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Counting on False Modesty?

Modesty before Allah or modesty before people?It is saddening to see the increasing trend in our society to put up ‘plaques’ for our actions while simultaneously declaring our labor to be purely because of love for Allah. The two attitudes cannot co-exist. Some may protest: “No one respects, likes or takes the boasting individual seriously!”, and of course, they would be right. That is why few of us ‘announce’ our good deeds.

Modesty before Allah or modesty before people?Eccentric, brave, wise and very controversial, Wahab ibn Amr (better known as Bahlool) is a man each of us has heard of at some point in our lives. Tales of his triumph over Harun Rashid and co. are told with great relish and enjoyed equally by both young and old. Yet unfortunately, many take the entertainment value of these stories without appreciating the depth of their wisdom. We treat them as the Islamic version of Aesop’s Fables and pass them over when it comes to serious application. After all, how much can you learn from a man whose antics you laugh at, right? Wrong! Bahlool had a good excuse for adding an element of the insane to his life (he would have lost it all together otherwise!), but we have no such excuse. In truth, the essence of Bahlool’s messages can only be extracted after filtering out the comic and searching for the lessons that lie between the humor.

Why am I saying all this? Simply, because I want to use one instance of his wisdom without the danger of having someone think that I am using a bedtime story to address a serious matter.

The story tells of Fazl bin Rabee’, a rich man who built a mosque in Baghdad saying it was for the sake of Allah. On its completion, he wanted a plaque put up with his name as its founder. Bahlool happened to pass by and asked Fazl if he would put up his (Bahlool’s) name instead, to which Fazl protested. Bahlool then replied that if he had truly built the mosque for the sake of Allah, it should not bother him whose name appears on the plaque nor should he incline towards claiming any credit for it!

It is saddening to see the increasing trend in our society to put up ‘plaques’ for our actions while simultaneously declaring our labor to be purely because of love for Allah. The two attitudes cannot co-exist. Some may protest: “No one respects, likes or takes the boasting individual seriously!”, and of course, they would be right. That is why few of us ‘announce’ our good deeds.  Because we are much cleverer than that.

The fashion nowadays is to join the ‘modesty’ bandwagon. We don’t tell the world about our accomplishments. We only share our noble intentions and acts with close family and friends in passing or as an example in a conversation and then sit back and let them do our dirty work. After all, I can’t stop my doting mother, my proud father or my loyal friend from saying what they want to, right? Instead, I’ll stand by, look abashed, redden a little and protest lamely, adding that coveted (and oft abused) virtue – humility – to my ever-growing list. Somehow, it’s become okay to toot my own trumpet as long as I get someone else to do the blowing.

Let’s face it. We all crave attention and praise. Whenever I bring this topic up, people tell me that needing appreciation is a human quality and that I shouldn’t be so critical. My reply is that yes, I agree, it is human, but as Muslims aren’t we supposed to being aiming for a status higher than that of angels? While appreciation is necessary, it is not mandatory. In fact, appreciation and praise are two very different things but a discussion of that warrants an entire piece in itself.

Imam Ali Ridha (peace be upon him) lists preference of anonymity over acknowledgment as one of the ten qualities of a perfect Muslim. So, no matter what anyone tells you, you can survive without praise and you can continue to think positively and carry out good deeds even in the face of indifference. The AhlulBayt (peace be upon them) have also told us that when we give charity (or any good deed) with the right hand, the left should not know of it. Would they have used such a strong analogy if they didn’t mean for us to follow it, or if it was an unattainable feat?

It’s time we set higher standards for ourselves. We are not of this world and Heaven is not earned through false modesty.

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11 comments

  1. Salam Alaykom,

    Thank you for writing this. I have always thought about this and recently have been struggling with myself trying to kill my desire for praise. I’m getting better and better but I still disgust myself at the fact that sometimes I catch myself forgetting about the big picture and actually value the praise very much when instead I should only be valuing Allah SWT all the time, nonstop. One thing that i notice gets me off track is when I see this desire in other people and they are getting praised, there comes a point when I start to judge them and think they don’t deserve the praise because they’re only doing good for praise and i start to think I’m bettter than them a little. Whenever that happens, not long after something or another happens that makes me want praise again, I lose myself. It’s a tough cycle to beat but it’s definitely possible and the more you sincerely ask Allah SWT to help you conquer your demons, the easier it gets to actually conquer them.

    Thanks again and God bless you, you must have a clean heart.

  2. I’ve had this dialogue in my own head, too; and when I question my motives I know I must continually struggle with my intentions – doing things for Allah swt and not seeking any worldly recognition/status/prestige, etc.

