Continuing our Ramadaan series, this post continues the book entitled “Purification of the Heart: Signs, Symptoms and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart” – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson‘s translation and commentary of Imam Muḥammad Mawlūd’s didactic poem “Matharat al-Qulub” (purification of the heart). The Imam was a 19th century Mauritanian scholar. For notes on the copyright status of the book, as well as links to purchase your own copy, please see the introductory post of the series.
Boasting & Arrogance
POEM VERSES 145–149 Boasting is counted among these peculiarities. It is defined as your praising yourself for good qualities. You should deem its vertiginous mountain as insignificant—by which I mean, of course, arrogance. [Do this] if you desire it to collapse to the ground. Do that by knowing your Lord and knowing yourself, for whoever knows these two is humbled and feels insignificant. The station of arrogance negates the station of gratitude, just as humility, by its nature, engenders gratitude. Avoid and beware of humiliation and lowliness; in fact, display pride with the affluent and arrogant one.
Imam Mawlūd speaks next about fakhr, which is the loathsome practice of boasting. Exceptionally odious is the practice of bragging about what one has not done or exerted any effort toward, like bragging about one’s ancestry and borrowing from some past nobility. Boasting is a problematic behavior that universally evokes objection and is considered a spiritual disease. No one likes a boaster, one who walks with a swank and swagger, and one who cannot be in the company of other people without speaking about himself or drawing attention to what he has done. God Himself reveals His dislike of bragging: “God does not love the arrogant and boasting ones” (QUR’AN, 31:18, 57:23). The pre-Islamic Arabs used to shout out, “I am the son of so and so!” claiming that their pedigree somehow sufficed as a mark of their status and privilege, an ethic that loomed large in their social structure. Mawlānā Rūmī composed the lines, “Be not content with stories of those who went before you. Go forth and create your own story.” Strive to be among those whom others speak of with veneration.
Imam Mawlūd mentions the force behind the culture of boasting, namely, arrogance (kibr). “Deem that mountain insignificant,” he says, “if you desire to sink it to the ground.” The word for “arrogance” in Arabic stems from a root-word signifying “growth,” either in mass or age. With arrogance, what is alluded to is glorification and aggrandizement of the self.
The most villainous beings in history were filled with arrogance and false pride: Satan, Pharaoh, the opponents of the Prophet , and many nefarious tyrants since. The Prophet warned against arrogance: “No one who has an atom’s weight of arrogance in his heart will enter Paradise.” God said, “I will divert My signs from those who show arrogance without right” (QUR’AN , 7:146). That is, God recompenses the arrogant ones by turning them away from understanding His Book, His prophets, and His signs placed all around them as well as within their own selves. God also says that He “sets a seal upon the heart of every arrogant tyrant” (QUR’AN , 40:35), and “He does not love those who wax arrogant” (QUR’AN , 16:23). One of the attributes of God, the Exalted, is that He is the Proud (al-Mutakabbir), an attribute that is reserved for Himself. It is not becoming for anyone to have any of it in his or her heart.
Justice follows every vice. When it comes to arrogance, its possessors will culminate in being the most abject people in the Hereafter; they will envy those whom they once thought to be beneath them in honor and status, those who were patient, grateful, and humble in this life. There are many passages of the Qur’an and hadith that support this.
There are different qualities and types of arrogance. The first type is when a person deems himself superior to others. Imam al- Ghazālī said, “People of knowledge are in greater danger of arrogance than anyone else”; this is because the knowledge they have attained may lead them to feelings of superiority.
The second type of arrogance is in displaying contempt and scorn towards others. Once a man saw an old woman calling to the Prophet in a boisterous manner, yet the Prophet stopped to speak with her, showing no sign of annoyance. When the man saw the Prophet’s calm reaction, he said, “Muḥammad is a man unlike the kings of other lands.” It is a marvel how some people act arrogantly because of their perceived piety, while the Prophet , “the best of creation,” remained humble.
