Episode 19

Faith and Alignment with Maryam Mohiuddin Ahmed

Published on: 29th September, 2021

Maryam Mohiuddin Ahmed grew up in Pakistan and has dedicated her life to social justice and human rights. She is the Founder and Director of Social Innovation Lab, an initiative which has helped 150 entrepreneurs start businesses, which have gone on to directly impact over 6 million people around the world. In this fascinating interview, Maryam gives her insights on:

  • how she was able to step back and align her personal values to her work
  • her faith and beliefs, and the mentors who have helped her on her journey
  • circular approaches to nature and to life, as opposed to Western linear thinking
  • a compassionate and gracious way to deal with naysayers
  • how important it is to find your tribe and know you are not alone

Link to the Social Innovation Lab website: http://socinnlab.org/

If you enjoyed listening to this episode, you may also enjoy Our Best Role Model is Nature with Amaranatho


Music: Pablito's Way by Paolo Pavan


So hello Maryam and welcome to our podcast AudaciousNess. And thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us on our podcast. Let's begin by you telling us a little bit about yourself, and about some of the audacious things that you've done so far in your life. Please go ahead.


Sure. Thank you, Helen and Maribel for having me, this is such a pleasure to spend time with you and be a guest today at your wonderful podcast. I've been really topsy turvy and zigzag in my life. I started, I was born and raised in Karachi in this beautiful city by the sea in Pakistan, and ended up having this sheer fervor for social justice. Even since I was a child, I just felt like things ought to be better. And what role can I play in doing that and helping things be more just and better? And eventually, that led me to Law School where I studied Human Rights, went to Lahore for the first time and really dove deep into what justice is at the Law University of Management Sciences where I got my law degree. And then somehow I ended up in California after that at UC Berkeley pursuing my Master's in International Human Rights Law. And it was just fascinating. Seeing this, these amazing people who were doing tremendous things across the international Human Rights space, and yet, this entire system was mired in all kinds of contradictions. So there was this obsession with process over substance. And that's true of all of law. And little things that would make justice completely unattainable. I came back to Pakistan after finishing my Master's in Law at UC Berkeley and ended up working in a law firm where the partners, it was called the Justice Pact of Pakistan and we were trying to get Pakistani men who had been illegally rendered and disappeared, because of the war on terror, and had now been for almost a decade in secret prisons in Afghanistan and Guantanamo. And one of the tasks that I was given as a fresh lawyer with the firm was to actually translate letters that these inmates had sent to the Red Cross to their families back in Pakistan. And it was interesting to see how, you know, there's a very straightforward format, where you say,”Hi, I'm good. How are you doing?” If there's a festive occasion or something they say, oh, congratulations on this or Eid Mubarak or something. And I'm just great. And hope you're all fine. And goodbye. And so all the letters look the same. Because they're following the template. So that's all they were allowed to write and say. And yet I came across this one letter where this guy goes, like “Oh, I heard she got married. I hope she's happy. I thought about her every day I was here.” And it was a man whose fiance waited for him for many years till eventually her family said, You know what, there's no point waiting and you need to move on with your life, while he was stuck in a secret prison somewhere, no one knew. And this is one of hundreds of people who have been on this side of the global hyper-capitalist, imperialist, warmongering paradigm. And it shook me to the core, because nothing I was doing was addressing the system. I was addressing a problem within the system. I was hopefully part of this organization that was willing to impact this individual's life and free him eventually. But then there was going to be another him and another and another and another as there were more wars, and more imperialist conquest and more desire and greed for materiality, for assets, for oil, for land. At some point, it took away more life from me than it gave me. And I realized that I can't do this. The kind of person that I am, I either find myself paralyzed when I read letters like that, or I completely detach and become robotic and excel. I excel at what I do. But then I don't feel anything. And I disconnect myself in order to preserve my sanity. And recognizing these two sort of very extreme reactions in myself, I felt like I needed a change. Now, while I was doing this work, while I was still a student, in fact, in Lahore, a couple of friends and I had started a youth movement, and we called the Literati Pakistan, and it was about, How do we get young people who are the literati of our society, how do we get them to take responsibility and action for little things that they see around them that could be better? This movement had taken almost a life of its own, by the time I came back to Pakistan after Law School. We had just received funding from the MasterCard Foundation to start Pakistan's first social enterprise incubator and so my partner said, Hey, we actually really need someone to put their full time attention to this. And we'd really like that to be you. And the opportunity basically presented itself. And since then, I've called myself a runaway lawyer. So I gave up all of my law trading, everything that I had worked for until then, much to the surprise and dismay of people around me who felt like I could do tremendous things with my training. And I ended up starting Pakistan's first social enterprise incubator at the same university, Lahore University of Management Sciences, where I got my first law degree. And it was fantastic. It was exactly what I needed. And interestingly, it was exactly what the space needed. And somehow those leads aligned, and the universe came together and all the dots connected. This was almost nine years ago. Since then, I ended up training, and not just training but actually helping 150 entrepreneurs go from idea to actual businesses. Those businesses have gone on to directly impact over 6 million people around the world. It's a number, I mean, the first time we did an impact measurement, and someone came back and said, Oh, it's 1.2 million I was like, No, do you even know what a million is? This is not possible. Go back, you did something wrong. There's no way that is, you know, just four years, these entrepreneurs have gone on and impacted a million people. I don't believe it. And then we literally sat through and realized, Oh, goodness, it's true. They actually have. And that number just keeps multiplying, because there's so much indirect impact, and we only account for the very direct one. It was a tremendous thing. I still don't believe it sometimes. But I feel like that was one of the most audacious things I’ve ever done in my life, is to recognize what was going on for me personally and to value that, to value my truth and to step away and focus my attention on something that actually gives me life and gives me hope, and reaffirms my faith. And making that choice was hard. It was something I was constantly questioned for. And eventually, it became something that I'm constantly rewarded for.


