Monday, September 20, 2021
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Don’t be defined by your labels – accept yourself and the world will accept you

Alhamdulillah, this week, we return to the masjid after our second national lockdown. What a blessing it is to return to the house of Allah(SWT) and be surrounded by the best of company – angels and believers. Over this last month of isolation, I’m sure we have all adapated in various ways. Many of us perhaps enjoying the isolation while others are frustrated by the restrictions. Some of us have made habitual changes while others are ready to return to some form of normality. I was reflecting recently on whether social isolation causes us to care less as we become more mentally distant from others. This opportunity should make us question who we actually are – are we the product of our environment and simply copycats of friends, fashion and public favour or do we stand for something consistent, regardless of how the seasons change around us?

Many of spend most of our lives stumbling around trying to figure out an answer to a deceptively simple question. Who am I?

Despite many of us being second or third generation Muslims living in the West, we still seem forced to choose between three options:

  1. Assimilation: Those who choose to assimilate, usually suffer from a massive inferiority complex. They abandon their own identity, they imitate the culture of the host community in every possible way. They feel ashamed of who they are and where they have come from. They deny their origins – change their names to Mo and Ash, change their dress, accent and language trying to fit in as “proper” Brits.
  2. Isolation The second group, who have chosen isolation, are horrified with what they see has become of the first group. They do not want to disappear in the cultural melting pot. They want to preserve their Islamic identity, which they often confuse with their cultural and ethnic identity. Further, they think the best way to protect Islam, and their Muslim identity, is to have no contact, or minimal contact, with their non-Muslim neighbours. They end up creating a social ghetto – Bury Park or East London. But, Islam is not a religion only for ethnic minorities, Asians or Arabs. It is a religion for all mankind, for all times and places.
  3. Selective Interaction The third group has chosen the middle way, of selective interaction. They believe that, Muslims can and should freely associate with people of other faiths, or of no faith, as the case may be. They feel at ease with their neighbours, at home, at work and leisure, so that they can cultivate a friendship that benefits both sides. This group seeks to adapt to western society by absorbing good influences and avoiding bad influence. Also, this group feels that their interaction allows Muslims to generate an Islamic influence on our neighbours and fellow citizens.

A very close friend shared a profound thought with me last week sharing how a mentor had told him to stop worrying about what others think. Accept who you are. Recognise you are brown, 5 foot 7, 13 stones, from kashmir, muslim, black hair turning white at pace, average build, living in luton etc. Recognise all of these characteristics and accept them. Its only when you accept yourself that others will be able to accept you. Its only when you are honest to yourself and accept it, you can find peace.

As we ended Islamophobia awareness month, a senior leader at work shared at a Muslim network event, that he was now confident after reaching 50 years of age and a senior leader in the corporation, that he would only achieve respect as a Muslim, once he had respect for Islam itself. He says proudly to his colleagues that he has non-negotiables as a Muslim – Friday prayer, taking 1-2 weeks leave every Ramadan, not attending social activities where alchol is served etc. He emphasised how its important to believe in yourself and all that you are. Know that there is something inside you that is greater than any obstacle.”

Society aims to give you a “label” – where you came from, the things you’ve acquired, education titles, the neighbourhood you live in, the cars you drive, the schools/universities you attend, your physical appearance. These are articulated in common language – fat, beanpole, black, dope, fire, sic, thin, extreme or moderate, practising – hijabi or molvi, smart or slow, naughty or nice etc. Theres nothing wrong with being proud of our achievements. Nothing wrong with taking pride in our ancestry and heritage, but whether consciously or subconsciously, this stuff is what influences the labels that the society gives us and the labels we give ourselves. However, its important to recognise that some labels serve us for the better, some do not. Rather there is a risk that:

  1. Labels restrict your potential by keeping you confined to a negative behaviourLabels shape a person’s identity in society and dictate their future beliefs, choices and goals.Labels are certainly needed to distinguish things, to create some form of order. Labels are what we use to categorise things in order to solve the complexities of our environment. However, to some extent, labels have caused more harm than good: Rather than bringing humans together, they can lead to separation and unconscious bias. Labels have caused us to conform to societal expectations.
  2. They can cause stress and worry. You often feel frustrated and unhappy, and often you’re unaware that your thoughts are the cause. Being put in a labelled box, can cause physical symptoms such as migraines, nausea, anxiety attacks, and is a major contributor to depression and anxiety.
  1. They can be self-fulfilling. If you believe you’re useless, your actions and thoughts will be that of a useless person. When a parent labels a child as “smart” or “slow”, more often than not, the child ends up proving them right. One might argue that maybe it is true that the child is slow because of their poor grades in school, but being slow in one thing does not necessarily mean one is slow in everything else. Don’t we all have our strengths and weaknesses?

