بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
In the name of Allah, the most Gracious, the most Merciful.
My dear brothers and sisters, when Allah created us, He says about his creation that it is “the perfect creation” because, Allah is the perfect. And everything that He creates is perfect. In particular, the deen, the religion, which He has given us, where He says:
الْيَوْمَ أَكْمَلْتُ لَكُمْ دِينَكُمْ
Alyawma akmaltu lakum deenakum
On this day I have perfected for you your religion.
(Surah Al-Ma’ida, Quran 5:3)
Allah is perfect. But we as human beings, are we perfect? What did the Prophet (pbuh) say? He said – - كُلُّ بَنِي آدَمَ خَطَّاءٌ that every single child of Adam is someone who makes mistakes – وَخَيْرُ الْخَطَّائِينَ التَّوَّابُونَ – and that the best of those who make mistakes are at-tawwabun, those who repent. And so what do we learn from that my brothers and sisters? We have to learn that we are not perfect.
In my Khutbah today I’d like to talk about this idea of perfectionism in our community. Many of us in this room are immigrants, or our parents were immigrants coming here, for mainly economic prosperity to achieve the American dream, to want the same things that everyone else wants. But with that, comes this idea that we have to be perfect.
There’s a concept called model minority, which is that as a minority, because I represent everyone else within my group, I must be perfect, because each one of us represents all of us at any one time. So this idea that we have to be the model minority. Well, what did what did the scholars say? They said, “Pleasing all people is a goal that can never be achieved”. So how far do we go in pleasing others? How far do we go in trying to attain this kind of perfection? So what is perfection versus excellence? There’s a difference. In Islam, we want ihsan – we want excellence. What is perfectionism? Perfectionism is the idea that you set unrealistic goals, unattainable goals. And for every moment that you don’t reach that goal, you are harming yourself. “You are not enough, you’re not good enough” – there’s that feeling of not being perfect. And so we have to differentiate between the concept of ihsan or excellence does not mean perfection. Ihsan means you have a goal for yourself. It’s a realistic goal. And you strive to achieve that goal. And you do your best to please Allah and not the people. The concept of ihsan is rooted in the pleasure of Allah. “Allah knows that I have done my utmost.” The concept of ihsan is not rooted in the pleasure of others. And that’s something important for us to understand.
The typical perfectionists stuck in an endless loop of self-defeating and over-striving, in which each new task is seen as an opportunity for failure, as an opportunity for disappointment and harsh self-rebuke. Perfectionism is based on the belief that: “unless I am perfect, I’m not okay”. Perfectionists believe that they cannot be happy or enjoy life because they are not perfect. So to give you a classic example, the child comes home with an A, they worked hard. They’re proud of the result. Parent sees the grade and says – what? All the children know this. “Why didn’t you get 100?” There’s no validation of the hard work that went into the result. Of course, learning lessons is important. That is part of ihsan – learning what went wrong. But there is room for celebration, my brothers and sisters, there is room for celebrating our victories and celebrating the efforts that have surpassed our expectations. Whatever our expectations were, whatever our goals were, if we reached more than that, we should be pleased about that. And so we have to be careful how we set expectations within our families. And outside of that, but especially within our families.
Think about Eid. We have our Eid after Ramadan. Allah said, “You did great. You fasted the month of Ramadan. You honored the legacy of Ibrahim during the 10 days of the dhul Hajj. And here is Eid, and on this day you must celebrate. On this day it is haram, it is prohibited to fast”. It is prohibited by the law of Allah that you cannot fast. You cannot do that. You must take this day to celebrate. You must take a break. You achieved something and then you take a break and you celebrate that achievement. And that’s something, my brothers and sisters, that we need to do.
We know the story of the three men who came to the Prophet (pbuh). One of them said, “Oh prophet of Allah, I don’t sleep at night. I pray all night every night”. The other one said, “Ya Rasulallah, I fast every single day of my life”. And the third man said, “Ya Rasulallah, I don’t have a family. I’m never gonna get married. I’m just gonna spend my life in the worship of Allah”. They seem like great pious people. But what did the Prophet (pbuh) reply?
