“There is nothing that has gentleness in it except that it is beautified, and there is nothing that has harshness in it except that it makes it ugly. So be calm, O Aisha!”
The above words were spoken by our beloved Messenger ﷺ to his wife, `A’isha radi allahu `anha (may Allah be please with her). A group of people had passed by the Prophet ﷺ and our Mother `A’isha, and said to him: “As-sa’amu `alaykum” (death be upon you).” It was a wordplay on “As-salaamu `alaykum (peace be upon you)”, with the intent of ridiculing the Prophet ﷺ. `A’isha (ra) became so angry that she rose up and began yelling at them that death should be upon them, and the curse of God, and so on.
At this, the Prophet ﷺ turned towards her, and spoke these words, telling her to calm down, and not to lose her composure, even in the face of personal insult. This man, our Messenger ﷺ, was the pillar of tranquility in an ocean of chaos.
When we examine ourselves today, especially those among us who are students of religious knowledge or believers striving to better ourselves, a tragic observation can often be made: Religiosity often turns people into jerks.
Many have witnessed this story: A young man or woman who used to be friendly, well-mannered, who treated people well, sadly turns into someone who shows mild annoyance upon meeting people who follow a different religious opinion. He shows anger when presented with arguments against his or her own point of view. Finally, he or she begins to pronounce judgment against others—pronouncing minor differences in opinion as proofs of disbelief.
When told to calm down, to stop being judgmental—the response comes in one of many flavors:
- “Brother, I am enjoining the good and forbidding the evil!”
- “We are defending the Sunnah!”
- “When people are harsh against the Sunnah, we will be harsh in defending it!”
And so on.
Over what kinds of issues? Not the serious lack of counseling services in the community. Not the difficulty that our youth are having in protecting their faith from intellectual attack. Not the issues of domestic abuse, poverty, family breakups or homelessness afflicting non-Muslims and Muslims around us.
But the length of our pants and whether or not they are above our ankles, the lengths of our beards, etc. Perhaps one’s adherence or lack thereof to a group or organization. What we think about pseudo-philosophical concepts about the essence of God’s attributes. Such meanness and harshness occurs not over what is physically affecting people, but over a disagreement between opinions in our minds. Over varying textual interpretations that result in different legal opinions or a creedal points unknown to the majority of the world’s Muslims.
Why does this happen to us when almost nothing is more important in our religion than the subjugation of our egos to the Power and Oneness of God?
“Islam takes us and throws us so we fall totally in love with The Creator. Yet, somehow some of us turn it into a way to look down upon the creation.”
This happens because somewhere along the line in striving to love God, the ego—the innermost part of our soul which continuously wishes to be glorified and exalted over others—made our religiosity a means of doing just that. The religion exists to crush the ego, and enslave it towards the worship of its Creator.
When we say AllahuAkbar (God is the Greatest), the true meaning of this, when one explores Arabic grammar, is “God is the Greatest Above All Things”—including our loves, our hates, our desires, our weaknesses, our dreams, our hopes, our very essences. Success in reaching our desires is only through His permission, and the power to overcome our weaknesses is only through His Mercy. This phrase is formulated to remind us of Allah’s greatness over ourselves and over every element of our lives. It acknowledges the overwhelming power that is Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He).
On the ego’s path to enslavement and the realization of recognizing Allah (swt) alone as the sole object of adoration and love, our ego sought a way out so it would not have to undergo such tribulation and destruction; so that it would not have to give up its position as the one that is praised and feels valued.
That ego essentially hijacks the religiosity of the individual and takes it on a detour. What is that detour? Rather than letting Islam be Islam and allowing the soul to get lost in the wonders of Allah’s power, the limitless nature of His love, the magnanimous breadth of His Mercy, the immeasurable depth of His knowledge, the care and affection that He showers upon His creation—the ego detours the soul into LOVING ITSELF.
When the soul begins to love itself, it becomes dissatisfied with not only God, but with God’s creation. It sees its own knowledge, opinion, and worldview as superior to all others. In order to maintain its false notion of being humble, it will even fake humility to those on the outside: “I’m nobody, I’m not knowledgeable”—while secretly harboring contempt for all those who follow different opinions or ideas about Islam. It is easy to recognize this tendency in ourselves. It happens when our religious discourse, our religious speech, and our religious vocabulary become less about loving God, adoring his Messenger ﷺ, bettering ourselves and more about creedal disagreements, legal fine points, and how one group is bad or another is good.
When religion becomes more about how one person does not practice the way that pleases us (even if we are correct in expressing the opinion of orthodox Islam) than about how we can please God, the religion has essentially turned into a tool to make us feel better about ourselves.
This does not mean we should turn off legitimate criticism in religious discourse. Enjoining the good and forbidding evil means that we must take an active interest in our communities, and in striving to develop our communities and our religious practices in a way that is healthy, natural, and allows Muslims from all backgrounds to be included and non-Muslims to feel welcome.
Rather, it is time we examine our deeper motives and feelings when we criticize and put forth negativity: “Am I criticizing and putting forth negativity because my criticism and the way I am putting it forth will actively help to prevent harm and bring benefit? Or am I criticizing to ridicule, make myself feel better, and make others see me as superior?”
Answering this question correctly and being sincere is the difference between the religious jerk and a servant of God.