“No,” the sister said indignantly. “I’m not going to pray about this because I know Allah will make it happen. And I don’t care if it’s good for me. I don’t want it, period. And I shouldn’t have to deal with it if I don’t want to.”
I grew quiet, as I realized that there was no further advice I could offer her. She had come to me, angry at her husband who was about to marry another wife, and I’d suggested that she pray to Allah regarding what she should do. “Some women really can’t handle this,” I’d told her. “In that case, divorce is permissible if your husband goes through with it. But make du’aa and Istikhaarah,” I’d said. “Sometimes the thing we feel we can’t handle ends up being a blessing for us.”
But she grew frustrated with me for even suggesting that she turn to Allah to seek His guidance.
Listening to her reminded me of a story about a friend of mine that I share in my book And Then I Gave Up: Essays About Faith and Spiritual Crisis in Islam:
Some years ago, I was sitting with a friend of mine and she started telling me about her struggles with hijab after becoming Muslim. She had grown up Christian and accepted Islam while she was in college.
“For me, hijab was the hardest thing,” she said. “I just didn’t want to wear it. So I made every excuse I could. ‘It’s too hot.’ ‘I can’t breathe’.” She shook her head, remembering. “But the funny thing is, I didn’t realize I didn’t want to cover.
“Until one day I was talking to some sisters and I was making the same excuses. And the sisters started trying to convince me, but for everything they said, I had an answer. And we kept going back and forth. But then a sister said something that I really couldn’t respond to.” She paused. “‘Just make du’aa. Pray that Allah makes it easy for you’.”
Her eyes grew distant, reflecting. “When she said that, I didn’t know what to say. In the back of my mind, I knew that if I asked Allah for help, I would wear hijab. And that’s when I knew I didn’t really want to cover. I didn’t even ask Allah to help me. Because I didn’t want Him to.”
Hardened Hearts We Refuse To Address
“Well, you know what they say?” our elders sometimes say in looking at how far astray this generation has gone. “Youth is wasted on the young.” In this way, the older generation places the blame on the younger generation for many widespread spiritual problems that we see. But this is being dishonest. There’s a reason that as we age, we are described as being “set in our ways.”
While the youth might struggle with youthful zeal and carelessness in many religious matters, the older generation struggles with something far more serious: hardened hearts. And it’s often much more difficult to offer elder people beneficial advice for their souls than it is to offer the same to youth.
For youth, it might take some time for them to appreciate what you’re saying, but with elders, there is the assumption that their attitudes and behavior represent “wisdom” instead of unhealed wounds, which have fermented into kibr (sinful pride and arrogance). Hence the popular saying amongst many experienced adults, “There’s nothing I ain’t seen or heard before. So you can’t tell me nothing!”
I once met a divorced fifty-something Muslim man who expressed how he resented that Allah required men to spend their wealth on their wives. “Why should I have to provide for her?” he said. “Most women don’t deserve it.” Yet this same man wanted to have a halaal sexual relationship with a woman in marriage.
“My presence should be enough for her,” he said. “If she wants me to provide for her and pay her bills, then she doesn’t love me for who I am. She loves me for the money I can give her.”
But I told him, “That’s like saying a man wanting to have sex with his wife means he doesn’t love her for who she is, but he only wants her for sex.”
“That’s not true,” he said. “We’re giving each other sex, so that makes us equal. But if I have to give her money too, then that’s not fair.”
Yet he didn’t see it as “unfair” to live off of his wife’s money and effectively have her provide for them both. That represented “true love.”
In his mind, Allah’s requirement for the man to be a qawwaam—a maintainer, protector, and provider—for women was “unjust.” And because he was over fifty years old with lots of life experience (which was really just having lived year after year with an unhealed broken heart), there was nothing I could tell him. He was “wise” and experienced. I was not.
Does Your Heart Want What’s Right?
When I hear stories like these, I think of the depths of the human heart. I think of how we think we know ourselves and our intentions. But really, we don’t.
For almost every one of us, there’s something we know we need to change but simply won’t. The issue may involve not praying regularly, not wearing hijab, watching inappropriate TV and movies, having “boyfriends” or “girlfriends,” or even denying the rights of a wife or husband in marriage. And for each, we have a convenient excuse, if we bother to make excuses at all.
