Faith, love and kindness are secret weapons to change the world

Sunrise about snowy fields

By Wael Abdelgawad | IslamicSunrays.com

Faith, love and kindness are not cute ideas or naive catchphrases. They are elemental forces with the power to alter human hearts, and to change the world. They are transformative emotions and behaviors that were bestowed upon us by Allah, who is Al-Rahman (The Most Merciful) and Al-Wadood (The Most Loving). They are stronger than hurricanes, and they transcend the birth and death of individuals, and the rise and fall of nations.

Don’t we still have love for the Messenger of Allah (pbuh), and for the Sahabah, all of whom lived many generations and nations ago? In fact we look upon them as our heroes and leaders and we love them as if they were dear friends. This is proof of the enduring nature of love, which survives when all else changes around us.

Faith, love and kindness are the secret weapons that Allah has given us to conquer corruption, cynicism, hatred, racism, and evil, in ourselves and in the world.

These ideas are not naive, as some might say. Was the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) naive? He suffered in his mission, but he persevered. His mission was rooted in faith and love of Allah, and expressed through kindness to all people. There are so many stories about him showing tremendous kindness to rude and even murderous people, and changing their hearts in the process. He succeeded in the face of impossible odds. His success is a testament to the power of these noble emotions and behaviors.

That’s why I illustrated this piece with a photo of sun rays shining on a dark and snowy world. Because these powerful emotions and behaviors are not the stuff of sunny afternoons, cotton candy and daisies. They are like a guiding star that is only seen in the darkness. They come into their own and show their true power by confronting and overcoming hatred, bitterness, painful loss, war, poverty and despair.

I describe them as behaviors because faith that exists only in the heart is not true faith. Faith is proven by action. Faith is defined by the way you live your life. The same is true for love and kindness. Love is a verb, not a noun. It’s not an abstract feeling in your heart, but a matter of behavior, the way you treat people, the way you help, forgive, and show mercy to people.

Love Works Miracles in the Heart

It may be a cliche’ to speak about love changing the world. It’s not something we can envision in concrete terms. So let me bring it down to the level of one human being.

Growing up, I had a friend named Ismail. He was a few years younger than me – when I was 17 he was 14, I think – and had grown up in a dysfunctional family that had moved around constantly and had not bothered to educate the children, so that at the age of 14, Ismail was functionally illiterate.

I began tutoring Ismail and his younger brother, teaching them to read and write. I started from scratch, teaching them the alphabet and the sounds of the letters, and working up to small phonetic words. I tutored them for one hour every day, seven days a week, in the living room of their apartment. Their parents were not supportive. I was never paid. Sometimes their parents were fighting with each other at the same time I was trying to teach. At times I noticed that the two boys could not concentrate because they were hungry, so I began feeding them before our study sessions, and giving them multivitamins. Slowly they began to learn, until they could write short essays and letters on their own.

Back then I worked for the United States Geological Survey, measuring water levels at farms in the Central Valley, and taking water samples to be tested for various fertilizers and pesticides. It was hot, difficult work. I’d ride my motorcycle more than an hour to the huge corporate farms on the west side of the valley. Armed with survey maps, I would trudge across vast farms in 100 degree heat, seeking the sumps that brought up ground water for irrigation. If the farms had been recently irrigated the ground might be soft and my feet would sink into the mud with every step. Some of the sumps were a dozen feet deep or more, so in order to get a sample I had to toss a chain link ladder down into the sump, climb down, fill a test tube, and climb back out. I was very aware that if the ladder broke I could get stuck in the sump, and I might not even be missed for two or three days (no cell phones in those days). It worried me.

So I began asking Ismail to come to the farms with me. He wasn’t doing anything anyway – he was not enrolled in school because he could not function anywhere near his grade level. He’d ride on the back of the motorcycle as we passed through dusty, poverty-stricken migrant towns like Mendota and Firebaugh, sometimes swerving to avoid patches where tomatoes or oranges had fallen from farm trucks and been splattered by traffic. By the time we arrived, our helmet face shields would be crusted with dead gnats and butterflies. At the farms, Ismail would help me locate the wells, keep an eye on me while I climbed down, and then ride back with me. Sometimes on the way home I’d feel him tilting a bit and I’d realize he had fallen asleep on the motorcycle, so I’d give him a nudge with my elbow to wake him up.

