Grit and Resilience: The Self-Help vs. Islamic Perspective

Grit and Resilience: The Self-Help vs. Islamic Perspective

I don't really care about grit. 

Persevering and persisting through difficulties to achieve a higher goal is awesome. High-five. We should all develop that. No one disagrees that resilience is an essential characteristic to have. 

Somehow, this simple concept has ballooned into what feels like a self-help cottage industry of sorts. It has a Ted talk with tens of millions of views, podcasts, keynote speeches, a New York Times best-selling book, and finding ways to teach this in schools and workplaces. 

What I do care about is critically analyzing if it is all that it's cracked up to be (spoiler alert: I don't think so), why the self-help industry aggressively promotes it, and how we understand it from an Islamic perspective. For me, this is about much more than just grit - it's about understanding character development from a (mostly Americanized) secular perspective vis-a-vis the Islamic one. 

The One Thing You Must Establish Before Correcting Someone

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How do you tell someone that they are doing something wrong?

Delivering tough advice is difficult regardless of context. How do you correct a family member? Employee? Superior? Community leader? Friend? Total stranger? Someone online?

Done incorrectly, and you can tear apart family relationships, business relationships, and destroy friendships - all because you alienated someone by how you corrected them.

“The religion (deen) is sincere advice (naseehah).” -Prophet (s)

The art of delivering feedback has been lost in our community. We often see one of two extremes - unapologetically telling it like it is, or simply shrugging things off and ignoring them.

Applying the golden rule here would dictate that we give advice the same way we want to receive it, but that’s not enough. Many of us feel discomfort accepting critical feedback - even if we proclaim loudly that we don’t care how anyone corrects us.

Effectively delivering feedback means creating an environment in which the recipient can take feedback, reflect on it, and learn from it.  

The intention behind correcting someone is crucial. Do you sincerely want the other person to become better as a result of this advice? If you do, then that will shape what you say, how you say it, how you prepare, and how you follow up on it. For example, did you stop and actually make dua for the betterment of the person before giving them advice? Did you make dua for them to be able to implement it after delivering it?

Too often, in the age of social media, delivering advice has become a type of performance art to display ‘righteous outrage’ at some transgression. “Advice” is delivered in public forums not for the betterment of the individual, but for virtue signaling and pandering to a fan base.

Delivering advice effectively is built upon a relationship of trust.

The manner a parent can use to correct their own child is drastically different than the manner needed to correct a stranger at the masjid. What is your relationship and level of trust with a person?

When we misread that relationship, it creates negative consequences. Calling someone out online, especially if you don’t have a personal relationship, will most likely result in their doubling down on an incorrect behavior. In this case, ‘advising’ a person has created a greater evil than the one it was trying to stop.

They have, as the Prophet (s) warned, “helped the devil against their brother.”

Leadership means spending time with people and developing true relationships with them. It means seeing potential in everyone in spite of whatever shortcomings they may have.

The Prophet (s) said, “The believer who mixes with the people and endures their harm has a greater reward than one who does not mix the people nor endures their harm.”

That relationship is often the difference between someone accepting your advice versus getting defensive, or even worse - labeling you a hater or troll. A relationship is a prerequisite for being a partner in someone’s success.

The Prophet (s) once used his foot to shake someone lying down to rebuke them for lying down in a particular manner. Imagine for a moment, walking into the masjid up to someone you don’t know, and using your foot to shake them. They would most likely get upset thinking you were trying to kick them, or at the least get really annoyed. Now imagine responding to their annoyance by announcing, “Don’t blame me, I’m only following the sunnah!”

This type of behavior points to an intention of proving yourself to be right, or superior, rather than sincerely helping someone for the sake of Allah.  

Once a relationship of trust exists, the actual art of delivering feedback will vary based on circumstance. Sometimes it may be candid and immediate. Sometimes it will require patience and gentleness.

Sometimes your advice may take a long time to have any effect, and sometimes it won’t have any at all.

The question you have to ask yourself is whether your presence in someone’s life is increasing or decreasing their motivation to change?

This ONE Thing Will Ruin Your Ramadan Before It Even Starts

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That is, if you don't do anything about it.

