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Fear of Good Deeds? Ain’t Nobody Got time For That

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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.

Sorry Shaykh.

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.

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“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 Allah alone.  Shirk is a form of disbelief.  And disbelief is not to be taken lightly.

The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) 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 Zuhr 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 Zuhr! 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 Allah, 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 Allah’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 Allah 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 Allah 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 Allah, 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.  Alhamdulillah, 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 Shaykhs fear Riyā’.

Or maybe, especially Shaykhs.  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 Allah.

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:

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 Allah’s leave, with the knowledge that Allah gave you, and in the context that Allah permitted you to do so.  Allah gave you knowledge, sight, charisma, writing skills, speaking skills, etc. Whatever your skills are – they are a result of His generosity, not your merit.

Five types of fear

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 raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) said, “A man’s seeking fame is blameworthy. As for when it occurs due to Allaah 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, Muhammad 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 Allah.  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 ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) heard a man praise another man and he was using exaggeration in his praise of him. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) 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.  “Alhamdulillah, 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 Allah 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 Allah 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.  Ameen.

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Zeba Khan is the Director of Development for MuslimMatters.org and the producer of the newly launched Muslimmatters Podcast, as well as a writer, speaker, and disability awareness advocate. In addition to having a child with autism, she herself lives with Ehlers-Danlos Sydrome, Dysautonomia, Mast-Cell Activation Disorder, and a random assortment of acronyms that collectively translate to chronic illness and progressive disability.

35 Comments

35 Comments

  1. Sajid Ahmed Umar

    October 7, 2013 at 2:43 AM

    May Allah bless you in both worlds and grant you better than you dream. Ameen.

    • Abez

      October 8, 2013 at 12:24 PM

      JazakAllahuKheiran, Ameen!

  2. Asif Balouch (@PhilAsify101)

    October 7, 2013 at 10:28 AM

    That article was a fantastic reminder, looking forward to more of your work. Keep it up Sister Abez! (Did I follow the compliment criteria correctly?) :-)

    • Abez

      October 8, 2013 at 12:24 PM

      To the letter, JazakAllahuKheiran. :)

  3. PA

    October 8, 2013 at 8:37 AM

    MashaAllah sister..I also had the same problem..If I prolong the salah for the sake of people or shorten the salah for the sake of people,then I am doing shirk.Keeping a sincere intention just to please Allah is the biggest battle.

    • Fatima Ariadne

      October 10, 2013 at 3:10 PM

      A good message from Fudhail ibn Iyadh :

      [b]Avoiding good deeds for fear of riya is RIYA.[/b] Doing deeds for the sake of human is shirk.
      The safest position is to avoid both of them

  4. Aasia

    October 8, 2013 at 10:38 AM

    Jazakum Allahu khairan Sister for this article. I think about riya in my intention most of time and it worries me much. Due to it I didn’t speak about good things or encourage others towards good but I realized that Shaytan is really trying to stop you doing good deeds especially those that are in the eyes of relatives and friends. The advice and guidance was much needed. I hope I don’t forget it. JAK again.

    • Abez

      October 8, 2013 at 12:27 PM

      Aasia- wa Iyak sister. Looks like you and I were in the same boat. We think we’re beating shaitaan but he’s tricking us instead. Sneaky, innit.

  5. Noor Ali

    October 8, 2013 at 10:49 AM

    When one is praised one should say:
    Allaahumma laa tu’aakhidhnee bimaa yaqooloona, waghfir lee maa laa ya’lamoona [waj’alne khairam-mimmaa yadhunoon]
    “Oh Allah do not call me to account for what they say & forgive me for what they have no knowledge of [and make me better than they imagine]”
    [Bukhari]

  6. M.G.H

    October 8, 2013 at 3:10 PM

    MashAllah, Beautiful Reminders!! If Shaytaan cannot get you to do haraam , he plays with our intention and puts fear into our hearts. May Allah protect all of us.
    Riy’aa -The Hidden Shirk is an excellent booklet , Dr. Qadhi is one of my favorite authors.

  7. Aisha Durvesh

    October 8, 2013 at 11:16 PM

    Alhumdulillah I really enjoyed this article. I have recently been thinking about people-pleasing verses sincere intention — after reading this i am trying to question myself about my motivation for good deeds.

    Alhumdulillah, I learnt a lot from the article, particularly the 4 ways of fighting the battle and the two ways of loosing.

    A suggestion: The last part talks about how the audience should behave. I heard about this recently in another lecture too – about avoiding to praise people for indeed we do ‘break their back’ – wouldn’t it be better if this topic was covered in a separate article as ‘Riya part 2’ so it gets sufficient importance?

