When Iblees came across the soulless body of Adam عليه السلام – which Allah had created from sticky clay and left to dry – he inspected it and found it hollow. So, Iblees dismissed Adam as a creation without mettle and lesser in worth.
The story of Iblees’ disobedience that followed is well-known. But what is worth reflecting on is the malaise of this eternally-cursed creation, who was once the most righteous among the Jinn and had earned the prestige of being among Allah’s angels.
When Allah reprimanded him, Iblees defiantly argued, “I am better than him.”
Iblees basked in self-righteousness and concluded from Adam’s apparent “shortcomings” that he was better than Adam.
Sometimes, we too tend to develop a similar malaise and the Quran and Sunnah are full of examples that expose this pitfall: The brothers of Yusuf عليه السلام felt they were better than Yusuf; the Jews of Madinah looked down upon the “misguided” Arabs; and the Prophet ﷺ declared that the “martyr”, who the Sahabah were impressed with, was in the Hellfire.
Yet it was Yusuf عليه السلام who was honored and the Arabs who embraced Islam.
In contrast to the ‘martyr’s’ story, the Prophet ﷺ himself defended the faith of a Sahabi who was repeatedly caught and punished for drinking alcohol, and said that he “loves Allah and His Messenger.” Subhan Allah.
One could be doing the best job in the sight of people and yet be the worst person in the sight of Allah. And one could be lowly in the sight of people and yet have a high status in the sight of Allah.
Many shades of gray
While these may be extreme cases, there are also many shades of gray that we muddle up when it comes to the idea of religiosity.
When we start to practice Islam, we tend to have a very narrow definition of what piety or impiety looks like.
Once, while sitting with a group of his Companions, the Prophet ﷺ said that the man who would enter next was a person of Paradise. He ﷺ said this on three consecutive days and on all three days it was the same man from Al-Ansar. Abdullah ibn Amr ibn Al-As رضي الله عنه, on a quest to find out what made the man special, stayed with him for three nights. He found nothing special – the man wasn’t fasting all day or praying all night, for example. So, Abdullah asked and the man revealed that he did not harbor in his heart ill feeling or envy toward any of his fellow Muslims.
Abu Hurairah (may Allah be pleased with him) reported Allah’s Messenger ﷺ as saying: “Do you know who is bankrupt?” They (the Companions) said: “A bankrupt man amongst us is one who has neither dirham with him nor wealth.” He ﷺ said: “The bankrupt of my Ummah would be he who would come on the Day of Resurrection with prayers and fasts and Zakat but (he would find himself bankrupt on that day as he would have exhausted his funds of virtues) since he hurled abuses upon others, brought calumny against others and unlawfully consumed the wealth of others and shed the blood of others and beat others, and his virtues would be credited to the account of one (who suffered at his hand). And if his good deeds fall short to clear the account, then his sins would be entered in (his account) and he would be thrown in the Hell-Fire.” (Sahih Al Muslim, Book #032, Hadith #6251)
The Prophet ﷺ is also reported to have said, “The most beloved of people according to Allah is he who brings most benefit, and the most beloved of deeds according to Allah the Mighty, the Magnificent, is that you bring happiness to a fellow Muslim, or relieve him of distress, or pay off his debt or stave away hunger from him. It is more beloved to me that I walk with my brother Muslim in his time of need than I stay secluded in the mosque for a month. Whoever holds back his anger, Allah will cover his faults and whoever suppresses his fury while being able to execute it, Allah will fill his heart with satisfaction on the Day of Standing. Whoever walks with his brother Muslim in need until he establishes that for him, Allah will establish his feet firmly on the day when all feet shall slip. Indeed, bad character ruins deeds just as vinegar ruins honey.” (Tabarani, Hasan)
Religiosity goes beyond apparent acts of worship
My intention is not to trivialize Islamic learning and worship – not one bit. They are very important, especially in matters that are obligatory as there is no excuse for what is fardh. But my intention is to show from our own traditions that religiosity goes beyond popular and celebrated acts of worship. Ditto for sins. It is vital to have a comprehensive view so we can identify the wider and sometimes deeper aspects of the religion.
