From Virtue to Vice: The Deception of Spiritual Arrogance

Rushda N.

I remember a time when I thought my faith was indestructible. That I’d never give it up the way I’d seen others around me do, because I was better than that. It never occurred to me that my self-assuredness was simply arrogance — cloaked in religiosity. How could I be led astray? I was firm. I was resolute.

I was wrong. Before I knew it, my faith was in shambles and my conviction had dissolved into doubt. But Allah tests His servants to humble them: adversity brings with it lessons you can never forget. My crisis of faith was a terrifying encounter, but it taught me the meaning of spiritual humility, and the value of faith. It taught me to not take for granted the blessing of Islam.

And my greatest takeaway was this: to not ever be self-assured about your imān.

There’s an interesting parallel between the Qur’anic stories of Iblīs and Fir’awn. When Allah ﷻ describes Iblīs’s refusal to bow before Adam, He says,

“[Iblīs] refused and was arrogant, and became of the disbelievers”

(Al-Qur’an 2:34)

The Pharaoh’s rejection of the call of Musa (pbuh) is described in very similar words:

“And he was arrogant and insolent in the land beyond reason…”

(Al-Qur’an 28:39)

Iblīs and Fir’awn. One is the worst of jinn; the other is the worst of men. Both are ruined by the same fatal sin: arrogance. In fact, every Qur’anic story of doom carries a warning against arrogance. But spiritual arrogance, in particular, is perhaps the worst kind. Because it wears the garb of righteousness, and presents itself as virtue. Because the deen is supposed to make us kinder, humbler, wiser versions of ourselves, and if it makes us the opposite, then we’re doing something wrong.

An insidious trap

Perhaps what makes spiritual arrogance so dangerous is how easily it can overtake the believer, turning their own religiosity against them. Arrogance is like that—it catches us unawares, insidiously worming its way into our thinking. So often we see arrogance in others and are instantly repelled by it—and yet, we are completely oblivious to our own. You might not be visibly disdainful of others around you, but that’s not the only way spiritual arrogance manifests itself.

It does so in the subtlest of ways. A passing comment, a stray thought. When you see someone fall into sin, you think to yourself, “I’d never do that! Not me!” Now that is spiritual arrogance. To assume our piety or religious knowledge makes us invincible to temptation; to feel a sense of superiority over those struggling with their faith. To take credit for our guidance, as we sometimes unwittingly do.

There’s a beautiful reminder of spiritual humility in the story of Yusuf (pbuh). Allah relates in the Qur’an how the wife of the minister tried to seduce Yusuf, how she then accused him of assaulting her, and how he was eventually proven innocent, after spending many long years in captivity for a crime he did not commit. When Yusuf is finally exonerated before his people and given the fair hearing he so desperately needs, instead of taking credit for his righteousness, he uses the opportunity to show gratitude to Allah. “Nor do I absolve myself of blame, for the human soul is certainly prone to evil.” This, coming from a Prophet of Allah—after years of unjust incarceration! He continues,

“Unless my Lord bestows His mercy. Surely, my Lord is Forgiving and Merciful”

Al-Qur’an (12:53)

Such was the humility of Yusuf (pbuh): not only did he acknowledge his own vulnerability, but he also attributed his innocence to Allah’s mercy alone.

Faith and fragility

If we think our imān is too strong for us to falter, we’re only deceiving ourselves. Rasulullah ﷺ used to beseech Allah every day, “Do not leave me to myself for even the blink of an eye.” The blink of an eye! Here is the best man to walk the earth, the one whose past and future sins had already been forgiven, who was promised al Maqām al Mahmūd, imploring Allah for His constant guidance. If this was the attitude of Rasulullah ﷺ, how desperate should we be, then, for His loving guidance — we who sin and falter every day?

Faith is, by nature, fragile. Our hearts fluctuate between varying degrees of imān, flitting between impulses of good and evil. In fact, the very essence of the human heart is its volatility: the Arabic word for heart, qalb, is derived from the verb qalaba, to change. And this is why Rasulullah ﷺ used to make the du’ā, “O Allah, turner of hearts, keep my heart firm on your deen.”

Abdullah bin ‘Amr (ra) reports, “I heard the Messenger of Allah ﷺ saying,

“Verily, the hearts of the Children of Adam, all of them, are between two fingers of Ar-Rahman as one heart. He turns them in any (direction) He likes. “Then Allah’s Messenger ﷺ said, “O Allah, turner of hearts! Turn our hearts towards Your obedience.’”[1]

Too strong to fall: the illusion of invulnerability

Complacency over imān is a dangerous thing. Because it’s when we’ve let our guards down against shaytān that we become most vulnerable to his deception. The story of Barsisa is a powerful reminder in this regard.

