Being less bad Muslims is hardly ideal. It is, however, a fair starting point for many, especially if you are students in your late teens and early twenties.
The reason is, you are at the stage of figuring out who you want to become. And wanting to become good Muslims can be emotionally expensive.
Firstly, because your mind conjures up the images of the Prophet’s companions or the great Muslim scholars in religious and natural sciences. They seem to be way up there, while you can’t even get yourself up for Fajr. Admittedly, compared to them, you are bad Muslims, and you can never get to where they are.
Or secondly, your cynicism kicks in. In your social media feed, you see all these ‘good Muslim’ idols or celebrities. They are so good-looking, too — maybe you can be like them. So you follow them and consume their contents.
But then your heart senses that something is off.
Some celebrity preachers make Islam sounds painfully unclever. Some influencers use Islamic-sounding words as marketing tools, promoting fashionable items that brings your heart closer to worldly desires. Some entrepreneurs go even further, building conceptual idols from Islamic sources.
For example, they use Qur’anic terms like ‘ḥalālan ṭayyiban’ when describing their highly processed deep-fried food. At some point, you realise that when the Qur’an uses ṭayyiban, it probably does not refer to food that drains your health, your beauty, and your energy .
Navigating all these makes you emotionally tired.
It seems less expensive emotionally to live secularly, to not think of your actions in relation to Islam. Because being good Muslims seems to point to either unattainable ideals or unreliable idols.
Be Less Bad Muslims Instead
Alternatively, instead of abandoning the quest altogether, perhaps we can aim to be less bad Muslims.
Yes, you feel like an embarrassment to the Ummah. You neglect your responsibility to study, you miss prayers, you watch things you know you shouldn’t watch, you keep eating things you know you shouldn’t eat. You lie (or exaggerate truths), you are rude to your lecturers or friends, you free-ride group assignments, and so much more.
Even thinking about it now can make you hopeless.
Hopelessness often masks itself as ‘I don’t care’. Because caring forces you to confront that dark side of your soul. It is easier to abandon hope.
Yet, it is at those moments where hope is exactly what you need; that spark of light, the only chance to move away from the dark.
Remember, you get this bad because of the series of actions you took in the past. If you make a new series of actions now, you are forging a new path, a new direction. You probably still won’t be a good Muslim, only a less bad one.
And, for now, being a less bad one is enough.
Because, along this new path, you will be at a better position a year from now than where you are today. You will be further away from darkness than before. You don’t need to be perfect. All you need is to stay on that straight path — and keep moving forward.
To aid this resolution, consider the following.
Stop Worshipping Islam
In one of his lectures, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf talks about Muslims who worship Islam instead of God. When I first heard it, it was an opening: a moment in learning when a small data input triggers a disproportionately colossal change in the way we think.
Some Muslims wrap their worldly desires in religion. Islam becomes an external label, nothing more.
They apply this label because their target communities (potential customers, social peers, political constituents) value Islam highly.
So they wear the ‘Islam’ label as a tool of attraction. Perhaps, to gain the attention of a group of people (to get money, influence, votes), or maybe the attention of one girl or guy they like.
This ‘Islam’ label becomes an object of power, a functional resource like money. They worship it, equating this label with their egos: ‘I am Islam; Islam is me. What I want is what Islam wants.’
In public, if you criticise them, you criticise Islam. And they often lose control, summoning God’s Words or a Hadith, not to find the truth, but to win arguments, to make you look dumb or anti-Islam.
Yet, in private, they do little to purify their soul. When there is no audience, they don’t pray or fast that much. When reading or watching Islamic materials, if they see descriptions of goodness, they’ll say ‘See, it’s talking about me’; if they see descriptions of corruptions, ‘It’s talking about my opponent, my enemy’.
‘I am Islam; Islam is me. Therefore, I submit to and obey what I want.’
Thoughts and Actions under Different External Labels
To stop worshipping Islam, pay attention to what is beneath the external labels.
When the Qur’an uses ‘Muslim’ or its derivations, it refers to two meanings:
- Members of Prophet Muhammad’s community. It is close to what we think about today when we say ‘Muslim’.
- Ones who submit their egos to God. They include those who do not wear the Arabic label ‘Muslim’ (think of the non-Arab generations prior to the Prophet’s mission).
The first definition is the ‘label’, the second is ‘real’ .
To be less bad Muslims, our intention must go beyond the ‘label’. Go for the ‘real’. Evaluate how much of a ‘Muslim’ you are based on how much you successfully submit your impulses, desires, and behaviours to God.
Practically, this includes:
- Better private acts of worship.
‘Better’ as in you do more high-quality prayers, studying and fasting when you are invisible, more than when you are with others.
- Spending at most 1% of energy on correcting others.
Spend the other 99% on battling your addictions. It includes ‘major drugs’ like alcohols, painkillers, pornography, gambling; and ‘minor drugs’ such as social media, food, TV shows, gaming, or even working.
- Fix the five pillars. Your whole spiritual structures will collapse with weak pillars.
Be less bad at it. For example, you’ve been praying only one prayer a day (just Maghrib). Now, make it a mission to pray two (add Isha’). Don’t leave your prayer mat until Isha’ time comes. Make a pact with yourself that you won’t go below two. You rather die than dropping below two. Then level up to three prayers, and so on.
Additionally, when you are on social media, separate the external labels and the thoughts and actions.
- The external labels
It means how a person, a product, or an idea is portrayed. Pay attention especially to the words they use in adverts and speeches, such as
- Ḥalālan ṭayyiban 
- Arabic-sounding words
- Scientific-sounding words
Pay attention also to the non-verbal elements, for example:
- Wearing clothings typically associated with Islamic images
- Hiring or collaborating with Muslim models, influencers, preachers
- Using Arabic letters or Roman letters in Arabic-style typography
- Embedding Islamic symbols like Masjid, star and crescent, Arabic-looking calligraphy
Those are the external labels. Contrast that with the thoughts and actions below
- The thoughts and actions.
Naturally, you should also include the tangible outcomes of thoughts and actions, such as
- Commercial products
- Policies or official statements
- Lifestyle tips
Consider the thoughts, actions and their tangible outcomes:
- Do they bring you closer to genuine physical, mental and spiritual health?
- Do they bring you closer to God, instead of your desires for attention or power?
- Do they bring you closer to Freedom, instead of your addictions?
If they don’t, stay away from them. Unfollow them, report them, or block them. Ignore the Islamic-looking labels that they adorn themselves with.
If they do, embrace them. Vote them up, like them, subscribe to them, donate to them, or buy their products.
Be Less Bad Muslims by Aiming for the Real
As an Ummah, we have so much work to do. We need to protect ourselves and non-Muslims in our country from oppression. We need to lift ignorance, to alleviate unnecessary sufferings emerging from poorly-informed decisions.
For that, we need to be stronger. We need cohorts of spiritually strong women and men, including students like you. And to gain that strength, you need to aim towards being real, not just being the label.
For this to work, you don’t need to be a good Muslim, just a less bad one.
photo by ifrahakhter.com
 The term ‘Ḥalālan ṭayyiban’ means ‘what is lawful and good’. It comes from ‘O mankind! Eat of what is lawful and good on the earth [2:168]. Apnizan Abdullah, a researcher at IAIS, wrote a popular article distinguishing the two.
 Another way of thinking about it is the first definition is applied legally (Sharīʿah) and the second is applied as a feature of reality (Ḥaqīqah). We conduct our social and legal interactions using the first definition. Yet, we do not know the reality of every person we meet. That is why it is forbidden for Muslims to say this or that person is going to the Fire, even if outwardly that person is not a Muslim.