There was a man called Uwais al-Qarni about whom the Prophet ﷺ said to Umar رضي الله عنه that when Uwais comes to you “request that he makes du’a of forgiveness for you.” Yes, du’a for Umar – the best man to have ever lived after the prophets and Abu Bakr.
What made Uwais so special? He was a simple, righteous man unknown among his people. He lived during the time of the Prophet ﷺ but could not travel to meet him because he had an elderly mother to take care of. Imagine living while the Prophet ﷺ is alive and not being able to meet him?! It’s unthinkable. Allah raised his status for his sincerity and sacrifice and he became a chosen slave, Subhan Allah.
Fatimah رضي الله عنها, the daughter of the Prophet ﷺ, did not lead a public life. She was a pious woman and a simple housewife. Yet it is Fatimah رضي الله عنها who is the leader of all women of Paradise.
A man who left his wife alone for Hajj and came for voluntary Jihad – in another instance, left his old parents crying and came to give ba’yah for hijrah – was sent back by the Prophet ﷺ.
Let alone degrading others, too many times we get frustrated with ourselves for not being able to do some voluntary deeds because of being stuck, Qaddar Allah, with a “lowly” deed that we don’t think much of. Yet it may be that “lowly” deed that may raise our status in the sight of Allah.
Our misplaced sense of priorities may not only affect our approach toward religion, but also lead us to dismiss righteous people who may be in completely different circumstances than ours and therefore have different priorities in life. Allah says in Surah Muzzammil:
“…He knows that you are unable to pray the whole night, so He has turned to you (in mercy). So, recite you of the Quran as much as may be easy for you. He knows that there will be some among you sick, others travelling through the land, seeking of Allah’s Bounty; yet others fighting in Allah’s Cause. So recite as much of the Quran as may be easy (for you)…”
[Also read: Which acts of worship are best in Islam?]
What if I’m not as religious as you?
The question in my title, What if I’m not as religious as you?, wasn’t therefore simplistic. I really meant: what if I don’t match up to your perception of religiosity (not to mention the trap that the question assumes you are religiously better). Unfortunately we fall for it in real life.
Secondly, how would you deal with me if I fell short of your perceptions and expectations. Would you help me or humiliate me? The reality is that we, even if In-sha Allah practicing Muslims, have different strengths and weaknesses. If some excel in one area, others will in another. Sheikh At-Turaifi mentions this point while talking about one of his teachers in India.
Many of us unfortunately taunt others for their shortcomings till the chickens come home to roost. That isn’t the way to deal with others.
I recently asked someone as to why she constantly gets irritated with her husband. She brought out a list of personal shortcomings he had. Subhan Allah, I wondered, how does that justify your treatment of him? And what makes you think that you do not have an equal number of shortcomings that he puts up with?
Ibn al-Qayyim said, “There is not a slave [of Allah] who taunts his brother [in faith] over a sin except that he himself will be tested with it. If news of so-and-so’s sin reaches you, say to yourself, ‘May Allah forgive us and him.'” 
Every human being will have shortcomings. Believers, with their different strengths, must help each other overcome weaknesses.
A third reason for the title is the sense of shame I feel when I come across an In-sha Allah religious and striving Muslim, because I am reminded of the areas I must improve in. We are encouraged to look up to people better than us.
Just as it isn’t right for others to dismiss me, it isn’t right for me to ignore my own shortcomings. I cannot live in a fool’s paradise and end up affecting my akhirah. You, I and all of us must always strive to get better In-sha Allah. This world is but temporary.
Practicing Islam and religious activism can attract extreme reactions – either opposition that makes your life difficult or exaggerated praise that lands you in the seventh heaven. In the latter case, it would help to stay grounded, even if the world thinks we are awesome.
Unlike Iblees who did not see any fault in himself, the righteous people of the past – may Allah make us like them – were constantly worried about their shortcomings. Muhammad ibn Wasi’, the ascetic tabi’ee, scholar, judge and soldier رحمه الله, said, “If sins had an odour then nobody would be able to sit with me.”
Umar رضي الله عنه, and many other Companions, feared hypocrisy. Subhan Allah! These were some of the best people to have lived.