The story begins with Barsisa as a righteous monk who spent his days worshipping Allah. His good reputation leads three brothers to entrust him with the care of their sister before they set off on a journey. His first instinct is to refuse to take her in for reasons of modesty, but the devil approaches him, reasoning that the woman would be safer with Barsisa, a pious worshipper, than with other presumably ill-intentioned men. So Barsisa puts her up in a house separate from his own. The devil then convinces him to visit her occasionally to check on her safety; he continues to delude Barsisa under the pretext of goodwill to grow close to the woman and things quickly escalate, until the monk commits adultery. When Barsisa discovers that the woman has conceived a child, he is driven to panic. This time, the devil abandons all pretense, suggesting he kill her and her child. Barsisa does so. The devil discloses the murder to the woman’s brothers in a dream, and Barsisa is sentenced to death. In the moments leading up to his execution, the devil promises him safety if he renounces Allah, and Barsisa, stricken by fear, succumbs once again. And so, the once-righteous monk ends his days on earth by indulging in adultery, murder, and finally, kufr.

Shaytān’s first victory against Barsisa was convincing him that his piety was impenetrable. After that point, leading him astray was an easy affair.

Ibn Mas’ūd (ra) said, “The most heinous of sins are associating partners with Allah, despairing of His mercy and feeling secure from His punishment.”[2] So the believer ought to be in a state of balance between hope and fear, neither despairing nor complacent.

Pride and Prejudice

Another aspect of spiritual arrogance is pride over religious knowledge or deeds. It’s easy to let a little knowledge or ibādah go to your head. Perhaps, somewhere just underneath the surface of your consciousness, you think your religious knowledge is enough to keep you safe from temptation. But Allah tells us, to the contrary, that true knowledge results in a heightened consciousness of Him:

“It is only those who have knowledge among His slaves that fear Allah”

(Al-Qur’an 35:28)

And so, religious knowledge that makes us complacent or condescending towards others is futile. We must keep in mind that our knowledge will be used as evidence either for us or against us on the Day of Judgement, depending on how we make use of it in this world.

When you embark on a quest for knowledge, and discover the error of some of your beliefs or opinions, your newfound enlightenment may lead you to act patronizingly towards other Muslims. “I’m the only one who gets it,” you might think. Or, for instance, “Muslims these days are either sellouts or fanatics.” As surprising as it may sound, there are plenty of people out there on the path of guidance. To hold the exclusionist belief that you and your tiny sect of Muslims are the only enlightened ones is a hallmark of arrogance.

Social media tends to bring out the worst in us—and this is especially true in the case of spiritual arrogance. Twitter, for example, is inundated with Muslims embroiled in petty religious wars, humblebragging about their religious credentials, amplifying an obviously asinine opinion purely for the shock value, or thoughtlessly bashing a fellow Muslim for one ill-conceived take, usually as a means of virtue-signalling.

Then there’s the Muslim equivalent of some of the worst manifestations of cancel culture: “You shouldn’t be listening to this shaykh. He’s a deviant because nine years ago he expressed an opinion about X that clearly contradicts this particular interpretation of this particular hotly contested hadith.”

And on the flipside, you have Muslim teachers taking offense when their religious opinioins are challenged. “I have a PhD in fiqh, so I know better and you shouldn’t question me.”

The Salaf, however, were exemplars of humility. Imam Malik was known to frequently and unhesitatingly respond with “I don’t know” to questions in his own areas of expertise. (Yet, this was the same Imam Malik who was uncompromising in his stances, and whom no amount of intimidation could deter from the truth: he was flogged by the then-caliph for declaring that divorce under duress is invalid, and with each lashing he reiterated his stance. Humility, therefore, does not entail weakness.)

Likewise, getting involved in Islamic activism or da’wah can sometimes give us feelings of self-satisfaction—or worse, self-righteousness. It’s only when we pause to reflect do we realise that we’re holding an inflated opinion of our own contribution. Ali bin Abi Talib (ra) is reported to have said, “The sin that makes you sad and repentant is better in the sight of Allah than the good deed that makes you arrogant.”

Oftentimes, the enthusiasm we feel when we’re on a “spiritual high” is accompanied by a trace of arrogance: we might subconsciously compare our acts of worship, or our contributions, with that of others so as to feel good about ourselves. But can we really be so sure that Allah has accepted our deeds? Abu ad-Dardā’ (ra) said,

“To be certain that Allah has accepted just one prayer from me would be dearer to me than the world and all that is in it, for Allah says, ‘Allah only accepts from the muttaqun’ (5:27)”[3]

In fact, being worried over Allah’s acceptance of one’s deeds is a mark of imān. Allah says, describing the true believers,

 “And those who give (in charity) while their hearts are full of fear because they will be returned to their Lord”

(Al-Qur’an 23:60)

Ibn Kathir elaborates, “They give in charity fearing that it may not be accepted from them because of their shortcomings.”