Ismail was like a brother to me. I tutored him not because I wanted anything from him, but because he was like family. I loved him, though I never would have told him so. I was not raised to speak such words.

When I was twenty years old, Ismail got a scholarship to study at the Islamic University of Madinah, in Saudi Arabia. When it was time for him to leave I drove him to Los Angeles and took him to the airport. The next year was hard for him. The living environment in the university dorms at Madinah was austere, and Ismail was lonely. I used to send him letters with jokes, or stories about the people back home.

One day Ismail called collect, and as we spoke I told him to keep his head up, that we were all proud of him. Ismail’s voice became choked with emotion and he said, “I love you, Wael.” Strange as it may seem, I had never heard those words before from anyone. I was never aware that I needed to hear those words, or that they would mean anything to me, but the instant I heard them, they struck my heart like a hammer, and I found myself speechless.

I don’t know if I can explain what those words did to me. Somehow they gave meaning to all the difficulties I had been through up to that point. The failures at college, the confusion and deep loneliness, the brief bouts of homelessness. Those words seemed to crawl through my chest, sowing seeds of light and warmth. They gave me strength.

Even now, twenty five years later, I feel the impact of those words. I am still close to Ismail, though we live in different states. I call him sometimes – he told me recently that he is writing his autobiography, ma-sha-Allah – and I worry about him. I love him. And I find that the light of those words – and the sincerity behind them – is still inside me, and is one of many things that inspire and empower me. This is the miracle that love performs in the human heart.

Love Overcomes Hatred

A few years later, when I was working in Fort Worth (in my early 20’s), there was a supervisor who used to harrass me. He was abusive toward everyone, but he seemed to have a particular dislike of me. I don’t know why. Well, I had been experimenting with meditation, and had been reading a few books about spirituality. One day I decided that I would go about my day trying to see the soul within each person. With each person I met, I would look past the exterior appearance, past the external behaviors, and try to perceive the soul inside.

It may sound silly or new-agey, but I noticed a difference immediately. I was able to see things in people that I had not previously perceived. In particular I saw a lot of fear. As I was walking toward the cafeteria, I saw the abusive supervisor standing near the door. I tried to forget everything I had experienced at his hands, and look to his soul. I can’t say exactly what I saw, but as I approached him, he smiled at me. This was so unexpected and incongruous, that I didn’t know how to react and I continued on my way without response.

After that day, I noticed a change. That supervisor and I certainly did not become friends, but he stopped being hostile toward me. I cannot really explain this, except to speculate that the act of looking to a person’s soul is a form of love, just as listening deeply, without judgment, is an act of love. We are so unaccustomed in this life to people regarding us in a pure way, without judgment, without responding to our appearance or dress, without resentment for past mistakes, that when someone does it, it’s disarming. It transforms.

This is the power of love.

I’m not suggesting that all oppression in this world can be overcome with a look. There is evil in the world. There are times when we must fight to defend our lives and our families. Certain entities are immune to the power of love (the current murderous regime in Syria is not going to be overthrown with love). But even in the context of conflict, love and faith are powerful. Some Russian soldiers in Chechnya embraced Islam after being captured by the mujahideen and treated with kindness. Some soldiers in Egypt who were ordered to fire upon civilians refused to do so after being embraced or kissed by protesters.

The Prophet Muhammad (sws) himself was a reluctant warrior who disliked fighting except as a last resort. He was one of the first military leaders in history to lay down stringent rules for humane warfare, prohibiting even the killing of animals or burning of crops. He was a champion of faith, not fighting. His mission was one of compassion. The most powerful tools in his arsenal were the Quran and the testimony of “Laa ilaha il-Allah” (there is no God but Allah). That is how he changed the world.

