Taming the Ego
by Ayesha Khan
What is the heart? We all know that the heart is an organ which pumps blood around the body. It is a vital organ. When the heart stops, we die. We associate it with love. In English we describe someone with no kindness as ‘hard-hearted’. When we are moved we say something ‘touched our heart, when we fall in love we say someone ‘stole our heart’ and if we are unlucky we have a ‘broken heart’.
By comparison we think that all our thoughts occur in the brain. We clearly separate the function heart and mind – one as a place of emotion and the other a place of thought.
However, it’s not the same in other cultures.
The Chinese represent ‘thinking and thought’ as well as ‘love’ with an ideogram of the heart.
Physically, we now know that the heart contains thousands of neurons that connect it with the brain, and we know that as we process ideas our heartbeat changes.
When we look at foetal development, no one knows what initiates the heart to beat, and the heart starts beating around 6 weeks before the brain is fully formed. When I went for my pregnancy scan it was quite a blurry black and white screen, but you could see very distinctly what looks a little butterfly, which is the fluttering of the heart inside the developing foetus.
In Islam we believe that the heart is the spiritual centre of our being. It is not simply the organ of emotions, feelings and desires, but when purified it is the seat of the intellect. It is the place where our conscience is. Where the voice is that tells us when we are doing something wrong.
When we do something wrong it is as if a black spot forms on the heart. The more we sin, the blacker it becomes, like a frying pan that is getting coated with burnt on stains and charred or rusted. The first time we do something bad, we can feel disturbed and agitated by it. We feel guilty and upset. The more rusted it gets, the less sensitive it becomes, our conscience becoming clouded so the next time we sin, we feel it less and as we repeat that sin, our moral compass can become so dirty, the sin no longer bothers us at all.
Our hearts therefore can be in different states. They can either be sick or sound, dead or alive. There are some qualities that are called the diseases of the heart. They are things that if are left unchecked can destroy the heart. Just as smoking and fatty foods can cause a heart attack, greed, arrogance, backbiting and envy are some of the things that can blot out the light from a heart and cause it to die.
In the Quran, we are told that to enter paradise we need to have a sound heart.
So we need to know what to do to protect our hearts. They are precious and vital and we have to guard them vigilantly.
We believe that humans are born with a sound heart. Unlike the Christian concept that we are born in state of sin, Muslims believe that we are born with a pure and unsullied nature with a natural tendency to do good, but have also been given free will to mould ourselves as we choose. In fact it is our capacity to choose that raises us above animals, as we have self-control and the ability to resist our immediate desires.
We can make spectacular intellectual progress in the knowledge of the physical universe as well as moral progress and to rise spiritually.
The animal instinct inside us tells us we want things. It is not long after we start walking and talking that we begin to express wanting things. My twins are already pointing to things and one of their first words is ‘more’ whether it is their beaker of water or a raisin, we are in no doubt when they want something because they point and say ‘MORE’.
While they occasionally feed each other, they are also times when they don’t want to share. It wasn’t long after they began being able to grip things that they also began pulling things out of each other’s hands. And they hadn’t even turned one when I saw for the first time, one twin take a bowl of grapes away from the other one and turn her back on her, so that the grapes were safe from being taken back. It was a clear message that ‘these are mine and I want them! YOU can’t have them’.
This realisation that we can have things can develop into us believing that those things are ours through our efforts and that having them makes us superior to those who don’t have them.
It can be our looks, intelligence and material things – noticing that we possess something others haven’t got, begins to puff us up and make us feel proud.
This idea is reinforced by others – when the babies put on their shiny booties we say ‘oooh nice shoes!’ Your friends might say ‘I love your hair’, or ‘I wish I was as good at art as you…’ Very soon the babies will be going to nursery and winning stickers – the children with stickers will feel they are more special when they get them than the ones who didn’t get stickers.
We like comparing. We are always comparing and keeping track. Who has the latest phone, who got the highest marks, who won the race. Just like the Queen in Snow White, ‘Mirror mirror on the wall…’ we like to rate things and set up a pecking order whether it is the cleverest, prettiest, fastest, richest, biggest, we set ourselves up as the judge and like to know where we stand.
We crave appreciation. When we post a picture on Instagram we are gratified by the responses. We wait for them. If they don’t come, we might be filled with self-doubt.
