While serving others, we often forget ourselves. Picture these conversations:
• “Mom, please, cook Biryani for me.”
“Yes dear.”
• “Honey, make sure to pick up my clothes from the dry cleaner and pay the bills.”
“Sure, honey.”
• “Mama, you have to help me with my science project. I need to submit it tomorrow.”
“Right, love.”
• “Beta, please get my doctor’s appointment, and I need these medicines today.”
“Okay, dad.”
• “Begum Sahibah, the detergent is over. Please get some for the laundry.”
“Yes, Insha’Allah.”
• “Please send in the article that was due. We can’t wait any longer.”
“It’s ready; I will e-mail it to you by afternoon.”
• “Ma’am, you have a parent and teacher meeting tomorrow morning at 9:00 am sharp. Please be there.”
“Yes, I will. Thank you.”
• “Madam, the milk delivery man wishes to meet with you.”
“Tell him I am coming.”

If this is the usual conversation that you hold every day, you can pause and take a deep breath. Sit down and read this.

Once the Prophet (sa) held Umar ibn Al-Khattab’s (rtam) hand, and he told the Messenger of Allah (sa): “You are dearer to me than everything except my own self.” The Prophet (sa) replied: “Umar would not be a true believer until he loved the Messenger more than everything including himself.” Umar thought for a moment before confirming: “By Allah, you are dearer to me than my own self.” (Bukhari)

From the above Hadeeth, we can gather that after loving Allah (swt) and our beloved Prophet Muhammad (sa), it is okay to love ourselves. Some of you out there might suspect that I am drilling some selfish, self-centred, and nonsensical garbage that harps upon self-worship. But I am actually trying to strike a balance, as the scales are tipped off. We observe one extreme of people who just cannot get enough of themselves. They are the ones who post updates on social media about themselves by the second. Their conversations begin about them and end with a tribute to themselves. They will not leave a mirror without catching a glimpse of themselves. Naturally, this is not what I am propagating. I am talking about the one who beats himself or herself up to please others and conform to their expectations: the one who denies oneslf.

People believe that unless we behave like a genie for our loved ones, we cannot serve them justly. For instance, once new reverts to Islam start practicing the Deen, they are ever so enthusiastic to please the Creator (swt) and serve His creation that at times they bulldoze themselves. They embark on a journey of unneeded sacrifices in the name of being a pious Muslim. This only builds resentment within. Either they break down midway or continue with bitterness inside all their life. Both approaches are impractical and unrealistic.

Writer Louiza Chekhar shares aptly: “The first mistake we make is thinking that ignoring our own dreams and plans for the sake of those around us will enable us to benefit or serve them better. The boy who studies medicine rather than English literature he loves because his parents want him to be a doctor, the woman who always dreamed of being a teacher, but agrees when her fiancé asks her to leave work and stay at home… they do it because he thinks it will make him a better son and she wants to be a good wife. But look a couple of years into the future, and the boy is struggling with his studies, snapping irritably at his parents, and spending as much time outside the house as possible; the woman is miserable and frustrated, feeling resentful towards her husband and acting cold and distant with him. Everyone else in their households can feel the tension, and nobody is happy. These are not imaginary scenarios – I know these families.”

She further writes: “The second mistake we make is thinking that Allah (swt) asked us to do this. As the Hadeeth above shows, it is okay to love yourself. You just have to prioritize. Of course, Allah (swt) does tell us to be good to our parents, spouses, children, and those around us in the society – but He also places limits on the extent to which others can make decisions about our lives. Parents cannot force their children to marry, women cannot be prevented from attending the Masjid, and no-one can command others to sin.”

Each and every one of us feels fulfilled differently. For some, two hours of writing daily can be motivational. For others, regular exercise and healthcare can be sprightly. For yet others, playing a sport can perk them up. For some of us our Tahajjud and recitation of Azkar and Quran in the morning is very special, and if every night we are made to prance around due to social gatherings, we miss our vital connection the following morning. I know someone who put her foot down just for this. She was a loving wife, devoted mother, and excellent home maker, but she refused to waste her time staying up late. Initially, there were grudges and criticism, but when everyone saw what a happy person she was going about fulfilling everyone’s rights, they realized the reason behind it. It was her own satisfaction stemming from the space she was given to follow her personal dream: to worship Allah (swt) in solitude and quiet.

When we shift the blame of our misery to Allah (swt), the consequence is even worse than the breakdown of family and friendships – the deterioration of our relationship with Allah (swt) Himself. When we believe that He has commanded us to suppress all our own wishes and plans in order to serve others, we not only end up resenting those people when we are unhappy – we resent Him, too. We no longer thank Him gratefully, praise Him, or pray to Him lovingly, because we believe He is the One Who commanded us to make the choices which have left us miserable.

Loving and being true to ourselves is not selfish; it is a means towards enabling us to love and be good towards others. Life with others should involve compromise and some sacrifice. Deep down, we know ourselves and our intentions. We know when we are being selfish and ungenerous, and need to fight our Nafs (ego). We also know which things are important to us – the dreams which we can’t ignore even for those we love most, because suppressing them will kill something inside us. It is critical that our near and dear ones know what our dreams are, so they understand the value these dreams hold for us.

And of course, this doesn’t mean giving into unlawful desires or leaving our fundamental responsibilities unfinished or delegated to non-trustable people in the name of chasing a dream. It’s not about turning into a kleptomaniac or going on a shoplifting spree, because one is being ‘true to himself’! Or a man deciding to abandon his job and leave his family in order to become a rock star. When Allah (swt) created us, He granted us skills and gave us dreams, so we can pursue Halal ambitions like studying literature or being a working wife.

Louiza Chekhar rightly observes: “There are many ways to be a good Muslim man or woman – from Aisha (rtaf) the scholar to Khadijah (rtaf) the businesswoman and Fatima (rtaf) the devoted homemaker; from Khalid ibn Walid (rtam) the warrior to Hassan ibn Thabit (rtam) the poet and Uthman ibn Affan (rtam) the trader.”

Imam al-Ghazali said: “The key to knowing Allah (swt) is to know your own self.” It is up to us to choose our path and negotiate that with the people around us. Having that conversation might not be easy, and perhaps they will be disappointed at first. But those who really love us – and they include Allah (swt) – will want us to be content. That will enable us to give unreservedly and ungrudgingly to them in return, pleasing them, too.

Adapted from an article “To thine own self be true” by Loiuza Chekhar.