Recently, I heard a shaykh say, "the only thing that we should be worried about is whether or not we have good etiquette with God." This struck me as a truly profound statement, and I hope I can explain why. God gives us absolutely everything. He gave us life and the ability to think and hear and see. He gave a man named Barack Obama the power to use these abilities to win an election 4 years ago and become the President of the United States. He gave Michael Phelps a strong body by which he was able to win Olympic Gold Medals. And so on and so forth - you show me any human accomplishment, great or small, and I will show you the manifest blessings of God upon which that accomplishment was built. As such, none of us are really to be praised for the things we accomplish in life, and this is one of the reasons why the Fatiha begins alhamdulillah rabb al-'alamin (All praise is due to God). It is a reorientation to the way things really are - God is the only One truly deserving of praise. As such, we need to reorient our sense of accomplishment to an affirmation of the fact that it is God who makes everything possible. If I remember that, then if this khutba is a success, and it is shared 1 million times online, then it wouldn't give me a sense of superiority to any other khutba writer out there, because I would recognize that I only accomplished that because God had given me tawfiq, which is Divinely-granted success. This word comes in a crucial part of the Qur'an which states
This is what the Prophet Shu'ayb (may peace be upon him) said when his people rejected his call to them, and they mockingly said, "does your prayer command us to leave that which our ancestors worshiped and not do with our wealth what we want?!" (verse 87) Shu'ayb was entrusted with one of the biggest possible tasks imaginable - the transformation of the subjectivities, the worldview, and the ethical practices of an entire people. When faced with this challenge, he did not shrink, but recognized the fact that he could never achieve his objective if God did not will it. So he manifested tawakkul - a deep trust in God - at the same time that he worked incredibly hard in order to, quite literally, change the world.
It is through reflecting on the lives of the Prophets (may peace be upon all of them) that we can begin to understand how to have good etiquette with God. When the Prophet Muhammad (sallAllahu alayhi wa alihi wa sallam) was stoned in Ta'if, he did not get stressed out, nor did he let anger get the best of him. Rather, he turned to God seeking relief, knowing that if everything that was right between him and God, it did not matter that he was treated like the wretched of the earth. It is worth listening to the entirety of his du'a at that moment:
"O Allah! I complain to You of my weakness, my scarcity of resources and the humiliation I have been subjected to by the people. O Most Merciful of those who are merciful. O Lord of the weak and my Lord too. To whom have You entrusted me? To a distant person who receives me with hostility? Or to an enemy to whom You have granted authority over my affair? So long as You are not angry with me, I do not care. Your favor is of a more expansive relief to me. I seek refuge in the light of Your Face by which all darkness is dispelled and every affair of this world and the next is set right, lest Your anger or Your displeasure descend upon me. I desire Your pleasure and satisfaction until You are pleased. There is no power and no might except by You."
Allahumma salli 'alayh! This is good etiquette with God - to know that even in the darkness of human oppression, one can be free in God. This is what Islam is. It is not submission to some tyrannical dictatorship of the ignoramuses, as is too commonly expressed in youtube videos and diatribes which amplify people's lack of self-esteem more than their love for God. It is submission to the One who creates all things at all moments, and by whom one can be free, even if crushed under rocks in the burning sun like our beloved exemplar and guide Bilal (may God be well pleased with him). Freedom does not come from enslavement to our selfish desires, or enslavement to a corporation who pays our health care bills - freedom comes from the inner knowledge that all benefit and harm comes from God alone. He alone is the possessor of the name al-Nafi' (the One who brings benefit) and He alone is the possessor of the name al-Darr (the One who brings harm). One can look at the story of Bilal (may Allah be well pleased with him) as a recognition of true tawhid, for what does he say when the rock is crushing his chest?! He says, "Ahad, Ahad (One, One)!!" He does not appeal to Umayya (his slave master) to remove the rock - he appeals to the One who created the rock, and gives it mass and force in conjunction with gravity. If Allah so willed, he could have made the rock light, just as he made fire cool for Ibrahim (may peace be upon him)! And yet, despite his suffering, Bilal does not waver in His worship of the Lord of that rock, and his reliance on Him alone to help him through his trial.
Each of us faces challenges as well - does not stress sometimes feel like a heavy rock weighing down on our chest?! Sometimes we can become so stressed that we feel like we can hardly breathe properly. But it is in precisely these moments that we must remember to have good etiquette with God, and think about the example of Shu'ayb (may peace be upon him) confronting his people, or the example of the Prophet (sallAllahu alayhi wa alihi wa sallam) making du'a at Ta'if, and the example of Bilal (may Allah be well pleased with him) suffering under that rock. Each of them confronted tremendous this-wordly challenges, and they resorted to seeking refuge in Allah. Each of them knew that even if they died doing what they were doing, they would be successful if they had good etiquette with God. And so they made du'a and dhikr that reflected their deep states of realization that God is always in complete control, and our only true worry is whether or not we have good etiquette with Him.
