A long time ago, in an air-conditioned tent far away, Shaykh Yasir Qadhi came to Dubai to deliver a workshop on something that I'm sure was enlightening, but whose core topic I've totally forgotten about.
What I remember about that workshop was this: when it came time for the question and answer session, I took all of my resolve – every last bit of it- pulled it up from my sandals, filtered it through the conflicting thoughts beneath my scarf, and channeled it through my shaky pen – and I finally asked a question that I had been struggling with for years.
“Shaykh, what advice would you give someone who struggles terribly with the fear of Riyā'?”
Riyā', in case you've never heard it given a name before, is a form of shirk that results from performing an act of worship for the sake of showing off or pleasing someone other than Allāh alone. Shirk is a form of disbelief. And disbelief is not to be taken lightly.
The Prophet said, “Should I not inform you of that which I fear for you even more than the dangers of Dajjāl? It is the hidden shirk: A person stands to pray and he beautifies his prayer because he sees the people looking at him”. (Sahih; Sunan ibn Majah)
For me, Riyā' was a daily battle. I didn't normally pray extra sunnah with Dhuhr prayer, but if I was in a masjid praying and saw other people praying their sunnah, part of my brain would say, “Māshā'Allāh, good for them. I should pray some sunnah too.”
But then another part would panic. “Wait!” it would scream, “We don't normally pray sunnah at Dhuhr! We're just praying because there are other people praying sunnah here. If we really cared about sunnah we'd pray it whether or not there were other people around! We can't pray any sunnah right now, it's shirk!”
If I was praying in jamaat with family at home, and other people finished their du'ā's before I was done talking to Allāh, I would abruptly end my supplications so that there was no chance of me “showing off” how religious I was by being the last one to stand up. Sometimes I remembered to go make du'ā' in private later. Oftentimes I didn't.
When someone offered to help me read the Qur'an more fluently and then insisted on hearing me recite, my entire spiritual self was revolted by the exercise because I felt like I was being asked to perform for their benefit, not Allāh's.
When I had the gem of an opportunity to call the adhān in a girls-only summer camp, I took it and loved it and felt exhilarated by the hope that I could share in the blessings of everyone who responded to the call to prayer. But then, the fear of Riyā' set, suggesting that maybe I liked calling the adhān because the other girls complimented me, and because the non-Muslim staff said they nearly jumped out of their beds before sunrise, and because wow, you have such a great voice, Māshā'Allāh!
Anything I did for the sake of Allāh that was visible to others became a vicious cycle: once the guilty pleasure of being complimented wore off, the hangover of self-loathing and fear inevitably followed. Doing anything extra became a source of stress and self-hatred, so I started doing less and less in my religious practice. I stopped attending classes for fearing of being seen as “trying to be too religious.” I told myself I could just read one of the dozens of Islamic books I had at home- most of which are still unread.
I didn't know that I was struggling with Riyā' because I didn't know what Riyā' was supposed to be called. All I knew was that doing acts of worship for anyone other than Allāh was shirk, and I was terrified by the possibility that I could, inadvertently, be worshipping my ego instead of my Lord.
When I eventually stumbled upon the word Riyā' itself, I was finally able to start looking for more information, and here's where we come back to Yasir Qadhi. He wrote a book called Riyā'- The Hidden Shirk. I wasn't able to find the book in Dubai, but I knew he was coming to town, so I wanted to ask him for help.
The question I wrote to him after that workshop was simple: what advice would you give someone who struggles terribly with the fear of Riyā'? The answer I had been cynically expecting was something along the lines of: Make du'ā', fear Allāh, do more dhikr, and if you're afraid you might be showing off then back off.
What I got instead was a question: What is Shayṭān's number one priority?
To make a long story short, Shayṭān wants as many of us to give his misery some company in hell. He will do so by either enticing us to do bad or- the sneaky custard- he'll prevent us from doing good.
I thought I had been defeating Shayṭān by not showing off. What I had really been doing was not praying sunnah, ending my du'ā's quickly, and boycotting religious classes. I was gobsmacked. But still, I was terrified, because to be honest, I like being praised.
