Envy, or hasad, as it is referred to in surah al-Falaq, is something we ask Allah SWT to protect ourselves from, whether it is having others feel that way towards us or feeling that way ourselves. A little while ago, I taught Sunday school at a masjid for over eleven years, first as an assistant for preschool aged children, and later as a lead teacher for first graders. For the first graders, surah al-Falaq was a part of our curriculum, and accordingly, it was important that we talk about the meaning of the surah so the children had a basic sense of what they were reciting. One of the ayahs that really piqued the interest of many of the first graders was the last one, where we ask Allah SWT to protect us from the feeling of hasad.
To help protect us from thinking negative thoughts when we see something good someone else has, we even say masha’Allah. This translates into “God willed it to be that way” when offering praise to avoid feeling envy towards it because that is part of the sunnah. We are also taught in hadith that we will not truly love one another until we desire for each other what we desire for ourselves.
We reflected on the fact that it is so much easier not to feel jealous when we have a chance at having what the other person has or can do the same things that they can. But, it is so much harder to not feel envy when their talents or possessions seem so out of reach for us. My co-teacher and I reminded the children about how Prophet Muhammad (S) taught us that if we accidentally feel jealous of someone (which can happen to the best of humans), we should make a dua or supplication prayer to increase that other person’s blessings. We do this to clean our hearts, and form a warmer connection with that person. Then, the angels make the same dua for us.
After finishing this lesson, later in the day, one of the little girls in my class wanted to speak to me privately.
“Sister Amina,” she whispered, “I was feeling jealous of [insert other child’s name], so I prayed for them and now my heart is clean.”
She smiled, and went back to her place in line as we were either heading for snack or recess at the time. The other student she had been jealous of was someone in the class who was more academically advanced than she was at this particular point in time. Whereas the other student always picked things up quickly, this little girl had to struggle to retain the information, working twice as hard.
What she learned that day though was something that not many can pick up at such a young age: honesty with one’s self, the desire to clean one’s heart, and the courage to address one’s weaknesses.
It also sometimes takes courage to acknowledge weaknesses within one’s community and talk about them with the intention of hopefully improving things in the future. It isn’t a fun topic and usually leads to some folks getting defensive and saying, “Well, what about community x?” or “Why do you need to pick on your own people, aren’t we already dealing with enough?” But staying quiet about it and not saying anything at all is no longer an option. It’s like watching yourself bleed and not tending to the wound, because we only hurt ourselves when we hurt each other.
Unfortunately, in my observations, envy is an issue within many communities, but particularly in the Muslim community. This is not to say that there aren’t many people within the community actively trying to support each other and lift each other up. Nonetheless, envy or jealousy is still an issue. The most bizarre form of envy I’ve seen is the envy aimed towards others doing good work. Some people actually get jealous when they see someone doing good, making a positive impact, or expanding their outreach because they wish that they were the one in that position.
You will see this manifest in different ways, like belittling that person’s impact either behind their back or to their face (rarely the latter, more typically the former). You might see some doubting if their intentions are genuine (accusing them of simply doing it for attention). You might even see others actively trying to sabotage their efforts instead of working on amplifying their own, volunteering to support that person’s work through action, or at the very least, spreading the word so that those with time or other resources can support that person’s project.
The irony of all this is that while critiquing someone’s efforts and saying that they are doing so for the sake of attention, typically this same person critiquing the other craves that same level of attention or recognition because unfortunately, when they do good things, attention or recognition might be something that they want to come with it.
When they see that they have not achieved the same level of success, notoriety, credit, clout, or whatever else you want to call it, they feel angry at the perceived lack of that. The issue here is with a misguided niyyah, and a nafs that still needs to work on itself. If the Muslims doing the complaining here were doing good for the sake of pleasing God alone, why would they feel bothered when they see someone getting more attention or recognition? And for another matter, if they truly accepted the concept of qadr, or God’s will, why would they think that person does not deserve it?
I’ve always heard the phrase, “When you point your finger at someone, there’s three pointing back at you.” But with “good works envy,” each of the three fingers seem to represent something different, the first being the scarcity mindset in the person doing the original pointing, the lack of fulfillment of their own failed project, and then a third component which might allow us to empathize with all the “good works envy” finger-pointers: A lack of self-love which makes them feel like they aren’t enough.
Their cup doesn’t feel full.
Well, I’d say that part is completely normal, or a completely normal phase of life for anyone who has ever experienced rejection. Who doesn’t relate to at one point feeling like they weren’t enough for something or someone? Whether it was a job, a person, a social circle, or a university? You fill in the blank. It’s tough to completely love yourself in a world that is consistently reminding you about what you do not have enough of through advertisements and various forms of media.
However, the difference between those who have good intentions and those who seek to cause mischief in the world is that the latter actively try to knock down other people’s cups. Or at the very least, spill a little bit out of their cups rather than taking time to work on filling their own. Their own cups, however, will still be empty no matter how many other peoples’ cups they try to knock down.
The sad thing is that by focusing so much on the external perceived “problem” of the person working to make a difference, they don’t spend time examining the problems within themselves which they need to address in order to fill their cup in a self-sustainable manner. Islam teaches us to clean our hearts, but that’s difficult to do when instead of wiping away the dirt within, we’re spewing it on someone else. The term “word vomit” from the movie “Mean Girls” comes to mind.
We are encouraged to compete in righteous works (as mentioned in Quran 26:31), but we can do this while being inspired by each other, feeling hungrily ambitious, and striving for goodness together in a healthy manner without eating at each other from within.
tl;dr – We need to love ourselves better in order to support each other to feel an actual sense of community within the ummah.
Amina Derbi is the author and illustrator for The Storyteller Series, a suspense-thriller for young adults which tackles various social issues young people become exposed to as they come of age such as islamophobia, cyber-bullying, and gender inequality. The first book is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s online bookstore as a paperback, e-book for Kindle readers, and audiobook on audible. Amina is currently working on her next book, Stories for Syria, a collection of fictional short stories which center around everyday people tapping into the best aspects of our humanity. To stay up to date about upcoming book projects, please visit www.thestorytellerseries.com.