Naturally, struggles like these are not unique to one group over another—whether women or men, youth or mature adults, or single people or married couples. We all struggle with spiritual honesty of the heart.
However, this struggle in itself is not a problem per se. As is well-known in Islam, jihaad-un-nafs (the soul’s constant internal battle against itself) is a necessary reality for every human soul. Rather the problem is when we reach the point where we don’t even care what’s right or that we need to change. This is when we become so content in our own thinking, behavior codes, and individual lifestyles that we do not even humble ourselves to ask Allah’s guidance, assistance, or forgiveness in every part of our lives.
For surely, if we ask Allah’s guidance in what to do when facing a problem in our marriage or business, or when deciding on divorce or polygyny, or when facing any personal or religious struggle, or when making any decision, no matter how seemingly big or small, He will certainly help us. But the question is: Do we really want His help?
Or have we already decided what we want or what we’ll do, and we couldn’t care less what is good for our lives and souls?
Allah says what has been translated to mean, “And your Lord says, ‘Call on Me, I will answer your [prayer]. But those who are too arrogant to worship Me will surely find themselves in Hell, in humiliation’” (Ghaafir, 40:60).
The truth is that sincerely praying to our Creator for guidance and assistance is not a hardship at all. We can utter a prayer to Him while lying in bed under our covers, while riding in a car, while our head is on the ground in sajdah, and so on—pretty much anywhere and any time. So if we don’t seek His guidance on something while we know we should, then there’s no explanation for this except that we have spiritually diseased hearts, which have been corroded with kibr, sinful pride.
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Kibr (sinful pride or arrogance) means rejecting the truth and looking down on people” (Sahih Muslim).
When we avoid seeking Allah’s guidance in certain matters while we know we should—even if we seek His guidance in other matters—our kibr is manifested by rejecting both the truth of our neediness to Allah and of the possibility that the decision we’re making (or the lifestyle we’re living) could be wrong or unhealthy for our specific life and soul.
‘I’m Lazy and Weak, Not Arrogant,’ We Say
In my book, Faith. From the Journal of Umm Zakiyyah, I reflect on a lesson I learned from my own battles with spiritual pride, which at the time felt a lot like laziness, weakness, and even humility or shame in front of Allah:
When we give up, we think it’s because we’re tired of standing before Allah as a sinner. But we’re really tired of standing before Allah as a repentant. Because when you give up, you don’t give up sin. You give up repenting. But either way, you’re in front of Allah. This is perhaps why not praying or supplicating is equated with arrogance in front of Allah. There really is no other explanation for becoming so frustrated with being humble before your Lord that you refuse to ever do it again.
Nearly all of us struggle with feelings of laziness, weak will power, or loss of faith on some level. However, here’s something we should keep in mind regarding these personal struggles: Not one of these is mutually exclusive to arrogance entering our hearts or overcoming our lives—even if we don’t perceive what is happening.
The truth is that arrogance or sinful pride is not merely a “feeling,” a perception, or our personal opinion about what is happening with us. It is a reality known by Allah with certainty, even if it is completely unknown to us. For this reason, Allah details for us its signs in the Qur’an and prophetic teachings, thereby relieving us of the burden of “feeling” or perceiving the spiritual diseases of our hearts while using our limited and flawed human senses.
In any case, it is very rare that a person will feel arrogant. It is also rare that we’ll feel as sinful as we really are (even when our minds know we are in sin). Even secular psychologists describe humans as “rationalizing beings” more than “rational beings.” This is because we, as a general rule, lean more toward self-justification than self-honesty.
It’s There, Even If You Don’t Know It
In the end, we are all struggling with similar trials of the heart. But we should never think our feelings perceive everything that’s going on with us. Thus, arrogance can certainly be present in our hearts or lives along with laziness, weak faith, and even mental illness—even if we have no idea that it is there.
The bottom line is this: If we have the presence of mind or mental capacity to know that we need to improve our lives somehow or that we should seek Allah’s guidance in making a decision, yet we don’t (despite having the ability to), then this is arrogance. There’s no way around it.
