وَمَا ظَلَمُونَا وَلَٰكِن كَانُوا أَنفُسَهُمْ يَظْلِمُونَ
And they did not wrong Us, but they wronged [only] themselves.
(Sūrat al-Baqarah, No.2, Āyat 57)
In many places the Quran talks about human beings wronging or oppressing themselves. Zulm is defined as putting things in the wrong place, or not fulfilling the right of someone or something. It is the opposite of justice. The human being does zulm on himself when he sins or strays away from God. It is in his nature and in his best interest to look after his spiritual upliftment and fulfill the purpose of being alive. Not doing that is being unjust to the self.
Every action that is performed has consequences, either good or bad. These consequences take place both in this world and in the hereafter. The consequences in this world are often overlooked as they are attributed to factors other than the action itself. For example, being jealous of someone results in inner dissatisfaction and even misery for the person being jealous. But they may not connect those emotions with the jealousy itself. Negative actions create a fire within that burns the person first before it reaches others. This is the oppression of the self. And that is just in this world. The disgrace and misery in the hereafter will also have to be borne. Much as the human being would like to escape responsibility then, he will not be able to do it.
يَوْمَ تَجِدُ كُلُّ نَفْسٍ مَّا عَمِلَتْ مِنْ خَيْرٍ مُّحْضَرًا وَمَا عَمِلَتْ مِن سُوءٍ تَوَدُّ لَوْ أَنَّ بَيْنَهَا وَبَيْنَهُ أَمَدًا بَعِيدًا
The day when every soul will find present whatever good it has done; and as for the evil, it has done, it will wish there were a far distance between it and itself (Q 3:30).
The Quran gives many examples of how disobeying God’s laws, and oppressing the rights of others, is essentially wronging the self. The self must bear the negative consequences of those deeds. Below are some examples:
وَقَارُونَ وَفِرْعَوْنَ وَهَامَانَ ۖ وَلَقَدْ جَاءَهُم مُّوسَىٰ بِالْبَيِّنَاتِ فَاسْتَكْبَرُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَمَا كَانُوا سَابِقِينَ
[Remember] Qārūn and Pharaoh and Hāmān: Moses brought them clear signs, but they behaved arrogantly on earth. They could not escape Us (Q 29:39)
Arrogance is condemned in Islamic teachings. It may be a quality directed at others, but it destroys the arrogant person himself. Such a person rejects the truth, is blind to personal faults and weaknesses, and cannot progress in life. It is an oppression of the self as the self has a right to learn from others, recognize the truth and progress.
2) Indulgence in luxury
إِنَّهُمْ كَانُوا قَبْلَ ذَٰلِكَ مُتْرَفِينَ، وَكَانُوا يُصِرُّونَ عَلَى الْحِنثِ الْعَظِيمِ
Indeed, they were, before that, indulging in affluence, and persisted in great sin
When the Almighty grants blessings the correct response is to be grateful and use the blessings in His way. When people forget to be thankful and indulge in the blessings, using them for disobedience and extensive personal pleasure, it is an oppression of the self. The self has the right that it should recognize the giver of the blessings on it and strive for perfection with those blessings.
3) Malice towards one’s wife
وَإِذَا طَلَّقْتُمُ النِّسَاءَ فَبَلَغْنَ أَجَلَهُنَّ فَأَمْسِكُوهُنَّ بِمَعْرُوفٍ أَوْ سَرِّحُوهُنَّ بِمَعْرُوفٍ ۚ وَلَا تُمْسِكُوهُنَّ ضِرَارًا لِّتَعْتَدُوا ۚ وَمَن يَفْعَلْ ذَٰلِكَ فَقَدْ ظَلَمَ نَفْسَهُ
When you divorce women and they complete their term [of waiting], then either retain them honorably or release them honorably, and do not retain them maliciously in order that you may transgress; and whoever does that certainly wrongs himself.
Marriage as outlined in the Quran has the purpose of bringing tranquility to the spouses and bring about affection and mercy. A person who has ill intentions towards the spouse is depriving himself of those beautiful outcomes. This has been described as wronging the self. The self has the right to benefit from the positive emotional outcomes of marriage.
These and other verses show how every disobedience to Allah, resulting in negative human qualities, is actually an oppression of the self. The consequences of that will be borne by the doer both in the world and in the hereafter.