Tuesday, June 21, 2011


“Ya Sin. By the Quran filled with wisdom. You (O Muhammad) are 
indeed one of the Messengers, on a straight path.” [36:1-4]

During the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon Him), the people of the Arabian Peninsula adopted many abhorrent practices such obsession in tribalism, the burying of daughters alive, abuse of slaves, and dishonesty in transactions. Yet the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon Him) was able to eradicate these practices from their hearts and minds, and then adorn them with lofty virtues such as striving for excellence, taking the middle path, honouring daughters, kissing children, living humbly, abolishing racism, being honest in transactions, sanctifying life, eating pure, seeking knowledge, etc. How did he accomplish this?

Obviously, Divine power was at play here. But at a human level, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon Him) did something that we can all draw on. He worked on the root of the problem - the people’s belief in polytheism and other erroneous ancestral traditions – by replacing it with belief in monotheism. He worked on the people’s paradigms.

A paradigm represents a mentality, a belief of things, a way of thinking, a frame of understanding. It develops over time through the acquisition of knowledge and through life experiences. Our approach to life, decisions, response to events, behaviours, and attitudes are a product of our paradigms. Therefore, our ability to be SPECIAL (Successful, Productive, Effective, in Control, Influential, and Alive) is dependent on how correct our paradigms are and how willing we are to continuously work on our paradigms.  In the following statement, Stephen Covey beautifully summarizes the importance of working on paradigms and the relationship between paradigms and behaviours/attitudes:

"If you want to make small improvements in your life, then work on your behaviour or attitude. But if you want to make major improvements - quantum leaps in performance, then don't work on your behaviour, nor on your attitude. Work on your paradigms. Behaviour and attitudes will inevitably follow." - Stephen Covey, Principle Centred Leadership.

The power of working on paradigms can be observed among converts to Islam. It is a proof of Islam that a drug dealer, an enemy of Islam, a celebrity, or even a promiscuous woman can transform into an intelligent, dignified, humble human being, or even a leader - simply through embracing Islam. The biography of Malcolm X is a remarkable illustration of a convert who phased through multiple paradigms. He began his life as an astute student but a victim of racism. Then, as he grew older, he embraced the paradigm of a hustler. That paradigm would shift to one of a leading supporter of the Nation of Islam. Finally, before his passing, through his transformative holy pilgrimage to Makkah, he adopted orthodox Islam.

Though far less dramatic than Malcolm X’s biography, the greatest paradigm shift in my life has been in my impression of Islam. During my childhood, growing up in the west, my impression of Islam was a plain vanilla understanding of Islam - a set of rules and beliefs. Only when I was introduced to certain books, such as The Purification of the Soul (published by Al Firdous Publications Ltd.), and scholars such as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Imam Siraj Wahaj, did I realize that Islam was far broader, and much deeper. Through further exposure to circles of learning and exemplary Muslims, I not only developed a new paradigm of Islam, but I realized that Islam was a paradigm - the ultimate paradigm. This paradigm shift transformed my approach to life, my life purpose, my interests, my circle of friends, and pretty much every aspect of my life.

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon Him) himself embraced new paradigms. For instance, in the incident of the ’Battle of the Trench’, he consulted with his companions on how to respond to the Makkan’s declaration of war on Madinah. Salman al-Farisi suggested a strategy that was known among Persians but foreign to the Arabs - building a trench around the city. Note that his suggestion was not a combat strategy, which is the paradigm that Muslims may have been confined to. Rather, it was an idea that transcended the paradigm of combat while upholding the underlying objective of safety, protection, and preservation. It was a new paradigm – a new way of approaching the situation - that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon Him) and his companions readily accepted. The paradigm played a key role in the Muslims’ coming out as victors in the end.

The principle of working on paradigms can apply to any goal you want to achieve or issue you want to address. If you have a marital problem, changing your behaviour may not be the solution if there is a deficiency in your paradigm concerning marriage or the specific marital issue. If you have a money problem, working harder may not solve the problem if your paradigm concerning income generation is flawed. Whatever problems there may be - social problems, money problems, addictions, political problems, etc - the solution may not necessarily be in doing things differently, but rather by thinking about things differently.

Now here’s the catch. Working on paradigms is difficult because it presupposes that the current paradigm is incomplete or incorrect, and our pride and ego doesn’t like admitting deficiencies within ourselves, nor does our lower self (nafs) like things that serve against its interests. It is as someone said: “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” The insecurity and unpredictability in life through embracing a new paradigm may also create resistance. Therefore, working on paradigms is a habit that requires courage and effort. It requires a willingness to admit that one’s opinions, views, or approaches may require modification. It requires an investment in acquiring knowledge through teachers, experts, and books, and then an application of that knowledge through updating and replacing existing paradigms.

