One of the trials that workers are often afflicted with is thinking that they are more important than they are. We work hard, we struggle, we have a few successes, and then we think that we have done something. We allow these successes to cloud our brains and our hearts, and we get fooled into thinking we are irreplaceable. We think that the work will not continue without us or that our opinion is more important than someone else’s. This is the beginning of a massive heart attack. It is the seed of arrogance. When this seed is left unchecked, we start disrespecting others when they disagree with us, we marginalize others in our decision-making processes, and develop incorrect perceptions of who we really are and what this is really all about. We lose focus.
In order to regain focus we must come back to the basics and ask ourselves: How can I combat this onslaught of arrogance? The first step is to look at the definition of arrogance given by the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him).
When asked about it, he defined it as two things: Rejecting the truth and looking down on people. The two questions that should come as a result of that definition are:
- How do I know the truth?
- How do I build the spiritual capacity that will prevent me from looking down on others?
These are heavy questions and questions around which revolve the sincere search for truth and beauty through submission and worship.
As to the first, there is no solution other than to study. In the modern world we often think of this as reading books. This was never the way that Muslims studied throughout history. They read, yes, but they never read by themselves without tutelage and rigor. It is disturbing to me when I give a sermon on Culture and Islam and people think that they have understood the topic afterward. It is a sermon. There has been no elaboration, no discussion, no application, no analysis, nothing. This is a huge topic. You have not yet understood. The scholars always say:
“Never take Qu’ran from someone who studied it through the mushaf (its written form) (and not through a teacher). And never take knowledge from someone who only studied it through books (and not with a teacher).”
This is truth, and it requires rigor, humility, and patience. It is only through such dedicated study that one can develop one’s understanding of Islam to the point that one feels JUSTIFIABLY comfortable in what one understands to be the truth. It is also through such study that one truly begins to realize how little one knows, which is one of the most important lessons one can learn in life. However, simply learning is not enough. To practice it requires another element, which relates to the second issue.
The second issue is our spiritual development. To not look down upon others requires us to have a true and honest understanding of ourselves. We have to know and recognize our shortcomings and be in a constant state of struggling to align ourselves to the teachings of Islam. This is what submission is about. The key to this path is adab (courtesy/etiquette). Without it the seeker is lost in his or her journey and will never reach their goal. It begins in adab with Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala (exalted is He), and manifests itself in the way we treat others. This is one of the fruits of sound spiritual development. It is reported that some of the sufis used to say that the one who is better than you in adab is better than you in Sufism. Ibn al-Qayyim, radi Allahu `anhu (may God be pleased with him), commented on this and said:
“Nay, rather the deen (religion) itself is adab, so the one who is better than you in adab is better than you in the deen itself.”
This is not about sloganeering or intellectual prowess. We are not competing for votes or trying to win popularity contests. This is about a sincere and humble dedication to the truth. Only with such effort can one begin to protect themselves from the disease of looking down upon others.
It is with these reflections that we turn to the verse which inspired this lesson. God (swt) says in Surah Muhammad:
“Here you are—those invited to spend in the cause of Allah—but among you are those who withhold [out of greed]. And whoever withholds only withholds [benefit] from himself; and Allah is the Free of need, while you are the needy. And if you turn away, He will replace you with another people; then they will not be the likes of you,” (Qu’ran, 47:38).
This is a severe reminder for all those who seek to serve Allah (swt) in their lives. It is great that you are serving the community and working for the betterment of people, but do not ever forget that this benefits you more than it benefits anyone else. It is something that you have been called to do by the demands of your faith, and it is an honor and responsibility to answer that call. It is we who are in need of the mercy and love of Allah (swt). He is not in need of us. If we turn away, not only physically but also spiritually, by abandoning the path of deliberate self-criticism and reproach then He will replace us with others. You are great in potential, doing good things, but you are replaceable. Humble yourself.
This is the reminder that we take from this verse and the reminder that should cause us to reignite our commitment to the two pillars of learning and spiritual development.