Causes of Arrogance
As we said earlier, the reason underlying a person's arrogance is his erroneous assumption that he has an existence apart from and independent of Allah, and that he has acquired his qualities of his own doing. However, in order to recognise the irrational nature of this line of thinking, one does not have necessarily to adhere to a faith.
Simply giving a little thought to this matter would make one grasp that he has not come into being by his own will, that he has no idea whatsoever about the time he will meet his death, and that his physical characteristics had not been given to him on his own doing. All these factors should lead him to comprehend that everything he possesses, including his body, is temporal, and will ultimately perish. All these indicators are clear evidence that man is weak, and that nothing-not even those things he thinks he is in possession of-in actuality, belong to himself, or that he exercises control over them. We could multiply these examples still, through deeper thought. In light of all these facts, it becomes clear how irrational is arrogance. However, the majority of people are so unconcerned about their role in life that they cannot grasp-or are prone to forget-even these simple facts. For this reason, in our day, one can hardly encounter a person who is not guilty of arrogance on some level.
However, it is entirely unthinkable for a person to become arrogant if he is aware that Allah is the Almighty, that He created everything from nothing, that it is Allah Who has endowed humans with all their qualities and bestowed upon them their possessions, and Who can take them back whenever He wills, that all beings are mortal, and that the only One Whose existence will persist forever is Allah alone. Only the ones who fail to grasp these facts and forget about their deficiencies, weaknesses and death, can dare to act as such.
The reasons underlying arrogance are of various kinds; an issue which is unimportant for some may become a cause for arrogance in others. But, in general, the reasons leading to feelings of arrogance in people are basically the same. These reasons are generally linked to people' s physical or intellectual qualities. The most frequent causes are the following:
- Power and Wealth
- Beauty and Youth
- Status, Prestige and Esteem
- Intelligence, Enlightenment and Education
Of course, we can always add to these causes. Other causes, depending on the environment in which one lives, can also lead to arrogance. Yet, a person who seeks the reasons for why some people have become arrogant will eventually come across these qualities mentioned above.
Further scrutiny of the qualities mentioned above will lead one to conclude that these are all temporary qualities, over which one does not have control. All these are temporal values, no matter how beautiful, wealthy or intelligent a person may be. A man' s life is limited to 50-80 years or, at most to a 100 years... Neither the wealthiest man, nor the most beautiful woman, has the privilege of enjoying a longer life in this world. He or she will eventually meet death, although he had sought to avoid it and lose everything which he had been boasting about.
This aside, we need to keep in mind that all such things as wealth, beauty, and health are not guaranteed for life. It is only a matter of a moment when one can lose all of his or her material and spiritual attributes of which he is so proud. It is not infrequently that we can witness examples of people who experience such losses. The Qur' an reveals the true nature of the life of this world, that we take heed:
Know that the life of the world is merely a game and a diversion and ostentation and a cause of boasting among yourselves and trying to outdo one another in wealth and children: like the plant-growth after rain which delights the cultivators, but then it withers and you see it turning yellow, and then it becomes broken stubble. In the hereafter there is terrible punishment but also forgiveness from Allah and His good pleasure. The life of the world is nothing but the enjoyment of delusion. (Surat al-Hadid: 20)
We have already stated that these qualities that contribute up arrogance in people are not features that make a person superior. They are all blessings in return for which a man must feel grateful to Allah. However, in case a person fails to consider that it is Allah Who grants these blessings, and of the reasons why He grants them, a person grows increasingly arrogant, and starts to believe that he possesses these qualities because he deserves them.
While counselling the believers, the Prophet Muhammad (saas) drew attention to this point, reminding them of the possibility that the most important assets man thinks he has may disappear one day, and that he has to make use of them in a way that pleases Allah while he has them:
Take advantage of five before five; your youth before your old age, your health before your sickness, your wealth before your poverty, your free-time before your preoccupation and your life before your death. (Al-Haakim, al-Bayhaqee, Saheeh)
In the following pages, we will expand on the nature of these qualities that cause conceit, and the real truth about the life of this world, to which man is so passionately attached.
