The Self-Help Movement and the search for purpose

The Modern Self-Help Movement

This article is an extract from Earning Barakah: An Islamic Guide to Blessed Sustenance, the latest ebook from Islamic Self Help. Access the full ebook at an “early bird” price here.

During the past five decades, a new movement emerged in the West, the Self-Help movement. The Self-Help industry was designed to help people find purpose and pleasure in their lives after it had become a monotonous slug. Stripped of religion and devoted to secularism, the lives of many people became nothing more than a cycle of work and stress. The Self-help industry was invented as an alternative religion of the twentieth century. Its god was money and fame, its slogan was purpose and pleasure, and its rituals were work and productivity.

The Self-Help movement helped fill in a gap that was created when people divorced themselves from religion. Life no longer had a purpose, so the gurus suggested that we make our purpose. They proposed that people are the captains of their ships and choose their destinies. They invented a new series of beliefs and rituals revolving around the elevation of oneself and inflation of the ego. The purpose of life became whatever you wanted it to be. Life was not meaningless; you created your meaning. A multibillion-dollar industry was invented to replace divine purpose, but it failed.

The purposeful life that self-help gurus propose is still meaningless. The person living it still believes that life is purposeless and knows that his so-called purpose and mantra is nothing more than a fiction of his imagination designed to make him feel better about himself. A self-invented purpose may elevate work slightly above the level of work for work’s sake, but the emptiness remains. The heart knows that it still is not even close to fulfilling its real purpose. It still yearns for its Creator.

To counter this secular narrative, religious self-help movements were invented to balance things out. By combining the methods of personal development with religious teachings, a stronger system was invented. The Christians were the first to merge the two like Stephen Covey did in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Soon the Buddhists and Hindus began formulating their self-help literature too.

Muslims, however, only really entered this space in the twenty-first century. I started Islamic Self Help in 2015 to try and bridge this gap myself, with some level of success. As did many others. But there is still a lot of work to do. The secular self-help industry has a lot of good ideas. But when these ideas are divorced from religious truths, they cannot live up to their full potential. Islamic Self Help may then be the one real solution to this dilemma.

The beauty of Islam is that it is the only religion that spells out the purpose of life. Every major religion takes in vague terms about this concept, but only Islam makes it crystal clear. God created this world to test us and created us to worship Him. Worship here does not refer to ritual acts of devotion only. Worship in the true sense means to live a life that is pleasing to God.

The Muslim does not need self-help literature, or pep talks to help him discover the purpose of life. It is already clear to him in his scripture. God created us and we must dedicate our lives to obeying and pleasing God in everything we do. This includes the way we work, how we earn our wealth, and how we spend it. We belong to God and to Him we will return. Life is not a random series of events. Every moment is an opportunity to fulfill the divine purpose by choosing what is pleasing to God over what is not.

This realization helps the believer live a life of true purpose. Whether he is a farmer, trader, teacher, or doctor, the believer is first and most importantly a slave of God. He works to please God and earn blessed sustenance. He begins his day with prayer and starts each task with the name of God. When faced with a dilemma, he chooses the pleasure of God over immediate gratification. Each transaction is transformed into an act of worship when it is done with a purpose for the pleasure of God.

Because of this, life rarely becomes boring or monotonous for the believer. If he is having a slow workday, he fills his time with the remembrance of God and Quranic recitation. If he makes a large profit, he gives a good portion of it to charity. He spends his free time figuring out ways to set up sources of continuous reward, and he is careful in how he spends his wealth.

The believer does not need to invent a purpose, his life already has a clear purpose. Every day, every trade, every action, is for God. This clarity makes life beautiful, purposeful, and fulfilling. Death is not even something he fears, because it is simply a return to God who he spent his entire life trying to please.

Doing work that matters

Many Psychologists state that work that benefits others tends to be more fulfilling.[1] The concept of finding happiness and fulfillment in benefiting others is so strong that it is even suggested as a cure for depression. When someone suffers from depression, especially if it is due to stressful and monotonous work life, then community service can often serve as part of the cure.[2]

The believer already knows this because Islam has always emphasized the benefit of others above oneself. One of the conditions for a sale to be valid is that it is mutually beneficial. A believer must trade a beneficial product or service for money. Any trade that is not beneficial is invalid and Ḥarām (prohibited). This is why Islam prohibits interest-based loans. Lending money on interest benefits the lender while often trapping the borrower into a life of debt-slavery. Islam recognizes this evil and prohibits interest outright.

