Islam and Dignity
September 4, 2015 •*By Paola Garcia
Indeed, We have conferred dignity on the children of Adam, carried them over land and sea, provided them nourishment out of good things, and endowed them far above most of Our creation
As human beings, we are born with unlimited potential and magnificent abilities. Our faculties hold immense power. We can witness the truth of these statements in the progress, discoveries, inventions and artistic creations people have achieved throughout history.
Rumi says, “Do you know what you are? You are a manuscript of a divine letter. You are a mirror reflecting a noble face. This universe is not outside of you. Look inside yourself; everything that you want, you are already that.”
We have been blessed with intellect, emotions, speech, creativity, memory, and so many other divine gifts.
Because of the great potential these capacities hold, dignity is an inherent trait of the human being.
By merely being born, we have been given great worth.
While our modern consumerist society depends for its very existence on the low self-esteem of individuals, which has conveniently reached epidemic proportions, Islam is a path that establishes self-esteem from within. It provides us with guidance and values that, if followed and internalized, inevitably result in a strong, powerful and confident person.
The shahada itself holds the key to our dignity. As Muhammad Iqbal writes: “We have honor from ‘There is no god but God.’” We bow down before nobody but God. We are not inferior to anyone in this world, we are not slaves to other humans, regardless of their status or of our love for them; we do not worship wealth, fame, recognition or luxuries. We have everything we need within us and in Islam. Iqbal wrote: “In our essence Divinity is mirrored: The Muslim’s being is one of the signs of God.”
When writing about the Muslim’s being, Iqbal does not refer to identity labels, but to a person whose life actually reflects the essence of divinity, a person who surrenders herself to God and only to God.* That is: a person whose actions are honorable. In order to embody the dignity God blessed us with, we must take the time to reflect and decide carefully what our values are.We must confirm what is right and what is wrong and then submit to the right, explains Dr. Ali Mermer. We must focus on qualities, not labels. We are not any better because we self-identify as Muslim. What matters are our qualities. We have to do the work, which means responsibility. Something Dr. Sultan told me struck me deeply: “Honor is acting according to one’s values at all times.” However, in order to follow our values, we must first spend time determining what these actually are.
Am I a person who values intelligence and deep understanding? Then I must spend the time it takes to actually acquire wisdom and have each aya in the Quran unfold to me. I can read a small passage from the Quran, reflect on it and write about how it applies to my life rather than hearing the entire Quran recited without understanding any of it.
Do I value integrity? Then, I must be cautious before I make a commitment, and when I do, I better keep my word. Do I value modesty? Then, I should not walk around boasting and shouting. I can also dress in a dignified manner.
Do I value honesty? I must begin by being honest with myself and then consistently with others.
We affirm our self-esteem in many ways. They all relate to clarifying our values and living by them. The method I have found the most effective for raising my self-esteem is: taking inventory of the blessings and talents I was given, evaluating how I am using them (or failing to use them), and then deciding to make the most of them. That is, making a commitment to take the high road, to feed my highest self, rather than my inferior motivations and weaknesses such as laziness, lust or greed, for example.
Every time we give into a weakness, we feed it and give it more and more of our power. For instance, if I know that calling a particular acquaintance invariably results in gossip and no good comes of it, but each time I get bored I reach for the phone and text or call her, I am feeding my weakness. And weakness has no place in the life of a dignified person who wants to accomplish great things: “Weakness is worthlessness and immaturity,” warns Iqbal.
While it is true that at birth we all possess equal worth and dignity, our choices in life and their consequences leave a deep imprint on our soul. The negative thoughts, words and actions that we have accumulated throughout our lives cause our value to erode in our own eyes until very little or none of remains visible to us.
I love a verse in the Quran where Moses says to God “I have wronged my soul, so forgive me and He forgave him. Indeed, He is the Forgiving, the Merciful.” (28:16) Irrefutably, when we engage in negative, inferior or destructive behaviors, what we are doing is harming ourselves, gradually obscuring the great light and worth we have until we can no longer see it. The good news is, God forgives us and gives us new chances constantly.
One of the biggest challenges for a human being is to realize his or her own value and live accordingly. It requires perseverance and great deal of effort. Society attempts to keep us small, to control us, to tell us we need X or Y wonder-product to succeed and feel good about ourselves. Or perhaps we have “friends” who consciously or subconsciously sabotage our progress and growth because they want us to compromise ourselves so that they can too compromise.