  8. berserk_hijabi

    October 8, 2013 at 11:45 PM

    Same here Aisha!! I LOVE being praised. Yes,I know that it’s part of human nature, but whenever I get a compliment I feel golden inside. It feels so gooood. But I keep reminding myself, people give compliments way.Too.Easily. It doesn’t matter exactly what they say- “You’re so awesome! I love you!!!!! I could write a book about you!! You’re so (genuine,sweet,nice,kind,good-natured,in short anything positive under the sun)” You can be just a regular girl who’s actually not that good-looking and kind of judgamental, but if you have acceptable manners and have a little skill at writing,singing,drawing,etc. people will literally sing your praises. You’re not that amazing. You’re not that fantastic. You are not legend. You’re an ordinary person with some good things,alhamdulillah,but if you don’t watch it you will end up being someone with a bloated ego who starts sassing their mother. I’m very serious. Everybody, I am telling you, please don’t think that much about what people say about/to you. It appears to be part of youth culture to compliment A LOT,and boy,when it comes to compliments,the sky’s the limit.
    So please, be very careful. I’m not saying to dismiss every compliment that comes your way nor to give a compliment once a year at Eid- “I like how you put your hijab”. But when you do give compliments, be extremely sincere. Give a compliment the way you give a gift,a beautiful and precious gift.
    Jazakallah khair,thanks very much for the article, it is VERY relevant to today’s society and thank you so much for it.May Allah bless us all esp.the writer of this article,Ameen.

    • Aisha Durvesh

      October 9, 2013 at 12:57 AM

      @berserk_hijabi: I like how ‘bluntly’ you have shared your thoughts. And thats meant to be a compliment, though I it might sound otherwise: being blunt implies trust and care – thats how i see it.

      but, for anyone who reads your comments, specially the adults: sometimes compliments can save lives. Well not literally, but..ok! Specially when it comes to dealing with teenagers…sometimes they need to feel that gold, they need to be told again and again of the good in them. So that they can accept that there really is something of value: that they are loveable…that they have some quality, upon which they can work and based on which they can accomplish beyond their wildest imagination :)

      I know this is not what you intented in your comment, but its a thought I had.

      But yes, we shudn’t let praise get to our head cause we shud be (and our inner soul is, if we try to hear it) a better judge and knows where we truly stand!

  9. Fatima Ariadne

    October 10, 2013 at 3:00 PM

    A very good message from Fudhail ibn Iyadh : [b] “Leaving good deeds for fear of riya is RIYA. [/b] Doing good deeds for the sake of human is shirk. The best thing you can do is secure yourself from both of them”

  10. O H

    October 11, 2013 at 1:12 AM

    I recommend everyone to see the beautiful and emotional response by al mujaddid, the late Shaykh al Albaanee when being praised in a gathering. He responded the same way as Abu Bakr As Siddeeq responded when he was praised: A short video

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WxGBK7ToJY.

    The other personal tip I can share with others is one of my favourite duas below taken from http://islamqa.info/en/6356

    “If a person feels self admiration after doing something good or fears that he may show off, he should ward that off and resist it by seeking refuge with Allaah from it, and saying “Allaahumma inni a’oodhu bika an ushrika bika wa ana a’lam, wa’staghfiruka lima laa a’lam (O Allaah, I seek refuge with you from knowingly associating anything with You, and I seek Your forgiveness for that of which I am unaware)” – as was reported from the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him).”

  11. ghurabah

    October 11, 2013 at 1:49 AM

    Asalaamu Alaykum, Mash’Allah! A much needed insight it’s so raw that it highly resonates with me. Subhan’Allah! I can’t put it in words, how much of an awe I’m in right now for seeing this article. Almost 5 hours ago, I emailed a well known sheikh regarding my battle with intentions and how my battle with riya was induced by a story that made me reflect and questions all of the acts that I could recall especially the good deeds that were seen by others. I know it’s natural to feel good about the deeds you do and people say mash’allah this and that I didn’t use to think much of it rather a spiritual boost. Then one day, the praise of one of person or more makes you questions your open acts of worship.

    You said it all too well, I know that shaitan is a factor in these doubts, because I got to the point that these doubts would creep up on me whilst, I was doing concealed deeds and I’m like brushing them off because I know it’s shaitan and Alhamdulilah I often find my answers in lectures or articles like this that resonate with my current state of mind. Subhan’Allah! Allahu Akbar! Did I mentioned how amazed I was to have stumbled upon this today, the day that I finally decided to email one of my favorite sheikhs about my riya battles… Subhan’Allah! ( I just love moments like these, subhan’Allah I know Allah is saying here is your answer. Alhamdulilah! Allahu Akbar!