And the best of all creation, the Prophet ﷺ, would seek forgiveness and repent over 70 times a day!
May Allah make us truly sincere and righteous in our relationship with Him, ourselves and others.
[Also read: Struggles of the heart]
 [12:8] When they said, “Yusuf and his brother are more beloved to our father than we, while we are Usbah (a clan/strong group). Indeed, our father is in clear error.”
 Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book #52, Hadith #297. Full text:
Narrated Abu Huraira: We were in the company of Allah’s Apostle in a Ghazwa, and he remarked about a man who claimed to be a Muslim, saying, “This (man) is from the people of the (Hell) Fire.” When the battle started, the man fought violently till he got wounded. Somebody said, “O Allah’s Apostle! The man whom you described as being from the people of the (Hell) Fire fought violently today and died.” The Prophet ﷺ said, “He will go to the (Hell) Fire.” Some people were on the point of doubting (the truth of what the Prophet ﷺ had said) while they were in this state, suddenly someone said that he was still alive but severely wounded. When night fell, he lost patience and committed suicide. The Prophet was informed of that, and he said, “Allah is Greater! I testify that I am Allah’s Slave and His Apostle.” Then he ordered bilal to announce amongst the people: ‘None will enter Paradise but a Muslim, and Allah may support this religion (i.e. Islam) even with a disobedient man.’
 Sahih Al-Bukhari, Vol. 8, Book 81, #771. Full text:
Narrated ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab:
During the lifetime of the Prophet ﷺ there was a man called ‘Abdullah whose nickname was Donkey, and he used to make Allah’s Apostle laugh. The Prophet ﷺ lashed him because of drinking (alcohol). And one day he was brought to the Prophet ﷺ on the same charge and was lashed. On that, a man among the people said, “O Allah, curse him ! How frequently he has been brought (to the Prophet on such a charge)!” The Prophet ﷺ said, “Do not curse him, for by Allah, I know for he loves Allah and His Apostle.”
 Paraphrased from hadeeth of Musnad Ahmad. Full text:
It was reported that Anas bin Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) said, “While we were sitting with the Messenger of Allah ﷺ he said, “One man will come to you some moments now, he is one of those who will enter al-Jannah, and one man from al-Ansaar entered immediately, his beards was pouring drops of water after ablution, he held his pairs of shoes with his left hand. On the second day, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said the same, and the same man entered with the same appearance. On the third day, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ uttered the same statement, and the same man entered with his first appearance. When the Messenger of Allah ﷺ stood up and left the place, Abdullah bin ‘Amr bin al-‘As followed the man and said to him, “I have a quarrel with my father and I swear not to stay with him in the house for three days. If you can allow me to stay with you within these three days I’ll be grateful”. So the man agreed to accept his request.
That is how Abdullah bin ‘Amr stayed with the man for three nights and he reported that he never saw him praying at night except whenever he wake up while sweating he changed his side on the bed, he used to remember Allah and glorify Him. He used to be in this condition till he wake up for the fajr prayer. Abdullah bin ‘Amr said again, “I never saw him saying something except what is good. When the three nights passed and I was about to scorn his deeds I said, “O slave of Allah, there is nothing like quarrel between me and my father, the issue is that I heard the Messenger of Allah saying about you thrice, “One man will come to you some moments now, he is one of those who will enter al-Jannah”. And you are the one who entered all the three times, that is why I decided to stay with you to know what you use to do so that I can emulate you. But to my surprise I didn’t see big deal in what you use to do!! So, what is the thing that made you got the rank which the Messenger of Allah said about you?
The man said, nothing except what you’ve seen. And when I moved away he called me back and said, “Nothing except that I never hold in my mind against any Muslim the desire to cheat, and I never envy anybody on what Allah has given to him”. Abdullah said, “This is exactly what has raised you to that rank, and it is the thing many people could not afford.“
 Sahih Muslim, #2542. Full text:
Usair b. Jabir reported that when people from Yemen came to help (the Muslim army at the time of jihad) he asked them: Is there amongst you Uwais b. ‘Amir? (He continued finding him out) until he met Uwais.