Last Ramadan my schedule looked something like this:
5:45 - eat quickly, pray quickly, and back to bed
7:00 - Go to work
8:00 - 5:00pm - Struggle to stay awake and be coherent in emails and meetings
5:30p - get home and sleep
8:00p - wake up and eat
9:00p - Masjid
11:00p - eat
12:00a - try to sleep

What you'll see missing there is the extra time that was supposed to be spent reading Qur'an, making dua, and so on. By the 15th fast, my brain was fried. Praying on time was seen as a success. Eating suhur in the morning was the first thing to get neglected. 

And like most people, when my brain is fried, I veg out by scrolling through social media.

It's hard enough to adjust to the new eating and sleeping schedule. It's impossible to throw any new habits into the mix as well. It's not the time to start a new workout program, or suddenly start a social media fast. Most people cannot sustain that past the adrenaline rush of the first 10 days.

That's why this Ramadan needs to be different. We need a way to be in control of every minute, maximize every moment - all while having the mental clarity and focus needed to get the most benefit out of this blessed month.

At the root of our problems are our phones. We all know it. We just don't know what to do about it.

During the month of Ramadan specifically,

  1. Our phones create a sense of Instagram Ramadan Envy

  2. They keep us from waking up on time for fajr (and suhur)

  3. And the worst consequence - they kill our time for making dua

Having a successful Ramadan is not complicated. All it needs is some good old fashioned focus on the basics.

To do that requires changing our relationship with our phones. And that must be done before Ramadan begins.

It's with this in mind that I'm doing a 30 day boot camp, a Ramadan Digital Detox. This is an email course that will run from April 1 through April 30th, giving you action items each day to help you regain control of your phone before it controls your Ramadan.

Registration closes Sunday, so don't hesitate, click here to sign up now and eliminate the barrier standing between you and an amazing Ramadan.

 

3 Pillars of Prophetic Communication

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For purposes of this article, Prophetic communication is in the context of a general community address. Practically, that means khutbahs, family night presentations, and general halaqahs or reminders. It is not directed at classroom instruction, seminars, or other such mediums.

The three pillars below are meant to serve as a reminder to the speaker. These are fundamentals that must be kept in mind when crafting a speech.

Iḥsān (Excellence)

Verily, Allah has prescribed excellence in everything. (Muslim)

I was speaking to a brother about khutbah preparation process. He said that he would go sit on the minbar on Friday, and as the adhan was being called, he would think about a topic. Then, he would stand up and deliver it. This was a bit of a humblebrag - being so knowledgeable that you can literally get up and wing it.

This is not something to aspire to, it’s actually disrespectful to an audience. If you get up to address a congregation without having put any effort into the message or construction of your speech, the audience will tune you out.

So what does ihsan tangibly look like? For purposes of a general talk or khutbah, use the following bullet points as a starting checklist:

  • There is a clear one sentence take-away message that summarizes the entire talk.

  • You have done at least 10 times the amount of research on the subject you are speaking about. Rule of thumb - for a 30 minute talk, you should have a minimum of 5 hours of preparation invested.

  • Practice and rehearse your talk multiple times to iron out inconsistencies in speech flow or development of talking points.

If that sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is a lot of work. Addressing an audience is a privilege. Addressing an audience from a position of representing the religion is an amanah (trust) between the speaker and The Creator. The hard work is a prerequisite to speaking.

Excellence in a talk comes from crafting a meaningful message to deliver, constructing a speech to communicate that message, and then delivering it in a manner that makes the audience receptive to receiving it.

Make Things Easy

The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "Make things easy for the people, and do not make it difficult for them, and make them calm (with glad tidings) and do not repulse them (Bukhari).

God did not send me to be harsh, or cause harm, but He has sent me to teach and make things easy. (Muslim)

Whatever your message is, make sure the audience can implement it. It is the job of the speaker to anticipate objections to their message, or obstacles that can prevent it from being practiced.

Some adopt an attitude of “dropping knowledge”, or “establishing the hujjah (proof),” and leaving the audience to fend for themselves. This is rooted in arrogance. It is one of those characteristics, like unapologetically telling the truth, that is incorrectly lionized.

The Prophetic model is to understand the audience, empathize with them, and find ways to help (and serve) them.

