Wednesday, 8 June 2016

My Confession (Sink or Swim)

Source: Jez Arnold (Flickr)
You may have wondered why I don’t write very often. Every once in a while I get asked by someone and I tell them “My posts are not just some spontaneous outburst of expression.” The idea behind each article is usually incubated in my head for weeks, months or even years as it grows with new knowledge and experiences. Then I have to make sense of its shape, dress it in attractive clothing and articulate it in a way that’s comprehensible to a mind other than my own. This excuse I give is true, very true. At the same time, I don’t think that’s what prevents me from writing so often.

You see the thing is, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. It’s a blessing and a curse, really. It’s what makes me especially proud of the quality of this blog and, at the same time, so lousy at updating it. I’m such a perfectionist it paralyses me. Until I have the awesomest idea that I can clearly articulate from start to finish and the prettiest frock to dress it in, my fingertips rarely touch the keyboard. Only the best for my baby and sometimes, that means nothing at all.

I think many of us suffer from this in one way or another. Our unrealistically high standards may stop us from taking a new challenging job, embracing a more righteous lifestyle or giving up something we know we’re better off without. It’s all or nothing.

Unproductive perfectionism often comes down to being fixated on this idea that we control the outcome. We don’t attempt a task because we’re scared we can’t produce something that meets our standards. If we are brave enough to start, we are quick to dismiss the result as not being good enough. Don’t get me wrong, we obviously have a role to play in our own success, but it’s our efforts that get us there, not our innate abilities or even achieving our goal. Let me break this down into three parts…

First, let’s look at this from a purely secular level. Research shows that if someone believes that they’re smart and that’s why they get good grades or they’re good at sports and that’s why they get medals, it can actually hold them back. They believe abilities are fixed so, when they struggle on a task, they’re much more likely to think they’re not cut out for it and quit. If they come across something new or difficult, they’re much less likely to try it at all. Is this inaction sounding familiar? Compare that to someone who believes they got their good grades because they focussed in class and their medals because they trained hard. These people work harder and are more persistent when faced with difficulty. Focussing on our efforts rather than innate talents can make us more productive. We’re more likely to keep going and grow in our abilities over time.

Secondly, a point the secular world might struggle to see, is that it’s not our efforts that bring about the outcome we’re looking for. As perfectionists we think we’re the ones that have to reach this high standard and we can become disappointed in ourselves for not reaching our goal. At these times we have to remember what our Creator shows us about where results actually come from.

Let’s delve into the story of the Prophet Nūḥ (AS) in the Qur’ān. During the flood when Nūḥ was in the ark he saw his son and told him to board. His son refused saying he would head for safety on a mountain instead. Nūḥ had tried to remind him that only Allāh could save him that day but a wave came between them and his son drowned.

When Nūḥ’s son saw the flood, he saw it from a purely materialistic viewpoint and that was his failing. This simple ship made of nothing more than wood and nails would most likely be destroyed in the stormy water. He wasn’t going to take a risk on that. At the same time, it seemed unlikely the flood would reach the top of a mountain. Who has ever seen a flood that severe? So he made a decision. He believed that the means he took is what would save him. However he missed an important understanding his father had tried to warn him of. It’s not your abilities or the means you take that cause a certain result, it is Allāh. Doing x may usually lead to y, but it’s not because x causes y, it’s because Allāh does. He can flip that expected result around whenever He wants to. He saved those on a flimsy wooden ark and yet destroyed those climbing the tallest mountains around for safety.

So why tell Nūḥ to build the ship if he had no control over the outcome anyway? Allāh wants humans to put in the effort. Our actions are what display our obedience to Him and our efforts are where the reward is. At the end of the day though, it is He who will decide what the outcome will be. So when we try to do something awesome, we need to learn to let go. The outcome is not in our hands, the pressure is off. Our trust is in the perfection of Allāh and not in our imperfect selves.

