Jazib Mehmood, Student, Jamia Ahmadiyya International Ghana
Seize the day! That is what carpe diem literally means. It means to make the most of the present, the here and now.
In the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, more people are realising there’s more to life than money, work and status. Many are actively opting for a less busy schedule to make time for family and personal growth.
Hundreds of thousands have quit their jobs, either to take early retirement or live off savings. Those who can’t afford to opt out of work altogether, meanwhile, are less invested in it. This is symptomatic of a growing sense of inequality that is undermining trust in both society’s institutions and capitalism. People no longer believe hard work will lead them to a successful, better life.
Not long ago, an article in The Guardian explained this phenomenon and quoted an ex-corporate executive: “Ambition used to mean a bigger paycheque, a bigger brand, a more senior position […] Now I’d actually rather go and watch the sunset.” (www.theguardian.com/money/2022/jul/19/a-bigger-paycheck-id-rather-watch-the-sunset-is-this-the-end-of-ambition)
Dissatisfaction with modern work – rigid hierarchies, bad management, boundaries that flex only one way – had been mounting for decades, says Julia Hobsbawm, the author of The Nowhere Office.
She states that the upheaval of 2020 not only revealed our jobs to be more flexible than many of us had been led to believe; but we were also reminded of the importance of health, hobbies and relationships – our careers often seeming hollow by comparison. Now, says Hobsbawm, “there’s a widespread sense of ‘carpe diem’”.
So what does Islam say about all this? Does Islam wholeheartedly agree with the idea of carpe diem? What guidance can Islam offer in the wake of the anti-ambition age?
Living a balanced life
First, let’s observe how Islam asks us to approach religious responsibility. Islam wholeheartedly supports living a balanced life. Islam puts it to Muslims that:
وَكَذٰلِكَ جَعَلۡنٰكُمۡ اُمَّةً وَّسَطًا
“Thus have We made you the people of the middle.” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.144)
This means Muslims have been directed to adopt a balance in all matters of life – including work, home and everything in between.
An example from the life of Prophet Muhammadsa makes this matter clearer. Once, a man became so engrossed in religion that he began to fast daily and pray all night. News of this reached the Holy Prophetsa and he advised the companion to fast for some days and give up fasting for some days; pray and sleep, stating: “your eyes have a right on you, and your body and your family have a right on you.” (Sahih Bukhari, Kitab as-Saum, Hadith 1977)
In another narration, the Holy Prophetsa said to a companion:
إِنَّ الرَّهْبَانِيَّةَ لَمْ تُكْتَبْ عَلَيْنَا
“We [Muslims] were not commanded to practise asceticism.” (Musnad Ahmad Bin Hanbal, Musnad as-Sadiqah Aisha Bint As-Sadiq, Hadith 25893)
This narration proves Islam does not allow us to shun the daily pursuits of life. Instead, we are encouraged to engage and interact with the world, all the while worshipping Allah and following His commandments. We must find that perfect balance between the world and our Lord. This is the meaning of life according to Islam.
The Holy Quran also affirms this principle, and encapsulating all acts and forms of worship, commands us that:
فَاتَّقُوا اللّٰهَ مَا اسۡتَطَعۡتُمۡ وَاسۡمَعُوۡا وَاَطِيۡعُوۡا وَاَنۡفِقُوۡا خَيۡرًا لِّاَنۡفُسِكُمۡ
“So fear Allah as best you can, and listen, and obey, and spend [in His cause]; it will be good for yourselves.” (Surah at-Taghabun, Ch.64: V.17)
Allah does not desire hardship
Success, then – according to the Holy Quran – means to do your best to follow the commandments of Allah without putting yourself in unnecessary hardship. Allah states:
يُرِيۡدُ اللّٰهُ بِكُمُ الۡيُسۡرَ وَلَا يُرِيۡدُ بِكُمُ الۡعُسۡرَ
“Allah desires [to give] you facility and He desires not hardship for you.” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.186)
Reaffirming this principle, the Holy Prophetsa states:
“Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the glad tidings that you will be rewarded; and gain strength by worshipping in the mornings, the afternoons, and during the last hours of the nights.” (Sahih Bukhari, Kitab al-Iman, Hadith 39)
On another occasion, the Holy Prophetsa stated:
“O people! Do only those good deeds which you can do, for Allah does not get tired (of giving reward) until you get tired, and the best deeds to Allah are the incessant ones even if they are few.” (Sahih Bukhari, Kitab al-Libas, Hadith 5861)
This applies to even the most fundamental practices of Islam. Muslims are commanded to read the Holy Quran every day, but Allah still reminds Muslims that:
فَاقۡرَءُوۡا مَا تَيَسَّرَ مِنَ الۡقُرۡاٰنِ ؕ عَلِمَ اَنۡ سَيَكُوۡنُ مِنۡكُمۡ مَّرۡضٰي ۙ وَاٰخَرُوۡنَ يَضۡرِبُوۡنَ فِي الۡاَرۡضِ يَبۡتَغُوۡنَ مِنۡ فَضۡلِ اللّٰهِ ۙ وَاٰخَرُوۡنَ يُقَاتِلُوۡنَ فِيۡ سَبِيۡلِ اللّٰهِ ۫ۖ فَاقۡرَءُوۡا مَا تَيَسَّرَ مِنۡهُ
“Recite, then, as much of the Qur’an as is easy [for you]. He knows that there will be some among you who may be sick and others who may travel in the land seeking Allah’s bounty, and others who may fight in the cause of Allah. So recite of it that which is easy [for you]” (Surah al-Muzzammil, Ch.73: V.21)
Even when asking Muslims to sacrifice their sleep for worship, the Holy Prophetsa still demanded that, “When any one of you stands up for Salat at night and finds it difficult to recite the Holy Quran accurately and he is unaware of what he is reciting, he should go back to sleep [until he is able to regain consciousness].” (Riyadus-Salihin, Kitabul-Fazail, Hadith1186)
Therefore, to attain lofty spiritual heights, Muslims need not subject themselves to unnecessary burdens, thinking such hardships would please Allah. Instead, one ought to follow the commandments of the Holy Quran and strive to follow the model of the Holy Prophetsa.
