Pride and Vanity

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Pride and Vanity  (1921) 
by Abu Hamid al-Ghazālī, translated by Syed Nawab Ali
Pride and Vanity[1]

When a man feels a superiority over others and with this a sort of inward elation, this is called pride. It differs from vanity in as much as vanity means consciousness of one’s elation while pride requires a subject, an object and a feeling of elation. Suppose a man is born solitary in the world, he may be vain but not proud, because in pride man considers himself superior to others for certain qualities of his self. He allots one position to his self and one to another, and then thinks that his position is higher and is therefore elated. This “puffed up” feeling which imparts a sense of “touch me not” is called pride. The Prophet says: “O God save me from the puffing up of pride”. Ibn Abbas says that the sentence in the Quran “And they have pride in their hearts and will fail to reach it” means that the thought of inward greatness will be denied to them. This thought is the source of inward and outward actions, which are so to speak the fruits of it.

A proud man will not tolerate any other to be on equal terms with himself. In private and in public he expects that all should assume a respectful attitude towards him and acknowledging his superiority treat him as a higher being. They should greet him first, make way for him wherever he walks; when he speaks everyone should listen to him and never try to oppose him. He is a genius and people are like asses. They should be grateful to him seeing that he is so condescending. Such proud men are found especially among ulamas. Sages are ruined by their pride. The Prophet says: “He who has an atom of pride in his heart will fail to enter paradise.” This saying requires explanation, and should be carefully listened to. Virtues are the doors of Paradise, but pride and self esteem lock them all. So long as man feels elated he will not like for others what he likes for himself. His self esteem will deprive him of humility, which is the essence of righteousness. He will neither be able to discard enmity and envy, resentment and wrath, slander and scorn, nor will he be able to cultivate truth and sincerity, and calmly listen to any advice. In short, there is no evil which a proud man will not inevitably do in order to preserve his elation and self-esteem. Vices are like a chain of rings linked together which entangle his heart. Therefore, an atom of pride is Satan’s spark, which secretly consumes the nature of the sons of Adam.

Know then that pride is of three kinds: 1. Against God; 2. Against prophets and saints; 3. Against fellowmen.

1. Against God. It is due to mere foolishness when a biped creaturs considers himself as if Lord of the universe. Namrud and Pharoah were such types, who disdained to be called God’s creatures on earth: “Verily, Verily,” says the Quran,” the Messaiah does by no means disdain that he should be a servant of Allah, nor do the angels who are near to Him, and whoever disdains His service and is proud He will gather them all together to Himself.”[2]

2. Against prophets and saints. It is due to unwarranted self esteem when one considers obedience to any mortal being as lowering his own position. Such a person either fails to reflect on the nature of prophetship and thereby feels proud of himself and does not obey the prophet, or refuses to consider the claims of prophetship as being derogatory to his elated self and therefore pays no regard to the prophet. The Quran quotes the words of such persons:—” And they say: what is the matter with this Apostle that he eats food and goes about in the markets, why has not an angel been sent down to him so that he should have been a warner with him. Or (why is not) a treasure sent down to him or he is made to have a garden from which he should eat”. “And those who do not fear our meeting, say: Why have not angels been sent down to us, or (why) do we not see our Lord? Now certainly they are too proud of themselves and have revolted in great revolt.”[3]

Our Prophet Mohammed was an orphan and had scanty means of livelihood, so the Koraishite chief Walid bin Moghera and Abu Masood Sakfi used to speak contemptuously of him.[4] And when people believed in him and accepted Islam, the proud Koraishites used to say: Mohammed is surrounded by poor men, let him send them off and then we of the aristocracy of Mecca will listen to him. But God spoke to Mohammed “And withhold thyself with those who call on their Lord morning and evening, desiring His good will, and let not their eyes pass from them, desiring the beauties of this world’s life, and do not follow him, whose heart we have made unmindful to our resemblance, and he follows his low desires, and his case is one in which due bounds are exceeded”.[5]

3. Against fellowmen. A proud man considers himself a superior being and would like to see everybody humbled before him. He is therefore quarrelling with God, trying to share with Him His attribute omnipotence. God is spoken of in the Hadith, as saying: Omnipotence is my mantle, he who quarrels with me for it, him will I crush”. Surely men are all His servants and no servant has a right to treat his fellow servants as their master. But a proud man in the intoxication of his elation takes himself as God on earth. He is too haughty to listen to truth from the lips of any of his fellowmen. Ibn Masud says: “It is enough for sin if a person, who is advised to fear God answers his advisor: Look to thine own self.”