Power and Wealth
An investigation of history reveals that the possession of power and wealth is a common characteristic of arrogant and haughty people. Due to the power they held, these people rejected faith and subjected those around them to oppression.
However, these people, who grew arrogant on account of their wealth and power, failed to grasp a very important truth: everyone, whether rich or poor, will one day surely meet death and be placed under the earth. In death, money and possessions no longer have any significance. The eternal life of the hereafter will be the only truth awaiting him. The money and wealth he accumulated in the life of this world will be of no benefit to him, unless he spent it for the cause of Allah. A person who boasts of his wealth, and holds an excessively high opinion of himself, in actuality, forgets the fact that he is vulnerable even to a miniscule virus invisible to the naked eye. Even a world of wealth proves insufficient to improve his safety against the danger of a tiny microbe. Moreover, all the riches of the world, even if it were doubled, cannot make him immune to death.
Although he may assume that he will continue to be held in high esteem with the goods and money he leaves behind in this world, he will be greatly disappointed on the Day of Judgment. That is because, no matter how rich he may be, there will remain only a few people who will still remember him only 3 to 5 years after his death. Even if he, exceptionally, were to live on in the memories of a greater number of people, it would not help him in the least. Indeed, while he is suffering from torment for his arrogance towards Allah, how people will remember him will lose all its importance.
Such people develop their character based on arrogance. However, the kind of character derived from the power of wealth is not "character" in its true sense of the word; losing his wealth, or meeting someone wealthier than he, causes his self-confidence and so-called character to disappear. That is, if the self-confidence and character of a person are dependent upon such factors, then that person is doomed to a lack of confidence and frustration when he loses them.
However, a person who believes in Allah, the Creator of all beings, and puts his trust in Him, maintains his strong character, no matter what befalls him. That is because the only source of power is Allah, and Allah is the Eternal Owner of Sovereignty and the Everlasting. Therefore, the only factor upon which one' s self-confidence should depend is one' s faith and trust in Allah.
A person who turns to Allah, and puts his trust in Him in all his affairs, gains a strong character because he knows that there is no power other than Him. Unless Allah wills, nothing will happen to a person of faith. Meanwhile, when Allah decides on something, He just says to it, "Be!" and it is. For human beings, who are weak and in need of their Creator, there exists nothing greater than being Allah' s friend. Therefore, for a believer, it is unthinkable to assume an image of himself that is founded on material wealth, or any other temporal quality. He considers these qualities merely as Allah' s blessings, and puts them to use for the cause of Allah alone.
Wealth and sons are the embellishment of the life of the world. But, in your Lord' s sight, right actions which are lasting bring a better reward and are a better basis for hope. (Surat al-Kahf: 46)
As the verse above maintains, for arrogant people, children are also a form of property; they exploit them as a means for ostentation. They attribute the good qualities of their children to themselves, and thus feel pride, as if it is they who have given those qualities to their children. Rather than recognising their children as blessings Allah committed into their care to be brought up in the way that pleases Him, they consider their children as means to compete with others. For this reason, everything related to their children, their food, clothes, the schools they attend, their profession etc. become matters of prestige for them.
"Ostentation," which should be regarded as a social "disease," is not restricted to this example alone. The majority of people boast about their social status, clothes, cars, houses, goods and so on. Interestingly, their main ambition in this form of ostentation is to earn the respect of others. That is, their choices do not reflect what they really need to improve their health, comfort or tastes. They attach too much importance to the opinions of others. This subjects them to an emotional roller-coaster ride, of greater and greater ambition and more desires. But, will this ambition suffice to quench the desires of man' s lower self?
