Ghazali on envy. The causes and cure of Hasad
Imam Ghazali’s book, Kitaab Al-Arba’in Fi Usul ad-Din, ‘The Forty Principles of the Religion,’ which he wrote before his death, is a summary of Ihya Ulumuddin, and his life’s works and thoughts.
Envy is a fire that devours your account
Envy is the fourth disease which effects the heart. The Prophet (peace be on him):
Hasad eats your good deeds like fire eats wood. (Abu Dawood)
This is an instantly striking image, as we can all visualise how rapaciously fire consumes wood. It is therefore instantly obvious to us envy burns up the good deeds (hasanat) in our bank account in the same way.
The image is perturbing, as we all know how much effort goes into earning those rewards in the first place. Whether it is through salah, fasting, or paying zakat and charity or tolerating difficulties with forbearance, these deeds were accumulated after a great deal of effort and sabr on our part. Moreover these savings are not just cash, but the currency we take to the akhirah. The last thing we want to see our hard-earned deeds go up in flames, leaving us destitute.
Envy is self destructive
This graphic image is typical of the teaching style of the Prophet (peace be on him) who would often grab the attention of his audience by capturing their imagination, hearts and minds. In this one concise hadith, the Prophet (peace be on him) has penetrated our psyche and made us alarmed at the damage we can do to ourselves.
It is hard to eliminate envy but it is possible.
Every disease needs a cure
The Prophet (peace be on him) said that the hasad afflicted previous nations before us. He calls it a disease (da’), which is the opposite of dawa (cure). If hasad is a disease, it means we need to we need to prevent ourselves from catching it and when we have it, we need to seek the cure, otherwise it will affect our well-being and harm us. Obviously it is better to prevent it, than to catch it in the first place and then need spiritual medicine.
What is hasad?
Envy is to wish that someone loses something they have. It is wanting no one to have that favour, or wanting that favour for yourself. Or wanting the one who has a particular favour to be afflicted by something bad. The shariah prohibits this in different verses in the Quran.
The hasad of the People of the Book and Quraysh cost them their akhirah
The first verse in which this is mentioned is in Surat al Baqarah, when Allah Almighty mentions that the People of the Book did not believe the message because they envied the fact that it came to the Arabs. They wanted the Jewish tribes to receive it, so they were not interested. Meanwhile, though the message came to the Arabs, they also rejected it, because the Arab leaders were envious that it had came to the tribe of Bani Hashim rather than their own tribe.
Envy can be fatal. These leaders ruined their akhirah out of their envy. Had the message come to their tribe they would have believed, but they could not tolerate the fact it came to someone else.
Being dissatisfied with Allah’s distribution
In their minds they were objecting to Allah’s choice. They felt they deserved it, but who were they to make this assumption? It is not up to us to decide who is blessed with what favour. If your neighbour has a better car than yours, what makes you think you deserve it more than him? It is not up to us, but u[ to Allah to divide His favours. When you think you are more worthy of a favour than while you may not realise it, you are indirectly feeling dissatisfied with how Allah distributed His gifts, whether that is wealth, status or beauty.
Can you know that you have an evil eye?
Some people know that they have an evil eye. I once watched an interview with a woman who was describing her power to inflict the evil eye on people. She rattled of a list of people whom she had envied, for instance she envied her friend’s shoes, and caused her to fall over, break her heels and injure herself. She rattled of a long list of injuries and damage she had cause. I was horrified that she could be so cruel and that she had done nothing to cure herself of this.
There was also a case where one lady person who was well known for her evil eye, so a judge tested her, and then ordered her to cover up her eye. It may sound like an exaggeration, but it is scary.
Envy is not often easy to conceal. You can often see it on people’s faces when you have something new. They do not appear pleased for you and you have to remind them to say ‘mashallah’.
When can you envy?
If you wish to have something someone else has, but do not wish them to lose what they have, that is permitted. For instance, if you are impressed by someone’s knowledge or wealth, and you want to have knowledge as they do, you can ask Allah to provide you with the same understanding or wealth which He gave them, and ask Him to enable you to use it for His sake. You should not wish that person loses their favours or receive any harm. That is strictly prohibited.
