The Purpose of Optimism

Essay by
Aug 5, 2014 · 6 min read

Optimism is a virtue of the righteous believer. Being optimistic is to be hopeful and confident about what the future holds. We have been given so much in the past and present that it’s strange how we can still be pessimistic about our future provisions. We have been granted working limbs, an education and sustenance. If we were to try and count all the blessings from Allah, it would take more than the rest of our lives. Yet sometimes, when we feel disappointed by something that happens in our life, we forget about the blessings bestowed on us.

It may be that we are hit by a terrible calamity in our lives. Such an experience could trigger a person to become more pessimistic overall. If, for example, we didn’t quite pass that exam that seemed important to our future or if we lost something that we thought we needed.

It’s also quite easy to become pessimistic even without realizing it. With modern consumer culture taking advantage of our impulses and making it so much easier to procrastinate, overriding stress and failure have a greater chance of befalling us. This culture could lead to the slow erosion of a positive state of mind. After experiencing a chain of minor but still unfortunate events, we may come to expect negative outcomes. This pattern of expectations could then hinder our motivation, which is a vital component to taking any productive action.

There are a number of practical steps we can take to awaken and maintain the spirit of optimism in ourselves. We could start simply by reviving a Sunnah of the Prophet (s). ‘Sunnah’ in Arabic is literally defined as ‘Way’ or ‘Path,’ which in Islam refers to the way of the Prophet (s). Smiling is a sunnah of the Prophet (s), which has also been prescribed to Muslims as charity (Fiqh-us-Sunnah, Volume 3, Number 98). When you smile, you feel good and you make others feel good as well. It’s also scientifically proven that smiling can reduce stress in the body and mind, and its effects have been described as being similar to a good night’s sleep.

Another Islamic prescription for optimism is to have ‘husn adh-dhan,’ which means having good thoughts or expectations of Allah. Thinking that you will not helped in your time of severe need, is to lack ‘husn adh-dhan’. It’s narrated in Sahih Bukhari that Allah (swt) said, “I am as My servant thinks I am …” (Hadith Qudsi #15). Thinking good of Allah and being positive can enable you to see the silver lining in even the worst of situations. So we should be sure to always think positively, no matter what the situation seems to look like at first glance. In addition to that, Sheikh Ibn al-Qayyim has stated, “The more you have good expectations of your Lord and hope in Him, the more you will rely on and trust in Him. This is why some explained true reliance and trust to be having good expectations of Allah. In reality, having good expectations of Him leads to relying on and trusting in Him, as it is unthinkable that one can trust in someone that he has bad expectations of or no hope in, and Allah Knows best” (Tahdhib Madarij as-Salikin).

The sahabah the companions of the Prophet are our role models after him (s), and the following is another example of the power of optimism. The Prophet (s) was sitting with the sahabah when he told them about how Islam will spread to Constantinople (Al-Musnad 14:331). The sahabah were amazed to hear this, as this was at a time when they were suffering from intense difficulty. Despite reason for disbelief, they were optimistic. They didn’t allow any doubt to influence their actions.

Often, we as Muslims focus too much on the outcome of our efforts. If the outcome does not seem to be immediately favorable, we see our actions as useless. If we prepare for a job interview and we don’t get the job, we deem all our hours of work wasted, thinking thoughts such as, “Imagine how many video games I could have played in those hours.” Remember that we only have control over our own actions, and that the outcomes will always be in the hands of Allah. So whether or not you perform the action, Allah will cause the outcome to happen as he wills. On the Day of Judgement, Allah will not judge you by the outcomes but rather by your intentions and actions. If you tried your best to achieve something and made an intention to do so, then surely Allah will reward you for your efforts. And Allah knows best. The sahabah understood this fact, and applied it to their lives. They understood that even if you contribute just a little bit for a great cause, those actions will weigh in your favor on the Last Day, which is why they worked day and night towards fulfilling this prophecy.

The prophecy of Constantinople was passed on to the generations that followed, each doing their part until it reached the shoulders of Sultan Murad II of the then Uthmani (read “Ottoman”) state. The story of Constantinople’s liberation thereafter is worthy of many books. Sultan Murad II’s son, Mohammed Al-Fatih, finally liberated Constantinople in 857 AH. It seemed to be a figment of a fargone future years ago when the Prophet (s) told his sahabah of that day, but it became a reality. Do you think this would’ve been possible with a pessimistic approach?

This hopeful attitude is a distinguishing quality of a Muslim. Allah says in the Guide for Mankind, “Whosoever puts his trust in Allah, then He will suffice him” (65:3). We should always try to consider the different possibilities and prepare for the future as much as we are able, but we don’t need to be pessimistic to do so. We have to remember that there are certain things that Allah has destined for us which will occur no matter how well we are prepared. And if He has destined disappointment for us at a point and time, we must take it as a reminder and as a lesson to better ourselves. So whatever happens, it can truly only benefit us. That is what Islam teaches us. May Allah enable us to take heed of his reminders and shine a ray of optimism wherever we may be. Ameen.

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2 Responses to "The Purpose of Optimism"

  1. Aseey says:

    Nice one Meraj Hassan. I really enjoy this piece and have learnt alot. Thanks for sharing the ibn Qayyim quotation on being hopeful of Allah’s good decree.

  2. Shahin says:

    This is a great piece. Even the most optimistic people need reminders, esp. about husn adh-dhan. Sometimes even when we give others advice, we forget to implement it ourselves. I really appreciated this, jazakallahu khairan. And I think another way of looking at optimism is to see that even when there are bad things happening in your life, there are good things as well. If you don’t have one thing, you surely have another.

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