Love it or loathe it, there are certain expressions and hashtags you cannot have missed. Their dust would have rubbed off on you whether you have directly engaged them or not. These popular slogans speak volumes about the mood of the age. Yet below the shiny veneer of their repeated use, they expose a deep-rooted dysfunction that affects us all.
We have created a digitalised, self-centric, and deceptive reality where these phrases effectively become the commandments many choose to adopt and internalise. Here, we dissect some of the most problematic ‘commandments’ of this age and consider their far-reaching consequences on us as individuals and our communities as a whole.
“This is my personal journey”/ “This is my truth”
A whole spectrum of behaviours are often casually explained away under the guise of “this is my personal journey”. Any decision that is made is considered part of this sacred ‘personal journey’, which then becomes beyond scrutiny or question. “It is valid because I chose it” means that all consequences to that decision are treated as morally equivalent.
In our secularised and self-centric world, we treat every ‘journey’ that people make as equally valid simply because they are on it. The only criterion that matters is that an individual decided something, so their lifestyle choice is considered beyond criticism. This is flimsy and problematic. What if your ‘journey’ is ultimately harming your soul and others? Does this ‘journey’ then still deserve protecting and preserving simply because you have called it your own?
There are many important personal journeys that will take place during our lives, yet not all journeys are equal. The journey of ultimate importance concerns whether the life we are living takes us towards the Pleasure of our Creator or not. This basic criterion acts as a yardstick to measure how worthwhile other ‘journeys’ are, in the same way that multiple lakes should feed into the dominant stream, not away from it. We do not give validity to our actions by labelling them as part of a ‘journey’ that is void of consequences.
The ‘sister’ of this personal journey slogan is the closely related “this is my truth”.
When we say something is our ‘truth’, we speak as though it is something handed to us in a wax-sealed envelope at birth and must become our destiny. The reality is that our ‘truth’ is something we actively construct. It is a culmination of the people we surround ourselves with, the places we are attached to, the media we consume, the environments we frequent, and what we choose to repeatedly do. We are creatures of habit. The neuroplasticity of the brain means that it is able to rewire itself to reward behaviours that are done repetitively, making us feel good. Your ‘truth’ is therefore made up of a series of active choices and is not a passive point of destiny.
To confidently state that your actions and state of being is your ‘truth’ and is therefore a sacred and untouchable reality is disingenuous. Your ‘truth’ can and should be constantly shifting towards stronger spiritual growth for it to be worthy of preservation. Your ‘personal journey’ should be a sojourn towards the Pleasure of Allāh for it to be defended. Current struggles, personal shortcomings, and challenges to your īmān should not be airbrushed and rubber-sealed as “this is my truth” and “this is my personal journey”. If you find that they are, drag that ‘truth’ and ‘personal journey’ out of its current pothole and stabilise your journey back onto the steady road instead.
“Live your best life”
This has become one of the most popular hashtags in recent years, and its usage has trickled into our offline lexicon too. On Instagram, the #liveyourbestlife hashtag has clocked more than 865,000 posts and counting. HuffPost has an entire section dedicated to the idea. A quick Google search of the phrase returns 6.1 billion results, including articles, books, social media accounts, and websites dedicated to helping you do just that.
This phrase is often coupled with images of what people consider evidence of their ‘best life’. Contenders are photos of luminous green kale smoothies, elaborate plates of beautifully crafted food, a view of white sandy beaches and tanned toes, or even the minimalist interior of a home accented with rose gold flourishes.
If your life is lived through social media, then the best of it will surely be the carefully curated photographs that take half a day to set up and the other half to add filters. This is all built on mutual deceit: for those who view these images believing they are a representation of a person’s life, and for those who post such images claiming that this accurately describes their life. Both parties sign up for this delusion that grows stronger and cements itself to create its own genre of a faux-reality.
We must ask ourselves: how many other times do we do this in life? How often do we voluntarily indulge in actions knowing we are buying into a delusion? How often do we know it is false but enjoy the short-term rush of dopamine that the behaviour provides?
It’s not “live your best life” as much as it is “live the most careful photographic representation of one shallow expression of what our modern age considers material success”… but that’s obviously not as catchy.
Another angle with which to look at “live your best life” is that we all know of the hollowness of such pleasures. Even the most hardened hedonist will reach the conclusion that spending wild nights getting ‘plastered’, taking drugs, sleeping around, or chasing power and money only brings transient highs before the same internal void must be confronted.
