وَإِذَا قِيلَ لَهُ اتَّقِ اللَّهَ أَخَذَتْهُ الْعِزَّةُ بِالْإِثْمِ
Wa-idhā qīla lahut-taqillāha akhadhathul-‘izzatu bil-ithm
And when he is told, ‘Be God conscious,’ pride carries him to sin.
(Sūrat al-Baqarah, No 2, Āyat 206)
This verse is part of a passage that describes the qualities of the hypocrites. It reveals the inner working of a person who has no actual belief in God or the Hereafter. The hardened heart of such a person leads to many inner diseases which are manifested in interactions with others. This verse tells us of the response of such a person when he is advised to be God conscious and fear Allah ‘azza wajall. Instead of being receptive to such advice and pondering over it, the hypocrite is filled with pride and conceit, and this leads him to reject the advice and be bold in disobedience.
It is narrated that ‘Abdul Malik bin Marwān, the fifth Umayyad Caliph, was consumed with this type of pride. Once on the pulpit in Madīna, he announced that he would behead anyone who would advice him to have taqwā and be God conscious. It was his Caliphate that led him to such pride. Before he became a Caliph, he had memorized the Quran and was interested in religious teachings. But he changed after becoming a Caliph. It is said that he was reciting the Quran when he was told that he had became the caliph. He stopped immediately and said arrogantly: ‘Now you (Quran) and I are separated, and it will be the last time I see you.’
The word ‘izzat’ in the verse above does not mean the real honour and dignity which Allah bestows on whom He pleases. ‘Izzat is a quality of Allah, and He chooses whom to give it, both in this world and in the Hereafter. Allah talks about real honour in the Quran:
- Honour belongs to Allah and His Messenger, and to the Believers; but the hypocrites do not know (Q 63:8).
- Do they seek honour from them? Then surely all honour is for Allah (Q 4:139)
- You give honour to whom You wish, and You abase whom You wish (Q 3:26)
The honor that Allah subhānahu wata‘ālā grants a human being cannot lead him to disobedience of Allah. Thus, the word ‘Izzat here does not refer to that honor. It refers to a false sense of honor that a person feels which stems from sin and hypocrisy. It gives a feeling of superiority and independence and leads to more sin. This fake honour is a dangerous barrier to progress as it prevents acceptance of any form of advice from others. People with a limited worldview may also consider the person to have ‘Izzat, based on outer appearances.
There are many differences between real honour and a false sense of honour (pride). Mulla Muhammad Mahdī Naraqī in his book Jāmi‘ al-Sa‘ādat says:
When an individual thinks too highly of himself, it is self-conceit and when he tends to, moreover, consider others as inferior to-himself, that is arrogance. In contrast to these states, when one thinks of himself as small and insignificant, that is called modesty; and when, in addition to this, he considers others as superior to himself, that is called humility.
When a person has a real sense of honor, he understands his position as a human being and a representative of Allah on earth. He cannot stoop to sins and disobedience. Advice is accepted because of the sense of honor that seeks perfection. This is the manifestation of true honour bestowed by Allah. Imam Ali (a) says: Whoever respects and honours his soul will not abase it through disobedience (Ghurar al– Hikam, H 7616).
Let this verse be a reminder that a false sense of honor is an impediment to spiritual progress. The real honor is only from Allah (swt). The one who is granted honor by Allah strives to reach higher levels of human perfection. And this is the tawfīq which is also from Almighty Allah.
Sources: Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān; Agha Muhsin Qarā’atī, Tafsīr Nūr