Islam and the pursuit of happiness

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Melissa Ahmedi, Religious Education teacher, UK

“We are living in a world where no matter how rich someone is, they always want more. Instead of being grateful for what they have, they are preoccupied with what they do not.” (Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih Vaa, Concluding address of National Ijtema Lajna Imaillah UK 2021)

Many are acquainted with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, centred on the quest for the elixir of life – a potion that would make the villain, Voldemort, immortal. Perhaps it could be said that in our world of 2021, many are living and searching for that metaphorical tonic; placing so much emphasis on the temporal in the hope that it will give them true everlasting satisfaction and happiness. 

The age-old problem of the haves and the have nots, is under a magnifying glass of social media in 2021. More than ever before, we are aware of what each other has (or doesn’t) and this leads to anxiety on both sides. 

Speaking on technological advancements and their effects, recently, Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa, at the National Ijtema of Lajna Imaillah UK 2021, said:

“The reality is that the majority of people in the world are continuing to live at the base poverty level or even below it. Adding petrol to the fire of their torment is the fact that they are now constantly exposed to images of the affluent lifestyles and immense purchasing power of people in developed countries, whilst buying even the most basic essentials for their families remains a daily struggle for them […] We can only imagine how much harm is being inflicted on people living here at the very epicentre of materialism, greed and consumer culture.”

Perhaps the biggest problem is the power of comparison or in other words, keeping up with the Jones’. The magnifying glass of social media typically shows the world their highlights.

Mo Gawdat – former Chief Business Officer of Google X – speaks of how he became a hamster on what psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill”: The more you get the more you want, the more you strive the more reasons you discover for striving. In the sudden loss of his adult son, he vowed to keep a project he and his son had been working on alive. In one of the most-watched Channel 4 interviews to date, he shared his development of the equation of happiness = equal to or greater than the difference between the way you see the events in your life and your expectation of the way you think your life should go. In other words; having inappropriate or inaccurate expectations has led a lot of people to feel unhappy. Whilst unmet expectations is certainly a huge factor in unhappiness for so many, however perhaps a more important principle here has been missed. 

Allah the Almighty knew the world would go through these cycles, and so with the advent of every prophet served a reminder:

“And worldly life is nothing but a sport and a pastime. And surely the abode of the Hereafter is better for those who are righteous. Will you not then understand?” (Surah al-An‘am, Ch.6: V.33)

“And Allah has favoured some of you above others in [worldly] gifts. But those more favoured will not restore [any part of] their [worldly] gifts to those whom their right hands possess, so that they may be equal [sharers] in them. Will they then deny the favour of Allah?” (Surah al-Jinn, Ch.16: V.72)

In the commentary of this verse it is written:

“The only way to save the world from the tyranny of those in possession of power and privilege and to open the doors of progress and advancement to real merit and talent and thereby to rehabilitate justice and equality among mankind is that God should send His Messengers. Their advent heralds a new era and the dispossessed and the “have-nots” have their rights restored to them.”(Five-Volume Commentary of the Holy Quran, Vol. 3, p. 1693)

So, when the Promised Messiah and Mahdi, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas came, he expanded on finding true happiness and contentment through the lens of the Holy Quran. The Holy Quran speaks of the true and everlasting pursuit of happiness as seeking the state of “the soul at rest”, النَّفۡسُ‭ ‬الۡمُطۡمَئِنَّةُ – “nafs-e-mutma‘innah”:

“[And]thou, O soul at peace! Return to thy Lord well pleased[with Himand]He well pleased [with thee]. So enter thou among My chosen servants. And enter thou My Garden.”(Surah al-Fajr, Ch.89: V.28-31)

The Promised Messiahas, in The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam (p. 7) says that the soul “undergoes a great transformation in this very life and is bestowed a paradise while still in this world.”So peace of mind, heart and soul, and thus happiness is attainable in this world. 

But how? 

