“I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.”
These are the words of Dr Stephen Covey, an American educator, author, businessman, and influential public speaker listed by Time Magazine as one of the 25 most influential Americans. Dr Covey is also the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the bestselling nonfiction books in history. In the book, Dr Covey crowns his list with proactivity. It is impossible for a positive quality of any kind to exist without Islam actively promoting it, and proactivity enjoys an abundant share of this.
A quality which revelation has promoted
(a) At times, the Qur’ān urges us to remember those before us who led proactive lives.
Prophet Musa (ʿalayhi al-Salām) said:
وَعَجِلْتُ إِلَيْكَ رَبِّ لِتَرْضَى
“I have rushed to You, my Lord, so that you may be pleased.”
(b) At times, the Qur’ān describes the prize that has been prepared for the people of proactivity:
وَسَارِعُواْ إِلَى مَغْفِرَةٍ مِّن رَّبِّكُمْ وَجَنَّةٍ عَرْضُهَا السَّمَاوَاتُ وَالأَرْضُ أُعِدَّتْ لِلْمُتَّقِينَ
“Race to forgiveness from your Lord and a garden as wide as the heavens and earth, prepared for the righteous.”
(c) At times, the Qur’ān informs us that, in Allāh’s Eyes, proactive and inactive people are not equal:
لَا يَسْتَوِي مِنْكُمْ مَنْ أَنْفَقَ مِنْ قَبْلِ الْفَتْحِ وَقَاتَلَ أُولَئِكَ أَعْظَمُ دَرَجَةً مِنَ الَّذِينَ أَنْفَقُوا مِنْ بَعْدُ وَقَاتَلُوا
“Not equal among you are those who spent before the conquest of Makkah and fought Those are greater in degree than they who spent afterwards and fought.”
(d) At times, the Qur’ān describes the nearness to Allāh which the people of proactivity will enjoy:
وَالسَّابِقُونَ السَّابِقُونَ (10) أُولَئِكَ الْمُقَرَّبُونَ (11) فِي جَنَّاتِ النَّعِيمِ (12)
“The foremost will be the foremost. Those are the ones who will be brought near [to Allāh]. In the Gardens of Pleasure.”
Similarly, the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) would urge the Muslims to be proactive, saying:
اللهم بارك لأمتي في بكورها
“O Allāh, bless the early morning hours for my people.”
And he would say:
بادروا بالأعمال سبعاً، هل تنتظرون إلا فقراً منسياً، أو غنى مطغياً، أو مرضاً مفسداً، أو هرماً مفنداً، أو موتاً مجهزاً، أو الدجال، فشر غائب ينتظر، أو الساعة، فالساعة أدهى وأمر؟!
“Rush to do good deeds before you are overtaken by one of the seven afflictions. Are you waiting for poverty which will make you unmindful, or prosperity which will corrupt you, or a disease which will weaken you, or old-age which will disable you, or sudden death which will surprise you, or the Dajjal (anti-Christ) who is the worst of what is to come, or the Hour; and the Hour will be most grievous and most bitter?”
Categories of people when it comes to proactivity
In reality, however, people’s approach to proactivity varies immensely from person to person. George Bernard Shaw said: “The world has three kinds of people: those who make things happen, those who watch what happens, and those who wonder what happened.”
There is a category of people, the least proactive of the three, who will always find an excuse for their inactivity. These people would say, “unlike so and so, I don’t have any special talents that stand out,” or “my financial situation is stressing me out,” or “other people will do it.” For such people, regardless of how ideal their circumstances are, they will always identify a hurdle to excuse themselves from a life of proactivity and taking initiative.
There is a second category of people who – despite being a level better than the former – could still do better. Such people genuinely love the concept of doing good, and are even keen to leave a lasting impression before they pass away in preparation for the Hereafter, but nevertheless, this is secondary to their life priorities. Yes, they may set aside some time to lead a proactive life of vision building and Islamic project creation, but that’s only if and when “time permits”. If they find a moment here and there, they won’t fall short in taking Islamic initiatives, but if that moment doesn’t show up, it won’t bother them an awful lot, nor will they force their schedule to fit it in.
Furthermore, they thrive on words of encouragement and praise, yet should such encouragement quieten, or if they experience challenges along the way, their light of proactivity is quick to dim.
