The Ugliest Degree of Pretension (Riya)
By: Sayyid Ahmad al-Fahri
Imām al-Khomeini, may Allāh prolong his shade, has said, "Be informed that the most serious degree of pretension and the most detrimental, according to the principles of beliefs and theological branches of knowledge, and the one the darkness to the heart of which is the most intense of all other types of showing off is this: If the pretender does not believe in what he shows off, he is still among the hypocrites whom Allāh forewarned of being kept in hell forever. His is perdition and eternal loss, and his torment is the most severe.
And if he believes in that matter, but he does so seeking a status and distinction in the hearts of people, although he is not a hypocrite, such a conduct requires the light of conviction to abandon his heart so it would be replaced by the darkness of disbelief. This is so because this person, although he was initially committing hidden shirk, demonstrated to people the divine branches of knowledge and the true beliefs that have to be purely for seeking the pleasure of Allāh, their owner is the true Holy One, the most Glorious, but he let someone else be a partner in them: He let Satan have a hand in dealing with them.
Such an action comes from the heart seeking to please someone else other than Allāh. He (Ú) says in a sacred tradition recorded in Al-Kāfi, "Every type of pretension is kufr (apostasy)." But both this dark inner-self and bad trend drag one to have a heart dedicated to anyone except Allāh. The darkness of this vice becomes a means to gradually get one out of this life having no sound conviction (imān). The erroneous conviction becomes an image without a meaning, a body without a soul, a peal with a pith, and it does not qualify it to be accepted by the most Exalted One as referred to in a sacred tradition in Al-Kāfi where Ali ibn Sālim is quoted as having said that he heard Abū Abdullāh (Ú) saying that the Almighty said, "I am the best partner; whoever brings another partner besides Me in an action, I shall not accept it. I accept what is purely done for My sake."
It is well known that if the inner actions are not purely for the sake of pleasing Allāh, the Almighty does not accept them; He does not look at them; rather, He refers them to the other partner, the one/ones for whom the action was done in order to show off to him/them. Thus, the inner actions will be dedicated to that person, and they get the pretender out of the limit of shirk into mere apostasy (kufr).
Actually, it can be said that this person, too, is among the group of hypocrites. Just as shirk was hidden, so was his hypocrisy. The poor pretender fooled himself into thinking that he is a believer, but he started as a mushrik and ended up as a hypocrite, and he has to taste the torment tasted by the hypocrites. Woe unto one who is dragged into hypocrisy!
Explaning how Conviction is not Knowledge
Then Imām al-Khomeini, may Allāh prolong his shade, explained that conviction is not synonymous with knowledge. He said, “Be informed that conviction is not the same as knowledge about Allāh, knowledge about His Unity, about the rest of His fixed attributes of perfection and great negative ones, knowledge about the angels, the books, the messengers and the Last Day, for perhaps one may be knowledgeable about all these matters without being a believer. Satan, too, knows about these levels of knowledge as much as I know, and as much as you know, yet he is kāfir.
He also believes in the principle and knows that Allāh is the Creator because he says, "You created me of fire and created him of dust." And he knows about the Hereafter, too, because he says, "Grant me a respite till the Day that they are brought back to life." Yet, despite all these qualities, he is kāfir according to the clear Qur'ānic verse that says, "… and he was among the unbelievers." The secret in this is that conviction is an act of the heart. If it is not brought into being, there is no presence for conviction.
If anyone gets to know something according to the dictates of the rational evidence, or according to the judgment necessitated by the creed, the heart has to surrender to such knowledge, so the action comes from the heart as a manifestation of such surrendering and submission, a sort of acceptance, so he may be a believer. One's perfection is feeling comfortable [with such surrendering] as referred to by this sacred verse: "'Then do you not believe?' He said, 'Yes, I do! But so that my own understanding may be satisfied'" (Qur'ān, 2:260).
