“SAY HELLO TO your new master,” my aunt told me. I looked down at him, laying peacefully in my arms, his big brown eyes staring innocently back at me. I could not help but laugh at the irony of it. But she was right.
This little creature—utterly helpless before the world, unable to communicate its needs, incapable of asserting its rights—held complete power over me. He dictated when I could sleep, when I could eat, how long I could work, when I could stop, when I could go. In all of a moment’s time, he pulled me away from myself and forced me to focus, almost exclusively, on him.
And that, my dear friends, is indeed a miracle—that such a vulnerable, unwitting creature has in its power to compel banî Âdam to selflessness and humility. Banî Âdam, whose lower nafs, or soul, so seductively and relentlessly seeks ever to satisfy its own selfish desires. Banî Âdam, whose ongoing struggle in the world is to forever fight against its egocentric outlook, to constantly strive to remove the blinders of self-centeredness, to stave off those siren calls to drown ourselves in a sea of self-indulgence.
Labbayk! The Human Mission Statement
So what is the significance of experiencing this self-denial that a newborn brings about? And surely there is significance beyond the obvious immediate. For, indeed, every stage of life for the believer, every passage of experience, is a lesson and a reminder of who we are, what our purpose is, and how we ought to perform it.
Allah declares in his Heavenly Reminder that He did not create us except to worship Him (Sûrat Al-Dhâriyât, 51:56). That is our purpose in its most general sense. While the Quran and the Sunnah have delineated how we ought to implement that worship specifically, Allah has also stated that He has made signs for us in ourselves and in the horizons (Sûrat Fu ṣ ṣilat, 41:53)—that is to say, those with discerning hearts, hearts open and in tune with seeking out the pleasure of their Creator, see in their own life experiences—and in the ways of the world—affirmations of Allah’s Oneness and reminders of how they ought to conduct themselves before Him.
The early, grueling stages of parenthood are one such reminder. Working tirelessly day and night to serve our infant children—a categorically helpless, insignificant creation—is a reminder of our true role on earth as stewards of the earth, a true glimpse at what a sincere steward of Allah is like, a close-up of how a steward of Allah conducts himself and interacts with those in his midst.
Childbirth and infant care is a shocking reminder of our primary function on earth—that of servitude, before Allah and to His creation. The sleepless nights, the total inability to make a simple schedule, being constantly, unceasingly at another’s beck and call (or rather cry) has jarred me awake to the truth of our human status and the reality of our worldly role. We are nothing more than servants of Allah, and our job is to serve Him by serving His creation.
We are no more than this and no less than this…neither above service, nor below it. It is, indeed, a humbling experience. And [know that] I have not created [either] jinn or human beings [for any other end] but to [know] and worship Me [alone] (Sûrat Al-Dhâriyât, 51:56). This verse has chimed throughout my heart countless times as I count down the minutes in the dead of night waiting for the chance that I might, at some point, get to sleep.
‘Abd-Allah or ‘Abd What?
My experience that month has shown me how far I am—how far we all are—from assuming our roles as stewards of the earth, humble servants of Allah. It has given me a taste of what kind of striving is expected from those special Close Ones of Allah—those who seek out, day and night, those most vulnerable of creations and serve them, and feed them, and cater to them, asking from them no thanks and expecting nothing from them in return.
It is a striving (and voluntary at that) of a tremendous degree. It is an almost complete denial of the self. That there are Servants of the All-Merciful who do so willingly, for the sake of Allah, puts me in awe. It is exhausting and incessant. It requires constant vigilance and constant exertion. But that is the kind of care our world needs, the intense, selfless, humbling care of a newborn child.
Anyone who does not serve her infant child with humility and love is looked upon as despicable, as fundamentally flawed, monstrous. Our role as stewards is no less critical and, if we honestly assess ourselves, we are monstrously abusive and horrifically neglectful.
Let us face the facts. This is a difficult task in the best of situations (as we have our lower nafs to contend with).
But modernity, whose modus operandi is submission to the lower nafs, makes selflessness a most alien and hostile endeavor. The kind of service that the Quran calls for, that our Creator demands of us, is radically opposed to our consumer culture of self-indulgence and that ever-expanding pool of luxury-necessities our society swims in.
We Muslims have been (for the most part) largely uncritical participants (even enthusiastic ones) in this mess. So far are we from fulfilling our roles as stewards of the earth, it is not even a living dialogue among us, barely part of our consciousness as Muslims.
Being a good Muslim does not come to a halt at praying and fasting and paying Zakât. Rather those spiritual actions must manifest themselves in the material world of which we are—for these fleeting albeit ever so critical moments—a part.
Our spiritual exercises ought to impel us to be actively seeking out the grace and mercy of Allah in the material world. That is, by fulfilling our trust, this amânah, in serving the world for the sake of Allah, by upholding the dignity of the earth and all its dignitaries—animate and non-animate, human and non-human.
We seem to have missed the memo on the dangers of modernity and materialism. And those dangers are so very real. Allah has condemned such a way of life with chilling severity:
No indeed! [It is a test of faith!] But you [human beings break the covenant of Allah: You] do not give generously to the orphan. Nor do you urge one another to feed the indigent. Moreover, you devour the inheritance [of others] with a devouring greed. For you love wealth with an ardent love. No indeed! Most surely, [it shall all perish,] when the earth is pounded [to dust] with a crushing pounding; and [when] comes your Lord [for Judgment]—and the angels [arrayed] in rank upon rank…For, on that Day, none shall [have ever sought to] punish as He shall punish. And none shall [have ever thought to] bind as He shall bind. (Sûrat Al-Fajr, 89: 17-22, 25-26)
Look around you. Our failure as stewards is written everywhere. It is in the destruction of the rain forests. The melting of the icebergs. The strip-mining of the mountains. The underwater drilling of the oceans. The slaughter of innocent people. The slaughter of innocent people. The slaughter of innocent people. (And no, that repetition is not a print error!) The unbridled corruption and destruction of the world is our condemnation. It is our great miscarriage of duty.
It is time we understand that the material state of our lives is but a mere reflection of our spiritual state. And if our material condition is so mangled, what does that say of the state of our souls?
It is time to reorient ourselves in what it means to be a worshipful person. It is time to re-link religiosity with action. It is time to take ownership of our status as stewards and understand that the welfare of the world is our responsibility, that the ability to care for it is absolutely within our grasp. Allah is merciful and he does not give us a responsibility without the necessary tools to fulfill it.
Any suckling baby can testify to that truth.
So we have no excuse.
Then let us begin.