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Goal setting? Here is your exam paper…

There was a teacher who wanted the best for his students and thus would warn them of their upcoming exams time and time again. In fact, he chose to give them the exam questions in advance to ensure that they were not caught off guard. He promised them that there would be nothing added or detracted from these questions. The students, however, split into three different groups. One group argued that he was lying about there even being an exam; a second group believed he was telling the truth but delayed their preparation, arguing they would prepare when the exam date gets nearer; and the third group not only believed him but prepared answers well in advance. Thus, the first two groups suffered immensely both during and after the exam, whilst it was only the third group that passed with flying colours. 

That teacher was Prophet Muḥammad (SAW), the students are all those who lived with him and those who have come after him until the end of time, the examination that he warned of was the inescapable interrogation in the court of Allāh on the Day of Judgement, and the questions that he has given us in advance are some of what we shall discuss below.

This will be an exam no one will be late for nor will anyone be excused from attending. Everyone will be present and the concept of retakes would have disappeared. This will determine your future, whether it will be in elevated gardens of never ending pleasure or bottomless pits of never ending torture.

Allāh says, “Most certainly then We will question those to whom the messengers were sent, and most certainly We will also question the messengers.” [7:6]

فَلَنَسْـَٔلَنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ أُرْسِلَ إِلَيْهِمْ وَلَنَسْـَٔلَنَّ ٱلْمُرْسَلِينَ

It is proven in the Qur’aan and Sunnah that when a person dies, he will be called to account for every major and minor action he did in this world, whether it was good or bad. He will be rewarded for his good deeds and punished for his bad deeds. 

The first stage of that reckoning is in the grave. In the grave the first thing a person will be asked will be: 

  1. Who was your Lord? What were you a slave to today – boss, family, desires?

  2. What is your deen? How did you decide to live?
    “And follow not that of which you have not the knowledge; surely the hearing and the sight and the heart, all of these shall be questioned about.”[17:36] 

وَلَا تَقْفُ مَا لَيْسَ لَكَ بِهِۦ عِلْمٌ ۚ إِنَّ ٱلسَّمْعَ وَٱلْبَصَرَ وَٱلْفُؤَادَ كُلُّ أُو۟لَـٰٓئِكَ كَانَ عَنْهُ مَسْـُٔولًۭا

In preparation for this set of questions, the gaze is lowered when exposed to Harām, the ears are covered when presented to the Harām and the heart is cleansed from doubts in Allāh, envy of people and other pollutants.

And not just when you took action but also, what you avoided.

The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said, “Allāh is going to ask people of the Day of Judgement, ‘What prevented you from saying something against evil when you saw it happening?’ If Allāh allows His Slave to offer the correct response he will respond by saying, ‘My Lord, I had hope in You and I was afraid of the people.’”[Ibn Maajah]

The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) would also say “A person must not allow his fear of people to withhold him from speaking the truth if he learns of it.” Upon hearing of this, Abū Saʿīd cried and said, “By Allāh, we have seen wrong but were afraid of speaking”.[Tirmdhi]

3. Who is this man who was sent amongst you? Who did you look up to and emulate?
[Abu Dawood, 4753]

Although, the most influential person of all time according to most popular polls is Jesus, we know the reality is that the the most followed people in the world currently, based on social media followers are footballers (Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar), Justin Bieber (musicians), the Rock (actors) and Obama (politicians).

When it comes to aspirations, role models and goal models, the principle is the Sunnah, the better. We know that the Prophet (SAW) set an exemplary standard for all of mankind in all spheres – spiritual, leadership, talents, authenticity, economic and social impact.

4. It was narrated from Abu Hurayrah that the Prophet (SAW) said: “The first thing among their deeds for which the people will be brought to account on the Day of Resurrection will be prayer. Our Lord will say to His angels, although He knows best, ‘Look at My slave’s prayer, is it complete or lacking?’ If it is complete, it will be recorded as complete, but if it is lacking, He will say, ‘Look and see whether my slave did any voluntary prayers.’ If he had done voluntary prayers, He will say, ‘Complete the obligatory prayers of My slave from his voluntary prayers.’ Then the rest of his deeds will be examined in a similar manner.” (Abu Dawood, 864)

If your Zakāh is lacking, your voluntary charity will be looked into to patch it up. If your obligatory fasts are lacking, your voluntary fasts will be looked into to patch it up. Thus, prepare for this question by perfecting your obligatory acts of worship and, at the same time, by wisely preparing massive amounts of reserve voluntary acts of worship. We will most certainly need them.

5. It was narrated from Ibn Mas’ood (RA) that the Prophet (SAW) said: “The son of Adam will not be dismissed from before his Lord on the Day of Resurrection until he has been questioned about five things: his life and how he spent it,” (TIME) Ask yourself:

a) What was the theme of your 60 or 70 years on earth?
b) What was the purpose that you truly lived and died for?
c) What occupied your time the most by day and your thoughts and concerns by night?

7. “his youth and how he used it,” (PEAK CAPABILITY & TEMPTATION)
When desires had rocketed and strength had peaked, how did you behave? Were you using your youth like the masses of youth around you, or were you different?