He said, “As for me, I am the most pious of you, I am the model for you” – he didn’t say this out of boasting, but simply showing that he is the model sent by Allah. He continued, “I fast some days and I eat some days. I get married, and I pray a part of the night and I sleep a part of the night”. The Prophet explained to them this balance. It’s so crucial in our lives, not only in our spiritual life, but everything else. Of course, Islam is not in one corner of our lives. It is practiced throughout our life. So that concept cannot be limited to worship, but it should have a broader application.
Perfectionistic thinking is a negative force in our lives. This is different from ihsan, different from excellence, different from the pursuit of a higher standard. But perfectionists are driven by fear fear of failure. Have you ever procrastinated on a project because you’re afraid you’re gonna fail? One of the things we had in our community was doing matchmaking for young men and women. In the session with the brothers, we asked, “How do you guys feel about marriage?” Most more than half of the responses were all along the lines of: “What if I get married and it doesn’t work out? All of the relationships I’ve seen in my life are negative. And so if I get married, well, I have the same problem”. We have to realize, going back to what the Prophet (pbuh) said, that we all make mistakes. Let’s take one step forward at a time and have realistic expectations. Recent studies found that people that are from an Asian, South Asian, immigrant background in the US and in the UK have more stress. In particular, the studies have shown that, even after removing socio economic differences, they found that these immigrant people have more stress and more pressure to be perfect than other groups.
So that’s something we have to think about. This idea of perfectionism leads to struggles with depression, with anxiety, with emotional well being, with family, relationships, and more. When every single family gathering is about discussing things like – “my child has gone into this ivy league school” “my child has gotten this dream house” “my relative has gotten this new model of Tesla” – the pressure to be perfect increases, and the comparisons never end. Every time you attain something, there will always be someone with something more. We have to realize that when we start to compare us at the beginning of a journey to someone who is at day 300, or 5000, and we wonder why we’re not there – Well, you’re at day one, my brother, you’re at day one, my sister, be realistic.
Perfectionism even kills. When they looked at people who attempted suicide, they found a very high correlation between suicide and perfectionism. That pressure leads to people thinking that there’s no way they will ever succeed or ever be good enough. Therefore, they take their own life. More than half of those who actually commit suicide were called, or referred to by their loved ones, as perfectionists. Some studies show over 70%. Just think about that my brothers and sisters, and let’s have realistic goals for ourselves.
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We recently had a suicide prevention program. I talked about this before. We asked teens, what is it you wish you could tell your parents?
And what came out of that was, “I wish that I was not treated as a robot that is meant to get perfect grades, and be a perfect Muslim. And that’s it. I want to be treated like a human being that has my own interests, that has strengths, that has weaknesses, that has likes and dislikes, that I’m different from my siblings or those that I’m being compared to”. That was one of the main things that really hit me, when I heard that. And even in situations where parents come to me, they have children who maybe are failing at school or hanging out with the wrong crowd, and the parent says “can you please talk to my child?” Just ask the child simple questions. The child says that expectations are unrealistic. “Expectations are paralyzing me. Expectations are paralyzing me.” Subhan’Allah.
So how can we get over that, and how can we open the channels of communication?
Number one – let’s have a conversation about expectations tonight at the dinner table. Are we setting realistic expectations for each other? Just have an open discussion with that question tonight at dinner wherever you’re gonna be. You pray Maghrib and then you have this conversation. Do we have realistic expectations for each other? Which side Are we on? Are we on the side of ihsan, in the struggle for excellence that our deen tells us about? Or are we on the side of perfectionism, which is setting unrealistic expectations which are paralyzing us and putting immense pressure on us to be perfect? That’s the first thing – have the conversation.