Proof of this is that, as Wikipedia reports, “The sum total of all casualties on all sides in all the battles of Muhammad range from 1200 to 1500 dead according to the most authoritative sources.” This is outrageously low by today’s standards. We are talking about a series of defensive battles over the course of a dozen years, involving hundreds of thousands of fighters on both sides, in which all of Arabia came under the sway of Islam. But the key is that the Prophet (sws) was not fighting for wealth, or personal power, or vengeance. It is said that he never took personal revenge on any human being. He fought for truth alone, and taught his followers to do the same.

Love Defeats Bigotry

I don’t mean to portray myself as an enlightened soul. I’ve made my share of mistakes and I still struggle not to be judgmental or reactive. But I’ve also had experiences that have shown me the way forward. One was with my former sister-in-law, Crystal. I am divorced now, but I was married for ten years. Laura (my ex-wife) and her family were not Muslim, and her family had their reservations about our marriage. Her mother expressed a fear that I would kidnap our future children and take them to Egypt (even though I’ve never lived in Egypt). “Like Sally Field in ‘Not Without my Daughter'”, she said.

One day I was at a restaurant with Laura, her mother and her sister. When the waiter came to our table, he said to me, “As-salamu alaykum.” I did not know him, but I was wearing a kufi and had a beard. I replied, “Wa alaykum as-salam.” Crystal began laughing, and after the dinner was over, when we were going to the car, she began saying, “Salami, salami, baloney.”

At the time I was in a mental state where I was fed up with bigotry. I had experienced a lot of it, and I had no more patience for it. I told Crystal that her behavior was rude and bigoted. She got extremely angry, and after that I was a persona non-grata at my in-laws’ house. I was not invited to their home for any reason, and there was no communication whatsoever between me and them for more than a year. After that my mother-in-law reached out to me tentatively, and offered a makeshift apology, which I accepted. But Crystal remained angry.

Later, Laura and I moved to Panama. The place where we lived was so beautiful and peaceful, and the natives were so accepting of us, that I found my heart healing. The in-laws still didn’t quite accept me – in fact Laura’s father came to visit once and told me angrily that my religion was ridiculous and backwards – but I found that it did not bother me so much. When I returned to the USA for a visit I spoke to Crystal. I said, “I apologize for my attitude in the past. I love you and your family. You all mean a lot to me.” I said that sincerely, holding in my mind all the good I had experienced from Crystal over the years, and forgiving the bad.

From that moment on, my relationship with Crystal was transformed. She came to visit us in Panama and had a great time. After my divorce, when I returned to California, Crystal actually began attending my martial arts class. She became more open minded, began exploring religious thinking outside of the narrow Christian fundamentalist box she had always lived in. I’m not saying that any of that is because of me. But what I can attest to is that ever since I gathered the resolve to say to her, “I love you and I value you,” she has not showed a hint of bigotry or anger toward me, and in fact has become a pleasant person to relate to.

I”m afraid I may be telling a string of random stories here. I don’t know if I’m communicating this thesis I have, this understanding, that sincere love is transformational. When you can love someone without desire, expectation, or judgment, it utterly changes your relationship with that person, even with those who hate you. I believe this is the essence of faith. It is the heart of da’wah. It is the Golden Rule.

I have given examples of one-on-one interaction, but I believe that love and kindness can work their wonders just as well when it’s one to a thousand, or ten to a million, just as a single great ocean wave can flood a whole city, except that love is a good flood that washes away the fires of hatred.

Lead the Way

Do you want to see something different in the world? Show it. Do you want to see things moving in a better direction? Then get stepping and walk it, and I guarantee that others will follow, because they have seen the problems as well, and they are waiting for someone to lead the way.

Do you want to be a better Muslim, father, mother, son, daughter, sibling, or friend? Then be it. Now is the moment. The past is prologue leading to this moment.

Are you waiting for someone else to show love and kindness first? Are you waiting for someone else to be vulnerable or brave, to put himself out there, to take the first step, to show the way? There is no someone else. You are the someone else. You…  are…  someone.