Finally, to wrap up, earlier I alluded to the notion that Islam calls for a paradigm shift – a return to man’s primordial nature (fitra), because man has and continues to drift away from it. This call is epitomized in the very first chapter of the Quran: “Guide us to the straight path” [1:5]. That straight path, or that paradigm (or whatever you want to call it), is one of submission and worship. That path is recognized through following the trail of sweet fragrance left behind by our beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon Him), for “You (O Muhammad) are indeed one of the Messengers, on a straight path.” [36:3-4]


  1. This is an amazing article, thanks for sharing. It has caused a paradigm shift in my mind. However, I have a question: How does worship and submission help others? What if I skip worship and submission and use science to find out how I can develop poor economies. Once I've figured out the science, I'll implement it, help millions of poor people get out if poverty/starvation/etc and have a very positive impact. Isn't that the ultimate good deed?

  2. @Anonymous

    Thanks for the question. The simple answer is that helping others and doing good deeds is worship, provided that the deed is ultimately for the sake of Allah. There's no need to dichotomize good deeds and worship.

    Our paradigm should be that whatever good we do, ultimately it is to seek Allah's Mercy and pleasure.

  3. MashaAllah, very well written.

    You mention that "It requires an investment in acquiring knowledge through teachers, experts, and books, and then an application of that knowledge through updating and replacing existing paradigms."

    Any recommendations on this front?

  4. @SunniWaqas

    Could you clarify what you are seeking recommendation for? Are you referring to resources? Thanks.

  5. @Abu Dawud

    Yeah, the "teachers, experts, and books" you mentioned especially the books.

  6. @SunniWaqas

    I would start off with the books I mentioned in my first post. You can also view the links to the personal development blogs listed in the side bar.

  7. Assalaamu Alaikum,

    Subhan'Allah! A quality article. Thank you for sharing. It is truly amazing how the way we think at a deeper level influences our actions, perhaps in ways we aren't even cognitive of. Before I start to sound all Meta...this leads me to my question.

    You addressed the importance of changing our mental paradigms in order to bring about improvement in our lives. I often find that I struggle with the task of identifying incomplete or incorrect mental paradigms that may be influencing my actions. These paradigms may simply be a product of our environment, not so easy to identify, and perhaps masked by the fact that our ego doesn't like admitting our deficiencies as you mentioned.

    I feel that identifying these paradigms as a task precedes replacing them with righteous ones that will lead us down the straight path insha'Allah. However, not identifying them may be holding us back from making the spiritual gains we would like.

    How would you recommend going about identifying our faulty paradigms that may be influencing our actions at a more subconscious level so we can understand what exactly it is that we need to change in term of the way we think.


  8. @Anonymous

    This is a very good question. How does one identify a faulty paradigm within him/her.

    Here's a quick and dirty answer based on Stephen Covey: an incomplete or faulty paradigm will lead to confusion, internal conflict, or a dilemma where you want both options. For example, we may have a dilemma over balancing our work and family life. We want both - a successful career, and a successful family life - but we can't, because in our paradigm, one of the two has to be compromised. This issue merits a post of its own, which I may talk about inshaAllah.

    A correct paradigm, on the other hand, will illicit the appropriate response, lead to consistencies, and appeal to internal stability.

    Hope this sheds some light to the question.

  9. Salaam Abu D:

    That is a very interesting answer. Thanks for sharing. Here's the summary in my own words:

    Improving yourself requires you to >
    Remove faulty paradigms which requires you to >
    Identify faulty paradigms (which means to identify aspects of your life or world-view where there is confusion, inconsistency, lack of clarity or an internal struggle between two options.)

    Upon reflection, that is exactly what I'm experiencing right now: a major internal struggle. What’s interesting is that I would never have suspected internal struggle to be such a major inhibitor to my success.

    Here's the challenge though: picking one option over the other takes a lot of courage. It is not easy. For example, for many years, my goal in life has been to become the CEO of the world’s top strategy consulting firm. However, I’m FAR behind in knowing and practicing the basics of Islam and most of my actions have been to please myself and not Allah. In particular, by pleasing me, I mean pleasing my ego. I’ve been feeding my ego (instead of my soul) for as long as I can remember. With the acquisition of some knowledge and major ego-blows in the recent past (i.e. very low score in my GMAT, rejection from McKinsey, slow career progression at work), I have been forced to re-think my priorities and my paradigm. In a way, these ego-blows have been blessings because it's made me realize that my old paradigm of relying on myself alone does not work. In fact, it is setting me up for failure in this world and the next world. I’m just a little hesitant to make my CEO ambition a secondary priority, given that I've already have spent so much time and effort towards this goal. (read: my internal struggle!)

    Anyway, this is a great post and the timing and my realization are timely as it's right before Ramadan, so it'll be easier to rely on Allah during Ramadan.