Letter 05: Sacrifice begins with an L

Dear You

It’s been a little longer than usual, hasn’t it?  I haven’t been sure what to write.  People have said wonderful things about these letters and yet, a small part of me is waiting for some sign that you are reading them as well, that something I’ve said has helped you too.  Makes me feel like a total ingrate really.

Sincerity is seriously hard to achieve, y’know?  How can you ever tell if what you’re doing is truly for others or for yourself? I know, for example, that when I write these letters, I genuinely want to share what I am thinking or realising.  But I also want to write. And to be read. (By you.)  When I take an intangible idea that only exists in my head and given it shape and dimension with words, I feel a sense of achievement, of having ‘created’ something definite out of something vague.

The reason for this random preamble is because this next paragraph in the Will addresses the essence of what went wrong between us and yet it also seems to make that same wrong insignificant in many ways.

Remember how I told you the difference between us was that you gave up and I didn’t? That you chose to ignore a problem while I sought to solve it?  You were afraid of how much worse the rift could get, while I was looking for ways to build a bridge.  Someone, somewhere once said, “When you feel like giving up, remember why you held on for so long in the first place”.  You forgot why you held on, didn’t you?

Your fear has always been that people will get too close and begin to influence you.  And if they convince you to change even a simple habit, you will stop being the person you have worked so hard to create.  You rebelled against norms, society and even family to build this personality and make it singular.  So much so that you’ve begun to identify your persona with your self.  What you don’t realise is that since you created it, you can also modify, adapt and perfect it – without ever changing your inner essence.

Instead of giving up on letting others help you see things from another perspective, on sharing different opinions, I wish you had given up on wanting to be different, just for the sake of being unique.

On the other hand, I find that despite trying to make things right, there are some things I might have to give up on.  Perhaps I need to give up trying to be happy always and instead just be at peace. Or maybe I should give up needing a reason to love others, because isn’t being alive and healthy reason enough?

But choices aren’t always clear-cut.  When should a person give up and when should they hang on?  Does giving up mean you failed?  Is failure real or relative?  Should the standard be set on how our actions make others feel?

——-

Give up where there is a possibility of your going astray. When there is danger of your wandering in the wilderness of ignorance and losing sight of the goal which you want to attain and of reaching the end aimed at, then it is better to give up the quest than to advance and face uncertain dangers and unforeseen risks.

There are thousands of motivational quotes on never quitting, on trying one more time, on failure not being an option.  Hanging in there longer than others is often attributed to being the key to success. But who ever gives advice to give up?

The words above have a different layer of meaning for those who know the man who wrote them. This man is globally revered for being the one person who never backed down in the face of wrong, not even when he was alone against an entire nation.  As people who love him, we take deep pride in his courage and un-shakeable faith.  And yet, this very man – who never turned his back in battle, never allowed temptation to divert him, never showed anything but boldness in the face of injustice – this man is advising us to give up?

Under a condition though: when the danger is that of going astray.  No, correction…when the danger is a possibility of going astray.  What does that say about the immensity of this danger?  Why is going astray so bad?  And where is it that you go astray from?

We began with the words: “First and foremost…Be His obedient servant”.  This is the standard by which everything else in the Will is measured.  Therefore, disobedience is the danger, diverting from the path that leads to Him is going astray.  Losing God is the greatest mortal danger you will ever face in your life.

Too often, I find we give importance to the wrong successes in life.  I wanted something from you, and I assume you wanted something from me. Had we got these, we would have counted our relationship a success.  Not getting them led to the dissolution of that friendship, implying that it failed.  For a long time, I thought it also implied that I had failed in providing my part of what was needed.

When I think about it, I begin to see that I may have fallen victim to the common misconception that ‘lack of success = failure’. But that’s not true, is it?  Sometimes, success comes in so different a form from the one we expect that we don’t recognize it.  I don’t think we can truly tag anything as failure unless something negative has come about as result of our actions.