What a fascinating story. Thank you so much, Maryam. Yeah, I'd like to pick up on the part where you said that something wasn't right for you that you felt, you know, on the one hand, either paralyzed or disconnected. And so there was something clearly not going right for you there. And then, once you realized that, then things started aligning, and things started falling into place, and you ended up in a position where you, it feels like you're meant to be. I mean, I don't know what your beliefs are, or, you know, your spiritual beliefs or anything like that, but I wonder if you could say something about the place where you went from not being aligned to being aligned? How do you make sense of that bit?


It was a huge faith journey for me. I grew up in a Muslim household. And so Islam was a part of our upbringing, but it wasn't something we would often, you know, think about or question or critique all that much, because it was just a given, right? Oh, yeah, you pray, you do this, God is amazing. And God has given us all this, you know, wonderful treasures in life and all these different things. And so, I’d grown up that way. Around this time, though, when I was transitioning from law to starting this incubator, I almost had a crisis of identity. And it is around this time that I met my mentor, someone that I've admired and looked up to since I met him, Kamil Khan Mumtaz. He's an architect in Pakistan, and also someone who's very learned and wise in Islamic Sufi philosophy. And one of the things he asked me to do was to, because I went to him, and I said, you know what, I don't know where I'm going. I don't know what I'm doing. Like, I don't understand. And I've always been a planner, I've always, you know, designed things and thought about things and been very deliberate. And at this point, I'm lost. And I have no idea what direction to take. And he said, “Well, where are you right now? Because if you don't know where you are, how are you gonna know where you have to go?” And the first thing he asked me to do is just take a step back, and see where I am in relation to land, in relation to people, in relation to my feelings, and what each of these categories instills in me and brings up in me. And I literally ended up, you know, doing a sticky note map, the design part of my brain was like, oh, let's put sticky notes on the wall. I mapped, Who am I? Where am I? What am I? And what am I feeling right now? And every day, I would go and map and put a sticky note up in those categories, till I felt like I knew where I am. And I knew who I was. And as I kept doing that, more and more doors kept opening. By that time, I'd also been doing a lot of interfaith work. So I was part of the Muslim Jewish Conference, which was based in Europe. And I'd been, by the time I was starting this incubator, I'd been doing that for about four or five years. And then around that time, also, I was doing some intercultural work between Indian and Pakistani educators and environmentalists. And so, by that time, I’d read a lot of other scripture. And one of the mappings that I did was seeing how often these different faith traditions that I had been engaging, their core message was the same and it was pushing me and others like me, towards service and towards the idea of Ubuntu, right? Which is, “I am because you are” and there is no I if there is no you. And so, if one is to think of their higher purpose, of why they are where they are and not just in that moment, but on this planet. Why are we here? It is for each other. And that hit. I mean, that's always something you kind of know, but you don't really pay attention to. It’s like one of those obvious truths, right? That's always there and you kind of know it, but the minute you focus on it, you're like, oh, wow, this light bulb just went off in my head. And right then, right then is when I knew: Yeah, I am because my friends are, these entrepreneurs are, the young people that I'm trying to work with are. And they are because the communities are, and the people are, and the marginalized are, and the women are, and the children are. And we are here for each other, and we must learn how to serve each other. And in that service is how we will find ourselves, where we are and where we ought to go.