The consciousness of superiority which begets pride is due to certain attributes or accomplishments which can be summed up as:

  • a. Spiritual, divided into (1) knowledge; (2) devotion.
  • b. Worldly, of five kinds: (3) pedigree; (4) beauty; (5) strength; (6) wealth; (7) kith and kin.

There are thus seven causes in all, and these need some description.

Knowledge is power. Consciousness of power easily elates a man, who considers himself superior to others and treats them in a supercilious manner. If he accepts the greetings or the invitation of his fellowmen or receives them in audience he thinks they should be thankful to him for his condescension. People should obey and serve him, for by virtue of his knowledge he thinks he has a right over them. Such a proud “Alim” is sorry for the sins of others but unmindful of his own condition. While he freely distributes Heaven and Hell among his fellowmen, he claims salvation and Heaven for himself. The question is whether he is really justified in holding the title of Alim. For an Alim is one who, knowing himself knows God, who fears the Lord most, who holds himself more responsible for his actions for he knows good and evil and feels the awful presence of a mighty and just Being who looks to righteousness alone.

Let us consider why men of knowledge become proud. There are two main causes which should be noted. First there is a false conception about the nature of real knowledge. Devoted to certain sciences and arts such as mathematics, physics, literature, and dialectics, they think that proficiency in them makes a man perfect. But real knowledge means the lifting of the veil from before the eyes of the heart so as to see the mysterious relation between man and his maker and to be filled with a sense of awe and reverence in the presence of an omniscient holy Being who pervades the universe. This attitude of mind, this enlightenment is real knowledge. It produces humility and repels pride.

Secondly, there is an indifference to moral training during student life. Wicked habits thus produce bitter fruits of pride. Wahb has well illustrated this point, when he says: “Knowledge is like rain falling from above, so pure and sweet but the plants when they absorb it, embitter or sweeten it, according to their tastes. Man in acquiring knowledge acquires power, which gives strength to the hidden qualities of his heart. If he was prone towards pride and paid no attention to the subjugation of it, he would prove more proud when he acquires knowledge” “There will be men” says the Prophet ‘who will have the Quran on their lips but it will not go down their throats. They will claim knowledge of it, calling themselves learned Qari. They will be from among you my companions, but woe to them, for they will see the consequence of it in Hell”.[6]

Warned by their Prophet, his companions lived a life of humility and their example taught its lesson to their successors. A person came to Khalif Omar after morning prayers and said: “I should like to give public sermons”. “My friend”, said the Khalif, “I am afraid you would soon be puffed up with pride”. Huzaifa, the companion of the Prophet, was a leader of prayer. One day he said to his congregation: “Brethren, have another leader, or go and pray alone, for I begin to feel puffed up with your leadership”.

Thus, the companions of the Prophet lived meekly, the humble servants of God on earth, keenly watching the changing phases of their Hearts and promptly seeking the remedy. But we who call ourselves their followers not only do not try to purify our hearts but do not even think it worth while to consider the means for their purification. How can we expect salvation? But we ought not to lose heart. The apostle of mercy for the worlds (Rahmet ul lilalamin) has said: “Soon a time will come when if any person will do even one tenth of what you are doing now, he will have his salvation”.[7]

Devotion and religious service elicit admiration and praise for the devotee, who finding himself respected by the people is elated. This elation quietly develops into pride and then the devotee considers himself a superior being and favoured of God. He despises his fellow men and calls them sinners, who will be doomed for ever. But he does know that he himself will be doomed for despising his fellowmen and thinking too much of himself. The Prophet says: “When you hear any person, saying: ‘Woe to the people they are doomed,’ know that he himself will be doomed first”.

It is recorded that a certain sinner among the Jews passed by a well known Pharisee. Struck with the appearance of the Pharisee’s piety and devotion, the poor sinner sat down by him, believing in the saving grace of his holy touch. But the proud Pharisee disdainfully spoke out: “Touch me not thou filthy sinner, and leave my presence”. Whereupon God sent His word to the prophet of that age: “Go and tell that sinner; thou art forgiven: As for that Pharisee, his devotion is cast aside and he is doomed”.

