Before marriage, I would daydream and imagine what my life would ideally look like in the future. I would be the perfect husband, the perfect father, the perfect employee, the perfect student of knowledge, and the perfect worshipper of Allah. My goal was to be the Bruce Wayne or Jason Bourne of living the Muslim life. That goal was a natural result of growing up as an average middle-class young Muslim who read comics, watched superhero movies and then became a practising and faithful Muslim. I thought I could be the best human being I could possibly be just by putting in the raw effort and grit required to get there.
In university I had been a fitness junkie, powerlifter and dabbled in Olympic-style weightlifting. Coming out of the bottom of a 315lb squat teaches you that the only way out of your problems is to push back. The only way to get through a hill sprint was to grit your teeth and dig in your heels. The only way to get through an extremely uncomfortable overhead squat was to do it regardless. No excuses. No pain, no gain.
When I first started studying Islam, I tried to apply all these lessons and be that perfect Muslim. And for the most part, it seemed possible. I tried to be a dutiful employee at work while still putting in 2 hours of reading practice before work & 4 hours of Arabic class. It was difficult and I had to sleep more to recover, but it was not impossible. Without realizing though, I had already started to sacrifice my attention to my health to do this. I mostly stopped working out and diligently watching what I ate. I remember consciously thinking: I have spent enough time and energy focusing on my physical self, it is time to put that energy and effort to a more positive end and sacrifice them for Allah.
After marriage, I still tried to be that ideal Muslim, except I added a new role: that of the husband. I was still able to put in the necessary hours of studying Arabic, and then eventually driving around crowded roads and highways to attend classes with teachers while still making time for my wife. But my schedule had very noticeably become much tighter and tense. I found myself having to reduce some attention to my goals in Islamic knowledge. I also started to get strange chest pains that I brushed away as ‘paranoia’. Nothing would come between me and my priorities in life.
Around this time, I began to realize the amount of effort and time it would take to study Islam properly with my teachers. I had to increase my level of exertion to do this. I realized the only way I could do this was to give up my weekends to studying as well. I reversed my decision to prioritize my life at home for my life with my teachers.
As I started to get into this routine, my daughter was born. Immediately I felt the tug of responsibility to shift my priorities again. I must make time at home too, I thought. My workplace also started to make changes and resulted in me having less free time there. But I would still honor my contract and be that dutiful employee who abides by his contract and earns his pay in a halal way. One last sacrifice could be made to achieve all this balance. I started sleeping only 5 hours a day. Nothing would get between me and excellence. The Sahabah gave all their effort and time for Islam, I thought. I should follow their example and do it too. 40 hours of work and 30 hours of study every week with no breaks? Man up and do it. No excuses.
By now the chest pains had gotten more frequent. I also was unable to control my anger, whether on the road or at home. In aiming for the ideal state of perfection I was beginning to destroy myself. Eventually after 6 years of continually pushing myself to be ‘that ideal Muslim’ I crashed into a brick wall. I had a series of panic attacks and was left completely unable to do anything. I couldn’t even drive, let alone attend classes. My worship of Allah suffered as I found myself first unable to stay awake, then unable to sleep, and then needing to take sleep aids. In a few months I went from trying to be Superman to getting a crash course on human vulnerability and the reality of life. That part of the story is more detailed in my article about mental illness.
What I want to talk about here is that dangerous ideal of perfection I had. It’s easy when you are young and full of youthful energy to think that you can be Superman. I can do the impossible. I can achieve what others have failed to do. I can be the best there is/was. I can be like the Sahabah. I can be like the Imams. All it takes is hard work and effort. Push yourself. Don’t be inadequate. Don’t be weak. Don’t settle for less. Don’t sell yourself short. Having ambition and goals is healthy and important, but there is a line where it crosses over into being neurotic perfectionism.
