Balancing Spirituality & Success: A Muslim Yale Student’s Vision of a Life Worth Living

In Arabic, my name means “the chosen one.” A family friend gave it to me before my family left Kashmir, a disputed region from which we fled when I was ten months old. Today I call Virginia home. Growing up as the child of ambitious immigrant lawyers, I attended good suburban schools. My father told me that I should go to Yale University when I was in the second grade. I did actually matriculate to Yale, and here I’m surrounded by a diverse group of individuals who embody the notion of striving for excellence.

When I initially arrived in New Haven I personified my background. I wanted success and accolades, in the form of achievements such as admission to Yale Law School. In my first semester, I met many kinds of people. And I asked myself why I chose to live differently than they did. For example, did I not drink alcohol because my parents would be disappointed, or because I morally opposed intoxicants? These kinds of questions led me to examine my personal principles. My journey thus far has led me to key assumptions and beliefs. I testify that there is no god but God, and Muhammad is his servant and final messenger. I believe in the truth of the Day of Judgment and in God’s promise. These beliefs, my surroundings, and my background lead me to survey the Islamic tradition as well as other ideologies in order to formulate an understanding of a life worth living that balances my different influences.

Furthermore, I am fundamentally — as a person, soul, and spirit — about self-improvement. Islam, according to my understanding, is about achieving submission to and knowledge of God. Both my family and Yale emphasize excellence and achievement. Consequently, I believe the life most worth living for me is the life in pursuit of greater consciousness of and submission to the Lord, through the endeavor for professional and personal excellence.

Islam is a vast tradition with many beliefs and practices, and the emphasis on good works impacts my professional life. Regarding what actions a person should take, God declares, “race to [all that is] good,” “worship your Lord and do good — that you may succeed,” and “whoever does righteous deeds, whether male or female, while being a believer — those will enter Paradise.”[i] Moreover, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, “God has mandated ihsan (excellence) for all things.”[ii] My parents and the Yale environment of course also stress excellence. Fortunately, God has blessed me with many advantages: I attend Yale, I have educated and affluent parents, and I live in the world’s center of power. I should use these advantages to do good works. As a lawyer, I could sue corporations that violate the rights of workers. As a businessman, I could create alternative financial institutions to combat the industry that takes from the common people to enrich the wealthy. However, it is imperative that pure motivations compel my actions. The Prophet ﷺ said that actions are in accordance with intentions. If I strive to create an interest-free investment firm primarily to amass gross wealth, rather than to help people achieve financial security in a responsible manner, then I will probably be rewarded neither in the afterlife nor in this life with closeness to God — instead I might be punished for the spiritual disease of greed.

Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim in the U.S. Congress, took his oath on a Qur’an owned by Thomas Jefferson

In my private life, my beliefs and background encourage me to have better interactions with people. When students of Islamic knowledge sit with a teacher for the first time, the teacher often tells them this hadith (saying of the Prophet ﷺ): “Those people who show no mercy will receive no mercy from Allah (God).”[iii] Another hadith, very close to the oft-cited verse of the Bible that embodies the love espoused by Christians, reads, “Not one of you can (truly) believe if you do not want for your brother what you want for yourself.”[iv] Islam, in short, emphasizes caring for people. And my parents also pass on a culture of etiquette and respect, particularly towards elders. An elite institution like Yale similarly adds an emphasis on sensitivity and thoughtfulness towards all. Therefore, I ought to prioritize treating people well. When my parents call me and express their frustration that I chose to take a class on Classical Arabic Philosophy rather than on Economic Sanctions, it is important for me to be patient and to avoid argument. Sometimes, however, interactions can be tricky. For example, in Islam it is generally prohibited to say anything about a person not present if he would not have wanted it said about him. During innumerable conversations I find myself sitting quietly as to avoid participating in backbiting. Consequently, folks ask why I’m quiet. It can be very difficult to be respectful, to abide by strong principles, and not to appear self-righteous. Importantly, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, “Islam began as an alien thing and will return to an alien thing. So blessed are the alienated ones.”

Competing in the Yale College Undergraduate Speaking Competition, I argued our society is complicit in global economic injustice

Furthermore, it is tempting to believe that my vision of a life worth living should be avoided. After all, pursuing consciousness of God through worldly achievement and perfect character together seems unfeasible. For example, in order to be a great lawyer, I need great grades: admissions are competitive. While competition can drive greater performance, it can also fuel spiritual diseases such as love of the world. In a seminar I need to speak well and often so that my professor gives me a good participation grade. But am I achieving excellence at the cost of vanity and ostentation? And do I want to go to graduate school to equip myself to help people, or do I want to go to feel like a winner? I pray for sincerity, success, and perseverance. Jesus reportedly said, “Most people attempt something before they give it up, but you have already defined your limits before testing them.”[v] I will strive because I believe in God and I have hope. And God declares, “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”[vi]

[i] Qur’an 5:48, 22:77, 4:124

[ii] Friedlander, Nuri. “Excellence in All Things.” Weblog post. Beyond Halal. N.p., 9 July 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.

[iii] Rabbani, Faraz. “Forty Hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad.” Web log post. SeekersHub Global. N.p., 30 Mar. 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Yusuf, Hamza, and Zaid Shakir. Agenda to Change Our Condition. Sandala, n.d. 10. Print.

[vi] Qur’an 13:11