Being worried (afraid, even) of what others think is a blank cheque for mental torture or torment. ‘A man’s reputation,’ said John Milton, ‘is what other people think of him; his character is what he really is.’ It’s natural to want acceptance: no one likes being ill thought of. But it is simply not possible to please everyone, to be liked by everyone all the time. Someone will think something negative about you, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. Today, more than ever before, too many people spend too much time living under the tyranny of what people think – nowhere is this more so the case than on social media.
Our current narcissistic selfie culture and on-line approval seeking have significantly contributed, especially in the young, to mass anxiety and a mental health crisis. Sadly, huge levels of angst are being nurtured as people anxiously anticipate, crave, or obsess over the Instagram, Facebook or Twitter likes (or lack of) on their latest picture, post or tweet. Throughout history, people have innovated various ways to gauge personal approval or to demonstrate their social standing, but none have been as potent as the Like button. It comes, however, at a huge collective cost.
Currently there’s a form of approval seeking that specifically impacts us Muslims: the need to fit in and find acceptance in the Western liberal democracies wherein we live and which most of us consider home. If the discussion about us isn’t about terrorism, then it’s usually about the question of integration and whether our growing numbers will weaken national identity – the prime concern being the extent to which Muslims and their socially conservative religious values fit into an increasingly unsympathetic and xenophobic liberal society.
For our part, engagement with wider society, rather than opt-out and seek to live in a bubble, is becoming more and more the well-worn way. Indeed, isolationist policies aren’t only Islamically uncalled for, they are practically unwise too. The monotheistic message of God’s Prophets didn’t arise in the wilderness, or away from centres of civic life: We only sent before you men to whom We reveal, of the people of the towns. [12:109] Some Prophets may have been driven to the wilderness or exiled there. A few have felt the need to head for the hills for a time. But the core of their call was decisively urban and city centred.
The desire to fit in and find acceptance can be very powerful indeed. As demands for Islam to reform intensify; so do the temptations to water it down or gloss over it’s less ‘palatable’ sacred norms, so as to appease the monoculture and yield to its ways. The Qur’an speaks to this situation, saying: Perhaps you may [feel to] leave out some of what is revealed to you, and your heart feels strained because they say: ‘Why has no treasure been sent down to him, or an angel not come with him?’ You are nothing but a warner, and God is Guardian over all things. [11:12] That is to say, the weakened spirit or the anxious-to-please Muslim may ask themselves: ‘What if I omit this religious ruling, or that duty, in order to bolster my liberal credentials: will the truth not be more agreeable?’ Yet we are told the truth must be delivered as it was revealed, and to skip over a part of what is obligated would be to sink into the idolatry of gratifying egos. We should, of course, be wise, thoughtful and convivial, and understand our context as best as we can; then leave the rest to God.
It takes a degree of God-given courage to function as healers, but only a small amount of cowardice to act like frightened eulogists. The Qur’an says: Whoever desires honour [should know that] all honour belongs to God. [35:10] We’re told in one hadith: ‘Whoever seeks God’s pleasure at the expense of men’s displeasure, shall win God’s pleasure and God will cause men to be pleased with him. But whoever pleases men by displeasing God, will have earned God’s displeasure and God will cause men to become displeased with him.’ [Ibn Hibban, no.276]
For Muslims, whatever we do or desire to accomplish in life, it must ultimately serve the glory of God. As for being shaded from mental torment and attaining inner peace, this comes from ignoring the judgements of others: but this is only possible when one has sound confidence in the judgements of God.