This is a major problem with superhero stories. Bruce Wayne and Jason Bourne are fictional characters. If they ever existed, they would probably have severe mental health issues and stress levels that would incapacitate them and render them unable to function for long periods of time. In fact, some Batman stories have explored the idea that Bruce Wayne is as crazy as the Joker. I had unwittingly been interpreting the stories of the Sahabah through the lens of fictional characters, resulting in an incorrect and unhealthy interpretation of both the fictional characters and the factual ones.
The Sahabah gave their lives and effort for Islam, but they also lived in a time where daily life and its pace were natural, simple, and straightforward. Time was measured in hours rather than minutes and seconds, and you maintained a healthy and close connection to the natural world. Trying to be like them in the modern world requires quite a lot more nuance than being a perfectionist or productivity juggernaut.
So what does ‘being the ideal Muslim’ look like to me now? If you have a keen eye, you may have noticed that in the first paragraph I did not mention how I wanted to be ‘the perfect son’. That might seem strange. Given how much Islam emphasizes being good to your parents, why not try to be the perfect son as well?
The reason for that was that I had already experienced how difficult that ideal was. I had already given up on being the perfect son in my early 20s and realized that my relationship with my parents would have bumps, ups and downs. I had already realized that it was more realistic, productive, and useful to ‘try my best’ in being a good son yet still expect myself to be inadequate, weak, and needing improvement in many places. I had already admitted to myself that it was okay to be struggling in that department, as many of the reasons for not being ‘the perfect son’ were to do with factors outside of my control. I was human, and human sons will inevitably have the odd conflict and difficult relationship issues with human parents.
But being the perfect husband, father, employee, student of knowledge and worshipper of Allah were not realities I had experienced yet. Now that I have experienced them, I also realize how impossible, unrealistic, and unhealthy and most importantly counterproductive it is to try and achieve perfection in these roles. It is okay to not be perfect. It is okay to struggle. It is okay to know that you won’t be the best at something. Why? Because you are human. You’re tested by Allah based on your own capabilities, and you are taught by Allah in the Qur’an to ‘have taqwa of Him as much as you can’, not ‘have taqwa of Him like the Prophets fear Him’. If you try to be perfect, you will be going against human nature, and in fact you will make things worse instead of better.
Now I try my best to achieve ‘balance’ now. But at the same I realize that If I want to be the ‘best’ at something or significantly invest more effort in one part of my life, other parts of my life will suffer. And I have to be okay with whatever decision I make, and whatever Allah wills for me to have accomplished and achieved in this life. I can’t do everything, I can’t be everyone, I’m still going to make mistakes and its okay. Don’t let people make you believe that you should be perfect or a maverick in everything. Most people who say that either haven’t done anything significant in their own lives or are blind to their own inadequacies.
You cannot be the perfect husband. There are lines you should never cross of course, like becoming abusive, and you shouldn’t give yourself excuses for those. But beyond that you have to be realistic with yourself. Every book and counsellor on marital issues will tell you how marriage takes effort and struggle, and that it is inevitable to have problems, arguments, and hiccups. The odd couple might have the perfect marriage, but we should not judge ourselves by those rare examples. For most of us struggle is required, and we should expect to not be the best at it. It does not mean we should not try to be better, or that we shouldn’t have the goal of trying to have an excellent marriage. But it is not the end of the world if you do not. That’s just life.
You cannot be the perfect father. Although my journey of fatherhood has just begun. Just like being a husband, there are lines you cannot cross or make excuses for. But you cannot be the perfect parent. It won’t happen. Already I see manifesting in myself some of the very things I would consider problematic in how my own parents raised me. In fact I think its more damaging to yourself and your children to think of yourself as ‘the perfect parent’. I would rather apologize to my children if I do something wrong and tell them I’m human and make mistakes rather than pretending like I’m SuperDad and you kids just argue with me because you’re ungrateful little whelps. I’m going to make mistakes raising my kids, and I just have to accept that.