Perhaps we have an exam that we are studying for, and we are worried about how well we will do. Deep inside, we might be worried that if we don't do well on this exam, there is no way we'll get that summer internship at JP Morgan, and then we won't get a job after college, and then our parents will yell at us for spending so much money on college and not getting a good job out of it. And then we'll feel like a loser because we came to Brown hoping that after 5 years we'd have a triumphant return back to our high school reunion, and people would be all, "Hey David, what are you up to?" and we'd be all, "Oh, I work for Goldman Sachs." Or whatever hypothetical scenario floats your boat, involving law school, med school, post-doctoral fellowships, marrying an amazing person, having beautiful children or whatever else we think really matters. And so our stress comes from the ways in which we think that we need X or need Y in order to be a valuable as a human being. But we are valuable because God chose to create us - you, me, and everyone in this room. Ibn Ata'illah writes in his book Taj al-'urus, speaking from God's perspective, "You existed through My planning for you before you existed for your self. So be for your self by not being for it. I took care of your self before you appeared on the scene. And I continue to take care of it now..." The truth is that each of us matters in God's creation, whether we understand it right now or not, and being rich or poor, well-known or obscure, an Ivy-League graduate or illiterate has nothing to do with our inherent, God-decreed worth. As it states in Qur'an, lad khalaqnal insana fi ihsani taqwim (Surely, we have created humanity in the finest state)
The only thing we need to have good etiquette with God is our breath. Bilal could not move his body - he was someone's property! - but that did not keep him from being right with God. He used his breaths to say Ahad Ahad. Shu'ayb was essentially ridiculed by the elites of his society - the beautiful, wealthy, and powerful - but that did not keep him from doing what he knew God wanted him to do. He used his breath to say wa ma tawfiqi illa billah. If we have a breath, we can act in this world, and that act can be purely for Allah, and that sincere ethical and spiritual response to living can open for us the door to infinite freedom that comes only from utter submission to Allah.
The Prophet Muhammad, the master of the Messengers, said it best when he said in his du'a: "So long as You are not angry with me, I do not care." That is the key to removing worldly stress from our lives, but that is something which requires us to let go of our need for everything that we think we need to be socially legitimate. We need to be willing to say: "So long as You are not angry with me, I do not care if I have to work at Target after Brown" "So long as You are not angry with me, I do not care that she does not want to marry me" "So long as You are not angry with me, I do not care if people think I am a loser, or backwards, or too religious or not religious enough or not religious in the right kind of way" "So long as You are not angry with me, I do not care about anything." That is tawhid, and that is what we need to have good etiquette with God. When we reach that level, we will no longer let small things stress us out, because we will have more important things to be stressed out by. We will recognize that we were created for greatness, a greatness that comes from following in the footsteps of Prophets like Shu'ayb, a greatness that comes from emulating the example of amazing human beings like Bilal, and we will embrace each day as an opportunity to manifest that greatness, if God so blesses us to do so. We will know that in each breath, we can be with God, just as God is with us in each breath He gives us. We will know that we have nothing to be ashamed of except our own ignorance, moral weakness, and spiritual doubt, and we will delight in each opportunity God gives us to raise up to a higher level, just as we would delight if the rich and wealthy offered us exciting jobs and the beautiful and well-liked invited us into their social circles.
This is a roadmap. If we are not there, then do not think that these things are not possible. Religion speaks to people in different ways at different points in their spiritual journey. I was asked to speak about stress, and this is what came to mind. This does not mean this is the only way to think about it. I encourage everyone to think about what stress means to them, and how worldly stress and spiritual worry are related. I encourage all of us to reflect on the what causes stress in our lives, and what can be done about it. And I encourage all of us to begin to unravel what we think God is doing with our lives. Where is God leading us? What obstacles exist between me and what I think God wants for me in the coming weeks and months? What can I change, and what do I just have to accept and move on? As the famous serenity prayer states:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Lastly, we should recognize that the great litmus test for us is following the Shari'ah - all of us are called to implement that which God commands and avoid that which God prohibits. Being stressed out about that is, in a way, a prerequisite for authentic spirituality, and struggling to be in conformity to the dictates of the Shar'iah is essential to our spiritual health. So as we explore how to de-stress from things that do not ultimately matter, let us be careful to avoid moments where we tell ourselves that leaving the obligatory or doing the prohibited is not important because we happen to feel better about ourselves when we live our lives that way. That, according to the Islamic tradition, is the essence of delusion - to put the cravings of the self over the clear instructions of God as transmitted to us by God's Beloved, the Emissary of God, sallAllahu alayhi wa alihi wa sallam.
God is to be praised for whatever I have said that is correct, and may He forgive me for anything that I have conveyed which is untrue or ugly in any way, ameen. May God grant each of us wisdom in our path, and may we be saved from unnecessary stress in this world, and may we all be granted serenity on the Day of Arising, when fathers will flee from their daughters, and mothers from their sons, amen.