Reflection No. 204 on Q 53:32 – Self Praise
Falā tuzakkū anfusakum, huwa a‘lamu bimanit-taqā
So do not flaunt your piety, He knows best who it is that guards against evil.
(Sūratun Najm, No. 53, Āyat 32)
Self- praise and boasting is an ugly quality that is greatly disliked by Allah. Those who feel the need to disclose to others what they feel is right about themselves overlook the fact that it actually matters only if Allah knows about it, and He does. He knows best, and is aware about it all the time for nothing escapes His attention. In fact He knows us better than we know ourselves. Self-praise has also been condemned in another verse where Allah says: Have you not seen those who claim purity for themselves? Nay, Allah purifies whom He pleases. (Q 4:49)
Boasting says a lot about the person doing it. It often stems from one or more of the following:
1) A lack of awareness of the self. Those who really understand themselves and their position in the universe are fully conscious of their own insignificance. There is an acute understanding of how they fall short of the potential and status granted to the human being by the Creator. Imam Ali (a) describes the truly pious in sermon No 193, where he says: They are not satisfied with their meager good acts, and do not regard their major acts as great. They always blame themselves and are afraid of their deeds. When anyone of them is spoken of highly, he says: ‘I know myself better than others, and my Lord knows me better than I know. O Allah, do not deal with me according to what they say, and make me better than they think of me and forgive me (those shortcomings) which they do not know’. (Nahjul Balāgha, Khutba 193). This is such a beautiful response that it should be memorized by all Shi‘ī Muslims (See the Arabic text below*)
2) Self-love. When a person is consumed with the self, these thoughts manifest themselves in their speech. After all, the speech of a person reveals what is in the heart. Boasting sheds light on how the person thinks of himself. Sadly, such thoughts impede progress and weaken the struggle for perfection.
3) Low self-esteem. Sometimes the opposite is true. When a person is not sure about himself, s/he compensates it by self-boasting. It is as though he wishes to convince himself and others of his purity because he is unsure about it. True self-esteem means to have a correct perception of the self, knowing the strong points as well as the flaws and shortcomings. This allows the self to feel at peace without the need to impress others. The feeling of self-worth is not dependant on how others perceive them.
These and other reasons lurk behind the desire to boast. It is a symptom of some unnatural and unhealthy emotions that must be treated before the person can stop boasting. The only time Islam allows self-praise is when a person needs to make others aware of his position so he can fulfill God given responsibilities. This can be seen in the words of Nabī Yūsuf when he describes himself to the Prime minister of Egypt; Surely I am a good keeper, well informed (Q 12:55). And in the words of the Holy Prophet (s) to his people: I am to you a sincere and trustworthy adviser. (Q 7:68). It can also be seen in the words of Imam al-Sajjād (a) when he introduces himself in the court of Damascus.
Remind yourself of this verse the next time you are inclined to talk about yourself. Ask yourself why you need to disclose your good qualities and good actions to others. Stop yourself. As Āyatullāh Khumayni says, “Of what advantage is the love or hatred of the weak creatures of God, and gaining favor and name among them? Even if it has some benefit, it is insignificant and short-lived . . .” (Forty Hadith, No. 2)
Sources: Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūne
Amīrul Mu’minīn Imam Ali bin Abu Talib (a), Nahjul Balagha
Āyatullāh Ruhullāh Khumayni, Forty Hadith, http://www.al-islam.org/forty-hadith-an-exposition-second-edition-imam-khomeini/second-hadith-ostentation-riya
* When a mutaqqī, i.e. a pious Godwary person, is praised by someone s/he would say:
أَنَا أَعْلَمُ بِنَفْسِي مِنْ غَيْرِي، وَرَبِّي أَعْلَمُ مِنِّي بِنَفْسي! اللَّهُمَّ لاَ تُؤَاخِذْنِي بِمَا يَقُولُونَ، وَاجْعَلْنِي أَفْضَلَ مِمَّا يَظُنُّونَ، وَاغْفِرْ لِي مَا لاَ يَعْلَمُونَ.