One autumn morning in 1998, a teacher at a high school in the US state of Tennessee noticed the smell of gas in her classroom and soon felt dizzy and nauseous. Some of her students then reported feeling ill as well, and they were transported by ambulance to a nearby hospital. As concerned staff and students watched them go, some of them started feeling sick, too.
That day, 100 people showed up in the emergency department with symptoms they believed to be associated with gas exposure at the school. But the illness could not be explained by any medical test. Extensive environmental tests conducted at the school concluded that no toxic source could be the cause. There were no signs of infection, but whatever it was, it was certainly transmitted.
It was a phenomenon known as mass psychogenic illness, in which symptoms are passed from person to person among people who are visible to one another. Essentially, it is when you get sick because you see someone else getting sick. This is connected to a more general phenomenon of contagious behaviour: the unconscious transmission of actions or emotions from one individual to another.
In all of the techniques known to man for the positive transformation of people, there is not a single one that even comes close to what I wish to share with you here.
Indeed, there are many who offer Islamic knowledge, and as many avenues of sharing it today, a blessing that we thank Allāh for. The shortfall is in something else: exemplary human beings who can actually be taken as a living example of what they teach. Every instruction, prohibition, word of encouragement, and inspiration will remain lifeless and colourless, regardless of how well decorated it is and how heavily boosted online, until the speaker—be it a parent, teacher, or otherwise—gives life and colour to them using his example. Speak to me, and I will hear your words; act upon them, and I will copy you.
‘Amr b. ‘Utba gave wise words of advice to the mu’addib (mentor) of his sons, saying:
ليكُن أوّلَ إصلاحك لولدي إصلاحُك لنفسك، فإنّ عُيونهم مَعْقودة بعَيْنك، فالحَسن عندهم ما صَنعتَ، والقبيح عندهم ما تَركت
“Let your very first task in rectifying my son be in rectifying yourself. Their eyes are connected to yours. To them, goodness is in what you do, and evil is in that which you refrain from.”
Countless Muslims have developed bitter feelings towards the religion for no reason other than the huge gap they see between the theory and practice of its advocates. Dad advocates prayer in the masjid, yet he is “hardly one to talk.” Mum encourages the hijab, but “where is hers?” A Muslim activist advocates lowering the gaze, yet “why is he scrolling through profiles?” Another preaches humbleness, teamwork, and fear of fame, yet the way he markets his name, how he has branded his da‘wah, or his hatred of sharing any credit cannot be ignored. Reformation of individuals and nations alike has never and will never take place at the hands of such individuals. In fact, the goodness that they actively dismantle within people is far greater than that which they build, and perhaps this is the reason why their punishment is such a severe one.
The Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said:
يُجَاءُ بِالرَّجُلِ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ فَيُلْقَى فِي النَّارِ فَتَنْدَلِقُ أَقْتَابُهُ فِي النَّارِ فَيَدُورُ كَمَا يَدُورُ الْحِمَارُ بِرَحَاهُ فَيَجْتَمِعُ أَهْلُ النَّارِ عَلَيْهِ فَيَقُولُونَ أَيْ فُلَانُ مَا شَأْنُكَ أَلَيْسَ كُنْتَ تَأْمُرُنَا بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَتَنْهَانَا عَنْ الْمُنْكَرِ قَالَ كُنْتُ آمُرُكُمْ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَلَا آتِيهِ وَأَنْهَاكُمْ عَنْ الْمُنْكَرِ وَآتِيهِ
“A man will be brought on the Day of Resurrection and thrown in the Fire, causing his intestines to fall out. He will walk around (with his intestines) like a donkey goes around a millstone. The people of Hell will gather around him and say: ‘O so-and-so! What is wrong with you? Did you not order us to do good deeds and forbid us from doing bad deeds?’ He will reply: ‘Yes, I ordered you to do good deeds, but I did not do them myself, and I would forbid you from bad deeds, yet I used to do them myself.’”
The embodiment of example-led nurturing: Prophet Muhammad ﷺ
We often celebrate the intense love of the Companions for the Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam), their competition over the very droplets of water that fell off him as he washed for prayer, their sacrifice of family and wealth in his cause, their eagerness to act upon his every instruction, and their remembrance of his name as they bled fatally. The transformation of the Companions was a miracle in its own right, as the Maliki scholar Shihāb al-Dīn al-Qarāfi said:
لو لم يكن لرسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم معجزة إلا أصحابه، لكفَوه لإثبات نبوته
“If the Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) had no miracle but his Companions, they would have been a sufficient evidence of his prophethood.”
But the question remains: why did they love him like this? Or, we may rephrase the question: how did he achieve this monumental shift in their behaviour from shepherds and warring tribesmen to leaders of the globe where no sacrifice was too much? The answer is multi-layered. I will share just one of them.