When the light of conviction in the heart is strong, it is followed by feeling comfortable with it. All of this is different from knowledge. Our minds can realize something through evidence, but our hearts did not surrender to it. Thus, knowledge becomes useless. For example, if you realize through your mind that a dead person cannot harm anyone, even if all the dead in the world get together, they collectively have neither sense nor motion in as much as a mosquito, and that all the physical and spiritual forces have already departed.
But since this meaning does not transcend the limit of knowledge, and since it is not acceptable by the heart, and the heart did not surrender to reason, you cannot spend one night with a dead person in a dark night, and you will be afraid of his corpse. But if the heart surrenders to reason and accepts such a judgment from reason, you will have no problem sleeping in the company of a dead person. Also, if you do that, and you repeat spending the night with a dead person, the heart will then surrender to reason and will not be afraid of the dead.
It will then be known that surrendering is the line of the heart, and it is different from knowing, which is the line of reason. It is then that man can prove, through rational evidence, the presence of the Maker, the Exalted One, that He is One and Only, that there is an afterlife, in addition to other true beliefs. But conviction is not a description of these beliefs, nor is one who believes in them is counted among the believers; rather, he is in the company of the unbelievers, the hypocrites or the polytheists.
The point is that this day, a covering has been placed on the eye of his heart, and he does not have the angelic vision and the kingly eye, so he does not realize this meaning. But if the innermost is revealed, the truly divine power comes up, nature is rendered into ruin, and the truth stands tall, it is then that you feel you were not a believer in Allāh. The said judgment for reason was not related to conviction. So, Dear One, unless you write down the blessed statement saying "There is no god except Allāh" with the pen of reason on the tablet of the pure heart, you are not a [truly] believer in the Unity of Allāh Almighty.
If this good divine word enters one's heart, the heart's submission will be directly to Allāh Almighty. The one who has such a heart does not then see any other human being as bearing any impact on the domain of the Truthful One, nor does he expect any favor or distinction from anyone else. He will not then seek a station and fame among people. The heart will not be pretentious or deceptive. When you see pretension in the heart, be informed that your heart has not submitted to reason, nor has the light of conviction shone in it. You will see someone else other than Allāh Almighty as the influential god; you will then be in the company of the polytheists, or hypocrites, or apostates.”
Having explained the levels and basic origin of pretension, the Imām, may his shade endure, states a terse admonishment in which he brings to memory the awful outcome of pretension. In it, there is a reminding for one who has a heart, or who does listen and stands as a witness.
The master of divine sciences, Imām Khomeini, may his shade be prolonged, says the following: “O pretender who has submitted the true beliefs and divine branches of knowledge to the enemy of Allāh, namely Satan, thus giving the matters that are exclusively related to Allāh, Praise to Him, to someone else. You have taken out the celestial lights that used to shine in the soul and the heart and were the capital of salvation, eternal happiness, the fountainhead of the divine communion, the seeds for the company of the Loved One in the desolate darkness.
You have permitted yourself to suffer eternal perdition, the capital of the distance from the holy place of the Loved One. You have shunned the meeting with the Almighty, the Truth…. So, be prepared for darkness beyond which there is no light at all, for hardship beyond which there is no ease, for ailments that have no cure, for death that has no life and for a fire that springs out of the depth of the heart and the domain of the soul, burning the domain of the body in a way which neither my heart nor yours can ever imagine, as Allāh Almighty has already informed us in His Revealed Book and which He described in this sacred verse: "(It is) the Fire of (the Wrath of) Allāh kindled (to a blaze) which mounts (right) to the hearts" (Qur'ān, 104:7-8).
The Fire of Allāh overwhelms the hearts and burns them. No fire can burn a heart other than Allāh's Fire. So, if someone's Unity instinct, which is instilled by Allāh, departs from someone and is replaced by polytheism and apostasy, he will have none to intercede on his behalf with the Almighty, and he will be lodged into torment forever. And what a torment it is! It is a torment that originates from the Almighty's subduing and divine wrath.
