Ghazali on self-admiration. The difference between confidence, overconfidence and self-love

ghazali on self admiration

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 purification of the heart, Ghazali mentions 10 principles. Self-admiration which is closely connected to pride is the ninth principle. Self-admiration could be due to one’s own beauty, ability, knowledge or numbers. It is when we feel pleased about ourselves.

In a very famous ayah in Surat Taubah, Allah said:

Allah has already given you victory in many regions and [even] on the day of Hunayn, when your great number pleased you, but it did not avail you at all, and the earth was confining for you with its vastness; then you turned back, fleeing.

Then Allah sent down His tranquillity upon His Messenger and upon the believers and sent down soldiers angels whom you did not see and punished those who disbelieved. And that is the recompense of the disbelievers. Then Allah will accept repentance after that for whom He wills; and Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.”  (9:25-7)

The Battle of Hunayan

Ghazali quotes this ayah because it is linked to self-admiration – the believers were  impressed with themselves, but it did not bring them the success they assumed it would. The background of this event is that the Prophet (peace be on him) led this battle himself in the 8th year after Hijrah, about 20 days after he had conquered Makkah. The two large tribes outside Makkah, Hawazin and Thaqif wanted to take revenge for this conquest, so they mobilised their troops – 4000 warriors.

When the news reached the Prophet (peace be on him), he gathered his troops which numbered 12,000 (10,000 were the troops who had come from Madinah to conquer Makkah and 2,000 were from the recent believers in Makkah). They travelled to a valley called Hunayn about 27km outside Makkah, near Ta’if.  The Muslims arrived early, but were ambushed by the army of Malik bin Awf who had already arrived and hidden on at the entrances, and in narrow hiding places. They had been ordered to hurl stones at Muslims whenever they caught sight of them and then to make one-man attacks against them. The believers were usually outnumbered by their enemies in battles, but this time, despite being considerably larger their men began fleeing and retreating in disorder and confusion. The 12,000 dispersed into thin air. This was a deep lesson to them numbers do not guarantee victory.

The Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) remained in the middle of the battlefield and did not retreat, he said to his uncle Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him), who was holding the reins of Duldul (Prophet’s horse), “O Abbas! Call out this, ‘O Ansar! O Companions who paid allegiance to the Messenger of Allah under Samura tree! Where are you?’” Abbas called out in a strong voice. (Ibn Hisham)

When the companions heard this call, they came to their sense and resumed fighting and eventually they won. Malik bin Awf, the leader of the enemies, had naïvely brought the women and children and wealth with him to motivate his troops to fight to the death, left a great deal of booty for them.

الَّذِينَ ضَلَّ سَعْيُهُمْ فِى الْحَيَوةِ الدُّنْيَا وَهُمْ يَحْسَبُونَ أَنَّهُمْ يُحْسِنُونَ صُنْعًا

“Those whose efforts have been wasted in this life while they thought that they were acquiring good by their deeds.” (18:104)

Do not overestimate yourself

Do not be blinded by your ego. Trust in Allah. Knowledge and preparation are required but do not assume that they can alone secure your success, ultimately, after we have prepared, the outcome is in  Allah’s hands. He is our protector.

In Surat Najm, Allah Almighty says:

‏ٱ إِنَّ رَبَّكَ وَسِعُ ٱلْمَغْفِرَةِ ۚ هُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِكُمْ إِذْ أَنشَأَكُم مِّنَ ٱلْأَرْضِ وَإِذْ أَنتُمْ أَجِنَّةٌۭ فِى بُطُونِ أُمَّهَتِكُمْ ۖ فَلَا تُزَكُّوٓا۟ أَنفُسَكُمْ ۖ هُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِمَنِ ٱتَّقَىٰٓ ‎

Your Lord is infinite in forgiveness. He knows you from the time He created you from the Earth, and when you were a foetus in your mothers’ wombs, so don’t admire yourselves too much. He knows well who is mindful (53:32)

Do not be deluded about yourself

Ghazali says there are three destructive behaviours – miserliness, following desires and being immersed in self-admiration. Ibn Masoud said two things can lead to destruction – despair and self-admiration. The one who is in despair will not seek happiness because he is wallowing in self-pity and the one who admires himself, thinks he has everything already.

‘If you did not commit sins, I would fear for you what is greater than that – self-admiration, self admiration’  (Al Bayhaqi)

Psychologically, when someone realises they made a mistake, it makes them aware that they are not perfect and they have flaws. It makes them feel humble. If on the other hand someone feels everything they do is good, then they will be killed by self-admiration.

Self-admiration is the cause of pride (kibr). Kibr is coin with two faces. One is feeling superior towards others and the other is being filled with admiration for one’s own self.  

When you think you are perfect, then this self-admiration ruins the good things you are doing. When you think you are safe, you are not safe. Ghazali quotes that Aisha was asked ‘When is man doing bad?’ and she replied, ‘When he thinks he is doing well.’ This means that when the feelings rise up inside yourself that make you feel pleased and secure, be cautious, remain humble. And keep asking Allah for the acceptance of your deeds, for purity in your intention and sincerity, as you never know if your deeds have been accepted or not.

