Possibly one of the most spiritually damaging traits – particularly for scholars, shaykhs, preachers and teachers – is the culture of self promotion and of not passing matters on to those more learned or more spiritually rooted. That such a tendency has now been normalised does not speak to our sophistication, nor to our savviness, but to our sickness.
Islamic groups and organisations will do this due to hizbiyyah – ‘partisanship’, ‘bigotry’ and gaining their share of the limelight, or because of the revenue loss it could entail if their own speakers are not the public’s port of call. Individuals will often succumb to this out of vanity (‘ujb), ostentation (riya’), craving fame or status (hubb al-ri’asah), or some other inglorious nafsi reasons. Consider Imam al-Ghazali’s words:
وَكَمْ مِنْ أَعْمَالٍ يَتْعَبُ الْإِنْسَانُ فِيهَا وَيَظُنُّ أَنَّهَا خَالِصَةٌ لِوَجْهِ اللَّهِ وَيَكُونُ فِيهَا مَغْرُورٌ لِأَنَّهُ لَا يُرَى … وَأَشَدُّ الْخَلْقِ تَعَرُّضًاً لِهَذِهِ الْفِتْنَةِ الْعُلَمَاءِ فَإِنَّ الْبَاعِثَ لِلْأَكْثَرِينَ عَلَى نَشْرِ الْعِلْمِ لَذَّةُ الِاسْتِيلَاءِ وَالْفَرَحِ بِالِاسْتِتْبَاعِ وَالِاسْتِبْشَارِ بِالْحَمْدِ وَالثَّنَاءِ.
‘How many an act has man troubled himself with, thinking it to be sincerely seeking the Face of Allah. Yet it contains deception, the harm of which he does not see … Those subjected most severely to this trial (fitnah) are the scholars. Most of them are motivated to profess knowledge for the mere pleasure of their mastery, the joy of [gaining] a following, or of being praised and lauded.’1
He then offers this example:
وَتَرَى الْوَاعِظَ يَمُنُّ عَلَى اللَّهِ تَعَالَى بِنَصِيحَةِ الْخَلْقِ وَوَعْظِهِ لِلسَّلَاطِينِ وَيَفْرَحُ بِقَبُولِ النَّاسِ قَوْلُهُ وَإِقْبَالِهِمْ عَلَيْهِ وَهُوَ يَدَّعِي أَنَّهُ يَفْرَحُ بِمَا يُسِرُّ لَهُ مِنْ نُصْرَةِ الدِّينِ وَلَوْ ظَهَرَ مِنْ أَقْرَانِهِ مَنْ هُوَ أَحْسَنُ مِنْهُ وَعْظًاً وَانْصَرَفَ النَّاسُ عَنْهُ وَأَقْبَلُوا عَلَيْهِ سَاءَهُ ذَلِكَ وَغَمَّهُ وَلَوْ كَانَ بَاعِثَهُ الدِّينَ لَشُكْرِ اللَّهِ تَعَالَى إِذْ كَفَاهُ اللَّهُ تَعَالَى هَذَا الْمُهِمَّ بِغَيْرِهِ.
‘Thus you see a preacher who advises people about Allah and counsels rulers. He is overjoyed at people’s acceptance of him and his utterances. He claims to rejoice in having been chosen to help the religion. But should one of his peers who preaches better than he appear, and people turn away from him, accepting the other, it would displease or distress him. Had religion been his true motive, he would have thanked Allah for having spared him this weighty [duty] through another.’2
It would be unwise of us to feel confident that we are free of such a malady. And yet rida ‘an al-nafs – being ‘self-satisfied’, or feeling smug about oneself; one’s knowledge; or one’s accomplishments, is the spiritual poison many of us seem content to inhale, despite it choking to death our spiritual life. Sincere, genuine repentance is the only healing balm. Serious spiritual introspection about our motives or intentions is the only course of action.
Compare today’s culture of self-promotion with our venerable salaf. Of how those of them who were less travelled in the path of knowledge and spiritual realisation deferred to those who were more rooted or better travelled. Even well-travelled ones would frantically avoid giving fatwas when possible, if they could pass the buck on to someone else.
Ibn Abi Layla, a famous tabi‘i, said: ‘I met one hundred and twenty Companions of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, from the Ansar. There wasn’t a man among them who was asked about something, except that he loved that his brother would suffice him [by answering].’3
In another narration: ‘… Whenever one of them was asked about an issue, he would refer it on to another, and this other would refer it on to yet another; until it would return back to the first person.’4
Al-Bara’: ‘I met three hundred of the people of Badr. There wasn’t any among them, except that he wished that his companion would suffice him by giving the fatwa.’5
And Bishr al-Hafi said: ‘Whoever loves to be asked isn’t from those who should be asked.’6
The sirah of the Prophet ﷺ, and the hagiographies of the awliya and leading imams teach us that the believer is one who has deep humility, is unassuming in terms of the good Allah honours them to do, and is self-deprecating – not in some outward Victorian sense, but from sincere inward realisation of what they are not. But such virtues are antithetical to our age, which demands that we sell ourselves, and over magnify our ‘talents’ so as to promote our selves, and not delve too much into the question of intentions. And the truth of the matter is that Muslim organisations and individuals have not been immune to this regrettable self promotion and commodification of the ummah. Nor has enough be done to tackle this spiritual morass.
We ask Allah for safety, sincerity and grace; and we ask, too, that He help us be sincere to Allah’s servants and point them to those better suited to be sacred shepherds.
1. Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 9:70-71.
2. ibid., 9:71. I based my translation of these passages on A. Shaker (trans.), al-Ghazali, Intention, Sincerity and Truthfulness (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2013), 62.
3. Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.2201.
4. Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm, no.2199.
5. Al-Khatib, al-Faqih wa’l-Mutafaqqih (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1996), no.1076.
6. ibid., no.1084.