He said: Are you Uwais b., Amir? He said: Yes. He said: Are you from the tribe of Qaran? He said: Yes. He (Hadrat) ‘Umar (again) said: Did you suffer from leprosy and then you were cured from it but for the space of a dirham? He said: Yes. He (‘Umar) said: Is your mother (living)? He said: Yes.
He (‘Umar) said: I heard Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) say: There would come to you Uwais b. Amir with the reinforcement from the people of Yemen. (He would be) from Qaran, (the branch) of Murid. He had been suffering from leprosy from which he was cured but for a spot of a dirham. His treatment with his mother would have been excellent. If he were to take an oath in the name of Allah, He would honour that. And if it is possible for you, then do ask him to beg forgiveness for you (from your Lord).
So he (Uwais) begged forgiveness for him.
Umar said: Where do you intend to go? He said: To Kufa. He (‘Umar) said: Let me write a letter for you to its governor, whereupon he (Uwais) said: I love to live amongst the poor people.
When it was the next year, a person from among the elite (of Kufa) performed Hajj and he met Umar. He asked him about Uwais. He said: I left him in a state with meagre means of sustenance. (Thereupon) Umar said: I heard Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) as saying: There would come to you Uwais b. ‘Amir, of Qaran, a branch (of the tribe) of Murid, along with the reinforcement of the people of Yemen. He had been suffering from leprosy which would have been cured but for the space of a dirham. His treatment with his mother would have been very kind. If he would take an oath in the name of Allah (for something) He would honour it. Ask him to beg forgiveness for you (from Allah) in case it is possible for you.
So he (the elite from Kufa) came to Uwais and said.: Beg forgiveness (from Allah) for me. He (Uwais) said: You have just come from a sacred journey (Hajj) ; you, therefore, ask forgiveness for me. He (the person who had performed Hajj) said: Ask forgiveness for me (from Allah). He (Uwais again) said: You have just come from the sacred journey, so you ask forgiveness for me. (Uwais further) said: Did you meet Umar? He said: Yes. He (Uwais) then begged forgiveness for him (from Allah).
So the people came to know about (the status of religious piety) of Uwais. He went away (from that place). Usair said: His clothing consisted of a mantle, and whosoever saw him said: From where did Uwais get this mantle?
 Umar said to Abu Bakr, “O best of men after Allah`s Messenger, may Allah send greetings and salutations on him!” Abu Bakr replied, “Seeing that you have that, (I would also tell you that) I heard Allah`s Messenger, may Allah send greetings and salutations on him, say, “The sun has not risen on a better man than Umar.”” [Sunan Tirmidhi, #3684, link]
 Narrated by Al-Bukhari, al-Manaaqib, 3353. Full text here
 Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book #52, #295. Full text:
Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas: A man came to the Prophet ﷺ and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! I have enlisted in the army for such-and-such Ghazwa, and my wife is leaving for Hajj.” Allah’s Apostle said, “Go back and perform Hajj with your wife.”
 Musnad Ahmad. Full text:
Abdullah Ibn Amr Ibn al-Aas (radhi allahu anhu) narrated that a man came to the Prophet ﷺ to give him the pledge of allegiance, saying, ‘I have come to give you my Bai’ah to perform Hijrah (migration to al-Medina). However, I left behind my parents while they were crying.” The Prophet ﷺ said: “Then go back and make them laugh as you made them cry.”
 Quoted by Dr. Mohammad al-Arefe
 Quoted from The Evil of Craving for Wealth and Status [PDF] by Imaam ibn Rajab al-Hanbalee
 “…Umar used to say to Hudhayfah: I adjure you by Allaah, did the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) mention me along with the people (i.e., the hypocrites)? He said: No, but I would not praise anyone after you, meaning; I would not praise people (by saying that they are not mentioned among the hypocrites)…” [Tareeq al-Hijratayn, Ibn Qayyim (p. 604)] Full text and other narrations here.
 Narrated Abu Huraira: I heard Allah’s Apostle (S) saying, “By Allah! I ask for forgiveness from Allah and turn to Him in repentance more than seventy times a day.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book #75, Hadith #319)