Imagine having aballoon with you wherever you go in life, and that balloon symbolizes your ego.
Every time someone interacts with you or every time you react in any particular situation or circumstance, there’s an opportunity for the balloon to inflate, remain as is, or deflate.Someone advises you to fear Allah and, being a believer,your balloon deflates, whereas for someone who doesn’t believe in God and sees believers as foolish, that very same advice causes their balloon to inflate significantly. Someone cuts you off while driving – how do you react? Do you rant for three minutes about bad drivers; or do you remain calm and remember Allah.With the first reaction, the ego inflates; with the second, it deflates.
An inflated ego connotes a sense of superiority, arrogance, and self-importance. Humility shrinks the ego down to proper size so that a healthy sense of self remains intact and able to navigate the world and one’s daily living;but the healthy self, infused with humility, knows that it is prone to weaknesses and shortcomings and only with the help and guidance of Allah does he or she attain to goodness and achieve an elevated rank, one which is yielded from righteousness.
In Islam, the concept of tawaadu’ (humility) is unique in its various facets and components. To understand the Islamic virtue of humility, we begin with its opposite — pride.In the famous narration of Ibn Mas’ud, it is reported that Prophet Muhammad (s) said: “No one will enter Paradise in whose heart is an atom’s weight of arrogance and no one will enter Hell in whose heart is an atom’s weight of faith.” A man said,“What if I like my clothes to look nice and my shoes to look nice?” He (s) said,“Verily Allah loves beauty; rather pride/arrogance means rejecting the truth and looking down on people” (Tirmidhi).
What Is Humility and What Is the Harmful Form of Pride
Humility is having a modest view of oneself and one’s own importance. It encompasses traits such as being courteous and respectful, and unpretentious about one’s rank and accomplishments. In contrast, the harmful form of pride is an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance, merit, or standing in relation to other people.
In the above hadith, Prophet Muhammad (s) made it clear that simple pride like wanting to be presentable in one’s dress is not what is being condemned. One can take simple and straightforward pride in good and beneficial things. This simple pride is connected to self-respect and a proper sense of human dignity.
The harmful form of pride is destructive and can lead to envy, unfavorable presumptions about others,greed, dishonesty, and self-righteous anger, among other vices. It oftentimes leads to the rejection of truth (as mentioned in the hadith), including truth about religious matters. We can also look at the interesting distinction between pride (kibr) and conceit (‘ujb). While pride manifests in relation to other people, such as feeling good about oneself by looking down on others and considering them inferior, conceit can manifest without others. Conceit is when someone finds pleasure in a quality within themselves without associating the quality with the generosity and guidance from God or contribution from any source external to himself. In other words, they believe the quality to be completely dependent on their innate stature and actions and efforts, rather than recognizing that goodness and high rank, based on one’s degree of righteousness, come from God and His guidance. Hence, conceit leads to a type of self-delusion, and in fact it is likely this very ignorance of true values is what leads to pride. Feeling prideful stands as a barrier to feeling and cultivating humility.
Humility in Relation to Other People
Al-Hasan al-Basri said, “Do you know what humility is? Humility is that you leave your house and you do not meet any Muslim but that you view him as better than yourself.” This is in contrast to the tendency of some people to shine spotlights on other people’s sins or shortcomings while ignoring his or her own.In the hadith of Ibn Hibban, the Prophet reportedly said, “One of you sees the speck in his brother’s eye while he forgets the log in his own eye.” We should note that to view any Muslim as “better than yourself” is not meant to diminish one’s own worth or lead to self-abasement. It is meant as a warning to avoid any sense of superiority or diminishing of others. Thus, as Ibn al-Qayyim stated, humility is “to avoid seeing yourself as superior to others or having claims over others, but rather to see others as superior to you and as having claims over you” (The Book of the Soul).
To look down on others is to be prideful and arrogant. Looking down on others can manifest in any area of life, as it is the ego’s compulsion to compare oneself to others and find ways, often self-deceiving, to puff up the self in relation to other people. Looking down on others might result, for example,from observing another person’s public sins or lack of religious practice (externally, at least). An example is when a woman sees her Muslim sister in the mosque with an incomplete hijab.If she sees her sister as beneath her, religiously, then she has revealed some arrogance in herself. Instead, she should see her sister as struggling, perhaps learning, even possibly a new Muslim, and think good of her.She can then assess how to advise her. Additionally, she should thank Allah for guiding her to a good deed, thank Allah for concealing her own sins, and assume that the other sister perhaps has other good much greater than her own. This approach does not overlook the moral judgment of an action – that it is either right or wrong – but rather it combines recognizing the action for what it is, with humility and good assumptions about the individual, all while figuring out the wisest approach to advising her fellow sister.
Imam Ahmad was asked about enjoining good and forbidding evil, “How should one enjoin it?” Ahmad said, “One should enjoin good with gentleness and humility. If they make him hear what he dislikes,he should not get angry such that he wants to avenge himself.”Thus, the one who is giving advice must not lose his/her sense of humility when their feedback is rejected, or when they hear insults while enjoining the good. A real test of humility and sincerity in that case would be to hear such insults and continue advising people, rather than seek revenge on behalf of one’s ego.
Oftentimes, a Muslim may struggle to hold a number of distinct matters in their mind at the same time: a) the moral judgment of a deed; b) the erring individual’s circumstances [e.g., perhaps it is unintentional or due to ignorance]; c) the observer’s need to approach all things with humility; d) the role of sincere advice; and e) praising Allah for guiding the observer so that he or she does not fall into that same error. All of these can be taken into account in any situation; consideration of all these aspects enhances one’s perspective and increases humility,all while upholding virtue in society and gently advising one another towards truth and virtue.
Humility in Relation to Pursuit of Knowledge
Humility is crucial in the pursuit of knowledge. Gaining beneficial knowledge is a blessing from God, and the one who pursues it for the sake of showing off, to argue with others, to put others down, to seem “more knowledgeable,” is committing a major sin, and the benefit and reward for that pursuit is rejected. Seeking knowledge should be sincere and the end result should be a positive transformation in one’s character and an increase in his or her own state of humility. If the pursuit of knowledge is not leading to increased humility, then the seeker of knowledge should reassess his or her intentions and thoughts.
Humility in Relation to Authority and Power
Either humility or pride often comes to the surface when an individual or group assumes a position of authority or acquires power through wealth, influential position, or other means. This might apply to a local organization, an Islamic Center, a government position, a corporate position, or anywhere else in society. Power and authority, in Islam, is a responsibility and a test of servitude. Leadership is servitude to the people, all while recognizing the major accountability that comes with the position – an accountability before God on the Day of Judgment.
Humility in Relation to Recognizing and Accepting the Truth
One of the obvious problems with pride is that it prevents one from accepting the truth, particularly religious truth. Remember that Iblees, the Devil, rejected the command of God and became arrogant, and thus his arrogance prevented him from seeing (and doing) the best course of action (i.e., submission to God and the Truth). Adam and Hawaa, on the other hand, were reprimanded by God for their transgression and they resorted immediately to humble repentance. They said, “Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If You do not forgive us and have mercy on us, we will certainly be among the losers” (Qur’an 7:23). On a daily basis, we experience manifestations and fluctuations in our own degree of humility or pride, and we ask Allah to guide us consistently to humility and its benefits,and to protect us from the harm of pride.
“Verily, for all men and women who have surrendered themselves unto God, and all believing men and believing women, and all truly devout men and truly devout women, and all men and women who are true to their word, and all men and women who are patient in adversity, and all men and women who humble themselves… for them God has readied forgiveness of sins and a mighty reward” (Qur’an33:35).