Gregarious people are sociable individuals who enjoy interacting with other people and participating in activities and group functions. These are people who take initiative in social situations, extending friendship and opportunities for contact and relationship. In contrast are individuals who are more introspective. These people are reflective, enjoying the calm serenity of home and feeling completely comfortable when alone. This solitude allows them the opportunity to experience silence and the freedom from constant stimulation found in the outside world.
The best model is one of balance and moderation. In the Qur’an we read, “It is Allah Who has sent down the Book in truth, and the balance….” (42:17). In fact, maturity is a balancing of all things in one’s life, following a middle course between extremes. Muslims are called “ummat-al-wasat,” community of the middle way (Qur’an 2:143). For example, the middle way is being generous rather than stingy or extravagant, the two opposing extremes. Or being humble rather than self-abasing or self-glorifying. Or being nurturing to one’s children rather than withholding and harsh or overly indulgent and permissive. So, being outgoing is balanced by being inward-looking. This middle way is one which recognizes the importance of both.
With regard to being sociable, being with the people, it was narrated by Abu Musa that the Prophet (s) said, “A faithful believer to a faithful believer is like the bricks of a wall, enforcing each other.” While (saying that) the Prophet clasped his hands, by interlacing his fingers (Bukhari). The Qur’an says in this regard, “O you who believe, practice sabr [patience and perseverance] with constancy, and hold together firmly; and love and fear Allah so that you may be successful” (3:200). “Hold together firmly” refers to the importance of community in Islam, so that believers are to one another “like bricks of a wall,” helping, supporting, and engaging with one another in society so that there is mutual caring, providing, and protecting of all the members of the ummah.
On the other hand, we find the importance of being introspective. To look into one’s internal state — including thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, values, and motives— is the practice of self-scrutiny or self-examining. This practice requires a willingness to enter into silence where contemplation takes place.
Entering the Silence
In order to be contemplative or reflective, which is the foundation for self-scrutiny, one must be willing to enter the silence. It is in the silence that the agitations in our own hearts become audible and demand attention. Whatever pain, anger, resentment, fear, self-pity, guilt, and so on — all rise to the surface of our consciousness in the silence. In fact, we are meant to face these emotions. And it is in practicing silence that vast realms of wisdom are found. Waheeb ibn Al-Ward said, “We were told that wisdom has ten parts and nine of them are in silence” (Ihya Ulum al-Deen, Al-Ghazali). Prophet Muhammad (s) said, “Indeed silence is wisdom, but very few practice it” (al-Bayhaqi and Ibn Hibban). He (s) also said, “Shall I tell you the easiest and richest form of worship and the most comfortable for the body?” They answered, ”Yes, O messenger of Allah.” And he said ”Silence and good character” (Abi Dharr in Tabaqat Al-Muhaddetheen). Further, the Prophet (s) said, “Whoever is pleased to be whole and pure, let him practice silence” (Ibn Abi al-Dunya and al-Bayhaqi). Jaber ibn Sumarah (r) said, “I used to accompany the Prophet and he was silent most of the time” (Ahmad and al-Tabarani).
Practicing silence is the way to examine and assess the self. This is the way of cultivating and strengthening al-nafs al-lawammah, usually translated as the self-reproaching soul. In Islamic teachings there are three states of the self or soul. The lowest state is al-nafs al-ammarah, the unregenerate soul, the soul which seeks satisfaction in the lower earthly desires. This state is one in which is there is little self-awareness, places little value on the things that endure — the spiritual things — but rather values the fleeting enjoyments. The self-reproaching soul, al-nafs al-lawammah, is the second state. This soul is conscious of sin and the misguidance of the ego. It is vigilant about its speech and actions, strives to resist all immoderate or harmful influences or temptations. This soul strives to purify itself and hopes for salvation on the Day of Judgment. This is the level of soul where self-examining takes place. The third and highest state is al-nafs al-mutmainnah, the soul enjoying serenity of conscience, peace of mind, tranquility of heart. This is a state of complete satisfaction, anticipating the ultimate bliss of the Hereafter.
The Self-reproaching Soul
At the level of the self-reproaching soul one becomes aware of, and strives to counter, all the internal and external allurements to moral and spiritual degradation. The meaning of reproach is “to find fault with, to blame, to censure.” But Islam is the middle way, the way of balance and proper proportion. So, we are not looking to beat ourselves down, to hate ourselves, or live in a guilt-laden way. We are tasked with being honest with ourselves, to come again and again to our deeper thoughts and feelings with a commitment to growth and taking full responsibility for our lives, our choices, our actions. So, we learn to be alone with ourselves, yearning to know ourselves in a deep and genuine way. We become more willing to ask ourselves probing questions which shed light on where we are on the journey of transformation, in what ways we need to strengthen ourselves, what shortcomings we can work on.
To fortify one’s dedication to self-scrutiny and operating on a daily basis from the self-reproaching soul, it is beneficial to ask oneself challenging questions and reflect on the answers. A good practice is to spend some time, even ten minutes, each night before sleeping, to review the day’s activities in light of one or more self-scrutinizing questions. Below are some examples of questions that can be used. In addition, it’s great to add your own questions to the list.
- Do I live each day with conscious intention to surrender more fully to Allah SWT?
- Did I take pause today to feel wonder and awe at the countless rich and beautiful elements of the creation?
- Do I seek knowledge with fascination and joy?
- Have I explored my thoughts to search out any self-deceits, biases, hypocrisies, or self-limiting beliefs?
- Did I practice patience today?
- Did I treat my family members today with respect, kindness, and tolerance?
- Did I use my time wisely today?
- Did I discipline my thoughts today?
- Was I a good listener today?
- Did I consciously strive to increase my eman today?
- Did I choose to perceive everyone I interacted with today in the most favorable and charitable light?
- Was I thankful to Allah SWT today for all the positive things in my life?
Then I can ask myself further…
- Do I think that I am right all or most of the time when there is a disagreement, that the other person is usually or always wrong?
- Do I demand of my friends, or spouse, or children what I have not practiced?
- Do I conjecture about other people’s motives?
- Do I wear my emotional wounds as adornment as if being a victim accords special status?
- Do I feel self-righteous and resentful when dealing with others’ shortcomings, as if in some way that ruins my mood, my balance, my life?
- Do I live in the past or the future, closed to the meaningfulness and joy of the present moment?
- Do I hyper-focus on my worries, fears, and doubts?
- Am I aware of any destructive habits I have that should be worked on?
- Do I pause before reacting and remember that there are consequences to my actions?
To illustrate the power and beauty of self-scrutiny, consider this story. There was a man who always prayed his daily prayers in the mosque. In fact, he was so devoted that he always arrived early so that he would be in the first row at the time of prayer. One day he was late, so he prayed in the second row. He felt embarrassed that people saw him in the second row. When reflecting later that evening upon his experience of feeling embarrassed, he realized that some of the satisfaction he felt when he prayed in the first row was from his ego, due to the people seeing him in the first row and their admiring him for it! This is very honest and exacting self-scrutiny on his part.
The only way to cultivate this quality of self-examining is to spend time in the calm quietude of reflection about one’s behavior, character, and life. If this then is balanced by a sociable, community-minded aspect of living, then we can experience the benefits and blessings of being both outgoing and inward looking.