Ghazali on how to cure arrogance
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.
In the section on purification of the heart, Ghazali mentions 10 principles. Pride (kibr) is the eighth principle and Ghazali proposes how to cure kibr.
Three problems with arrogance
There are three problems with kibr, which is a major disease of the heart.
- Competing with Allah Almighty.
Allah is Al-Mutakabbir – the Supremely Great, The Possessor of all Rights, the Perfection of Greatness. He is above all others. No one else holds this status, let alone mankind, who is a speck in all of creation.
Therefore when a person assumes this quality and thinks that they are great and better than others, it is not reality, rather their own perception of themselves. It manifests as arrogance, and a sense of their superiority over others, which is both unpleasant and false. Accordingly in the Hadith Qudsi, Abu Hurayrah reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him):
عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ قَالَ هَنَّادٌ قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ الْكِبْرِيَاءُ رِدَائِي وَالْعَظَمَةُ إِزَارِي فَمَنْ نَازَعَنِي وَاحِدًا مِنْهُمَا قَذَفْتُهُ فِي النَّارِ
Allah Almighty said: Grandeur is My cloak and pride is My garment. Whoever competes with Me in one of these two, I will cast him into the Hellfire. (Abu Dawoud)
- Rejecting the truth
Arrogance is dangerous because it leads to rejecting the truth. For instance, if you have an argument with someone and they present their reasoning, which is right, instead of accepting they are right, you insist they are wrong. Worse still, they might quote an ayah or hadith which you then deny, and thus you reject the truth out of your pride.
- Despising others
The one who is arrogant thinks he is better than everyone else. They mistakenly think they are perfect and this makes them look down on others. In the hadith, narrated by Abu Hurayrah, the Prophet (peace be on him) mentioned:
نْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ الْكِبْر مَنْ بَطِرَ الْحَقَّ وَغَمَطَ النَّاسَ
Arrogance is when one disregards the truth and looks down upon people. (Abu Dawood)
The one who is arrogant refuses to accept what other people say because he thinks that would make them better than him, and they want to believe that they know best.
Arrogance is the hotbed for bad traits
The Prophet (peace be on him) warned us of this disease and Ghazali pointed out that arrogance blocks out good traits while being a hot bed for all bad traits, such as deceit, envy and anger. I pity such people, as they are inflating themselves because they have problem with their confidence. Why do they need to prove to others that they are better than them?
They are probably carrying unresolved emotional baggage from their childhood when they were teased. However the ones who teased were the ones who had bad character, lacked a good upbringing, not their victim. Yet the one who was teased now feels compelled to pretend and portray that they are better than them, and that they know more than them, or that they have more than them, which may not be the case. When this comes to light, it will be even more embarrassing. It does not benefit you to pretend you are someone you are not. It is much better to be a person of dignity and principles.
Cure for kibr
Reflect on your origin
Ghazali wrote a great deal on this point. Firstly, we need to look at our humble origins. Allah brought us into being from nothingness, so are we really as grand as we think? There is nothing more insignificant than nothingness, which is called Adam. Allah created us from dust and we will return to dust, so we should be grateful to Allah for giving us life rather than being haughty as we might not even have existed.
Everything you feel proud of, could not have been achieved without Allah’s gifts – your faculties, your senses, your intellect, your form and your abilities all came from Him. In a stroke you could lose your hearing or sight or health. You cannot prevent yourself falling ill, as we have learned from the pandemic.
In fact as humans, we experience sickness and hunger and thirst against our will. Look at our limitations, when we want to remember something, we forget it; when we set out to do something grand, we do something insignificant. More often than not, we love what is bad for us, and we hate what is good.
Ultimately we will all die and be presented with our deeds. For those who are condemned to hellfire, no matter what their status was on earth, on the Day of Judgement, even a pig will be better than them. Such reminders help tame our ego and arrogance.
The call of nature
Ghazali asks how man can feel arrogant, when man is compelled by the call of nature. Can anyone who needs the toilet claim greatness? Therefore for those who reflect, the very nature of our creation and our human processes should remind us to be humble.
Arrogance due to knowledge
One of my teachers, Shaykh Muhammad Said Ramadan al-Bouti used to say:
‘Knowledge is a wild horse. The way you control it is taqwa.’ (Shaykh Ramadan al-Bouti)
Shaytan plays you
Kibr can arise for different reasons which make us feel proud of what we are, or have or know. It can come from thinking you are better than others because you have more knowledge or you are more pious.
Shaytan fills yours ears with how good you are, because people always consult you, or you always know the answers or you have a good memory or depth or grasp of your subject. If you are seeking knowledge to argue with others and show-off then this will cause you to be thrown into hellfire.
Knowledge sought to show off drives you to hellfire
Abu Hurayrah narrated that he heard the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) say the first three people to be flung in hellfire will be the martyr who died for the sake of fame and glory, the man who gave to charity so he would be called generous, and the seeker of knowledge who acquired knowledge to show off:
Next a man who had acquired and imparted knowledge and read the Quran will be brought forward, Allah will remind him of the favours He had bestowed upon him and the man will acknowledge them. Then He will ask him: `What did you do to express gratitude for it?’ The man will reply: `I acquired knowledge and taught it, and read the Qur’an for Your sake.’ Allah will say to him: `You have lied. You acquired knowledge so that people might call you a learned (man), and you read the Qur’an so that they might call you a reciter, and they have done so.’ Command will then be issued about him, and he will be dragged on his face and thrown into Hell. (Abu Dawoud)
The source of knowledge is Allah. He can take it away at any time.