Allah informs us in the Qur' an that the greed of disbelievers is insatiable. The greedier a person becomes the more arrogant and rebellious he becomes. Indeed, the verse below offers an accurate description of the psychology of a disbeliever:
Leave the person I created on his own to Me alone, him to whom I have given great wealth and sons who stay with him, and whose way I have smoothed. Then he wants Me to add yet more! (Surat al-Muddaththir: 11-15)
As the above verse also brings to light, because the desires of the lower self are insatiable, it is always in need of more. It passionately desires something, but once it is attained, it immediately seeks something else. A person believes that he will be happy once he attains his desire, but he soon finds that the attainment of what he thought would be a desirable end does not bring him lasting happiness. Despite this fact, however, guided by his greed, he hoards wealth and continually strives for more. For instance, after years of effort, a person eventually manages to buy a flat. But, after just a few years, he loses interest in the house, and begins to set his sights on a better one. Let' s suppose that he also succeeds in purchasing it; after only five years, he starts to dream of yet a better house, with pool and garden this time, and this vicious circle goes on and on.
We often come across similar examples in our own lives. The pursuit of a house, car, summer home, children, personal benefits, etc. lures these people into the downward spiral of the allurement of the life of this world, and occupies them until death comes upon them. Of course, there is nothing wrong with such pursuits; it is entirely legitimate. But, a life entirely guided by these ambitions has no meaning. As a matter of fact, some "players" attain many of their desires in this game, while though the majority fail, and meet death before they can satisfy their greed.
It is futile to be consumed with such greed, but the transience of this world, or the brevity of this life, are not the only reasons for its futility. We also need to consider the following: even the wealthiest man, living in a stately mansion, or opulent house with more rooms than occupants, can only spend his time in one room at a time. Though he may have a very sophisticated wardrobe, the fact remains that he can only wear one suit at a time. Even if he changes his suit every hour, he will soon become bored. If he is served countless varieties of gourmet foods, his appetite would be quenched before he eats at the most 2 servings. An attempt to have more may turn out to be harmful… It is apparent that most of human behaviour is shepherded by vain avarice. However, from the viewpoint of one with the ability to discern, these are not the things for which to be ambitious. On the contrary, they are the delusions of the life of this world. This fact, which is ignored by the majority of people, is related in the Qur' an as follows:
To mankind the love of worldly appetites is painted in glowing colours: women and children, and heaped-up mounds of gold and silver, and horses with fine markings, and livestock and fertile farmland. All that is merely the enjoyment of the life of the world. The best homecoming is in the presence of Allah. (Surah Al ' Imran: 14)
There is yet another important fact that should be kept in mind; everything a man possesses in this world exists by the Will of Allah. By Allah' s Will, some people are born into wealth while others are tested in poverty for the length of their lives. However, it is entirely irrational for a person to be arrogant because of the blessings Allah grants him. As human beings, we must grasp that this truly is a matter of Allah' s Will; He improves the situation of those whom He pleases, and He also restricts the means of others. In both cases, however, it is a test for man; he is tested in his attitude to these favours as well as deprivations. One verse reads:
Allah expands provision to anyone He wills and restricts it. They rejoice in the life of the world. Yet the life of the world, compared to the hereafter, is only fleeting enjoyment. (Surat ar-Ra' d: 26)
This being the case, in the life of this world, which is as brief as the blink of an eye, man needs to avoid such delusions and feel grateful for the possessions given to him, rather than perceiving them as a means to become arrogant towards Allah. Indeed, the Day of Rising is a dreadful day, when all of man' s possessions and other worldly assets will be reduced to nothing. On that Day, when not a single trace of man' s worldly possessions will remain, he will be called to account for every offence he committed against Allah.
In the coming sections of this book, we will present examples from the lives of the arrogant who boasted of their property, as they were mentioned in the Qur' an.
Beauty and Youthfulness
Beauty is also among the causes that may lead a person to become arrogant. People are all too easily deceived by the fleeting allurements of this world. However, physical beauty is not a quality of one' s own making. It is granted by Allah. It is also a quality that can be taken back at any time.
