January 04, 2007

Small Kindness

I received a wonderful gift from my employer today.

It is a clever, colourful book called "Change the World for Ten Bucks", with the tagline "50 ways to make a difference" gracing the front page. Apparently, there is a British, German, and Australian version of this book as well; I was kindly given the Canadian version, replete with Canada-specific tips on making the world a slightly better place. Somehow, I find it telling that there doesn't appear to be an American version of this book.

The book comes from an organization called "We Are What We Do", a grassroots activist movement with chapters around the world. It is based on the premise that seemingly small individual contributions to society can add up to significant change, be it social, political, or environmental. The opening page of the book quotes Mahatma Gandhi, stating that "we must be the change that we want to see in the world."

And in that regard, the book then provides 50 simple actions that anyone can perform to make the world a better place. The following are a few examples:

Action 3: Spend time with a child.
Action 6: Plant something.
Action 14: Spend time with someone from a different generation.
Action 16: Give your change to charity.
Action 19: Learn one good joke.
Action 23: Have more meals together.
Action 36: Take time to listen.
Action 44: Pick up litter.

Each action is accompanied by a couple of paragraphs of text and colourful pictures, much like a children's book. Consequently, the reviews posted on the back of the book come from children aged 14 and 15, as well as older people including Dr. David Suzuki, a prominent Canadian environmentalist. It's a book that I imagine would have a fairly universal appeal, which is probably why my employer selected it.

Naturally, I saw parallels between these actions and certain verses of Quran and hadith. The Gandhi quote, and the overall premise of the book, immediately reminded of this famous verse in the Quran:

"Lo! Allah changeth not the condition of a folk until they (first) change that which is in their hearts." (13:11)

This verse frequently precedes discussions and lectures of how we must introduce internal change before we can expect serious change in our societies and communities. Understanding this concept is a start, but many of us stumble on introducing the internal change. We often think that others are the problem, and that our actions mean little in the grand scheme of things. And thus, the internal change we seek turns back into change we expect of others.

The Prophet salallaho'alayhi wa salam once instructed his companions not to belittle any small act of kindness, however insignificant it may seem. We never know if that little act of kindness is what we need to tip the scales in our favour.

To remove something harmful from a path is a branch of faith; this co-incides with Action 44, on picking up litter. Actions 3 and 14 echo the sentiments expressed in several hadith. One noteworthy hadith is the following:

'Ala ibne Kharijah narrated that the Prophet salallaho'alayhi wa salam said, "learn from your lineage to be able to do good to your relatives." (Tabarani, Majma'uz-Zawaid) The more we learn about our elders and fathers, the better we can relate to others. Their experience often goes a long way, and we as youth often dismiss that.

Numerous traditions express the value of charity, mentioned in the book as Action 16. Feeding guests is the subject of numerous sayings of the Prophet, and a number of stories from the lives of the Companions. A hadith recorded in Tirmidhi states that "there isn't a Muslim who gives another Muslim clothes to wear, except that he will be in the safe custody of Allah, so long as a shred of the cloth remains on him."

Another hadith, recorded in Sahih Muslim, states that the Prophet said that "any Muslim who plants a tree, then whatever is eaten from it is sadaqah (charity) on his behalf; what is stolen from it is also sadaqah; what animals eat from it is also sadaqah; what birds eat from it is also sadaqah; what birds eat from it is also sadaqah; whosoever takes anything from the tree, it is sadaqah (for the one who has planted the tree)." Sounds a lot like Action 6 to me.

As I pored over my copy of Muntakhab Ahadith to find these narrations, I found numerous others which illustrated the simple concepts discussed in the book. These are our actions, I thought. We as Muslims should be the ones writing books like this, and more importantly, actually doing these actions. I then went through each action listed in the book, and found a number that I could perform right then and there. It is probably a failing of my own imaan that stalls my action when I read hadith to the same effect.

Ultimately, actions are governed by intention, a principle so critical in Islamic belief that it is the first narration mentioned in many major collections. I recalled an article I read first in the book "First Things First" by Khalid Baig, about the significance of seemingly minor virtues. The essay, entitled "All Virtues, Big and Small", is available on-line for those interested. In it, the author reminds us that no virtue is too small; alternately, a seemingly minor sin can have major ramifications.