When can you wish for someone to lose their gifts?
Interestingly, Ghazali mentioned the occasion on which it is allowed to wish that somebody loses the favours that Allah gave them and that is when that favour is in the hands of an oppressor and he is using it to spread evil. Then you wish for him to lose that favour, so that the evil ceases. For instance, the oppressor may use his wealth, power and status to hire people to persecute others, so you can wish for him to lose these favours. This is very deep understanding. It is not a licence to wish evil to anyone.
What is the root of envy?
If someone is arrogant, they cannot bear others to have more than them in wealth, beauty, status, intellect etc. This is the example of Iblis who was jealous of Adam. It is the first reason behind envy.
[Allah] said, “What prevented you from prostrating when I commanded you?” [Satan] said, “I am better than him. You created me from fire and created him from clay.” (7:12)
If you have a bad relationship with someone, for instance you had a fight with them, you feel animosity towards them, and do not wish them well, to the extent that you may not want them to have any good thing, and want to see them begging in the street. This is wrong, because the believer should always wish good for everyone.
Anas bin Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) – narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said:
“None of you will believe until you love for your brother what you love for yourself.” (Bukhari and Muslim)
3. Ego and selfishness
It might be that you barely know the people you envy, let alone have any dealings with them or arguments, so it is not personal. However out of your ego you resent what people have and only want goodness for yourself. If this is the case, you need to work on yourself. It is haram to have this attitude. This is like being stingy with Allah’s blessings. One should not put oneself in the position of God or the judge to decide who deserves what. What they have may be a test from Allah or a reward – Allah gives to whom He wills and we do not know the wisdom behind it.
The way to remove envy
Envy is one of the greatest illnesses of the heart. The only way to treat it is through a combination of ilm and amal (knowledge and deeds).
- Firstly, you should know that your envy will not affect the person whom you want to harm. Unless you have an evil eye, and even if it afflicts them, you will benefit them because they will take your hasanat (good deeds).
- Secondly know that Allah will be displeased with you, because you are objecting to His distribution, so resolve it before it gets out of control. This distribution is part of his qada and qadr. (Allah’s pre-ordained destiny, which is one of the six articles of faith. Allah’s treasures are vast, so do not wish for Him to restrict them.
- Do the opposite of what is in your heart. When you feel yourself becoming envious, ask Allah to bless the person instead and increase His favours on them. Go against the impulse. Thwart it. Congratulate the person and if they deserved it, support them and speak well of them. You can train yourself to do this.
- Hate wishing bad for anyone.
- Train your mind to accept the distribution of Allah. Remember that Allah is the Provider and He loves for His provision to be seen.
Feeling bitter, being compared and backbiting
Hasad does not just affect your akhirah, but also your experience of the dunya, because it leaves you in state of bitterness and dissatisfaction. Whenever you see that person, it keeps gnawing away at you inside, churning up toxic feelings because of what you do not have.
Your bad mood affects the people around you and impacts their lives – whether they are your family or colleagues or friends. It is also a bad habit to promote envy by comparing your spouse, children or family members to others and asking them why they are not as good.
Another unfortunate consequence of hasad is that it can lead to backbiting as you talk about the person and why they do not deserve what they have, so you end up giving away even more of your hasanat. Be careful, if you make dua against them, it will rebound on you. Ghazali says that if you make dua against someone who did not deserve it, it is like throwing a stone at a tree, which bounces back and hits you in the eye.
Envy in Western history and literature
Though we are all familiar with the blue glass beads used to ward off ‘nazar’ in Turkey. In western culture jealousy has been associated with the colour green because it was associated with the yellowish green colour of bile. We have heard the phrase being ‘green with envy’. This goes back as far as Greek and Roman times who were well aware of how destructive envy and the evil eye were and they used talismans to ward it off. The word envy itself is derived from Invidia the Roman goddess of jealousy and hatred. Hideous and spiteful, she sought to poison all creation, with her hatred one soul at a time.