Concern

There has certainly come to you a Messenger from among yourselves. Grievous to him is what you suffer; [he is] concerned over you and to the believers is kind and merciful. (9:128)

We all get “vibes” from different speakers. Someone can be a sophisticated speaker, but still leave you with a bad vibe (like a politician). On the other hand, someone may not be a well-refined speaker, but their message still resonates when we feel it “comes from the heart.”

The core of this is the attitude of the communicator toward the audience. The only way to establish a connection with the audience such that they are receptive to the message is by sincerely being concerned for their well being.

This cannot be faked.

If the audience feels you are speaking down to them, or do not have their best interests at heart they will not listen - regardless of how amazing your talking points are.

Connecting requires sincere caring.

The True Purpose of the Khutbah in Serving Our Communities

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Once a week, for about 30 minutes on Friday afternoon, we sit and listen to a khutbah (sermon). What is the actual purpose of this talk? What are the audience’s expectations? How do we best capitalize on the opportunity of a large, captive audience? Should the khutbah be used for fundraising? What about raising awareness for social causes? What about teaching people how to make wudu properly?

As with most things, it’s essential to start with the fundamentals. The other questions can be addressed after this foundation is established.

There is an entire surah in the Qur’an dedicated to the day of Jumu’ah (Friday). The ultimate command comes toward the end of the surah -

Believers! When the call to prayer is made on the day of congregation [Friday], hurry towards the reminder of God... (62:9)

Leading up to that command are ayaat of Qur’an that provide insight into the purpose of the weekly khutbah.

Everything in the heavens and earth glorifies God, the Controller, the Holy One, the Almighty, the Wise. (62:1)

Allah (swt) is the focus of everything we do. The Names of Allah mentioned here remind us of Allah’s greatness, and our need to reconnect with Him in our daily lives.

It is He who raised a messenger, among the people who had no Scripture, to recite His revelations to them, to make them grow spiritually and teach them the Scripture and wisdom—before that they were clearly astray—to them and others yet to join them. He is the Almighty, the Wise (62:2-3)

The formula for a khutbah is laid out here - spirituality first, then education.

  • ‘Recite His revelation’ - Remind people about Allah first and foremost in everything they do

  • ‘Make them grow spiritually’ - Inspire and help people with their spirituality so they can reconnect with Allah.

  • ‘Teach them’ - Education is mentioned third. It is not the primary focus of a khutbah,

  • ‘They were clearly astray’ - Always be hopeful in the audience. Do not get angry with them because of their situation or status at a given moment.

  • This process of reminding, inspiring, teaching, and serving will continue.

Such is God’s favor that He grants it to whoever He will; God’s favor is immense. (62:4)

Delivering a khutbah is a privilege and a trust (amanah). It is a message on behalf of Allah (swt) and His Messenger (saw). Give it its proper due - it can be taken away from you at any time.

Those who have been charged to obey the Torah, but do not do so, are like donkeys carrying books: how base such people are who disobey God’s revelations! God does not guide people who do wrong. (62:5)

A warning about how preachers acted in the past. Scripture was dumped on people by their leaders, even though they did not have the capacity to carry it. The job of the leader is to inspire, motivate, and inculcate a thirst and desire for more within the people. It is not to merely deliver a message as a means of discharging a duty and then walking away.

***

Some years ago, as part of the Qalam Institute Khateeb Workshop program, we sent out surveys to thousands of people. Some major Islamic centers even surveyed their congregations as well.

People were asked how many khutbahs they heard in the past month that had a positive impact on them or were even relevant to their daily life. The answer averaged out to 1.7. That means less than half of what people heard had any real effect.

Overwhelmingly, people shared the same type of feedback. They wanted to hear messages that were relevant to their struggles and inspired them to come closer to Allah (swt), As a community, we have fallen behind that ultimate (and seemingly simple) goal.

There was a heavy sentiment in the surveys of people feeling guilty for falling short, and coming to the masjid in hopes of finding a solution. Instead, they sat through messages that were incoherent, non-sequitur, irrelevant, or made them feel worse and further disconnected from Allah.

It seems that what people want is congruent with what the Qur’anic guidance. So why aren’t we getting that?

There are a lot of ways to answer this question, but there is one trend, in particular, I want to highlight: turning the khutbah into a social media platform.

Let me explain.

The Friday khutbah is the one time a week where hundreds or thousands of people are sitting with rapt attention at any given masjid in the country. This is an opportunity to help people with their spirituality.