Le’ts open ourselves to faith, love and kindness. Let’s change the way we move in the world, the way we behave with Allah, the way we treat people, the way we interact with every person. Let us become testaments to the power of these transformative behaviors, not through our words but through our actions. Let’s express a new sincerity from our hearts and walk through the world like believers. Let’s become people of Allah, people of Jannah (Paradise), people of imaan (faith), love and mercy.

Quick Quotes: Compassion, Taqwa, Allah, Nature, the Heart

Drop of water on a vine

Compassion

“Hatred and bigotry are NOT the permanent conditions of man. Dictators fall and pass. War, oppression and hunger remain, but the power to change those terrible things is in our hands. Allah made us khulafaa over the earth. We have the ability to forgive, to understand, and to comfort one another. I believe that compassion is the essence of who we are. Is the best part of us, the quality that makes us worthy of the mercy of Ar-Rahman. Our love is an elemental force, a vast untapped potential. We only have to be who Allah created us to be. If we can aspire to that, and hew to it, it will suffice us and the earth itself.”

– Wael Abdelgawad

***

“Do not become proud of your position. Do not become harsh toward those weaker than yourself. And always speak of Allah’s kindness to you.” – Ibn Isaq, “The Life of Muhammad”

Taqwa

“If we let Taqwa – Allah-consciousness – become our guide then it leads us to self-awareness and sincerity. A person who cultivates Taqwa can never become a terrorist, an oppressor, a hypocrite. A person with true Taqwa must shed compassion as the sun sheds light.” – Wael Abdelgawad

Changing the World

“Sometimes I want to ask God why He allows poverty, famine and injustice in the world when He could do something about it; but I”m afraid He might ask me the same question.” – Anonymous

Allah

“People will love you for a short time but Allah will love you forever. People will listen to you sometimes, but Allah will listen to you all the time. People will forgive you sometimes, but Allah forgives every time.” – Anonymous

***

“You don’t need a Plan B if Plan A is for Allah.” – Bilal Int’l

Nature

I gave my Salam to the mountain
And I drank from the mountain stream
And I walked upon its surface
And it all felt like a dream
And this mountain it is a Muslim
And I feel like he’s my friend
And as I climbed on to his peak
I wished it would never end

– Hamza Robertson

The Heart

“Your heart is a mirror that reflects the world. If it’s clean, it will see the world as it really is. If it’s dirty and warped, it will see a warped vision of the world.” – Yasmin Mogahed

***

“When you get close to giving up take a step back, pray and come right back to it. You just never know who you could be inspiring out there. May Allah keep our faith strong and grant us the ability to turn back to Him and to be grateful for that ability and many more…ameen ya Rabb. This goes out to all those who inspire me.” – Fauzia Mohamed

The Promises We Make to Ourselves

Mount Everest

When I was younger I vowed that I would climb Mt. Everest one day. I think I'll let that one go, since I'm afraid of heights, lol. But there are other promises I have kept, and more yet to be fulfilled. This website is one of them.

By Wael Abdelgawad | IslamicSunrays.com

We know that one of the traits of the believer is that he/she keeps promises. And we tend to think of that in terms of keeping promises to others:  family members, friends, business partners, etc.

But what about the promises we make to ourselves? Aren’t those worth keeping as well? Don’t we all promise ourselves when we’re young that we will do something exciting and important in life? Don’t we grow up convinced that we will change the world in some way? Aren’t we sure that we will do exciting things like climb a mountain, help the poor, or save people’s lives somehow?

Why do we give up those dreams? They are not impossible. They are achievable! Many people do such things. Many people do change the world, help the poor, save people’s lives, climb mountains, fly planes, see the world… so why not us? What one person has done, another can do.

And when we’re older, don’t we promise ourselves from time to time that we will get in shape, learn a new language, go back to school, write a book, travel, memorize surahs from the Quran, and more? Aren’t those promises worth keeping? Don’t we owe that to ourselves, as believers and as human beings?

