14 Strategy 4: Your Environment

Cheesecake factory.  It is a restaurant known for its cheesecakes, obviously.  The restaurant also serves appetizers and main courses and they are quite tasty. Let us commence our forth strategy with a thought experiment about the Cheesecake Factory.  Assume you are working for a reputable financial services company and the busy fiscal quarter has just concluded.  To celebrate the completion of what was a grueling fiscal quarter, your co-workers decide to go out to dinner at, you guessed it, Cheesecake Factory.   As the day of the dinner arrives, you ponder deeply about what cheesecake you will be ordering.  The various options run through your mind until you settle on what you believe to be the most scrumptious, delicious, flavorful cheesecake. Your 13 co-workers and yourself go to the Cheesecake Factory and enjoy an appetizing, hardy dinner and then that moment that you have been waiting for arrives.  The waiter approaches your table and says, “Can I interest anyone in some dessert?” Some of your co-workers respond. “I’m really stuffed.  I think I will pass.” says one of your co-workers.  Another follows, “Yea, I don’t have any room for dessert.” Slowly but surely, all 13 of your co-workers turn down dessert until the waiter finally approaches you.  At this point you have to ask yourself whether you will be the one person to cut through the social pressure and say, “Yes, I will have this 2500 calorie cheesecake because I’m a glutton and proud of it!”  It is more likely than not that you would capitulate and end up passing on the cheesecake.   Such is the reality of how one’s environment can affect them.

 

Your environment has a tremendous impact on your psycho-spiritual being and when it comes to dealing with destructive doubts, it can be the difference between succumbing to those doubts or navigating away from them.  This is so because your environment, especially your social environment, deeply impacts you in two ways.

 

First, your social environment shapes your spiritual heart. As was mentioned earlier, the locus of attack for doubts is the heart.  A diseased and weak heart is an easy prey for parasitic doubts.  Diseases of the heart include such items as kibr (arrogance), ‘ujub (self aggrandizement) , riya’ (ostentation), ḥasad (blameworth jealousy), etc. These diseases impede the truth and facilitate shubuhāt in the heart. One of the main cures to these spiritual diseases is ṣuḥbah al-ṣāliḥīn (companionship of the righteous). Thus, one’s social environment has a direct impact on the spiritual well being of the heart. We will expound upon this more when we revisit the heart in our ninth strategy, ‘Focus on the Heart’.

 

The second way your environment impacts you is that it shapes you and your sense of belonging.  Numerous studies in social psychology have examined the phenomenon of social conformity. (Think back to the Cheesecake Factory thought experiment).  These studies bifurcate conformity into two categories: informational conformity and normative conformity.

Informational conformity is related to the desire to feel certain and usually occurs when a person lacks knowledge and looks to the dominant group for guidance.  Under informational conformity a person internalizes the views of the dominant group and adopts them as an individual.  This type of conformity is especially potent when a person is also part of a subgroup. For example, a marginally practicing Muslim might be surrounded by secular humanists or postmodernists at their college or university who make up the majority of the people that this person interacts with.  This would constitute the dominant group while the other Muslims (perhaps at home or in the masjid) would be part of the subgroup.  In such an environment, if this person lacks knowledge or is uncertain about the veracity of Islam, they could easily find themselve internalizing the worldview of the dominante group.

 

Normative conformity on the other hand, relates to the desire to belong and is manifest when a person finds themselves yielding to group pressure because they want to fit in with the dominant group.  This type of conformity is generally limited to compliance, where a person publicly accepts the views of the dominant group but privately rejects them. However, such a state of cognitive dissonance between the worldview of the dominant group and the worldview of the subgroup needs to be settled and over the long term, the ideas of the subgroup can become dormant or no longer expressed in any form or fashion.1  Thus, certainty and a sense of belonging need to be sought from the Muslim community.

 

Setting aside studies in social psychology, most people have an intuitive understanding of social conformity.  If your son or daughter wants to play with a group of friends and you are fully aware that this group consists of individuals who like to smoke and drink and are extremely rude, you intuitively incline towards dissuading your child from befriending them.  On the other hand, if you are familiar with a group of friends who are courteous in their mannerisms, serious about their school work and have a healthy home environment, you would encourage your child to be a part of this group.