It’s also seen by some as an opportunity to capitalize on that attention to further a particular cause (social justice, political activism, etc.). Instead of the primary focus being on spirituality, the primary focus shifts to something else like fundraising, raising awareness, or even turning the khutbah into a class.

This is not to say those things in and of themselves are wrong or cannot be done (although personally, I feel strongly that fundraising should never be done during a khutbah). The issue is one of priorities and serving the congregation.

When leadership is focused on the people and what they need, that is reflected in the message. When leadership is focused on their own projects and advocacy, that too is reflected in the message delivered.

The counter-argument is always making a case for some type of necessity. This is the only chance to reach so many people, so we have to fundraise, or we have to raise awareness for this issue, or we have to get people to do this or that.

As a regular khateeb, I’m often given requests. Things like, “please talk about selling liquor”, “talk about teenagers and drugs”, “give a khutbah on how to use the bathroom”, “give a khutbah on registering to vote”, “tell everyone in the khutbah to donate $20”, and the list goes on and on - every social cause, political situation, and so on.

Many khateebs are not qualified to speak on these issues. They aren’t imams or scholars. They’re often people with full-time jobs who are trying to serve the community by delivering a message of spiritual upliftment the best they can. To have someone like me get up and give a talk on Friday on something like mental health would not help raise awareness for mental health issues - it would be a huge disservice to the community because I’d be addressing the congregation from the minbar on something I have zero experience in.

The khutbah is not the only means of addressing the congregation. You can do a Friday night program, a Saturday workshop, send emails to your community, make videos, or any of the other options technology has given us to reach people. To isolate the khutbah as the end all be all means that that you’re worried people won’t listen to you unless they’re forced to. This indicates a messaging problem and a lack of patience. In extreme cases, it’s borderline spam. Unfortunately, it all comes at the cost of the general spirituality of the audience.

There are, of course, exceptions. It often boils down to the right way and the wrong way of addressing something. I mentioned earlier how someone like me delivering khutbah on mental health could be counterproductive. On the other side of that is an example of how to properly address something of genuine importance for the community in the appropriate way. The khutbahs delivered by Sh. Yaser Birjas (link) and Omar Suleiman (link) on mental health and suicide are a good model for how this is done well. These are delivered by Imams who have experience with the issue and have the appropriate credentials and authority within their community to speak about it.

The khutbah is indeed a tremendous opportunity - an opportunity to help people come closer to Allah (swt) and follow the guidance of His Prophet (saw). Each Friday is a chance to sow a small seed of inspiration and awaken souls.

Let’s get back to those basics and do our best to deliver messages in service of that mission.

Click here to bring a 1 day workshop on Khutbahs, and Public Speaking to your community.

Jabir informs, “When the Prophet delivered the khutbah, his eyes became red, his voice rose, and his anger increased as if giving a warning to the enemy.” … it should be an organized speech that the people can understand. It should not be a speech, which is over the heads of the people, nor should it be shallow or contain foul language as that would defeat its purpose. Its words should be chosen carefully to make them attractive and meaningful.”

Giving his views on the subject, Ibn al-Qayyim says, The khutbah of the Prophet reinforced the fundamental articles of faith, like belief in Allah, the Exalted, His angels, His books, His messengers, and the meeting with Him. He would mention the paradise and the hellfire and what Allah, the Exalted, has promised to His devoted servants and the people who obey Him and what Allah has promised to His enemies and the miscreant. While listening to his khutbah, the hearts would be filled with belief in Allah, His oneness, and His majesty. His khutbahs were not like speeches of those who speak only of matters of concern of common folk, lamenting earthly life and frightening people of the approaching death. Such speeches cannot inspire faith in Allah or strengthen belief in His oneness or move people by allusion to His mighty works in history, nor can they kindle in hearts intense love for Allah, making the listeners look forward eagerly to the time they will meet Him! The people who hear such speeches gain no benefit at all, except that they will die and that their wealth will be distributed and their bodies will be turned to dust. Woe to such poets, what sort of faith is fostered by such sermons, and what sort of tawhid do they teach or knowledge disseminate? If we study the khutbahs of the Prophet sallallahu alehi wasallam and his companions, we find them embued with perspicuous guidance, tawhid, attributes of Allah, explaining the basic articles of the faith, inviting people to Allah, and drawing their attention to His providential care that makes Him so beloved to His slaves. His khutbahs referred to Allah’s dealings with others in the past so as to wam his listeners against His wrath and exhort them to remember Him, thank Him and win His pleasure and love. Those who heard these khutbahs were inspired with the love of Allah and they looked forward eagerly to meeting their Lord. As time went by, the example of the Prophet was forgotten and other things prevailed. The main purpose of the khutbah was forgotten. The eloquent and nice words that moved the hearts became rare in speeches. The main thrust of the khutbah was neglected. The hearts were no longer touched and the basic purpose of the khutbah was lost.

