Islamic Character

Overcoming Arrogance

Lecture by Suhaib Webb | Transcribed by Fuseina Mohamad

Surat Al-Fatiha Series: Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart V | Part VIPart VIIPart VIIIPart IXPart X | Part XI | Part XII | Part XIII | Part XIV | Part XV | Part XVI | Part XVII | Part XVIII | Part XIX | Part XX | Part XXI | Part XXII | Part XXIII | Part XXIV | Part XXV

As we continue Surat al-Fatiha, we find that this chapter of the Qur’an has some of the best cures for the greatest sicknesses of the heart. Let’s go over a few.

The first disease, and one of the greatest diseases of the heart, is kibr (arrogance). That is why the Prophet Muhammed ﷺ said “The one who has even an atom’s weight of arrogance in their heart will not go to Paradise” (related by Abdullah bin Masood).

How do we define arrogance? After the Prophet Muhammed ﷺ made this statement, some of his companions said, “Ya Rasulallah, O Messenger of God, we like to dress nicely. We like to wear nice clothes and nice shoes.” The Prophet ﷺ said this is not kibr. We can take one lesson from this: as Muslims we should dress nicely. Even if we wear a thobe or shalwar khmeez (Arab or Desi cultural clothing), we should iron it and have a nice appearance. One time the Prophet ﷺ sent his companions on a mission and told them, “Straighten your saddles and have a good appearance” (related by  Abu Dawud with a sound chain of narration). Having a good appearance doesn’t mean dressing like J. Lo or Shahrukh Khan. Having a good appearance means that I dress nicely and Islamically. That’s why Sheikh Muhammed Shanqiti, one of my teachers, told me that every Imam should have a budget to buy decent-looking clothes. This does not mean that you go out and buy a five thousand dollar suit, but the person should have a good appearance.

The Prophet Muhammed ﷺ defined arrogance for us when he said, “Arrogance is to turn away from the truth when it’s given to you and to look down on people.”

Turning away from the truth is very dangerous. For example, someone comes to you and says, “Ya akhi (O my brother) I swear by Allah, I love you more than myself and I saw you doing something today and it’s wrong.”

Then you reply, “Well, back home this is the way we do things.” You’d better check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Or for example, someone comes to a sister and says, “Sister, masha’ Allah, you did a really great job today, however according to Islam we should do it like this.”

And you reply, “Well, I don’t do it like that.”

This is turning away from the truth. It’s very sneaky, because when someone disobeys Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) and they do so knowingly, it is because they feel that they know better than Allah (swt). This is scary. For example if someone suggests that we need to pray and another replies “You know, I don’t think we should pray in the library. All kinds of things are going on in the news about Muslims, I think it would be wiser and more intelligent if we wait and pray tomorrow.” Well, that’s an opinion, but it doesn’t matter what he thinks, because this is what Allah (swt) commands.

Humble yourself, because after the sins of Iblees, the first sin was the sin of logic. Deistic philosophy, as Newton said, that God created us and the world works like a clock. He just created creation and left it to function without intervention, therefore creation can think whatever they want to think. This is not how we work. We believe, as we saw in al-Fatiha, that Allah (swt) is close to us. Allah (swt) said “And when My servants ask you, [O Muhammad], concerning Me – indeed I am near,” (Qur’an, 2:186).

When Allah (swt) told Adam `alayhi assalaam (upon him be peace), “[…] do not come close to this tree […]”, Iblees said, “Your Lord did not forbid you this tree except that you become angels or become of the immortal,” (Qur’an, 7:19 – 20). Logically, being angels and living forever seem quite good, so Adam and Eve ate from the tree. That’s why the`ulema (scholars) said that Allah (swt) gave this story at the beginning of humanity to let us know that for the one who submits to Allah (swt), even their logic is subservient to His orders. As Francis Bacon said, the human’s intellect is like a dim lantern: sometimes it gets it right, but sometimes they fall on their face. And Allah (swt) says that, “There has come to you from Allah a light and a clear Book,” (Qur’an 5:15). The Qur’an is a bright light. Nobody can get lost with it.

So the first form of arrogance is turning away from people and disobeying Allah (swt). For example we don’t pray Fajr (the pre-dawn prayer) because we read in Time magazine two years ago that eight hours of sleep is the average needed for a healthy individual. Masha’ Allah, most college students don’t have that problem because they’re getting fourteen or twelve hours of sleep, or playing video games all night. So we think we shouldn’t go to Fajr because we need to wake up early and go to class. This is turning away from and debasing the truth.

The second form of arrogance is even more dangerous. It is to look down on people.

We are going to go through some causes of arrogance and then we’ll talk about their cures in Surat al-Fatiha and then next week we’ll continue with al-riyaa (showing off) and what Imam Ghazali said about the five kinds of riyaa. We will also talk about how al-Fatiha cured al-riyaa and al-hasad. Al hasad means more than envy, and insha’ Allah in the future we will give you the translation.