Ghazali is warning us that arrogance can easily creep into seeking knowledge. Remind yourself that your knowledge is not due exclusively to your efforts, but in the intellectual ability Allah gave you to understand and memorise what you know. When you attribute your knowledge to Him, it keeps you from becoming big-headed. And indeed great people can be afflicted with dementia and lose their memory, so one should be grateful for what one has and rather than taking it for granted. Remember that it can be taken away at any time.
Those with less knowledge may be less sinful than you
In addition, remember that someone with less knowledge than you, might have less sins. And when they commit sins, they will have the excuse that they were ignorant, however if you commit a sin, you will have done it knowingly, so you will be more sinful. This is how you control your arrogance.
Don’t assume you are better than you are
Ibn Abi Shaybah narrated that the well respected and knowledgeable companion Hudhayfa ibn al Yaman whom the Prophet (peace be on him) chose to entrusted with knowledge he gave no one else, was once leading the salah, when he felt arrogance rising inside him, he said he would prefer not to be the imam again. Yet while we were at Hajj, there were people who would put themselves forward to lead the salah when they were not even qualified for the position.
Don’t underestimate others
When ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) was a disbeliever, believers looked down on him, to the extent they thought he was so far from redemption that even a donkey would believe before he ever embraced Islam. This shows that you never know, the person you are looking down on, may exceed your estimation of him and surpass you.
Remember the real purpose of knowledge is to benefit you, not to make you look good
Allah Almighty gave the example of the People of the Book who were given knowledge but did not benefit from it being like a donkey carrying books:
مَثَلُ الَّذِينَ حُمِّلُوا التَّوْرَاةَ ثُمَّ لَمْ يَحْمِلُوهَا كَمَثَلِ الْحِمَارِ يَحْمِلُ أَسْفَارًا
The example of those who were entrusted with the Torah and then did not take it on is like that of a donkey who carries volumes [of books]. Wretched is the example of the people who deny the signs of Allah. And Allah does not guide the wrongdoing people. (62:5)
Ghazali is saying that the hearts of dedicated worshippers can be looted by shaytan. When they stand up to pray in the night, he whispers to them that they are better than others. They may even be deluded that because they are such dedicated worshippers, that Allah will harm anyone who disagrees with them, or bless anyone who agrees with them. However they need only look at the example of the prophets and messengers who were better than anyone else, yet they still were harmed by people. The Prophet (peace be on him) was humiliated, insulted, attacked and injured, but Allah did not punish the perpetrators immediately.
Jundab reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said:
عَنْ جُنْدَبٍ قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ أَنَّ رَجُلاً قَالَ وَاللَّهِ لاَ يَغْفِرُ اللَّهُ لِفُلاَنٍ وَإِنَّ اللَّهَ تَعَالَى قَالَ مَنْ ذَا الَّذِي يَتَأَلَّى عَلَىَّ أَنْ لاَ أَغْفِرَ لِفُلاَنٍ فَإِنِّي قَدْ غَفَرْتُ لِفُلاَنٍ وَأَحْبَطْتُ عَمَلَكَ
“A man said: By Allah, Allah will not forgive this person! Allah Almighty said: Who is he who swore by Me that I will not forgive someone? I have forgiven him and nullified your good deeds.” (Muslim)
Instead of looking down on someone, appreciate that you do not know what is in their heart. It is not our business to judge others. Imam ibn Atta al Iskandari in his aphorisms, Al Hikam, said a sin that brings you down on your knees with a broken heart is better than worship which fills your heart with arrogance:
A disobedience that bequeaths humiliation and extreme need
is better than an obedience that bequeaths
self-infatuation and pride (Al Hikam:96)
In another aphorism, ibn Atta says:
The source of every disobedience, indifference, and passion is self-satisfaction.
The source of every obedience, vigilance, and virtue is dissatisfaction with one’s self.
It is better for you to keep company with an ignorant man
dissatisfied with himself
than to keep company with a learned man
satisfied with himself.
For what knowledge is there in a self-satisfied scholar?
And what ignorance is there in an unlearned man
dissatisfied with himself? (Al Hikam:35)
Therefore the one who wakes up to pray in the night, thinking he is better than those who are sleeping has ruined his ibadah. How does he know that his worship was accepted in the first place? The sign of rejection of his ibadah is to think like this.
Similarly a woman in hijab should never think she is better than a woman who does wear the hijab, but should pray for her to overcome the obstacles that are preventing her from wearing it.
Ibn Atta was so humble, that whenever there was strong wind or storm or heavy rain he would blame himself, saying that if he were to die, people would be relieved of these disasters.
Another man, on the Day of Arafah was making dua, ‘Ya Allah have mercy on all the people of Arafah, but I know that because I am among them You might prevent them from your rahmah.’ He is the opposite of the one who thinks he is receiving Allah’s rahmah while the rest will be perished.
Arrogance due to lineage, wealth and beauty
Ghazali says those who are proud of their lineage, ethnicity, nationality, race or family should remember that their origin was a drop of sperm and they will end up in a grave. Moreover they did nothing to earn this, so they should not think it was their own achievement that they were born where they were. It was from Allah, so they should be grateful to Allah, rather than feel satisfied with themselves.
It is ignorance to be proud of something that you could lose in a split second. Whether it is money, your looks, your status, the number of followers, they can disappear anytime. Money can be stolen or lost or burned, or a financial crash can wipe out all your savings; illness such as chicken pox can destroy beauty in just two days, and if you did not wash yourself, or groom yourself, what a state you would be in! And where is the beauty in your excrement?
May Allah make us among the humble and those who are truly connected to Him. Ameen.
Diagnostic prepared by Samia Ahmed Based on the teachings of Shaykh Haytham Tamim
Delivered by Shaykh Haytham Tamim at The Thursday Al Ghazali Class on 10th February 2022.
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