Allahﷻ sent us Muslims with a job. That is why we exist. He said:
كُنتُمْ خَيْرَ أُمَّةٍ أُخْرِجَتْ لِلنَّاسِ تَأْمُرُونَ بِٱلْمَعْرُوفِ وَتَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ ٱلْمُنكَرِ وَتُؤْمِنُونَ بِٱللَّهِ
A’al Imraan 3: 110 You [Muslims] are the best people ever raised up for mankind; you enjoin Al-Ma’ruf (all that Islam has ordained) and forbid Al-Munkar (all that Islam has forbidden), and you believe in Allah.
How is this propagation to be done? By example. By practical demonstration. By walking the talk. Let us remember that the word ‘Muslim’ is a verb. Just like the words, ‘Musalli, Sa’aim, Haaji, Dhakir’ and so on, are all verbs. These are not nouns. Just ask, ‘Who is a Musalli?’ It is someone who prays. Is it someone who knows about Salah but doesn’t pray? To know about Salah, you don’t even need to be Muslim. You just need to get the information about Salah, and you can write a book on it. But if the one writing the book is not a Muslim and so doesn’t pray, will his book do him any good when he meets Allahﷻ? Therefore, a Muslim is someone who has submitted to Allahﷻ and practices Islam. There is no such thing as a non-practicing Muslim just as there is no such thing as a non-praying Musalli, or a non-fasting Sa’aim. That is why Allahﷻ said about Ibrahim (AS):
إِذْ قَالَ لَهُۥ رَبُّهُۥٓ أَسْلِمْ قَالَ أَسْلَمْتُ لِرَبِّ ٱلْعَـٰلَمِينَ
Baqara 2: 131 When his Rabb said to him, Submit (be a Muslim)! He said, I have submitted myself (as a Muslim) to the Rabb of the ‘Alamin (all that exists).
That is why Allahﷻ sent His Messengerﷺ as a demonstrator and ordered us to follow him in all aspects of our lives.
لَّقَدْ كَانَ لَكُمْ فِى رَسُولِ ٱللَّهِ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ لِّمَن كَانَ يَرْجُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ وَٱلْيَوْمَ ٱلْـَٔاخِرَ وَذَكَرَ ٱللَّهَ كَثِيرًا
Ahzab 33: 21 Indeed in the Messenger of Allah (Muhammadﷺ) you have a good example to follow for him who hopes in (the Meeting with) Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah a great deal.
What are we supposed to follow Rasoolullahﷺ in? In everything. At home, in the market, as an employee, as an employer, in war, in peace, as a teacher, student, parent, sibling, leader, or follower. Follow the Messengerﷺ of Allahﷻ in excellence and what will happen? Allahﷻ said:
قُلْ إِن كُنتُمْ تُحِبُّونَ ٱللَّهَ فَٱتَّبِعُونِى يُحْبِبْكُمُ ٱللَّهُ وَيَغْفِرْ لَكُمْ ذُنُوبَكُمْ وَٱللَّهُ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
A’al Imraan 3: 31 Say (O Muhammadﷺ to mankind): If you (really) love Allah then follow me (emulate me), Allah will love you and forgive your sins. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
Emulation is a sign of love. When the Muslim emulates Rasoolullahﷺ, Allahﷻ will love him. When Allahﷻ loves someone then He causes the world to love that person and that person will become popular and influential. Rasoolullahﷺ told us about the one who Allahﷻ loves:
Abu Huraira (R) reported that Rasoolullahﷺ said, “When Allah loves a slave, He calls Jibreel and he says: Verily, I love this person so you should love him. Then Jibreel loves him and makes an announcement in the heavens, saying: Allah loves this person, and you should love him. Thus, the dwellers of the heavens love him, and he is honored on the earth.” In another narration Rasoolullahﷺ said, “When Allah is angry with a slave, he calls Jibreel and he says: I dislike this person, so you also dislike him. Then Jibreel dislikes him and makes an announcement in the heavens, saying: Verily, Allah dislikes this person, so you should dislike him. They dislike him and he is hated on the earth.” [Bukhari & Muslim]
We spend so much time, effort, energy, and money and get stressed out, trying to become influential. Yet do we pay attention to the formula for success that the One who controls success gave us? Please Allahﷻ and Allahﷻ will get the world to please you. Our job is to become Role Models to the world. How do you become a Role Model? By standing out. How do you stand out? By becoming extraordinary. Do what everyone else does and you will be lost. Do what nobody does, and you will stand out. Differentiate. Differentiation creates Brand. Brand inspires Loyalty. Loyalty enables Influence. Without Brand you are a grain of rice in a sack. Set extraordinary goals. Why extraordinary? Because it is the nature of extraordinary goals to inspire extraordinary effort. ‘Good enough’, never is. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing well.