But we do nobody a favor by doing so.
Deep down, we all know we are capable of spectacular feats. We all recognize the truth in what Rumi writes. It is not a coincidence he is such a popular poet all over the world, 808 years after his birth:“You were born with potential. You were born with goodness and trust. You were born with ideals and dreams. You were born with greatness. You were born with wings. You are not meant for crawling, so don’t. You have wings. Learn to use them and fly.”
The reason why many of us, however, have difficulty internalizing these ideas despite recognizing their truth is that there is a discrepancy between them and our daily actions and thoughts.
These ideas require effort and action in order for them to take root in our hearts. They require us to hold ourselves to high standards, to act in ways that are dignified and carry ourselves with elegance. It would be impossible to believe that I am a sublime creature of great worth if all I do is gossip and curse, eat junk food, and watch garbage TV programs, all of which sends a message to our subconscious that we value ourselves very little.
It is therefore of utmost importance to act “in ways that recognize our self-esteem, irrespective of circumstances,” as Dr. Sultan states in The Quran and the Life of Excellence. “Train yourself to behave with poise, to walk like a dignified person, and to talk like a noble person. Do not use words of inferior meanings and never use foul language. You create your self-esteem by how you conduct yourself when you are alone. Always be aware that the way you dress, sit, stand, talk, or eat, even when you are by yourself, makes a statement about the value you place on yourself.”
A key idea to understand and adopt is that everything we do or say has consequence and it accumulates. This notion seemed absurd to me in the past, when I used to believe that nothing mattered. Yet, I have witnessed time after time the deep truth of this principle. I have written several times about the many changes that have, thank God, taken place in my life in the recent years primarily through following the wisdom in Islam and the teachings of Dr. Sultan, which are based on the Quran.The beliefs that are most resistant to change and which at times cause me to feel low self-esteem are those that were established through harmful behaviors I engaged in when I was unaware they were harmful. It is hard to believe you have great worth when you look back and see how oblivious and ungrateful you were for so many blessings you had or how you wasted many opportunities because you were too busy partying. But, being able to see these errors is in itself a blessing and growth happens by stages. That being said, once we gain awareness, the less harm we do to ourselves and the more good we do in the world, the better for our souls and self-esteem.
It takes a lot of positive counteractive actions to begin sincerely and unswervingly believing in your worth and potential. All the nonsense that I thought was fun and light and meaningless…it turns out it was everything but. Wasting one’s time especially, never goes unnoticed by our own soul. Our soul keeps track of every little thing we do, say and think and our sense of self-value shows this.
here are many ways to improve our sense of worth and debunk the negative ideas we have about ourselves. The main one is taking massive action in every area of our lives by actually doing our best. There is no way around it: only hard work and steadfast action do it. There is no magical formula or miraculous self-help course that will successfully delude an intelligent being who has been squandering all the gifts he was blessed with into thinking he is genuinely great. If I am lazy, live for leisure and selfish pursuits and do little of value my time, but want to feel good about myself, it will be quite difficult. The dissatisfaction, inner chaos and unhappiness that I desperately seek to chase away are signs alerting me that something is amiss.
The only way to have high-self esteem is by doing the actions that lead to it. Anything else is delusion. Now, once we are doing these actions, we may find that the negative voice in our heads still doesn’t shut up and continues bothering us with negative thoughts or regrets or useless guilt. For that, we have another cure: constant dhikr or affirmations
We can, for instance, say to ourselves, one hundred times or more per day: “God wants me to succeed,” or “God is always with and guides me in all I do,” or “I am a brilliant and accomplished painter.” Whatever it is you want to be, whatever belief you want to hold that would make your life better, keep saying it to yourself until it stops sounding outrageous and you begin to believe it, hence replacing the destructive soundtrack that tells you that you are worthless.
Dhikr re-programs our subconscious and, after doing it enough, we come to a point where we deeply believe it. We then feel rooted in strength and in the mercy, compassion and love of God. Our sense of worth solidifies and our life choices begin reflecting this. After all: “You are an eagle, flight is your vocation” Muhammad Iqbal.
May God give us light, strength and courage to recognize our noble nature.