“The thing about sincerity is you have to learn it, even when the world is watching. You just have to teach your heart that Allah is watching.”
—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah
Several years ago I was invited to a social gathering for Muslim women at a friend’s home. When it was time for Maghrib prayer, the hostess asked if there was anyone who could lead the Salaah because she herself did not have enough knowledge of Qur’an to do it. Though I felt in my heart an inclination speak up, I remained silent, as I felt too shy to volunteer myself.
The room grew quiet except for a few mumblings from other women saying that they too had very little knowledge Qur’an. In those passing moments, it became obvious that amidst the small group of women, almost none of us had studied Tajweed (the rules of recitation) or memorized much of anything from Qur’an.
But I myself had studied Tajweed and memorized some Qur’an. Yet still I remained silent, internally rationalizing that it was closer to humility to say nothing to others about what I knew.
When it became obvious that we were at risk of letting the time of Maghrib slip by, a woman sighed and reluctantly agreed to lead the Salaah but first warned us, “I don’t know much Qur’an myself.”
It was while standing alongside her in prayer that my heart dropped and I knew in my gut that I was wrong for what I had done. The woman who was leading the prayer did not have even basic correct pronunciation of Al-Faatihah, so much so that I was scared to say “Ameen” after her recitation. For I had no idea what we would be begging from Allah in those incorrect words. And since I felt that it was my fault that we were in this predicament, I feared that Allah would grant me that faulty prayer as a punishment for my false humility.
False Humility Is Not Sincerity
This incident happened more than fifteen years ago, and I still remember the deep feeling in my heart that I was wrong. I remember the heaviness in my gut that told me that not only had I displeased Allah, but that it also wasn’t due to sincerity—or humility—that I’d hidden what I knew.
I later learned during my studies of Qur’an and Islamic spirituality that riyaa’—which is often translated as showing off—is not only in doing a good deed for other than the pleasure of Allah. It is also in withholding yourself from doing a good deed for that same impure motivation.
In other words, just as it is displeasing to Allah to publicly do a good deed while seeking the admiration and praise of people, it is also displeasing to Allah to refrain from doing a good deed while you know it will be beneficial or necessary in that circumstance. Yet you don’t do it merely out of fear of being accused of showing off, of being “too religious,” or because you simply want to keep it a secret while there is no real necessity or benefit in doing so.
It can also be due to needing to view yourself as “humble” and sincere in your own eyes, as was the case with me remaining quiet to avoid leading the Salaah.
Don’t Be Too ‘Humble’ To Share This Deen
Given the serious sin of seeking admiration from people when doing good deeds, it is only natural that our fear of falling into riyaa’ should motivate us to keep secret as many good deeds as possible—especially when there is no apparent benefit or necessity in making our good deeds known to others.
However, this secrecy in itself does not guarantee us protection from falling into the sin of riyaa’. It is possible that we are doing good deeds privately with the secret hope that others will one day admire us for our modesty and humility should our “secret righteousness” ever somehow become revealed. It is also possible that we are doing deeds privately because it feeds the kibr (sinful pride) in our heart that tells us that we are better than other Muslims, particularly the ones we look down on for publicizing some of their good deeds.
While it is certainly safest as a general rule to keep your good deeds secret, ultimately riyaa’ itself has nothing to do with whether or not a deed is kept secret or made public. Allah makes this point clear in the Qur’an when He discusses the good deed of giving charity, saying what has been translated to mean: “And those who remain patient, seeking their Lord’s Countenance, establish Salaah, and spend out of that which We have bestowed on them, secretly and openly, and repel evil with good. For such there is a good end“ (Ar-Ra’ad, 13:22)
In this, Allah is letting us know that there are times that doing a good deed publicly has a greater good—and higher reward—than keeping it private. This is especially the case when authentic Islamic practice and the prophetic Sunnah are being abandoned by the people, thereby placing the greater good in doing some good deeds publicly as a way to call people back to Allah.
‘They Need To Stop Showing Off!’
It is heartbreaking that we live in a time where accusing our fellow brothers and sisters of riyaa’ has become a norm, particularly if we see believers publicizing a good deed that we ourselves would have kept quiet.
However, if we truly fear Allah and are seeking His pleasure, we should never observe the good deeds of a fellow Muslim and then accuse them of riyaa’. This accusation itself could be sinful and displeasing to Allah.