What are some of the reasons for arrogance?

The first one is that people in general become arrogant when they start to have a lot of knowledge or when they start to become (assumedly) pious. The arrogance of knowledge and piety. These two have possibly destroyed more people than any other kind of arrogance.

A way to understand this is to ask ourselves: who was the most pious person that ever walked the face of the earth? It was Rasulallah ﷺ. What happens when someone starts to feel that they’re pious? They think to themselves, “I’m so close to Allah, I’m praying my tahajjud (late night prayers), I’m fasting twice a week. Masha’ Allah, look at me.” And then here comes a sister who, for example, doesn’t wear hijab. The “pious” sister who wears hijab is disgusted. Or she doesn’t talk to the sister without hijab. Or maybe she thinks, “Hmmm, I sure am lucky I’m not like you.” This can be arrogance. Of course we say that the level of the person who wears hijab is high with Allah (swt), higher than the one who doesn’t wear hijab. But if the one who wears hijab does so without ikhlas, sincerity, and she feels that she is better than others, she’s in trouble.  Maybe a brother memorized the Qur’an and spent some time to learn how to read the Qur’an correctly. He comes to the masjid and discovers some brothers reading the Qur’an incorrectly. He says to himself, “Masha’ Allah, I’m so great!” This is the danger of knowledge.

Nobody was more knowledgeable than the Prophet ﷺ, but yet he used to say salaam (lit. peace, in this case greetings) to children. When he was walking through Madinah and saw some kids he would say, “As-salaam alaykum, peace be upon you,” and he would be smiling. He wouldn’t say, “I’m a sheikh, I’m an ’alim (person with knowledge).” No. The Prophet ﷺ used to sit on the floor and eat food with people. Sisters always like to hear that the Prophet ﷺ used to do the chores in the home when he went home to be with his wives. He didn’t go home and say, “Are you asking me to wash the dishes? Do you know who I am?” No, he used to serve and help them.

One time the people saw Abu Bakr radi allahu `anhu (may Allah be pleased with him) sewing the soles of his own shoes. They exclaimed, “You are Amir al Mumineen (leader of the Believers)!” He said, “Me? I’m nothing. Who am I?”

This is humility. It is to be careful about your knowledge. You know how you can understand this? Who is the greatest scholar? Iblees. Nobody knows more than Iblees. But where is Iblees now? Is he chilling with the European fatwa (legal ruling) council? No. He is the fatwa of the people of hellfire. That’s why one poet said, “Knowledge is like rain, and behavior is the soil. If the soil is corrupted it doesn’t matter what kind of rain you put on it. Iblees knows more than every human being, but still the only thing he got is curses.” Even the kuffar (disbelievers) curse Iblees. So his knowledge, without humility, did nothing for him. And what was Iblees’s major mistake? He said, “I am better than him. You created me from fire and created him from clay,” (Qur’an 38:76).

If we look at the lives of the salaf (righteous people) we find that they used to fight themselves to be humble. Hasan Al Basry was the greatest scholar in his area. He used to say, “I will not leave a room until I feel that I am worse than everybody in the room.”

How did the Prophet ﷺ act with a sinner? We all know the hadith that one time he was giving a khutbah (sermon) and he was on the minbar (pulpit). The Prophet ﷺ watched as a man walked in and then sat down. What did the Prophet ﷺ say to him? He said, “Did you pray?” He did not say, “What didn’t you pray! You are a sinner!” He simply asked if the man had prayed, even though he was watching the man. Why? Because the caller to Allah (swt) never wants the people he is calling to feel that he is better than them. So even though the Prophet ﷺ was watching the man, he asked if he had prayed. When the man said no, the Prophet ﷺ said, “Stand and pray.”

The second lesson from this hadith is that our da’wah (invitation to Islam) is never based on suspicion. Our da’wah is based on facts. For example, one time I went to a masjid and forgot my topi (prayer hat). One man asked me, “What kind of guy are you, you don’t even wear a kufi (prayer hat)! You don’t believe in wearing a kufi?” I thought to myself, “Subhan Allah (glory be to God), I forgot it at home. I had it but I left it in the house.” If I had told him that he would have felt bad.

Sometimes when we see someone doing something we jump to conclusions. For example we see a guy in the cafeteria talking to a girl, we think, “Ah ha, I knew it!” We shouldn’t think like that. Maybe he has to talk to her for a class assignment or some other reason. Or maybe he is a sinner. But how are you going to deal with him? As my sheikh told me, the one who calls to Islam is like a physician. You don’t give Prilosec to every patient. To some people you give penicillin, others amoxicillin, Tylenol, or Advil. Everybody’s medicine is different. Maybe you see a sister walking across the campus and you see her do something wrong. You say, “Istaghfir Allah! Authoo billah! I seek protection in Allah!” But you have to be sure she is doing something wrong. What happened to her? What problem is she having? This is a sign of humility.

