The Meaning of Humility and Its Kinds
By: Shaheed Ayatullah Abdul Husain Dastghaib Shirazi
Humility is a condition of the mind wherein one fully realizes ones own insignificance and the fact that one is utterly lowly and worthless.
There are three areas of humility: Humility and lowliness towards the Almighty Allah, humility and lowliness towards the Prophet and the Imams (a.s.), and humility with people.
Humility with the Almighty Allah
Humility with the Almighty is the realization that our very existence and everything associated with it is from Allah (S.w.T.). All the unlimited bounties that Allah (S.w.T.) has bestowed on us are through His grace and kindness and not because we deserve them or have any right on them. This realization creates a feeling of humility and lowliness towards Allah (S.w.T.) which is to be expressed by continually seeking Allah (S.w.T.)’s pleasure through sincere obedience, worship and good actions. To be aware that we are not really able to worship Allah (S.w.T.) as He deserves to be worshipped and to be aware of our severe limitations in fulfilling our duties towards the Almighty because of our ignorance and lapses. Our humility is also expressed by an intense feeling of gratitude towards our creator, for the many favours He has bestowed upon us and to be continually thankful to the Almighty.
It is recommended that whenever we are reminded of the past bounties we should perform prostration of thankfulness. Divine favours should be regarded as honourable and sacred, as, they are bestowed on us from our Lord and Creator. Traditions of our Ma’sūmīn (a.s.) emphasise the utmost respect we should have for the sustenance that we get from our Lord. When you sit you must sit with humility like a slave and eat like a slave. The Holy Prophet (S), when eating used to sit in a position of Tashahhud during prayer. The etiquette according to Ma’sūmīn (a.s.) to be observed while eating, is, that we do not eat at the table, instead we remove our shoes and sit with respect on the ground. We pay special respect to bread. All the members of the household, both men and women and servants should sit at the same dinner spread (dastarkhan). It is not advisable that anyone should be served separately. We start to eat with Bismillah and end with Alhamdolillah, and more important, to be aware and attentive towards the One Who is the Provider.
The respect we accord to food is such, that even if some food does not suit somebody’s health, one should not say that the ‘food is harmful’ or ‘the food has made me sick’. He should rather say ‘My health was not suitable for this food’ or that ‘I consumed it at an inappropriate time’.
Humility before the Almighty is to show respect and honour for all things connected with the Almighty. The names of Allah (S.w.T.) are not to be touched without Wuzu, nor any disrespect shown to them by being thrown or trampled upon, nor should one sit with the legs stretched towards them.
Mosques are sacred places of veneration. We should feel the utmost respect for them and express it in every way possible. As Allah (S.w.T.) Himself says: “Indeed the mosques are for Allah…” (Surah al-Jinn 72:18)
Accordingly to spit in the mosques or to enter with foul odour, to speak loudly and to speak of worldly matters in a mosque are all against the norms of a respectful attitude.
Humility before the Prophet (S) and the Imam (a.s.)
The most eloquent expression of humility and helplessness before Allah (S.w.T.) is humility and a feeling of lowliness before the Holy Prophet (S) and the Imams (a.s.). They are the great signs of Allah (S.w.T.), Allah (S.w.T.)’s representatives and Caliphs on the earth. We should feel the utmost respect for them and express it in every way possible. Humility before them is humility and helplessness before Allah (S.w.T.). We must not touch their blessed names without ritual purity. We must not pray Salāt facing their graves. We must utter their names respectfully and recite blessings and salāms on them. Some scholars did not even utter the names of the fourteen Infallibles (Ma’sūmīn) (a.s.) without being with Wuzu.
It is narrated that when Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a.s.) spoke the name of Hazrat Muhammad (S), he used to bow so much that his face used to reach to the thighs. In the same way respect and honour to the scholars and Sadāt is humility to the Imams and the Prophet (a.s.).
Humility with the People
All the human beings are equal with respect to their creation. All are creatures of Allah (S.w.T.), and Allah (S.w.T.) is the One Who sustains and nurtures us all. All of us are under His protection, His vigilance and His jurisdiction. So it does not befit any human being both by logic and rules of Shariah to consider himself superior to any other, and to feel proud about it. Nor does he have a right to expect anybody to be humble and submissive to him.