There is, however, a third category of Muslims who do not wait for the ideal people or circumstances to arrive. For these people, the greater the challenge, the greater the opportunities to prove themselves before Allāh. They do not give the planning for their Hereafter their ‘spare’ time and money, but even when busy at work, spending time with family, or tending to the necessities of life, it’s on their mind day and night. They don’t wait for an invitation to do good, instead imposing on themselves preparation for the Hereafter and Islamic project building.
They are also not reactionaries, nor do they thrive on the cheering of people. Whether praised or blamed, supported or forsaken, healthy or otherwise, they have understood that the ‘ideal circumstance’ and ‘spare time’ never actually arrives, and so they engineer the circumstances needed to get them to Jannah.
They are highly motivated initiative-takers who source their strength from Allāh, Du’ā, prostration during the night, good companionship, and stories of the revivalists from the Qur’ān. The only thing that bothers them is that they do not have a longer life to fulfil the never-ending demands of their proactivity.
Theory aside, this is what proactivity looks like
According to Sharon K. Parker & Catherine G. Collins, any definition of proactive behaviour has three key features:
- It is anticipatory: it involves acting in advance of a future situation, rather than just reacting.
- It is change-oriented: being proactive means taking control and causing something to happen, rather than just adapting to a situation or waiting for something to happen.
- It is self-initiated: the individual does not need to be asked to act, nor do they require detailed instructions.
Allow me to share with you a case study of an individual who embodied all of the above and raised the bar of proactivity so high that he comes second place to a prophet.
Abdullah Ibn ‘Uthman, better known as Abu Bakr Al-Siddīq.
A wonder of a human being, whose voice was quieter than others and whose deeds were more discreet than others, yet was somehow ahead of the race every single time.
As early as the Meccan phase, this was Abu Bakr’s quality: staggering proactivity.
When it came to embracing Islam, he did not wait for anyone to set a precedent. He would take a proactive role, becoming the first male adult to embrace Islam without the slightest of hesitation.
When it came to the migration to Madina, he took a proactive role and was the first to request the companionship of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) for the journey and was granted just that.
When it came to their entry to the cave, he took a proactive role, insisting to be the first to walk into the cave to ensure that it was safe for the Prophet to enter.
When it came to Da’wah, he took a proactive role, taking to the streets just a day into his reversion to Islam. On that day, he brought back to the Prophet no less than five of the ten men who would later be promised Paradise: ‘Uthman Ibn ‘Affan, Al-Zubair Ibn Al-‘Awwām, ‘Abdul Rahman Ibn ‘Auf, Talha Ibn ‘Ubaidillāh, and Sa’d Ibn Abi Waqqās. The latter is, in fact, the uncle of the Prophet! Abu Bakr could easily have overlooked him under the guise of “he is a family member of a Prophet, so who am I to advise him.” But no, this did not happen as it is not befitting of a proactive Muslim.
When it came to benefiting others, Abu Bakr took a proactive role. The Prophet once asked: “Who amongst you is fasting today?” Abu Bakr said: “I am.” The Prophet asked: “Who amongst you has followed a funeral procession today?” Abu Bakr said: “I have.” The Prophet asked: “Who has fed a poor person today?” Abu Bakr said: “I have.” The Prophet said: “Who has visited an ill person today?” Abu Bakr said: “I have.” So the Prophet said:
ما اجتمعْنَ في امرئ إلا دخل الجنَّة
“Whenever these characteristics combine in a person, he will enter Jannah.”
Commenting on this, Al-Qādi ‘Iyād said:
مَعْنَاهُ دَخَلَ الْجَنَّة بِلَا مُحَاسَبَةٍ وَلَا مُجَازَاة عَلَى قَبِيح الْأَعْمَال
“In other words, such a person will enter Jannah without any prior accountability for evil deeds.”
In fact, some narrations of the incident above indicate that this dialogue took place shortly after the Fajr prayer. In other words, Abu Bakr had carried out all of these actions by dawn!
This is what proactivity looks like: when you hear advice, you are the first to run with it. When it is time for the Duha prayer, you are the first to bow and prostrate. When you come to know of a person who has gone astray, you don’t wait for his family to complain to you, but immediately explore the various ways of guiding him. When you come to learn of a crisis, you don’t wait to be appealed to, but you are one step ahead, already imposing your presence on it. When you hear a talk like this, you are the first to consult your friends and teachers, saying: “Help me devise my project of proactivity.”