 

Islamic source texts constantly bolster this intuitive understanding of social conformity in a number of ways.  For example, many verses in the Qur’an mention the eschatological consequences of a negative, unhealthy social environment:

 

“And ˹beware of˺ the Day the wrongdoer will bite his nails ˹in regret˺ and say, “Oh! I wish I had followed the Way along with the Messenger! Woe to me! I wish I had never taken so-and-so as a close friend.”2

 

“Close friends will be enemies to one another on that Day, except the righteous.”3

 

The Qur’an also provides general encouragement to keep righteous company:

 

“Do not mix truth with falsehood, or hide the truth when you know it. Keep up the prayer, pay the prescribed alms, and bow your heads [in worship] with those who bow theirs.”4

 

“And keep yourself patient [by being] with those who call upon their Lord in the morning and the evening, seeking His countenance. And let not your eyes pass beyond them, desiring adornments of the worldly life, and do not obey one whose heart We have made heedless of Our remembrance and who follows his desire and whose affair is ever [in] neglect.”5

 

In addition to the Qur’an, there are a number of authentic ḥadīth reports which provide encouragement to surround oneself with a healthy, righteous social environment:

 

“A person is upon the din of his close friend, so beware who you befriend.”6

 

“The example of a good companion (who sits with you) in comparison with a bad one is like that of the musk seller and the blacksmith’s bellows; from the first you would either buy musk or enjoy its good smell while the bellows would either burn your body or your clothes or you get a bad nasty smell thereof.”7

 

“You will be with those whom you love.”8

 

There are a number of benefits to keeping good company and surrounding oneself with a healthy social environment. Jamaal al-Din Zarabozo provides six detailed benefits9 which have been summarized below:

 

Seeking pious friends and companions for the sake of Allah places one on the path to attaining Allah’s love.  As such, this person will find shade on the day of judgment as is narrated in the following ḥadīth report:

 

“Seven will be shaded by Allah on a day in which there is no shade save His shade…Two men who loved each other for the sake of Allah, coming together on that basis and parting from one another on that basis.”10

 

Righteous friends can be a strong source of guidance and support, giving advice when most needed. It is common for people to go through periods of weakness and confusion and having a strong social support group consisting of righteous friends can help one navigate those tough times.
Pious friends can help identify one’s shortcomings.  Many times we do not notice certain aspects of ourselves that may be affecting our hearts or affecting others around us.  A good friend, who is honest with you, can help you identify your psycho-spiritual blind spots. As the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is reported to have said in an authentic narration:

 

“The believer is the believer’s mirror and the believer’s brother. He guards him against loss and protects him when he is absent.”11

 

It is well known that people look to role models in formulating how to live their lives.  A group of people who live their lives as closely as possible to the Prophetic practices, can serve to be excellent role models.
Connected to point number 4, when a group of people adopt Prophetic practices, they bring the teachings of Islam from an abstract and theorical level to a visible, practical and more understandable level.
Associating with an Islamically conscious group of people helps to bolster the Islamic worldview by reinvigorating one’s purpose (teleology), refreshing one’s conceptualization of the divine (theology) and fortifying the inevitable end (eschatology).  This point is best summarized in the following ḥadīth report:

 

The Messenger of Allah was once asked, “Who is the best of those whom we should sit with?” He replied, “He whose sight reminds you of Allah, he whose speech increases your knowledge and he whose actions remind you of the hereafter”12

 

1 See Mcleod, Saul. “What Is Conformity?” Simply Psychology. Accessed March 23, 2022. https://www.simplypsychology.org/conformity.html.

 

2 القرآن الكريم. “Surat Al-Furqan [25:27-28] – The Noble Qur’an.” Accessed March 23, 2022. https://legacy.quran.com/25/27-28.

 

3 القرآن الكريم. “Surat Az-Zukhruf [43:67] – The Noble Qur’an.” Accessed March 23, 2022. https://legacy.quran.com/43/67.

 

4 القرآن الكريم. “Surat Al-Baqarah [2:42-43] – The Noble Qur’an.” Accessed March 23, 2022. https://legacy.quran.com/2/42-43.

 

5 القرآن الكريم. “Surat Al-Kahf [18:28] – The Noble Qur’an.” Accessed March 23, 2022. https://legacy.quran.com/18/28.

 

6 Sijistānī, Abū Dāʼūd Sulaymān ibn al-Ashʻath. Sunan Abu Dawud

7 Bukhārī, Muḥammad ibn Ismāʻīl. Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī

8 Qushayrī, Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj. Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim

9 See Zarabozo, Jamaal al-Din M. Purification of the Soul: Concept, Process and Means. Al-Basheer Publications & Translations, 2002., Pg.357-362

 

10 Bukhārī, Muḥammad ibn Ismāʻīl. Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī

11 Sijistānī, Abū Dāʼūd Sulaymān ibn al-Ashʻath. Sunan Abu Dawud. Graded ‘hasan’ by al-Albaani

12 Recorded by Abu Yala.  For a detailed discussion of the veracity of this narration, see Zarabozo, Jamaal al-Din M. Purification of the Soul: Concept, Process and Means. Al-Basheer Publications & Translations, 2002., Footnote 1, page 361

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