In this vein, the Promised Messiahas states:
“There is no need for forty-day retreats in order to purify your soul. The companions of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, did not engage in such retreats, or perform the Sufi ‘invocation of the saw’ (dhikr-e-arra), or engage in meditative practices of ‘negation and affirmation’ (nafi-o-asbat), and so on. Quite the contrary, they had something entirely different at their disposal. They were engrossed in obedience to the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him.” (Malfuzat [English], Vol. 1, p. 195)
Therefore, if Islam does not require such rigorous religious duties, the same should apply to the world.
Islamic work ethics
Islam tells Muslims to do all sorts of acceptable jobs and earn a pure livelihood. However, they should always remember that whenever they are asked to make time for Allah, they must give priority to their worship. The Holy Quran states:
رِجَالٌ ۙ لَّا تُلۡهِيۡهِمۡ تِجَارَةٌ وَّلَا بَيۡعٌ عَنۡ ذِكۡرِ اللّٰهِ
“[By] men, whom neither merchandise nor traffic diverts from the remembrance of Allah.” (Surah an-Nur, Ch.24: V38)
Similarly, speaking of attending the Friday prayer, Allah states that when the call is made for prayer on Friday, Muslims should hasten to the remembrance of Allah and leave off all business. When the prayer concludes, they may freely go back to work and seek the bounties of Allah, keeping Allah’s name alive in their hearts.
However, Allah also states that:
وَاِذَا رَاَوۡا تِجَارَةً اَوۡ لَهۡوَا ۣانۡفَضُّوۡۤا اِلَيۡهَا وَتَرَكُوۡكَ قَآئِمًا ؕ قُلۡ مَا عِنۡدَ اللّٰهِ خَيۡرٌ مِّنَ اللَّهۡوِ وَمِنَ التِّجَارَةِ ؕ وَاللّٰهُ خَيۡرُ الرّٰزِقِيۡنَ
“But when they see some merchandise or some amusement, they break up for it, and leave thee standing. Say, ‘That which is with Allah is better than amusement and merchandise, and Allah is the Best Provider.’” (Surah al-Jumuah, Ch.62: V.12)
Muslims have been admonished in the verse not to neglect their spiritual well-being in the pursuit of material gains and pastimes. This makes it clear that one should work, but make time for remembering Allah. During his work, he should continue to remember Allah.
This also means we should not forget why we are working; to earn a livelihood so that we may help ourselves and those around us, and to continue worshipping Allah in sound health.
Similarly, the Holy Prophetsa also emphasised that a person should work to earn a living. Issuing a strong rebuttal against begging as opposed to working, he stated:
“It is better for any one of you to tie a bundle of firewood and carry it on his back and sell it than to beg a person.” (Sahih Muslim, Kitab az-Zakat, Hadith 1042)
Similarly, the Holy Prophetsa states:
“Nobody has ever eaten a better meal than that which one has earned by working with one’s own hands. The Prophet of Allah, David[as], used to eat from the earnings of his manual labour.” (Sahih Bukhari, Kitab al-Buyu’u, Hadith 2072)
All the above narrations make us understand that Islam is not against work. Rather, it looks upon those who work, especially with their hands, with great admiration. Islam also emphasises that we should work, but all the while remembering Allah, and not let our work get in the way of discharging our religious and moral responsibilities.
The Holy Quran, describing the purpose of man’s life, states:
وَمَا خَلَقۡتُ الۡجِنَّ وَالۡاِنۡسَ اِلَّا لِيَعۡبُدُوۡنِ
“And I have not created the Jinn and the men but that they may worship Me.” (Surah adh-Dhariyat Ch.51: V.57)
Commenting on this verse, the Promised Messiahas states:
“The world must not be the centre of your aspirations. I reiterate this single point again and again because, in my estimation, worship is the sole purpose for which man has been created and it is this very instruction of which man is negligent.
“I do not say that you should abandon your worldly businesses, or forsake your wife and children to retreat to a jungle or a mountain. Islam does not deem this to be permissible and Islam does not allow asceticism. Islam desires to make man active, diligent and able.
“Therefore, I say that you ought to engage in your businesses with toil and labour. It is narrated in a Hadith that a person who owns land but does not use it for agriculture, will be accountable in the sight of God.
“Therefore, if someone understands this instruction to mean that they should detach themselves from the affairs of the world, they are mistaken. Not at all. The fact of the matter is that you ought to ensure that the pleasure of God Almighty is intended in the business that you engage in, and you must not ignore His will to give precedence to your own motives and emotions.” (Malfuzat [English], Vol. 1, p. 191)
At another occasion, the Promised Messiahas states:
“Islam does not make anyone slothful. You ought to engage in business and employment as well, but I do not approve that you should have no time at all for God.
“When it is time to engage in business, engage in business; but even then, keep the fear and awe of Allah Almighty in view so that even your businesses become a form of worship. When it is time for the Prayer, do not miss your Prayer. In every situation, whatever it may be, give precedence to religion.
“Let not the world itself become your objective; instead, religion ought to be the actual objective that you seek. When this becomes your way, even your worldly engagements will be deemed religious.” (Malfuzat [English], Vol. 3, pp. 51–52)