The only superiority that one human being has over another is on the basis of piety. But some people are superior because of their position and we have been commanded to show respect and humility towards them. The most outstanding example is that of parents. Honouring our parents and being humble before them is honouring Allah (S.w.T.) and being humble towards Him. Besides parents one has to give due respect to a believer. A believer has a special dignified position as he has a special link with the Almighty. Honouring a believer and being humble towards him is also equivalent to honour and humility for Allah (S.w.T.). Imam Muhammad Baqir (a.s.) says, “The honour of a believer in the view of Allah (S.w.T.) is greater than the honour of the Ka’ba.”
The respect and honour for all signs connected with the Almighty like mosque etc. have already been discussed. In the same way one should show respect and humility towards scholars, teachers, elders of the community and guests.
It is not correct to be humble before a disbeliever or a transgressor
It is not advisable to be respectful and humble towards non-believers. One should not deal with them at a level of equality or superiority. A disbeliever is not deserving of respect because he does not acknowledge Allah (S.w.T.), the Supreme Being and in effect has degraded himself to a despicable position of those who openly defy Allah (S.w.T.); like the disbeliever who proclaims his disbelief with impunity, and the sinner and transgressor who sins openly and brazenly, the oppressor, and the one who insults the signs of Allah (S.w.T.); these are the people whom we should treat with anger and harshness, for the sake of Allah (S.w.T.).
Thus we must be humble and lowly before the believer and high and arrogant before the disbeliever. If any believer accords respect to a disbeliever, it is, as if he has preferred disbelief to faith in the Almighty Allah (S.w.T.). That is he has acted in a contrary manner. Because honour is for Allah (S.w.T.), the prophet and the believers. (Surah Munafiqūn).
‘Ali (a.s.) says, “The Messenger of Allah (S) has commanded us to behave with sinners in an acerbic way.” (Wasa’il ul-Shia, Kitab Amr bil Ma’rūf)
It is also improper to be humble towards an arrogant person
Doubtlessly we must never be humble towards an arrogant person who considers everyone else degraded. Because first of all it is a kind of insult to behave humbly towards a conceited person and it is a despicable act according to reason and religious law, secondly, humility towards an arrogant person will increase his conceit. It is possible that if we are arrogant and break off relation with a conceited person, avoid business dealings with him he may reform himself and give up his arrogant behaviour. We would then have executed successfully the dictates of Nahy Anil Munkar. Our behaviour towards arrogant people should be as directed by the Holy Prophet (S) in this hadith: “Whenever you meet humble people from my Ummah you must meet them with humility and you must behave arrogantly with the arrogant people. Because your arrogance towards them will be a cause of their disrespect.
It is entirely reasonable and understandable that one would not want to be humble towards an arrogant person, one would in fact be inclined to reciprocate with arrogance. Such reciprocal arrogance is permissible by our religious laws, as is evident from the hadith quoted.
There is a difference between not being humble and being Proud
In the present discussion we are commanded by our religious laws to be arrogant and harsh towards disbelievers, transgressors and conceited people and not to show any humility or respect to them.
A subtle point of great significance has to be emphasized here. It must be entirely clear to us that the anger and arrogance that we exhibit is entirely in obedience to the commands of our religion according to which we have to be enemies with those who are enemies of Allah (S.w.T.). In no way do these commands imply that we should really believe ourselves to be superior to the sinners. At no stage should a personal feeling of pride and superiority over the sinner ever enter our hearts. At every stage we have to be aware that both they and we are helpless at the mercy of Allah (S.w.T.). Salvation is for whomsoever Allah (S.w.T.) may choose to give Tawfīq. It is possible that Allah (S.w.T.) may give Tawfīq to the sinners to do Tawba; and they are redeemed. So it must be amply clear that the arrogance and anger we have to exhibit is only in obedience to what our religion expects of us and not because of any real feeling of pride and superiority.
To clarify that there is no difference between being angry and not being proud we present an example below. Whenever the king orders one of his servants: “Whenever my son misbehaves you must express displeasure and beat him.” Thus if the servant finds the son misbehaving it is his duty to beat him and express his displeasure. If he doesn’t he has not obeyed the king’s command. Though the servant does not have pride and does not consider himself greater than the Prince. Rather he knows that the son is having a higher status and is closer to the king. And if anger and pride comes together, we must know that it is not for the pleasure of Allah (S.w.T.). It is due to the selfish desires.
