The Challenge of Beauty: Striving for Perfection in an Imperfect World

“God is beautiful and loves beauty.” -Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him

One of the great mysteries of life is its inextricable beauty. Mankind is surrounded by a wondrous universe. From the depths of the night sky upon the vastness of the seas to hearing a bird’s song while tasting a pear plucked from the tree, beauty surrounds us at every turn of our lives. And yet, beauty is not so superficial that it’s limited to our sensory perceptions. We find beauty in the smile of a grandmother, wrinkled as she may be. We find beauty in the pages of a book, nerve-racking as the plot may be. We find beauty in the footwork of the athlete, grueling as the sport may be. We find beauty in the pitter patter of raindrops, scary as the storm may be. What is it about these disparate things that cause us such admiration?

Some may argue that the world is not so beautiful after all. Pain. Arrogance. Anger. Jealousy. Hatred. Greed. However, isn’t it true that each comes with its own antidote? Joy. Humility. Compassion. Generosity. Love. Sacrifice. For those who are adamant, beauty can be found or created in every situation, amidst every challenge, through every difficulty, and even within every ugliness, where the only place we find beauty may be in the hope that things get better.

Arabic has a word for beauty generally: jamal, as in the quote, “God is beautiful and loves beauty.” Arabic also has a word for beauty that people can attain through action: ihsan, beauty that emanates from the perfection of good deeds. Written in the Quran is a command: “...and do ihsan. God loves the doers of ihsan” (Quran 2:195). Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, defined the term thus: “Ihsan is to be aware of God as if you see Him, knowing that if you do not see Him, He sees you” (Bukhari, Muslim). Taken together, when someone strives to constantly be aware of their purpose and live up to their highest ideals as much as possible, even if they falter at times, that’s beautiful. As Rumi famously said, “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.”

Beauty has many other dimensions to explore. There is beauty in social harmony. As Dr. Cornel West recently said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” There is the portrayal of beauty in popular culture, which leads to issues dealing with body image and self-esteem against impossible expectations. There is beauty in diversity amidst the disease of racism. There is beauty in “a word of truth spoken to an unjust ruler.” The list goes on...

How do you define beauty? How do you think we can we make our world more beautiful? How can we make our nation “a more perfect union?” How can we make our homes and communities more loving spaces? How can we sculpt ourselves and our characters to emanate more beauty? Finally, how do we reconcile our struggle for perfection with our human limitations and frailties?

We challenge you to take a deeper look and analyze the various concepts surrounding this theme. You have a chance to explore these concepts and more in the competitions and workshops of MIST this year, at both the Regional and National levels. Remember, competitive submissions with the most creativity and insight earn the greatest points.


Previous Themes

2016: The Race Against Time

Memento mori is a Latin phrase that can be roughly translated as, “remember your mortality.” It is a universal concept that exists in many ancient faiths and philosophies, a perspective that our time in this life is limited, so we must remember to make the most of the fleeting moments we have. When we consider how our time is not guaranteed, even the smallest and most mundane moments with family and friends can be transformed into the most precious and beautiful blessings. For this reason, the essence of memento mori is its counterpart memento vivere, “remember to live.”

A healthy and balanced attitude towards life comes not just with treasuring blessings, but also with making peace with its inevitabilities. When there is death, there is life. When there is pain, there is healing. When there is sorrow, there is joy, and there are a full range of states in between and beyond. Sometimes loss hits closer to home than we expect. Sometimes change occurs, which can be scary. How do we cope when times get tough? How do we make sense of the pain we experience in life, and how do we bring joy back into our lives and the lives of others? How do we remember to keep our lives in perspective so we can live it fully with balance?

“With every difficulty comes ease” is assured in the Quran (94:5-6). “We do not burden any soul with more than it can bear...” (23:62). “Believers, respond to God and His Messenger when he calls you to that which gives you life...” (8:24). These are just a few of the many passages from the Quran that demonstrate how Islam approaches the ultimate questions of life to give its practitioners hope. Surely, billions who follow various other traditions and philosophies also find hope and empowerment in their teachings. How do these teachings compare and contrast when it comes to dealing with the reality of mortality?