As a pragmatic faith, Islam does not teach the complete removal of one from the world to achieve this aim perhaps in the way a monk might. The Holy Prophet Muhammadsa had many periods of prayer and divine connection and revelation. He retreated for short periods of solitude to the cave Hira in the Meccan era, and called people to congregational prayer through community in the Medinite era. The idea was both personal reflection and a deep connection with Allah, and his personal example called people to action in the collective. As the Holy Quran declares, true happiness, contentment and satisfaction is found with Allah: 

“Those who believe, and whose hearts find comfort in the remembrance of Allah. Aye! it is in the remembrance of Allah that hearts can find comfort.” (Surah al-Ra‘d. Ch.13: V.29)

It seems more than ever we are hyper-aware of our mood and putting our best foot forward in the public eye. In an era of toxic positivity where no matter the event in a person’s life; one must always remain positive, or appear to be to others. The problem with toxic positivity isn’t necessarily being positive; but it’s the attitude of expectation surrounding happiness itself, when someone goes through an adverse event.

Islam teaches that one can still be happy and content despite going through periods of challenge and adversity. In fact, it is in those periods of adversity, where one’s contentment and happiness is really tested. Take grief, for example. Islam prescribes a period of three days of public mourning following the news of someone’s death. Feelings of shock, disbelief, anguish, helplessness, anger are all natural emotions in times of personal tragedy. Islam recognises that in order for a person to process grief; they require time. These events call people back to Allah. Such is true of the prophets who faced back-to-back adversity – yet their contentment (and happiness) depended upon Allah alone. Prophet Noahas prayed اَنِّيۡ‭ ‬مَغۡلُوۡبٌ‭ ‬فَانۡتَصِرۡ – “I am overcome, so [come] Thou [to my]help!” (Surah al-Qamar, Ch.54: V.11) when he boarded the ship knowing his wife and son refused his message and their fate was sealed. Prophet Mosesas prayed when he thought he needed his brother prophet Aaronas to help him articulate himself to the tyrant Pharaoh in Egypt. Prophet Zechariahas prayed when he feared he would leave this world childless:

رَبِّ هَبۡ لِيۡ مِنۡ لَّدُنۡكَ ذُرِّيَّةً طَيِّبَةً ۚ اِنَّكَ سَمِيۡعُ الدُّعَآءِ

 “My Lord, grant me from Thyself pure offspring; surely, Thou art the Hearer of prayer.” (Surah Al-e-Imran, Ch.3: V.39)

Despite irrefutably difficult hardships, gratitude is an important theme of the Holy Quran and the advent of all of the prophets of Allah. Perhaps one poignant example is Prophet Luqmanas who called his son to the importance of gratitude being intrinsically tied to belief in One God:

“And We bestowed wisdom on Luqman, [saying], ‘Be grateful to Allah’ and whoso is grateful, is grateful only for [the good of]his own soul. And whoso is ungrateful, then surely Allah is Self-Sufficient, Praiseworthy. And [remember]when Luqman said to his son while exhorting him, ‘O my dear son! associate not partners with Allah. Surely, associating partners [with God]is a grievous wrong.’” (Surah Luqman, Ch.31: V.13-14)

The humility is recognising that it is us, human beings that have a deep need to feel contentment and happiness. Allah has no desire nor need for happiness – He is Himself The Source of Peace –  السّلاَمُ Al-Salaam – and wants us to attain peace.

As humans, we fixate our happiness on impermanence – belongings, people, property and children – but the Quran reminds us it’s all temporary, except Allah: 

“Know that the life of this world is only a sport and a pastime, and an adornment, and [a source of] boasting among yourselves, and [of] rivalry in multiplying riches and children. [This life is] like the rain the vegetation produced whereby rejoices the tillers. Then it dries up and thou seest it turn yellow; then it becomes broken pieces [of straw]. And in the Hereafter there is severe punishment, and [also] forgiveness from Allah, and [His] pleasure. And the life of this world is nothing but [temporary] enjoyment of deceitful things.”(Surah al-Hadid, Ch.57: V.21)

“Mutual rivalry in [seeking worldly] increase diverts you [from God].” (Surah al-Takathur, Ch.102: V.2)

“The more the people of the world gain the paltry goods of this life, the greater becomes the hunger and the consequent burning of their heart. But as for those who seek God, the more they turn to Him, the greater is their peace of mind […] Would the people of the world had realised this great secret of happiness!” (Five-Volume Commentary, Vol. 3, p. 1508)

In keeping with the wizarding theme with which this article began, Harry Potter eventually triumphs and thus, good overcomes evil, and happiness and so contentment is a choice we make by submitting to the One who controls all things – such is the very definition of Muslim.

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