As you work towards a great goal you will become restless, irritated, and impatient and inclined to take shortcuts and cut corners – all for the excellent reason that you want to see the project up and running as soon as possible. But in this urgency, there will be the tendency to accept compromises. I want to warn you of the biggest danger to success. The C – word. Compromise. To compromise is to die a death without honor.
Those who have the courage to work for a great goal understand that ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’ are terms that define your own standpoint – how you see yourself – they point to who you are – not to the goal at all. Soaring at 30,000 feet is possible for an eagle or for a man with a flying machine. It is not possible or impossible in itself. All it needs is for you to ask, ‘How can I do it?’ Not, ‘Can it be done?’
Excellence is an expression of self-respect. So is mediocrity. We strive for excellence not because someone is watching or because we are playing to the gallery but because excellence is about us – how we see ourselves, what we think of ourselves, how we choose to define ourselves. Excellence is a mark of self-respect. We define ourselves and the world accepts that definition and treats us accordingly. It is up to us to choose.
Excellence requires sustained heroic effort – often in the face of great discouragement. Only those who revel in the effort can excel. The adrenalin drives them. They are goal focused but take inspiration from the difficulty of reaching that goal. For them the journey is the destination; because the excitement is only in the chase and ends with the catch. Mount Everest is a worthy goal to strive for because its dimensions are measured in height. The same distance on level ground wouldn’t be worth talking about. It is the difficulty which adds value to the goal.
If you think success is difficult, try failure. To accept mediocrity is to accept failure at the start. Mediocrity ensures that your failure is permanent. That drug is called ‘compromise.’ I know that there are more mediocre people in the world than those who achieve excellence. But ask yourself who you would rather be – who would you like to emulate? Who do you choose as your role model? That is why Tipu Sultan said, ‘One day in the life of a tiger is worth more than a hundred years in the life of a jackal.’ Ask which life you would like to live – for in the end, both die.
Compromise is to attitude what cancer is to the body. The body doesn’t fight cancer but accepts it because it doesn’t recognize the threat. It accepts cancer cells until they kill it. Only those who hate mediocrity can excel. Not dislike, not be irritated by it, nothing mild. Only those who pathologically hate mediocrity, who can’t stomach it at any cost; those who are repelled by it, find it disgusting, abhorrent and hateful and do anything to get out of it; can pursue excellence passionately. Compromise, like cancer, destroys from within. But unlike cancer it is infectious.
Excellence takes effort. Few make it. Failure is painful. Nobody likes it. Mediocrity is a narcotic which makes destruction seem acceptable. So, people settle for less than what they can be. They get distracted by others and make excuses for their mediocre efforts as if that can change reality. They imagine that if they can find others who agree with them, their mediocrity will be acceptable. It will be – to other mediocre people. But to those focused on excellence, who look not at others but at their own potential and beyond it, mediocrity is despicable, no matter what disguise it comes in. To tell you the truth, the mediocre ones also recognize this in the dead of the night, when they are alone with themselves, that their efforts don’t even begin to approach the boundaries of what could have been if only they had not compromised. Failure is not the enemy of excellence. Mediocrity is. Failure is painful and drives effort. Nobody willingly fails or remains in failure. But mediocrity is anesthetized failure. It is fatal because the victim does nothing to counter it because he can’t feel the pain.