Number two – set realistic goals for yourself. If you feel that paralysis, make it more realistic, make it smaller, the goal can be smaller. If you feel like it’s so big that you can’t do it, then that means it’s unrealistic, make it smaller, break it up into bite sized pieces.
Number three – address the fear of failure. Address this idea, and ask yourself, “what is the worst thing that can happen if I fail?” Realize that it won’t be that bad. In most cases, it won’t be that bad.
Number four – learn to prioritize. Remember that every time we say yes to something, there’s an opportunity cost. We’re saying no to something else. And if we realize that we cannot have a ihsan in what we’re doing, then we should not say yes to everything. We should prioritize and pick those things, which are the most important.
Number five – learning to let go. Perfectionists don’t know what their true needs are. They don’t know about how to go about meeting those needs. And so if you need to seek help, talk to someone who you know, someone who you trust. Ask them, “Do you think I’m a perfectionist?” Ask someone you know who will give you an honest answer. Go easy on yourself. You know, the studies show that after 49 hours of a workweek, there’s diminishing returns in our productivity, every additional hour, you put in after 49, after 50, the amount of work that you actually output is diminished. Every hour is more and more diminished until anything more than 60 or 70 is essentially worthless work.
And finally, I want to share with you some poetry. When I was studying pre-Islamic poetry as a part of our Arabic literature class, there was one line with a great pre-Islamic poet.
“The one who does not respect or honor themself can never be respected or honored.”
So do we respect ourselves? Do we show ourselves honor? Are we always hard on ourselves? Are we always thinking about how imperfect we are? Because that is our nature – our nature is to be imperfect.
كُلُّ بَنِي آدَمَ خَطَّاءٌ – every single child of Adam is someone who makes mistakes. The best of them are those who fix their mistakes.
So realize that our very nature is to make mistakes. And what does Allah begin every single verse of the Quran with? He starts with بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ , reminding us that He is the Most Merciful, reminding us that He is the Most Compassionate, reminding us to go easy on ourselves. Even the prophets (pbut) said, “We will enter Jannah only by Allah’s mercy”. And so this expectation that you have to be perfect, in order to be good enough, is simply the wrong expectation. Rather we are meant to pursue realistic goals and pursue a higher standard for ourselves without falling into perfectionism.
And we ask Allah that He protects us from that. I ask Allah that He protects our families from that. I ask Allah that he helps us to be role models for the next generation. We ask Allah that he blesses us in this life in the next.We ask Allah that He cures the sick. We ask Allah that He has mercy and forgives for those that have passed away. We ask Allah that He fulfills the needs of those that are in need. We ask Allah that He enters us into Paradise, that He gives us His shade on the day when there is no shade except His. We ask Allah that He reunites us with our beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the aakhirah . We ask Allah that we drink from Al-Kawthar. We ask Allah that He helps us to follow the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) way. Ameen.
عِبَادَ اللّهِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَأْمُرُ بِالْعَدْلِ وَالْإِحْسَانِ وَإِيتَاءِ ذِي الْقُرْبَىٰ وَيَنْهَىٰ عَنِ الْفَحْشَاءِ وَالْمُنكَرِ وَالْبَغْيِ يَعِظُكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَذَكَّرُونَ
Servants of Allah. Indeed, Allah orders justice and good conduct and giving to relatives and forbids immorality and bad conduct and oppression. He admonishes you that perhaps you will be reminded.
اُذْكُرُوا اللَّهَ الْعَظِيمَ يَذْكُرْكُمْ واشْكُرُوهُ يَزِدْكُمْ واسْتَغْفِرُوهُ يَغْفِرْ لكُمْ واتّقُوهُ يَجْعَلْ لَكُمْ مِنْ أَمْرِكُمْ مَخْرَجًا
Remember Allah, the Great – He will remember you. Thank Him for His favors, He will increase you therein. And seek forgiveness from Him, He will forgive you. And be conscious of Him, He will provide you a way out of difficult matters.
And, establish the prayer.
What did you think? Please share your reflections and questions below.
And come back next week for another khutbah!
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