How do you plan to make the most of your time? How would you capture the essence of truly appreciating life? Be creative! Projects and submissions with the most creativity and insight will receive the highest points. Remember, this theme will encompass all of the MIST competitions and workshops at both the regional and national levels. If you have any questions regarding this theme or anything else MIST-related, please do not hesitate to contact us!

 

2015: The Clarity of Sincerity: From Outer Perceptions to Inner Reflections

“Truly, God does not look at your outward forms and wealth, but rather at your hearts and your deeds.”
– Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him

In the modern world of TV and social media, we are constantly faced with an avalanche of pressures and expectations that influence how we “should” present ourselves. Bombarded with stereotypes and labels in society, fashion trends and consumer culture on the streets, and pressures at home and at school, this barrage of perceptions comes at us from all angles. We can often be left feeling frustrated, empty, conflicted, or powerless. How can we find ourselves through all the noise?

Ancient wisdom provides some clues. In the Arabic language, the words for intention (niyyah), a turning heart (qalb), and purity (ikhlaas) are related to the words for advice (naseeha) and honesty or integrity (sidq). All are used to describe the concept of sincerity in Islam that being true to one’s principles is also about being true to others. Sincerity offers a path to reconciliation, not through attempting to please people, but through principle.

How can we use the concept of sincerity to find clarity in our lives? How can we discover and maintain a constant understanding of ourselves and communicate that effectively in a variety of settings? How can we interact more meaningfully with those around us?

You have a chance to explore these concepts and more in the competitions and workshops of MIST this year, at both the Regional and National levels. Remember, competitive submissions with the most creativity and insight earn the greatest points

 

2014: The Art of Generosity: Finding the Greatness to Give

“You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” -Khalil Gibran

Giving is an art. Mastering it requires three components: 1) finding and nurturing a deep concern for others, 2) developing valuable skills and traits that can be used to serve them, and 3) breaking free from any desires that hold us back from serving a cause greater than ourselves. The beauty of this art is that it inspires everyone to “pay it forward.” Not only does it honor the given, but it transforms the giver, as any true sacrifice enriches the self. Generosity then, is not about being a candle that burns away while giving light to others but a battery that recharges so it can keep on giving instead.

Generosity. Altruism. Charity. Selflessness. These words may sound nice, but what do they mean in practice? They can mean preferring others before ourselves or maybe even leaving our own comfort for a cause. They can be about humility and sacrifice, or just plain good manners and courtesy, about being charitable towards someone without expecting anything in return, or even “smiling in the face of your brother [or sister].” Think about it: what do you have or what can you do for those around you? What is it that they may want or need from you? Is it possible that in trying to find ways to help others, you may just find your own purpose, your own happiness, and your own self?

We challenge you to take a deeper look and analyze the various concepts surrounding this theme. Be creative! Projects and submissions with the most creativity and insight will receive the highest points. Remember, this theme will encompass all of the MIST competitions and workshops at both the regional and national levels. If you have any questions regarding this theme or anything else MIST-related, please do not hesitate to contact us!

Some reasons to be generous:
1. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” -Ian MacLaren
2. “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” -Mahatma Gandhi
3. “Today for you, tomorrow for me.” -Spanish proverb
4. “Give each other gifts, and you will love each other.” -Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)
5. “The best of people are those who are of the most benefit to others.” -Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)
6. “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” -Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)
7. “You will not attain righteousness until you give of that which you love.” -Quran 3:92
8. “God is in the aid of a person so long as the person is in the aid of his brother.” -Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)
9. “Save yourself from hell-fire even by giving half a date-fruit in charity, and if you cannot find that, then with a kind word.” -Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)
10. “A cup can only pour forth what it contains.” -Proverb
What are yours?