My goal here is not to guilt you, but to inspire you. Those dreams of your youth, and those promises you’ve made to yourself, are within your grasp. Maybe not all of them, but some of them. Or for now, how about one of them. 🙂 Start with that, and I will too, Insha’Allah.

Footnote:  One year after writing the article above, I achieved one of my lifelong dreams:  at the age of 46, I got a black belt in martial arts. I started martial arts when I was 14 and I practiced on and off, but I moved around so much that I never stayed in one place long enough to graduate to black belt. Some might say that getting it at 46 is very late. Maybe so, but I did it. Other dreams of mine:  to publish several books, make a documentary film, get a master’s degree, travel through Africa, go cave exploring… Why not? It’s never too late, Insha’Allah, for me or for you.

You change the world, or the world changes you

Iceland waterfall and rainbow

By Wael Abdelgawad | IslamicSunrays.com

Keep faith in yourself and don’t let anyone else define your reality. You are strong and unique. You have a particular mission in this life that only you can fulfill. You can wake up in the morning and change the world, one small step at a time, just by fulfilling your unique mission.

Maybe you think, “Hey, I don’t want to change the world. I just want to stay sane, take care of myself and my family, perform the Islamic rituals and hope for Jannah.”

The thing is, life is always a contest between the world changing you, or you changing the world. The world pushes, and if you don’t push back then it will inevitably corrupt you in one way or another.

Today’s world tries to change you through the pressures of:

  • blind materialism
  • consumerism
  • sexual imagery in the media
  • constant advertising
  • negative portrayals of Islam
  • alcohol and drug use
  • peer pressure

to name a few.

Sometimes the pressures are more brutal and blunt: emotional or sexual abuse, pornography, violence, racism, bigotry, misogyny, hatred and war.

Iman (faith) is not static. It rises or it falls, but it never freezes in place. If the world is not changing you then you must be changing the world.

You change the world by spreading light, teaching truth, being honorable and kind, behaving with sincerity in all things, showing compassion to all people, and always being just. You exert an outward pressure of truth that has a transformational effect on those around you, beginning with your family, and then rippling out to all those you come in contact with, and then everyone they come in contact with, flowing outward in concentric circles.

The ultimate world-changer – and our eternal example – was the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Allah describes Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the Quran as an illuminating lamp: “O Prophet, indeed We have sent you as a witness and a bringer of good tidings and a warner. And one who invites to Allah, by His permission, and an illuminating lamp.” (Quran, Al Ahzab 45-46).

The Prophet’s light radiates throughout humanity and the ages. Any objective observer must admit the power and influence of the Prophet’s tremendous struggle. A non-Muslim writer named Michael Hart, in his book, “The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History”, ranked the Prophet Muhammad as the single most influential human being in history.

The Prophet grew up in a society of idol worship, moral corruption and constant blood feuds, but he never allowed that society to taint his innocent nature. Not knowing how he should worship Allah, he kept himself distant from the evil around him and sought Allah in his own way, until Prophethood came to him. When it did, he accepted the burden and fulfilled the trust, exerting an outward pressure so powerful that it changed the entire world forever.

The same is true for you and I, on a smaller scale. We’ve been given a trust and a mission. We are to be callers to Tawheed, witnesses for truth, a civilizing force, champions of human equality, and restorers of human values (the fact that many modern Muslims have failed abominably on every point does not change the truth of this).

“O you who have believed, fear Allah as He should be feared and do not die except as Muslims [in submission to Him].

And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided. And remember the favor of Allah upon you – when you were enemies and He brought your hearts together and you became, by His favor, brothers. And you were on the edge of a pit of the Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus does Allah make clear to you His verses that you may be guided.

And let there be [arising] from you a nation inviting to [all that is] good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong, and those will be the successful.” (Quran, Aal-Imran: 102-104)

That is our mission and trust. If we fulfill it – even if we only try – we will change the world, maybe incrementally, maybe profoundly.

If we fail, then the world will change us, and not for the better.

