The Ego and Ramadan

by Ahmad Ali Khalid:

Does ‘’traditional religion’’ engender and foster the ‘’holier-than-thou’’ attitude which is perhaps the ugliest form of faith on display in the 21st century? Because certainly the ‘’liberal’’ critique of religious observance in Muslim societies especially during Ramadhan revolves around the central theme of the pious showing off. Every year our annual companion Ramadan meets not only hungry spiritual seekers but also the human ego in full pomp and ceremony. But really religious people have always realised the dangers of pious arrogance, and I mean the people who don’t practise their faith because:

a)      It makes them feel better.

b)      They want to race to Heaven because of the descriptions found in religious Scripture – thus treating people as objects towards fulfilling their cosmic pleasure.

c)      They don’t want to go to Hell – thus people are treated as once again objects – only this time as objects that can condemn to Hell because associating with people deemed not ‘’Islamic’’ enough is sinful.

Throughout classical and traditional Islamic literature, the great spiritual masters were always aware of the danger of ostentatious religiosity and the hypocrisy that it can engender. Scholars and spiritual sages write about this notion of ‘riyaa’ which basically means the only reason you perform acts of religious worship and piety is so that it can be seen by other people, in order to gain praise, achieve a higher status in society and acquire a reputation of piety. Why is this a grave danger? Because of course as the Prophet PBUH says in that popular Hadith – all actions are judged by their intentions. Scholars write about this issue with such caution and gravity that many deem this form of ostentatious hypocrisy to make your deeds and actions invalid.

The Islamic ethic places an incredible importance on the issue of intention because it clearly recognizes that outwardly performing ritualistic acts without internalizing their spiritual import is dangerous.

Modern day scholar Imam Suhaib Webb writes about the issue with great humour and eloquence on his piece, ‘’Different Forms of Riya’’ The point to be made is that a critique of exhibitionist religiosity is not a sign of heterodoxy or even heresy – but rather its part of the traditional conception of spirituality. It is part of the Islamic ethic to hold out against hypocrisy (the Noble Quran itself is filled with references criticising this religious attitude) and ostentation.

The scholars have classed different types of riyaa – from speech, to action and to even one’s social interactions which all can be used to portray a hyper-religious portrayal of the Self in order to win praise from society. To correct one’s intentions before performing even good actions and beautiful deeds is an awesome task and one that is not emphasized enough in our capitalistic style discourse of religious observance especially during Ramadhan.

One of Islam’s most celebrated spiritual masters – the great Imam Al Ghazali even devoted a whole book to the issue of ostentation, arrogance and exhibitionism in religious affairs in his celebrated magnus opus, ‘’The Revival of Religious Sciences’’ (Ihya. Ulum-ud-Din). Book 28 in the Imam’s encyclopediac documentation of spiritual excellence is, ‘’ Condemnation of Status and Ostentation’’. A summarised translation is available in English here and is well worth a read to keep one’s religious sanity and integrity in the midst of grotesque religious hypocrisy that engulfs many Muslim communities during this blessed month.

‘’One should keep oneself in check while performing great, hard devotional acts which others are unable to perform. This because the soul is then almost boiling for want of divulging such acts…

One should hold one’s heart to this truth after completing the action so that one does not disclose it or speak about it to others. And even when one has done all this, one should remain afraid for one’s deeds, and be in fear that they have been tainted with hidden ostentation of which one was entirely unaware.’’

Wiser words could not have been penned and it is amazing that we remain in great ignorance about our spiritual traditions that emphasized humility and self-effacement when it came to religious devotion. The fear of arrogance and ostentation should make us hesitant in revealing the state of our religious journey or to flaunt our spiritual condition. Boasting, making feel others little and then to have the cheek to claim that is part of your ”dawah” or ”islaha” (reforming people who are already Muslim) is grossly disingenuous to say the least or at worst is being a jerk with a shallow religious veneer. Jerks will remain jerks no matter how many fasts or prayers they keep.

This Ramadan, perhaps we can take a more existential route of contemplation. Why are you even a Muslim? Why do you practise the faith that you do? Do we see faith as a way of connecting with the Divine, overcoming our base instincts and desire, conquering the Ego’s corrosive activity that veils us from the One. Or rather a way of getting us a gig on national television, a pulpit that can give our Ego an excuse to ridicule and demean others and to be venerated as a Saint in the era of 24 hour television?

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