Some of the best people were once sinners and some sinners today were once pious people. Some criminals, dealing drugs or engaging in domestic violence, were once law-abiding citizens and likewise some of the contributors to society were at one time wronging themselves or others.

We also forget that we don’t want the same things in life, and that is ok. Some people want to be rich and famous, some people just want to be comfortable and to provide for their families, some people want to meet the societal standards of beauty, some people just want to be healthy regardless of their physical appearance.

We are highly complex creatures. Our differences are what makes the world beautiful and worth exploring. Labels do us a disservice; they can’t capture the complex and dynamic human spirit which Allah(SWT) has blessed us all with. Every one of us has a unique mark to make on the world that no-one else can. Accept that and be happy that Allah(SWT) has made you unique right down to your fingerprint, your family circumstance, your thoughts and experiences.

If we are not careful, the labels we’ve been given and accepted can restrict our behaviour and confine us into characteristics that are perceived as socially acceptable for the given label. When we internalize these labels, we become prisoners of our own making.

Allah(SWT) recounts in Surah As-Shu’araa when Musa(AS) entered the court of Fir’own saying “We are messengers from the Lord of all worlds, (commanded to say:) ‘Let the Children of Israel go with us.”

Fir’own immediately started to label Musa(AS): “Did we not raise you among us as a child, and you stayed several years of your life in our care? Then you did what you did (killing an Egyptian), being ˹utterly˺ ungrateful!”

Musa(AS) was a fugitive who had killed a man and been brought up in the house of the man he stood before – all labels which he was being caged by. Fir’owns mention of his past, his upbringing, and his receiving Pharaoh’s charity was Pharaoh’s way of threatening him.

Musa(AS) knew that these labels did not define him and that he had only been brought up in the palace of Fir’own because of his genocide of an entire race. Ignoring his sarcasm, Musa(AS) responded ““I did it then, lacking guidance. So I fled from you when I feared you. Then my Lord granted me wisdom and made me one of the messengers. How can that be a ‘favour,’ of which you remind me, when ˹it was only because˺ you ˹have˺ enslaved the Children of Israel?””

He knew that his previous mistake did not define him. And he informed him that Allah had granted him forgiveness and made him one of the messengers.

So, how do we deal with labels?

Just like the price tags on an item in the stops, personal labels can become rather sticky and hard to remove once they are firmly attached. Before you stick a label in your forehead or let others label you in one way or another, remember:

  • One word cannot define you as a person. Don’t put yourself in a box. You are far too unique for that.
  • Allah(SWT) gives us opportunity every moment there is still breath in our bodies to change. You can always change what you don’t like about yourself. Turn to Allah(SWT) and ask from Him at any point – that door is never closed.
  • Give yourself a break – we all make mistakes. Even the word mis-take indicates that you took a shot and you missed, don’t give up on the retake. No one of us is perfect but every one of us can make an effort. The Prophet(SAW) said, “All of the children of Adam are sinners, and the best sinners are those who repent.” [Tirmidhī]
  • Remember, what you think of yourself affects how you live your life. Accept who you are and take control of how you see yourself and that will change how others see you. Happiness will never come to those who fail to appreciate what they already have.
  • Regardless of what labels society invents or uses, know that your Creator has given you a unique title and recognition

“O you who have believed, fear Allah as He should be feared and do not die except as Muslims [in submission to Him].” (Qur’an, 3:102)

Turn down all the white noise around me and focus on Allahs. Attend the masjid daily as this is your house. Stand with people from every nationality and culture and know you are their brother, regardless of what you have done or who you are. Find your anchor in Allah(SWT). No other label is necessary when you realise that you are a slave of Allah(SWT) and He(SWT) has chosen you to be his deputy and custodian on this earth.

When you believes in yourself, you don’t try to convince others. When you are content with your self, you don’t need approval. When you accept your self, the whole world will accept you.

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