“It doesn’t matter how little or how much you have. In the end, all that will matter is what you did with it—and what you allowed it to do to your heart.”
—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah
When my daughter was around five years old, I took her to a doctor’s appointment with a Muslim doctor I’d found listed in the local business directory. As soon as my daughter and I walked into the examination room, the doctor grimaced and turned her face away from us. “You shouldn’t make her wear all of that,” the doctor said us in disgust, referring to my daughter’s hijab. “It’s oppressive.”
“She likes to wear it,” I explained. “I don’t make her.”
“All these women walking around in hijab feel like they’re all pious,” the doctor continued, wrinkling her nose. “But what good are they doing in the world? You can be a good person without wearing all of that.”
Taken aback, I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t expected this line of conversation when I’d booked my daughter’s appointment.
Grimacing, the doctor went on, “I don’t pray or wear hijab, but I do a lot more good than all these pious Muslims. Every year, I travel abroad to do medical work for free in poor countries. How many of these women in hijab do that? How many of these Muslims who pray do that? I’m better than they are.”
When the doctor noticed my uncomfortable expression, she said sarcastically, “Oh yes, and I’ll burn in Hellfire and have my skins roasted over.”
Her words sent chills down my spine. I left that doctor’s appointment unsettled. The way she had spoken of Hellfire as if it were a joke made my stomach churn. Yet she genuinely imagined she was better than the Muslims who took the reality of the Hereafter very seriously.
Our Worldly Gardens and Pride
Sometimes when I’m doing my Friday reading of Al-Kahf (“The Cave,” Surah 18 in Qur’an), I think of this doctor, particularly when I’m reading the part about the man who had been given two beautiful gardens. This blessing filled his heart with so much pride that it made him forget his Lord.
Allah says what has been translated to mean (18:32-42):
“And present to them an example of two men: We granted to one of them two gardens of grapevines, and We bordered them with palm trees and placed between them [fields of] crops. Each of the two gardens produced its fruit and did not fall short thereof in anything. And We caused to gush forth within them a river. And he had fruit, so he said to his companion while he was conversing with him, ‘I am greater than you in wealth and mightier in [numbers of] men.’ And he entered his garden while he was unjust to himself. He said, ‘I do not think that this will perish – ever. And I do not think the Hour will occur. And even if I should be brought back to my Lord, I will surely find better than this as a return.’
“His companion said to him while he was conversing with him, ‘Have you disbelieved in He who created you from dust and then from a sperm-drop and then proportioned you [as] a man? But as for me, He is Allah , my Lord, and I do not associate with my Lord anyone. And why did you, when you entered your garden, not say, “What Allah willed [has occurred]; there is no power except in Allah“? Although you see me less than you in wealth and children, It may be that my Lord will give me [something] better than your garden and will send upon it a calamity from the sky, and it will become a smooth, dusty ground, Or its water will become sunken [into the earth], so you would never be able to seek it.’
“And his fruits were encompassed [by ruin], so he began to turn his hands about [in dismay] over what he had spent on it, while it had collapsed upon its trellises, and said, ‘Oh, I wish I had not associated with my Lord anyone.’”
We’re Better Than They Are?
For the doctor, the worldly “garden” of charitable medical work made her feel superior to all other Muslims, even those who prayed five times each day. But what is it that makes us feel superior to others? As disturbing as the doctors sentiments are, this sort of kibr is not uncommon to the human heart. The truth is that unhealthy pride is something that any human being can fall into. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll likely find traces of kibr in our own hearts. Thus, we have to be in a state of constant self-reflection and daily purification of our souls to guard against this disease taking over our hearts.
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him said), “No one who has an atom’s weight of pride (kibr) 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).
Nearly all of us have something that we take pride in and that can make us feel better than others. Each of us also has the unhealthy human tendency to reject the truth, especially when it comes from someone we dislike, or when accepting that truth means that we have to face some painful truths about ourselves. For this reason, it is crucial that we are in the daily habit of guarding our hearts and souls from this destructive disease.
It Could Be a “Good Cause”
Ironically, pride often takes over our hearts while we’re aligning ourselves to a good cause. We can see an obvious example of this in the doctor declaring her superiority over practicing Muslims due to her dedication to the good cause of charitable medical work. However, falling into unhealthy pride is not always this apparent.
Often our unhealthy pride is manifested in the way we call others to a good cause, even if we don’t openly claim to be better than they are, and even if we don’t excuse ourselves from obeying Allah. In these cases, we can see signs of kibr in how we treat those who we feel aren’t doing enough to support the good cause, or in how far we go in insisting that others take a very specific action in addressing a social or political problem.