Not only does this claim cause us to potentially fall into the sin of slander, it could also result in the serious sin of commanding the evil and forbidding the good. This is especially the case if we end up creating a “religious culture” wherein believers are discouraged from sharing any good deeds publicly—not due to fear of Allah, but due to fear of us publicly shaming and humiliating them. Meanwhile, the culture of publicized sin, immorality, and wrongdoing grows widespread around us.
So while keeping our good deeds private certainly helps in striving for ikhlaas (sincerity in front of Allah), it is not a requirement from Allah in all cases, and it is not a guaranteed protection from riyaa’.
You Can’t See Riyaa’
One of the things that the Qur’an and prophetic teachings make clear is that when it comes to the sin of riyaa’—showing off or doing something for other than the pleasure of Allah—this is primarily an issue of the ghayb (unseen) more than anything else, especially when it relates to someone else falling into it. Therefore, if you sincerely wish to root out this sin, you must focus on your own heart and behavior as opposed to making claims about someone else’s lack of sincerity.
In this, there are no specific deeds that can be put in the category of riyaa’ while others are automatically sincere. Because riyaa’ is rooted in the heart, there is no deed that can be labeled as either sincere or insincere in itself. Furthermore, in the prophetic teachings, the sin of riyaa has been likened to a type of shirk that is extremely subtle. This is so much so that even the person falling into it wouldn’t perceive it any more than they would the footsteps of an ant.
In warning the believers against the hidden nature of this sin, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “Shirk among you will be more subtle than the footsteps of an ant, but I will teach you something which, if you do it, both minor and major shirk will be kept away from you. Say: Allaahumma inni a’oodhu bika an ushrika bika wa ana a’lam wa astaghfiruka lima la a’lam (O Allah, I seek refuge with You from associating anything with You knowingly, and I seek Your forgiveness for that of which I am unaware)” (Saheeh al-Jaami’, 3731; Sahih by al-Albaani)
Therefore, our only hope in rooting out this sin is in turning to Allah consistently and asking Him to purify our hearts and forgive us whenever we fall short.
Memorizing Qur’an Should Be Kept Secret?
About a week ago I shared this emotional reflection on social media after reading a post that accused memorizers of Qur’an of riyaa’ if they shared their hifdh progress online:
I’m feeling a bit heartbroken…
Earlier today I was searching on social media for some inspiration in improving my relationship with Qur’an, specifically from those who are on their hifdh journey (on the path of memorizing the Qur’an) or have already completed it. In the past few weeks, I was deeply motivated as I came across several accounts of aspiring huffaadh (memorizers of Qur’an) who were sharing their progress and struggles. Some shared their daily memorization along with a picture of the page or the actual recitation (which is so beautiful and inspiring, mashaAllah); others shared daily reminders encouraging others to never give up; others shared both. All of this really lifted my spirits and reminded me that I too could succeed on this journey, bi’idhnillah!
SubhaanAllah. It’s so beautiful and uplifting scrolling through social media and seeing a page from the Qur’an and hearing the beautiful recitation to go along with it, especially from someone striving to memorize Qur’an! It’s so heart-touching, mashaAllah.
Then I happened upon a post of someone criticizing those who shared their daily hifdh, accusing them of riyaa (i.e. showing off, being insincere, and just wanting to boast and brag), and this person said that memorizing Qur’an is not for social media…
Reading this broke my heart, as it reminded me that even in the most beautiful posts possible (that of sharing hifdh of Allah’s Book), we can be shamed, accused of evil intentions, and then be discouraged from it.
I was reminded of moments when I myself was struggling spiritually and doing the little bit of good I could muster, and if any of it happened to be in public, I was accused of doing something evil or wrong. One time this happened when I recited Qur’an to a Muslim who was very ill (and who’d told me that they loved for me to recite to them), and another Muslim who was there accused me of being arrogant for reciting Qur’an to the person. It made me feel so small and humiliated, and it made me shrink away from the company of many Muslims…
So anyway, seeing a post criticizing those who shared their hifdh progress on social media brought back all these memories. My heart hurt, as I was reminded of the endless darkness of Shaytaan’s plots in seeking to put in our hearts the worst assumption about the most beautiful things…
Yes, most of our good deeds should be kept private, but not all of them, as there is benefit for ourselves and others in doing good both secretly and openly, as Allah says: “And those who remain patient, seeking their Lord’s Countenance, establish the Salaah, and spend out of that which We have bestowed on them, secretly and openly, and repel evil with good, for such there is a good end” (13:22).
Please keep me and all the striving Muslims in your du’aa.