Do you know what Ibn Qayyim said? He said a sinner can go to Paradise and an obedient servant can go to hell. How? Because the one who was obedient to Allah (swt) was obedient out of arrogance. For example, he would think to himself, “I pray Fajr on time, I’m good. I pray tahajjud, I have a beard, I follow the sunnah (way of the Prophet ﷺ), I’m better than you.” Like Shaytan. But the sinner realizes one day the he has been sinning and when he realizes that, his heart breaks. He goes in front of Allah (swt) and he starts crying, he gives Allah (swt) the sadaqah (charity) from his eyes, and he starts repenting to Allah (swt). Then Allah (swt) forgives him and he is among the people of Paradise.

This is the kibr of piety and knowledge.

The second form of looking down on people is position. When someone gets a position and they feel proud of themselves, for example they boast, “Yeah, I’m MSA President now” or “I’m a big Sheikh.” Position can be in a lot of things: family, money, position in an organization, or academic position. For example, “I made the Dean’s list every year”. But have you made Allah’s list? This is the danger of position.

Although the Prophet ﷺ had the highest position he was very humble. Even if righteous people are given positions they work to be humble. I had a Sheikh who I was studying with. One day my kufi fell off. He ran, grabbed my kufi and put it on my head. I was embarrassed and I said, “Istaghfir Allah (I seek forgivness from Allah), you’re the Sheikh!” He quoted the verse, “Be merciful to the believers.” Why did Allah (swt) say that the true believers are merciful to the believers? Because they do not look at the believers, even the sinners, with arrogance. They are soft with them. Firm, but soft. It doesn’t mean that if you see a guy out there drinking a forty you should say, “Oh, brother Suhaib said I have to make sure, so maybe that’s not beer, maybe it’s apple juice.” Most definitely you need to go and advise the person, but how you advise them and carry yourself is very important in order to deliver the right medication.

People used to come to the Prophet ﷺ and ask, “What’s the best action?” Sometimes he would answer, “To pray on time.” Another time he answered, “Being good to your Mom and Dad.” Yet another time he answered, “Jihad.”

Why is the answer changing? Because the patient is different. Most of these hadiths are found in al-Bukhari and they are sahih (authentic). So you need to know how to deal with the patient. And the first patient is you.

When we look at righteous people, we find that they used to force themselves to be humble. For example, Umar ibn Abdulaziz. One day Umar ibn Abdulaziz was sitting with his companions when his sword fell from his horse. One guy ran to get it and put it back, then asked Umar, “Is this enough, is there anything else I can do for you?” Umar replied, “If I stand, I am Umar ibn Abdulaziz. If I sit, I am [still just] Umar ibn Abdulaziz. Who am I? Why are you doing that?” You know Umar ibn Abdulaziz used to dig a hole in his backyard and sit in it when he couldn’t pray qiyam al-layl (praying during the night). He would sit in this grave and say to himself, “This is where you are going to live. This is your permanent residence.” Then he would get up and pray in the night. He would force himself to be humble with people.

People used to come to Umar ibn al-Khattab (ra) and say, “Make du`a’ (supplication) for me, ya Amir al Mumineen (leader of the Believers).” Subhan Allah, you know what he used to reply? “Who am I? I am aathim (a sinner).” Subhan Allah nowadays when you come to someone and say, “Make du`a’ for me” it makes them feel proud of themselves. Hudhayfah ibn al-Yaman (ra) used to keep a list of the hypocrites. After Umar (ra) became the khalifa (caliph) and 700 cities were conquered by him, he would go to Hudhayfah and ask, “Please, am I on the list? Tell me if I’m on the list, I need to know.” This is Umar (ra) who used to have lines on his face from crying in the night. He’s afraid that he’s a hypocrite. This is humility. One time a man found Umar (ra) walking and carrying a water skin on his shoulder. This was the habit of the slaves in the time before the Prophet ﷺ. They would carry water on their shoulders. Now here is the leader of the Muslim nation carrying this like a slave. The man went to Umar (ra) and said, “Oh Umar! How come you are doing this? This is not at your level. It is not for you.” And you know what Umar said? Subhan Allah, it’s amazing. He said, “You know when people come to me and I say something, they obey me and listen to me. When they do that I found that arrogance fell into my heart. So I am carrying this on my back to make myself humble.”