Everyone knows that it is a matter of an instant in which one can lose his or her good-looks. A facial scar, or loss of an organ, can change the looks of a person forever, and none should regard himself as an exception. Even if none of these terrible things were to happen, a person must keep in mind that he is also vulnerable to a merciless and irrepressible enemy; that is, aging. Even the most beautiful person in the world cannot resist the process of aging, and eventually her beauty, first diminished by wrinkles and other traces of old age, fades in time. Celebrities are a good example of this reality. As an immutable law of Allah, these people, who one day bask in the adulation of fans, later cannot prevent themselves from growing older. All the wealth and means at their disposal cannot save them from this inevitable end. These examples help to better understand how vain it is to be arrogant on account of one' s beauty and youth. Still, it will be helpful to consider what the body goes through during the initial phases that take place during the first 10 days after death.
The corpse, when buried under ground, will go through a rapid process of decay. Soon after it is placed in the grave, bacteria will start to function. The gasses released from these organisms will inflate the body, starting from the abdomen, altering its shape and appearance. Bloody mucous will dribble out the mouth and nose due to the pressure of gasses on the diaphragm. Accompanying this exterior transformations of the body, its internal organs will also decay, letting off an unbearably disgusting smell. The brain will decay. Bones will detach from sinews and the skeleton will fall apart. This process will continue until the whole body is reduced to a mere heap of bones.
This is exactly what will happen to us all, even though we find it difficult to think of. One who assumes that his physical attractiveness belongs to him must also think the same for this decayed corpse. Yet, this is what even the most beautiful person in the world will ardently avoid, because it is unthinkable to boast or become haughty towards Allah with a decayed body.
Some, on the other hand, lack self-confidence because they are not noticeably attractive. In fact, this is another form of egotism. The person in question, attributes her beauty to herself, and considers the absence of it as a deficiency or flaw. Regarding this issue, it is the conduct of believers that is most commendable. Believers feel contented with what Allah has granted them, and do not make their physical qualities a matter of self-doubt or arrogance. They are aware that the real owner of their bodies is Allah, and that they are merely being tested by them. It is the soul that matters and one' s nearness to Allah.
Being grateful to Allah, aware that beauty is a blessing granted by Him to man, and thereby, being modest, is the most exemplary manner of conduct. Meanwhile, it may well be that Allah grants inner beauty, charm and light from His sight to one who avoids boasting about what he has, remaining aware that it is Allah Who possesses everything. Thus, such a person may be better liked by people than a lot of others would with a better physical appearance.
Status, Prestige and Esteem
Do not strut arrogantly about the earth. You will certainly never split the earth apart nor will you ever rival the mountains in height. (Surat al-Isra' : 37)
Holding a status, and the prestige it brings, is one of the allurements of the life of this world. It is surely vain and irrational to be arrogant and feel superior due to the status and prestige one enjoys in this life. History abounds with the examples of people who possessed status and great power, yet lost them both in an instant. Surely, everyone is familiar with such examples. Despite being aware of these examples, those who make their status and prestige a matter of pride simply lack wisdom, since these are the worldly values that are esteemed by certain people, and which are things of this world. A person who is well-off, for instance, is generally respected by only his employees. Alternatively, a statesman is known and appreciated only by the people of that country. Even if a person succeeds in earning the appreciation and respect of all the people in the world-though this is unlikely-this fact is unalterable. The mere truth is, those who respect him are ordinary people, and this is not ever-lasting.
The unalterable truth of the life of this world is this: Whether one is poor or wealthy, beautiful or ugly, one will one day be wrapped in a simple shroud and placed in grave. Anything belonging to this world will no longer be of any benefit to him. He will be reduced to bones, and nothing else. At that point in time, one' s status, profession, power or beauty will lose all its significance, and a person will be questioned solely based on his obedience to Allah. One' s attitudes in this world, and his wholehearted submission to his Lord, will be the determining criteria for one' s position in the life of the hereafter. The Qur' an here informs us about the future awaiting these people in the hereafter:
Abandon those who have turned their religion into a game and a diversion and who have been deluded by the life of the world. Remind by it lest a person is delivered up to destruction for what he has earned with no protector or intercessor besides Allah. Were he to offer every kind of compensation, it would not be accepted from him. Such people are delivered up to destruction for what they have earned. They will have scalding water to drink and a painful punishment because they were disbelievers. (Surat al-An' am: 70)
In essence, those who boast about their status, and consider themselves superior to others, are the ones who suffer the most from the consequences of their actions. That is because, there is always someone who is greater in status or position, next to whom such people feel inferior, something which is a great cause of embarrassment to these people.