Proactivity is not a quality reserved for the elite
Proactivity is a universally admired trait. Even if we are not blessed to live by it, we admire those who do and we wish to be like them. So, we ask: if it so collectively admired, why is it then that some of us still fail to live by it? Yes, at times we may blame genetics, circumstances, lack of knowledge, lack of courage, a bad upbringing, or a mix of all of the above. But at times, it is due to a reason that is far simpler: belittlement of oneself.
One may genuinely desire to be an initiative-taker and live proactively with purpose, vision, and energy, yet he is shackled with the whisperings of “who am I to do so” and “what value could a person like me possibly add.” So, I offer a few examples that will pull the rug from beneath every such excuse, and you will notice that these examples of proactivity do not belong to prophets or saints.
‘Abdullah, son of the great Imam Ahmad, said:
كنتُ كثيرًا أسمع والدى يقول: رحمَ الله أبا الهيثَم, عفا الله عن أبى الهيثم الحَداد
“I frequently heard my father saying: ‘May Allāh have mercy on Abul Haitham. May Allāh pardon Abul Haitham.’”
This is because Imam Ahmad suffered immensely in prison, including receiving lashes, for defending the causes of truth. Imam Ahmad did not fear prison, nor was he afraid of execution. It was the whip which frightened him. On the day he was summoned for lashing, he felt someone tugging at his clothes from behind. He looked back and a man said: “Do you know who I am?” Imam Ahmad said: “No” The man said:
أنا أبو الهيثم العَيّار, اللِّصُّ الطَّرار, مكتوب فى ديوان أمير المؤمنين أنى ضُربت ثمانيةَ عشر ألف سوط بالتفاريق
“I am Abu al-Haitham, the free soul and the infamous thief. To date, it’s on record that I’ve received 18,000 lashes which I’ve showed patience towards in obedience to the devil in the cause of worldly gain, so show patience as you are in the obedience of Allāh in the cause of religion.”
Despite his sins and crimes, the thief did not deprive himself from acting proactively. As a result, his words would have a tangible effect in strengthening the heart of Imam Ahmad. He qualified himself for Du’ā from the Imam, which we envy him for, and the books of history have eternalized his words because of a single moment of proactivity. So on what basis do you belittle yourself?
Nu’aim ibn Mas’ūd Al-Ashja’i
In the year 5 AH, the Jewish community of Madina assembled an alliance for the purpose of doing away with the Muslim presence in the city once and for all. The alliance was formed, Abu Sufyān and his army of pagans arrived at the northwestern side of Madina, whilst the tribe of Ghatafān arrived at the northeastern side with an army of 10,000 men, a number which the Arabs had never seen before.
The situation was dire. The Jewish community was plotting the event, the pagans of Mecca were participating, the ruthless mercenaries of Ghatafān had arrived, the hypocrites of Madina were spreading propaganda, and the Muslims were, according to the Qur’ān, very afraid. In the midst of this, something remarkable would happen that would begin to change the course of events; a new Muslim would act proactively.
A man called Nu’aim ibn Mas’ūd left the lines of the pagans, crossed over to Madina, embraced Islam, and at once said to the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam): “Instruct me to do as you wish”. The Prophet said:
إنما أنت فينا رجل واحد، فخذّلْ عنا إن استطعت، فإن الحرب خدعة
“You are only one man, so if you can, create disunity in the lines of the alliance, for war is deception.”
Without delay, he devised an ingenious plan and successfully managed to sow the seeds of discord in their lines, which would end up playing a key role in breaking apart their coalition and caused the different parties to march away from Madina. This was all because of a single moment of proactivity at the hands of a person who had only been Muslim for a few hours. So, on what basis do you belittle yourself?
This example of proactivity does not belong to a human being, but is in tribute to an ant that lived during the time of Prophet Sulayman (ʿalayhi al-Salām). In a description of the kingdom of Sulayman, Allāh said:
وَحُشِرَ لِسُلَيْمَانَ جُنُودُهُ مِنَ الْجِنِّ وَالْإِنْسِ وَالطَّيْرِ فَهُمْ يُوزَعُونَ
“His soldiers of the Jinn and the men and the birds were gathered to him, and they were marching in rows.”