The only people who are not responsible for praying to Allah for guidance in their lives are those who simply cannot (due to being in a coma, for example), or those for whom the angels are not writing their deeds, whether due to their mental faculties having left them completely or due to being very young children.
As we know, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) described kibr as two things: looking down on people and rejecting the truth. When seeking to avoid sinful pride, we tend to think of only the first part of the definition (i.e. feeling superior to others). For this reason, it is rare that we realize that turning away from the truth (i.e. ignoring the reality and enormity of our sins, and of our neediness in front of Allah) is also a part of sinful pride and arrogance.
Protect Yourself From Yourself
Learning how easy it is to fall into kibr has made me fearful for my soul. It has also made me regretful of the times that I allowed myself or Shaytaan to deceive me away from turning to Allah for guidance and assistance. It was due to this fear and regret that I penned this reflection in my personal journal:
Pride will not introduce itself to you or warn you that it’s about to destroy your life and heart. It will come cloaked in whatever “good cause” is closest to your heart. If you feel you’ve been wronged or stripped of something that rightly belongs to you, it will come as your “voice of reason” in demanding what’s rightly yours—as it did with Iblis before you.
Be careful. Inflexible conviction in matters that permit, or even demand, flexibility is often a sign that it has settled in your heart.
Pride is the disease that turned the honored Iblis (who was worshipping Allah alongside angels), into the worst devil to ever walk the earth—and it is same sin that can reduce the greatest worshippers, most righteous believers, and celebrated scholars of this faith into the most arrogant, tyrannical people on earth.
Yes, this seemingly simple turning of the heart can cause that much damage.
The only way to protect your heart from pride is to fortify it against itself. And this fortification can only be achieved by constantly turning your heart over to the only One who can protect it from itself.
Don’t Be a Convenient Victim
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “No one who has an atom’s weight of kibr in his heart will enter Paradise” (Sahih Muslim).
This reality alone should be enough to inspire us toward self-honesty and self-correction, instead of self-justification and self-deception. However, so many of us escape facing ourselves via self-accountability and turning to Allah by pointing to the wrongs of others instead. This is a phenomenon that I call becoming a “convenient victim.”
When we are “convenient victims,” we frame our desires and wants in the context of being the victim of someone else’s pride, sinfulness, or selfishness. In this way, we make our own needs and desires someone else’s responsibility, and we turn our every hurt and frustration into someone else’s fault. In other words: When we don’t want to take responsibility for what we want, we ask someone else to.
In marriage, this often manifests itself as a man using spiritual manipulation to force his wife into living in polygyny or never divorcing him, or as a woman using spiritual manipulation to force her husband into living in monogamy or never divorcing her. In both cases, the man and the woman are running from themselves, thereby avoiding accepting responsibility for their own actions, desires, and needs. Instead, they place these on the shoulders of someone else, which allows them to make their entire problem about their wife’s or husband’s “refusal” to do such and such.
Most seriously, this convenient-victim mentality excuses both the man and the woman from having to sincerely and humbly turn to Allah and beg His guidance and help regarding what they should do—instead of insisting that the other person do their spiritual work on their behalf.
True spiritual sincerity and humility require understanding from the depths of our hearts that whatever we’re desiring or choosing for ourselves might not be best for our own lives and souls (hence the need to seek naseehah and to pray Istikhaarah before making a decision). Furthermore, even if Allah shows us that our desire or decision is indeed good for us, spiritual sincerity and humility require us to understand that it still might not be best for the life and soul of the one we love.
When we don’t want to face this basic reality of adult life (and who does, since it hurts so much?), we often choose “convenient victimhood” instead. But unfortunately, convenient victimhood destroys our spiritual lives just as quickly and completely as it destroys our personal lives.
In my book, Pain. From the Journal of Umm Zakiyyah, I reflect on the destructive nature of this self-ascribed victimhood:
Lack of privilege is privilege in victim culture. Here, anyone who can claim to have suffered discrimination or wrongdoing can say or do whatever they please, no matter who is hurt or wronged in the process. Even God and religion have little authority in this culture, particularly when a victim can claim to have suffered from them, too.
What’s the Solution?