Envy is not just the stuff of fairy tales such as Snow White and Cinderella where it is the central source of evil. It has well known throughout history as a potent and dangerous emotion. Ovid personified envy in his work the Metamorphoses in which he described her:
Her face was sickly pale, her whole body lean and wasted, and she squinted horribly; her teeth were discoloured and decayed, her poisonous breast of a greenish hue, and her tongue dripped venom. … Gnawing at others, and being gnawed, she was herself her own torment.
Envy is linked to seeing other people’s success and hearing their praise; it can provoke such a strong response that it was said to have the ability to injure or even kill. It has been associated in western culture with venomous creatures like snakes or scorpions. In Finland they have saying “envy even takes all the fish out of water”. In Biblical tradition, to covet is one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Shakespeare famously captured the self-destructive quality of envy in his tragedy ‘Othello’ in which we have the depiction of how a man can be driven insane by jealousy to the extent that he murders his wife. He was warned by Iago:
O Beware my Lord of jealousy. It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.
The psychotherapy of envy
By Sister Rahma in our How to Keep your Heart Healthy Course
Think about this illness, what is the impact of living your life this way? We might know someone or intermittently be experiencing these feelings. What’s the impact?
It can lead you depressed, it engenders ill feelings in the enviers heart, causes people to talk badly about others, leaves you with an agitated heart, saps your energy, breaks down relationships, the envier feels short-changed. It can cause us to be exhausted because of being competitive, and it leaves us feeling as if we don’t have enough, so the envier does not enjoy what they have.
Not only does it work us out in so many negative ways it even removes the joy from what we have.
What’s the impact of this emotion on your family? and your family’s mental health?
It causes animosity in relationships
That’s a big deal in family relationships. You don’t feel like sharing good news with them because they find fault in it and they can’t be happy for you. What’s the impact of that on you? The fact that you are not able to share or celebrate achievements with your family. Remember that your family is supposed to give you a secure base. In psychotherapy and psychology, a secure base is what we need from our homes.
Breakdown of family relationships
When you compare people in your family, you are teaching them to be ungrateful. You can feel lonely sadness as though you don’t belong in the environment. Your family is where you belong, where your secrets, your successes, your failures are supposed to be nurtured and held, but when you cannot share this with your family, because you are worried that they will envy you, imagine the impact of that on your mental health, on your emotional wellbeing and spirituality. Someone else’s toxic emotion is impacting you mentally and physically, directly and indirectly in many different ways.
You feel sad, you feel alone, you don’t feel you can be yourself openly, and this is the space that is supposed to give you security. We need to know it’s okay- I can fail or succeed and can share these within my family. What happens outside the family is different, in our families is the place we are supposed to feel safe; you feel ostracised, this is the impact. we don’t want to be physically in that environment but there is very little we can do about it, this is our family, that’s where we are, how much can we escape them.
A loser mentality- the envious person has a loser mentality, a mentality that poisons themselves with negative self-talk and those around them it is a very painful experience, it feeds insecurities of the envier.
A victim mentality – I am not good at whatever or everyone has something against me. I have nothing to celebrate. We all have something to celebrate. We learnt in the talk that Allah not only gives us these beautiful things but also wants us to celebrate them, but we can’t, why, because we are so taken over by what we don’t have that we can’t see what we have. There can also be arrogance to the envied.
Always looking for self-pity
There is a degree of humiliation that people experience in the face of what they desire if they don’t get it. It leads to self-destructive behaviour and a blow to someone’s ego.
It can also leave you demotivated, demoralised and dis-empowered, all those things that take the energy out of your system. This is another thing envy does. Envy is a double-edged sword; you’re carrying the feeling of displeasure for not having and the desire to have that thing to the point of depriving others.
But the challenge here is to remember that you will not have everything you want, a point I took away from what the Sheikh taught, we were given the story of Khidr to illustrate that there is a wisdom and hikmah behind what we have and what we don’t have.
It uses up your energy and being envious rather than working on your own positive attributes.
So, envy devalues other peoples’ achievements in the eyes of the others.
