Conventional wisdom has it, or so we were made to think, that you should be harsh on your ‘self’ in order to make a success of yourself. Consequently, many good-hearted individuals torment themselves for every mistake, and feel peeved at every shortcoming they display. At some level of consciousness they think this will motivate them to excel and become better people.
In many traditions, the self is portrayed as the source of evil, the adamant force pushing us to Hell. It sounds reasonable therefore to disdain one’s self, treat it with contempt, and do everything possible to part from it!!! Even writing about this makes me feel awkward! How can one possibly do that and remain sane?
The problem as I see it, and I could be mistaken, that we have read this into the sacred text of the Quran and traditions of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The notion of looking down on the self, deeming it inherently evil and rebellious has created a monstrous culture around itself to the extent that, for many, it has become a self-evident reality. Questioning this false piety syndrome (FPS), as I like to call it, has become a taboo. And those who dare venture into such territory will most certainly be stigmatized and, most likely ostracized.
I am certain some Quranic verses and Prophetic traditions will jump to many people’s minds as they read this. Something like the verse in Surat Yusuf: ((Indeed the self often drives one to evil)) and many other verses and ahadeeth. Such texts seem to be clear and definitive in declaring the self to be inherently evil. And to some it would seem as if there is no other way to read the texts. Actually this is not particular to the religious texts. Even the plethora of statements from the Companions and great persons in the history of Islam seem to join an army of evidence to the “inherently-evil-self” theory. After this demonstrations it seems as an act of intellectual suicide to go against all this ‘evidence’!
I will deal with what seems a plethora of evidence supposedly backing the “inherently-evil-self” notion. But for now I wish to raise some concerns about it in order to get you engaged with the notion and its tremendous consequences at a deeper level of thought.
I was introduced to nice guy (R. J.) a few years ago and at the time I gave the Friday khutba at one of the main Masjids in London. Almost half an hour after the khutbah, R. J. approached me and offered me a sandwich. I told him I was fine but he insisted that I take it. I kept the sandwich in my hand exchanged words with R. J. to get to know him. I felt a sense gratitude towards his generosity. 15 minutes into the conversation, I felt it was ok to offer R. J. his sandwich back as I managed to develop rapport with him. He smiled…took the sandwich and confessed he had been too hungry and bought the sandwich with all the change he had left for the day and that he just had felt he had to offer it to me. I asked why did he feel that way? His answer literally shocked me! He said: “You are better than me! My ‘self’ is still very impure but yours must be purer!!! You deserved the sandwich more than I did!”
As strange and obvious as R. J.’s behaviour may sound it still carries the same characteristics displayed in the demeanor of many Muslims; save it is particularly obvious and easy to analyze. Often brothers and sisters send me messages expressing the sense of inferiority they feel when they travel and come across people from different cultures. The common complaint was: “The overemphasis on humility in Muslim environments seems to have made us lose our self esteem. Other people seem more confident and expressive while we sort of melt in our clothes.” Giving up one’s rights, putting up with excessive inconvenience and embarrassment are common consequences of such a feeling of inferiority. It sometimes, actually often, develops into a dire need to appease people. Some attempt to give it legitimacy under the disguise of ‘showing people the nice reality of Islam!’ Yet deep down they know it is not so.
Some people are sensitive to their deeper feelings and can easily relate to what I am saying here. Others however are just not in tune with these deeper feelings and may see my description as a form of exaggeration. Either way, feel free to have your opinion. I am merely expressing my view on this issue and you’re welcome to disagree. Many brothers and sisters who were once active in Da’wa have either spoken or written to me about their experience, and most of them are product of this endemic self-inflicted humiliation practiced as a result of the inherently-evil-self theory. When inflicted with this FSP syndrome people willingly give up their rights, offer themselves for exploitation, and blame themselves for the bad treatment and disrespect they end up receiving. No matter what their natural sense of self esteem does to fight for its survival, they end up finding a way to silence it by reminding themselves that this is their evil self, their ego craving for conceit. And unfortunately, the Da’wa work arena is infested with personalities who have mastered the art of taking advantage of such people. On a side note, this other type of people who usually exploit this syndrome for their own agenda mainly have been victims of it, and at some serious turning point in their life, have made the switch and crossed the line to the other side, rather than fix the roots of the problem.
