WHENEVER I MAKE up my mind to do something for Islam, something in my heart stops me. I ask myself, “What will others think if I do this? Will they like it or will they offend me?” But then a sister told me, “Why should you be bothered about what others think when you are doing it for Allah’s sake?” She added, “Whether you get a positive remark or a negative one, don’t be bothered; just keep in mind that you are doing it for Allah’s sake.”
For one minute I thought that if I am bothered about any remark, be it positive or negative, then I am not doing it solely for Allah. My aim should only be to win the pleasure of Allah and not anything else.
It is human to wish to avoid negative remarks and always love to be praised. It feels really good when someone speaks well about us, but we should try not to become addicted to appreciation as this can lead us to commit a dangerous heart disease called riyaa’ (Showing off; ostentation; vanity).
The Arabic word ‘riyaa’ is derived from the Arabic root: ra’aa (to be seen). Therefore, riyaa’ is performing a religious act in order to be seen, to impress, and be praised. Religious practices done to earn the admiration and praise of people forfeit Allah’s appreciation and become merely vain acts.
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Mahmud ibn Lubayd narrated,
The Prophet once came out and announced, ‘O people, beware of the secret shirk!’ The Companions asked, ‘O Messenger of Allah, what is secret shirk?’ He replied, ‘When a man gets up to offer Salah and strives to perform it to perfection because people are looking at him; that is secret shirk.’ (Ibn Khuzaimah)
It is also reported that Allah’s Messenger said,
The thing I fear for you most is al-shirk al-asghar (minor shirk). The Companions asked, “Oh! Messenger of Allah, what is al-shirk al-asghar?” He replied, “Al-riyaa’, for verily Allah will say on the Day of Resurrection when people are receiving their rewards, ‘Go to those for whom you were showing off in the material world and see if you can get any reward from them.’” (Ahmad and Tabarani)
Riyaa’ is very dangerous because it is common for any human being to enjoy the praises of others, but we don’t always know when we have improperly succumbed to these praises. When one gets addicted to praise, it becomes a habit for one to do things to impress others rather than Allah.
Abu Musa Al-Ash‘ari reported that Allah’s Messenger delivered a sermon to them one day and said,
O People! Fear this shirk (meaning riyaa’), for it is more inconspicuous than the crawling of an ant. (Sahih Al-Targhib wa Al-Tarheeb)
Verily, the hypocrites seek to deceive Allah, but it is He Who deceives them. And when they stand up for Salah, they stand with laziness, showing themselves to the people, and they do not remember Allah but little. [Surat Al-Nisa’, 4: 142]
Now why do we say when a person does an act to earn the appreciation of others that he commits shirk? We say that because any act should be done only to win the pleasure of Allah. When an act of worship is done to seek the pleasure or appreciation of others, then the person is worshiping appreciation, not the Creator.
Riyaa’ is considered a hidden form of shirk because when one does any deed of worship to seek the pleasure of the creation (that is, anything other than the Creator), then they are secretly either worshipping praise, appreciation, or the creation with the mask of trying to show others that they are trying to please Allah. Allah says,
Verily, We have sent down the Book to you (O Muhammad) in truth: So worship Allah (Alone) [By doing religious deeds sincerely for Allah’s sake only]. [Surat Al-Zumar, 39:2]
Allah says he would forgive anything except shirk:
Indeed, God will not forgive associating any god with Him. But He forgives anything less than this for whomever He so wills. For whoever associates gods with God has truly forged a great sin. [Surat Al-Nisa’, 4: 48]
On the authority of the Companion Anas, the Prophet said,
Allah said, ‘O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me, and hope in Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with an Earthful of sins and were you then to meet Me not having associated anything with Me, I shall grant you an Earthful of pardon.’ (Tirmidhi)
The Prophet has warned us about a severe disease which praise causes in the heart of a human being. Over-praising, he taught us, should be avoided as it destroys a believer and puts him or her at high risk of being smitten by this “disease.” Abu Bakrah reported,
Mention of a man was made to the Prophet and someone praised him whereupon the Prophet said, ‘Woe be you! You have broken friend’s neck!’ He repeated this several times and added, ‘If one of you has to praise his friend at all, he should say, ‘I reckon him to be such and such and Allah knows him well.’ You will be accountable to Allah because no one can testify to the purity of others against Allah.’ (Bukhari and Muslim)
‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab narrated that the Messenger said,
The reward of deeds depends upon the intentions and every person will be rewarded according to what he has intended. So whoever emigrated for worldly benefits or for a woman to marry, his emigration was for what he emigrated for. (Bukhari)
When our iman weakens we tend to fall for riyaa’, i.e., our iman wanes when our love for praise, fear of criticism, and greed for material gains becomes stronger and gets the better of us.
One thing I always noticed is that Satan sometimes deploys riyaa’ to stop us from doing good things. Many times I used to think that if I do this deed or that, and if someone appreciates me, I might be committing riyaa’ myself. The very possibility would really scare me and I would stop myself from doing such deed.
Fortunately, the same sister whom I mentioned in the beginning of this article also told me, “Be conscious of riyaa’, but don’t ever let that prevent you from performing any ‘ibada. Keep reminding yourself that you are doing it for Allah’s sake.”
I realized this is indeed a jihad (struggle). When Satan strives to spoil your deed and when you are on the verge of giving in to his machinations, you will be reminded of riyaa’, and that happens only out of Allah’s mercy. At a time like this, seek forgiveness and ask Allah to purify your heart. (Remember, as it is a common human weakness to enjoy being praised and hearing good talk about oneself, we tend to commit riyaa’ unknowingly). We can seek remedy from this by educating ourselves on riyaa’, familiarizing ourselves with its subtlest forms, and by doing our best to do whatever worshipful act we do for the sake of Allah alone, and by reciting the du‘a’ which the Messenger of Allah recited and taught his Companions to recite it:
O Allah! I seek refuge with You from knowingly associating anything with You and I seek Your forgiveness for that which I unknowingly do. (Sahih Al-Jami‘)