Another aspect of the subject we are discussing deserves special mention; their arrogance brings no benefits whatsoever in this world. Although these people earn some form of appreciation from others, they are, in actuality, those who are disliked and whose company is the least welcomed. Those who are humble, on the other hand, are those who have recognised the importance of character, wisdom and morality as true values. They do not boast of their qualities. And, owing to this character, they earn the love, respect and appreciation of others.
Intelligence, Enlightenment, and Education
Aside from wealth, beauty and social status, which are the major causes of arrogance, there is another factor to which people attach considerable importance. They consider being a graduate of a prestigious college, for instance, a very important matter of pride.
However, as is the case with all other things in life, attending such a school is also a part of the destiny Allah has predetermined. Therefore, making this a matter of pride would be an unjust glorification of one' s self.
In the hereafter, man will be questioned, neither about the college he graduated from, nor of his intellectual background. (Certainly, an education is important but definitely not something to boast about.) In Allah' s presence, man will be held responsible for his sincerity, faith, modesty, and his acts of worship.
However, for such people, who make it their major goal to attain the temporal values of this world, any quality-be it minor or important-may turn out to be a cause for arrogance. Possessing profound knowledge about a subject is one such quality. In fact, though a person may be exceedingly skilled at mathematics, or may have developed important theories in the field of physics, there is only one important issue we need to consider; even if he employs all his knowledge, he can never change even a single law of physics or create a living cell.
Apart from the basic issues we have mentioned above, there are also those who boast of their insignificant qualities. For them, simple privileges, such as a good-looking hair, a new car, clothes, competence with computers, a rich voice, popular friends, etc. may be reason for them to boast. However, those who are more wise are continually aware of the banality and triviality of this simplistic type of thinking.
The wise, that is, the prophets and believers, who had remained modest throughout their lives, provide a good role model for us to follow. The Prophet Sulayman, for instance, employed all his wealth and power for the cause of Allah. Similarly, Dhu' l-Qarnayn considered the authority he had over nations as a means to serve the religion of Allah. The Prophet Dawud, as well, showed meticulous attention in complying with Allah' s commands and in being just.
In addition to these few chosen people, the lives of the followers of the Prophet Muhammad (saas) also provide a good role model for Muslims. Although the majority of them came from the prominent families of the society they lived in, they did not hesitate for a moment but sided with Allah and His Messenger, when forced to make a choice between their possessions, money, the people around them, and Allah' s religion. That is because, they were very well aware that the life of this world is insignificant, and that the real resting-place is the hereafter. With the intention of earning the good pleasure of Allah, they sided with the Prophet (saas), emigrated when they were forced to, left behind their wealth and riches, did not covet the social standing or rank they had held, and devoted their entire lives to service in Allah' s path.
The character that is pleasing to Allah is obvious. Those who may currently be in possession of blessings such as wealth, beauty, intelligence, prestige, youth etc., must remember to keep in mind that it is Allah Who grants them these and that they are being tested by them. On the Day of Judgement, they will be called to give an account for each of these blessings. In the Qur' an, Allah relates the psychology of those who fail to grasp this fact, and thereby, become arrogant towards Him:
Does he imagine that no one has power over him? He says, "I have consumed vast quantities of wealth." Does he imagine that no one has seen him? (Surat al-Balad: 5-7)
For his own benefit, the reader must think about his own character while considering what is explained in this section. One' s lower-self is very prone to boasting. Intelligence, background, a profession, a house, a car, education, one' s physical qualities, and various other qualities can potentially lead to vanity. Still, besides these, one' s self may find others to boast. Yet, the essential thing is not to be misled by the superficial aspects of this world. It must be remembered that arrogance will only bring humiliation to a person, both in this world and beyond.