Humility


by Sohaib Baig

Humility: A quality mastered by few, though claimed by many.

It is in that period of life when a person begins to develop their first perspective of the world, and how they fit into its giant, complex systems, that they encounter a sort of identity crisis. I do not mean the typical identity crises where the individual is lost as to who they really are and what their true essence represents. I suggest another shade of uncertainty: a crisis regarding how they confront the contradictions and discrepancies regarding their self-worth. As individuals we look at how we viewed our self-worth in the past in comparison to how society values our worth now as well as how much importance we should ideally place on ourselves as per Divine guidance. This confusing conundrum befuddles us all and therefore we tend to neglect finding answers, opting instead to let others dictate how we perceive our self-worth. Very often, we swing from one extreme to another, in constant reaction to internal and external turmoil. Few realize that at the core of this identity crisis lies humility, a concept which the Divine has instructed and provided guidance for – a guidance that can help calm our tumultuous lives and bring an understanding of who and how important we really are.

If we accept the meaning of humility in its most technical sense, which is to behave and believe that we are not superior to others, we will be presented with a few immediate complications. We can question whether this sense of humility is a reflection of sincere emotions and values: one may have genuine motives such as admiration or shame, but there may exist ulterior motives such as self-gratification, political or social maneuvering, as well as hypocrisy. Also one can be humble in front of some yet arrogant in front of others; will this broken humbleness really count as humility? The most important question is if humility is relative to circumstances and social standards, or is it a fixed measure of character? If a multi-billionaire has pride in his wealth but humbles himself before more powerful individuals such as Bill Gates, will society accept him as a humble person? Questions like these complicate the essence of humility and thus many altogether discard the importance of being humble. Instead passive standpoints are encouraged such as “don’t let your arrogance bubble out, unless someone personally attacks you.” With this compromise we see another problem: can humility really be conditional? (i.e “if you show me humility, then I will show you humility”) This leads to the next question: in a secular society which believes each person to be their own god, how far does one have to go to be truly humble, without losing dignity? Are dignity and humility diametrically opposed, or can they exist simultaneously at the highest levels?

Guidance from Islam on the other hand, completely revolutionizes the concept of humility. Firstly, Allah commands man to be humble, thus establishing its importance as opposed to simply being an optional quality. Secondly, Allah inextricably ties a human’s worth to Divine Creation as in the Qur’an it reads man was created “in the best of stature” (95:4). If people are living a life in accordance to Divine principles, Allah raises their status: “Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you.”(Qur’an, 49:13). And we are reminded that if we stray away from Guidance, we become “the lowest of the low” (Qur’an, 95:5). This radically transforms the accepted standards upon which we are judged and judge one another.

Muslims believe that ultimate judgment comes only from Allah Himself. This gives Muslims boundless relief and freedom – for as long as they are following Allah’s injunctions with wisdom and sincerity, they know not to fear the opinions of others. Thus if society regards a believer as the ‘lowest of the low,’ they remain unperturbed because they believe Allah’s Judgment to be the Highest. This prevents us from becoming arrogant because we have absolutely no proof of our own success. Even if a person appears to be on the path of success outwardly, their internal condition may differ. And though one may know his or her internal state of humility, it cannot guarantee remaining steadfast in the future. Even if a person does remain steadfast in humility, they know the Final Judgment is still entirely up to Allah Himself, Who is Free to do what He wills. Thus, this uncertainty of how we will be judged deprives us from arrogance; it keeps us in a constant state of yearning for Allah’s mercy and forgiveness.

Lastly, recognizing Allah’s ultimate authority helps Muslims refrain from passing judgments on others as they realize that their own judgment is completely useless. We can never assume superiority to another even in the face of blatant external signs of hypocrisy or arrogance. All we can do is provide advice for both internal and external reform, for nobody knows what lies in our futures. However, Muslims are instructed to show contempt for pure evil and to stand tall against tyranny. If a person is meek before evil and stands down, then their humbleness (or fear) will only feed the arrogance and allow that evil to grow stronger.