    Aside other issues… my battle with riya was a factor when I stopped attending masjid and halaqahs because, people looked at me like I’m suddenly pious just because I’m involvement in masjid events and what not. It’s a sad norm that we have and don’t see how it propels these personal inner battles with those whom we make more than they really are or do. We tend to make someone more pious based on their attire (more covered than the other sisters or more well mannered), it’s one of the major issues in my local masjid. That it actually drove away most of the sisters from the masjid because some hate being judged and the others hate being seen as most pious.

    I know that I over-think and that I just need to dismiss these doubts, but I felt the need to get a sheikh’s view on this. This issue ate at me for like more than a yr, ever since the story of a pious sister.

    Jazak Allah khyr for sharing your story, it’s so profound. May Allah keep our intentions pure, forgive our shortcomings, and guide us all ameen.

    • Abez

      October 11, 2013 at 7:56 PM

      Ghurabah, I’m very happy this came at the right time for you, and I know what you’re going through. I really spent years hiding from religious practice, and it became so bad that I even began questioning whether my deeds in private were a form of showing off to MYSELF. It was insane, frustrating, and confusing until I realized what a devious trick it all was.

      May Allah give you the strength to ignore Shaitaan’s tricks and keep your head down during Ibadah, don’t look up to check whether people are or Aren’t looking at you, but keep your sights on yourself and you efforts directed and pleasing Allah and fighting Shaitaan as hard as he’s fighting you.

      • ghurabah

        October 16, 2013 at 4:37 PM

        Jazak Allah Khyr, Ukhti. With this battle, it’s like you see right through my soul. I didn’t know another believer was facing the same battle. Alhamdulilah to have stumbled upon your story. I gained great gems alhamdulilah. Indeed, shaytan will always find ways to derail us from righteous paths. Likewise, ukhti may Allah keep bathe you in a shade to shield against shaytan’s tricks.

        Again, Jazak Allah Khyr ukhti.

    • Anonsister

      December 12, 2013 at 4:50 PM

      Walaykumusalaam warahmatullah sister

      If the Shaykh replied to you with any comments or advice you think would benefit others, please post a follow up comment

      JazaakAllahu khair

  12. maruf

    October 11, 2013 at 3:39 AM

    A great quote online

    “Be careful with your knowledge, for it may be your ticket to Jannah or Jahannam. Be humble. Anyone can be knowledgeable. But very little can be modest. Remember, Iblis was not stupid. He was arrogant”

    • Abez

      October 11, 2013 at 7:57 PM

      I wish I could give this comment more than one like. Iblis is actually a damned (literally) genius.

  13. O H

    October 12, 2013 at 2:43 AM

    One of the great scholars of the past Ibrahim Nakha’ee is reported to have said: “When Shaytaan comes to you whilst you are engaged in prayer and says “You are showing off”, increase it in length”.

    • Abez

      October 14, 2013 at 11:34 AM

      That is absolutely brilliant advice, any way of finding out which scholar it was?

      • maruf

        October 14, 2013 at 3:20 PM

        Ibraheem Nakha’ee is the student of the students of Ibn mas’ud (May Allaah be pleased with him). He was a trustworthy imam and one of the prominent Muslim jurists who died in 96AH. May Allaah have mercy on him. Ameen

        • Abez

          October 18, 2013 at 1:16 PM

          I’m not sure how I missed the source in your first comment, my apologies. :) But it’s wonderful advice and I’ve tweeted it as well. May Allah bless you for sharing it and him for writing it. :)

  14. Said Hasan

    October 14, 2013 at 3:28 AM

    JazakAllah khayr. Now it is easy to block out out people and Imagine only God is seeing me whenever I decide to do good.

  15. Sharmeen

    January 21, 2014 at 10:58 PM

    Asalamoalikum. Warahmatulahe wabarakatuh, JazakAllah kheir sis for this article, I found it extremly useful and comforting Alhamdolillah. I will in sha Allah share some parts of it on Instagram and facebook so that others may benefit in sha Allah

  16. Arman Hatamkhani

    September 25, 2014 at 1:29 PM

    Alhamdulillah, this was exactly what I was looking for so desperately.
    Inshallah you’ll keep up this enriching work, especially where I come from the essential performance of our sisters is being very much disregarded.

    It never occured to me that shaytan would approach my behaviour in just that way, by escalating and blurring a persons introspectiveness, rather than curb it. Alhamdulillah I can rely on Allah to lead me to such an adequate source of help.

    May all who contributed to this article be blessed.

  17. Sabila

    August 27, 2016 at 4:48 AM

    Allah Akbar! Sis, May Allah bless and reward you in both Dunya & Akhirah!

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