Ghazali on the problems with praise
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 his chapter entitled Tazkiya al Qulub, ‘The Purification of the Heart’, he pinpoints blameworthy characteristics which we need to extract from our heart, in particular he focuses on five common evils of the tongue:
Al Madih – praise
Praise truly belongs to Allah. We cannot praise Him enough for His favours, despite the bumpy rides we may experience along the way. Let us always praise Allah for His favours and be grateful to Him.
Praise comes from the tongue and it is common among all people, but at the time of Ghazali, poets were the PR managers and the mouthpieces of important people of the time.
The poets were known as Ash-Shuarah, and Allah Almighty even named a surah after them. Then there were story-tellers who were known as Qusas, and there is also a surah named Al Qasas.
Praise came with their territory as they turned it into a profession and an art form. They enhanced the public image of leaders through their carefully crafted words. Poetry was the social media of the time and poets were the TikTokers/YouTubers and influencers and soon doctors.
At the time of the Prophet (peace be on him), it was common for poets to praise, criticise and ridicule people, often in the mosques, as these were community hubs. When the poets visited the castles, palaces and residences of dignitaries and praised them, they would make money. Poor people did not pay for the poetry, therefore their income was linked to flattering rich people.
Meanwhile, those who surrounded the leaders were often, as today, bootlickers who would flatter them, inflating their already ballooned egos to even larger proportions.
History of court poetry
Historically, poetry and rulers have been linked across the world and across centuries, for instance from Persia to India and England and Europe. Courts were usually the centres of culture and the rulers would patronise poets and writers who in turn would glorify them and legitimise their power. Their flowery poetry would also serve as a source of entertainment. Great poems could survive their authors long after they had died, as well immortalising their patrons, whose empires had crumbled and would otherwise have been forgotten.
Patrons would bestow gifts for the services that poets could provide and depending on the poetry, which could be extravagant, especially at ceremonial functions, the accession of the ruler, his departure on a military campaign, the return of his victorious army, and his feats on the hunting ground. In addition, poets would commemorate the construction of buildings and events in the ruler’s personal life, like births and deaths. The poems would often be presented by the poet himself standing before the throne.P
Praise requires two
Praise is not a solitary action. It requires two people – the one who praises and one who is being praised.
Insincere praise causes 6 ailments
Ghazali is saying that praising to receive benefits is carried out by the lovers of the dunya. He points out that insincere praise causes 6 ailments – 4 affect the one who praises and 2 affect the one who is praised.
The problems with praise are:
- Lies: Excessive praise is invariably mixed with lies
- Hypocrisy: To praise someone makes them believe you are fond of them, when you are not.
- Not knowing the full reality of the one you are praising. Do not praise with certainty because only Allah knows the reality.
- Maintains the status quo: Pleasing someone who is wicked reinforces their arrogance and wickedness.
- Arrogance: Being praised fills you with self-admiration which is deceptive and destructive.
- Deception and manipulation: Being praised deceives you and can be used to exploit you.
The problems with praising
1. Excessive praise is lies
When you exaggerate in your praise, you are not telling the truth. When you go overboard in praise, you leave fact and go into the realms of fiction. This is not praiseworthy. This is a trap of shaytan. You say someone is great whom you don’t know is false testimony.
I once came across a man who had applied for a very high status job and as the person who was recruiting for that position was attending the mosque one day, the man began flattering him to the extent that he called him Abu Bakr. He got the job. How can you compare anyone Abu Bakr? Let alone someone whom you do not even know well. This is impermissible
When you praise someone you give them the impression you are fond of them when this may not be the case. You are saying one thing, but you are concealing something else in your heart. You might be trying to extract some benefit from them while you do not really believe they are as good as you made out. This is nifaq (hypocrisy) and it is haram.
People have a tendency to exaggerate in the emojis they send on social media. If you are sending someone 10 hearts when inside you do not feel very close to them that’s hypocrisy.
3. Be balanced
If you praise someone whom you barely know in public, you are giving false testimony about them. Don’t praise someone based on assumptions. If someone is successful, holds a high position or is wealthy or powerful, that does not necessarily mean they have good character. Therefore unless you know for sure that they are honourable, you cannot praise them. Therefore do not state assumptions as facts, qualify them with conjecture.
Some people specialise in bootlicking and fawning after celebrities and politicians. In addition spin doctors, and PR companies polish up their image in the media.