There is one key to success in fulfilling our mission to change the world. It’s not purity, because in a post-Prophethood age, no one is truly pure. Purification of the soul is indeed a lifelong goal to strive for, but it is not the key.

It’s not wisdom, or power, or finance. It’s not even knowledge. Knowledge is the most powerful tool there is, but like any other tool it can be used or misused. That’s why a little knowledge can be a powerful thing, while great knowledge can sometimes be crippling.

Purity, wisdom and knowledge are goals for us to pursue. But none of those is the single most important key to changing the world.

The key is sincerity in all things:  sincerity with Allah, with your family, your friends, your colleagues, and – this is the greatest challenge of all – sincerity with yourself. Sincerity enc0mpasses purity, because actions done sincerely are done with purity of intention, and with obedience to Allah. Sincerity implies selflessness, seeking knowledge and applying it with compassion, kindness, respect, and fairness.

“Say, ‘Indeed, my Lord has guided me to a straight path – a correct religion – the way of Abraham, inclining toward truth. And he was not among those who associated others with Allah.’ Say, ‘Indeed, my prayer, my rites of sacrifice, my living and my dying are for Allah , Lord of the worlds. No partner has He. And this I have been commanded, and I am the first [among you] of the Muslims.'” (Qur’ân 6: 161-163).

That is the ultimate level of sincerity, and the challenge of a lifetime. If you can even approach that level of sincerity, you will change the world, whether you intend it or not.

Life is always a contest between the world changing you, or you changing the world. The prize that lies in the balance is the fate of your soul. Who will win?

The Secrets of Changing the World

Passion and stamina are among the essential qualities of great innovators

Passion and stamina are among the essential qualities of great innovators

This is an extremely interesting and inspiring essay that appeared in the BBC’s online news magazine. And since changing ourselves, and thereby changing the world, is a frequent focus of my articles here at IslamicSunrays.com, I felt this piece was a good fit. Maybe later I’ll use it as a springboard for a similar piece with a specifically orientation, Insha’Allah:

The secrets of changing the world

Transforming society is a feat that only a select few of us will ever accomplish. In the second of a series of articles about innovation, Stephen Sackur looks for common qualities that unite the genuine revolutionaries he has encountered.

I paid a brief visit to my teenage son’s school the other day. The sun was out and the air was thick with restless, hormonal energy.

If only we could tap into these kids’ hopes, dreams and creative urges, I mused, we could reinvigorate our jaundiced adult world.

It’s a tempting proposition, is it not? That all of us, in our youth, have the capacity to be innovators, free-thinkers, resolute refuseniks when it comes to accepting the status quo.

Tempting, but alas, illusory. Most of us figure out from a very early age that it’s safer to conform than rebel. We tend to go with the flow, rather than ask why it has to be so.

That’s why so many young people today tell pollsters their ambition in life is to be a celebrity, a sports star or a glamorous model. Yes, they want to be rich and famous, but they want success simply to fall into their laps. Change the world? Sounds too much like hard work.

But without innovators we’re stuck. Every new generation needs people determined to find a better way. Of thinking, doing, and living.

So I’ve set myself a task. I’m going to try to distil what I’ve learned from years of encounters on my TV interview programme, HARDtalk, with some of our planet’s great contemporary innovators.

Is it possible to find a common thread which runs through these diverse and daring minds whether it be in business, science or art?

Well, it’s worth a try. Here are the qualities that seem to separate us sheep from the innovative goats.

1. An indestructible will

True innovators know how to take a punch. When they get knocked down they come back stronger.

Stephen Sackur

"True innovators know how to take a punch” Stephen Sackur

No-one better epitomises this thick-skinned obstinacy than James Dyson, one of Britain’s most innovative entrepreneurs.

For years he tried to persuade the world’s biggest manufacturers of household appliances that he’d invented a better, bagless vacuum cleaner. They didn’t want to know.

“They simply couldn’t see that what I had was different and better”, he reflects.

The pin-striped execs at the top of industry and finance told him his idea would never work, but he simply refused to believe them.