 

2013: The Patience of Champions: Rising to a Better Self

Think Michael Jordan. Think Muhammad Ali. If patience doesn’t come to mind, then you don’t know what it takes to be a champion. With hours of practice each day, through sweat, blood, and tears, champions will persevere to achieve their goal through the years. Life throws them surprises, distractions lace their path, yet they rise above every obstacle to be better than their past. No, patience is not sitting idly by hoping for a brighter future, and it’s definitely not about giving up just to have some fun #YOLO. Patience is in that satisfied feeling, burning inside their chest, that they’re doing all they can, and the rest is up to God.

I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now, and live the rest of your life as a champion.’
-Muhammad Ali

 

But patience is not just for athletes. Ordinary people around the world have harnessed it to bear unimaginable suffering and accomplish extraordinary feats. When a magnitude 9.0 earthquake-tsunami recently hit Japan, the people usedgaman to weather the storm with dignity and compassion, not looting and chaos. Under the cruel oppression of dictators and through the horrors of war, ordinary Muslims around the world have used sabr just to survive. No, patience has never been about being passive or taking short cuts, but prayer and time can be tools to move on. No matter the language, patience has always been about hope and discipline, about a willingness to endure the sacrifice now, knowing that better days will come with principled perseverance. Patience is about the rise of a better self.

Perhaps you’re inspired, or perhaps you’re still wondering how any of these examples are relevant to you as a high school student in North America. Think of the challenges you face on a day-to-day basis, and consider how you’re dealing with them. Think of the goals you want to achieve, and consider how you’re pursuing them. What kind of change do you want in your personal life? What kind of sacrifices are you ready to make? What do you think makes life worth the struggle? How can you make today better than yesterday? Are you ready to choose the path of patience?

We challenge you to take a deeper look and analyze the various concepts surrounding this theme. Be creative! Projects and submissions with the most creativity and insight will receive the highest points. Remember, this theme will encompass all of the MIST competitions and workshops at both the regional and national levels. If you have any questions regarding this theme or anything else MIST-related, please do not hesitate to contact us!

 

2012: Family: Reconnecting our Hearts to Home

“The best of you are those who are best to their families.”
– Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)

Sometimes the stories of our homes are not perfect.  Some of us can connect well with strangers yet have distant relationships with our fathers.  We can fall in love with movie stars but resent our own mothers.  We can be polite all day at school and still come home angry and abusive.  It’s as though we’ve reserved our best for everywhere but home–as though the role of family in our lives has been outsourced to others.

“The role of family.”  What does this phrase even mean?  Throughout history and between lands, a family’s role has been defined differently, yet somehow its concept remains universal and valuable.  Why?  What exactly do we expect family to be for us?  Some say family is meant to provide us a place to call home and a place to belong.  Others may think it is more like a nursery, where we grow into adults and then go our separate ways.  Some only turn to family in times of need, and yet others consider it a foundational building block of society.  What do you think are the ideals of family, and why?  What do different cultures and religions have to say on the topic, and how do their ideas compare or contrast with those of Islam?

Having considered these ideals, what are our families really like?  Who do we consider to be family, and what is our relationship with these family members?  Do they have rights upon us?  Do we honor them?  Do we have responsibilities towards them?  Do we uphold them?  Are there any differences between our ideals and our realities?  If so, what can we do to bridge those gaps?

We challenge you to take a deeper look into the North American Muslim community and analyze the various concepts surrounding this theme. Be creative! Projects and submissions with the most creativity and insight will receive the highest points. Remember, this theme will encompass all of the MIST competitions and workshops at both the regional and national levels. If you have any questions regarding this theme or anything else MIST-related, please do not hesitate to contact us!