Hilm: A Hallmark of Prophetic Leadership

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A man once lent the Prophet ﷺ some gold, with an agreement for to repay it on an agreed upon date. A few days prior, the man came up to the Prophet ﷺ, and in front of all the Companions, accosted him by saying - “O Muhammad, why are you not paying what is due? By Allah, I know your family well! You are all known for deferring your debts!” Umar (r), in response to this blatant disrespect, got up to respond.

The Prophet ﷺ said, “Umar, we do not need this..Go with him, pay off his loan, and give him twenty additional sâ‘ (32 kg) of dates because you frightened him.” The man who originally lent the goal became Muslim on the spot. The man’s name was Zayd b. Su’na, and he was a Rabbi. He then explained to ‘Umar why he acted this way.

“There was not a single sign of prophethood except that I recognized it upon looking at Muhammad’s face—except for two that I had not yet seen from him: that his tolerance overcomes his anger, and that intense abuse only increases him in forbearance. I have now tested these, so know, O ‘Umar, that I accept Allah as [my] Lord, Islam as [my] religion, Muhammad as [my] Prophet, and that half my wealth—for I have much wealth—is a donation for the ummah of Muhammad.” [1]

This characteristic - forbearance (hilm) - is described as a prophetic trait in the Qur’an. Ibrahim (as) is described as halīm (11:75), as is his son (37:101)..

When the delegation of AbdulQays came to accept Islam, they rushed to meet the Prophet (s) the second they entered the city. Their leader, Ashajj, stayed behind to gather the delegations belongings and before coming to meet the Prophet (s). When he arrived, the Prophet ﷺ told him he had two characteristics that Allah loves - hilm (forbearance), and deliberateness [Refer to this episode of the Seerah podcast for a detailed explanation of this story].

So what exactly is forbearance? It sounds like one of those English words that only gets used by the Muslim community - like ‘circumambulation.’ Hilm carries meanings of patience and intelligence. In regards to leadership, it means having the intelligence to see the big picture or a broader vision while also having the patience to execute on it. In general, it also carries connotations of clemency, deliberateness, gentleness, calmness, and tranquility.

The Prophet ﷺ exemplified this characteristic on numerous occasions throughout his life. After being turned away from Ta’if, he was given the option to have the angels crush them under the mountains. Despite the emotion of the situation - being cursed at, physically abused, and chased out of the city - he instead hoped that their offspring would grow up with iman. There are other incidents such as when the bedouin urinated in the masjid, or when a man came and violently grabbed his clothing and demanded money. In all of these situations we find what Aisha (r) described:

“Never did the Messenger of Allah ﷺ strike anyone with his hand, neither a servant nor a woman, unless he was fighting in the cause of Allah. He never took revenge upon anyone for the wrong done to him, and would [only] carry out legal retributions for the sake of Allah when the injunctions of Allah were violated.”

Her description reinforces what Zayd b. Su’na tried to test for himself. People would insult the Prophet ﷺ, argue with him, try to provoke him, and even abuse him. He never flipped out. He never lost his cool. He was always in control of his emotions, and his response served a larger purpose.