Pride and obedience are not compatible
Our aim should be to impress upon them the greatness and supremacy of Allah (S.w.T.), of which they are oblivious, and to make them realize that arrogance befits the Almighty only to Whom we are all subservient. Our arrogance, is then an act of worship and a means to get nearness to Allah (S.w.T.). But beware, if a slightest element of self importance and pride gets into our hearts, this very act is directed by Shaitan. Such is the significant difference between an act performed for Allah (S.w.T.) and the very same act performed for self.
Another point of caution
Sometimes it happens that in the process of preventing evil, the person himself gets involved in perpetrating evil, either due to selfishness or an imbalanced approach.
To honour a wealthy person for his wealth is a path to destruction
To show humility towards the rich people because of their wealth and property is severely prohibited in the Qur’an and traditions. The Almighty Allah says in the Holy Qur’an: “And do not stretch your eyes after that with which We have provided different classes of them, (of) the splendour of this world’s life, that We may thereby try them…” (Surah Tā Hā 20:131)
Any person who respects the rich for his riches and belittles himself before him, considers wealth to be of consequence and is heedless of the supremacy of Allah (S.w.T.). Hazrat ‘Ali (a.s.) says,
“One who goes to a rich man and behaves with him with humility, the Almighty Allah destroys two third of his faith”. (Bihār al-Anwār, vol. 15)
Faith has Three aspects: Faith in the heart, faith expressed verbally by confession of testimonies, faith demonstrated by actions, by fulfilling obligatory acts and avoiding prohibited ones. In the same way humility before wealthy people is sometimes with heart and sometimes otherwise, like with the tongue etc.; and sometimes it is by physical obescience. Greedy people are more humble to the rich and speak sweet words to them and show themselves to be inferior. Their two third faith is wasted. If they express humility by physical obescience, like kissing their hands and feet etc., their whole faith is destroyed. Because he has done everything he could do for a human being and has not left anything for Allah (S.w.T.).
The Humility of the Rich and the Pride of the Beggar for the pleasure of Allah (S.w.T.)
Amir ul-Mu’minīn ‘Ali (a.s.) says: It is good for the rich to show humility before the poor to seek reward from Allah, but better than that is the haughtiness of the poor towards the rich with trust in Allah. (Nahjul Balagha saying 406)
The poor can behave with arrogance towards the rich not because he considers himself superior or due to any feeling of pride but because of their trusts and faith in Allah (S.w.T.), and on the basis of this conviction that they are needless of other people and their total reliance is on Allah (S.w.T.) Who is the owner of the treasures of earth and heavens.
It is mentioned in the book Layalil Akhbar that one day a rich man came to the Holy Prophet (S) dressed in expensive clothes and sat down in the assembly. After that a beggar dressed in tattered clothes arrived and sat next to the rich man. The rich man pulled away his dress and moved away a little bit. The Holy Prophet (S) asked if he was worried that his poverty may reach him. The rich man said, “No”! The Prophet (S) asked him if he feared that his wealth will decrease and reach that beggar? ‘No’, he said. The Prophet (S) asked him if he had moved away fearing your clothes will become dirty?” Again he replied in the negative.
“Then why did you behave like that?” asked the Messenger of Allah (S). He said, “My natural tendency is to regard every good deed as bad and every evil deed as good but now I reform myself. I wish to give half my wealth to this poor person.’ The Holy Prophet asked the pauper if he would accept it. The pauper refused saying that he feared he might also fall into pride like the rich man. It must be borne in mind that arrogance towards the rich is only with respect to riches. As far as faith is concerned, we have to be just as humble to a believing beggar as to a believing rich man.
Humility shown differs from Person to Person
In general we have to have a balanced approach in all our actions and dealings with no excess in either direction. The same applies to humility. Humility also should be within limits. Excessive humility is degrading, and a believer should not do anything to compromise his honour and dignity. The degree of humility we show also depends upon the person concerned. For example it would be ridiculous to show the same degree of humility to strangers that we show to our parents and relatives. Similarly respect for scholars who practice what they preach and Sadāt etc must be more than respect for other people. The leaders of the community must be paid more respect than commoners. Actions which are appropriate with the parents and scholars etc, like kissing of their hands, are not to be practiced with other people.
