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Key Concepts in Islamic Spirituality: Humbleness

by: Sheikh Mohammad Ali Shomali

Another key concept in Islamic spirituality is ultimate humbleness or spiritual poverty. This means to strengthen our understanding of the need for Allah and achieve a sense of complete reliance on Him. This means that even saying, “Allah has been very kind to me” or that “Allah has been very generous to me” is not enough. Who are we without Allah’s favour and grace? We are nothing!

It is not that Allah has been generous to something independent of Himself. We are nothing else than what He has created. All good things come from Him; in the best scenario we are just recipients, contingent creations of Allah, not independent from Him in any way.

One might compare this to humbleness: but it is more important, more intense, and at a higher level. Sometimes people try hard to be humble. For example, if they feel very important because they have been successful they try to control themselves so that they do not become arrogant; this is a struggle.

But if one achieves spiritual poverty there is no need to struggle, as one would feel they had nothing of their own to be proud of except the gifts of Allah (SWT). Reflection on our limits and absolute need for and reliance on Allah leaves no place for any kind of arrogance or self-admiration. Whatever we have, or is at our disposal, belongs to Allah.

We are given things as trust for a short period of time and will be questioned on the Day of Judgement about the way we have dealt with them. Indeed, we ourselves belong to Allah in our very existence. Rene Guenon (1973) writes:

The contingent being may be defined as one that is not self-sufficient, not containing in himself the point of his existence; it follows that such a being is nothing by himself and he owns nothing of what goes to make him up. Such is the case of the human being in so far as he is individual, just as it is the case of all manifested beings, in whatever state they may be for, however great the difference may be between the degrees of Universal Existence, it is always as nothing in relation to the Principle.

These beings, human or others, are therefore, in all that they are, in a state of complete dependence with regard to the Principle "apart from which there is nothing, absolutely nothing that exists"; it is the consciousness of this dependence which makes what several traditions call "spiritual poverty".

At the same time, for the being who has acquired this consciousness, it has, as its immediate consequence, detachment with regard to all manifested things, for the being knows from then on that these things, like himself, are nothing, and that they have no importance whatsoever compared with the absolute Reality.[1]

Imam Husayn (A) prays to Allah:  What can I bring when I want to come to you?…Can I come with my ears, my eyes, my tongue, my hands, my feet? Is not this the case that all of these are your blessings that you have given me?[2]

Elsewhere Imam Husayn (A) says:  O My Lord! I am poor in my richness so how can I not be poor in my poverty?[3]

Whatever I have is a sign of my need, a sign of my dependence. What about that which I do not have? Suppose that there is a person who has taken a loan, say, of one million dollars from a bank and another person who has taken one hundred thousand dollars. Which one is richer, and which one is not? It seems obvious that the one who has taken more money is more indebted and more responsible and must have more concerns and worries.

Whatever Allah gives us puts us more in debt. There are many many things that we do not have and even those things that we have do not belong to us so how can we feel proud and free from needs.

Imam Husayn (A) says:  With respect to my knowledge, I am ignorant. How can I not be very ignorant in respect to what I do not know?[4]

What we know is very limited and surrounded with lots of questions. The more we know, the more questions we will have. This is why those who are more knowledgeable are more careful and cautious in their claims and farther from arrogance.

Also, over time, we can easily lose what we know. There are people who cannot even remember their own names or the names of their closest relatives. 

Imam Husayn (A) also says: O Allah! Verily the alteration of your affairs and the speed of progress of your decrees prevent those servants of You who know You to be confident when faced with your favour or to feel despaired when challenged with calamities. [5]  

Everything changes quickly in this world. Sometimes we are happy and sometimes sad. Sometimes people respect us and sometimes no one respects us. Sometimes our children are good to us and sometimes not. There are lots of ups and downs. What is the reason for this? We need to learn that we cannot trust anything except Allah.

No one knows what will happen and, therefore, we should not trust anything. As the sayings of Imam Husayn (A) shown above teach us, we should not trust anything or anyone other than Allah and at the same time we should not despair. We should not be hopeless or feel helpless when bad things happen. The key is in the hands of Allah and He can change our situation to betterment in any moment.

Having said all this, Imam Husayn (A) says:

I appeal to You with my poverty and need for You. And how can I appeal to You with something which is impossible to reach You? Or how should I mention my complaint to You while it is not hidden to You? O my Allah! How can I not be poor when You have put me amongst the poor? And how can I be poor when you have made me rich with your generosity? [6]

This shows that the means (wasilah) that the Imam uses to get closer to Allah is his dependence on Allah and his deep understanding that he is poor and nothing before Allah. Thus, the valuable means that Imam Husayn (A) finds and wants to use is ‘poverty’. According to the Qur’an, we are all needy. The Qur’an says:

O mankind! You are the ones who stand in need of Allah, and Allah—He is the All-sufficient, the All-laudable. (35:15)

We are all needy and it is only Allah who is rich and free of need. Many people do not understand this. Imam Husayn (A) declares that he understands and admits this and wants to use it as a means to get nearer to Allah. Then the Imam (A) describes that when he wants to come with his poverty there is a problem, in that poverty does not reach Allah.