On one occasion, the Prophet ﷺ silently smiled when Abu Bakr (ra), his most noble Companion, refrained from responding to a person who was insulting him. But when Abu Bakr (ra) eventually spoke up, the Prophet ﷺ became angry and left. He ﷺ later explained, “An angel was with you, responding on your behalf. But when you said back to him some of what he said, a devil arrived, and it is not for me to sit with devils.” The Prophet ﷺ taught thereby that when a person stoops to the level of those who insult them they allow the devil to steer their course. One of the core principles of Islamic spirituality is not to allow our emotions and actions to be hijacked by the devil to the point where our decision-making is driven by other than divine instruction. The Prophet ﷺ taught various methods such as seeking refuge in Allah from the devil, changing our physical positions to less confrontational ones, performing ablution, etc. to help us maintain composure when angry. In anger, we tend to respond in prideful, satanic ways that serve nothing and no one but our own egos. Righteous anger is necessary, but cannot be expressed when one is not appropriately composed. Therefore, the Prophet ﷺ overcame any attempts on the part of his enemies to provoke foulness, vulgarity, or anything not befitting his noble character (from Mohammad Elshinawy, see footnote at the end of article).

A natural reaction to praising a characteristic such as forbearance in the context of leadership is to worry about others taking advantage of us. The Prophet ﷺ showed righteous anger when the situation warranted, he spoke clearly and set boundaries when needed, and he established justice when required. The key is that he did those things with clear decision making, with purpose, and not out of emotion. The problem that we face is when we react out of a place of anger and ego, but shroud it in the guise of justice and fairness.

Hilm must be practiced. This requires looking at events through a different lens. When provoked, look at it as an opportunity to cultivate this characteristic. Mu’awiya (r) said, “No one has forbearance without it being put to the test (Adab al-Mufrad).”

We hope that by treating others with hilm, Allah will be merciful to us.

One of His beautiful names is Al-Halīm. Al Ghazali explained that Al-Halīm is “the One who observes the disobedience of the rebellious, and notices the opposition to the command, yet anger does not incite Him, nor wrath seize Him, nor do haste and recklessness move Him to rush to take vengeance, although He is utterly capable of doing that.”

“If God were to punish people [at once] for the wrong they have done, there would not be a single creature left on the surface of the earth. He gives them respite for a stated time and, whenever their time comes, God has been watching His servants (35:45).”

Allah (swt) has the right to exact justice, and yet He defers. He grants clemency, waiting for us to heed the call to repent and turn back to Him. Whenever the name Al-Halīm occurs in the Qur’an, it is always paired with another Name of Allah giving us additional context. It is mentioned alongside Al-Ghafūr - He not only delays, but also forgives and wipes away the sins. Al-Halīm is mentioned alongside Al-Shakūr showing us that not only does He overlook our sins, but He will also reward us with more than we deserve. It is mentioned alongside Al-’Alīm. He knows in detail every misdeed we have done, nothing escapes His knowledge, and in spite of this He is still withholding His anger and giving the opportunity to repent. And it is mentioned alongside Al-Ghanī, the One free of all needs. He does not need anything from us, or any favor from us, He is the one who forgives.

It is ironic that when we discuss having hilm for ourselves, we worry about people taking advantage of us. We should reflect on how many opportunities Allah, Al-Halīm, continues to give us that we squander.

***

[1] Please see “How the Prophet (s) Rose Above Enmity and Insult” by Shaykh Mohammad Elshinawy. This article contains many detailed accounts from the seerah displaying the hilm of the Prophet (s).

5 Leadership Lessons from the Quranic Story of Talut (Saul)

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After the time of Musa (as), the tribe of Bani Isra’il began to stray from the obedience of Allah and encountered some losses to neighboring enemies. They came to their prophet and asked for a king to lead them and fight the enemy.

[Prophet], consider the leaders of the Children of Israel who came after Moses, when they said to one of their prophets, ‘Set up a king for us and we shall fight in God’s cause.’ He said, ‘But could it be that you would not fight, if it were ordained for you?’ They said, ‘How could we not fight in God’s cause when we and our children have been driven out of our homeland?’ Yet when they were commanded to fight, all but a few of them turned away: God has full knowledge of those who do wrong. (2:246)

1) Stop Looking for Motivation

These were people who were fully motivated - they and their families were driven out of their homeland. Yet, when the command came to fight, they did not follow through.

We fool ourselves by thinking we need to be motivated or inspired before doing something. We sit around waiting for inspiration to strike instead of taking action. This causes us to seek out motivation through various means (like Instagram).

The reality is we need discipline more than motivation. Success comes from the discipline that enables you to take action precisely at the moments you don’t feel like it.