As a youth Dyson excelled as a long distance runner, and it was his “stamina and obtuseness”, in the face of repeated rejection which, he says, turned him into an inventor with a billion in the bank.

2. Passion beyond reason

Innovators have to have passion. Something more than greed, or a lust for power; they need to believe heart and soul in the value of the change they’re seeking.

Bangladesh flood

Fazle Hasan Abed's passion has given hope to millions of disaster-hit Bangladeshis

Fazle Hasan Abed is perhaps not a household name across the globe, but he should be.

A Bangladeshi from a well-to-do family, he was a young executive in the oil industry when conflict and natural disaster left his country in ruins in the early 1970s.

His response? To leave his comfortable life to create a new kind of aid organisation.

He called it BRAC. It began making small loans to individuals desperate to launch a small business or give a child a chance of school.

“Microfinance” has since given hope to millions and allowed BRAC to become one of the world’s biggest development agencies.

Abed, a soft-spoken, unassuming man, acquired a knighthood and significant influence in his native Bangladesh.

Is that why he created BRAC? “Of course not”, he says. “It was just something I felt I had to do.”

3. Outrageous optimism

Innovators have to be optimists. And not just about their own ability to triumph over adversity.

Consciously or not, they have to have faith in the human race.

Otherwise, why bother?

Jimmy Wales built Wikipedia on the notion that human beings could be persuaded to share knowledge, not for material reward, but for the collective good.

When this open source encyclopaedia of the web was launched in 2001, it was dismissed as nothing more than a platform for fanatics and loons. Now it’s in the top 10 most visited websites in the world, and the only one which has steadfastly remained not-for-profit.

Wales’s belief that he could “create and distribute a free encyclopaedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language” no longer sounds so far-fetched.

As for the notion that the human collective would find a way of distilling wisdom without distortion, manipulation and downright deceit… well, it sort of works.

There are errors and falsehoods in the Wikipedia, but not enough to make it useless, nor to make it vastly less reliable than the encyclopaedias put together by highly-paid experts.

4. A super-sized ego

Innovators do not suffer from low self-esteem. You want living proof? Spend an hour in the company of controversial bio-scientist Craig Venter.

Craig Venter

Ego-nomics: Craig Venter's self-belief has done him no harm

He has the bulk and the macho presence of an ageing military veteran. Which he is.

He has an ego powerful enough to penetrate an underground nuclear bunker.

“A doctor can save a few hundred lives in a lifetime”, he once explained, “a researcher can save the whole world.”

Venter was a key player in the effort to map the human genome, but he fell out with fellow scientists, not least over his desire to patent and profit from man’s genetic blueprint.

Some scientists agonise about the ethical issues raised by genetic engineering; Venter appears to relish the prospect of “playing God”.

Already his team of researchers has “created life” by inserting a computer-generated genome into a pre-existing cell.

His determination to make money out of his cutting edge biology and his impatience with the scientific establishment have made him plenty of enemies, but this is a man whose steely gaze delivers a simple truth: He doesn’t care.

After all, he’s already created a life form that carries his name, and there’s no bigger ego trip than that.

5. The rebel yell

Vivienne Westwood

"I was messianic about punk, it was a way to put a spoke in the system” Vivienne Westwood

At its crudest innovation delivers a loud **** you” to the status quo.

In the mid-1970s the clothes designer Vivienne Westwood came up with one of the most innovative middle finger salutes ever delivered to the fashion establishment with her punk chic.

This working class girl from Derbyshire drew inspiration from, bikers, fetishists and prostitutes as she introduced the Sex Pistols and their hordes of followers to a world of chains, pins and bondage trousers.

“I was messianic about punk, it was a way to put a spoke in the system”, she says.

Westwood, who has turned her deeply idiosyncratic designs into a thriving worldwide business does what pleases her, rather than what is expected.

Famously, she wore a revealing dress with no knickers when picking up an honour from the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

And that’s an image that has somehow stuck with me. Innovators across cultures and continents share that rebel spirit – metaphorically, if not literally, they’re ready to go knickerless in front of the Queen.

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