I love this. I'm amazed at your introspection and well, your self awareness. I wonder, Maryam, if you could say a little bit about... I think it's more two questions, the first would be, how did this first thinking, Where am I now and where am I going to? How did that help you understand where you are now? How did you connect that to finding out where you're going next? I think many of our listeners might find themselves at a point, they're thinking, I need to do something but I don't know what it is that I can do to create an impact. And my other question is, and we hear that a lot from the people that we interview, I just knew that I had to do this. And people were saying, Why? Why are you doing that? How did you deal with all these negative voices that were telling you, This is not what you're supposed to be doing?


There's two things. The minute you realize where you are, and especially in relation to things, right, so in relation to land, in relation to people, in relation to your feelings. Things start to emerge, patterns emerge, they very like immediately you start seeing, oh, this is the kind of person I am at heart, this is what I'm attracting. In this category of what I'm attracting, this is what gives me life. And this is what is getting in the way. Let your heart... like, you are the soul of the soul of the universe. Rumi talks about this a lot where, and then Bulleh Shah, who's a local poet in Punjab in Pakistan talks about this too, that all we need to do to find wisdom is go inside. So Bulleh Shah, he has this wonderful poetry, he says: “Pur pur ilm te fazal hoyo” (you keep reading and reading and you're going crazy), “Ve kadi apne aap nu parya nai!” (but you never read yourself). You read books, you read, you try to get practical knowledge etc. and you never look for wisdom, which is always inside you. And he talks about, you know, then he goes on and talks about how people go from shrine to shrine, from place of worship to place of worship, and they look for God in all kinds of places, and they never look for God inside themselves. And that's what I found. When I started asking myself, Where am I? And what am I? And how am I? And why am I? The further in I went, the more, you know, what Rumi said and what Bulleh Shah said made sense that you are the soul of the soul of the universe. The universe is inside you. God is inside you and outside of course, but it starts here, it starts within. And the minute you start seeing that you start seeing unity with everything else. And patterns emerge. It's literally like you said Maribel, right? Like people say that they know? This is how they know. Because this inner eye opens, the eye of the heart. Another mentor of mine in India, Vijay Poddar, who runs the Sri Aurobindo Society over there, would always say to me, you know, look with the eye of the heart. And, yeah, when you go inside, the eye opens. And that's how you know what to do because the patterns emerge like, opportunities suddenly show up, people suddenly show up and something inside you goes: “Oh, this is what I was waiting for. This is who I needed to meet. This is the conversation I needed to have. Now I know what to do.” So it emerges. And the minute you give space to it, it emerges, that's how you know. The second piece around how you deal with negativity and how you deal with naysayers. They don't matter anymore. The minute you start listening to this inner eye, this inner voice, it becomes so clear that these other voices don't deserve a space, that they are not life-giving, that they are not faith-affirming, that there's something you know that they don't. And it's all right. Because it's not their time to know right now. And when it is their time, they will know. And so it's not like an arrogant or a dismissive response, “Oh, these people don't know better.” No, it's a very gracious thing. Because you see your part in something so much bigger. And you realize this is what's meant for me and not everybody sees that, and it's okay. If they're meant to see it, they will see it. If they're not meant to see it, they won't. And that is okay. That is the will of God, that is the will of the universe. That is how this is designed. And that is fine. And it's this incredible peace. It doesn't bother you anymore, somehow. And sometimes if you're lucky, they come back and say “Oh my god, that was amazing. You were right and we should have listened to you!”


