If happiness is a state of mind, we have to question how much control we really have over it when our mind is under the influence. Islam forbids intoxicants, of course. But there is an intoxicant more powerful and dangerous than drugs or alcohol: thoughts.
Surah 114 An-Nas, the last Surah in the Qur’an, draws attention to our thoughts by calling on us to ‘seek refuge with the God of people, against the harm of the slinking whisperer – who whispers into the hearts of people – whether they be jinn or people.’
We normally interpret this retreating whisperer as the devil. Yet what is a devil if not an influencer who ushers us off our path; who through deceit encourages us to consider something we normally wouldn’t?
Islam places a heavy emphasis on influence, having warned billions of followers with this strikingly haunting image. The very last prophet; the very last book; the very last line – and this is the message. We’re guarded with a warning against something we cannot fully see, yet we can witness its deformity manifest in our lives if we allow it into our hearts. This is the work of the ‘whispering deceiver’; this is how we witness its presence in our lives. If the devil is nothing more than a glorified personification of an influencer, we need to look at what influence really is.
Influence is a perplexing paradox both subtle and sweeping. It doesn’t exist in the material world but we see its evidence everywhere. It is a thought that enters our hearts and minds, and what it harvests depends on the source of the influence. A negative influence will bring worm-like thoughts that rot our mind. A positive influence will blossom in our heart.
So how does influence affect our happiness?
Influence has ingrained itself into our culture. It’s there from the moment we wake up, saturating us with thousands of serpentine thoughts slithering their way into our minds, vying for attention and ultimately seeking to possess us. We’re influenced by TV, movies, music, magazines, books; it’s even in our social media interactions across Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and the rest.
And influence penetrates on another level: it exists in our communities, as well as the people we go to school with, work with and live next to. It’s in the conversation we had over lunch yesterday; it’s in every interaction we have with every human being, day in and day out.
A practical solution for a modern Muslim family is to be mindful of our environment and to work towards making our family connections the strongest interactions we can have. Laviza Shariff, a busy American Muslim mum, offered me her advice:
As a gourmet cook and big-time foodie, my happiness comes from preparing a delicious meal and enjoying it with my family. We are all so busy nowadays, and sure, it’s easier to pick up fast food, or to dine out. But I am trying to teach my teens to connect with each other over a shared meal at home… because of technology we have lost the art of communication, so it’s nice to actually sit together and talk to each other. Happiness for me is about family, good food and good conversation.
As matriarchs, it falls on our shoulders to ensure our family’s happiness. We cannot keep our family away from the world, but we can make sure that we connect with them every day, and that our influence over them is stronger than the influence of the outside world. Even for those of us with close-knit families, why is it that happiness is too often still a fickle companion in our day-to-day life?
Consider your happiness and consider when you’re removed from it. Consider a modern culture so possessed by consumption that we’re too often pushing our happiness into a distant future. We say: I’ll be happy when I have more money, or when I have a better marriage, or when my work gets easier. Our mind is constantly wandering, making it impossible to ever be happy with where we are at this moment. We’re influenced by what we see around us, to the point where we believe our happiness lies in not what we have, but how much we have.
In an Intelligence Squared talk, author and speaker Petrea King says, ‘The drive for happiness implies that we have a dissatisfaction with the present moment.’ She goes on to explain how, throughout our lives, we continue to push expectations of contentment into the future. ‘We’re deeply enculturated to believe that happiness lies at some more distant time,’ she says.
We know that modern consumer culture thrives on dissatisfaction with the current moment. We’re pushed (or influenced) to believe we’ll be happier when we have the newest product. We look to our neighbours and say, ‘I’d be happier if I had the same thing she has.’ Petrea speaks of enculturation, but whose culture is this really?
It certainly isn’t Islamic culture. Islam warns us about the ‘retreating whisperer’, about exactly this type of influence that leads us to remove ourselves from happiness. In our modern culture, we’ve come to believe that happiness is elation, some overwhelming feeling of exuberance. It isn’t.
Happiness, rather, is a peaceful contentment. Islam gives us a framework for happiness by offering four simple rules. In surah 20:131, we’re encouraged to avoid making comparisons between ourselves and others. Surah 4:36 encourages compassion, and the third pillar of Islam encourages charity – both of which are strong lessons in humility that counter negative influences of greed and excessive comparison.
Weaving through verses, the fourth and final rule is found repeated throughout the Qur’an. Islam means submission, and it is in that submission that we find one of the most sacred keys to happiness. At the core of Islamic teaching is the idea that happiness lies in being grateful to God, accepting our circumstances and being grateful for our blessings.
This doesn’t equate to a sense of apathy for circumstance, or a resistance to improving our life. On the contrary, we’re encouraged to work towards our mutual benefit. When the faith guides us to be close to God, what we’re directed to is a state of mind; an awareness that offers security and tranquility in the here and now by being at peace with who we are, where we are, and what we’ve got.
This article originally appeared in the June 2013 Family issue of Aquila Style magazine.