You cannot be the perfect employee. If your goal is to have the perfect career and be the perfect employee, you are going to suffer in other aspects of your life as your willpower and attention is diverted. 40 hours of work a week is unrealistic if you also want to pursue excellence in family and worship. The 40-hour workweek only exists to serve the interests of post-industrial society and corporations. Is it any surprise that ideas like universal basic income, working from home, 4-day workweeks and self-employment are becoming more popular as time goes on? Is it any surprise that people are realizing how much the system is rigged in favor of Wall Street and big corporations?
You cannot be the perfect seeker of knowledge. In my journey of seeking knowledge I have encountered some extraordinary people. I’ve met scholars who finished studying the 10 recitations at the age of 13, others who by the age of 15 had already memorized volumes of pre-Islamic Arab poetry along with the Qur’an, and others who by the age of 18 had already studied what I would go onto study at the age of 27. Is it realistic to expect someone start at the age of 23 to attain their level? If you have a trust-fund set up in your name or parents who are millionaires who will support you during your studies then sure. Otherwise for most people in their late 20s and 30s they will start to feel the pull of responsibility towards family and other aspects of life. A lot of late-starting seekers of knowledge fall into this problem. Should I continue studying or should I start a family? There’s a reason that exists. You don’t have to be that uber-level scholar. Maybe you can still benefit a lot of people with the level that you are humanly able to achieve?
You cannot be the a perfect worshipper of Allah. No amount of worship can fulfill what Allah is truly deserving of from His creation. This is something well known in the Qur’an and Sunnah. We are not prophets, and not every Muslim is going to be the next Imam al-Nawawi or Imam Abdul-Qadir Al-Jilani. Allah says in the Qur’an “Have Taqwa of Allah as much as you are able” (64:16), “Allah will not burden a soul beyond its ability.” (2:286). In the hadith we are taught by the Prophet ﷺ, that even he ﷺ will not enter Jannah without Allah’s mercy. In another hadith a Bedouin asks the Prophet ﷺ if it is sufficient for him to just fulfill the 5 pillars and he is replied to with an affirmative. The last person to enter Jannah will arrive on its shores charred beyond recognition but will then be healed by its waters and given a place in Jannah so vast that he will think that his Lord is jesting with him. If Allah treats us so mercifully, then why do we not treat ourselves with mercy?
In the age of superhero stories, social media influencers and celebrity Shaykhs, it’s quite easy to fall into a mode of thinking that excellence in Islam = being the perfect, flawless and ideal Muslim. In Islamic motivational speeches many of us present past Muslim figures as being superheroes too. But Superman is not human, he’s from Krypton. On top of that, he’s not even real.
The line to not cross is what is obligatory and what is impermissible by consensus. You shouldn’t make excuses for yourself in those. But for everything else, be realistic and be kind to yourself. Your marriage didn’t work out? That’s okay. It happened to Lut (as). Many of the Sahabah went through divorce. Your business didn’t work out or you didn’t end up having the career you dreamt of? It’s okay. It’s not going to matter in the grave anyway. No one is going to care their careers on the day of resurrection. You messed up as a parent and your kid didn’t turn out the way you hoped for? That’s okay. It happened to Hud (as). You can only manage part-time study of Islam, online learning or a once-a-week halaqah? It’s alright. Do you have to be a scholar? There might be a greater reward for you in giving charity and or being good to your parents that raises you above the level of scholar. You find it difficult to do some recommended acts in Islam? It’s okay, consistent acts, even if minor are better. Trying to do da’wah and teach Islam and being faced with unrelenting criticism and attacks from trolls? It’s okay. Which da’i or teacher of Islam was never attacked or refuted in some way?
But if you beat yourself up about it, and become neurotically perfectionist, then you will make things worse, and you won’t know it until it’s too late. You will only find that ideal, perfect life in Jannah. Until then, be content with being a flawed human being. Keep your ambitions, keep your goals, but don’t destroy yourself trying to be something Allah didn’t intend for you to be.