Imam al-Shaarawi, one of the great scholars of Qur’anic interpretation in the last 100 years in Egypt, used to give a dars (lesson) every Friday on TV. About seven million people would be watching. One day, Imam Shaarawi came to the masjid in Cairo. Suddenly he got up and left. Now, those of you who have been to Muslim countries know that at Maghrib time the public restrooms in masjids are really bad. A man came into the restroom and found Sheikh Shaarawi, who was about seventy-five, scrubbing the toilets in his Azhari dress. The man said, “Subhan Allah! Sheikh Shaarawi, how come you’re doing this?” He replied, “I was sitting in the masjid and I started to think I’m this great Qur’anic scholar. So I wanted to kill this arrogance.” He was scrubbing the toilets in the robes of ‘ulema to break himself and make himself humble. Some of us think that we have so much spiritual knowledge, but even if we’re given one position we become very proud.

So, to fight yourself and struggle against yourself is important to fight arrogance. One time I gave this Eid khutbah in MCA (Muslim Community Association). A man came to me afterwards and started brushing his hands on me (in a congratulatory fashion). I started to feel that I was becoming proud of myself, that I wasn’t getting any barakah (mercy, good) from this, so I started to rub him back. He was surprised and he asked, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m the same as you.” I’m not saying this to praise myself, but rather to show that you have to fight yourself. If not, you’re going to start slipping—especially academically. Someone might start praising you and saying, “Oh, Muhammed, you’re such a scholar in physics. We think you’re such a genius. You’re going to be the next Hawkins.” Then two years later, Muhammed says, “I don’t believe in Allah.” We have some people right now on this campus like that who have lost themselves because of academic arrogance.

About the author

Suhaib Webb

Suhaib Webb

Suhaib Webb is a contemporary American-Muslim educator, activist, and lecturer. His work bridges classical and contemporary Islamic thought, addressing issues of cultural, social and political relevance to Muslims in the West. After converting to Islam in 1992, Webb left his career in the music industry to pursue his passion in education. He earned a Bachelor’s in Education from the University of Central Oklahoma and received intensive private training in the Islamic Sciences under a renowned Muslim Scholar of Senegalese descent. Webb was hired as the Imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, where he gave khutbas (sermons), taught religious classes, and provided counselling to families and young people; he also served as an Imam and resident scholar in communities across the U.S.

From 2004-2010, Suhaib Webb studied at the world’s preeminent Islamic institution of learning, Al-Azhar University, in the College of Shari`ah. During this time, after several years of studying the Arabic Language and the Islamic legal tradition, he also served as the head of the English Translation Department at Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah.

Outside of his studies at Al-Azhar, Suhaib Webb completed the memorization of the Quran in the city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia. He has been granted numerous traditional teaching licenses (ijazat), adhering to centuries-old Islamic scholarly practice of ensuring the highest standards of scholarship. Webb was named one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in 2010.

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  • hamdoulillahwa sobhanallah, every muslim is fightin , it seems to me like everythin wants to have a fight , the ego , the desires, sleep, iblees and the shayateens, everyone wants to conquer the castle named qalb , the shield of taqwa and the army Emaan will be fightin til the king al-Ruh will be called out

    a very good article, it reminds, much more of such article are needed to become a strong mind-set

  • Masha’Allaah, I have read a number of articles and this has done to me what many could not. Jazaku’Allaah kheyr for the read.

  • I very much enjoyed this transcription of your lecture and I can appreciate the necessity of humility and how I am responsible to cultivate this quality within myself. My thanks to you for this.
    Two questions arise, first with regard to your, I-forgot-my-topi-story. At the end of it you say, “If I had told him that he would have felt bad” – how are you responsible for him feeling bad? It is conceivable to me that he could have learned something from you if you had made an observation to him that you had simply left your hat behind and must be more careful in the future so as not to offend anyone, or some such. Remembering the incident, the next time perhaps he would ask instead “brother where is your topi”…
    The second question is about praise – where does this fit into overcoming arrogance? Because, I think its important to praise people – its a great teaching tool. And also, not being able to accept a compliment is a kind of an arrogance too, isn’t it?

  • @grandgenius,

    Praising someone has to be within limits,
    There’s this hadith:

    The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said:
    “Do not over-praise me as the Christians over-praised Jesus the son of Mary. I am His slave, so say: ‘God’s slave and messenger’.”
    Narrated by both Al-Bukhari and Muslim

    Even the dua which a person should say when he is praised reminds us of humility and acts as a reminder against riya’a.

    Allaahumma laa tu’aakhithnee bimaa yaqooloona, waghfir lee maa laa ya’lamoona [waj’alnee khayram-mimmaa yadhunnoon].

    O Allah , do not call me to account for what they say and forgive me for what they have no knowledge of [and make me better than they imagine].

  • subhanallah,, this is very awesome lesson, this is like a jewel that has everlasting benefits to us as a human that will back to the Lord of the worlds
    thanks Mr suhaib
    I hope you will get equal reward according to your deeds
    very very inspiring

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