A wise person should not be satisfied with his or her present circumstances; rather, he or she should continually aspire to achieve noble aims and seek self-improvement. If he or she attains a certain status, he or she must look forward to achieving an even higher one. Undeniably, this has to be done without demonstrating an inclination to this worldly life or contradicting the Sharee’ah of Allah The Almighty. If he or she follows such a way, he or she will not settle for anything less than Paradise.
‘Umar ibn ‘Abd Al-‘Azeez رحمة الله noted about himself: "I am ambitious. At first, I strove for the position of emir and when I gained that, I was determined to hold the title of caliph. When I attained even that rank now, I am still motivated now to reach Paradise." This is what true ambition is – the soul longing for what is more perfect and sublime. The Prophet, ﷺ, used to guide his Ummah (Nation) to be ambitious for noble causes and rise above all that is petty, when he ﷺ said: "Allah The Almighty loves the things that are most exalted and honorable, and [He] hates all that is mundane."
Difference between ambition and determination
In our context, both ambition and determination share the same purpose: seeking noble things; however, they differ in terms of motivation and means.
For instance, a determined person may be motivated by an aversion to apathy that is caused by humiliation or to ward off the shame of imperfection. On the other hand, ambition is driven by the desire of one’s soul to achieve a higher goal.
However, in terms of means, a person motivated by the latter may go to extremes in pursuit of his or her objective, while a person with strength of mind usually makes use of noble ways that conform to the Sharee’ah of Allah The Almighty.
Yet, undoubtedly, if one does not exert his or her utmost to achieve a goal, his or her aspirations are nothing but mere wishes. A truly ambitious man is he who does his best to achieve what he wants and may tire himself for the sake of his ambition. That is why many poems speak of this, such as some of those that state that a person who is afraid of risks and failure, and is overly cautious cannot attain glory, just like a rose cannot exist without thorns.
Indeed, the path to all that is noble is unpaved and suffused with hardship, which is why Mu‘aawiyah once advised ‘Amr ibn Al-‘Aas : "A person who seeks something great must risk something significant." Similarly, the latter, he would say: "You [people] have to pursue decisive and critical matters."
Ambitions of the noble and eminent
Great people are typically driven toward achievement of honorable aims and far removed from petty gains. Hence, one would usually find them ambitious in:
1- Seeking knowledge: Having realized that knowledge is the worthiest acquisition, both morally and spiritually, and the most honorable objective of all nations, they sacrifice their time and wealth for it. Then, their wisdom saves them from being led astray. Hence, they endure hardship, lead an austere life, leave behind their homeland and families and do not bother with rest and entertainment for its sake. One of them would depart from his country to another place in pursuit of only one Hadeeth. This is only done with infinite determination and great care to make the best of every moment.
2- Achieving martyrdom: When those of great willpower learn of the reward of one who dies a martyr for the sake of Allah The Almighty, they race each other to it, not favoring others over themselves in this respect. Ibn ‘Umar narrated that his father said to his brother during the battle of Uhud: "O my brother, take my armor", but he replied: "I want to die as a martyr just as you do." Therefore, neither of them donned the armor. [At-Tabarani] It was also reported that Ja‘far ibn Abi Talib hit his horse [urging it to gallop faster], while he was fighting, saying: "How nice Paradise is when it comes near; it is good and [like] a cool drink. The Romans will be subjected to torment; they have rejected belief and are of ignoble ancestors; when I meet them [in the battlefield], I am required to kill them." He remained in this spirit until he was killed.
3- Attaining Paradise: When, it was once said to Al-‘Attabi رحمة الله : "So-and-so is an ambitious person", he replied: "Then he must have no aim but Paradise." Indeed, any goal that is less than that is meager in comparison. Yet, this does not mean that a person is forbidden from having ambitions in his or her worldly life; that is okay, as long as he or she adheres to the Sharee’ah of Allah The Almighty, observes His limits and has a righteous intention behind all deeds.