For better or worse, meritocracy shapes many of our ideals concerning achievement. On the one hand, as the famed Ibn Khaldūn summarized in his Muqaddimah: The work ethic of a people is strongest when the fruits of their labor are safe from the reach of government usurpation. Simply put, when people believe that hard work results in success, they work hard. This is meritocracy at its commendable best. On the other hand, an overemphasis on meritocracy may have the effect of minimizing the role of providence in success. Moreover, when success, and by extension prosperity, are separated from the Divine prerogative they are no longer embraced as tests and responsibilities. Quite the reverse, in the absence of an intentional acknowledgment of God’s favor, achievement—more than even appearance, talent, or status—can become a great source of delusion and ingratitude. If our individual worthiness, dedication, or ability has secured for us what we have, how do we view those who haven’t achieved as much? Are they definitively less worthy, unintelligent, or lazy? The Prophet (upon him be peace) said: “Whoever has an atom’s weight of arrogance in his/her heart will not enter Paradise.” Upon hearing this, one of the companions asked, “God’s Messenger! But a man may take pride in his appearance; this is an expression of arrogance?” The Prophet (upon him be peace) continued, “Indeed, God is beautiful and He loves beauty. Arrogance, however, is expressed in the wanton rejection of truth and looking at people with contempt.” The spiritual consequences of arrogance are indeed grave. Fortunately, God offers us a very expedient and effective way of reducing our susceptibility to it. Thanks and giving or ash-shukr and aṣ-ṣadaqa: Gratitude and charity are universally cited as foundational for a good life. For Americans and our often naïve beliefs around meritocracy; inundated with rags to riches stories and biographies which capture the heroic journeys of our cultural heroes, the need for these is even more immediate. The Islamic tradition is replete with conceptual frameworks which vivify the ideals of thanks and giving. In consonance with the spirit of the season and Giving Tuesday (which must be the most Islamic of all the days on the American social calendar after Mother’s Day!) we at the American Learning Institute for Muslims (ALIM) wanted to offer a few reflections.
In the 92nd chapter of the Qur’ān, Surat al-Layl, God contrasts the conduct and outcome of two categories of people. He says:
“…Surely the ends you strive for are diverse. (4) As for the one who is charitable and conscious of God (5) and firmly believes in the reward, (6) We will facilitate for them the Way of Ease. (7) And as for the one who is stingy, and considers himself self-sufficient, (8) and staunchly denies the reward, (9) We will facilitate for him the path of hardship (10)…” [92:4-10]
These are brief but comprehensive descriptions of a charitable person and a stingy person respectively. The descriptions mirror each other. Charity is contrasted with stinginess, taqwa or God-consciousness with delusional self-sufficiency, belief in other-worldly reward with denial, and a path of ease is contrasted with a path of hardship. The dissimilarity between charity and stinginess is obvious. The second contrast between taqwa or God-consciousness and delusional self-sufficiency; however, contains a subtle but illuminating point about extreme meritocracy. Why is taqwa connected to charity while delusional self-sufficiency is connected to stinginess?
It’s easy to acknowledge the obligation of giving when you recognize that you’ve been the beneficiary of giving. In other words, “thanks produces giving.” We must first be conscious of God and acknowledge that everything we have by way of life, faith, relationships, opportunities, talents, drive, etc. are expressions of Divine favor. The next step is acknowledging the people God used as a means of realizing His favor. The Prophet (upon him be peace) has mentioned: “He/She that fails to express gratitude to people, has not adequately thanked God.” The belief of being “self-made,” so prevalent in contemporary culture, is the acme of spiritual immaturity.
“Do they distribute the mercy of your Lord? It is We who have apportioned among them their livelihood and raised some of them above others in degrees (of rank) that they may make use of each other for service. But the mercy of your Lord is better than whatever they accumulate.” [43:32]
This verse is a potent reminder about privilege and how any of us is “made.” We are an inter-dependent community. Is it only the skill and acumen of the professional for which the rest of us should be thankful? Should we acknowledge the capital and vision of the “self-made” entrepreneur or business person without acknowledging the support of their staff and clients? Even more, what about the people who harvest our food, transport it, and sell it; the people who build/repair our cars and pave our roads, collect our trash and maintain our homes, etc? Where would any of us be without them? So who can claim to be “self-made?” I fear that the devaluation of labor—not exactly surprising in a country that has failed to reckon with the role of slavery in achieving its prosperity—animates a lot of our fallacious ideas about being “self-made.”
Conversely, if one believes individual merit to be the source of their achievement, not only is giving not seen as an obligation. Even worse, giving might be seen as an affront to initiative or self-determination. Hence, they are “stingy and given to delusional self-sufficiency.” “I went out and got mine on my own; no one helped me, you expect me to give someone something? Who gave me anything?” Allah! But when God-consciousness/thanks is absent giving is also absent.
The verses we began with in Surat al-Layl end by contrasting the beliefs in heavenly reward and the resultant paths of the generous and stingy respectively. The person of generosity acknowledges that whatever goodness they enjoy in life is from God. By extension, she believes firmly that the reward of God for charity will be even greater in the Hereafter. On the other hand, the “self-sufficient” believes the good he enjoys in life to be effects of things for which he was the cause. How can he believe there will be any good for him after death extinguishes his ability to cause anything? And so in addition to being delusional, the path of “self-sufficiency” is also difficult. “He whom we bring unto old age, We reverse him in creation (making him go back to weakness after strength). Have you then no sense?” [36:68] In other words, age will probably strip us of any presumption of self-sufficiency. And even if age does not, death certainly will. Acknowledging our need for God and comporting ourselves as grateful recipients of His favor is comparatively easier. Give thanks and express gratitude through giving.