We all do, actually. Validation is a primary human need, and in the behavioral yin-yang of reinforcement and punishment, we're all more interested in carrots than we are in being hit with sticks. That's why likes, retweets, and upvotes are emotional gold in our cultural currency. We all need recognition, it's part of human nature. alḥamdulillāh, Islam recognizes human nature, and provides a way of doing good, fighting your ego, and navigating feedback without being destroyed by it. I've learned a lot about Riyā' since that night in Dubai, and my intention is to share it so that other people can see their way out of Shayṭān 's sneaky ways of scaring us away from good deeds.
Even Shuyūkh fear Riyā'.
Or maybe, especially Shuyūkh. Having had the opportunity to speak to others about what I was experiencing, I found out that the problems I was having were shared by anyone who stood in any sort of spotlight- however dim- and mentioned Allāh.
Riyā' never goes away and there's no way that you can win the war.
The only thing you can do is keep fighting the battle. The individual battles are won by:
- renewing your intentions to please Allāh alone
- refusing to reduce the amount of good you do based on Shayṭān's fear-mongering
- increasing your humility by remembering your sins and making as much tawbah as possible
- seeking refuge in Allāh with supplications specific to being put in danger of Riyā'.
There are only two ways of losing the war of Riyā' entirely.
One is to cease even being wary of it, allowing yourself to bask in and anticipate praise from others. The other is to stop doing good deeds out of fear. Both of these achieve the same result: zero points. In the first example you lose the blessings of your actions due to the corruption of Riyā', and in the second, you never attempt any new points to begin with. Both are a total loss.
People will always praise you, even if you don't want them to, but there are ways to help do damage control.
If you are struggling with the feedback from people who praise you, remember that you are useless, powerless, and incapable of even opening your mouth let alone leading or teaching people except by Allāh's leave, with the knowledge that Allāh gave you, and in the context that Allāh permitted you to do so. Allāh gave you knowledge, sight, charisma, writing skills, speaking skills, etc. Whatever your skills are – they are a result of His generosity, not your merit.
There is good news!
For those of us that don't seek praise and aren't comfortable with it, but still get the warm fuzzies when someone says, “Sister, I loved your article. I make du'ā' for you all the time,” – it's not our fault.
Al-Maqdisi said, “A man's seeking fame is blameworthy. As for when it occurs due to Allāh ta'ala, without the man having desired it, then that is not blameworthy although it may be a trial for those who are weak.”
You are not accountable for the praise other people lavish on you. You are only accountable for what you do with it. Do you take it, cherish it, bronze it, and hang it around your neck? Or do you let it go in one ear and out the other, and focus on purifying your intentions, seeking refuge from Shayṭān, and moving on to your next good deed?
Recognition is a natural consequence of doing anything well.
Spirituality or in sports- and there is nothing wrong with being famous. Think of how spiritually bankrupt we would be without our famous Muslims – Ibn Taymiyya, Al Ghazzali – and our modern Muslim celebrities like Yasir Qadhi, Muḥammad Al Shareef, Noman Ali Khan, etc. They are not religious for the sake of fame – because that would be shirk – but they are known as a result of calling people to Allāh. There is a significant difference there.
Regardless of whether you're a public figure or a fan, when you see something that makes you say Māshā'Allāh, or you hear a recitation that you think is amazing – don't praise the person, especially not to their face.
Abu Musa reported that the Prophet heard a man praise another man and he was using exaggeration in his praise of him. The Prophet said, “You have destroyed (or broken) the man's back.”
Praise should be delivered much like criticism – don't make it personal, and keep it respectful. Try to avoid saying things like, “You're so awesome! I love you! I want to crawl inside of your kufi and live there!” and instead give constructive feedback that can be used to make them better. “alḥamdulillāh, that hadith was a good reminder. I'm looking forward to more of your work.” Respond with the intention of encouraging good, but be very careful of praising the person versus praising the message that person is delivering.
If you like what someone writes or says, and you want more of it, tell them how it helped you, tell them how they can help you even more, and tell them you're making du'ā' for their continued ability to do so. And please, do this for all of the writers, speakers, tweeters, reciters, and people around you who want to attract you to Allāh without being spiritually endangered by hearing or, God-forbid, believing their own hype.
Muslims must always be wary of Riyā', but with knowledge and constant renewal of our intentions, we don't have to be incapacitated by it. Life is too short to waste the opportunities for good in paralysis and fear. May Allāh protect us all from shirk in all of its forms, and purify our intentions to do good. May He guide us as we walk the tightrope between seeking attention for the message versus attention for the one delivering it. And may He bless Yasir Qadhi and bring him to Dubai again. āmīn.