 

2011: Loyalty: The Key to Faith and Citizenship

Before revelation ever reached the unlettered man named Muhammad, he was renowned amongst his people as the most trustworthy of his society. Before he ever made a public proclamation, before he ever urged others to feed the poor or care for the orphans, before he ever criticized his society for their immoral practices of infanticide or alcoholism, Muhammad was the most beloved merchant of Mecca, a simple man known for his honest and gentle manners. Despite the spiritual and moral bankruptcy of his society, all of his fellow countrymen knew that at least here was a man they could depend on for his integrity. It was only after living 40 years of his life as an upstanding citizen of his society that he was met with a higher calling: to bring a message of mercy to mankind.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) didn’t need a birth certificate to prove that he belonged: he spoke the language of the people, he obeyed the laws of the land, he sincerely wished well for his people, and above all, he made positive contributions to his society. Indeed, his commitment to his principles allowed him to serve his society faithfully, even when the majority of his people turned against him once he started speaking out against their societal ills. Is there any better definition of citizenship?*

Centuries later, people of faith still face the same sort of opposition as the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) once faced. With new concepts such as nation-state citizenship in the modern age, loyalty might be an even harder concept to grasp. So what does it really mean to be an American or Canadian, and conversely, what does it mean to be a person of a particular faith? Are they necessarily exclusive definitions? Must Muslim-Americans identify themselves as American first and Muslim second? Can’t they just be both? If so, how? If not, is the promise of a liberal democracy broken, with its freedoms of religion and speech for all? Would Muslims need to flee from persecution as they did 1400 years ago (and as many other groups have had to do throughout history), or can we still avoid some of the same pitfalls of the past today?

At MIST, we ask you to decide. We challenge you to take a deeper look into the North American Muslim community and analyze the various concepts surrounding this theme. Be creative! Projects and submissions with the most creativity and insight will receive the highest points. Hint: Please do not use imagery of keys in your creative projects. Remember, this theme will encompass all of the MIST competitions and workshops at both the regional and national levels. If you have any questions regarding this theme or anything else MIST-related, please do not hesitate to contact us!

 

*Now, it should be noted that in contrast to the believers who fled persecution to Medina with the Prophet (peace be upon him) and who were later provoked to armed conflict, the comparison we are trying to draw between our own time and theirs more aptly continues with the community that emigrated to then-Christian Abyssinia due to the religious freedom they were afforded as a minority under the Negus. For reference, see this lecture (particularly 12:30 onward). This link is shared for educational purposes only. The views expressed therein are the speaker’s own, and they do not necessarily reflect the views of MIST, its organizers, or its affiliates.

 

2010: Lantern of Modesty: Reflecting the Light from Within

“Every religion has an innate character. The innate character of Islam is modesty.”
– Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)

A lantern’s innate character is its light. It shines this light on everything around it. A lantern must reflect this light to fulfill its purpose and illuminate the pathway for others, sharing warmth, guidance, protection, and comfort. Likewise, a person whose character sincerely exemplifies modesty would reflect it in the very same manner, allowing it to permeate through every aspect of his or her interactions with others. Conversely, lack of sincerity would extinguish the flame of modesty. Therefore, modesty originates from within and manifests itself by reflecting outwardly in all directions.

Just as a spark lights the lantern, what sparks humility? What inspires you to be modest?

Unlike a person, a lantern is without discernment and shines its light upon everything just the same. Should a person shine the same way towards everyone? Should you treat your elders as you treat your peers? Do you interact in the same manner with friends of the same gender as opposed to people of the opposite gender? How about with relatives vs. strangers? Countrymen vs. foreigners? Are there different concepts of modesty in different parts of the world, or even in different regions of the Muslim world? Is the concept of modesty in the West the same as the concept of modesty in Islam? How are they similar? How are they different? How has the concept of modesty in the West changed over time?

We challenge you to take a deeper look into the North American Muslim community and analyze the various concepts surrounding this theme. Be creative! Projects and submissions with the most creativity and insight will receive the highest points. Hint: Your creative projects should not be limited to, nor must they include descriptions of lanterns. Remember, this theme will encompass all of the MIST competitions and workshops at both the regional and national levels. If you have any questions regarding this theme or anything else MIST-related, please do not hesitate to contact us!

