Meaningful Action in a Helpless World

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“Everything you do without remembering God is useless.”

The world is a scary place. So much is happening beyond our control, it’s easy to feel paralysed by helplessness. It’s with this that I turned to a trusted friend and teacher for advice; what can we meaningfully do to change things?

His answer shocked me. He had read the undertones of my question. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do; it was that I subconsciously believed it wouldn’t do anything!

I have always been the activist type, and getting people engaged is in my bones. The idea of standing idle as events pass by is alien to me and, now more than ever, we need Muslims engaging in society. When people told me to make dua (supplication), I would smile and agree, but deep in my heart, I lacked the conviction that it would achieve anything. After all, shouldn’t we act to support our dua?

But I had misunderstood. My teacher wasn’t telling me to stop working, but to do so with meaning. So often we act without embodying the deeper sense of purpose behind those actions. We call for people to “seek the means for change”, yet forget that the only means for change is Allah!

Actions play a necessary function in our worship of God; the confirmation of our sincerity and conformity to His will. But, as every Muslim knows, the reward is not in the action, but in the intention. An action without an intention is worthless, but an intention without an action is rewarded. The action is there to simply confirm the sincerity of what was intended.

But it runs deeper than that. Imam Ibn Qayyim describes how two worshippers can perform an identical prayer outwardly, yet their inward state renders the value and effectiveness of each vastly different. If it were our actions that carried value, they should merit the same reward, but it is the difference in sincerity and focus where true value lies. Moreover, our ability to sustain that focus throughout the prayer is what gives it its worth. It is not sufficient to simply direct our intention at the beginning and then focus on the act; we must maintain it throughout the actions too. If we could transform our prayer to be the latter, we would see seismic shifts in the cosmos around us.

The same can be said of any action we do, be it charity and fasting, or lobbying, reporting and debating; without focus on God, it’s useless. Whilst it may be easy to see why fasting without remembering God would be so (the Prophet ﷺ describes it as “nothing but hunger and thirst”), seeing the same of the more ‘worldly’ actions is much more difficult.

As I stopped and reflected, his statement began to make more sense. My teacher went on to recite:

وَإِن يُرِيدُوا أَن يَخْدَعُوكَ فَإِنَّ حَسْبَكَ اللَّهُ ۚ هُوَ الَّذِي أَيَّدَكَ بِنَصْرِهِ وَبِالْمُؤْمِنِينَ ٦٢ وَأَلَّفَ بَيْنَ قُلُوبِهِمْ ۚ لَوْ أَنفَقْتَ مَا فِي الْأَرْضِ جَمِيعًا مَّا أَلَّفْتَ بَيْنَ قُلُوبِهِمْ وَلَٰكِنَّ اللَّهَ أَلَّفَ بَيْنَهُمْ ۚ إِنَّهُ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ ٦٣ يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ حَسْبُكَ اللَّهُ وَمَنِ اتَّبَعَكَ مِنَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ ٦٤

(62) If they intend to deceive you, God is enough for you: it was He who strengthened you with His help, (63) and with the believers, and brought their hearts together. Even if you had given away everything in the earth you could not have done this, but God brought them together: God is mighty and wise. (64) Prophet, God is enough for you, and for the believers who follow you.
(8:62-64)

The verses point to two open secrets:

  • God is sufficient for us, and;
  • Nothing is effective without Him.

Today, we view our actions as independent of God. In an overwhelmingly materialistic world, our faith has become tainted by a deep sense that it is we who bring about change. If we don’t physically do something, we feel like we have not done anything at all. When we are asked to make a prayer, we feel it is an act of desperation when we are unable to do anything else. Consciously or subconsciously, we see our actions as the agent of change, not God. As a result, we belittle prayer and worship in place of “tangible” things we can do.

But the truth is our actions are inconsequential without God. Literally, anything we do without Him will achieve nothing. In fact, we can do nothing except by Him. Literally, He is creating every single thing we do. As the verse says, if we spend the entirety of the earth to achieve our objective, nothing can happen unless God allows it.

Moreover, a single, sincere supplication to God could alter the entire universe if it is accepted. How many miracles do we read in the Quran alone which came from a single prayer? From the wife of Pharaoh who asked to be saved from Pharoah, to the call of Prophet Ayyub who sought God’s respite from his sickness, the dua is the most powerful asset of a believer.

If we can see the world through those lenses – a domain entirely created and controlled by Allah in every sense – it makes sense that we would ask Him first and seek His aid in all that we do. We act not because we think our action will do anything, but because God asked us to do so as a means for Him to bring about that change through us. Our action then becomes the greatest honour God could grant us, allowing us to be the means of change when He is completely free of need from us! Allah says:

هَا أَنتُمْ هَٰؤُلَاءِ تُدْعَوْنَ لِتُنفِقُوا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ فَمِنكُم مَّن يَبْخَلُ ۖ وَمَن يَبْخَلْ فَإِنَّمَا يَبْخَلُ عَن نَّفْسِهِ ۚ وَاللَّهُ الْغَنِيُّ وَأَنتُمُ الْفُقَرَاءُ ۚ وَإِن تَتَوَلَّوْا يَسْتَبْدِلْ قَوْمًا غَيْرَكُمْ ثُمَّ لَا يَكُونُوا أَمْثَالَكُم

Though now you are called upon to give [a little] for the sake of God, some of you are grudging. Whoever is grudging is so only towards himself: God is the source of wealth and you are the needy ones. He will substitute other people for you if you turn away, and they will not be like you.
(47:38)

It is Allah who is the source of wealth and us the impoverished. He could just as easily swap us for someone or something else to achieve what He has ordered because it is He who allowed us to do it to begin with.

When we see action in those terms, they become so much more meaningful. The question of what we can do is transformed as we view the entire world as the complete dominion of God. Any feeling of helplessness dissipates as we understand our place and role in the world, knowing that what is unfolding is exactly what God decreed and is the best thing for us. Our action becomes part of ‘God’s work’, honoured and burdened by such a responsibility, but understanding that nothing can happen without His decree – and prayer no longer seems so trivial.

The purpose of this post is not to deter you from action – it is an excellent thing to do! I write to remind you to turn your heart and soul to the One who controls everything in this cosmos and beg Him for help in equal measure. Anything you do, you do because He asked in hope of being chosen to be someone through which He brings change. As such, doing something which contravenes His commands to achieve what He has asked is nonsensical.

This post is a call for us to reconnect with Allah in a meaningful way; to see our actions as the manifestation of our trust and supplication to Him. We continue our campaigns, careers and classes, but do so with a conscious effort to call upon God to accept it from us and give us success. For the work we did before, have hope Allah accept it from us too. Unlike actions, the beauty of intentions is that they can be rectified retrospectively:

إِلَّا مَن تَابَ وَآمَنَ وَعَمِلَ عَمَلًا صَالِحًا فَأُولَٰئِكَ يُبَدِّلُ اللَّهُ سَيِّئَاتِهِمْ حَسَنَاتٍ ۗ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ غَفُورًا رَّحِيمًا

Except those who repent, believe, and do good deeds: God will change the evil deeds of such people into good ones. He is most forgiving, most merciful.
(25:70)

If you were heedless then, be conscious now and turn to Him in repentance!

So next time someone calls you to pray to God for help, don’t subconsciously dismiss it. Pour your heart into it, imploring God to bring the change you so desperately seek, because it is only He who can do so.

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