  3. Spot on article! I do however have a question and Insha’Allah it is not taken as a criticism but perhaps as another perspective in addition to the great one in this article. So often “too” much humility may lead us to neglect from where and Whom blessings descend. I understand not wanting to show off, however, we need to remember to thank God for allowing us to have merit and talent when He has no reliance on our creation other than it being a mercy to US. So when people do compliment you, don’t forget to Thank and praise God, both publicly and alone.

  4. Salam,

    Brilliant piece 🙂 Now I am praising you, and appreciating your effort. Thank you for relaying this truth that we often think of but seldom address. Ultimately its an inner struggle, and God knows where we stand.

    Interestingly enough, i find that your advice equally applies to institutes as well, not just individuals. Often times, institutes, of various religious shades, seek to plaster their names all over their initiatives. In an almost competitive way, with their counterparts. Until at times, it feels, that their name is what stands out more than the action itself. It feels as though institutes like individuals, accumulate a sort of pseudo-ego that also seeks praise and public recognition.

    I see no wrong in being able to identify the main acting party in an action or deed. However, I see every bit of wrong, when the acting party goes out of their way to publicize their name along side their actions and initiatives.

    We are to serve God, not man. If we are to be known, let us be known by our actions, but not that our actions be known through us.

    • Great article. You have raised a very important issue here. I understand what you’re saying! I know a particular person who ALWAYS says they’re doing stuff ONLY for “Imam (atf)” and for the Sake of Allah (swt) but totally love boasting about it and intentionally making other people’s work invisible..so they get the credit. It is totally hilarious. They think by publicly STATING they’re doing it for God and the imams (as) they’re being modest! and it’s like..nobody cares!

      However, one point that I think you perhaps could have added to your article is that we should always praise others who really do do good work. For the person who is doing good, he/she should be humble. For the person is observing such nobleness, they should praise, encourage and motivate! Afterall, it was with the praises and spectacularness of our infallible’s noble deeds, mannerism and ettiquite that they are and were famous for, subhanAllah!

  5. Reading articles like this one realy stress me out and shows me my every-day mistakes.

    Realy appreciated.

    Keep up the good work

  6. So true–it’s part of self-building. But, I have also heard that when giving charity–do it both ways. Do it publically to encourage others and do it privately for the sake of Allah (I’m sure doing publically should also be for the sake of Allah.). I also only have one small thing–while it’s good to not show off, sometimes, having your name is important for future jobs–such as those in journalism, art….even professors who must publish to even get decent jobs. So, it’s more of an inner thing–what OUR intention is–rather than whether or not our name goes on something. But honestly, I don’t see how putting our names on plaques for donations is really for our jobs. Certainly, shaiton uses that for his own advantage. I also don’t like when I see business cards boasting the name ‘Hajj’ on it. To me, that is bragging about a position in Islam–even though it’s a worthy position, Insha Allah.

  7. Salaam,

    Towards the end of the article you pointed out “appreciation and praise are two very different things,” but you refused to distinguish between them and kept using the two terms interchangeably. If they are not exact synonyms then you shouldn’t use both words throughout your article.

    Also, your examples truly puzzled me. Our family and close friends find things about us whether we mention it or not. For one simple reason, they could be accompanying us when we’re doing charitable work, or they could simply know where we are, because our loved ones like to know when we’ll come home. Most people live with parents, spouse, or friends and they can’t just disappear without telling the people in the house where they’re headed off to or when they’ll be back.

    I’m not sure why you wrote “protest lamely, adding that coveted (and oft abused) virtue – humility,” because you don’t know someone’s intentions. Many times, people try very hard to stop their family from praising, but parents and friends don’t always listen.

    You should follow Bahlool’s advice and not put your name on the article.

  8. truth is
    if you are pretending in any way to be modest
    you have serious issues internally

    your modesty would only be yet another shield and protectant from you actually examining and knowing your self

    the one who knows themself knows Allah

    in pretending…….you will never know yourself, and your aim is not Allah, your aim is yourself, your aim is the people

    very misconstrued approach to the application of Islam
    May Allah aid us in examining the heart
    in aligning our intellect with the divine wisdom
    so that our behavior reflects these noble truths

    it is only when the pure nature of man is restored that he will be in balance with the natural order and be aligned with his Creator void of any barriers

  9. This is a good article to ponder about, thankx for sharing, keep on writing ! 🙂 and i love to read all the shared comments here, thanks everyone!

    and i have same perspective with ‘Great Article’

    “However, one point that I think you perhaps could have added to your article is that we should always praise others who really do do good work. For the person who is doing good, he/she should be humble. For the person is observing such nobleness, they should praise, encourage and motivate! Afterall, it was with the praises and spectacularness of our infallible’s noble deeds, mannerism and ettiquite that they are and were famous for, subhanAllah!”

    Thankx!

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