Control of the winds, subservience of the Jinn, an understanding of the language of animals, and a prophet whose kingdom was simply unheard of in the human experience; this is who Sulayman was. On one of the days he marched with his assembly, an ant feared that his anthill would be crushed, and so it took a proactive role.
حَتَّى إِذَا أَتَوْا عَلَى وَادِ النَّمْلِ قَالَتْ نَمْلَةٌ يَا أَيُّهَا النَّمْلُ ادْخُلُوا مَسَاكِنَكُمْ لَا يَحْطِمَنَّكُمْ سُلَيْمَانُ وَجُنُودُهُ وَهُمْ لَا يَشْعُرُونَ
“Until, when they came upon the valley of the ants, an ant said, ‘O ants! Enter your dwellings so that you are not crushed by Sulayman and his soldiers without them realising.’”
This ant could easily have taken to a corner to save itself, but it did more. Prophet Sulayman would hear its words, and as a result, an entire community of ants was saved because of the proactive role played by one of them. We would have never noticed this story and the community of ants had the Qur’ān not documented it, but thus is the nature of proactivity. The story will be captured even if its main character was an ant.
On one day, Prophet Sulayman noticed an absentee from his gathering. Allāh said:
وَتَفَقَّدَ الطَّيْرَ فَقَالَ مَا لِيَ لَا أَرَى الْهُدْهُدَ أَمْ كَانَ مِنَ الْغَائِبِينَ (20) لَأُعَذِّبَنَّهُ عَذَابًا شَدِيدًا أَوْ لَأَذْبَحَنَّهُ أَوْ لَيَأْتِيَنِّي بِسُلْطَانٍ مُبِينٍ (21)
“[Sulayman] inspected the birds, and said: ‘Why is it that I do not see the hoopoe? Or is he among the absentees? I will surely punish him with a severe torment, or slaughter him, unless he brings me a clear reason.’
فَمَكَثَ غَيْرَ بَعِيدٍ فَقَالَ أَحَطْتُ بِمَا لَمْ تُحِطْ بِهِ وَجِئْتُكَ مِنْ سَبَإٍ بِنَبَإٍ يَقِينٍ (22)
But the hoopoe stayed not long and said, ‘I have encompassed [in knowledge] that which you have not encompassed, and I have come to you from Sheba with certain news.’
إِنِّي وَجَدْتُ امْرَأَةً تَمْلِكُهُمْ وَأُوتِيَتْ مِنْ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ وَلَهَا عَرْشٌ عَظِيمٌ (23) وَجَدْتُهَا وَقَوْمَهَا يَسْجُدُونَ لِلشَّمْسِ مِنْ دُونِ اللَّهِ وَزَيَّنَ لَهُمُ الشَّيْطَانُ أَعْمَالَهُمْ فَصَدَّهُمْ عَنِ السَّبِيلِ فَهُمْ لَا يَهْتَدُونَ (24)
“Indeed, I found [there] a woman ruling them, and she has been given of all things, and she has a great throne. I found her and her people prostrating to the sun instead of Allāh, and Satan has made their deeds pleasing to them and averted them from [His] way, so they are not guided.”
Upon hearing this, Prophet Sulayman would take steps to guide them to Islam, steps which would eventually result in the guidance of the queen and her entire sun-worshipping community. This all stemmed from the proactive role which the bird played.
These examples of proactivity inspired Imams to remain steadfast, drove away enemies from Madina, saved communities from destruction, and saved other communities from the fire of hell at the hands of a thief, a new Muslim, an ant, and a bird.
We can therefore make two conclusions about those who, despite reading the above, still insist that they have nothing to offer and no reason to be proactive:
- They may be accusing Allāh of not giving them the necessary resources to attain the highest grades in Paradise, and this is nothing short of bad expectations of Allāh (sū al-dhann billāh).
- They wish to deprive themselves from ‘all goodness’.
Consider this Hadith:
Abu Dharr, the companion, said:
I said: يَا رَسُولَ اللهِ مَاذَا يُنَجِّي الْعَبْدَ مِنَ النَّارِ؟
“O Messenger of Allāh, what saves one from the fire?”
He replied: الْإِيمَانُ بِاللهِ
“Belief in Allāh.”