Benefit and value then become the primary concern when deciding on a business idea or career part. In the secular world, this is a novel concept. After decades of work focused primarily on money, we now see a generation of entrepreneurs who are conscious about the environment or want to do work that benefits others. They are a growing minority and indicate a shift in the mindset of people. Perhaps humanity is returning to the fitrah on this issue, or perhaps it is just a passing phase, part of the rebellious nature of each generation.

Muslims, however, do not go with the fad. Our primary concern in business has always been benefiting others. A Muslim trader goes into business because of the joy that his products bring to his customers. Whether he sells food, technology, vehicles, or toys, his focus is to make sure his goods are of the highest quality and beneficial to the consumer.

This is also why Muslims are attracted to community-focused careers. The number of Muslims who choose careers in medicine, education, psychology, and humanitarian aid, is proportionately high. Our desire to serve and to benefit humanity attracts us to jobs in which we can maximize that benefit. If given a choice between a boring office job at a higher pay which benefits nobody except the boss, and a life of social service at decent pay, most believers would choose the latter. Serving others has always come first to the believer. It is far more valuable than money and provides a much deeper sense of happiness and fulfillment.

Doing it all for Allah

Every human attempt at creating a paradigm for work fulfillment has fallen short in one area; intention. The reason why we work is the most important factor in elevating our work from the mundane to an act of worship. Only Islam gives true guidance on this issue. In Islam, any worldly act is instantly transformed into an act of worship when it is done for the pleasure of Allah. This includes all permissible forms of work and trade. By intending to work for the sake of God, the believer raises the standard of his work to new levels.

No longer focused purely on work for work’s sake, survival, or materialistic pursuits, the believer is free from the shackles of worldly intentions. His work has Divine sanction and is a source of reward and blessings for him in both worlds. The teacher who teaches for the sake of God, the trader who trades to earn wealth that is blessed by God, the doctor who helps the sick to please God, and the lawyer who helps the oppressed for the pleasure of God, all have one thing in common. Their lives are dedicated to God. So, when they return to Him, they return with a life of good deeds. Every moment spent working for God will count on their scale of good deeds on the Last Day. That is truly a blessed existence.

The materialist cannot understand why doing things for the pleasure of God is so important to the believer. They argue that people should be good for no other reason except that it is the right thing to do and look down upon those who dedicate their lives to God. Their paradigm does not allow them to see the importance of pleasing God or the benefits in both worlds that come from it.

The same materialist who works to pile up the things of the world does good things for the sake of his ego, and he judges people for trying to please God while asking them not to judge him. In his blindness, he fails to see that he is not being good for the sake of goodness, he is only good when it boosts his ego or allows him to look down upon the believer. He is a slave to wealth and a slave to his ego. As long as he chooses to remain blind, he will not experience the pleasure of being a slave to God.

The believer understands reality better. He knows that God created us to worship Him and the best intention for any deed is to please God.  There is nothing more important to the slaves of God than His pleasure and love. The slave knows he will return to His Master and on that day a life lived for God’s Pleasure will be worth more than anything in this world. So, he bears the mockery and insults from the materialist with patience and humility, knowing that the best ending is for those who are conscious of God.

These three qualities are necessary for living a good life and having a fulfilling work life. The believer does not need to invent a purpose or search for meaning. His life already has purpose and value. By choosing a career that benefits society, working for the sake of God, and keeping his intention pure for God, the believer transforms his work into a continuous act of worship. This act of worship results in happiness, fulfillment, contentment, and blessed sustenance in this world, and everlasting bliss in the next world. The servant of Allah knows that by choosing a life that is pleasing to Allah, he will get the best of both worlds.


To continue reading, access the full ebook at an “early bird” price here.

[1] Stephanie Watson, Volunteering may be good for body and mind, Harvard Health Publishing, 26 June 2013. Accessed 12 February 2021 at this link: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/volunteering-may-be-good-for-body-and-mind-201306266428

[2] Sheri Jacobson, Volunteering – 5 Reasons Why It Really Does Help Depression, Harley Therapy, 27 January 2015. Accessed 12 February 2021 at this link: https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/counselling/boosting-your-mood-volunteer.htm

Posted by Ismail Kamdar

Ismail Kamdar is the Founder of Islamic Self Help, author of over a dozen books, research manager at Yaqeen Institute, and a freelance writer.

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