This is absolutely amazing. I'm loving this conversation, Maryam. And yeah, I just want to pick up on what you said about the naysayers because you put it so much more eloquently than I ever do. I agree that there are naysayers and I know what I want in me. But I'm quite dismissive of the naysayers, you know, like you said, well, you don't know! What do you know? And it's like, I don't care what you think I'm just going to ignore you. But you say, you know, the way that you put it, they're just not ready to know it and be, you know, treat them with a little bit more grace and compassion. I think maybe I'll do that in the future. The question that's coming up for me now is, looking inside yourself and seeing this eye inside yourself, as you talk about, is obviously not an easy thing to do, otherwise more of us would be doing it. You know, what is it that stops most people, or a lot of people, from doing that, and how did you specifically get over that and get to that inner person?


It's deeply uncomfortable. I mean, I've been there and sometimes, not sometimes, often, often I disconnect and forget about that eye, because life gets in the way. One thing my commentators actually said to me, he said, the more you go inside, the more the world will pull you out. And that is when you know you're on the right track. Because, and it's actually a Sufi belief, it's part of the Sufi sort of process, you know, the process of going deep, the process of becoming a better believer, the process of having deeper faith, is the more that you try and go on the right path, the more everything, the world and all different types of distractions are gonna pull you away. It's like Al Pacino in The Godfather movie, you know, “I was out and they pulled me back in” like at the end, right? And he and it's a thing. It happens. It's how you know that what you're doing is good for you. And probably meant for you, then that this is where you stand and resist. And also, there is going to be failure on the way you're going to fail, you know, resisting the temptation. You're going to get caught up in the world. You're going to have a child or have a job or go to school or do something else. And that is going to disconnect you because that is life. And yet, there will constantly be reminders, like I said, right? Once you've had it, once you've seen it, you can't unsee the pattern. It'll keep coming back. The only thing you need to do the next time it comes back, to stack on it. Just hold on to it and go back. It is your way back to yourself. And every time it's almost like a circle. So I keep sort of pushing for circular thinking in all the work that I do. It's what all faith traditions talk about, it's what all indigenous wisdom frameworks talk about, is the circle, instead of the line. All our Western and Global North frameworks are linear, and all our traditional and indigenous frameworks are circular. And life is circular and nature is circular. And so you will start and you will go the full circle, and then you will disconnect. And then you'll start again, and go the full circle and disconnect. And it becomes almost like a set of concentric circles, if you were to imagine, like a drop in the pond, that each time that you're pulled back, and you see the inner eye again, you see from the eye of the heart again, it comes back to you faster. So there's less resistance, there's less of a learning curve, because you've been there before, you know that place. And you become less and less uncomfortable. The first time you do it, it's extremely uncomfortable, you know, facing all these truths about yourself, facing all these truths about the world, facing all these imperfections, facing impermanence, and mortality, and all these different pieces. Facing how small we are. It's deeply uncomfortable. And yet in that realization, learning, you're not small at all, you're part of something huge. You hold the universe inside of you, you hold God inside of you. And so it's like a, it's almost like a paradox, which is something they teach us also in Sufi philosophy, is to hold opposing things in tension at the same moment, and to be comfortable with that. So it's this inner eye, this eye of the heart. Seeing with that is a lifelong practice. It's not something you do once and it's with you forever. You keep blinking, and that's okay.


So what I'm hearing then, Maryam, is, it's kind of like, if I say it with my own words, is like to stop resisting to whatever feeling. It is uncomfortable, but if we resist, “I don't want to feel that way. I don't want to feel uncomfortable.” These are, let's call it, we label them as negative feelings or whatever, and then “I don’t wanna feel it.” That when we let go of that resistance, then it becomes easier, I guess.


It becomes effortless. You start to float. Taoism would talk about, so how people would say, “Be like water, be one with the water”, etc, Taoism would say “Be the water.” So be life, be the flow, you know how people say go with the flow? Or do this or do that. When you become the flow, everything moves.


And what would be, Maryam, your advice to someone who is maybe not yet the water, but they are going in that path and they are observing their patterns and have a bigger goal, an audacious goal. But there may be naysayers, there's fear of not succeeding or whatever kind of fear. What would be your advice to other people who have not stepped yet into their audacious path?