I said: يَا نَبِيَّ اللهِ، إِنَّ مَعَ الْإِيمَانِ عَملٌ
“O Prophet of Allāh, actions are part of belief.”
He replied: يَرْضَخُ مِمَّا رَزَقَهُ اللَّهُ
“He should spend in charity according to whatever he can.”
I said: يَا رَسُولَ اللهِ أَرَأَيْتَ إِنْ كَانَ فَقِيرًا، لَا يَجِدُ مَا يرْضَخُ بِهِ؟
“O Messenger of Allāh, what if he is poor and has nothing to give?”
He replied: يَأْمُرُ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ، وَيَنْهَى عَنِ الْمُنْكَرِ
“He is to enjoin the good and forbid the evil.”
I said: يَا رَسُولَ اللهِ، أَرَأَيْتَ إِنْ كَانَ عَيِيًّا لَا يَسْتَطِيعُ أَنْ يَأْمُرَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ، وَلَا يَنْهَى عَنِ الْمُنْكَرِ؟
“O Messenger of Allāh, what if he is unable to enjoin the good and forbid the evil?”
He replied: يَصْنَعُ لِأَخْرَقَ
“To help a person who cannot work for himself.”
I said: أَرَأَيْتَ إِنْ كَانَ أَخْرَقَ لَا يَسْتَطِيعُ أَنْ يَصْنَعَ شَيْئًا؟
“What if he is unable to work for himself and thus cannot offer this type of help?”
He replied: يُعِينُ مَغْلُوبًا
“To assist someone who has been overcome.”
I said: أَرَأَيْتَ إِنْ كَانَ ضَعِيفًا، لَا يَسْتَطِيعُ أَنْ يُعِينَ مَظْلُومًا؟
“What if he is weak and is unable to assist the oppressed?”
He replied: مَا تُرِيدُ أَنْ تَتْرُكَ فِي صَاحِبِكَ مِنْ خَيْرٍ تُمْسِكُ الْأَذَى عَنِ النَّاسِ
“It seems that you do not want to leave any good for your friend! Let him minimally refrain from harming people.”
I said: يَا رَسُولَ اللهِ إِذَا فَعَلَ ذَلِكَ دَخَلَ الْجَنَّةَ؟
“O Messenger of Allāh, if he does this, will he enter Paradise?”
He replied: مَا مِنْ مُسْلِمٍ يَفْعَلُ خَصْلَةً مِنْ هَؤُلَاءِ، إِلَّا أَخَذَتْ بِيَدِهِ حَتَّى تُدْخِلَهُ الْجَنَّةَ
“Any Muslim who acts upon any one of these will find that it will take him by the hand and guide him to Paradise.”
Hence, according to this Hadith, there is only one category of people who are exempt from needing to be proactive: those who have no good in them.
Proactivity has always been, and will always be, the fuel of Da’wah and reformation. It is the vehicle that delivered Islam to Persia, Rome, Africa, and the rest of the world. Our history describes a people of phenomenal proactivity, one that included the old and young, the fit and handicapped, the male and female, and the scholar and the uneducated.
Only Allāh knows just how many people were heading for a nosedive into hell if it was not for certain proactive people who pulled them out. Only He knows how many talents and skills that would never have been discovered if it was not for certain proactive people who uncovered them in others and channeled them for the cause of Islam. Only He knows how many communities who were oppressed and who would never have been liberated had it not been for certain proactive people who decided to carry this burden for Allāh.
Indeed, as Dr Simon said, we are not the product of our circumstances. We are a product of our decisions. With Paradise as a prize, our decision must be to live a life of motivation, vision setting, and unlimited proactivity.
 Al-Qur’ān, 20:84
 Al-Qur’ān, 3:133
 Al-Qur’ān, 57:10
 Al-Qur’ān, 56:10-12
 Sunan Abi Dāwūd, on the authority of Sakhr Al-Ghāmidi
 Al-Tirmidhi, on the authority of Abu Huraira
 Muslim, on the authority of Abu Huraira
 Sharh Muslim
 Siyar A’lām Al-Nubalā
 Safwat Al-Safwa
 Dalā’il Al-Nubuwwa
 Al-Qur’ān, 27:16-18
 Al-Qur’ān, 27:20-24
 Mu’jam Al-Tabarāni Al-Kabīr