O dear one! Do not expose yourself to the wrath of the Almighty on account of a false whim and a limited popularity among His weak servants. Such whim has neither any impact nor fruit save regrets and sighs. When your ties are cut off from this world, which is like a shop and a place for gain, and when your deeds come to an end, regrets and sighs will not avail you, and you will not be able to return and retract.
Degrees of Pretension's Objectives
Some scholars of the hereafter have said that pretension, with regard to one's goals behind pretending, for surely the pretender has goals, is of three degrees:
The First Degree
It is the most intense and the most serious: One's goal is to commit a transgression against the will of Allāh and to reach what is prohibitive, such as he makes a show of his acts of adoration, or feigns piety and godliness through many supererogatory acts of adoration. He avoids anything that may bring about people's doubt in his regard. His goal is so that people may recognize his trustworthiness, hence positions in the judicial system, or religious trusts, or wills, or whatever belongs to orphans. He will then take them and keep to himself whatever he can.
Or he may be trusted with items, so he takes them and denies having done so, thus reaching his corrupt goals in committing transgressions. One may appear in the attire of the righteous, articulating pieces of wisdom, admonishment, and reminding. Yet his goal is to look good in the eyes of a beautiful woman. Some people may attend meetings of knowledge and remembrance of the Almighty, or even of the Qur'ān, pretending they wish to listen to knowledge and to the Qur'ān while their goal is to look at women, and these pretenders are hated the most by Allāh Almighty because they made obedience to their Lord a ladder to reaching their transgression, using it as a tool, a shop, a merchandise in their sinning.
Close to these, though less in degree, is one who commits a crime of which he is accused, yet he insists on it and wants to keep the charge away from himself, so he feigns piety in order to deny the charge, such as one who denied a trust with him of which people charged him, so he offers charity with the money in order that it will be said he gives away from his money to the poor, so how can it be possible that he seizes the funds belonging to others?
The likes of such folks are many among the Muslims. Individuals may gather funds that belong to the Muslims by the millions through usury or other illegitimate transactions. One may see that instead of returning people's money to them, he offers charity with some of his money, or builds a mosque or a hospital, so that people may see that he is one who builds mosques or hospitals; therefore, how can it be possible that he stretches his hands to people's money and possessions?
Or one may be charged with having committed a sin with a woman, and Allāh, the most Exalted One, removed the covering from him and exposed him among the people. Instead of resorting to a covering from Allāh, Praise to Him, regretting and pleading to Allāh, Who sways the hearts, to change people's attitude about him, he seeks a means through pretension, trying to cover his sin with pretension.
The Second Degree
It is when his goal is to obtain a permissible worldly gain such as wealth or marriage to a beautiful or distinguished woman, etc., so he feigns grief and keeps himself busy with admonishing and reminding others so that funds may be spent on him. He will then sell more of his merchandise if he is a merchant, a businessman, or among money making folks. Or if he wishes to marry a distinguished woman, such as the daughter of a righteous scholar, he pretends to her father to be a man of knowledge and adoration so that he may marry him to his daughter.
This sort of pretension is prohibitive because it seeks through the means of obedience to Allāh the wares of this lowly life, but it is of a lesser degree than the first. What is sought through this pretension is by itself permissible but it is contemptible, and its reality is shirk; the absolute authority is the privilege of the True One, the Almighty, when it comes to dealing with His servants.
The pretender does not seek fortune, wealth, or marriage, but he shows off his adoration for fear people may look at him as if he lacks something; therefore, he is not considered to be among the elite and the ascetics, and he is regarded to be among the commoners, such as one who walks to the congregational prayer services, to mosques, in a hurry, and when people see him, he adjusts his walk and abandons haste although it, at that time, was legitimate. But he abandons it so he may not be labeled as one of those who love distraction or negligence and not one of the men of eminence.