When our hearts are afflicted with kibr, we become blinded by self-righteous conviction until we begin to dictate the lives of others in the name of solving a social or political problem. We do this even though we have no idea of the ghayb, the unseen realities that Allah has decreed in this person’s life. Furthermore, in our blind conviction, we fail to see that there are multiple ways to address a problem, even in ways we ourselves cannot perceive.
More significantly, in our blind conviction, we fail to realize that Allah has placed on no human soul the obligation to solve every social and political problem that exists on the face of the earth, even those that affect our lives personally. It’s simply not humanly possible. Allah says what has been translated to mean, “On no soul does Allah place a burden greater than it can bear…” (Al-Baqarah, 2:286). It is unfortunate, however, that we place these burdens on ourselves and others. When we are faced with social and political trials in this world, the most that any of us can do is the best we can based on the knowledge and abilities that Allah has given us.
If Allah gifts us with the worldly blessing of knowledge and ability in addressing a social, religious, or political problem, it is our duty in front of Him to strive our level best to do what we can and humbly share with others how they too can help. However, under no circumstances should we dictate that a person either understands or addresses the problem in the exact same manner that we do.
In reminding myself of this, I wrote this note in my journal:
Never ever—and I mean never ever—guilt someone into speaking up or taking action based on your convictions. Even with the clearest and most obvious truth in the world, God tells us, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). If this is God’s justice in allowing humans choice in following His way of life, how arrogant it is for us as humans to have less humility in calling to our own.
Once upon a time, activism meant standing up and giving a voice to the silenced and oppressed. But today it too often means standing up and oppressing the silent.
No one is ever obligated to speak without knowledge, and only the most ignorant and arrogant amongst us would demand that they must.
If you know something that others don’t, then here are two helpful rules of thumb:
- Share, don’t shame.
- Educate, don’t humiliate.
Then trust that God will inspire the hearts of those whom you need by your side in order to triumph over oppression in the end. Victory is not attained through numbers. It is attained through patience, sincerity, and adhering to truth.
Share, Don’t Shame
If there’s anything I learned in all my travels and being in the company of the religious, the political, and the activist, it is this: Those who respect people most, benefit people most.
Unless our only goal is to show how superior we are to everyone else, then there really is no point in shaming and humiliating people into taking a certain course of action or following a certain point of view. Conveying the actual, real life benefits of a particular approach or stance is more than sufficient—as opposed to calling people sinful, lazy, or ignorant if they don’t do what we think they should.
In the end, it is far more beneficial to share beneficial information instead of shaming and insulting people—if paving the road to a better world is truly our goal.
Is Your Pride Inspiring Harassment?
When we don’t properly understand our obligation to our Creator on earth, even when we are in the midst of furthering a good cause, we fail in our duty to our souls, and we fail in our duty to our fellow brothers and sisters in faith and humanity. This failure is manifested in the kibr we exhibit when we rejoice on our own “worldly garden” of community work, political activism, and religious knowledge; while our self-righteous conviction leads us to harass, humiliate, and even slander anyone we feel isn’t “stepping up” like we feel they should. Meanwhile, we are unaware that in our feeling superior to others, we are failing to “step up” to the spiritual work that our own souls need.
Whenever our internal spiritual work is lacking or abandoned, we often resort to harassment and cruelty in guilting people into doing what we feel they should; but we label it “standing up for justice.” When we are reminded to be conscious of Allah in respecting the personal and spiritual boundaries of others, the kibr in our hearts incites us to refuse to accept any critique or disagreement. In fact, we might even accuse the person of “hiding behind religion” as an excuse to abandon a good cause.
You are not always on the side of right. This is a personal note I wrote to myself as a reminder to my own soul, and I think it’s something that each of us should keep in mind—especially if we are involved in “necessary” social, political, or religious work. In this, it is very important to remember that success is not achieved through only one route. I reflect on this point in my journal:
Once upon a time, community work and activism was about encouraging every person to do his or her part in making the society a better place; and everyone had a role to play, whether it was the mother in her home, the father feeding his family, the preacher on the pulpit, or the protester in a peaceful march. No work was devalued, as activists understood that a community is made up of necessary parts of a complex puzzle—and each piece was respected, as both common sense and wisdom would demand.
Today, much “activism” has become a culture of public shaming, following the faults of others, and making public demands on people’s private decisions—and linking innocent people to the crimes of oppressors, for no other transgression than not fulfilling a random activist’s narrow definition of “supporting the cause.”
Other than witnessing the beauty of true activism amidst this troubling trend, the only thing that gives me peace in the face of this travesty of “social justice” is the reminder that there is a Day of Judgment, and the Master of that Day will call each and every one of us to account for the wrongs we inflict upon each other.