Many of the younger audience who look at these filtered photos of picture-perfect bodies, cosmetically-enhanced faces, stunning home interiors, and luxury getaways have not yet developed the emotional maturity to see beyond the image on the screen. These things become aspirational to them. The vulnerable are preyed on and their perspective of the meaning of a meaningful life becomes warped. From here, the seeds of discontent are sown. Not only do we become blind to the blessings in our own life, we render them invalid because the rules of the game have changed.
The ‘best life’ is now deemed the repetitive images of material and aesthetic luxury that do not even need to match up to anybody’s lived reality offline. Reality TV stars like Josh Denzel candidly admit that trying to get the perfect Instagram photo ‘almost ruins your day’, with Denzel saying he would carry a change of clothes and get changed in toilets on a night out so he could post pictures of himself in different outfits for his social media accounts.
Behind the ‘live your best life’ hashtags are people looking up in adulation at what is essentially a mirage. There is pressure on the influencers who provide the fodder to keep the delusion going, and there is also pressure on the audience that hungrily consumes this false reality.
As Muslims, we barely need reminding that the best life we can actually live is to continue the work of the Prophets. This work was to awaken people out of heedlessness (ghaflah). This takes us full circle to an unmissable irony: the images of the ‘best life’ that we consume today are merely different faces of heedlessness. However, snapping ourselves and our communities out of this heedlessness is the core of the truest best life available to us.
“Only God can judge me”
“Only God can judge me” wasn’t laid to rest with Tupac in the 90s. This popular phrase has become convenient for anybody who knows they are doing something likely to upset or shock others. Rather than attempt to explain their behaviour, they reach for this phrase, seeming to prefer Divine judgement for themselves over human condemnation. We believe in this sentiment as Muslims, but for believers, “only God can judge me” isn’t a comfort; it’s a stark warning.
Whatever you decide to do with yourself, both in public or private, you shouldn’t worry about having to justify your position to others. However, if you cannot sincerely justify your position to yourself or to Allāh, then that is telling you something you cannot ignore. “Only God can judge me” indicates an inherent inability and unwillingness to defend one’s position. In the worst of cases, it is an arrogance in feeling that one is beyond justification. It is used to bat away criticism without having to critically engage the objections (valid or otherwise) that your behaviour provokes.
If you find yourself reaching for this phrase, it’s likely you already have a niggling at your conscience that you aren’t ready to confront. As the famous hadīth says, “Righteousness is what causes contentment in your heart, and sin causes it to waver.” This ‘wavering’ you feel inside shouldn’t be stamped out with a lazy “only God can judge me”, but can instead be an opportunity for private self-reflection.
Undoubtedly, nobody has the right to judge, but as believers who care for one another, we do have an obligation to remind. Judgements are not the same as reminders. One of the tell-tale signs of someone’s inner state is whether they treat a (properly delivered) reminder as a judgement, or whether they are able to take it with the sincerity it was intended with.
“Never be ashamed of who you are”
Shame (sharam or ‘ayb) has become a dirty word. People have so often been shamed for unfair reasons that the narrative has now flipped to there being no behaviour considered shameful. When we hear “never be ashamed of who you are”, we must question: what if you are a liar? A narcissist? Someone who deliberately harms others? Surely the negative characteristics and flaws that exist within us all should induce a proportionate amount of shame?
What is missing from this mantra is something critical: we must have a criterion by which to judge what is and isn’t shameful. There is a middle way between most things being shameful and nothing being shameful at all.
We should not feel ashamed about looks, body shape, skin colour, marital status, number of children, or income bracket. However, shame should be felt for behaviours that we have control over and negligently fall short in. When it comes to our personal shortcomings, failing to uphold our own standards of behaviour should facilitate a level of shame that is not harmful, but one that leads to realisation and self-correction. In this way, psychologists actually describe shame as a ‘pro-social’ emotion when it is channelled constructively.
We must refine the concept of shame and appreciate how it can regulate behaviour. Shame acts as a mental and internal safeguard. Feeling shame means that we are disturbed inside by something we have said or done, and that we want to redress that harm. The answer, therefore, is not never to feel ashamed of who you are and what you do, but instead to question whether the action you are taking genuinely crosses your own boundaries of conduct and therefore should elicit a proportionate sense of shame.