I remind myself about a basic principle that I have always followed in my own life – It is better to fail trying to achieve an extraordinary goal, than to settle for a compromise. Why Extraordinary? Because good enough, never is. When you say, ‘Good enough’, you are looking at mediocrity. You are looking at cancer. Do to it what you would do to cancer. Or die.
The important thing for us to remember is never to compromise. No matter how difficult it seems. Remember, when weighing in a balance, it is only the last few grains which tip the balance. Until then you don’t see any difference, any change in the pans. There are two fundamental laws:
Both laws are equally true.
Remember that if we compromise for anything less than what we dreamed of, then in the evening of our days we will be forced to look back on our lives and say, ‘If only I had not sold my dream so cheaply!!’
Social change happens when a small group of dedicated people who believe in their system, live it, practice it with confidence and differentiate on that basis. They live their way of life assertively, not aggressively but never compromise or change their system to suit the majority culture. Flexibility is important but not when it comes to principles.
The British colonized the world. But they never wore turbans, shimaqs, bishts, egals, mishlahs, sherwanis, babringas or any of the gorgeous and beautiful clothing of Asia, Middle East, or Africa. So, the world started wearing pants, ties, and hats.
The greatest damage to a cause is done by those who, perhaps in a well-meaning way, soften stances regarding principles. When that happens the clarity of differentiation is lost, and the message loses significance.
For a leader, the most critical thing is to differentiate from the rest based on his message. If the leader compromises his message for the sake of popularity, material gain, followership, or anything else, the uniqueness of the message will be lost, and it will lose its value as a clear standard on which to model all actions. This is naturally not easy to do, as there are a lot of societal and other pressures to conform to existing norms, values, and customs. To stand out as different, especially when this means to go directly against the existing system is not easy. But it is an essential criterion that distinguishes the leader. For people to follow the leader, his identity, the goal he is leading towards and what the followers will gain because of following him, must all be clear, unambiguous, and inspiring. A flag is a symbol but only when it is flying high. Not when it is drying on a clothesline. Islam teaches us to stand out. Not to blend in. We came to teach. We didn’t come to follow. We came to set the standard.
يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ كُونُوا۟ قَوَّٰمِينَ بِٱلْقِسْطِ شُهَدَآءَ لِلَّهِ وَلَوْ عَلَىٰٓ أَنفُسِكُمْ أَوِ ٱلْوَٰلِدَيْنِ وَٱلْأَقْرَبِينَ إِن يَكُنْ غَنِيًّا أَوْ فَقِيرًا فَٱللَّهُ أَوْلَىٰ بِهِمَا فَلَا تَتَّبِعُوا۟ ٱلْهَوَىٰٓ أَن تَعْدِلُوا۟ وَإِن تَلْوُۥٓا۟ أَوْ تُعْرِضُوا۟ فَإِنَّ ٱللَّهَ كَانَ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيرًا
Nisa 4: 135 O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even though it be against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, be he rich or poor, Allah is a Better Protector to both (than you). So, follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest you may avoid justice, and if you distort your witness or refuse to give it, verily, Allah is Ever Well-Acquainted with what you do.
All goodness begins with justice. Allahﷻ set a standard of justice which to this day is acknowledged as the highest in the history of mankind. This is our standard. But like anything else, it is effective only if we live by it.
It is critical for the leader not to be seduced with the promise of followership and never to change, dilute or modify the message to suit anyone in the desire to get converts. The message distinguishes the leader. If he compromises that message, then he has lost everything. This is the biggest argument in favor of differentiation and against assimilation and losing one’s identity that I can place before you. Someone who does not have the confidence to differentiate and is content with being one sheep in a flock is completely unfit to be a leader. Being a leader means to take hard decisions and getting used to being lonely. The tiger walks alone. Sheep have lots of company.