Before the Companions was a spectacle of a human being, a wonder from Allāh’s creation, a man who embodied every value he promoted. In every possible domain of excellence, they saw him excel. Through his actions, he created for them a picture of what was possible.
He instructed them to be devout to Allāh, but he did not stop at the instruction. Had you seen his devotion to Allāh, you would think he was sent for no reason other than to be a worshipper who, when lovers had tucked away under the veils of night, his sides would forsake his bed. He would stand for prolonged hours in prayer, causing the skin of his feet to crack. He would weep until he had soaked his beard, clothes, and the soil beneath him in his yearning for Allāh.
He instructed his Companions to be generous and not to fear poverty, but he did not stop there. Had you seen his generosity, you would think that Allāh had sent him for no reason other than to relieve the poor from their financial burdens, suffice the orphans, and assist the wayfarers. He would do this to a level where his Companions would describe his giving as being “like that of the blowing wind” and like “a man who does not fear poverty.”
He instructed them to be brave, but he did not leave it there. Had you witnessed his courage, you would think that Allāh had sent him for no reason other than to arrange the armies, devise the strategies, strengthen the hearts of those who had buckled, and lead warriors into the thick of battle. The Companions would say:
كنا والله إذا احمر البأس نتقي به وإن الشجاع منا للذي يحاذى به
“Whenever the ferociousness of war would intensify, we would hide behind him, and the most courageous of us were those who were fighting beside him.”
He instructed them to be compassionate, but he did not leave it there. Had you seen his mercy, you would think that Allāh had sent him for no reason other than to wipe away the tears of the devastated, mend the affairs of the heartbroken, listen to the complaints of the distraught, pass a caring hand over the face of an orphan, and accept the simplest invitations by the downtrodden of society.
The Companions adored him, for man has a tendency to adore those who live by the noble principles they advocate.
Our predecessors pick up the baton
Mālik b. Dīnār said:
إِنَّ الْعَالِمَ إِذَا لَمْ يَعْمَلْ بِعِلْمِهِ زَلَّتْ مَوْعِظَتُهُ ، عَنِ الْقُلُوبِ كَمَا تَزِلُّ الْقَطْرَةُ عَنِ الصَّفَا
“The scholar who does not act upon his knowledge will find his reminders slipping away from the hearts of people as droplets slip off smooth stone.”
‘Abd al-Wāḥid b. Ziyād said:
ما بلغ الحسن البصري إلى ما بلغ إلا لكونه إذا أمر الناس بشيء يكون أسبقهم إليه وإذا نهاهم عن شيء كان أبعدهم منه
“The way that al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī reached the status he reached was that whenever he would instruct people to do something, he would be the first to do it, and whenever he prohibited them from something, he would be the furthest from it.”
Imam al-Shāfi‘ī said:
من وعظ أخاه بفعله كان هادياً
“The true guide is he who advises his brother by way of his actions.”
Similarly, when Imam Aḥmad was being punished by the authorities for insisting on the correct Islamic beliefs, he could have taken the concession and professed to their beliefs outwardly whilst his heart testified to the truth – after all, he was under duress. However, shortly before he passed away due to persecution, his companion Muḥammad b. Nūḥ said to Aḥmad:
أنت رجل يُقتدى به، وقد مدَّ الخلق أعناقهم إليك لما يكون منك؛ فاتقِ الله واثبت لأمر الله
“You are a man whom people imitate. People are looking towards you to see what you shall do. So, fear Allāh and remain steadfast regardless of what comes your way.”
The Muslim, therefore, realises that his actions are being watched by family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers, and before them all, Allāh. Hence, the Muslim is never seen in suspicious places or mixing with suspicious people. Rather, this person leads by example, realizing that tarbiya is not merely the transfer of information from mind to mind, but more importantly, the transfer of ethics, values, principles, and lifestyles from person to person.
Abū Dāwūd was not only a student of Imam Aḥmad, but was virtually a copy of him. Aḥmad was a student of Wakī‘ and was a copy of him. Wakī‘ was a student of Sufyān and was a copy of him. Sufyān was the student of Manṣūr b. al-Mu‘tamir and was a copy of him. Manṣūr was a student of Ibrāhīm al-Nakha‘ī and was a copy of him. Ibrāhīm was a student of ‘Alqama and was a copy of him. ‘Alqama was a student of Ibn Mas‘ūd and was a copy of him, and Ibn Mas‘ūd was the one who resembled the conduct of the Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) the most.
Each teacher was an example, so his students picked up on both their knowledge and behaviour. Such teachers handed down not only knowledge, but taqwa (God consciousness), amāna (trustworthiness), adab (manners), warā’ (cautiousness), ḥayā’ (shyness), and so on. As a result, each one of those mentioned above was a stand-alone Imam – a biography of a giant.