Their prophet said to them, ‘God has now appointed Talut to be your king,’ but they said, ‘How can he be king over us when we have a greater right to rule than he? He does not even have great wealth.’ He said, ‘God has chosen him over you, and has given him great knowledge and stature. God grants His authority to whoever He pleases: God is magnanimous, all-knowing.’ (2:247)

2) Sometimes Good Followership Beats Good Leadership

We mythologize the characteristics of good leaders and hold them to practically impossible standards. Modern politics of leadership are no different than what is laid out in this ayah. We don’t want to follow people who aren’t like us or do not hold the status we deem appropriate. This is what creates “politics” in our communities.

There is so much emphasis on how to be a good leader that we often forget how to be a good follower. We have to find a way to make ourselves part of helping a good effort even if it comes without a title or authority.

When someone is given authority over us, we tend to dislike it and seek out a person’s faults. As long as a leader is sufficiently good enough, we should look for ways to tie ourselves to the broader mission and find ways to be supportive.

Someone once came to Ali (rA) and asked him why there was so much strife during his rule while the rule of Abu Bakr and Umar was relatively smoother. Ali replied by telling the man that Abu Bakr and Umar ruled over people like him (Ali), while he has to rule over people like this man. Even the best leaders need strong followers to support them.

Learning how to lead well ultimately starts with knowing how to follow well.

When Talut set out with his forces, he said to them, ‘God will test you with a river. Anyone who drinks from it will not belong with me, but anyone who refrains from tasting it will belong with me; if he scoops up just one handful [he will be excused].’ But they all drank [deep] from it, except for a few. (2:249)

3) We Look at the Wrong Resume

When a king is leading forces to war, there are some obvious qualifications that immediately come to mind. You need people that are strong, well-armed, experienced in battle, large in number, and so on.

Talut’s army keeps getting smaller and smaller. Some turned away when ordered to fight. Another group turned away by refusing to accept his leadership. And then those who are left are ordered to not drink from a river while out on an expedition?

What does drinking from a river have to do with how well someone can perform on the battlefield? What does this have to do with someone’s qualifications and ability?

What we value is often not the same as what Allah values.

At the core of leadership is subduing your ego. The more I question why Allah has commanded me to do something, the more I am entrapped by my own ego. The more I belittle what our faith directs us to in favor of what society leads us to, the more I am enamored with my own intellect instead of submitting to Allah.

The river was a small test. Do you have the discipline to carry out this small command of Allah? If a person cannot pass this seemingly insignificant test, how will they respond to a larger trial with more significant consequences?

When he crossed it with those who had kept faith, they said, ‘We have no strength today against Goliath and his warriors.’ But those who knew that they were going to meet their Lord said, ‘How often a small force has defeated a large army with God’s permission! God is with those who are steadfast.’ And when they met Goliath and his warriors, they said, ‘Our Lord, pour patience on us, make us stand firm, and help us against the disbelievers,’ (2:249-250)

4) Nothing Comes Easy

Even after passing all the prior tests, some people in the group lost faith when seeing the size of the opposing army.

It’s easy for us to talk about how we would act in a particular situation. Even with leadership, we consider ourselves to be heroes. We think that if someone would just put us in charge, we’d show them how to do things the right way and get results.

The truth is, we have no idea how we would react in a given situation or circumstance. What we think we bring to the table is largely irrelevant when compared to the aid of Allah (swt).

The believers mentioned in this ayah prayed to Allah not only for the end outcome of victory but asked for help with doing the hard work needed to attain victory.

and so with God’s permission they defeated them. Dawud (David) killed Goliath, and God gave him sovereignty and wisdom and taught him what He pleased. (2:251)

5) Trust the Process

A man came and asked the Prophet (s) if he should tie his camel to secure it or relegate his trust in Allah to protect the camel. The Prophet (s) famously told him to do both. That is the process.

We are fascinated by the underdog tale. Young David slays the giant beast Goliath. We use this story as inspiration and motivation. We tell ourselves that even though the odds are against us, we can still come out on top.

This is a dangerous lesson taken at face value. Many people are deluded into shortcutting the process of hard work by thinking their inspiration and passion will let them overcome any difficulty.

The real lesson is that a relentless amount of hard work must be coupled with unrelenting faith and trust in Allah (swt) to truly succeed.

Dawud (as) excelled in obeying Allah and following Talut before he was given the blessings of kingship and prophethood.

See also: Khutbah - The Politics of Leadership by Yasir Fahmy