Sunday, 15 September 2013

Goals, Humility & Respect

Reposting here what was originally a two-part note on my facebook timeline on 9 and 10 September 2013.

After reading my facebook update last Friday, a few of my fb friends asked, ‘what was it about the khutbah (sermon) that brought me to tears?’ Did the khatib mention something that reminded me of my late wife Aishah?’ No, that was not the case, but let me explain.  

First-of-all, I have to admit, I didn’t really know who the khatib, Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan, was before last week. I did view one of his talks on youtube some time ago. That talk was ok but it didn’t impress me that much for me to search for more. Last Friday however, at the IIUM masjid, he gave a khutbah I honestly believe to be one of the best I’ve ever heard.

The khutbah was essentially a call to reflect, ‘why am I a Muslim?’ A rather common topic really but the questions he posed and the analogies he gave really struck a chord with me for they are exactly the issues I have been grappling with lately.

Ustadh Nouman began by asking ‘what is your ideal?’ For some, it’s about having a nice house and a nice car. For others, it’s about respect and recognition, while for some others, it could well be all about fame, money and glory.

My ideal or goal in life has always been to help and to serve. Ideally, I would want to do something where I am able to personally and directly help others. During my brief stint at UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), I started as programme assistant. I worked mainly in the office perusing documents and drafting project proposals; something that bored the life out of me.

Later, as a TP (temporary protection) screener, I was asked to interview people applying for refugee status. I had to talk to them and listen to their personal stories. I was a TP screener for only two months, but those two months remain among the best and most satisfying times in my entire working life.  

Someone asked me recently, what would I want my son to be when he grows up? “A nurse”, that was the answer that came instantly to my mind. This was around the time when my late neighbour was first hospitalised. At first, he was at the main ward but when his condition worsened, he was transferred to intensive care.
All the nurses I saw at the hospital were women. I know that is not something to be surprised about. What surprised me though is a sudden realisation that there is a serious need for every hospital to have male nurses; for several reasons.

For instance, I observed at both the ward and ICU, there were more male patients than there were females. Some of these patients were really ill. They needed help for almost everything. Some of them however, physically were quite big and tall, whereas the female nurses were physically smaller and of shorter height.

Don’t get me wrong, those nurses I saw, despite their physical disadvantage, were indeed very skilful and professional but I just wondered whether being cared for by a male nurse would perhaps make those male patients feel more comfortable?

Being a nurse is not easy. The job requires one to be patient, compassionate and firmly grounded; qualities commonly stereotyped with women. A man however, have those qualities too, hence, should not have a problem performing the role of a nurse.

I certainly will not be pressuring my son to become a nurse. That itself is not my goal. My goal is to raise him in such a way that he shall never consider the idea of becoming a nurse something repugnant. Indeed I would love it for him to consider it desirable for the unique opportunities it will give him to personally serve and help others.

And this was essentially the point Ustadh Nouman tried to put across. The ideal or goal for every Muslim is not cars, fame and money. The goal is to serve Allah and to serve others in this world. There is nothing wrong about wanting to be rich and famous. But to be rich by itself is not the goal. It is a means to attain a higher goal.

Ustadh Nouman said many great things last Friday, but there was one I find particularly mind-boggling. He said, “the ultimate reminder to those who would serve Allah's din (is), don't think highly of yourself; (and) don't think you are better than the people you are trying to serve."

I grew-up during the time when self-improvement books were extremely popular. Early in my youth, I read numerous books by various motivation ‘gurus’ like Anthony Robbins, Stephen Covey, Zig Ziglair and Dale Carnegie. Indeed there is a lot to be gained from their books and it would be stupid of me to deny the positive effects they’ve had in the lives of many.

I have this feeling however, that reading too much into them may lead to a few unintended negative consequences. These consequences include an exaggerated sense of self-worth, delusions of grandeur, arrogance, and a lack of respect for the abilities of others.

While conventional approaches to motivation are driven by self-centred concepts like self-worth and self-esteem, motivation in Islam, as indicated by Ustadh Nouman; embraces a rather different philosophy. It starts from a clear understanding on the purpose of our creation and the responsibility it entails; and the need to carry out those responsibilities with sincerity and humility.

Sincerity and humility however, are values that are difficult to define and impossible to measure. We may claim that we are sincere and humble but how do we know really that we have those attributes?

I am blessed by Allah with great memory; episodic memory especially. I observe more, and talk and mingle less. Throughout my life, I have seen how people change. I have seen how a two-letter-prefix can change a person’s attitude and personality. I have seen too how a piece of metal on a ribbon can heighten a person’s sense of importance and sense of entitlement.

It’s hard however, to be too critical of all this because they are part of the reality of today’s society; a society where you need to promote and push yourself to the limelight in order to succeed. The challenge then is to know how to remain, on one hand, sincere and humble, and on the other, ambitious and determined.

Continuous self-reflection is what we all need. We need to do something too that helps keep our feet firmly on the ground, and ensure our children are nurtured to do so as well. However, as much as I try now as a parent to mould my children’s character and instil certain values into them, there will be a point in their lives where my influence on them will weaken and disappear. From thereon, they will have to make their own choices. The only thing I can do is to ensure they have the necessary spiritual and analytical tools to make the right choices.

Hence, Ustadh Nouman’s advice to not think highly of ourselves is most apt. It correlates with another of his advice that as Muslims, we should not be easily satisfied. That Malaysia is a country currently blessed with economic success and a peaceful society is not an excuse for us to rest on our laurels. We should always think about what we can do more.

We have responsibilities both to ourselves and to the society. As Ustadh Nouman explains, if you are aware of injustices, corruption and other wrongdoings in the society, it is your duty as a Muslim to speak-up and do something about it. It is not enough to say ‘somebody will do it’. Instead, ask yourself, ‘why is that somebody not you?’

Ustadh Nouman closes his khutbah with a beautiful reminder on the importance of respect; another issue I've been struggling with. I’ve been trying to teach my children never to use words like Keling, Bangla, Indon, Awang Hitam and other derogatory terms when referring to others; a monumental task really in the face of overwhelming usage and indifference in the society. But I will keep on trying.

Ustadh Nouman explains that a Muslim should show respect and never assume he is better than a non-Muslim. If indeed you think you are better than your non-Muslim friend, think about what would happen if tomorrow that friend embraces Islam. He will have his slate wiped clean and would instantly be, in the eyes of Allah, a better person than you.

I believe the key towards genuine respect is a genuine sense of humility. Humility is the shield that protects us from spiritual diseases of ujub (vanity) and kibr (sense of superiority). A person who is conscious of his humble existence would be mindful about not wanting to hurt the feelings of others. And he will show respect to all regardless of gender, status, race, creed and nationality.


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