“The tongue, O Allah, the tongue! Protect me from it, even as it moves in broken rhythm with my own troubled heart.”
—excerpt of FAITH. From the Journal of Umm Zakiyyah
“She obviously thinks it’s perfectly fine to break apart marriages, support friends backstabbing each other, and dismiss the rights of women.”
The words were from a sister of mine—a sister in faith. Many sisters, in fact. And no matter how much I tried to clarify that I believed wholeheartedly in the preservation of marriage, of friends being empathetic and compassionate to each other, and of my deep desire that women were protected from harm and oppression in this world, it was dismissed.
Because I wouldn’t agree to the manmade honor codes that these professed Muslims believed would guarantee true justice and good in the world, I was accused of seeking the opposite.
“But we’re Muslim,” I’d say. “So we absolutely must strive to root out wrongdoing wherever we find it. But that should never mean rooting out the guidance of Allah.”
“She’s just using religion as an excuse to support abuse and patriarchy!” they’d say.
Then I’d grow silent and say in my heart, O Allah, I hand this over to You.
Because there really is no winning an argument wherein only one side is allowed to speak for themselves, or be listened to. Besides, this was less a “justice” issue than it was a heart issue, and I realized that it is only Allah who could guide and enlighten hearts.
We See with Our Hearts
We see with our hearts more than our eyes. This is why the problems that stick out most to us—and appear the most harmful to human life—are those that come from life paths and people we already dislike, even if we are unaware of the root of our “vision.”
In the Qur’an, Allah tells us what has been translated to mean, “Truly, it is not their eyes that are blind, but their hearts which are in their breasts”(Al-Hajj, 22:46).
We often think of this spiritual blindness as affecting only open disbelievers who arrogantly reject the signs of Allah. But the truth is that “blindness of the heart” affects all human beings on varying levels. Naturally, the arrogant disbeliever is suffering from the deepest and most destructive blindness of the heart. However, the arrogant Muslim is also suffering from this blindness, just not to the same degree as a disbeliever.
Nevertheless, our spiritual blindness as Muslims can certainly reach the degree of kufr (disbelief) if we don’t nourish our souls in a continuous, daily effort to root out the disease. It is only the most ignorant amongst us who assume that they are completely safe from the disease of kibr (unhealthy pride and arrogance) corrupting and blinding their heart. In this, our spiritual destruction can merely begin with the tiniest traces of looking down on someone and rejecting the truth when we are reminded of it.
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “No one who has an atom’s weight of kibr (pride) in his heart will enter Paradise.” A man said, “O Messenger of Allah, what if a man likes his clothes and his shoes to look good?” He said, “Allah is Beautiful and loves beauty. Pride means rejecting the truth and looking down on people” (Sahih Muslim).
Thus, we must remain very vigilant in rooting out this disease from our hearts, as even the tiniest trace of it can destroy us spiritually. One way we can do this is by being very self-reflective, prayerful, and honest with ourselves. In this way, we begin to realize that we are not always capable of knowing whether our opinions and convictions are truly rooted in a sincere desire for justice and goodness in the world, or if they are merely rooted in our unhealed personal traumas or in a spiritual blindness of kibr that is covering our hearts.
The Sin of Spreading Harm in Ignorance
When we are calling to (or away from) certain things based on our personal traumas or kibr more than our sincere emaan (faith and authentic spirituality), we will spread harm and destruction in the world, even while we don’t have the slightest perception that we’re doing anything wrong. In fact, we might genuinely imagine we are the ones rooting out evil, spreading peace, and setting things right.
Allah warns us of this in the Qur’an when He says: “And when it is said to them, ‘Make not mischief on the earth,’ they say, ‘We are only peacemakers.’ Verily, they are the ones who make mischief but they perceive not”(Al-Baqarah, 2:11-12).
He also says: “Say, ‘Shall We tell you the greatest losers with respect to [their] deeds? Those whose efforts have been wasted in this life while they thought they were acquiring good by their work…” (Al-Kahf, 18: 103-104).
“But how would I know this is happening to me?” we might ask. “Why would I be held accountable for doing wrong if I genuinely think I’m doing good?” The answer is quite simple: Allah relieves us from the burden of perception through the obligation of submission.
Once you submit to Allah’s guidance on any matter, the burden of carrying the weight of knowing your potential wrongdoing (had you not submitted), is lifted from you, and you are instead offered forgiveness and mercy for any inevitable faults and mistakes. You are further granted the blessings of being an example to others in doing good, particularly in environments where submitting to Allah has been abandoned such that re-initiating that good could be beneficial for generations to come.
