Ghazali on showing off (riya) part 3

ghazali on showing off

Ghazali lived in 5th century Hijri and his 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. Ostentation (riya) or doing things to show off is the last principle and it is a lengthy section. Ghazali looks at each disease, breaks it down and advises how to cure it, using his own insights and experience, as a student, as a teacher, as a master and then following his seclusion, as a new version of himself.

Riya is from ra’a, which means ‘to see’. It revolves around showing something, i.e the image you of yourself which you portray to others and consequently showing off. This is critical topical as we all have riya in some form or other. Ghazali is teaching us how to identify riya, levels and causes of riya, and how to get rid of it, as well as the dangers and consequences of it.

The Prophet ﷺ referred to it as minor shirk, as it is a very dangerous trait which we need to be aware of as it can sneak into any good deed and ruin it.

The 3 motives for riya

If you know the reality of riya is seeking someone’s approval, then you know it’s cure is to address the hidden motivation behind it. There are 3 underlying motives according to Ghazali:

  1. Love of praise
  2. Fear of criticism
  3. Greed

1.     Love of praise

Why does someone beautify their ibadah in front of others? To attain their praise. We are familiar with this as we live in a social media world where likes are the currency people crave. This is unsurprising, as praise activates the reward circuit of the brain which is triggered to produce dopamine, which makes the recipient feel good about themselves. It stimulates the same area in the brain which experiences the excitement of romantic attraction and thrill of acquiring money. These make the person want to experience it again.

In the pursuit of praise, people expend their blood, sweat and tears, but if they find they did not get the praise they were after, they will not do that work again. Worse than this is the one who turns up at the end, has his picture taken, steals others’ work, their victory, takes credit for it, and the limelight. He will talk about it as if it is his work, even though he made no contribution. It is theft, for the sake of praise.

Recently I downloaded a book by an author in 4th century AH, and I was surprised by the introduction, as the author justifies his reasons for putting his name down as the author of his own book. This is the first time, I read anyone citing why they did this. His reason was that someone with no dignity, might take credit for his work. He knew this from bitter experience as his friend had borrowed a book of his poetry, deleted his name and then claimed he had written it. Sadly there are many such people out there, ready to take credit for what does not belong to them and plagiarise books cover to cover. All for the love of praise.

In Surat al Imran, Allah Almighty mentions such people when He says:

لَا تَحْسَبَنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ يَفْرَحُونَ بِمَآ أَتَوا۟ وَّيُحِبُّونَ أَن يُحْمَدُوا۟ بِمَا لَمْ يَفْعَلُوا۟ فَلَا تَحْسَبَنَّهُم بِمَفَازَةٍۢ مِّنَ ٱلْعَذَابِ ۖ وَلَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌۭ ١٨٨

Do not think that those who rejoice in what they have done and love to be praised for what they never did, (3:188)

In fact, the real soldiers are the ones in the back office. Part of riya is lying – pretending you are doing things for Allah’s sake, when that is not the real reason. The warrior who jumps into the front line to be called a hero is motivated by praise. Someone else might do the same action, but with the intention of protecting his country, and defending his people from the enemy. He is not looking for praise, but fighting for Allah and not seeking praise.

Someone might be worshipping Allah, but not for Allah, but for people to say he’s pious. If he wants Allah’s pleasure, this is very rewarding, but if he wants people to think he’s pious, so that he can make money and use it for his own purposes, this is riya.

The cure: recognising poisoned honey

The cure for this is to think of the consequences and dangers of such actions. For instance, if you knew there was poison in honey would you eat it, no matter how sweet it was? Any sane person would say no.

I once watched a hypnotist on TV who was curing a lady of her love of chocolate. He asked her to name something she hated, and then told her to imagine she was eating it, every time she had a bite of chocolate. It put her off eating chocolate.  Similarly, we should think of praise as poisoned honey.

Imagine what will be said to you on the Day of Judgement: You were not respectful of Allah; you considered Allah to the lowest of the low, because you appreciated people’s attention more. On top of this, your deeds will be nullified. It will be said to you that you bought people’s pleasure for Allah’s anger. How would you feel? These actions might tip your scales from acceptance to rejection when you need them most.

Pleasing people is an end you cannot reach. you can’t please people. Be careful not to buy people’s pleasure at the expense of Allah’s anger. It is the worse trade. Make Allah’s pleasure your ultimate aim.

2.     Fear of criticism and censure

The second cause of riya is not liking to be blamed or cesnured. Understand that criticism does not affect you, if Allah is pleased with you. If Allah is pleased with you, the rest is unimportant.

When the Prophet ﷺ went to Taif, he encountered rejection and animosity and was humiliated and injured. In his moment of utter weakness, he expressed that none of this mattered as long as Allah was not displeased with him ﷺ.