 

2009: Hometown Heroes: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

 

The world is facing unprecedented challenges. From global warming to the energy crisis, from financial meltdowns to never-ending violence, from the spread of diseases to ever-increasing poverty and hunger, today’s world seems drowned in overwhelming problems and conflicts. Even in our local communities, we may face serious issues related to ignorance and intolerance or drugs and domestic violence. What can be done to face such daunting challenges?

Never fear, hometown heroes are here! Hometown heroes are informed citizens of their communities, of their countries, and of the world. They are everyday people who care and who have the courage to stand up and speak out with the firm conviction that they can make a difference. Hometown heroes are wise youth who understand they will be the leaders of tomorrow and realize they don’t have any time to wait until they are older to start making a positive change. Starting with themselves, they try to do whatever they can to bring benefit to people, ever-widening their scope of service to their families, to their neighborhoods, to their communities, to their nation, to their world. Most importantly, hometown heroes use their wisdom to be both strong and gentle in due balance, and they hold themselves to the highest of standards before calling upon others to follow. Through success and failure, they remain poised, actively working towards victory but staying patient for the results.

Such heroes have changed the face of the globe since the dawn of time, and we know many of their names. Who are the heroes of the past, and what can we learn from their stories for today? What image comes to mind when people think of “heroes” nowadays? Compare and contrast these heroes with the description provided above. Who do you consider to be your heroes? Are heroes born, or are they made? Are there heroes serving your community? Do you have it in you to become a hero? What actions can you take at home, in school, and in your greater community to address the problems you see around you and around the world? Finally, what kind of perspectives do you think a person should have who is trying to make change?

We challenge you to take a deeper look into the North American Muslim community and analyze the various concepts surrounding this theme. Be creative! Projects and submissions with the most creativity and insight will receive the highest points. Remember, this theme will encompass all of the MIST competitions and workshops at both the regional and national levels. If you have any questions regarding this theme or anything else MIST-related, please do not hesitate to contact us!

 

2008: The Puzzle of Diversity: Piecing Together a Vibrant Community

 

“And amongst His signs is the creation of the heavens and earth, and the diversity of your languages and colors. There truly are signs in this for those who know.” (Quran 30:22).

“People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should recognize one another” (Quran 49:13).

God created us with variations and differences in our looks, cultures, languages, and colors. We live in what was once called a melting pot of different cultures and languages.  Former US President Jimmy Carter described us as a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, and different dreams.  If we were to look at the North American Muslim community, we would also find it vastly diverse, comprised of various individuals hailing from all corners of the earth and every ideological background under the sun.  God created humanity and allowed separate nations and tribes to develop, not to establish barriers, social inequity, or cultural division, but rather, so that we may flourish in our diversity by getting to know one another. This year’s theme asks you to reflect on the diversity of your community and ask yourself: If God created us all differently so that we may know each other, then why are our communities disbanded and divided? How can we successfully bring together an entire community whose population is extraordinary? Yes, managing diversity is indeed a very puzzling challenge.

As you begin to explore the theme, reflect on the task of piecing together a puzzle and the necessary skills involved. Perhaps patience and perseverance come to mind. Think about the characteristics of puzzle pieces where each one of us is a different piece of the puzzle. Just like us, the pieces are also comprised of different sizes, shapes, and colors. When you take those varying pieces from the same box, you know that they will eventually come together to form a cohesive picture. What happens when certain pieces do not fit together properly? Do you apply force and smash them together, or is there a more gentle approach to finding a place for each of the pieces to fit in the bigger picture? Consider what it takes to interact with diverse individuals and groups in order to unite the local and global Muslim community. Are conformity, tolerance, respect, or understanding involved? How and to what extent? What are some of the challenges that are faced when striving toward unity? What issues need to be resolved before a our diverse communities are able to unite prosperously?

We challenge you to take a deeper look into the North American Muslim community and analyze the various concepts surrounding this theme. Be creative! Projects and submissions with the most creativity and insight will receive the highest points. Remember, this theme will encompass all of the MIST competitions and workshops at both the regional and national levels. If you have any questions regarding this theme or anything else MIST-related, please do not hesitate to contact us!