What would it look like if Nūḥ had our unhealthy perfectionist mind-set? Well he probably wouldn’t have started building the ark at all. How’s an ark going to help in a flood that is going to kill every single person in the community? “It’s not going to be good enough!” And if his perfectionism didn’t totally paralyse him and he did build it, he’d have looked at the finished product and thought, “There’s no way this will save us. I’m heading for the mountain!” Either way, something Allāh put success in would have been abandoned. Makes me wonder, how many missed opportunities have I had?

But what if we do try, trust in Allāh and it doesn’t work? What if our flimsy boat doesn’t survive the storm? I don’t know about you but that’s this perfectionist’s worst nightmare. That’s the fear that turns me into a deer stuck in headlights and reigns in a lot of my aspirations. And here comes point number three, something I know with my head but struggle daily to internalise... If we try sincerely for Allāh, no matter what happens, there’s no such thing as failure.

I’ll tell you someone who succeeded in spite of not getting the outcome they wanted; our friend Nūḥ (AS). He was sent to his people to guide them back to worshipping one God alone. What happened? Even after 950 years his people disbelieved. The only way of cleaning up the whole situation to prevent misguidance taking over was for Allāh to intervene. The outcome? A nation was destroyed including his own wife and son. Does that make him a bad prophet, a bad husband, a bad father? Outwardly, it looks like an epic fail and yet this man is honoured like a hero by Allāh in the Qur’ān. His story is mentioned over and over and he’s one of the most honoured messengers. Why? Because success isn’t in the outcome at all. Nūḥ was unbelievably dedicated. He wasn’t getting results and yet he just kept going with a level of patience that we couldn’t manage in just one difficult interaction with an Islamophobe. Likewise, when we don’t get the result we were hoping for, it’s not an indication of our worth or our ultimate success. We may think we’re continuously losing but, in the sight of Allāh, could have won every time.

So, what can we learn from all this- what can I learn from this? That we are imperfect beings that can’t produce perfection. Our smartness, our talents, our religiosity will get us nowhere without us trying. It’s our determination that’s worth celebrating. It’s about the number of drafts, not the polished pieces, it’s the hours worked and not the tasks ticked off the list, it’s the attempts to focus a wandering mind in prayer and not the sweetness felt. We cannot fail if we just persevere.

The effort comes from us and the result is from Allāh. He knows where best to put the blessing. Recognising this, the whole process of trying to achieve something great is transformed. It becomes one of surrendering our fears to Him, complaining to Him and asking for His help along the way. That relationship we build with Allāh will make it worth ‘flunking’ over and over and over again.

I’ll try to remember that next time tumbleweed rolls through this place…



  1. I'm not a perfectionist, I'm just lazy but I loved this post regardless! Definitely need to work on persevering and trusting Allah with the outcome.

    1. Maybe you just need to pray for something you're really passionate about that gets you working hard!

      Really happy to hear the article was of benefit. Thank you for your comment!

  2. JazakumAllah khayrun Layla! I honestly cannot tell you how much I appreciated your bravery for writing this piece. It resounded very strongly with me and its something that I have always struggled with. The all or nothing attitude has taken over my life and left me crippled in the process. It is very comforting to know that it's not just me struggling with this. May Allah allow us to become people who put their best foot forward, relying on him completely and being unafraid of the outcome.

    1. Jazakillahu khairan for your comment, Juwayriyah. Put a smile on my face. Ameen! It's so hard but I know I have to always hope in the power of Allah.

  3. Tabarakallah!I'm so grateful to Allah (sw) that i stumbled upon your blog subhanallah!Allah (sw) guided me here because this is exactly what i needed to hear.Jazakillah Khayr sis!Much appreciated and what a polished piece!! :-D

  4. I’m really glad you shared this very personal issue with us all…it’s comforting to read about someone else who struggles with the same mental roadblocks and, at the same time, also inspiring to read a new perspective on how to better deal with them (by the permission of Allah).