3. People are usually proud of their lineage, and look down on men of low birth. They refuse to treat them on equal terms, and boastfully speak of their ancestors in the presence of men, who are treated by them in a haughty manner. This evil lurks even in the hearts of good and virtuous men, although their manners and actions throw a veil over it. But in an unguarded moment of excitement and fury, this demon of pedigree is let loose from the innermost corner of the heart.

The Prophet’s companion Abuzar says: “I was quarrelling with someone in the presence of the Prophet when suddenly in a fit of rage I abused the man; Thou son of a negrees!” On this the Prophet coaxingly said to me: “Abuzar, both the scales are equal. The white has no preference over the black. Hearing this I fell and said to the person: Brother come and trample on my face and then forgive me.”

It is reported in the Hadith that two men were quarrelling before the Prophet. One said to the other; “I am the son of such and such illustrious man, tell me who thy father is?” The Prophet, addressing the boastful man said; “There were two men in the time of Moses who boast fully spoke of their pedigree. One said to the other: Look how my nine ancestors all in one line were men of renown. And God said to Moses: “Tell this man: All thy nine ancestors are in Hell and thou art the tenth.”

4. Women generally feel proud of their beauty. This leads to finding fault with others, and this gradually assumes the form of contempt and disdain. Ayesha, the wife of the Prophet, says: “One day a woman came to the Prophet and I said to him: “Look at this dwarf.” ‘The Prophet turned towards me and said: ‘Ayesha, repent of what thou hast said, for it is slander.’

5, 6, 7. People feel a sort of elation at the sight of their possessions. A merchant is elated with his stores, a landowner with his fields and groves, and a nobleman with his retinue and riches. In short, every person feels proud of his worldly possessions and looks down on those who are lacking in them. He believes in riches and worships mammon.[8] He has no idea of what is meant by: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for their’s is the kingdom of Heaven”.[9]

We may quote a parable from the Quran. “And set forth to them a parable of two men. For one of them we made two gardens of grape vines, and we surrounded them both with palms, and in the midst of them we made corn-fields. Both these gardens yielded their fruits and failed nothing. We caused a river to gush forth in their midst. The man possessed much wealth and he said to his companion while he disputed with him: I have greater wealth than you and am mightier in followers. While he entered his garden he was unjust to himself. He said: I do not think that this will ever perish. I do not think the hour will come, yet even if I return to my Lord I shall most certainly find a place better than this. His companion said to him, while disputing with him: Do you disbelieve in Him who created you from dust, then from a small germ life, then he made you a perfect man? But as for me, Allah is my Lord and I do not associate any one with my Lord. When you entered your garden, why did you not say: It is as Allah has pleased. There is no power save Allah. If you consider me to be inferior to you in wealth and children, perhaps my Lord will give me something better than your garden, and send on it a reckoning from heaven, so that it shall become even ground with no living plant. Or the waters may sink into the ground so that you are unable to find them. His wealth was indeed destroyed, and he began to wring his hands for what he had spent on it. While it lay there (for it had fallen down from the roofs) he said: Ah me! would that I had not associated anyone with my Lord. He had none to help him besides Allah nor could he defend himself. In Allah, alone is protection, the True One. In the bestowal of reward and in requital he is best.

Set forth to them also the parable of the life in this world. It is like the water which we send down from the clouds on account of which the herbs become luxuriant. Then these become dry, break into pieces and the winds scatter them. Allah holds power over all things. Wealth and children are an adornment of the life of this world. The good works, the everabiding, are with your Lord better in reward than in expectation”.[10]

How fleeting are our worldly gains, and how foolish are we in feeling proud of them! Let us then, live as meek and humble servants of God on earth.

Original footnotes[edit]

  1. Ihya III. 9.
  2. Quran iv: 172.
  3. Quran xxv. 7,8; 21.
  4. Quran xliii, 31 And they say: why was not this Quran revealed to a man of importance in the two towns.” (Mecca and Taif).
  5. Quran xviii: 28.
  6. Ibn Abbas.
  7. Trimizi: Abu Huraira’s report.
  8. Comp. Matt VI 24” No man can serve two masters for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon”.
  9. Matt V. 3.
  10. Quran XVIII: 32-46.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.