The first step toward spiritual self-honesty and living a life that aligns with what Allah wants for us is to turn to Allah and seek His forgiveness and help. In this, it is important not to stress too much over our past mistakes and sins. Instead we should focus on moving forward in self-compassion and betterment, while trusting in Allah’s immeasurable mercy and forgiveness.
Allah says what has been translated to mean: “Say, O My slaves who have wronged their souls! Despair not of the mercy of Allah. Verily, Allah forgives all sins. Truly, He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful” (Az-Zumar, 39:53).
In seeking to understand what is best for our lives and souls, it is also important to keep in mind that our perception of what is good for us will not always be aligned with the true reality of our lives and souls in front of Allah. Therefore, we need to constantly supplicate to Him and pray Istikhaarah before making any decision, no matter how convinced we are that what we are desiring or choosing is good, right, or best for us (or for others).
Allah says what has been translated to mean: “…But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah knows, while you know not” (Al-Baqarah, 2:216).
Personally, what this has meant for me in my own spiritual journey is making du’aa (informal prayerful supplication), seeking naseehah (sincere advice from trustworthy believers), and praying Istikhaarah for anything that could significantly affect my personal or spiritual life, whether positively or negatively. This includes consulting Allah for direction and assistance in nearly everything I do—whether before and during any writing project or speaking engagement, before and during making any decision regarding my marriage or family, or before and during following a fiqh point of view that is subject to permissible disagreement—even if the point of view is the strictest or “safest” according to many scholars.
Can’t We Just Live a Happy, Carefree Life?
One of the phenomenal results of turning our lives and souls over to Allah’s guidance and direction is that what makes us feel happy and fulfilled in life begins to align with what Allah has decreed is best for us. This is the case even if we at first imagined we wanted something completely different from what Allah decreed for us. In this, I’m reminded of the saying that is popular even amongst those who don’t believe in God: I’m so grateful that I didn’t get all those things I thought I wanted.
And subhaanAllah, what profound truth that is.
What I find really profound about Allah’s Mercy, especially when we turn to Him for guidance, is this: While there are certainly times we’ll have to sacrifice something for the greater good (even if we don’t understand fully what this means), there are so many more times that we actually get what we want. These are the times when the things that we wanted so badly end up being good for us—or when Allah out of His Mercy simply places in these things so much good simply because we turned to Him first, before seeking them.
In my own life, there were times that I prayed to Allah about something and fully expected Him to block it from me (often due to my assumption that He would always decree the most difficult or emotionally painful path for my self-betterment), only to be pleasantly surprised that I was granted what I genuinely wanted. Or I was guided to what was easier for me.
In reflecting on this, I think of the prophetic teaching that whenever we give up something for the sake of Allah, Allah replaces it with something better. Abu Qatadah reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Verily, you will never leave anything for the sake of Allah Almighty but that Allah will replace it with something better” (Musnad Aḥmad 22565; Sahih by Al-Albani).
So often when we hear this hadith, we think of leaving a particular sin or giving up a certain worldly enjoyment, which is certainly often the case. But this prophetic teaching goes so much deeper than this: It also includes leaving our pride or ego for the sake of Allah, and then turning over our desires and choices to Allah’s divine wisdom and decree via sincere du’aa and Istikhaarah.
Whenever we do this, Allah replaces whatever we initially had—i.e. our pride and ego—with something much better—i.e. humility, sincerity, and shukr (gratefulness) to Allah—even if these “better things” end up coming along with the very worldly thing we wanted in the first place. Only now we get what we want in a state of ikhlaas (spiritual sincerity) instead of in a state of kibr (sinful pride).
SubhaanAllah, how merciful our Lord is!
“O Ever-Living, O Self-Sustaining and Supporter of all! By Your Mercy I seek assistance. Rectify for me all of my affairs, and do not leave me to myself (or in charge of my own affairs), even for the blink of an eye!”[i]
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. In 2019, she launched UZ Soul Gear, a passion project fueled by her love of both art and inspirational reflections. UZSoulGear.com offers apparel, wall décor, and more, aimed at supporting and inspiring the soul-centered lifestyle.
Copyright © 2019 by Al-Walaa Publications. All Rights Reserved.
[i] Prophetic supplication to be recited each morning (Saheehah, 227 by Al-Albaani)