The third type of arrogance relates to lineage. In some cultures, if one is aware of his “high birth,” he is obliged to behave nobly. The Arabs manifested this. If a man was born into a clan known for generosity, it was mandatory for him to be generous. One of the blights of many societies is racism: people feel and act superior simply because of their race. The Qur’an nullifies false claims of superiority and states that the only rank that matters relates to one’s relationship with God: “Indeed, the most honorable of you in the sight of God are the most God-fearing of you. Surely, God is all- knowing, all-aware” (QUR’AN, 49:13).
Many people who have lineage traceable to the Prophet and his family feel honored. While this indeed is an honor in itself, it is something to be venerated when one’s actions are likewise honorable. It is said, “If your actions hold you back, your lineage will not speed you up.” Imam al-Ḥaddād once said, “No person of any consequence should respect or praise an ignorant man, even if he is of noble birth and virtuous ancestry, for respecting and praising such a person in his presence may have an adverse effect on him. It may deceive him concerning God, render him neglectful of proper behavior, and distract him from gathering provision for the Hereafter.”
There are several cures for arrogance. First, we should remember our humble organic origins. As the Qur’an reminds us, every one of us is created from a drop of semen (QUR’AN, 75:37). One of the righteous forebears said, “A man carries feces between his two sides.” What is the source of arrogance for beings who carry filth within ourselves? God says, “Perished is man! How ungrateful he is! From what stuff did He create him? From a sperm drop He created him and proportioned him” (QUR’AN , 80:16–19). God also says, “Let man reflect from what he was created. He was created from an ejected fluid that issues from between the loins and the ribs” (QUR’AN , 86:5–7). Furthermore, God says, “Has there come over man a time when he was nothing remembered? We created man from sperm drop mixed in order to try him” (QUR’AN , 76:1–2). These reminders should suppress any insurgence of arrogance and conceit.
Muslims should venerate religious heroes. In studying the personalities of the Companions of the Prophet , one learns of incredibly great people who were extraordinarily humble. The illustrious repository of prophetic hadith, Abū Hurayrah , once sat in the company of another person; this man immediately moved his feet away from Abū Hurayrah out of respect for the august Companion of the Prophet . Upon noticing that, Abū Hurayrah asked, “Why did you move your feet?” The man replied, “Out of deference to you.” Abū Hurayrah responded, “For someone like me? I do not see anyone in this gathering worse than me.”
A cousin of ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib once asked him, “Who is better, you or Abū Bakr?” Imam ʿAlī answered, “Abū Bakr.” And when asked the same question about ʿUmar , he answered, “ʿUmar.” He then asked him, “What rank do you have?” Imam ʿAlī replied, “I am a Muslim among many.” Unfortunately, nowadays, people who do not even come close to the stature, knowledge, wisdom, and piety of Imam ʿAlī , nonetheless are so easily offended when they perceive others have slighted them. Furthermore, acts we perceive as humble are often attempts at attaining the mere appearance of humility.
Ibn ʿAṭā’allāh said, “If you are aware of your humility, then you are arrogant.” However, other scholars say, “If you are not like the real people, at least mimic them.” It is better to simulate humility than to be an outright arrogant man. Imam al-Ghazālī says, “If one wishes to master calligraphy, then he must go to a master calligrapher and repeat what he does.”
The fourth type of arrogance is that which is owing to beauty. The cure is to realize that beauty can be the most illusory of things. Social conditioning impacts our sense of beauty more than many would admit. However, regardless of this being ignored or not, one should ponder over why beauty could even be a cause of arrogance?
That is, how can one have an obnoxious sense of superiority for something one had nothing to do with? First of all, God is the Fashioner; it is He who gives all things their shapes and forms. Secondly, beauty does not last; it wanes, as the pressures of age and stress wear down flesh, so what remains is what one should have focused on the first place: the content of one’s character, personal beliefs, and one’s deeds.