The effect of envy in families and siblings hides very dark and worst feelings within us. It’s very damaging.
What are these feelings or consequences of envy between families and siblings?
Let’s not blame envy for everything. It reminds them of the unfair way their parents treated them. There is a lot of feeling of hostility rivalry, there is passive aggression as well. There are people constantly on the watch of not saying and celebrating because of envy between families or sibling. I have worked on a case where the mother was jealous of the children. It is important to bear in mind what a negative emotion it can be.
I am inviting you to think deeply about the impact of envy and the other diseases we are talking about on the impact these can have on our families.
We didn’t choose our families. Allah chose the families for us, therefore this is the best family you can get. We need to think, how do we behave, do I have those elements of envy? am I truly pleased for my sister, am I truly pleased for my child. There are cases where sometimes parents want their children to live in their shadow. An example – a mother feels that because she was unsuccessful in something that her child isn’t, then she resents that. Self-check is important, in this example to thank Allah that what you wanted has come your way via your child.
Envy devalues the achievement of others, and envy in families can be dangerous. I am inviting us all to be happy for all the achievements of our family members, because their successes and achievements are ours too.
Here is another example to help you navigate this topic. Imagine you are very wealthy, and your sibling is poverty stricken. What joy is there in you living in the best post code and having the best of things, whilst your brother must go to the mosque to ask for help?
Envy is related to resentment, feeling envy means we don’t want other people to do well, if they do resent this. The envier will not miss an opportunity to devalue the other person’s achievements, to give them a sly comment always, these feelings do come out one way or the other.
Another thing that I have experienced in different communities (with no religion) are more honest about their feelings of jealousy for people, and when we talk about this, we find that there is always an insecurity that sits behind this jealousy. When we are insecure, we sometimes think everyone else is insecure and a failure. This way we don’t feel sad. Insecurity means that we are always looking to others to define what we need. It is the breeding ground for envy in our dissatisfaction with our own life. This then impacts us mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically.
Let’s think about insecurity, what is the cause of insecurity?
Looking after our mental wellbeing is so important, ignoring this can be disable us. Mental health is an invisible agent, we take care of our physical health and not enough effort is focused on managing our mental health. We tend to neglect mental health whilst mental health affects everything we de including our worship.
Mental illness can be very debilitating, I have come across people who are so depressed that they can’t pray. They are so disabled that they can’t even recite a dua or an ayah of the Quran. If you look at Seerah and the life of the Prophet Sallalahu Alahi Wasslam, mental health was looked after in so many ways.
Insecurity comes from feeling inferior. who said you are inferior? What is your self-narrative?
Insecurity comes from judgement of others and what they perceive, this makes it an external message (sometimes this can be internal). If this is external, do you trust an external story more than your own? Do you think or agree that you are inferior? The Quran has helped us to clarified this, Allah (SWT) says that superiority and inferiority is only based on one’s faith, piety, taqwa, righteousness. One who is God consciousness (cognisant of Allah and their actions). Your skin tone, height, class, wealth etc does not make you either superior or inferior.
An important human need is recognition, to be appreciated and loved. We are here in existence therefore we count. An example of recognition, whilst a child is playing when they hurt themselves, they know that little scratch will harm them. When they come to you crying, they need recognition for comfort.
To remember that insecurity is the breeding ground for envy and dissatisfaction within our lives, it impacts us mentally, physically, spiritually emotionally and physically and Allah knows best.
The way some of us were parented can be damaging, this is something we can chose to work through. Our Islamic culture does not promote parent blame, parents put their best efforts in raising their children. Puberty shifts the responsibility from our parents in how we chose to go on. We cannot blame our parents after this milestone. With adult lens we need to analyse and think for ourselves, think about what we need to change, if we can’t do it then get help, talk to a friend. And Allah knows best.
Shaykh Haytham Tamim – The Thursday Al Ghazali Class 23rd December 2021 with additional notes on the psychotherapy of Hasad by Sister Rahma Abdul Latif. Delivered at the How to Keep your Heart Healthy Course, transcribed by F. Qadir.
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May 25, 2023