On the Arrogance of Piety. By Rayhan Al-Safawi
The illusion and arrogance of piety may be one of the most deadly spiritual diseases that we have to face
Some time ago, a brother I’ve known for a while was driving his sister to a certain location. For the sake of privacy, let’s call this brother “Zain” and his sister “Sarah”. As they were driving, Sarah needed to relieve herself as she had drank some tea early on. Her bladder was sensitive, so it was difficult holding back. So the search for a bathroom began, but right when they began searching, it was prayer time. Zain, being the pious fellow he was, wanted to stop and pray. But Sarah was in deep pain and needed to go to the bathroom urgently. Zain was adamant that praying on time was more important than peeing. So he stopped, prayed somewhere while his sister was sitting in the car in pain and begging her brother to pray after she went to the bathroom, but no success, he was adamant that he had to pray. They later managed to find some restaurant and Sarah got to go to the bathroom.
Here is another story with another person I know. Let’s call this fellow Saeed (again, for privacy purposes). Saeed is the kind of guy that likes to fast, especially on mustahab days. Saeed was invited to a family lunch two weeks ahead. Saeed had agreed to the invite and his family had made a very special lunch for him. Yet when Saeed arrived on that very auspicious day, he politely excused himself and said that he was fasting because it was mustahab. He sat there as others ate whilst their hearts were broken for what Saeed had done. They had a hard time arguing with him for Saeed believed that fasting on mustahab days was more important than having some simple lunch.
Although worlds apart, Zain and Saeed have two things in common. It’s something I call the arrogance of piety, a very, very bad spiritual disease which unfortunately, I share with them as well. The arrogance of piety takes place in many forms. Here I’ll give a non-exhaustive list of a few of its manifestations.
- Thinking we’re holier than others
- Breaking the hearts of others for a mustahab act
- Dismissing other people’s feelings and needs in order to satisfy one’s our ego.
- Performing acts perfectly in Islam in order to think how great we are especially in relation to our perceived superiority vis-à-vis others. This ties into point #1.
- Having contempt for people who sin
- Having contempt for people who do not perform religious duties
- Having contempt for people who do not share our faith
Money is often a reason for thinking we’re better than others. Having lots of money makes us think that we’re smarter and that we have more value as human beings because it gives us the freedom and power to do things that people with less or no money can’t.
You can think of piety as being somewhat analogous to this. Religious practice and identity gives some of us the feeling that we are somewhat special, that we are different than others. By seeing ourselves, our beliefs and our actions as holy, anything contrary to it is seen as non-holy.
If there is something I have learnt about the life of the Prophet Muhammad (s) and his Holy Household (Ahl al-Bayt), it is that their lives were characterized by two principles. Loving and serving God, and loving and serving humanity. Both go hand-in-hand. You cannot truly love God if you hate His creation. Love of His creation is a sign of the love of the Creator Himself. Yes, you may hate the SIN or heresy, but not the sinner and heretic. You may hate a person’s state as a sinner, but not as a creation of God. You may look down on the sin, but not the sinner.
I know some people will say “what about Yazid, what about Shaytan?” I like to follow this question with another question: did Imam Zayn al-Abidin (as) want to guide Yazid? Did he want him to turn around? Does God want the Devil to turn around and repent? The answer is YES. Obviously, as a creature of God, our fourth Imam even had compassion for Yazid (as) although he rejected (laʿan; yeah it does not mean curse; laʿan means to reject) his sins and his status as an ingrate criminal for why would he have even tried to guide him in his own court in Syria?
Islam teaches us to always be suspicious of ourselves. When we enter a room, we must always think of others as better than us. Even if they are sinners, we should tell ourselves, “well, maybe if I was raised the way he or she was raised, or I was in his or her shoes, I would be worse and if he or she was put into my shoes, he or she would be better than me.” When we perform religious deeds, we should always be suspicious of our intentions. Maybe what we’re doing is only to satisfy our egos, or just to get the bliss of heaven? Maybe we’re not really doing it out of love of God?
The word for worship in Islam is ibadah, which comes from a root word meaning to “make soft.” In pre-Islamic Arabic, the term was used to indicate a road that was softened from being regularly treaded upon. Prayer, if done correctly and with the right goal in mind, is a subversive activity in relation to our egos. It is meant to soften our hearts up, make us humble and thus remove that one selfish veil in us that is keeping us from experiencing God directly and experiencing true love for others for His own sake. Love of our neighbor isn’t that kind of emotional love, no, it is in reference to wanting the good for someone just like one would want it for oneself and family.
We need to be careful not to be secular in our religious morality. What do I mean by that? Secularism is popularly understood as a division of state and religion. It is also understood as a privatization of religion, a relegation of religion as one aspect of human life as opposed to others, such as the economic, social, cultural, political etc. In our religious outlook, we must strive to avoid this kind of demonic thinking. Islam, like Christianity, is a constitutive activity in the world as the anthropologist Talal Asad once pointed out. This means that it is holistic in nature. Fasting and prayer are not the only means of worship, how we treat others, how we serve them out of love of God is part and parcel of our servitude towards Him.
If Zain were to take this outlook, he would have known that inflicting pain on his sister for the sake of praying on time was wrong and perhaps even sinful. If Saeed knew that making his family happy was even more mustahab than a non-wajib fast, he would have skipped that fast and enjoyed the meal with them. This does not mean that we should sacrifice our obligations to God. No, it means knowing what our priorities are. It is our duty to be kind and compassionate to others for the sake of God. As long as they don’t lead us to disobedience to God, we must always strive to serve and help others even if it means we miss a few mustahab acts, the mustahab act of bringing joy to a person’s heart and relieving them of pain is infinitely more rewarding in the sight of God.
Let us then see others as better than us and avoid judging them. If they commit evil, we oppose them out of a sense of duty towards God and not for the sake of filling our egos.