It is narrated in Safinat’ul-Bihār from Imam Hasan Askari (a.s.) that one day a religious person from among his companions visited Amir ul-Mu’minīn ‘Ali (a.s.) with his son. ‘Ali (a.s.) stood up and accorded great respect to him and ordered Qamber to arrange for dinner for them. They ate together, then Qamber brought a pot of water and a towel to wash their hands. ‘Ali (a.s.) picked up the water pot and wanted to wash the hands of the guest when he protested. How is it possible for a slave to allow his master to serve him? ‘Ali (a.s.) asked, “What if by washing hands my Lord and master will be pleased with me? You wash your hands as if Qambar is pouring out water for you.”
These words compelled the companion to have his hands washed and ‘Ali (a.s.) poured out water for him. After this ‘Ali (a.s.) gave the water pot to his son Muhammad bin Hanafiyya and told him to pour out water for the son, so that the status of the father and the son is not made equal. He (a.s.) said: “If the father had not come with the son I myself would have poured water on his hands. But could not do so in the presence of the father.”
If Amir ul-Mu’minīn (a.s.) had washed the hands of the son himself, the status of the father and son would have been equal. But ‘Ali (a.s.) upheld the dignity of the father by not washing the hands of his son after he had washed the hands of the father.
Signs of Humility
A humble person will not mind sitting behind everyone in a gathering. He will be the one to initiate salutations. He will give up arguments and squabbles even if he is in the right. He will not like to be praised for his piety. (Safinat’ul-Bihār)
Amir ul-Mu’minīn ‘Ali (a.s.) says in his bequest: “It is necessary that you make humility a habit because it is one of the greatest worship acts.” (Safinat’ul-Bihār)
It is mentioned in Safinat’ul-Bihār that after every ritual prayer, Mūsa Ibn Imran used to touch both his cheeks on the ground with utmost humility before the Almighty Allah. Due to this the Almighty Allah (S.w.T.) gave him the status of Kalimullah (One with whom Allah spoke).
Imam ‘Ali ar-Riďa (a.s.) says: Humility is that you give to the people what they like so that they may also give to you.
Hasan bin Jaham asked Imam ‘Ali Riďa (a.s.) what was the standard of humility and what was its nature? Imam (a.s.) replied: There are some grades for humility one of them is that a person should understand his value and do everything according to that. Rather he should come down a little bit with perfect consciousness. He should like for others only those things that he likes for himself. If someone is bad to him he reciprocates with goodness and he must swallow his anger and forgive the people. Allah (S.w.T.) certainly like those who do good.
Our Imams (a.s.) were having utmost Humility
It is recorded in Safinat’ul-Bihār that Imam Mūsa Ibn Ja’far (a.s) said Salām to a black Sudanese as he passed by him. Then he went near him and spoke with him for sometime. After that he said: Tell me if there is anything I can do for you. People said: O son of the Messenger! You go towards such a person and ask about his needs while he is more needful than you? Imam (a.s.) said:
He is a servant of Allah (S.w.T.) too and our brother in faith. Both of us have got the best father, Hazrat Adam, the father of humanity and both of us are bestowed with Islam, the best religion. May be time would render us more needful than him so why should we feel proud of ourselves?
Pride must be completely rooted out
Muhammad bin Muslim was one of the rich nobles of Kufa and was a companion of Imam Muhammad Baqir (a.s.) and Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a.s). One day Imam Baqir (a.s.) said: O Muhammad! Be humble!
When he returned to Kufa from Medina he took a container of dates and a balance and sat outside the mosque. He called that whosoever wanted dates could purchase them from him. (He was doing this to destroy his pride). His relatives came and said that by acting in this manner he was causing insult to the family honour. He said that his master had ordered him to do this and he could not disobey his command, and he would not move from the place till he has sold out the stock. His relatives said that if he indeed wanted to buy and sell he should go to the place where wheat is ground into flour. He agreed to it and procured a camel and a mill stone and started the flour mill so that by this occupation his pride would be destroyed and that he would see himself as a common person. (Safinat’ul-Bihār quoted from Ikatisā)