This is to emphasise that poverty is only from one side; poverty cannot reach Allah. This may also mean that the one who goes with poverty will meet Allah whilst he is rich. To become rich you must take poverty with you, but the people who feel that they are the poorest people are the richest people in the eyes of Allah.

Whoever is the most humble, Allah will raise him more than anyone else. As we find in a hadith, ‘whoever tries to be humble for Allah’s sake, Allah will elevate him.’[7]

In a divine saying (Hadith Qudsi) we find that Allah told Moses (A) the reason why He made him a Prophet is that He looked into the hearts of all people and saw that Moses was the most humble one.

According to a well-known hadith, the person who avoids arrogance and chooses to be humble before Allah and serves Him sincerely is no longer a slave of others or of his own whims. He will achieve some kind of lordship:  The servitude to Allah is a substance whose essence (core) is the lordship.[8]

In another hadith, we read:

My servant, obey Me. [If you do so] I will make you an example of Myself. I am alive and never die so I make you alive and never die. I am rich and never become poor so I make you become rich and never poor. Whatever I want it will be, so I make you in the way that whatever you want it will be there.[9]

Reflecting on his life, one can see in the Prophet Muhammad (S) the perfect example of humbleness. Indeed, the reason why the Prophet Muhammad was chosen to be the ‘Seal of the Prophets' and was given the final message of Allah lies mostly in the fact that he was a true servant of Allah and the most humble person before Allah and His people.

At least nine times a day in their prayers Muslims bear witness that the Prophet Muhammad was a servant of Allah and His Apostle. This means that among all his qualities there are two that are exceptional: first, he managed to be a servant of Allah and second, he was rewarded by being appointed as the Apostle of Allah.

The Prophet was so humble that he never admired himself; he never felt superior to others. He never separated himself from the masses and always lived a very simple life. He maintained the same conduct while he was both alone and powerless as well as when he ruled the Arabian Peninsula and Muslims were whole-heartedly following him.

He lived very simply and was always with the people, especially the poor. He had neither a palace nor guards. When he was sitting with his companions, no one could distinguish him from others by considering his seat or clothes. It was only his words and spirituality that distinguished him from others.

Just before his demise, the Prophet announced in the Mosque: “Whoever among you feels that I have done injustice to him, come forward and do justice. Surely, enacting justice in this world is better in my view than being taken account of in the Hereafter in front of the angels and the Prophets.” 

Those present in the Mosque wept, for they were reminded of all the sacrifices that the Prophet had made for them and the troubles that he had undergone in order to guide them. They knew that he never gave any priority to his own needs and never preferred his comfort and convenience to others.

They therefore responded with statements of deep gratitude and profound respect. But one among them, Sawadah b. Qays, stood up and said: “May my father and mother be your ransom! O Messenger of Allah! On your return from Ta’if, I came to welcome you while you were riding your camel. You raised your stick to direct your camel, but the stick struck my stomach. I do not know whether this strike was intentional or unintentional.” The Prophet replied: “I seek refuge from Allah from having done so intentionally.”

The Prophet then asked Bilal to go to the house of Fatimah and bring the same stick. After the stick was brought, the Prophet told Sawadah to retaliate by hitting him back. Sawadah said that the stick had struck the skin of his stomach. The Prophet therefore lifted his shirt so that Sawadah could in return strike his skin. At that moment, Sawadah asked: “O Messenger of Allah! Do you allow me to touch my mouth to your stomach?”

The Prophet gave him permission. Sawadah then kissed the stomach of the Prophet and prayed that because of this act of his, Allah would protect him from fire on the Day of Resurrection. The Prophet said: “O Sawadah! Will you pardon me or do you still wish to retaliate?” He replied: “I pardon you.” The Prophet then prayed: “O Allah! Pardon Sawadah b. Qays as he pardoned Your Prophet, Muhammad!”[10]

Thus, in Islamic spirituality it is very important to feel humble and that we are nothing in front of Allah. Not just as a claim that we may utter without firm belief, but as a deep sense of nothingness. Once a person saw Imam Sajjad (A) in Masjid al-Haram, next to Ka‘bah at Hijr of Isma‘il. He said: ‘I went to Hijr Isma‘il and saw Ali b. Husayn (A) there saying his prayer. Then he went for Sajdah (prostration). I told myself: this is a pious man from a pious family, so let me listen to him while praying in his Sajdah.’

Then he quoted the Imam (A) as praying: My Lord, your small and little servant has come to your door, your captive has come to your door, the one who is poor has come to your door, the one who begs you has come to your door.[11]

In the Qur’an, Allah warns the believers that if they turn away from His religion, Allah will soon bring forward a people that among their characteristics is their humbleness before the believers:

O you who have faith! Should any of you desert his religion, Allah will soon bring a people whom He loves  and who love Him, [who will be] humble towards the faithful, stern towards the faithless, striving hard in the way of Allah, not fearing the blame of any blamer. That is Allah’s grace which He grants to whomever He wishes, and Allah is All-bounteous, All-knowing. (5:54)

In Islamic literature, especially that by Persian poets, great emphasis has been put on spiritual poverty. For example, in a long poem in his Mathnawi, Rumi illustrates the significance of this feeling of nothingness and humility and the fatal danger of pride and arrogance. Rumi argues that whomsoever people flatter and prostrate before indeed poison him.