Also, if he is the first to burst laughing or demonstrates merriment, so he is afraid he will be looked down upon with eyes of contempt, he follows it by seeking Allāh's forgiveness and pretends to be sad on its account and says, "How unmindful a human being is! But Allāh knows that if such an individual is left to himself, he would not consider doing so as being too much; rather, he fears he will be looked down upon with contempt and not with respect. He is like one who sees a group of worshippers offering supererogatory prayers, or making tahajjud, or fasting each Thursday and Monday, as is transmitted about the imām of the nation who ordered the youths (of Hizbollah) to fast both these days, so the man goes along with them for fear he will be described as lazy and thus is not attributed to the party of Allāh.
If he is left alone, he does no such things. And he is like one who endures the thirst on the Day of Arafa, or in days during which fast is highly recommended, so he does not drink water for fear people may get to know that he is not fasting. So, if they think that he is, he abstains from eating as well. Or he may be invited to partake of food, so he abstains in order that he will be perceived as observing the fast. He may openly state that he is fasting or says he has an excuse. Such a pretender combines two contemptible acts: He is seen by others as fasting, then he is seen as a sincere one and not as a pretender.
He is cautious lest he should mention his act of adoration to people for fear he will be seen as a pretender. He, hence, wants to give the impression that he is continuing his act of adoration. If he is obligated to drink, he rushes to remind himself that he has an excuse, either explicitly or implicitly, such as seeking an excuse because of an ailment that causes him to have an acute need to drink water and stops him from fasting.
Or he may say, "Today, I visited so-and-so who pressured me to eat, so I ate." He may not then say that in connection with his drinking water so that he will not be regarded as seeking an excuse as a pretender, but he perseveres then mentions his excuse casually in his narrative of an incident such as his saying, "So-and-so loves his brethren. He so much loves them to partake of his food. Today, he insisted that I should do that, and I had no choice except to cool his heart." Or he may say, "My mother is weak-hearted, compassionate in my regard. She thinks if I fast one day, I will fall sick, so she does not let me fast."
Such is the doing of the ills of pretension. It does not jump to articulation except due to the deeply rooted pretension in one's innermost. Similar to this is something which I have seen more than once. Someone says, "I spent the night over the house of so-and-so. During the sahar [pre-dawn] time, I wanted to rise for the tahajjud. But I was concerned the owner of the house might think I was a pretender, so I did not stand for the prayers." Or he may say, "I did not worship during a particular time for fear I would be regarded as a pretender."
This poor person sees himself, when he does not pray or worship his Lord, as being sincere to Allāh Almighty, fleeing from pretension whereas in fact he has already fallen into it; both his nafs and Satan have taken control of him. In other words, man in such situations has two states: The first is his fear when he prays in someone's house or in the company of a crowd of people that his prayers may be pretension, yet he knows himself best and his weakness, and that he cannot safeguard his sincerity in public as he used to do in private; in this case, the prayer is abandoned so one may not fall into pretension.
The second is that he is concerned about people considering him as being a pretender, although he feels comfortable that he is not praying pretentiously but purely for seeking nearness to Allāh. In this case, if he abandons a ritual, he will prove that he is a pretender who does not like people to think anything about him except being sincere.
Abandoning the worship in the first case was for the sake of Allāh and in the second for the sake of the nafs and its desires, for the nafs loves its reputation to be good among the people. Such is love for life and eminence. If one who is sincere to Allāh sees in himself a desire to perform a commendable fast, for example, let him do so; he must not pay attention to what others say about or think of him. And if he does not find in himself such a desire, he must not fast, and he must not pay attention to what is said about him. Rely on Allāh and forget about them all.
A sincere worshipper does not care about how people look at him or think of him. If he has no desire to fast, and Allāh knows about it, he must not want others to believe something different from what Allāh knows about him, thus confusing them. And if he wishes to fast for the sake of seeking nearness to Allāh, he should contend himself with Allāh's knowledge, associating none with Him.