Leader or Follower? The Truth About Social Influence, Independence, & Religion

Leader or Follower? The Truth About Social Influence, Independence, & Religion January 17, 2019

leader follower social influence independence religion
Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

You know how we grow up learning that some people are leaders and others are followers?

That’s a lie.

There’s a potential leader and potential follower in each one of us. One side of us is independent and strong and can fight the currents in a sea of social pressures, and another side is vulnerable, susceptible to pressure, and easily swept away into that sea of social norms and expectations.

I saw something interesting a few weeks ago while I was driving. I had stopped at a red light and a car zoomed past me. I watched in surprise as it continued on, the driver unphased by the red light he/she just passed. I remember thinking that this person was either crazy and dangerous or had just not seen the red light at all.

Then, shockingly, I saw another car, and another, and another, all following the first one. This was not a funeral procession. It was people breaking a red light, without any permission or even yielding to see if it was safe, because they saw others doing it. And it all started with that first driver. It even made me question whether the light was actually red or not, for a moment, and whether I should proceed forward as well. Was it broken? Did I miss a sign of some sort? But I only had to wait another fraction of a minute to see it turn green.

Most of us think that we can hold our own, that we act on our own accord and free will, and we follow our own principles and logical thinking. Whether it’s among friends, co-workers, or anyone else, we think of ourselves as individuals with our own character and choices. This thought process carries over into our deen/religion as well. We think our religious views and spiritual identity are immune to the social norms and pressures around us.

As much as we may consider ourselves to be leaders, or firm on a good path, our company influences us, often even more than we influence them.

But I have seen it time and time again: that people become who they are around. One person skips a prayer when it feels inconvenient, so the people around him do it, too. One person removes her hijab, and her friends or followers start doing it, too. One friend starts watching an inappropriate show, and his or her social circle begins watching it, too. An obligatory act is abandoned, or a sin is justified or belittled – and it all begins with one person.

Of course, as with everything in life, Allah and His Messenger (saws) were aware of this issue and provided us with warnings and guidance. The Prophet (saws) said, “A person is upon the religion of his best friend, so let one of you look at whom he befriends.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhi]

An example from the Qur’an that always provides me with inspiration in this regard is of the young men who retreated into a cave to distance themselves from their society of wrongdoers. Allah (swt) concludes this story with a powerful reminder: “And keep yourself patient [by being] with those who call upon their Lord in the morning and the evening, seeking His countenance. And let not your eyes pass beyond them, desiring adornments of the worldly life, and do not obey one whose heart We have made heedless of Our remembrance and who follows his desire and whose affair is ever [in] neglect.” [Qur’an 18:28]

Who we are around matters. As much as we may consider ourselves to be leaders, or firm on a good path, our company influences us, often even more than we influence them. Even if it means we need to have fewer friends or hang out with a less exciting or “cool” crowd, we must guard our Afterlives before anything else. These friends or influencers will not answer for us on the Day of Judgment.

We must guard our Afterlives before anything else.

“And they will come out [for judgement] before Allah all together, and the weak will say to those who were arrogant, “Indeed, we were your followers, so can you avail us anything against the punishment of Allah?” They will say, “If Allah had guided us, we would have guided you. It is all the same for us whether we show intolerance or are patient: there is for us no place of escape.

“And Satan will say when the matter has been concluded, “Indeed, Allah had promised you the promise of truth. And I promised you, but I betrayed you. But I had no authority over you except that I invited you, and you responded to me. So do not blame me; but blame yourselves. I cannot be called to your aid, nor can you be called to my aid. Indeed, I deny your association of me [with Allah] before. Indeed, for the wrongdoers is a painful punishment.

“And those who believed and did righteous deeds will be admitted to gardens beneath which rivers flow, abiding eternally therein by permission of their Lord; and their greeting therein will be, ‘Peace!’” [Qur’an 14:21-23]

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