One day, close to noontime, while the Prophet (peace be upon him) was sitting and conferring with his Companions, a group of desert dwellers approached. Their purpose was none other than to represent their people to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and declare their faith in Islam. The Prophet (peace be upon him) regarded them. It was obvious from their appearance that they were from a log way off and that their journey had been a hard one. They had no shoes on their feet. Their clothes were scant and threadbare, and amounted to nothing more than scraps of bound cloth. They had no possessions with them and were starving.
The Prophet’s face became strained with sorrow and concern. He looked at them with compassion. Then he stood up, turned and went into his house. After a while, he returned and instructed Bilâl to call the people to prayer. Then the Prophet led the Muslims in the Noon Prayer.
Afterwards, he stood at the pulpit and recited verses of the Qur’ân which exhort to goodwill and charity. Then he said: “A man should donate some of his gold or silver, or a container of flour, or a container of dates…” until he finally appealed “…or even if but half a date.” In this way, he encouraged all the Muslims to give what they could.
He then took his seat and waited for his Companions to help out their brothers who had come to them in such straitened circumstances. No one acted immediately. The minutes of inaction seemed long and heavy. The Prophet’s displeasure with such a response could be seen on his face.
Then a man from the natives of Madinah came forward with a large purse full of silver so big he was barely able to carry it in both his hands. He said: “Messenger of Allah! This is for the sake of Allah.”
By taking the initiative, he broke the heavy spell of silence and inactivity, for right then, Abû Bakr stood up and made a donation. Then `Umar came forward with charity. Then everyone came forward with what they could give of food, clothing, and money. The Prophet’s face shone with joy as looked at the pile of food and clothing that had been placed before him.
However, his attention was drawn more strongly to that man who had been the first to give and in doing so broke the impasse of hesitation. The Prophet (peace be upon him) then said: “Whoever sets a good precedent in Islam will have the blessing for doing so as well as the blessing for everyone who acts upon it thereafter, without their blessings being diminished in the least. And whoever sets an evil precedent in Islam will have the sin for doing so as well as the sin of everyone who acts upon it thereafter, without their sis being diminished in the least.” [Sahîh Muslim: (1017)]
From this event, we can draw valuable lessons regarding the importance, in Islamic work, of taking initiative and of setting practical and conspicuous examples.
We can see the effect the native of Madinah had on everyone else by his taking the initiative and bringing that bag of silver to the Prophet (peace be upon him). The people had been hesitating. However, after the people saw someone make a conspicuous donation, they all rushed to follow suit. It may be true that some of them may have given substantially more than he did, but it was his setting the precedent that got them to do so. This is the reason why the Prophet (peace be upon him) informed him that those who set a good precedent receive the blessings of all those who follow suit. He was, in effect, congratulating that man for taking the initiative.
We also learn from the story that we do not have to be famous celebrities or prominent people for our initiative to count. We do not even know the name of the man who brought the first bag of silver. All we know is that he was a native of Madinah. Nevertheless, he set a precedent that was immediately followed by the two most eminent citizens of the Muslim community – Abû Bakr and `Umar.
Therefore, we should never feel that we are too unimportant or insignificant to set a public example. That unnamed man did not get intimidated by the presence of those community leaders. He was not shy to be the first person to do something good. By being bold, he received the blessings of Abû Bakr, `Umar, and all the other important – and sometimes extremely wealthy – people who gave their donations after him.
In fact, taking the initiative is often what makes people successful. If we look at the lives of great leaders, people of influence, and reformers, we find that those lives are a series of positive initiatives. This is how they became so influential, and this is why they were able to have an enduring legacy.
Doing a good deed in public to set a good precedent is not the same as doing it for personal fame. It is something we do purely for Allah’s sake. It is not showing off to do a good deed conspicuously with the sincere intention of teaching people what is right, or for setting a good example, or for publicizing a public welfare program to make it a success. It is, in fact, a good way of calling people to Allah.
Sometimes, the worst thing we can do is fail to do a good deed out of shyness or fear of being seen by others. Al-Fudayl b. `Iyâd said: “Abandoning good deeds because of the people is showing off.”