The reason I took you in this journey with R. J. and the subsequent clarification was to help you relate to the subject on a personal level, and look at it from a practical point of view. This should help loosen the grip of the supposedly conventional golden rule of the ‘evil self’.
Do Sacred Texts Consider the ‘self’ Inherently Evil?
Let’s turn now to what seems like a myriad of texts and statements supporting the ‘inherently-evil-self’ rule. There are plenty of texts and statements often quoted to support that notion, and the verse in surat Yusuf is representative of the rest and is one of the most quoted. Do these text really mean that we are inherently evil and need to scorn our ‘self’ and free ourselves from it?!!! If yes, then what do the following verses mean: [I interpreted the verses into English as I was writing and referenced them for your convenience].
Allah says: ((and the self which He [Allah] created. Then He inspired it with both taqwa and sin)) [91: 7-8]
((We have facilitated his [man] paths for him: either thankful or defiant)) [56: 3]
And what about this verse: ((We [Allah] have created man in the best shape)) [95: 4] and shape here by all means is not limited to physical shape, but also his psychological make-up (self). So if Allah created man in the best psychological form, how come the self has become inherently evil?
The Prophet (PBUH) said: ((The believer should never humiliate himself)). So how come culture teaches us that we have to humiliate our ‘self’ in order to escape its evil grip? The Prophet (PBUH) also said: ((Each person is born in the state of fitrah (natural disposition to truth and goodness)…)).
From a practical point of view, deeming the self as inherently evil is psychologically detrimental. The excessive number of disillusionment and burnout among active Muslims is epidemic and requires honest assessment and treatment. We can’t solve problems by merely covering them up. Even our younger generation is suffering as a fair percentage of Muslim institutions overly emphasize this detrimental culture and equate it with Islam.
Let’s try now to reconcile what seems to be contradictory evidence. I believe that Allah created humans inherently able to choose whether to be good or bad. The ‘self’ is more or less a locus of potential and possibility. It is we that are responsible to mold it and shape it using the resources Allah put at our service: intellect (cognition), emotion, motivation, and action. The ‘self’ is Allah’s gift to you, the potential Allah provided you with in order for you to utilize it to make your journey back to Paradise! So how come we got to a point where we see Allah’s gift as inherently evil?
The texts and statements referring to the self in a negative sense should all be seen as a description of the self not as it initially is, but as an indication that most ‘selves’ end up evil because people don’t manage them well. Thus, the inherent potential in the self is misused and misdirected that it has developed evil qualities as a result. So those description of the ‘self’ refer to a later state rather than to its original and initial state. With this point, I believe you can correctly understand all the text talking about the ‘self’ without having to slip into this destructive culture of self-condemnation and self-degradation in the name of righteousness.
Our Ummah has suffered a lot due to this cultural problem. I believe it is time we have looked more critically into the false notions and misinterpretations that have found their way into the taken-for-granted core of our religion and have secured a central position into the fabric of our psychological make-up.
I leave you with a final note. It is this false understanding that has generated a legion of monsters who have learned to exploit this feeling among many Muslims and manipulate them. Those monsters are the product of this culture. They were once victims of it but then they found their way to the other side of the equation. For those who argue that this article may cause some to break loose and fall in the trap of their ‘evil’ self, I say: it is this very culture that created those monsters and will continue to clone them. We need to put an end to this epidemic before it destroys us more. Treating one’s ‘self’ well does not lead to corruption; let’s search for the real reasons.
I wish to share practical benefits you can employ on a daily basis to free yourself from the firm grip of this harmful understanding and develop a more healthy sense of self, for the sake of your own benefit and for the sake of the Ummah in general.
- Remind yourself every morning that Allah has given you a precious gift: yourself. Promise Allah to appreciate it, take good care of it, and respect it.
- Befriend yourself…see it as your friend not your enemy; this will make it more leaning towards obedience to Allah than seeing it as a rebellious enemy that needs to be chained and dragged to Allah against its will.
- Catch yourself doing something good and reward it for that. I can’t emphasize this anymore! You have no idea how vicious we have become with ourselves that we have become estranged from ourselves! When you do something good just treat yourself and tell it you are happy with it and wish more goodness will come out of it! This may make you laugh, but it works.
- Different selves require different treatments, so sense out yourself, get to know it and learn how to make friends with it to bring the best out of it.
Much more can be said, but this is already too much.
I pray you benefit from reading this, and please feel free to disagree with me! Peace!