Zooming into your children
Your child is your audience. They have problems in their lives and they want you to be the solution. They have so many options out there, all of which are competing for their attention. They want to understand why you are the best choice. This means that they want to be persuaded, and what better way to persuade than by showing them—by way of your fine example—what is possible. Imam Ibn al-Jawzī shares his personal experience as a child with those who did just that for him:
لقيت مشايخ، أحوالهم مختلفة في مقادير في العلم. وكان أنفعهم لي في صحبته العامل منهم بعلمه، وإن كان غيره أعلم منه.
“I have met many scholars with different levels of knowledge. The most beneficial to me, however, were those who acted upon their knowledge, even if others knew more.
ولقيت جماعة من علماء الحديث يحفظون ويعرفون ولكنهم كانوا يتسامحون بغيبة يخرجونها مخرج جرح وتعديل، ويأخذون على قراءة الحديث أجرة، ويسرعون بالجواب لئلا ينكسر الجاه وإن وقع خطأ.
And I met a group of knowledgeable scholars of Hadith who had memorised huge amounts, yet they would take backstabbing lightly, justifying it under the guise of critiquing narrators, and would charge fees for teaching knowledge. They would also rush to give answers to questions in order to safeguard their status, even if they end up making mistakes.
ولقيت عبد الوهاب الأنماطي، فكان على قانون السلف لم يسمع في مجلسه غيبة، ولا كان يطلب أجرا على سماع الحديث،
I also met ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Anmāṭi, who was upon the way of the predecessors. In his gathering, not a word of backstabbing would be heard, nor did he ever request teaching fees.
وكنت إذا قرأت عليه أحاديث الرقاق بكى واتصل بكاؤه.
Whenever I would read to him heart-softening prophetic narrations, he would cry for long stretches of time.
فكان ـ وأنا صغير السن حينئذ ـ يعمل بكاؤه في قلبي ويبني قواعد. وكان على سمت المشايخ الذين سمعنا أوصافهم في النقل
I was young at the time, and so his tears were acting upon my heart, setting foundations within it. His conduct was like that of the scholars of the past whom we would read about.
ولقيت الشيخ أبا منصور الجواليقي، فكان كثير الصمت، شديد التحري فيما يقول، متقنا محققا
I also met Abū Manṣūr al-Jawālīqī. He usually remained silent, and was very cautious when speaking. He was a true specialist and researcher.
وربما سئل المسألة الظاهرة التي يبادر بجوابها بعض غلمانه، فيتوقف فيها حتى يتيقن. وكان كثير الصوم والصمت
He would sometimes be asked a question that the average child would be willing to answer, but he would not answer until he was sure. He fasted abundantly and observed long periods of silence.
فانتفعت برؤية هذين الرجلين أكثر من انتفاعي بغيرهما
So, I found my greatest benefit in these two men over all others whom I had met.
ففهمت من هذه الحالة أن الدليل بالفعل أرشد من الدليل بالقول
This experience taught me that the guiding effect of actions is far greater than that of words […]
فالله الله في العلم بالعمل، فإنه الأصل الأكبر
So, people, fear Allāh with respect to acting upon your knowledge, for it is the grandest of all principles […]”
The philosophy of “do as I say, not as I do” is an ineffective one—alienating, even—for what can be more demoralising and disappointing than not exhibiting what you are asking of others?
A lie that the child hears from the parent, such as the child being told to tell the guest outside that “dad is not home”, is all it takes to deconstruct the value of truthfulness in the heart of the child. An incident of inappropriate behaviour which a daughter sees from her mother is all it takes to erase every lecture on ḥaya’ (modesty) that she may have ever heard from her. A burst of anger over a petty matter that a child witnesses from his father is all it takes for all his previous advice on patience, mature thinking, and long-term vision to evaporate from his memory.
Undoubtedly, many factors contribute to effective nurturing and transformation of people’s behaviour. It is hard to think of an attribute that is so solid a force for positive influence than leading by example. This is one of the quickest recipes to gaining people’s loyalty, disarming any resentment that may be felt towards you, and most importantly, seeing the change you want in your loved ones.
If you want to elevate your children to higher purposes, you must start living by a higher personal code. You will need to make a few tough decisions about how you will carry yourself from this point onwards – what you will be seen doing and avoiding. You will need to roll up your sleeves and wade into the trenches of hard work and sacrifice so that they see their hero in you.
The famed philosopher and physician Albert Schweitzer once said: “Example is not the main thing in influencing others; it is the only thing.”
 Al-‘Iqd Al-Farīd
 Al-Bukhārī, on the authority of Usāma
 Al-Bukhārī and Muslim, on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbās
 Muslim, on the authority of Anas
 Muslim, on the authority of Anas
 Ḥilya Al-Awliyā’
 Tārīkh Baghdād
 Ṣayd Al-Khāṭir