When we are consistently doing well in the ratings it is not long before we get used to it. And we are all fortunate here that we have nice houses, cars, we go to good shops, restaurants and hotels, so when we walk into cheaper places they make us feel like we are not where we belong. We feel that we somehow deserve to be in the luxury and comfort that we have become accustomed to. For example, being a student at a selective school, makes you smarter than the average population. Walking into a school lower in the league tables may make many of us smirk internally at the ‘inferior quality’ of work on the walls.
We begin to view people who don’t have the same things as us, as if they are inferior. They might not have the right accents or grammar or clothes, or the way they carry themselves.
In England we are obsessed with class. The right tie or right handshake can speak volumes about what class we belong to. When my husband was being interviewed for medical school, one of the interviewers arrived late and my husband stood up automatically and shook his hand. Afterwards when he had got in, he was told that the panel had been impressed that he had done that. It wasn’t just his answers, it was the subtlety of an action like that that had signalled a message to the others that he was the ‘right sort’. Someone with a different upbringing might not have thought to do that, even though that person may not necessarily have been less intelligent or less capable. Recently the furore over a politician who called a policeman ‘a pleb’, infuriated people because that one word indicated that he thought he superior to a policeman and above the rules.
It is the same attitude when a motorist doesn’t think he should give way. Whether it is the 4×4 towering down over a smaller car, or a young man driving fast and then not being prepared to reverse.
Arrogance comes in many shapes and sizes- the first sign that you think you are good and others are less is a sign of arrogance.
Thinking we are better than others is as absurd is the child with more stickers being filled with a sense of self importance.
Collectively we might look down on other families, communities and other nations. Developed countries look down on other parts of the world where they have not achieved the same standards of living. Carried to its conclusion this arrogance gives rise to colonialism, exploitation, slavery and oppression. With one race thinking that it can treat another race with disdain. The worst leaders in history had arrogance for their middle name: Hitler, Stalin, Imelda Marcos, Sadam Husain, Idi Amin. Compare that to someone like Nelson Mandela.
So arrogance is something we need to nip in the bud. It is something that might be obvious to others because we put them down, or use sarcasm, or it might be hidden inside us. However much there is, it is a quality that we need to check within ourselves and root out.
Particularly if you are Muslim, the consequences of being arrogant are displeasing to God, who says ‘And never be arrogant with people, and walk not haughtily on the earth.’ [17:37] ‘Behold, Allah does not love any bragging boaster.’ [57:23]
In Islam, anyone with even speck of arrogance the size of a mustard seed cannot enter paradise. The more we crave attention in this life, the less attention we will receive in the afterlife.
That means that if we did something for praise, we can get praise in this world, but if we do something for God our reward is from God.
In fact on the Day of Judgement it is those who had less in this life that will get judged first. So the person who has less now, maybe the cleaner who comes into your home, may be in much stronger position on the Day of Judgement. Suddenly we don’t feel so superior anymore.
On the Day of Judgement, the things we were valued by in the life: our good looks, posh accent, A*s, bank balance, are no longer of use. They are not what God is judging us by. In fact, He is the One who gave them to us in the first place.
To assume that people who have more have them because God is favouring them is wrong. In Islam having more is not a measure of God’s love. It is as much a test as having nothing. Those who were poor will have less to prove while those were richer will have to justify how they spent their wealth.
And we are also aware that anything we have can be taken away at any time. I dropped money out of my pocket the other day, which is was a reminder to me that it had not really belonged to me, and more strikingly earthquakes, tsunamis, financial crises or an accident can wipe what we have at any moment.
Thinking that they make us better than others, is therefore offensive to God.
In Islam we accept that we are not superior to anyone, that one colour is not superior to any other and that while we can only judge what’s on the surface, whereas God judges what is in our hearts. And no one is in a position to know who is pleasing God more, as we know that God might like a particular quality that one person had, more than someone else who was apparently more pious.
We accept that our intellect is limited. We are incapable of producing a universe, or even a fly, and whatever judgements we make are limited by us only being able to comprehend things with limited thoughts.
So we humble ourselves before God. We recognise that we are in need of all good that He sends us and Muslims bring ourselves down to the ground in a position of total humility in prayer. And we believe that through prayer and remembrance of God we can clean some of the blackness from our hearts.