However, once we refuse to submit to the guidance of Allah (even when we don’t understand it) and instead introduce to the world our own definitions of good and bad, then we most certainly will carry the burden of the wrongs we have done (even in ignorance), as well as all the unseen harms we cause others’ souls, the world around us, and the lives of innocent people. This is the case even if we genuinely have no idea just how far-reaching that harm will be, and even if we end up accruing sin while we are in our graves.
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him said): “Whoever initiates (revives) a good deed in Islam, he gets its reward and the reward granted to anyone who does it after him, without reducing the reward of the doer himself. And anyone who establishes a bad deed in Islam, he bears its burden and the burden of anyone who does it after him, without reducing anything from the doer’s sin” (Sahih Muslim).
Moreover, Allah says, “They will bear their own burdens in full on the Day of Resurrection, and also of the burdens of those whom they misled without knowledge. Evil indeed is that which they shall bear” (An-Nahl, 16:25).
Islam Protects Us From Ourselves
So long as we are living a life of submission to our Creator and doing the best we can to live in accordance with His divine guidance and the prophetic teachings, then we are not held accountable for carrying the burden of the unseen harm that would befall us otherwise.
In His prescription of guidance, Allah protects us from potentially harming ourselves and others with our misguided logic, faulty perceptions, and self-made systems of dhulm (wrongdoing and oppression) via our manmade behavior codes, which we imagine are spreading peace and goodness in the world. By obligating humble submission instead of having perfect knowledge and understanding, Allah is protecting us from harming ourselves and others through the inevitable ignorance and arrogance that would afflict our hearts if we didn’t follow the divine guidance that prescribes this submission.
The mercy of Islam is that Allah removes the burden of unintentional catastrophic self-harm from our hands by revealing the truth behind the problems we see, as well as those we wish to solve in our own lives and the lives of others. In His merciful system of submission, Al-‘Aleem, Al-Hakeem (The All-Knowing, The All-Wise), reveals to us what specific life paths and behavior are harmful in themselves (like shirk and kufr), which ones have more harm than benefit (such as alcohol and gambling) and which ones are blessed and permissible (like any halaal marriage), despite the fact that the human being will always be imperfect and sinful in living out anything in this world, including that which is blessed in itself.
However, despite having this divine gift, so many of us seek to reinterpret our Lord’s timeless guidance in ways that force Islam to submit to our view of the world, instead of striving to submit ourselves to Al-Hakeem’s flawless view of the world, which He Himself created and certainly knows best. In this, we genuinely imagine we’re doing good and rooting out corruption, instead of thwarting good and spreading worse corruption than what we see.
Corruption Is Found Wherever People Are
One of the things that I find both profound and heartbreaking is how humans routinely fail to understand this basic reality of life: Corruption is found wherever people are found, and the deepest corruption is rooted in the heart.
In this, it really doesn’t matter whether the corrupt person identifies as a democrat or a republican, a Christian or a Muslim, an atheist or agnostic, an American or an Arab, or LGBTQ or purist, or so on. If the person’s heart is corrupt, there is absolutely no label, identity, or religion that can keep that corruption from manifesting itself, and thereby harming oneself and others.
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon) said in a famous hadith, “There is a piece of flesh in the body. And if it is good, the whole body is good. And if it is corrupt, the whole body is corrupt. And that is the heart” (Bukhari).
I don’t think we as believers fully appreciate the profound wisdom in these words, and how the testimony to the truth of them is all around us—and within ourselves. And I don’t think we fully appreciate how in these words is the answer to a lot of the confusion in the world, and to so many of the disagreements we have amongst ourselves.
The bottom line is that until we understand very deeply and sincerely the role of the heart in both personal and societal corruption, we will only address symptoms of problems, while continuously creating and re-creating new problems that need to be solved.
When sincerity is in the human heart, corruption is cleansed from the heart and from the lives of humans, at least as far as possible given our imperfect existence. However, it is the Creator and the Creator alone—not the human being—who has the ability to define sincerity and corruption and subsequently detect their existence in the human heart.
When “good people” begin to imagine that they can define sincerity or corruption, detect it in others’ lives, and then root out evil based on their own manmade behavior codes, then they begin spreading corruption in the world in a way that has far reaching consequences that they could never even fathom, hence their ultimate punishment in the Hereafter despite their assumption that they were doing good.
Given the weighty magnitude of this destructive behavior, it begs the question: How do we allow ourselves to go this far in destroying our own souls and the lives of others? And the answer is this: We continuously create manmade behavior codes based on our limited human perception of what we think is needed to root out bad behavior in the world.