A lot of times we’re afraid we’ll hurt people along the way if we give up or walk away from a situation. But we need to ask ourselves: how did the situation arise in the first place? Should we have considered our options more before taking action?  Will staying longer hurt them more?  Was it our own doing that led to the impasse?

Imagine you’re taking a walk, and you see a sign that says “Scenic Route” with a warning in smaller writing “Beware thorn bushes ahead”.  If you decide to take a walk down that path and persist on going further even when the road narrows, you will be scratched, pricked and torn by the thorns that will hem you in.   At some point you will reach a point where you are stuck between a lot of thorn and very little road.  You could give up and just stay there, but then you’d starve to death.  However, when you decide to do the wise thing and turn back, you also accept that you will bear even more pain to extricate yourself, because on the way back the scratches will now be on already-raw skin.

You may have taken along people on this walk with you.  If they read the sign and came willingly, it’s not for you to bear their pain for them.  If they came along based on your assurance that all would be well, then you may be lucky in your choice of companions and find they are reasonable enough to see that you have shed blood with them and thus accept your apology, otherwise they may walk away blaming you for their wounds.  However, as long as you didn’t drag anyone along kicking and screaming, no one can say you failed to walk the path.  Instead the walk becomes a lesson in thinking before you make promises, in taking responsibility for your actions and in choosing your friends.

Almost every decision we make in life is based on such scenic routes.  The fine print will always be the voice of reason, the laws of religion, the principles of faith – the common sense of life.  If we don’t learn to stop and read, we will keep on falling prey to the pretty views and make the same mistakes over and over.

So yes, we will hurt people and be hurt by them in life, because no one is perfect and there will always be consequences for our actions.  But as long as we are vigilant in re-aligning our intentions towards the right, as long as we are willing to admit and correct our wrongs, there is hope that things will turn out well for everyone in the end.

And how do we re-align ourselves?  By remembering that there is only one indisputable hierarchy of priority.  First comes obedience to God and then follows our emotional attachment to our selves and people around us.  If we ever put the feelings of others before our obedience to Him, we’ll end up committing the most dangerous of sins: a subtle shirk*.

I’m not even sure how all of this applies to our situation. I haven’t thought much about that…perhaps because the conclusions involve trying to decide the worth of our friendship and figuring out who was responsible for what went wrong. These are not comfortable thoughts to have, but hopefully along the way, I’ll figure it out and be sure to let you know.

(*shirk – the Arabic term for attributing a partner to the One Absolute God i.e. polytheism)

—–

Advise people to do good and live virtuously….Let your words and deeds teach the world lessons in how to abstain from wickedness and villainy. Try your best to keep away from those who indulge in vices and sins.

Practice what you preach is what we were always taught as kids.  And I would re-phrase that to say “preach through your practice”.  Because that’s how the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) established a global system of life – by first living it himself for forty years.

So many of us (Muslims) complain that trying to live by the code of Islam alienates us. That it doesn’t allow us to fit into society and invites hostile reactions.  And yet, don’t we all claim to follow the sunnah (practices) of the Prophet (pbuh)?  Is this restricted only to the 23 years after he shared the news of Islam?  Was he not the same man, believing in One God and living by the same moral standards for forty years before that?

Is it not then the sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh) to refuse to fit into a society that lacks morality and noble principles?  Didn’t he stick out and face ridicule and mockery for his beliefs, the same beliefs we claim to be so grateful for receiving?  He was willing to defend his faith against every form of discrimination and even under the threat of poverty and death.  

Why do we refuse to do the same?  Because we won’t fit in? We won’t be cool? We won’t get the jobs we want or have the status in society we covet?  We’ll have to settle for a lower paycheck?  We’ll get called regressive, backward, boring, traditional, barbaric, militant, fundamentalist or any other tag the media feels like throwing at us? These are our reasons?  There are even some who say that we shouldn’t stand up too firmly for our beliefs because it creates a negative attitude about Islam in an otherwise flexible, adaptable society.

