We all aim for success. But what does success really mean? What should it look like?
Every community defines success using its own set of criteria. In collectivist cultures as found in Asia, success is often determined based on how organized and harmonious society is as a whole. By contrast, other primarily western cultures like America are highly idiocentric and thus define success using one’s career, wealth, reputation, and other superficial standards.
As liberating as the idiocentric view may seem, it comes with many flaws.
This type of mindset has led to a society in which people are willing to seek “success” and personal gain at any cost, leading to an increase in corruption and injustice. We are all aware of–and probably benefit from–multi-billion dollar businesses that are gaining a monopoly over the economy but falling short in things as fundamental as ethical treatment of employees. We continue to witness countless stories of racist treatment by specific groups just to reinforce their status. Even in the technologically advanced and “intelligent” society we live in today, we have not overcome such basic immoralities. One of the major underlying issues behind all these problems is leaving Allah (God) out of the picture.
This does not mean that embracing a collectivist approach will solve the issues that arise with an idiocentric mindset. Rather, it shows that balancing both approaches while maintaining God-consciousness is key.
As Muslims, we do have to focus on ourselves from a worldly and spiritual point of view. We need to take the time to understand ourselves–our wants, our needs, our talents–in order to make a living in this world. We also need to focus on ourselves spiritually, as each of us is accountable for our own actions–good or bad–as conveyed in the verse of the Qur’an:
“No bearer of burdens will bear the burdens of another.” [Holy Qur’an 35:18]
However, our individual responsibilities are only half the equation; we have obligations towards the community as well. This balance between individual responsibilities and communal responsibilities can be seen through various Islamic obligations such as zakat (obligatory charity). For example, we need to work to have a comfortable life, but we are also obligated to donate 2.5% of our extra wealth annually to charity. If every Muslim that is responsible to pay this obligatory charity actually paid the necessary amount, there would be no poverty in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, because of greed and a lack of God-consciousness, this ideal situation is not a reality. Because of people only seeking to fulfill their own wants, they have neglected fulfillment of what He (God) wants.
As a result, we see that there is a disconnect between serving oneself and serving the community through our responsibilities to Him. We have been convinced to believe that the only way we can be happy is if we cater to our own wants and desires. However, this is not always true, if you consider the fact that there are numerous examples of celebrities who are able to enjoy any luxuries they could ask for but still experience depression and an overall lack of happiness.
Ultimately, self-fulfillment is attained when the gap between taking care of oneself and taking care of responsibilities towards God and His creation is bridged. Satisfaction is achieved when we serve the creation for Allah’s sake using the individual favors we have been blessed with. While we should work to develop our talents, we shouldn’t limit the benefits of that to just ourselves, which is where society is ultimately falling short today.
Looking back to the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), there is a beautiful example in the group of people known as the Ansar (meaning “helpers” in Arabic), who were living in the city of Madinah as the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions were migrating in. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions came with almost no belongings of their own. The group of Ansar were so selfless in offering their homes, their wealth, and much more to make the incoming people feel as comfortable as possible. While the Ansar were dedicated in their individual responsibilities towards God and themselves, they also demonstrated such strong concern for the community. Their goal was evidently not to get their own needs fulfilled, but to make sure that the incoming immigrants’ needs were also fulfilled, all for the sake of God. There was no worldly motivation or promise of better monetary compensation that influenced the Ansar to give up so much of their comforts. But they were able to do so because they had God in their picture. As a result of the community’s selflessness and concern for one another, the city of Madinah flourished and everyone was content, despite any difficulties they may have been facing.
It is evident from this that when we, as a community, shift from self-centered views to God-centered views, we will all be working towards a common goal: His pleasure. With this unity comes greater strength, and that is the beauty of Islam. We want everyone to reach their highest potential. Us helping others will not put us at a disadvantage; we only gain from helping. As the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “Whoever points someone towards goodness will have a reward like the one who did it.”
What this means for Muslim Americans today is that as important as it is for us to continue developing ourselves and our skills as individuals, we need to remember that we have not reached our fullest potential until we utilize and share our talents with sincere intentions in a way that is pleasing to God. This world is just a transient phase, and whatever we have is a means to achieve ultimate success in the Hereafter through His pleasure.
As for being successful in this world, if we can truthfully assure ourselves that we did the best with our resources and talents to be sincere agents of goodness for our community and fulfill our responsibility as Muslims to serve God and not just our own desires, then we can be optimistic that we are successful. Only when we all shift our idiocentric mindset to a God-centric one will we see unity and strength in our efforts, bringing about true positive change in society.