Arrogance in admonition

Spiritual arrogance may also manifest itself in the way we treat someone who has fallen into sin. We’re so quick to judge and condemn. Too often, righteous anger mutates into arrogance. It’s arrogance that causes us to think of someone as being “too far gone”—as though we’re somehow gatekeepers of Allah’s guidance. Or to be harsh towards somebody who has erred, under the pretext of naseehah.

For instance, you are with a group of friends when one of them makes a derogatory remark about someone else in their absence, and the others laugh. Now, you could either remain silent for fear of being scorned and pawn it off as a harmless joke, or you could gently remind your friends to steer clear of backbiting, or you could do the same thing in an arrogant, pretentious way. Evidently, neither the first option nor the last is acceptable. Firmness does not have to come at the expense of compassion; Rasulullah ﷺ was the perfect example of both.

The concept of naseehah, of al-amr bil ma’roof and nahy anil munkar, has been prescribed for us as a means to help each other out against shaytān. Not for us to help shaytān against each other. Yet, that’s exactly what we do with our callousness. Because when we are harsh and condescending towards someone struggling with their faith, we only serve to drive them further away from the deen—all the while assuming we’re doing them a favor.

Ask yourself, “Is my intention to help my Muslim brother/sister or to establish my own religious superiority?” Rather than looking down on somebody who’s caught in a sin that Allah has saved you from, thank Allah for His guidance. And rather than disparaging them, lend them a helping hand. Because gentleness will let you win over hearts that harshness could never hope to reach.

Towards spiritual humility

None of us are immune to the struggle against our nafs. How should we make a conscious effort to avoid, or overcome, the trap of spiritual arrogance?

  • Seek Allah’s forgiveness frequently

Making tawbah and istighfār serves as a reminder to ourselves that we’re sinners prone to error, in constant need of His forgiveness.

  • Take hold of every opportunity to do good

Apathy towards good deeds often stems from complacency. Do not let opportunities to do good simply pass you by—be it an invitation to volunteer at your local mosque, or a friend in need of help with their coursework. No act of goodness is too insignificant to merit attention: you can earn the pleasure of Allah in the two seconds it takes you to tell someone their shoelace is untied. Rasulullah ﷺ said:

“Rush to perform good deeds before a time comes when … a man goes to bed as a believer and wakes up as a disbeliever, selling his faith for worldly gains”.[4]

  • Remember your sins (without letting them consume you)

Sometimes you find yourself having arrogant thoughts and you are instantly ashamed for thinking of them. Remind yourself of what you used to be, and that it was only Allah’s mercy that He guided you. Remind yourself that He can take away His guidance if He so wishes. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should engage in constant mental self-flagellation or wallow in guilt over past sins. But calling to mind what we used to be, every now and then, helps keep our egos in check.

  • Keep yourself spiritually connected.

Dhikr in all its forms is a cure for the diseases of the heart—whether it’s attending halaqat, reflecting over the verses of the Qur’an, or studying the seerah of Rasulullah ﷺ.

  • Acknowledge your vulnerability before Allah

Acknowledging your weakness in front of Allah emphasises that you’re dependent on His grace for guidance. Ask Allah to protect your imān, just like Rasulullah ﷺ used to frequently ask Allah for protection. He also said:

Imān wears out like a shirt becomes worn out, so ask Allah to renew faith in your hearts”.[5]

Of the most beautiful du’ās for preservation of faith is the one mentioned by Allah as being spoken by men of knowledge:

“Our Lord! Let not our hearts deviate after You have guided us, and grant us from Yourself mercy. Truly, You are the bestower!”

(Al-Qur’an 3:8)
  • Evaluate your character and motives.

Self-awareness is a big part of striving for humility and ikhlās. Renew your intentions before and during your endeavors; take the time to engage in self-reflection. Ask yourself, “Am I being arrogant?”, “Is my reaction to this particular incident driven by sincere motives or by my own sense of superiority?”

  • Make du’ā for humility.

Needless to say, du’ā is a potent force for change. Seeking Allah’s help is an indispensable tool in the fight against our nafs.

Allah, we ask You to envelop us in Your mercy, so that we do not stray from Your path, neither in hardship nor in prosperity. Deliver us from the vices of our own souls, and grant us that blend of strength and humility that only comes from relying on You.

Rushda N. is an undergraduate student of Islamic studies and physics based in Saudi Arabia. She writes for her website, New Dawn, and conducts youth-centric workshops in association with Islamic institutes in Malaysia. When she’s not trying (and failing) to comprehend quantum physics, she can be found stargazing, devouring books or adding to her assortment of equestrian-related injuries.

[1] Sahih Muslim 2655

[2] Tafsir Ibn Kathir, vol. 2, p. 243

[3] Tafsir Ibn Kathir, vol. 3, p. 67

[4] Sahih Muslim 118

[5] As-Silsilah as-Sahihah 1585

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