I think the one big thing that we need to know is we don't do anything alone. And we don't achieve anything alone. Even though we constantly hear stories of heroes, there are no heroes. Because it's never just one person. Because the minute we think of it as one person, one person who's going to change the world, one person who's going to save people, one person who's going to do... it's a very colonial way of thinking, you know, Christopher Columbus came and found this new world. Okay. It's never one person. When we look at traditional and indigenous frameworks, it's always multiples, it's always a community, it's always a village, it's always a group of people. So the first thing is, when you're trying to do something audacious, you should know you're not alone. There's a whole tribe of people out there just like you. And they're just as scared. And you can find them. And for starters, you could be scared together. And then you could think, if we weren't scared, what could we do together? And then you could plan together and conspire together and eventually change yourselves together. And in that changing of yourselves, you may actually change some part of the world.


Wow, this is fantastic advice, Maryam. Unfortunately, we're coming towards the end of the podcast. I think we could go on for a long, long time, eh, Maribel? We'll have to get Maryam back on a future episode. And I'm going to ask you the final question, but I suspect we've already had the answer, in terms of what keeps you grounded. But the final question is to do with the name of our podcast, which is AudaciousNess. And the Audacious part is the audacity to recognize what your goal is, and to go out and do something audacious. But the Ness part is to do with the solid ground that stays standing no matter what the world is throwing at it. So our final question to you is, what is it that keeps you grounded, and able to continue going, no matter what life is throwing at you?


Faith, of course, you could tell from this entire narrative that we've had so far, faith has been a huge part of what's kept me grounded. But it's not without controversy, right? It's not, it's not like, Oh, I have this utter faith. I'm struggling, I'm always struggling. So there's this concept of [?] in Islam, which means blind faith, it means that you would close your eyes and leap without knowing what's down there. Because you trust God, and you trust God because the narration is that God loves you 70 times more than your own mother does. So when you think about Oh, my mom loves me unconditionally, and here's someone who loves me 70 times more than that, I'm going to jump into the abyss, knowing that they're going to catch me. So there's this blind faith that comes from this immeasurable love. And yet, there are moments. So for me personally, that moment happened in 2016, when I lost my grandmother and my uncle, and my uncle, who was very young. And I was shaken to the core. I was angry, I was, I questioned everything. I questioned God constantly. And I said, How? How is this fair? And just about two weeks ago, I lost a very dear friend, Rahimeen, who was a source of pure joy and light to this world, to breast cancer. And then, that question emerged again. How is it fair to not have someone like that in this world, in this world that needs her so much? And I came back with the answer that, maybe that's our test, that the good ones are missed and so they go back sooner, because God can't stand the separation from them. And for us, it becomes our test to live our lives so that they live on with us. So that every moment that we spend, we spend the way they would, we give back to the world, Rahimeen, in every act, in every step. And so it's never straightforward, even with faith. It's a constant circular journey, at least it has been for me, where there have been moments where I've questioned everything. And then suddenly, there's this answer that appears where God tells me about, “I have Rahimeen, but you have your life. Will you live it the way she ought to, or she would have wanted you to?” And so that constant struggle, and that circular dance is in fact what keeps me grounded. Knowing that even if I've hit the end, I'm going to hit the start again soon.


That’s beautiful, Maryam, thank you so much. Wow, this has just been such an enlightening discussion. I've enjoyed it immensely. Thank you so much Maryam, we’re going to stay in touch definitely, aren't we, Maribel?


Yes. Thank you for sharing all your wisdom. It's been a present. Thank you.


Thank you.


You're most welcome.

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About the Podcast

A solid grounding on which to practice your audacity.
AudaciousNess showcases individuals who have set themselves bold, audacious goals and have worked to achieve them. Our purpose is to inspire people to act with the courage to create a positive impact in the world.

Through interviewing 'regular people' about their audacious goals, we highlight the fact that role models are everywhere. Each and every one of us can have an impact in some way. Our goal is to enable a courageous community that honours their genius and lives their calling.

The name 'AudaciousNess' has two components: audacious, meaning 'bold', and ness, meaning 'a strip of land projecting into a body of water'. We believe having a solid grounding on which to practice your audacity is crucial, or, in the words of the great philosopher king Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 4.49):

"Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it."

About your hosts

Maribel Ortega

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I help women find their worth and be confident so that they can use their voice, speak up, take new opportunities and ultimately lead fulfilled lives.

Helen Strong

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I run an eco-friendly, vegan B&B in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. This is just one of the many audacious goals I've pursued in my lifetime.