The Prophet (s) said, "When a man dies, his deeds come to an end except for three things: Sadaqah Jariyah (ceaseless charity); a knowledge which is beneficial, or a virtuous descendant who prays for him (for the deceased)." (Muslim) This is a hadith about legacy and leadership. What is the impact that you leave on the world? What change did you affect that will carry on well after your death? And how do you live your life in such a way that you accumulate good deeds after your death?
I often think about my family heritage. Some great grandfather or grandmother up the chain had to make the life altering decision to become Muslim, and then have it pass down for multiple generations. I don't know the names of those relatives, or even what century they lived in, but they made this impact on the faith of multiple generations.
Does leaving a sadaqah jariyah require a major life event like that? Or some huge project like building a masjid?
As much as this is a hadith about legacy and leadership, it's a hadith about effort.
The hadith itself teaches us what the dent looks like.
Leaving behind a charity requires significant sacrifice of time and money. That's actually the easy part. For a charity to outlast your life, you must also pay attention to sustainability. Many people are able to commit time and money, but very few are able to build something and then remove themselves from it to allow it to grow.
Leaving behind beneficial knowledge means you attained a high level of proficiency such that you're in a position to impart knowledge to others. Doing this requires a person to persist and excel in a field of study. It requires formulating a unique perspective. The knowledge you leave behind must be something that people value and are influenced by. This is a core tenet of developing your leadership capacity.
The righteous descendant who supplicates for you is perhaps the most challenging. One of the toughest leadership challenges a person faces is leading their family. How do you raise children in such a way that they have the God-consciousness to supplicate regularly throughout their lives? And what type of relationship must you have with your children such that they fondly remember you and miss you after your death? Those are not easy tasks by any stretch of the imagination.
An everlasting reward will not come without hard work. The real question to me is not what type of knowledge to leave behind, or how to set up a charity, or what the best parenting techniques are. Rather, the question is how do I build up the capacity within myself to be in a position to make those contributions?
Beyond cultivating characteristics like persistence and focus, there are three specific investments each person should be making.
First is education. Knowledge is a foundation of our faith. Education is less about the letters after your name, and more about your mindset and commitment. Is learning a habit for you? How often are you learning? What types of things are you learning? The more you learn, the more dots you connect, and the more insights you're able to develop that others won't see.
Second is experiences. Every experience we have shapes us in some way. The last time we taught in Sunday school, or worked a minimum wage job at the mall might have been over a decade ago - but the experience still affects us and plays a role in shaping who we are today. Find ways to try different jobs and projects. Volunteer for different activities. Go into things with an open mind and seek to find the benefit in different experiences.
Third is relationships. Family is emphasized heavily in our religion, as is good brotherhood and sisterhood. Relationships also require time and effort. Spend time with your family. Cultivate good friendships. Meet people with genuine curiosity and seek to learn from the experiences of others.
The intersection of these three - your education, experiences, and relationships - will always be unique to you. No one else on earth will have the same combination of these. These are what inform your perspective and build your capacity to lead and influence others.
This is how you leave your dent on the universe. It's not by people remembering your name. It is the small contributions you make that add value to the lives of others. This is the work that puts you on the path to leaving a legacy such that your actions continue to earn reward long after death.