Bad Behavior Doesn’t Prove Anything
It should be enough as a deterrent to creating our own rules, that humans see with their hearts more than their eyes. The fact of the matter is that our hearts tend to be most understanding and pardoning of those things that are intimately connected to our own lives, and harshest and most critical of those things that are intimately connected to the lives of others. This fact alone should help us understand that our conclusions about any “bad behavior” we see cannot be fully trusted (at least not without the assistance of our Creator for clarity).
The reality of this inevitable self-serving human failing is confirmed not only in divine teachings, but also in secular social-psychology research as well, particularly in the actor-observer bias phenomenon. In practical reality, actor-observer bias explains the human tendency to blame our own bad behavior on external factors that are effectively out of our control, while we blame others’ bad behavior on internal factors that represent something inherently wrong with them or their life choices.
In the article “Actor-Observer Bias In Social Psychology,” author and educational consultant, Kendra Cherry, explains how this bias becomes most obvious in cases where something negative is involved:
“The actor-observer bias tends to be more pronounced in situations where the outcomes are negative. For example, in a situation where a person experiences something negative, the individual will often blame the situation or circumstances. When something negative happens to another person, people will often blame the individual for their personal choices, behaviors, and actions” (verywellmind.com, September 23, 2019).
In inter-religious contexts, actor-observer bias explains how a person of one faith can fall into sin and then recall how tempting the circumstances were such that it was really difficult (or impossible) to avoid the sin. But when a person of another faith falls into that same exact sin, we will say it was because they’re following a false religion.
Similarly, when we wish to justify our own manmade codes of behavior that are designed to root out evil or “bad behavior” in the world, we will link the evil or bad behavior to something that we already dislike in someone or something. But when we ourselves fall into similar (or worse) bad behavior, we will link it to our uncontrollable personal circumstances, our inevitable human fault and imperfection, or even the existence of other “bad people” in the world.
Perhaps, there is nowhere that the destructiveness of this actor-observer bias is more obvious than in systems of racist oppression in the world.
Racism and the ‘God Complex’
Given that all humans fall into sin and wrongdoing due to the level of corruption in their hearts, it is incorrect to use bad behavior alone as proof of anything that will restrict the rights and personal freedoms of people in the world, especially if this restriction is in areas that God Himself has given humans free choice. Thus, it is crucial for the believing soul to stay out of matters that are God’s domain alone, such as defining morality and implementing behavior codes regarding what people should or should not do in their personal lives, even if we imagine we are rooting out wrongdoing with our new rules.
As imperfect humans, we can only address wrongdoing to the extent that our limited human perception allows us. This is why it is crucial to focus on rooting out specific behavior that is harmful instead of linking harm to specific groups of people. In this, we must strive our level best to remove any evil we see in our own lives and the lives of others; however, we must limit our removal of evil to the actual evil itself; we do not seek to remove evil by delving into the unseen or by creating more (and perhaps worse) evil—with our new definitions of morality and goodness, and our manmade “honor codes” aimed at restricting the safety and personal freedoms of people we dislike.
Racists who wish to restrict the lives of Black people justify their discrimination and oppression through pointing to the (alleged) bad behavior of Black people. In this, those who support systems of anti-Black racism do not focus on the concept of skin color so much as they focus on the (alleged) patterns of bad behavior done by Black people. In this, the racists argue that the consistent bad behavior and choices of Black people cause continuous harm to others, thus putting other families and the entire society at risk. Therefore, (so the argument goes) the world is better off without Black people, or with very few of them living outside a prison cell, because the good ones are so rare.
Had these racists kept their attention on patterns of bad behavior—which every group of humans fall into, including White people—they would not be creating a worse evil than the one they claim they are rooting out: a system of oppression targeted almost exclusively at a group of people they dislike.
When their evil is pointed out to them, many racists defend themselves by saying that they don’t care anything about someone’s skin color per se, only what people with that skin color consistently do. Then they cite examples of behavior that they feel is most prevalent amongst Black people: trying to live off of others unjustly, demanding what doesn’t belong to them (while they should just be content with what they have), and harming others with their covert and overt criminal behavior.
In this, they display a pathological God-complex through which they justify their systematic discrimination and oppression of Black people in the world.
Socially Accepted Discrimination By Muslims
It is interesting that the same line of thinking that anti-Black racists use to justify vilifying Black people, many Muslims use to justify vilifying believers that they themselves dislike, particularly men and women who practice polygyny. In this, the anti-polygyny Muslims use the “bad behavior” example as an excuse to root out or severely restrict the practice of polygyny in believers’ private lives. When they are reminded to fear Allah and focus on rooting out wrongdoing instead of changing the religion, they use the same argument that anti-Black racists use:
We don’t have a problem with polygyny itself. We only have a problem with what people in polygyny consistently do. And so few are living right! They get married and they can’t afford it (thus living off others unjustly). Men want more women when they’re already married (thus trying to get more women when they should just be satisfied with what they have). Then they hurt so many women and break up families with their un-Islamic (i.e. spiritually criminal) behavior.