 

2007: Scattered Images: Reflecting Faith, Reclaiming Our Future

 

Today, more so than ever before, Muslims and Islam are in the public eye, and people are constantly being bombarded with a thousand different images regarding who Muslims are and what they represent. These scattered images, awkwardly taped together, create a convoluted and inaccurate reflection of our faith. How do we, as youth, create a better image of Islam that aids us in reclaiming our future as an Ummah? Whether people are getting their information from the media, from their friends and family, or from the internet, the responsibility of disseminating accurate and representative information lies solely on the Muslims’ shoulders. The image of a group is the sole responsibility of its members: whether Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, etc. However, even if we are to say all the right things, our actions have a tendency to speak louder than our words, and beyond that, the very way we present ourselves also has a huge impact on how we are perceived. A realization of this fact can potentially make a person very paranoid to always act right in front of the critical eyes of others. Should we always concentrate on our outer images? How do those, not of our faith, see us as Muslims? Should we even care?

The answers to these pertinent questions lie within the example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is our perfect example for guidance on how exactly to be honorable people. He was blessed with a handsome physique and a beautiful scent, always dressing nicely, but remaining humble at the same time in his refrain from the extravagant. Rarely was he ever seen without a smile on his face. He always carried with him the utmost respect for his fellow comrade in the human race, whether they were followers of his message or not. He was ever-willing to help the immediate need of his neighbor or relative. His message was not spread by the sword but was spread by example. The conclusion for a Muslim, thus, seems fitting. When a Muslim acts in a manner that is favorable to Allah (SWT), such actions also make him/her eligible to be seen favorably and honorably by others.Therefore, in the face of such divergent and scattered images telling others who a Muslim really is, the responsible Muslim takes the higher route towards promoting understanding: by always reflecting the values and teachings of the faith that he/she professes, the Muslim would be reclaiming a future filled with the hope of a world where principles such as peace, tolerance, love, and respect reign free, and where everyone is free to worship their Lord.

However, some critical questions remain: Should Muslims concern themselves with how they are perceived, or should Muslims solely concern themselves with their image before God, or is there a middle path between these two choices? In this age of fashion and glamour, what image do we really want to portray of ourselves and how do we go about portraying a positive image of Islam? Remember, this theme will pervade all of the MIST competitions and workshops at both the regional and national levels. Be creative when reflecting upon and applying the theme because projects and submissions with the most creativity and insight will receive the highest points. If you have any questions regarding this theme or anything else MIST-related, please do not hesitate to contact us!

 

2006: Character: Our Diamond in the Rough

 

Definition: “Diamond in the Rough” (n): Someone or something with potential or talent but lacking training or polish. This phrase refers to the fact that diamonds found in nature are rough and uneven. They must be cut and polished to bring out their true beauty.

Explanation: Just like those diamonds found in nature that are rough and uneven, our character is also rough and uneven and in need of polishing to truly shine. In order to be successful contributors to our society, community, high schools, and homes, we all need to strive to reach our highest potential as humans. Hence, the MIST 2006 theme concentrates on striving to perfect our character. There are many different aspects of character, including faith, mercy, patience, forbearance, courage, sincerity, modesty, honesty, and many other traits. Concentrating on our character and its perfection, using the traits above as guidance, think about what it means to be a human being in the 21st Century. What makes good character? If Character is a recipe, what are the ingredients? Which aspect is your character missing? How can you improve your own character to truly shine? How can reflecting upon and internalizing the 99 Attributes of God impact our character? What can you learn fromProphet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and other great people from the past and present that will help you in your struggle to perfect your character? If we were more patient, how would our world change? If we were more merciful, how would our society change? If we were more respectful, would our parents suffer so much when raising us?

Be creative when reflecting upon and applying this theme. Projects and submissions with the most creative thought put into them receive high points, so make sure you really examine and think about this theme. If you have any questions, please contact us!

Additional Reading: Ethical Standard of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him)