Well, guess what?  Islam isn’t flexible.  Not when it comes to principles.  Faith needs a stable, solid base from which to leap.  If you are allowed to compromise the basic beliefs you live by, what kind of a foothold can your faith have?  And how far will it take you?

That’s why we’re advised to build our foundations on good, strong morals; to strive, not to fit in with the vices of society, but to rise above and out of their reach. To dare to chose a different path even if it will take us away from all the things and people that are familiar and comfortable to us.

———-

Fight, whenever required, to defend the cause of Allah. When you think of defending the cause of Allah do not be afraid that people will laugh at you, censure your action or slander you. Fearlessly and boldly help truth and justice. Bear patiently the sufferings and face bravely the obstacles which come in your way when you follow truth and when you try to uphold it. Adhere to the cause of truth and justice wherever you find it.

The mistake many of us make – including me – is in describing the hows of Islam without ever explaining the whys.  The rules we live by may seem rigid and restrictive to others, but we need to explain (and perhaps to first understand ourselves) that we do this not out of abject slavishness but rather out of devoted love.

Did you know Love has the power to change people? It breaks down the veneers they have put up over time and reveals their true self.  Of course, it depends who the love is directed at.  (I think though, it’s safe to say that if you love something bad, it’s not really love at all, just greed or lust.)

One of the most amazing things real Love does is inspire a unique bravery when it comes to the object(s) of affection. We’ve seen and heard – maybe even felt ourselves – an all-consuming anger when we think the one we love is being slighted or threatened.

And yet when that same loved one is threatened by a more sinister evil, one that cannot be so easily seen, we turn a blind eye to it in the name of caring.  How many a mother has overlooked a bad habit in her child,  only to regret it later when the habit leads to destruction?  How many of us accept the vices of friends instead of correcting them and end up adopting the same, all in the name of unconditional friendship?

I think we do this because we are afraid to defend what is right when the enemy is hidden inside our friend.  We’re afraid of what will happen to us – will we lose them? – as a result of exposing that enemy. The painful reality is that neither our love for the cause of God is strong enough for us to take His side nor is our love for our friend selfless enough for us to think of their good before ours. The strongest love we feel is for our self.

I can see now that I was also afraid.  Afraid if I pointed out the things you did wrong, you would think me a wet-blanket and I would slowly lose my place in your life.  Even when I did try to say something, (half-heartedly) the slightest opposition from you would make me back down and change the subject.

I wish I had put aside my selfish fears and told you when you broke a rule casually.  I wish I had assured you that you were better than the society you were trying to conform to, that it didn’t matter how far you had gone off the path, there was always a way to come back if you wanted. That you always had a choice to do what was right. 

In that I did fail you.  And I am so sorry.

——

I regret my silence because even if you hadn’t heeded my advice, at least the words would have been said and heard.  Sometimes that’s enough.  Now I have only these letters with no guarantee you will ever read them.  

As I write I realise that I should have spoken this plainly to you, because if I ever want to claim I love God enough to defend His cause, I must be willing to give up whatever it takes along the way – fame, popularity, wealth, careers, family, friends, my self.  In the end, only the strongest love can survive, all other loves must give in to it.  Whatever your life submits to, whatever you find yourself hanging on to despite all odds – that is your strongest love.  And as long as it’s not God, you know you have a problem.

I’ve thought a lot about making choices and I think you’ll be glad to know – if you ever read this – that I would never have chosen our friendship over my relationship with God.  I know I’m the one who insisted on doing everything to try and make things right, but had the choice ever been between you and God, I’d like to think I would have walked away without a single moment of hesitation. Because you can’t claim to truly love unless you’re willing to sacrifice and you can’t sacrifice unless you first love.

I only wish your reason had been something half as substantial.  Then I would have had nothing to fault you for.

Always,
Me

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