اللهم إليك أشكو ضعف قوتي ، وقلة حيلتي ، وهواني على الناس ، أرحم الراحمين ، أنت أرحم الراحمين ، إلى من تكلني ، إلى عدو يتجهمني ، أو إلى قريب ملكته أمري ، إن لم تكن غضبان علي فلا أبالي ، غير أن عافيتك أوسع لي ، أعوذ بنور وجهك الذي أشرقت له الظلمات ، وصلح عليه أمر الدنيا والآخرة ، أن تنزل بي غضبك ، أو تحل علي سخطك ، لك العتبى حتى ترضى ، ولا حول ولا قوة إلا بك

O Allah to You I complain of my weakness and lack of resources, and my humiliation before mankind. You are the most merciful of those who show mercy. You are the Lord of the weak and You are my Lord. To whom do You entrust me? To someone distant that attacks me! Or to an enemy that You gave him control over my affairs? If you are not angry with me then I do not mind, but Your protection is much better and more ample for me. I seek protection in the light of Your face, which illuminates the darkness, and through which all affairs in this life and in the Hereafter become right, may it never be that I should incur Your wrath, or that You should be displeased with me. I will appeal to You till You are pleased with me. There is no power, and there is no way except through You.

Therefore, nothing in dunya can harm your status in the hereafter, if Allah Almighty is pleased with you.  tolerate the pain of dunya? Would you rather have people’s blame or Allah’s anger?

If people were to know the riya in your heart, they would hate you and criticise you more. One day Allah will expose you, and then you will lose dunya and akhirah. Be sincere. Whereas if you shun them, Allah will show your sincerity to them and then they will love you.

The cure: gain Allah’s acceptance and people will love you– the paradox

It is a paradox, that when you put Allah’s acceptance before everyone else’s, then you become one of the most beloved people on earth.

In the famous Hadith Qudsi Allah Almighty said nothing will make His Servant closer to Him than doing what He made it obligatory for him to do. On the authority of Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him), who said that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said:

Allah (mighty and sublime be He) said: My servant draws not near to Me with anything more loved by Me than the religious duties I have enjoined upon him, and My servant continues to draw near to Me with supererogatory works so that I shall love him. When I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes and his foot with which he walks. Were he to ask [something] of Me, I would surely give it to him, and were he to ask Me for refuge, I would surely grant him it. I do not hesitate about anything as much as I hesitate about [seizing] the soul of My faithful servant: he hates death and I hate hurting him. (Bukhari)

عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ قَالَ: قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ: ” إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ قَالَ: مَنْ عَادَى لِي وَلِيًّا، فَقَدْ آذَنْتُهُ بِالْحَرْبِ، وَمَا تَقَرَّبَ إِلَيَّ عَبْدِي بِشَيْءٍ أَحَبَّ إِلَيَّ مِمَّا افْتَرَضْتُ عَلَيْهِ، وَمَا يَزَالُ عَبْدِي يَتَقَرَّبُ إِلَيَّ بِالنَّوَافِلِ حَتَّى أُحِبَّهُ، فَإِذَا أَحْبَبْتُهُ، كُنْتُ سَمْعَهُ الَّذِي يَسْمَعُ بِهِ، وَبَصَرَهُ الَّذِي يُبْصِرُ بِهِ، وَيَدَهُ الَّتِي يَبْطِشُ بِهَا، وَرِجْلَهُ الَّتِي يَمْشِي بِهَا، وَإِنْ سَأَلَنِي لَأُعْطِيَنَّهُ، وَلَئِنْ اسْتَعَاذَنِي لَأُعِيذَنَّهُ، وَمَا تَرَدَّدْتُ عَنْ شَيْءٍ أَنَا فَاعِلُهُ تَرَدُّدِي عَنْ نَفْسِ عَبْدِي الْمُؤْمِنِ، يَكْرَهُ الْمَوْتَ وَأَنَا أَكْرَهُ مَسَاءَتَه” رواه البخاري

People will love you, because of your ikhlas (sincerity) towards Allah Almighty. If you do not seek their attention, Allah subjugates their heart towards you.

Abu Hurayrah narrated that Allah’ s Messenger ﷺ said:

When Allah loves a person, He calls Jibril and says (to him): I love so-and-so, therefore you should also love him. The Prophet ﷺ added: So, Jibril begins to love him. Then he makes an announcement in the heaven saying: Allah loves so and so, therefore you should also love him. Then the inhabitants of heaven (the angels) would love him. He ﷺ added: Thus acceptance is established for him on earth (i.e. that person becomes popular among the people). When Allah dislikes any slave He calls Jibril and says to him: I hate so-and-so, therefore you should also hate him. Then he calls out to the inhabitants of heaven: Allah hates so-and-so, therefore you should also hate him. Thus hatred is established for him on earth (i.e., then hatred prevails against him among the people). (Muslim and Tirmidhi)

3.     Greed

The third cause of riya is greed for people’s attention. However, this attention is imaginary, just  an illusion. You might get people’s stamp of approval, acceptance or pleasure, but it is not guaranteed. What is obvious and clear is that you will get Allah’s anger. You should know that it is Allah, who turns people’s hearts towards you, not your cuddliness, fake stories, fake CV or the fake salah which you are beautifying. These will not incline people’s hearts to you. Allah is the one who turns people’s hearts towards you or Him.

The cure: realising that you will lose the high ranks of Jannah

When you are seeking approval, the reality is that you are humiliating yourself. People go to extraordinary lengths to get fame or approval. I once watched a program where a competitor was asked to bark like a dog, so he did. This is humiliation.