Just as there is virtue in being humble, there is evil in being arrogant, for it challenges the foundation of the Islamic worldview that is based on equity and equality. Hence the saying of the Prophet ﷺ: “No one who has an atom’s weight of pride in his heart will enter the Garden.” (Muslim) Anyone who is cognizant of his own vulnerable position in the universal scheme of things will find it difficult to become arrogant. However, this does not guarantee complete immunity. Human beings as part of their very nature are susceptible to societal pressures. If society praises us, our humility is threatened as we may attribute ourselves with a newfound greatness – which may delude us into believing in our own superiority and the higher probability of a successful future, because we are ‘better.’ Once a person believes in a greater likelihood of future success, they begin to worry less about it, something which can have devastating consequences. The more jealously we pursue our goals, the greater chance we have of achieving them. Arrogance numbs our concern and desensitizes us to all the shortcomings we may have, thus leading the way to disaster.

To shield ourselves from such pride, we are instructed to abstain from ostentation and all needless displays of our accomplishments. We have to be extremely careful about exposing our good attributes although we should mention our achievements if it promotes more good among others. Feeling internally happy at one’s accomplishments on the other hand, is also permitted within certain bounds: so long as it does not lead to excessive self-amazement, arrogance, or forgetfulness of who allowed the success. In fact, we should recognize Allah’s blessings upon us, as this allows us to show gratitude to Allah, and pray that we successfully utilize them for even greater good.

Another commonly misunderstood concept is the relationship between dignity and humility, as some may confuse dignity with arrogance and humility with a lack of dignity. Only by looking at the examples of our great elders can we understand the subtle differences between them. Thus we find Umar (ra) admonishing a person walking with exaggerated meekness. Yet he had no problem wearing patched-up clothes and letting his slave ride the camel as they entered Jerusalem, even as the city’s Christian leaders awaited him. In essence, our elders succeeded in maintaining both dignity and humility at the highest levels. The two qualities were certainly not mutually exclusive, because dignity lies in giving honor to the soul created by Allah, while humility lies in downplaying one’s own actions and accomplishments. The litmus test for this unique state of awareness is the fact that they were never above admitting their mistakes and never belittled others.

There is also no concept of self-confidence in Islam, for all power descends exclusively from Allah. If a man believes he creates success alone, he is deluded, his actions worthless; but if he believes in Allah’s power, he is empowered, his actions weighty. Humility therefore becomes a matter of faith in Allah; the more faith one has in Allah’s protection, the more powerful he feels – and the more humbled he is by this awesome power. The Prophet ﷺ himself was the greatest creation in the history of creation, yet the most humble of them all. This ’higher’ thinking can explain how the Prophet’s ﷺ Companions felt absolutely no fear in challenging the powerful Roman and Persian empires, even as they humbled themselves by expressing reluctance at being assigned leadership roles within the Islamic state. Thus, despairing emotions are naturally foreign to a soul wholly immersed in love for the Divine.

A saying by the Sufi master Ibn Ata’ullah captures this sentiment eloquently: “One of the signs of relying on one’s own deeds is the loss of hope when a downfall occurs.” Once a believer submits himself entirely to the Divine will, he will never feel a loss of confidence, or degradation for his Source of Confidence will never disappear: “…Truly no one despairs of Allah’s Soothing Mercy, except those who have no faith” (Qur’an, 12:87). And once one realizes he draws all his strength from Allah, Who can retract it at any time, his self-pride will automatically vanish: Say, ‘O Allah , Owner of Sovereignty, You give sovereignty to whom You will and You take sovereignty away from whom You will. You honor whom You will and You humble whom You will. In Your hand is [all] good. Indeed, You are over all things competent.’” (Qur’an, 3:26).

Humility is an extremely difficult quality to acquire and master, and like the battle to acquire sincerity, it remains a dynamic struggle throughout our lives. Much of it stems from its ironic nature: how on one hand humility demands one to desist from self-amazement and lower oneself, but it only truly manifests itself in the most amazing people. Similarly humility destroys all superiority complexes, but only truly superior people can manage to accomplish that. Ultimately, only firm believers in Allah are powerfully proficient at remaining humble.

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11 Comments

  1. María M says:

    As salamu alaykum,

    Thank you very much for your article, just one question, when I read:”extremely difficult”, “battle”…, why did you choose these words? Do you feel it this way? You have worked hard in this post, and you close it with those words, Would you mind to explain me why?