And please, if you see a Muslim doing something good and sharing it with others, know that they are very likely striving to be sincere and earn good deeds—not to show off or brag to others. Because really, there’s very little to brag about in this world, especially when we don’t even know what is being written for us in our Book of Deeds, and we can deceive ourselves in *any* good we do—even in private, and even in accusing *others* of showing off.
And let’s remember: Memorizing Qur’an is not an easy journey, whether it’s being kept secret so that no one knows your progress, or if you share it as an encouragement to yourself and others. In either case, may Allah accept it from us, and help us all in this journey of purifying our intentions and memorizing His Book.
your sister in faith,
• • •
Here is something I shared with the person who made the original post claiming that hifdh of Qur’an is not for social media, and (they claimed) that only reminders about Qur’an should be posted to avoid falling into riyaa’:
The Qur’an is for every part of this world, including social media. Riyaa’ is a matter of the unseen, so there’s no way to measure it based on external actions alone. Just as a person can be insincere in sharing their hifdh of Qur’an online, a person can be insincere in sharing reminders about Qur’an online. Why then is one considered insincere and the other considered praiseworthy?
There are zillions of intentions a person can have when sharing their hifdh online, and riyaa’ is only one possibility, and the worst possibility amongst them. We should strive to have husnu-dhann and assume the best about a believer.
Here are some reasons a person might share their Qur’an hifdh online while their heart is sincere:
- A direct reminder to others via actions vs. human words only to encourage others to memorize Qur’an (the same intention we have when posting reminders)
- Creating a culture of dhikr (remembrance of Allah) to combat all the evil that is posted online
- Holding oneself accountable in front of Allah via the witness of others (like we do for witnesses in worldly contracts)
…and the list goes on.
Be Careful of Pride When Seeking Humility
Our desire to root out riyaa’ should never cause us to fall into kibr—looking down on people and feeling that our approach to earning good deeds is superior to theirs. In this, we must be very careful that our efforts in sincerity and humility are not making us arrogant.
This arrogance can occur when we genuinely imagine that a person is insincere or showing off just because they are doing something publicly that we ourselves would keep private. If we are truly sincere in our own efforts to please Allah, it should make no difference to us whether another person’s approach to this same divine pleasure is different from ours.
If what they are doing truly bothers us, this could actually be a sign that we ourselves are suffering from a spiritual disease in our hearts, especially if they are committing no apparent sin. In this, we need to be mindful that our disapproval of them could actually point to us secretly harboring resentment that they are being admired for something that we feel we more rightly deserve. Yet we are bitter because no one knows about all the good we do privately that makes us more “deserving” of the praise someone else is receiving.
While it is certainly good and absolutely necessary to have our own personal boundaries in protecting our heart from corrupt intentions, this effort itself becomes corrupt when we insist that others have the same boundaries that we do. When we begin to use our own thinking and behavior as the measuring stick of everyone else’s sincerity, humility, and spirituality; then we are not only falling into the sin of kibr, we are further calling others to follow our example instead of that of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and to obey us instead of Allah. Therefore, it is we who are in most need of spiritual correction, not those we assume are “showing off.”
Actions Are By Intention
In seeking spiritual sincerity, each of us has personal boundaries for the health of our soul that are different from someone else’s. You might, for example, protect your modesty by never posting a picture or video of yourself online. However, this personal boundary, however sincere and blessed it is for your own soul, doesn’t automatically mean that anyone who posts a picture or video of himself or herself is immodest and insincere.
You might also choose to never tell others about charity you’ve given and thus donate only to charities that protect your privacy. But this doesn’t automatically mean that anyone who publicly donates to a charity is trying to show off. They could be trying to encourage others to give to a good cause, or they could be trying to revive the Sunnah of generosity. Or there could be a zillion other reasons they approach the issue differently from you while Allah still preserves the sincerity in their heart.
Similarly, some people do not share any posts, photos, or videos of going to Hajj or ‘Umrah; yet others do. This doesn’t mean their worship is insincere. It could simply mean they want to share the good news and beautiful experience with believers whom they love for the sake of Allah. And if this is what they genuinely intended, then they will be rewarded based on that intention.
In a famous hadith, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) taught us: “Verily actions are by intentions, and for every person is what he intended” (Bukhari and Muslim).
So no, every good deed announced publicly isn’t “showing off.” Actions are by intention, and some Muslims intend to speak openly about their praying, fasting, charity, and hifdh of Qur’an so that these good deeds are revived as normal amongst Muslims today.
And there are many who benefit from these reminders. For Allah says, “And remind, for indeed, the reminder benefits the believers” (Adh-Dhaariyaat, 51:55).
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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