Abu Bakra (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated:
A man praised another man in front of the Prophet. The Prophet (peace be on him) said thrice, “Wailaka (Woe on you)! You have cut the neck of your brother!” The Prophet (peace be on him) added, “If it is indispensable for anyone of you to praise a person, then he should say, “I think that such-and-such person (is so-and-so), and Allah is the one who will take his accounts (as he knows his reality) and none can sanctify anybody before Allah (and that only if he knows well about that person.)”. (Bukhari)
The Prophet (peace be on him) equated over-praising with chopping off someone’s neck. He taught his companions instead to qualify praise by saying that they ‘think’ someone is good, but it is Allah who knows the reality.
Sometimes you can feel that the one who is praising you is not genuine and sometimes you feel he is genuine. Al-Miqdad reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said:
“When you see those who flatter others, throw sand in their faces.” (Muslim)
4. Condoning and encouraging sin by praising sinners and oppressors
When you praise someone who is not praiseworthy, it fills them with pride and encourages them to continue what they are doing. Rather than guiding them, you validate their evil actions. They do not need praise, they need correction, but you endorse their behaviour and this is sinful.
Hasan, the grandson of the Prophet (peace be on him) said whoever makes dua for an oppressive person, such as ‘O Allah, make this ruler flourish/ support him etc’ is condoning their sins.
The problems with being praised
1. You believe you are beyond criticism
When you are praised, it puffs up the ego and fills you with self-admiration. This is why the Prophet (peace be on him) said being praised is like having your neck chopped off, because it is destructive. Rather than focusing on your gaps and working on improving yourself, you feel self-satisfied.
2. You can be manipulated
If their praise is disingenuous and they did it to manipulate you, and you believed them it is even worse. They are buttering you up to use you, and you have been gullible and now have the false impression that you are better than you are.
Shopkeepers use praise to get customers to buy their products by either falsely praising their products or falsely flattering their customers. If the customer believed this, it would be to their detriment.
Genuine praise is good
If praise is free from deceit and was not intended out of flattery or to manipulate you, and is not exaggerated, it is fine and even recommended on that basis that ibn Umar narrated that the Prophet (peace be on him) said:
Whoever does something good for you, reciprocate him. If you do not have anything to reciprocate, supplicate for him until he sees that you have repaid him.” (Abu Dawood)
The Prophet (peace be on him) did praise some companions for their attributes and actions. For instance, Ibn Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said to Al-Ashajj ‘Abdul al-Qays:
“Verily, you have two qualities beloved to Allah. They are forbearance and patience.” (Muslim)
In another narration, the Prophet said:
“They are forbearance and modesty.”
Choose your praise carefully
Your praise should be precise, especially if it is to motivate people. Never exaggerate. Salim bin `Abdullah bin `Umar bin Al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with them) reported, on the authority of his father, that the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) said:
“What an excellent man `Abdullah is! If only he could perform optional prayers at night.” Salim said that after this, (his father) `Abdullah slept very little at night.” (Bukhari and Muslim)
In this way, the Prophet (peace be on him) praised Abdullah but also motivated him to be even better by adopting the practice of praying at night, and after he said that Abdullah never neglected to pray it.
How to handle being praised
1. Be grateful Allah veiled your faults
The first thing when one is praised, is to distance oneself from it. Ibn Ata Allah Al-Iskandari in his Hikam (Sufi aphorisms) said:
Whoever honours you honours only the beauty of His veil in you. Therefore, praise is to Him who veiled you, not to the one who honoured and thanked you. (134)
It is one of Allah’s favours that He does not expose our inner reality. The only One Who knows our inner reality is Allah. We cannot praise Allah enough for his favours, and this is one the great favours He has given us.
The believer, when he is praised, should have enough self-awareness that they recognise that they have shortcomings.
People praise you for what they suppose is in you; but you must blame your soul for what you know is in it. (142)
2. Recognise that your success is from Allah
Do not attribute success to yourself and do not buy it. Rather than reacting by thinking the praise has fallen short and they are better than that, they should say, ‘Ya Allah make us as they think.’
When the believer is praised, he is ashamed before God that he should be lauded for an attribute he does not see in himself. (143)
Feels shy of Allah for being praised for an attribute which you do not have. The most ignorant person of all is the one who leaves the certitude of what he is like for people’s mistaken opinion.