If he is not spiritually strong, he may be deceived and feel proud of himself. In this way, he may become arrogant and damage himself and lose his humility. When people flatter someone who is clever he will realize that this can be detrimental. Rumi goes on praising those who are humble  in contrast to those who are arrogant. The example of someone who has not established humbleness in himself is like the one who drinks a poisonous wine. In the beginning he may feel happy and joyful, but after a few minutes he will collapse.

Another example that Rumi provides is the fight between two kings. When one king wins the battle and becomes victorious he will either imprison the defeated king or kill him, but he will never punish the beggars or the poor subjects of the defeated country. Indeed, he may help and promote them. Rumi says that the reason is that these types of people are humble and have no ambition of becoming a king and therefore they do not pose a threat to the new king.

Another example is a caravan which is going from one place to another. When the thieves come to rob the caravan, those who have no money will be safe. Or when wolves attack they may attack anything that comes before them. They may even attack each other and this is why when they want to sleep they sit in a circle so that they can carefully watch each other.

But Rumi says if there is a dead wolf they will not attack him. We know that the Prophet Khiḍr made a hole in the bottom of a boat because there was an unjust ruler in that area who used to confiscate every boat or ship passing by. Thus, the only way for that boat to be saved was to make it unusable. 

If a mountain or hill has lots of valuable minerals inside, people will excavate the area to bring out all the soils, sand and minerals out of it. But an ordinary hill or mount which has nothing special inside will remain intact. Someone who is walking is standing on his feet and his neck is straight.

Therefore, the enemies may cut off his neck with their sword, but no one would cut off the head of a shadow person, since the shadow is so “humble” that no one thinks that it may pose any threat. When a ladder is going to collapse the one who climbs higher is very stupid. When the ladder collapses his bones will be damaged more severely.

After mentioning these examples, Rumi finally asserts that whatever he said were like the branches whose root or principle is much deeper. The underlying principle is that to feel arrogant is to associate one’s self with Allah. This is polytheism (shirk).

Rumi goes on saying that since you have not yet died and again gained life through Allah, you are not enjoying a spiritual life. Without such a death, whatever position you take is shirk. But if you die and become selfless, that is, if you are revived through Allah you may go higher and higher. In such condition, whatever you possess is for the sake of Allah and will be spent for the sake of Allah. This is pure tawhid or monotheism.[12]

It has been suggested that poverty means to not possess something and at the same time to have the desire to possess it. For example, he who feels in himself a certain lack of human perfection and sincerely desires to remedy this lack is a 'faqir'. Furthermore, it has been suggested that in Sufism “the longing of love is born of faqr ('spiritual poverty')”.[13]

I think there are some problems with this understanding of poverty. First, poverty is much more than not to possess and then desire to possess. I think poverty is an awareness of our absolute need and dependence on Allah and as long as we are what we are this need cannot be removed. Second, this sense of poverty is a spiritual gift and virtue that should be maintained forever. Poverty is not a transient station towards richness or affluence. Rather, poverty itself is the greatest wealth and fortune that human beings can ever have.

The Prophet Muhammad (S) is quoted as saying:  My honour is from spiritual poverty. I have been honored over and above all prophets by being graced with spiritual poverty.[14]


[1] Rene Guenon, 1973.

[2] “Du'a of ‘Arafah” in Mafātih al-Jinān.

[3] Bihār al-Anwār, Vol. 95, p. 225.

[4] “Du'a of ‘Arafah” in Mafātih al-Jinān.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] This hadith is narrated from Jesus (Bihār al-Anwār, Vol. 14, p. 307), the Prophet Muhammad (Vol. 16, p. 265; Vol. 72, p. 120), Imam Sadiq (Vol. 72, p. 121) and Imam Kazim (Vol. 75, p. 312).

[8] Mizān al-Hikmah, Vol. 6, p. 13, No. 11317.

[9] Al-Jawāhir al-Saniyyah fi al-Ahādith al-Qudsiyyah by Hurr ‘Amili, p. 284.

[10] Mustadrak Wasā’il al-Shi‘ah, Vol. 18, pp. 287 & 288.

[11] Bihār al-Anwār, Vol. 96, p. 197.

[12] This section of Rumi’s poem starts with the following couplets:

تو بدان فخر آوری، كز ترس و بند                            چاپلوست گشت مردم، روز چند

هر كه را مردم سجودی میكنند                             زهر اندر جان ِ او می آکنند

And ends with these couplets:

این فروع است و اصولش آن بود                            كه ترفع، شركت یزدان بود

چون نمُردی و نگشتی زنده زو                              یاغئی باشی، به شركت، ملك جو

چون بدو زنده شدی، آن خود وی است                   وحدت محض است، آن شركت كی است ؟

[13] Nurbakhsh, Javad, Spiritual Poverty in Sufism, tr. Leonard Lewisohn.

[14] Bihār al-Anwār, Vol. 69, pp. 32 & 55.