Ghazali says refrain from harking after people’s pleasure, and instead turn your heart to Allah and towards the bliss of akhirah and the high levels, then choose which you would rather have: people’s pleasure or peace, bliss and high ranks in akhirah.

Do you want to lose the high ranks for the sake of riya? When you understand this, your heart will be focused on Him. Your aim should be only to please Allah, you will be filled with ikhlas (sincerity), then Allah will support you with extra tawfiq from Him.

The ‘riya-attack’

Ghazali finished the chapter, by saying, that you may free yourself from riya, and attach yourself to Allah, but what should you do if you have a ‘riya-attack’?

For instance, you are praying and then you have an attack of riya. Ghazali says, the cure is to reprogramme yourself. It is difficult in the beginning, but you can master it.

The essence of ikhlas which is the opposite of riya is to hide your ibadah, as you hide your sins. By doing this you will be safe from riya. When you get familiar with it will become your second nature. Then you will enjoy the intimate discourse with Allah in seclusion.

The cure: renew your resolve

Whenever riya attacks you, the cure is to renew what you learned – the punishment and the nullification of deeds. Do not worry, even if you have been attacked by riya, because you will be attacked by it; it will never stop. It is shaytanic whispers. Keep renewing your intention.

Do not respond, whatever happens, for instance by beautifying your ibadah. Do what you normally do. When you are with others, do not increase your ibadah to impress them, nor minimise it. Continue doing what you would normally do. You will have an internal battle, shall you do your ibadah, beautify it or stop it? If you normally pray 2 rakahs Duha prayer (the voluntary prayser after sunrise, before noon) then pray it even when you have a guest. Not necessarily in front of him, but if you have no choice, then pray it in front of them, as you normally do. Do not prolong it. This is how you win the battle. This is how you get rid of riya.

Are you punished for the attack? No, as long as you are fighting back, you are not. If you give in the you are. What should I do mentally? Reject and hate riya in your heart and never respond to it. When you have an attack, you will sink and then you will have more attacks. Prepare yourself beforehand, so you do not fall into the trap.

What about showing your ibadah to encourage others to follow?

Know that it is allowed to show their charity or salah for people to be encouraged when they have the right intention. It is achievable with training and monitoring. If you do not have a hidden desire to show off then you can do this. How do you know if you have a hidden desire? You will know this if you were going to reveal your ibadah to others to follow, but someone else did it first, and they were encouraged. Would you be still want to show them your ibadah? If you still have an eagerness inside you to reveal it, then know this is motivated by riya. It is not ibadah anymore, but your desire to be known, therefore do not be tricked by your nafs.

Hide your sins and mistake 

Hide your sins, not because you want people to think you are pious, but because you do not want to be known as a sinner. If people come to know about your ibadah, should you be pleased or saddened?  Ghazali says that it is OK to be glad if someone knows about your ibadah that were hiding, because you have done the right thing to please Allah and you were not planning to show it. Be pleased that He showed your good side, concealed your faults and ask Allah for humility.

Some worshippers feel pain when their ibadah is known to others, just as they would if people knew about their sins. It is haram to be pleased when people praise you about your ibadah. You did it for Allah and your reward is from Him, so don’t feel happy about their praise. Say it is not me who did this, it is Allah’s facilitation.

What if someone stops a regular ibadah out of fear of riya. Fudayl bin Iyyad said it is ironically riya to leave doing something out of fear of riya. You should only do things for Allah’s sake. When you do things for people’s sake, it is minor shirk.

If the action is not related to worship, but related to their office, such as being a judge or teacher in the public sphere, unless they can control their desire for approval, they should avoid it.

Do not abandon salah and sadaqah unless you did not intend to do it for Allah, but were doing it to show off. Work on yourself to fight the whispers and to get sincerity, purify your intention.

We ask Allah to give us sincerity and keep us away from riya. Ameen

Shaykh Haytham Tamim – The Thursday Al Ghazali Class 

Related posts

Ghazali on showing off (part 3)

Ghazali on showing off (part 1)

Ghazali on self admiration

Ghazali on pride

Ghazali on love of dunya

Ghazali on love of status

Ghazali on how much wealth is sufficient

Ghazali on stinginess

Ghazali on envy

Duas for protection

Ghazali on breaking free from anger

Evils of the tongue 5 – praise

Evils of the tongue 4 – joking

Evils of the tongue 3 – arguing

Evils of the tongue 2- backbiting

Evils of the tongue 1- lying

The benefits of feeling hunger

Why is following the sunnah the key to success. Ghazali’s secrets part 1

What is wrong with excessive laughter?

Do you have to practice what you preach?

Self righteousness when giving counsel

Command good and forbid evil

Brotherhood, friendship and wilayah

How to deal with difficult neighbours

The first 6 rules of how to deal with people

Dealing with gossip (7-8)

How to deal with people according to their status (9-11)

Cover the faults of others (12-13)

Shake hands (15 continued)

Defend others in their absence, be tactful, be cautious of the company of the rich (16-18)

Avoid the people of ghaflah

Be good to your relatives

Love they neighbour


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.