The fifth type of arrogance is that which stems from having wealth. The affluent are notorious for showing contempt for those of lesser means. This is not to say that all wealthy people exhibit this disease. There are generous men and women who recognize the source and responsibility of wealth. However, they tend to be the exception.
The sixth type of arrogance is based on physical strength. A man once approached the Prophet and challenged him to wrestle. The Prophet agreed, and the Prophet threw him down to the ground twice! The man was astounded and declared, “I’ve never been thrown to the ground.” His arrogance had been rooted in his personal strength, which he thought none could match.
The seventh type of arrogance is due to possessing an abundance of something. An example of this is a teacher having many students and thus regarding himself as being better than the other teachers who have fewer students. The same is true with those who boast of having many friends, especially those in so-called high places.
The eighth type of arrogance is linked to having knowledge. This type of arrogance is particularly insidious, since knowledge is a greatly honorable matter. However, a knowledgeable person may become deluded into believing himself to be superior over others due to the veneration shown to him.
These various eight qualities may sow the seeds of arrogance. God created humanity and has bestowed human beings with more blessings than He has given the rest of His creation. However, blessings are coupled with responsibility. The intellectual and volitional capacities of humankind are great responsibilities. Ironically, it is these very capacities which have the potential of causing people to forget that every blessing we have is a gift from God and is something that we are responsible for. The Qur’an states,
“[God] has created death and life to test you as to which of you is best in deed” (QUR’AN, 67:2); “Have We not given [man] two eyes, a tongue, and two lips, and shown him the two highways [of good and evil]? Yet he does not attempt the steep road [of good]” (QUR’AN, 90:8–11). The steep road here is spending on orphans, relieving the distressed, and all other good actions that are difficult for the arrogant ones, as they feel that their wealth, strength, and prestige are borne of their own devices. People rejected the Prophet’s message not because they were not convinced. They knew that what the Prophet brought was the truth from God Himself, but they rejected him out of arrogance.
Many find the Muslim prayer objectionable because of its postures of humility and awe before God. What they struggle with is not merely the postures but their aversion to submit to God, being His servant. People have difficulty with that, claiming that they are “free.” Astonishingly, these same “free” people are in bondage to their whims and passions.
Imam Mawlūd says that the key to avoiding or removing this disease is to know yourself, your origins, and your ultimate return. The Prophet said, “I am the best of the children of Adam and I am not boasting.” His honor was entirely based on his servitude to God, the Exalted—not on wealth, lineage, power, or authority. Whoever is humbled for the sake of God, God elevates in rank. Haughtiness and gratitude cannot coexist in one vessel. God increases in goodness those who are grateful. The station of arrogance invites only humiliation.
Imam Mawlūd says humility, by nature, leads to gratitude, for when one is humble before God, the Exalted, only then does one see the vast mercy God bestows upon His creation, even upon liars and disbelievers.
Imam Mawlūd’s conclusion to this discussion touches upon the Islamic ethic of moderation (wasaṭiyyah). While humility is a praiseworthy virtue, if it is carried out excessively, it results in abasement. According to some classical Christian theological paradigms, abasement is praised, but that is not the case in Islam. Imam Mawlūd calls excessive humiliation here dhul, and this word is not used in the same sense here in which he uses it at the beginning of his poem, where he speaks of dhul as humility required for proper courtesy with God. In this context here, he is referring to abject humiliation before people. It is similar to the abasement that God, the Exalted, afflicted upon past communities because of their flagrant rejection of God, derision of His apostles, and mockery of His laws. Abject humiliation is disapproved of, even in the face of tribulation. Those who face tests with dignity and patience are praised. A hadith states, “A believer never humiliates himself.” Hence, humility is different from humiliation. Having dhul with respect to God is different from dhul with respect to creation. Imam ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jilānī once said, “All the doors to God are crowded except for one: the door of humility and humbleness.” Having humbleness is one of the secrets of success, though it is hard on the soul. It is said, “Among the most noble things of this world is a rich man who is humble.”