Beware of Pride in Your Heart
When we think of the destructive sin of kibr, we so often think of obvious examples like that of the arrogant doctor looking down on practicing Muslims, or Iblis refusing to prostrate to Adam (peace be upon him). However, we rarely reflect on how sinful pride will manifest in our own lives, especially if we think of ourselves as “conscious” citizens or activists calling to social, political, or religious improvement. In reflecting on the dangers of kibr overtaking our hearts while we are unaware, I wrote this note in my 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 Harass the People of the Cave
Unfortunately, it is in the realm of addressing political and societal problems that we so often fall into kibr and forget our Lord and our own souls, as we make specific demands on others. In this, we forget that the Qur’an and the prophetic example have offered ample pathways to solving political and social dilemmas, especially when the believers are living in a state of political weakness and religious oppression.
Therefore, it is not our right to demand that any believing soul follow our chosen pathway to political and social improvement, no matter how convinced we are that we are on the side of right. As a reminder to my own soul and my brothers and sisters in faith, I wrote this note in my journal:
What right do you have to harass the people of the cave—when Allah praises them in Qur’an? On whose authority do you speak ill of those who retreat from corrupt social and political systems and opt not to participate at all—out of fear for their souls? Are you certain that those you call “lazy” or “ignorant” are not written down as beloved to Allah? Were the youth who retreated to the cave lazy and ignorant—or were they wise and faithful?
No, not every wise and faithful servant of Allah who is praised in His Book rushed to the shelter of a cave to worship Him. But the ones we are instructed to read about every Friday did retreat from a corrupt society over which they had no control. So consider carefully the Divine reason for this weekly reading before you harass those who only wish to worship their Lord in peace.
In the Qur’anic chapter entitled Al-Kahf (18:10-16), Allah says what has been translated to mean:
“[Mention] when the youths retreated to the cave and said, ‘Our Lord, grant us from Yourself mercy and prepare for us from our affair right guidance.’ So We cast [a cover of sleep] over their ears within the cave for a number of years. Then We awakened them that We might show which of the two factions was most precise in calculating what [extent] they had remained in time.
“It is We who relate to you, [O Muhammad], their story in truth. Indeed, they were youths who believed in their Lord, and We increased them in guidance. And We made firm their hearts when they stood up and said, ‘Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth. Never will we invoke besides Him any deity. We would have certainly spoken, then, an excessive transgression. These, our people, have taken besides Him deities. Why do they not bring for [worship of] them a clear authority? And who is more unjust than one who invents about Allah a lie?’
“[The youths said to one another], ‘And when you have withdrawn from them and that which they worship other than Allah, retreat to the cave. Your Lord will spread out for you of His mercy and will prepare for you from your affair facility.’”
Identifying Your Worldly Gardens
What worldly gardens are you rejoicing in? Your marriage and children? Your wealth and success? Your knowledge and intelligence? Your beauty and status? The “good cause” you are dedicating your life to—and insisting that everyone else joins in, lest you “expose” them for being inferior and uncaring?
Or perhaps there is some other blessing of God you are taking credit for?
Whatever it is that is causing our hearts to forget that we were created from dirt and will return to it—and will be called to account for every blessing we enjoyed in this world—let us reflect on what we have in common with the man in Al-Kahf who felt superior to his companion due to what Allah had given him.
And let us also reflect on what we should have in common with the youth in the cave—as well as with the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) and his companions.
“We’re nothing like them!” we so often say when we speak of the Prophet, his Companions, and other righteous believers praised in Qur’an and prophetic narrations. But why are we so eager to separate ourselves from them, when Allah Himself points to them as our example? And when Allah commands us in every obligatory Salaah to pray to be on the Straight Path that they adhered to in their lives?
What then do you think is the purpose of their example, and of this prayer?
Do we really imagine that our brothers and sisters who preceded us couldn’t possibly relate to the challenges we face today? Do we really imagine that we can find absolutely nothing in their lives to help us understand our own?
Yet we, like they did before us, face the believers’ timeless struggle of holding on to the truth while nearly everything around us—from our nafs to the oppressive society in which we live—seeks to pull us away from Allah’s Straight Path.
Or do we rush to separate ourselves from their faithful existence because, deep down, we know our dilemmas are no different? Yet the claim of separation allows us to ignore (or deny) our religious obligations, claiming we live in “modern times”? When in fact, every era of people lived in modern times, as there is no other possibility for those who are alive during a period in time.
I wonder then what we think we are supposed to learn—other than history—from reading about the youth of the cave, about the plight of those persecuted by Pharaoh, about the hijrah from Makkah to Abyssinia and then Madinah? And about every generation calling its people to Allah.
What do you think, dear soul? Are these merely “tales of the ancients”? Or is possible that, within these stories, there are solutions that our Lord wants us to implement today?
If so, then perhaps the “worldly garden” that is inciting within us kibr can instead inspire within us emaan—sincere, true faith—such that we use this blessing as a means to support ourselves and our brothers and sisters on the path to Allah’s Pleasure and the everlasting garden of Paradise.
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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