and emotionally—to conquer the restless discontent of my human heart.
If you can conquer your nafs, then it really doesn’t matter how big or small your worldly goals are. You’ve already achieved the greatest success in this world.
Are Your Lofty Goals Making You Ungrateful?
So no, I don’t see anything wrong with lofty goals. I have a few of them myself. But what scares me is when I feel myself becoming so focused on these future goals that my present life is no longer meaningful or satisfying to me. Or when I allow someone to guilt me into seeking some “lofty goal” in a part of my life where I’m already completely content (as I allowed when I began to try to have more children when this really wasn’t a focus or concern of mine).
The problem with this sort of mind shift is that it can result in a heart shift, where you become discontent with your current life as you seek a better life. It was due to detecting within myself an increasing discontentment with “the now” that I penned this reflection in my personal journal:
Ungratefulness can make times of ease feel like times of difficulty. So be careful.
In this, we’re so busy complaining about our hectic schedules, our personal troubles, and the things we don’t have, that we miss out on the soul-rejuvenating experience of shukr, that sincere gratefulness that allows us to truly appreciate all that we do have—and that can be easily taken away by the One who gifted it to us.
So how do we experience shukr—true and sincere gratefulness?
Shukr is not merely a declaration of thankfulness on the tongue. It is an action-based lifestyle rooted in sincere gratefulness in the heart. And the most basic form of sincere gratefulness is submission to Allah, our Creator. This is also the highest form.
Our Creator tells us what has been translated to mean, “Therefore remember Me. I will remember you, and be grateful to Me, and do not disbelieve [or show ungratefulness by refusing sincere submission]” (Al-Baqarah, 2:152).
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) advised us: “Remember Allah during times of ease and He will remember you during times of difficulty” (Tirmidhi).
And as for all those blessings you are impatiently seeking and that are distracting you from true shukr? Allah says what has been translated to mean, “And [remember] when your Lord proclaimed, ‘If you are grateful, I will surely increase you [in favor]…” (Ibrahim, 14:7).
So today, I pray that Allah makes me grateful, more than I pray for a huge “upgrade” in my life.
Turning My Bad Days Into Good Days
Due to the trials that I now realize will always be a part of my life—even if I get that coveted “upgrade”— I’m striving to make the most of my “bad days.”
I know everyone is always talking about looking forward to a better tomorrow, and “manifesting” some amazing future for yourself. So they encourage you to channel all the “good energy” of the universe to your life though positive thinking, vision boards, and having faith that God will give you everything your heart desires and are praying for in this world.
But I’m more focused on finding the beauty in my life even when things are going far from how I planned, envisioned, or desired. Because let’s face it. We’re simply not going to get every single thing we seek or desire in this world, no matter how much we work for it or pray for it or “channel good energy” in its direction. And even if you do get it, it’s very likely that you’re going to lose much of it, or experience tremendous loss or pain along with it.
And no, that’s not negative thinking. It’s facing reality.
Allah says what has been translated to mean, “And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits. But give good tidings to the patient” (Al-Baqarah, 2:155).
Yes, even amidst all this promise for loss and struggle, you can still pray for the moon and the stars. I myself am praying for the moon and the stars too, and more besides.
After all, when I’m praying, I’m speaking to Ar-Razzaaq, Al-Kareem—the One who consistently bestows provision and wealth on His servants, and the One whose generosity is immeasurable. And He’s not at all like “generous” people. He doesn’t get annoyed when we keep asking for more and more, even when He’s given us so much already.
So when I speak about making the most of my bad days, I don’t mean giving up on having any good ones or abandoning praying for better ones. I’m speaking about striving for beautiful patience and sincere gratefulness—today, right now, and every day thereafter.
Even when the pain in my heart threatens to squeeze the life out of me.
Even when my heart cries out, “When will the relief come?”
Even when tears flood my eyes until I struggle to find the “Alhamdulillah” in my heart and my voice.
So when I’m striving to turn my bad days into good days, I’m speaking about the lesson that my heart is learning more and more each day: Having beautiful sabr and sincere shukr requires mindful presence—not wasting away my “bad days” in restless impatience in seeking something better.
I’m learning that I can seek “something better” while at the same time making the most out of the “not so good days” that would usually make me feel like I’m missing out on something—or that cause my heart to tread dangerously close to becoming frustrated with my Most Merciful Creator.
Allah is not your personal “servant” or wish granter, I tell myself. It is not His primary job to do everything you ask of Him. It’s actually the other way around.
So these days, I’m seeking a healthy balance—in being grateful for what I have, even as I strive to fulfill my lofty goals. And I’m striving to teach my heart that having sincere gratefulness and beautiful patience is far more important than seeking “more and more” out of life.
Are You Doing Your Part?
Allah says what has been translated to mean, “When My servants ask you concerning Me, [tell them] I am indeed near. I listen to the prayer of every suppliant when he calls on Me. Let them also, with a will, listen to My call and believe in Me, that they may be guided aright” (Al-Baqarah, 2:186).
There was a time in my life that I would read this ayah from Qur’an and focus mostly on the first part, where Allah is saying that He listens to the pray of everyone supplicating to Him. But today, I strive to focus on both parts of this beautiful message: Yes, you can ask anything from Allah, no matter how big or small, while having full faith that He is listening to you. But the more important question is, “Are you listening to Him?”
In this way, I remind myself that even on my “bad days,” I’m not missing out on anything—even if I’m tested with, one by one, seeing the vision of the “greater life” that I imagined for myself fade farther and farther away.
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Amazing is the affair of the believer. Verily, every affair of his is good, and this is for no one except the believer. If something of good [or happiness] befalls him, he is grateful, and that is good for him. If something of harm befalls him, he is patient, and that is good for him” (Saheeh Muslim, 2999).
In reflecting on this prophetic wisdom, I realized that the “amazing life” that I was chasing was always in my grasp, even on my “bad days.” I just needed to focus on striving to have the heart of a sincere believer.
No, in striving for this sincere emaan (true faith), I don’t seek to be “happy” all the time. In my art therapy book, Broken yet Faithful. From the Journal of Umm Zakiyyah, I share this reflection:
True faith isn’t about walking through life completely happy and undisturbed in every circumstance. It’s about staying sincerely connected to your Lord despite the inevitable ups and downs in life.
But giving your problems to Allah and having tawakkul (complete trust in Him) is not always a smooth, tranquil process. When you’re really stressed out, hurt, or confused, you don’t always feel good or a sense of peace right away, even if you’re constantly praying and asking for guidance.
Many times, the process continues to be an internal battle for a very long time. But this isn’t a sign of weak faith. It’s a sign of the natural fragility of the human heart—and a sign of the believing soul seeking purity.
For having true faith and tawakkul isn’t about perfection. It’s about remaining in sincere remembrance of your Lord and in humble obedience to Him, whether you’re enjoying times of ease and happiness or enduring times of tremendous pain and difficulty.
O Allah! I beg You to write us down amongst the shaakireen—those who are sincerely and consistently grateful to You. And O Allah, Al-Wahhaab! I beg You to grant our hearts sabran jameelan (beautiful patience), even during the most difficult trials! And do not allow us to die except in a state of sincere emaan!
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.