This does not mean that you should not have self-confidence and be self-assured. It means that you do not think perfection begins and ends with you. Ghazali mentions that Bishr bin Mansur was praying beautifully and prolonging his ruku and sujud when he noticed that a man had been watching him. He said that though the appearance of his salah seemed impressive to a bystander, the reality was that he did not know if it had been accepted by Allah:

Do not be deceived by what you have seen from me, for indeed Iblis worshipped Allah and prayed for thousands of years, then became what he has become.

If you believe that all your deeds are accepted, you are deceiving yourself.

Do not believe you deserve Allah’s favours

When you feel you are entitled to Allah’s favours, and wonder why He has not granted you more, because you deserve it, or why your enemies have not been destroyed, it ruins your worship.

When you feel arrogant, you feel superior towards another person or people. However when you feel self-admiration you do not need anyone else, even if you are alone, you feel pleased with yourself. Moreover, you think that what you have is what you deserve and you forget they are favours of Allah, which can be taken away.

The one who sees Allah’s favours in their life, and fears that the favours could disappear is not filled with self-admiration, but has humility and gratitude and awareness that what they have is not theirs and can be taken away at any time.

How do you cure self-admiration?

Knowledge is the treatment for self-admiration, because it stems from ignorance. Knowledge that power, wealth, beauty and status are not our creation, keeps our grounded. If Allah created you beautiful or strong or in a wealthy family, then you should feel grateful, because these are His gifts. They can be lost in a second, as we have witnessed in the pandemic, the natural disasters and wars that have shaken the world. Overnight, people have lost their loved ones, or their wealth, or their beauty or their health.

You may feel your success is due to your efforts and that it was your choice that you put in those efforts, but when you look deeper, you could not have acquired knowledge without the brain that Allah gave you. You use that brain to analyse and memorise and store the knowledge. Moreover, He gave you the opportunity to use it, whilst others with the same intelligence were not successful because they did not have the same chances.

Many intelligent people are trapped in dead-end situations, where they cannot shine. Had they been in a different environment, gone to a top college, they may have excelled. But they did not get those breaks, or access to those teachers, institutions or openings. These are from Allah. Sometimes people have the same environment, teachers and lectures, but their outcomes are different, because Allah made some excel over the others. Two people sit down to write, one writes a few lines, the other writes a work of genius. Allah facilitated it, we should be grateful to Him.

The key for actions is to have determination, will, power and faculties and all of these are in Allah’s hands. It is as though there is a key to a chest, which is filled with treasures. If you are given the key and you take some treasures, does that make you admirable?

Beg Allah for what you want, not because you deserve it or are entitled to it, but because He is generous. A poor person may complain that he has more intellect than a wealthy person  so he deserves that man’s wealth, Allah gave him intellect and the other man wealth. The distribution is Allah’s wisdom and choice.

The boundary between self-confidence, overconfidence and self-admiration

To be confident is important. However we have to be careful we are not overconfident or that it leads to self-admiration and then arrogance. It is easy to slip from one to the other. Therefore we need to know the difference between them so we are aware when we are crossing over from what is acceptable to what is against the shariah.

Having a strong opinion is fine, but it should not mean that you don’t listen to other people’s opinions and dismiss them. Having overconfidence that you are always right is wrong, because the other person might be right and you prevented yourself from the truth. We have to ask Allah to show us the truth, take away the clouds blocking our vision and enable us to follow it.

How much can we love ourselves?

Self-affirmation and loving yourself is a trendy concept these days, we need to draw the line and not go beyond what is permissible. The scale is the shariah.

We love ourselves by default. That is why when people loathe themselves, it leads to mental issues. However, the shariah puts a limit on how much we love ourselves. It tells us to put others first (eethar), unless there is a necessity. When you put yourself above others it is selfishness which is haram and leads to other illness of the heart. For instance, when you are selfish, you do not share what you are required to share with your family or the poor. We have to keep everything in proportion. As Salman advised Abu Darda and the Prophet (peace be on him) confirmed:

Your Lord has a right on you, your own self has a right on you, and your family has a right on you, so give everyone their due rights.  (Bukhari)

Always connect your blessings to Allah and ask Allah to protect them, increase them and enable you to utilise them to please them. The gifts of Allah are a test which many will fail, we ask Allah to make us grateful for them.

Shaykh Haytham Tamim – The Thursday Al Ghazali Class 

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Shaykh Haytham Tamim is the founder and main teacher of the Utrujj Foundation. He has provided a leading vision for Islamic learning in the UK, which has influenced the way Islamic knowledge is disseminated. He has orchestrated the design and delivery of over 200 unique courses since Utrujj started in 2001. His extensive expertise spans over 30 years across the main Islamic jurisprudence schools of thought. He has studied with some of the foremost scholars in their expertise; he holds some of the highest Ijazahs (certificates) in Quran, Hadith (the Prophetic traditions) and Fiqh (Islamic rulings). His own gift for teaching was evident when he gave his first sermon to a large audience at the age of 17 and went on to serve as a senior lecturer of Islamic transactions and comparative jurisprudence at the Islamic University of Beirut (Shariah College). He has continued to teach; travelling around the UK, Europe and wider afield, and won the 2015 BISCA award (British Imams & Scholars Contributions & Achievements Awards) for Outstanding Contribution to Education and Teaching.