Editor’s Note: With high school and college graduations cancelled across the country due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, schools and communities have scrambled to figure out how to honor and acknowledge this year’s graduates. Book a Muslim, a booking, marketing and management agency for Muslim speakers and artists, hosted a virtual graduation event on May 10th for the class of 2020, featuring ISPU’s Dalia Mogahed, author Huda Fahmy and former NBA basketball player Mahmoud Abdul Rauf as commencement speakers, with comedian Preacher Moss, Ilyas Mao and Basheer Jones giving performances.
The following is the transcript of Dalia Mogahed’s beautiful commencement speech. Scroll to the end of the post to watch the entire ceremony.
Dalia Mogahed; image source: TED Talks
Bismillah arrahman araheem. With the name of God, The abundantly compassionate, the constantly compassionate
Thank you so much for that generous introduction, Preacher Moss. And thank you to Book a Muslim for putting together this virtual commencement to honor our graduates in such unusual times.
Class of 2020: I am absolutely thrilled to be here, offering this commencement at a time of corona. You will all have a great story to tell your grandchildren. And for me I get the privilege of being your commencement speaker without clear security at the airport.
But seriously, I was so moved to have been asked to speak today. And especially that it is during the Holy Month of Ramadan, and it also happens to be the day of the Battle of Badr. Subhanallah. This day is blessed for so many reasons and we should greet this occasion with immense gratitude.
It is also of course Mothers’ Day! Thank you to the mothers and the fathers who made lunches, set alarms and wouldn’t let you go out until homework was done, that all made this day possible. This was before quarantine, you know back when you had somewhere to go other than a zoom meeting.
So Congratulations! Mabrook! You made it! You’ve endured endless exams, papers, homework, maybe some broken hearts to be here today. You all must be very proud.
On this momentous occasion, I want to share with you one big idea that has helped me overcome fear and accomplish some of my biggest dreams.
It is the simple shift in perspective of asking what I have to give rather than what I want to get. I hope this lesson is helpful to you as you start your new chapter.
Now I give speeches for a living, but I have to admit I really agonized over this one. For one thing, Oprah was also giving an on-line commencement address, so…you know, couldn’t totally suck. But also because it was such a special graduation, one where many might be feeling a little disappointed, deprived, even a little depressed that they weren’t walking across a physical stage. I hope this is virtual event is uplifting to you and your proud families. What do I say at this on this occasion, an occasion that’s so important to all of you, and that holds such significance to me?
How do I impart sagely wisdom and change all of your lives forever – in 18 minutes? Every time I came up with a theme it didn’t feel clever enough, cool enough, impressive enough.
So to try to get over my writer’s block, I reached back to the last time I felt nervous about a talk, hoping to gain some guidance from that experience. And then I remembered: This is exactly how I felt before my TED talk.
Now for anyone who isn’t familiar, getting invited to give a TED talk at their main stage is on many people’s bucket list. It certainly was on mine. You are among Nobel prize winning scientists, celebrities and best selling authors, there to share “ideas worth spreading.”
Naturally, I felt totally unqualified. You stand on this big red dot on a stage by yourself, under a spotlight, speaking to a room full of very important, accomplished famous people. Then you’re talk is put on line for millions of other people to see … so, you know, no pressure.
And as if that weren’t enough, the stakes were so high for me because my talk was about representing others who weren’t being given this platform. I was asked to speak about being an American of the Islamic faith in 2016, during a campaign season when my community, along with many other communities, was being scapegoated and demonized in unprecedented ways. I was using my personal story to give other people a voice. The weight of that responsibility was almost crippling.
And so I was absolutely terrified. I wrote and rewrote my speech, right up to when I was on the plane flying from Washington, D.C. to Vancouver. I agonized over every word. I practiced and rehearsed and cried and rehearsed more. I pretty much bombed the dress rehearsal the day before. That’s a figure of speech if anyone’s getting nervous. It just means I did really bad …
And so I spent the night before practicing endlessly. And finally there was no more time to prepare. The day had come, and I was sitting in the auditorium at my session, watching the speakers who were going before me, observing the audience. This was a room full of CEOs and movie stars.
How could I possibly impress them? What was I even doing there?
So sitting there, waiting for my name to be called, I recited a prayer from the Quran that I always say before speaking. It is believed to be what Moses said before he met Pharoah and his magicians, another intimidating audience. The prayer goes something like this:
“My Lord, expand my breath, ease my affairs, untie my tongue so they may understand my words.”
Then it hit me. Moses didn’t pray for eloquence. He didn’t pray to impress anybody. He simply prayed to be understood. He was concerned about giving his audience the gift of truth in a way they could receive it, not taking from them admiration or celebrity. And that is how he was able to address the most powerful man in Egypt, possibly in the world at the time. I wasn’t there to get my audience’s admiration. I was there to give them the gift of a new idea. If my goal was to get their approval or acceptance, I would not have been able to take that stage. I would have been literally frozen. But when I changed my mindset, I was able to share my story.
Now I won’t claim all my anxiety went away, but it became manageable. I started to feel excited about what I could share. They introduced my name and with my heart beating a mile a minute, I took the stage and began to speak. If you watch the video you can hear the trembling in my voice as I begin. But I got stronger as I went on. I started to get applause as I built my argument. And then to my amazement, this auditorium of unbelievably accomplished people gave me a standing ovation.
Four years later, I still get letters from people who’ve seen my talk, including the one that invited me to give this address today.
I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t changed the question I asked myself from what do I want to get to what do I have to give?
This change in perspective will transform how you see the world, your relationships and your work. It will give you courage when you are afraid. If you are no longer invested in getting anything, what is there to fear?
Have you ever been afraid to give someone a gift? Probably not so much. Most of us are excited to give someone a present we picked out for them that we think is really cool. But have you ever been afraid of asking for something? Fear of rejection, fear of not being impressive enough, can hold us back from our greatest accomplishments, just as it almost did to me when I was trying to give a TED talk.
Shifting our focus from what we want to get to what we have to give makes us courageous.
But it doesn’t just help us overcome fear. Michael Jr., a comedian, applied this idea to being funny. He said everything changed for him when he stopped trying to “get laughs” and started “giving people the opportunity to laugh.” He was able to come up with better material when he stopped agonizing over how he’d be seen, and started focusing on giving to his audience, made it about being generous and not at a deficit. But not only did his comedy get better, and he in fact got more laughs, but something else changed. He noticed who wasn’t in the room. One night as he left one of the most exclusive comedy clubs in LA he noticed a homeless man outside and he had never seen this man before he had made this mental shift. So from then on he always finds a homeless shelter, a prison or an home for abused kids to do a show free of charge in any city he travels for his paid work.
Shifting our focus from what we want to get to what we have to give makes us more compassionate.
And most importantly shifting our focus from what we wish to give and not what we want to get frees us from the anxieties of chasing the validation of people. Zayd ibn Thabit reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said,
“Whoever makes the world his most important matter, Allah will confound his affairs and make poverty appear before his eyes and he will not get anything from the world but what has been decreed for him. Whoever makes the Hereafter his most important matter, Allah will settle his affairs and make him content in his heart and the world will come to him although he does not want it.”
My most earnest parting advice to you is this: have only One Master, One goal, One destination you desire, and everything else will fall into place.
So as you celebrate your high school graduation on this virtual stage, know that you are the main protagonist on the stage of your life. You decide what questions to pose and what perspective to take. You decide for whom you are performing, and why. Instead of asking what you want to get, ask yourself, “What gift do I want to give to the world?”
Watch the entire Book A Muslim Annual Muslim Student Graduation Ceremony.
Dalia Mogahed is the Director of Research for the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).