Vanish from sight the eyes of people on you with the eye of God on you. And be absent from their coming towards you by seeing God approaching you. (162)
When He wants to show His grace to you, He creates things and attributes them to you. Ibn Atta says:
When He wants to show His grace to you, He creates states in you and attributes them to you. (123)
For instance, you may have organised a fundraiser and collected a lot of money, but it was not you who softened the hearts of the donors, but Allah. But out of His grace He created this action and attributed it to your name. It is Him who should be praised. If you knew this, you would not be conceited. If people were to have access to our inner reality, not one would praise anyone.
Acknowledge people’s contributions and efforts
Praise without exaggeration is good and can raise someone’s morale. During a speech for instance at someone’s birthday, wedding or special occasion can be poignant, meaningful and touching as long as they are not exaggerated.
It is right to acknowledge the efforts and the good that people have done. Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him reported that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:
“Whoever does not thank people has not thanked Allah.” (Abu Dawood)
Dua on receiving praise
Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) used to say:
اللهمَ اجْعَلْنِى خَيْرًا مِمَّا يَظُنُّونَ وَاغْفِرْ لِى مَا لَا يَعْلَمُونَ وَلَا تُؤَاخِذْنِى بِمَا يَقُولُون
Allahumma-ja’lni khayran mima yadhunoon wa-ghfir li ma la ya’lamoon wa la tu’akhidhni bi ma yaquloon.
“O Allah, You know me better than I know myself, and I know myself better than these people who praise me. Make me better than what they think of me, and forgive those sins of mine of which they have no knowledge, and do not hold me responsible for what they say.”
Correct your intention
Reject praise rather than long for it. Do not crave praise. When you do not receive praise, do not be upset. This does not mean that you should not get rightful recognising for your contribution, but that praise should not be the driver for your action. Are you in it for Allah’s sake or for your name to be on it?
Reflect on your end. The danger of your end. And the subtleties of hypocrisy.
Say alhamdulilah when you are praised and thank people for their praise. But do not overdo praise others and do not believe the praise you receive, rather say, ‘May Allah accept it’.
Do not steal praise
We see this unfortunately, that people accept praise for things they never did. They put their names on pieces of work they did not do, meanwhile, those who worked tirelessly get no mention for their hard work.
Ibn Atta said that there is a time for everything, so work on your inner reality:
Bury your existence in the earth of obscurity, for whatever sprouts forth, without having first been buried, flowers imperfectly. (11)
Praising children is very good for them when you do it wisely. When children are over-praised it affects their self esteem negatively and when they are praised for their ability, intelligence or looks it puts pressure on them to live up to that praise and can backfire, making them fear failure. This is person praise. It refers to complementing a seemingly fixed trait.
In sharp contrast, studies found that when children were praised for their effort and strategies, they focused on learning and improving themselves. Saying “You did a great job!” shifts the weight of the praise onto the child’s hard work. This is what researchers call process-praise, and it focuses on the efforts and energy that the child commits to the project at hand. Thus, praising children for their effort and strategies helps them thrive on challenges.
Praising the deceased
Ibn Umar reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said:
“Mention what is good about your dead, and refrain from speaking about their evil.” (Tirmidhi)
Umar ibn al-Khattab reported that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:
“Whenever four persons testify to the goodness of a Muslim, he will enter Paradise.” We said, “And three?” The Prophet said, “Even three.” We said, “And two?” The Prophet said, “Even two.” Thereafter we did not ask about only one person. (Bukhari)
Stay humble by reflecting on the danger of your end, the subtleties of hypocrisy and the wrong intention.
It is important to keep your feet firmly on the ground, without having low selfesteem, one should be aware that no matter how much better they are than others in certain respects, others will have qualities in them that they still need to improve or acquire. A wise person knows that every life is a lesson to learn from.
Abu Sa’id al-Khudri reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said:
“Whoever humbles himself by a degree for Allah, glory be to Him, Allah will raise him by a degree. Whoever is arrogant to Allah by a degree, Allah will lower him by a degree until he is made ‘the lowest of the low.’” (95:5) (ibn Majah)
May Allah enable us to be wise and understand our reality and improve it.
Shaykh Haytham Tamim – The Thursday Al Ghazali Class 2nd December 2021 with additions by Ayesha Khan
- Cover the faults of others. Ghazali’s Rules 12-13 for dealing with people.
- How to deal with people according to their status. Ghazali rule 9-11
- Dealing with gossip and arguments. How to deal with people: Ghazali’s rules 7-8
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