In the Quran, the vilest of all creation is Pharaoh. One of the cruellest dictators of all time, he was a tyrannical ruler, who was so arrogant that he denied the existence of God, and asked for a tower to be built so that he could see Him. He thought he was self-sufficient, that he was not accountable to anyone, that he could be a tyrant and have the babies killed, and was so drunk on his own power that proclaimed himself a god and had temples built to himself.
If we go back further than the story of Pharaoh, we can look at the story of Adam and Eve. God created angels from light, jinn from fire and man from clay. When he asked the angels to bow down to Adam, it was a jinn who was infuriated and felt that this was beneath him. How could God possibly ask him to bow down to a being made of clay when he had been created out of fire? The rebellious jinn refused. His pride was hurt. He was filled with anger. The first sin ever to be committed is rooted in arrogance.
The next thing is that once he had erred, he couldn’t accept that he made a mistake. He was unable to recognise his fault and blamed God instead. There is lesson for us in this, because the sign that we are arrogant is when we blame others for our mistakes rather than accepting that we were in the wrong.
It manifests itself when we think someone else has no right to criticise us because they don’t know what they’re talking about. How often has someone told us something that causes us explode angrily. How often do we jump to our defence and reason that others were in the wrong.
For example, my mother is always telling me to watch what I eat and warning me that if I’m not careful I’ll put on weight. I find it quite annoying. Especially when I think that she is not in a position to tell me that, when she is overweight herself. But if I step back from being defensive and think about it, her advice is sincere. She may be overweight, but actually that makes her know exactly why I shouldn’t eat another biscuit, because she has been down that road already. If I have more self-control, I will benefit. And if I can’t get sincere advice from my own mother, who else is going offer it?
Another example is my brother, who has been learning Arabic. He has got a great teacher but when I hear him recite, I can sometimes hear mistakes. But if tell him that he is pronouncing something wrong he gets really defensive. How could his younger sister know better than him? And if you have younger siblings you will know what it feels like to be corrected by them. It is really annoying!
So how can we protect our hearts from arrogance? Here are the feelings we need to watch out for:
- When we think we deserve something better than someone else – like when we are jumping a queue. What makes us think that we have the right to do that?
- When we are disappointed with a gift because we deserved better
- That smug feeling when we get back a test and do better than someone else
- Thinking we know it all. (In fact, throughout time each generation thinks they are better than their parents, previous generations, previous scholars and inventors etc)
- When someone else is complimented and we think we were better at that thing
- Being bossy
- Thinking our idea was the best and others should have gone with it
- When we don’t greet someone and wait for them to greet us first
- When we show off
- When we find it hard to apologise or even accept that we are wrong
- Putting others down and being sarcastic
How to counteract these thoughts:
- Be grateful for what we have
- Appreciate that it might be that God has sent you advice through someone else. (someone that you might even think is inferior to you in some way – younger, older, less well off)
- When we are criticised, is to bite our tongue. Say nothing. Nothing at all. (even though in our head we will be highly offended)
- Let the steam cool off.
- Then reflect. Is it possible, even a teeny weeny bit, that the criticism had a bit of truth in it? Could it be possible that we are not in fact perfect and that there is some room for improvement?
- If you are constantly thinking of others’ faults, stop. Think about something positive that they have instead
- Stop thinking the world revolves around you
Finally let’s look at the example of our Prophet (peace be upon him):
Even though he was the leader of the Muslims and adored by so many, we see that he did not have the slightest arrogance. He lived a life of simplicity, he didn’t dress in a special way or have a palace, he would eat with the poor, he would mend his own clothes, His status did not come from riches or external possessions and he treated all people kindly regardless of whether their nobility, colour, if they were men or women, young or old. He had the humility to seek the opinions of his companions or wives when he had the best judgement himself, and he was not too proud to get down and play on the floor with his grandchildren. his greatness shone through his exemplary attitude. When offered the choice of living and being given anything he desired on earth, or returning to God, he chose the latter. I want to close with his prayer:
‘Oh Allah! Make me small in my eyes but big in the eyes of others.’
Written by Ayesha Khan in 2014
November 29, 2023
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