09/30/2011 12:20 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2011

'Fisabilillah' -- For The Sake Of God

It is 4:00 a.m. on a summer morning and the light in my room is on. I am awake as usual to say my morning prayers -- fajr -- and start working on the day's endless to-do list. The time for fajr is rather early in the summer months when daybreak is early compared to the winter months when dawn comes much later. As I have grown older, I have become most productive in those early hours. When I came upon the saying that those who changed the world were up toiling when others were sleeping, I figured my Sunday school teacher was right. There was a lot of good in getting up early fisabilillah -- for the sake of God, to say your prayers and get ready to face the day. For me, there were also other advantages to being up that early, you were the first to take a bath before water stopped running from the tap and you had the first go at the leftovers from last night's dinner. As a working adult, I have grown to appreciate this early start to my day even more than when I was a child.

Fisabilillah, this concept of doing for the sake of God was inculcated in me at a young age. My Sunday school teachers taught me the basics; to be obedient to my parents, to remove from the road a thorn so it did not hurt anyone else, to want for my neighbor that which I wanted for myself and to give alms to people in need without judging them like my mom did with beggars at the mosque where we observed the Friday jumah prayers as a family. They would all say fisabililah, fisabilillah, fisabilillah in what seemed to me -- a young child -- a choreographed chorus. People would give them crisp notes of large denominations as they quickly murmured a prayer and returned to their chorus to catch the attention of the next 50 Naira (the Nigerian currency) note. Clearly, these words were not to be taken lightly.

I came upon a greater understanding of these words and my faith when I took an ethics course in college. Learning about the principles of Beneficence and Nonmaleficence reminded me of Sunday school. We had covered this topic but it was called amr bil ma'ruf wa al-nahy 'an al-munkar -- enjoying good and forbidding evil. I had found another way to draw parallels with the teachings of my faith and my secular education. I looked forward to ethics class so I could discuss and debate these principles and those of distributive justice, human rights and our duties to help each other fulfill those rights. I was interested in contributing to an agenda that supported our quest as a society to be egalitarian. Faith and ethics had given me a new purpose in life. My debates and my discussions in class forced me to ponder a lot.

My faith, which has shaped my life so positively, was a culprit in the name of which, many atrocities were committed. It was used to turn people, communities and nations against each other. It was hard to think that the same faith could motivate people to do opposite things.

I have come to realize that faith by itself only has the power to motivate; the manifestation of that motivation, however, lies with the individual. In the case of people who have used faith to incite evil, I wondered perhaps whether their Sunday school teachers were not as good as mine were, or whether society was not doing enough to model ethical principles that were worth emulating. It was this frame of mind that ultimately informed my advocacy initiative for the Missing Millennium Development Goal, which aims to highlight the role of faith and religion as important stakeholders in the global development agenda.

The concept of doing "for the sake of God" has become so deeply ingrained in me, that I not only demanded action from myself but subconsciously used it as a tool to compel others to act as well. From my experience with beggars, I know that many just like me are constantly motivated by their faith.

Three weeks ago, I met a young woman from the UAE who was interested in working with me on a youth initiative and I suggested we stayed in touch through Facebook. She was vehemently against Facebook so I jokingly said, you need to have an account fisabilillah because it is important for us to stay connected to do this work.

A few days later, I got a Facebook friend request from Fatima, with a message that said 'account opened fisabilillah!'

On some summer mornings, I am really tempted to hit the snooze button because it is early and I am very tired, but 'for God's sake' I don't! I get up, wash up and get ready to start another day.