8. “his wealth and how he earned it” (MONEY)

It is narrated that one night the Prophet(SAW) left his home due to extreme hunger hoping that perhaps he(SAW) would come across someone who may help relieve his starvation. And he bumped into Abū Bakr (RA) and ʿUmar (RA) in the middle of the night – the leaders of this Ummah, the traders and the most concerned for others.

The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said to them, “What has made you leave your homes during this hour?” They replied, “Hunger, O messenger of Allāh.” He said, “I swear by the One who possesses my soul, what caused me to leave my home is the same cause as yours.”

They knocked on the door of a companion who offered them some water, dates and meat. After they had finished eating and drinking, the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) turned to Abū Bakr and ʿUmar and said, “I swear by the One who possesses my soul, you shall be asked about this delight on the Day of Judgement.” [Muslim]

If a few dates, drinkable water and some meat following an evening of intense hunger will require an answer for on the Day of Judgement, what then about the ‘delights’ of the 21st century? Running water supplies from our homes? Uber eats, smash burgers, chai and cheese cakes? Warm homes at the pressing of a button?

Moreover, what about the ‘delights’ pertaining to our senses, looks, limbs, access to lectures and Islamic material like never before? We urgently need to start putting together answers.

The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said, “One of you will meet his Lord on the Day of Judgement who will say to him, ‘Did I not give you horses and camels? Did I not give you authority? Did I not marry you to so and so, although others had asked for her hand but I kept them away and married her to you?’” [Ibn Hibban]

Abū Dharr said,ذو الدرهمين يومَ القيامة أشد حسابًا من ذي الدرهم “The accountability for a person who had two Dirhams will be more intense than the person with one Dirham.” [Musannaf ibn Abi Shayba]

Not a ‘delight’ will be missed.

How you earnt your wealth is a specific question here – an honest living is a source of barakah whereas fraud, criminal or harmful earnings are a means of spiritual and personal poverty and upset.

9. “and how he disposed of it,” (SPENDING)

And separately, what did you decide to do with that wealth. Invest it in your akhirah, share it with others or just making your “departure lounge” more pleasurable and distracting. Or hoarding it and not spending, so that no-one benefits from it in your life and your inheritors squabble over it and then don’t appreciate earning themselves.

60% of the Muslim community in the UK live in the 40% most impoverished areas and this should be an opportunity for us to find those in need and support them.

10. “and how he acted upon what he acquired of knowledge.” () (al-Tirmidhi, 2422)

What have you learnt which is actionable or developmental?
How have you used your knowledge to prepare you for meeting your Lord?

“A man cannot be pious (a person of taqwā), until he is more stringent in taking his nafs to account, than a business partner is with his partner.” Maymūn b. Mahrān (raḥimahullāh)

There is a saying that “It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

An elderly carpenter was ready to retire. He told his employer-contractor of his plans to leave the house building business and live a more leisurely life with his wife enjoying his extended family.

He would miss the paycheck, but he needed to retire. They could get by. The contractor was sorry to see his good worker go and asked if he could build just one more house as a personal favor. The carpenter said yes, but in time it was easy to see that his heart was not in his work. He resorted to shoddy workmanship and used inferior materials. It was an unfortunate way to end his career.

When the carpenter finished his work and the builder came to inspect the house, the contractor handed the front-door key to the carpenter. “This is your house,” he said, “my gift to you.”

What a shock! What a shame! If he had only known he was building his own house, he would have done it all so differently. Now he had to live in the home he had built none too well.

So it is with us. We build our lives in a distracted way, reacting rather than acting, willing to put up less than the best. At important points we do not give the job our best effort. Then with a shock we look at the situation we have created and find that we are now living in the house we have built. If we had realized that we would have done it differently.

Think of yourself as the carpenter. Think about your house. Each day you hammer a nail, place a board, or erect a wall. Build wisely. It is the only life you will ever build. Even if you live it for only one day more, that day deserves to be lived graciously and with dignity. The plaque on the wall says, “Life is a do-it-yourself project.” Your life tomorrow will be the result of your attitudes and the choices you make today.

In summary, the 9 questions based on the exam paper should be reviewed on a regular basis – daily, weekly or monthly. 

Journal your responses so you have a baseline and reference. 

Score yourself and make a plan for small, regular improvements.

  1. What was I a slave to today? 
  2. What key decisions did I make today and why? 
  3. Whose example did I follow today? 
  4. How were my 5 check-ins with Allah(SWT) today? 
  5. How did I spend my time? 
  6. How did I use my strength? 
  7. Did I really earn my provision today? 
  8. Where did I spend? 
  9. What did I learn and practise?

Self-Reflection Questions

  • Intention: Did I do it sincerely for the sake of Allah alone?
    Did I use my intention to transform an ordinary deed into an act of worship?
  • Performance: What were my deficiencies in the act of worship I did (e.g. Did I miss out on khushūʿ in ṣalāh? Did I ruin my fast by backbiting?)
  • Justification: Did I perform a good deed which was of lesser importance, and justified it to myself by thinking that I was ‘still doing something good’?

Prince had a very prescient warning about the internet in 1999: “There is a war going on. The battlefield is in the mind. The prize is the soul. So be careful.”

And remember, this is a personal self-reflection, not something to judge others by. You will sit your own exam, but do note that how we assess others betrays a lot about how we view ourself.

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