On the flip side, it is important to consider the harm that a wholesale lack of shame brings. To believe that there is no taboo behaviour in violation of your own moral code and that nothing requires explanation or justification effectively leaves everybody in freefall. It means we have no common criteria for decent conduct and no safeguards against behaviour, which invites harm onto the collective, not only the individual. When individuals flout the idea of being ashamed of anything they do, the damage seeps through to the community because agreed standards of decency become eroded.
Where these mantras leave us
The harms lingering behind certain mantras are multi-faceted and often throw up many ironies, one of which is that although these ‘false commandments’ seem to revolve around the individual, the reality is that obsession with the self causes widespread damage to the collective.
When an influencer posts up curated images of ‘her best life’, the young girl viewing that content may not have been battling an insecurity, but it has now suddenly become on her radar. Maybe the young boy who wasn’t feeling insecure about his financial state is now made to wonder if he should have the same property portfolio as that entrepreneur he’s been following. Maybe the mum who was doing just fine raising her children now feels anxious that she’s not ‘mum enough’ for not making Pinterest-worthy crafts or Instagram-worthy lunches for her children.
This is the contradiction between influencers and their audience. It may be ‘social’ media, but it’s so narcissistic. It’s all about the one individual being ogled and devoured by multiple eyes. It’s averting a communal gaze to a single focus. It’s inclining a multitude of insecurities towards a single expression of ego.
These mantras create a culture where behaviour that was previously shocking is now sanctioned and encouraged. The boundaries protecting the common good are eroded. In their place, audiences become desensitised to despicable actions until they are fully normalised. This is a gradual process and leaves a lasting effect. Be aware of what these mantras are making possible.
If we need to see evidence of how social media desensitises youth to harmful behaviour, we need to look no further than the tragic case of the suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russell, whose father believes that Instagram ‘helped to kill’ his daughter. Molly’s viewing of graphic self-harm content and an online community supportive of it led Molly to normalise the behaviour, which her father believes was a significant factor in her eventual suicide.
Normalisation helps to make anything pass, including children sending explicit images of themselves. Another 14-year-old, Megan Hinton, details how she was ‘tricked’ into sending nude photographs of herself because “everybody is doing it, it seemed normal and expected”. Megan was relentlessly bullied when the picture was widely shared in her school.
A Final Word
There is no conspiracy here to drive us towards shallow things. Human societies have always defaulted to heedlessness. We forget the important things often and regularly. Perhaps this is why Allāh Himself instructs us to “continue to remind, for reminders benefit the believers”. Perhaps this also is why one of the root meanings of the word for humans, insān, derives from nasiya, to forget. Mankind is created forgetful, and the ultimate forgetfulness is of our purpose.
Part of the success of these ‘false commandments’ is that they indulge, entertain, and often even reward this heedlessness. It often appears that the more frivolous the output, the stronger the success. The psychology of ‘clickbait’ itself rests on the human instinct to be drawn in by scandal, surprise, and intrigue. An article entitled “Why I hate my pious wife” will have people clicking ten times faster than “Why understanding Tawhīd matters”.
It is important to think critically about these mantras and consider what they are pointing you towards. Lurking not so deep are the problematic outlooks that are being normalised. It wasn’t that long ago that thinking critically was considered a virtue. Seeing through the conventional boundaries was something admirable and a sign of a deep thinker. You hardly see such sentiments on a public stage today. Instead, we seem to find a dangerous comfort in conformity. Muslims thinking critically is vital to the strength and conviction of our beliefs.
There is barely a risk that our communities are going to be lured by idol worship or clan warfare today. Instead, the risk to belief is much more insidious and therefore requires careful attention. This is the marketplace of competing narratives. The same life events are being given alternative meanings according to different worldviews. Today, these narratives and ideas are fed into the devices that children are given open access to in their homes and even, at times, in the privacy of their bedrooms with no adult supervision or regulation.
If your īmān has any hope of surviving and flourishing within this reality, it will only be through the strength of conviction. This conviction will only come from the knowledge and confidence to look through, under, over, and beyond the ideas of our age and everything that bolsters them. To reach unwavering certainty, we must be able to critically examine the dominant narratives until we reach authentic conclusions that stabilise our īmān. Critical engagement based on sure knowledge will only ever demonstrate that the Words of Allāh have always been true. As the ghaflah that drives these ‘false commandments’ increases, the clarity of that Truth will continue to prove sharper still.
 Sunan al-Dārimī 2533. Grade: Sahih (authentic) according to Al-Haytami
 Al-Qur’ān 51:55