    All my respect,

    María

    • Yusuf says:

      Wa’alaykum as-salaam wa rahmathullahi wa barakatuhu.

      a good question indeed, but the answer to that is by virtue of experience. It requires sincere faith, trust in Allah alone – obeying his commandments completely, to come to such a level of emaan to truly feel the essence of the beauty that comes in being as humble as possible as portrayed by our prophet Muhammad (salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam)

      Its not difficult, it is hard work, and when shaytan is always there to distract you, it is indeed difficult, but the stronger your faith is and the repeated times you turn in repentance to Allah for erring, the stronger you get and higher your emaan gros, more firm trust you put in Allah, InshaAllah Allah would make it easy for us.

      That is when its easy, the path requires patience and perseverance, sustenance after that is the key by obeying Allah. hope this helps

      • María M says:

        Sure, I got that from all the article, but these words that you have added now brings sweetness to the whole message, ….hard work, repentance, faith, patience and perseverance,….and, of course, Hope.

        Thank you very much.

        All my respect,

        María

    • Sohaib says:

      Walaykum assalam,

      Jazakallah khair for your reflective question. I chose those words because I believe that “battle” adds a graphic twinge to our lifelong quest of perfection and purification – because frankly, this is our soul and our eternal future which is at stake.

      I also wanted to protect us from underestimating the concept of humility, and the fact many people casually attempt to be humble while not fully digesting what humility entails.

      Hope that helps!

      - Sohaib

      • María M says:

        Thank you very much, I appreciate your answer.

        You made very clear through all the post the differences between humbleness and humility, and I understand now your choice. What went directly to my heart was your reflection about the people that are examples of humility for us, it is right now a hard job for me to put myself in their shoes,I am not even humble many times, I hope one day the shoes of Humility fits all of us, insha´Allah.

        For sure helps.

        Jazak Allahu Khairan.

        María

  2. Elfatih says:

    السلام عليكم, True indeed, but arises in me a question in need of answering, i am not knowledgeable in Islam in a holistic manner but i have read a book for عبدالرحمن عبد الخالق, which i didn’t complete yet, and i found amazing quotes from Sufi books which totally contradict with the sound creed, this book is called; الفكر الصوفي في ضوء الكتاب والسنة, So my question is, Is it permissible to name out this deviant sect without pointing out their danger, because i used to love them before i found out the mutilation of عقيدة that they teach as a foundation to their belief in Allah the exalted and high from all what they falsely ascribe to him. Please answer because i feel a little bit befuddled :) and May Allah the most high and glorified reward you for this piece which i loved

  3. Muslema says:

    Assalamu Alaikum,

    Jazak Allah Khair for breaking this down so beautifully and eloquently. How central is it to our everyday lives and how often do we forget! May Allah enable us to really benefit from your reminder.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Elfatih,

    Just to clarify, Sufism is not a deviant sect. You can even ask Imam Suhaib Webb, who mentioned he is a “Sufi of the 21st century” in one of his recent talks.

    Jazakallah khayr for this article.

  5. Mustafa says:

    Dear Br.Sohaib,

    May Allah reward you for sharing such profound thoughts. What an incredible goal it is for a human to attain the qualities you’ve talked about. May Allah grant them to us.

    Wassalam aleikum

  6. Ahmed says:

    Ma’sha’allah, this was beautiful article and a great reminder for all of us. Indeed, it is a life-long battle to fight our inner weaknesses or the test’s Allah (swt) gives us through our worldly successes. So many individuals, even those of Faith, say “I did this . .” or “I did that . .” when in fact, it was truly Allah’s (swt) Mercy and Bounty that something came to fruition.
    One aspect I can share of being successful and realizing Allah’s role in it is as a student. I know that when/if I pass an exam, though I may have put the work into it, that I realize that it would not have been possible without Allah’s Mercy – I’ve seen this several times in my life; it almost seemed I was in an impossibly difficult situation, where I knew that my efforts alone were not going to be enough, yet knowing that ultimately it was Allah’s Decision, I always kept hope in my heart no matter how bad things looked. I pray that I will be able to keep these experiences in mind in my future years to serve as a reminder in keeping myself grounded and that Allah will Guide all of us to remember Who is at the controls, so that we can work to be humble throughout our worldly lives. Ameen.

  7. zena says:

    A quality mastered by few, though claimed by many.. like that

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