When striving to remove systems of oppression and discrimination, such as anti-Black racism, our goal isn’t to prove that all Black people are sinless angels who are free from human imperfection and wrongdoing. Rather, the point is that Black people are full human beings who have just as much right to live freely on this earth as any another other group of people—despite their natural human flaws, occasional sinfulness, and imperfections. No amount of “bad behavior” (which, incidentally, all humans are guilty of), can justify denying Black people the right to live on this earth free from systemic discrimination, slander, and social and political harm—just as white people are privileged to do (even when they commit more horrendous crimes than those attributed to Black people).
Similarly, when we are striving to remove systems of discrimination that are targeted at believers who choose unpopular lifestyles like polygyny, no one is claiming that all people who live in polygyny are flawless angels who never fall into sin, mistakes, or wrongdoing. Rather, the point is that they are full human beings who have the right to live on this earth free from systemic discrimination, slander, and social and political harm—just as monogamous families are privileged to do (even when they commit much worse wrongdoing than what is attributed to people in plural marriages).
To fixate on the “bad behavior” of people in polygyny while ignoring similar and worse “bad behavior” of people in monogamy, is little different from fixating on the “bad behavior” of Black people while ignoring similar and worse “bad behavior” of White people—and then using this self-serving view of the world to justify restricting and harming the lives of people we dislike.
Dear ‘Good People,’ You’re Corrupt Too
Whenever the human heart is corrupt, then it is inevitable that bad behavior will result. And given that corruption exists wherever humans exist, there really is no way to remove bad behavior from the earth completely. The most we can do is reduce it as far as possible. Even the best of people can have traces of corruption in their hearts, hence the need for even the sincerest of believers to constantly repent from sin.
In a famous hadith, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “All of the children of Adam sin. But the best of those who sin are those who constantly repent” (At-Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah).
He also said: “When a slave commits a sin, a black spot appears on his heart. But if he gives it up, seeks forgiveness and repents, his heart will be cleansed, but if he repeats it, [the blackness] will increase until it overwhelms his heart. This is the Raan which Allah mentions: ‘Nay! But on their hearts is the Raan (covering of sins and evil deeds) which they used to earn’ [Al-Mutaffifeen, 83:14]” (Narrated by al-Tirmidhi, 3257; Ibn Maajah, 4234; classed as hasan by al-Albaani in Saheeh Ibn Maajah, 3422).
Therefore, whenever we think we see patterns of bad behavior in any group of people, it is safest and wisest to limit our advice to solutions that inspire the person to self-reflect and self-correct—instead of solutions that at best unjustly restrict their personal freedoms, and at worst cause us ourselves to fall into sin (or even kufr), by replacing God’s behavior codes with our own. It is sufficient for us to focus on striving to create cultures of repentance and self-correction instead of cultures of behavior control and discrimination.
This soul-centered focus allows us all to honestly reflect on our own lives and souls while striving to better ourselves daily—no matter how good we imagine ourselves to already be. This focus also serves as a reminder that no group of humans has a monopoly on goodness or corruption. Therefore, it is necessary for all of us to be beneficial reminders to each other, no matter what our individual struggles and wrongdoing may be at the moment.
In seeking to help each other navigate our human flaws and avoid wrongdoing, our success lies in submitting to God’s prescription of human behavior, instead of relying on our biased minds and hearts. This is because our human bias will inevitably inspire us to implement self-centered and self-serving behavior codes that naturally favor our own lifestyles and choices, while forbidding or severely restricting the lifestyles and choices of people we dislike.
It is indeed a part of our Creator’s infinite mercy that He has revealed to us timeless guidance that protects us from the unseen outcomes of our own biased perceptions and “blind hearts.” It is this bias and spiritual blindness that leads us to champion behavior codes that we imagine are rooting out bad behavior, but are in actuality merely causing even the best of us to harm innocent people, codify mistreatment, and destroy human lives—thus bringing ruin upon our own souls, no matter how “good” or well-intentioned we imagine ourselves to be.
The truth is that if we are indeed good people, then we would place our trust in our Creator’s guidance over our own, and then rest assured that all the blessings we are seeking through our own ideas of removing corruption from the earth will come to us through His divine help.
Our Lord tells us: “If Allah helps you, none can overcome you; and if He forsakes you, who is there after Him that can help you? And in Allah (Alone) let believers put their trust” (Ali ’Imraan, 3:160).
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.
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