The "We Are What We Do" movement has their Canadian website at www.WeAreWhatWeDo.ca. The complete list of actions from the book is available here; readers can record their completion of the actions on the website, and summary statistics are given to show the overall progress. It's still new, with only 5182 actions performed by Canadian readers when I wrote this. The UK website shows that over half a million of these actions have been performed thus far among the British readers.

From the Muslim perspective, these actions should not be performed for the sake of improving statistics, but only for the pleasure of Allah. In any case, I did find this book encouraging, and strongly believe in the ability of such simple actions. So if you read this post and decide to avoid plastic grocery bags for a day, rest confident that some good will come of it. If not for the environment, at least it will add some weight to that pan of virtues if done with the right intention. Encourage another to do the same, and let them encourage others. Perhaps it will not tip the scales against global warming, but it may tip our own scales away from a heat far more intense.


  1. Assalamu 'alaykum bro,

    Subhanallah, when i read the examples you listed, my thoughts were exactly of what you explained in the following paragraphs. May Allah bless our wonderful Prophet and help us to follow in his footsteps, Ameen.

    Is your employer Muslim or non? If he is non-Muslim, why not copy out the relevant hadiths for each point on the list and give it to him as a return gesture. What amazing dawah that would be, inshallah.

    This entry reminds me of an excellent book i bought for a couple of pounds last year, titled: 40 pathways to Jannah, by Sheikh Khalid Sayyid 'Ali.

    When i picked it up, i thought it would have the usual advice of "how to be a good Muslim". However, in reality, it turned out to be such a treasure of a book because each of the forty virtues it describes are small enough to be easily included in your daily life - it makes you want to sing for joy!

    Praise be to Allah that He has made such small acts great in His sight! May He make it easy for us to practise them for His sake alone.


  2. nice thoughts Faraz!

    thank you for the khalid baig article. it was very nice.

  3. Brilliant, masha’Allah!!
    So many times it’s just so easy to forget about the small things in life… your post also reminded me of the Hadeeth that says someone might spend a lifetime doing evil, yet one small good deed that they did, Allah finds great enough to forgive them for all their sins and admits them into Paradise; and that someone might spend a lifetime doing good deeds, yet one careless word was enough to anger Allah and condemn them to Hell.

    Your little sister in Islam,

  4. Something irrelevant:

    I was going through your Flikr album, and came across this pic: http://www.flickr.com/photos/frazza/296500591/

    I've seen that van a zillion times before, and I've ALWAYS wondered about it!! Especially since it was always in a different location...

  5. iMuslim: Wa'alaykum assalam. My employer isn't Muslim; in fact, I'm the only Muslim in the whole office of about 200 people. The city I'm currently working in doesn't have a very visible Muslim community in that area, so I'm somewhat disconnected. But I had in mind doing something similar to what you suggested; I've been compiling the list with the relevant hadith to send to the publisher of the book whose contact information was forwarded to me.

    This wasn't just a gift to me; our company gave a copy to every employee in Canada, which is over 5,000 people.

    Indeed, it's a blessing how seemingly small actions can be worth so much! It's all about intention.

    Isha': There are tonnes of other great articles by the same author on the alBalagh site. I've learned a lot from his writings, and bought his book recently as well.

    AnonyMouse: I've been meaning to write something about that hadith for a while. I often get frustrated by Muslims who are quick to condemn people who they deem to be less religious than them, when we're never quite sure what actions of ours will be accepted or not. Perhaps a person may outwardly seem impious, but he or she may have something in their life which Allah loves (i.e. giving water to a thirsty dog). And of course, there are people who appear religious from the outside, but may engage in numerous bad habits that we're not aware of. May Allah protect me and all of us from this.

  6. AnonyMouse: Oh yeah, and what's up with that van? It bothered my cousin and I quite a bit.

  7. ah, i believe this is post you mentioned in your email.

    I'm too excited to get started :)