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How do we distinguish between the desire to emulate and envy?
Mar 1, 2009

How do we distinguish between the desire to emulate and envy? What are your thoughts regarding the charities and alms given away openly by some leading people in good work in order to inspire others and stimulate their feelings of generosity, while others cannot help but feel envy of their generosity?

Desire to emulate (gibta) is a desire to have the same blessings another person has without wishing for him or her to be deprived of them; it is looking up to others’ admirable qualities and achievements. Envy (hasad), however, is the inability to bear with others’ successes or to acknowledge the favors and virtues they are blessed with; it is to wish for the absence of those favors and good conditions for others and to desire to possess them all for oneself. Envy, therefore, involves resentment, indignation, and jealousy, whereas the desire to emulate is admiration. In a saying reported as a hadith of the Messenger of God, peace be upon him, it is said that “Believers admire, hypocrites envy.” By this, a bottom line is determined for believers so that they do not go further than admiration, and we are told that jealousy makes hypocrites squirm in a constant state of pain.

To emulate: harmless envy

It is also reported that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, “There are only two to envy: a person whom God has given wealth and he spends it in the right way, and a person whom God has given wisdom (religious knowledge) and he gives his decisions accordingly and teaches it to others.” It is harmless to admire those who, after they have learned the religion well and made it their way of life, illuminate others with their knowledge, which they have made a source of wisdom. They act as a genuine interpreter of the Qur’anic truths by both communicating and representing them. So, one can say, “I wish I were like him; I wish I knew my religion so well, so that I could have illuminated my own life while communicating it to others!” It may even be a self-rewarding act to do so, for it is in a sense self-interrogation; realizing our inadequacy we may be motivated to work harder and even to pray, and thus be filled with lofty feelings. It is not wrong also to admire prosperous people who have been made superior with wealth as well as with generosity, who give away their God-given property in great quantities in charity, and who never feel content with their giving, as if addicted to benevolence. As in the previous situation, one can say, “I wish I had the same resources, so that I could donate as much as he did. I wish I could have built a school and provided grants for hundreds of students as he did.”

Nevertheless, in the hadith given above, the Prophet, peace be upon him, uses “envy” instead of “desire to emulate,” emphasizing the fact that admiring others is also a state that is close to jealousy. No matter how harmless and even favorable it may be, desire to emulate shares the same border with envy, rendering its territory somewhat unsafe to walk through. Inability to define the limits of admiration may result in jealousy and envy. For instance, looking up to a friend who is well-versed in the religion, in an admirable condition, and who acts with good conduct, is fine, as long as it does not cross the border into comparison and covert competition, saying, “Why does he know so much that I do not know? How can he communicate our faith better than I can?”

Therefore, believers must keep a distance between themselves and admiration, which is adjacent to envy and separated from it only by a thin veil. They must be content with what has been appreciated for them; they should never complain of their fate, even with the slightest emotional disappointment; they should see no one as their rival, and they should strive to attain their highest potential in virtue.

Food supplies delivered at night

In his “Principles for Sincerity” Bediuzzaman Said Nursi warns not to “provoke [your brothers’ and sisters’] envy by making a display of [your] attributes,” defining the responsibility that falls on the shoulders of those people who are admired. Boasting incessantly, always bringing the subject to one’s own achievements, claiming success for oneself, and appearing at the forefront all the time are also acts of trespassing in the forbidden zone. Such a person may not envy another person, but with this attitude he drives other people to jealousy of him by provoking their envy.

For this very reason, boasting of one’s personal virtues and abilities is considered inappropriate in Islamic culture, so a tradition of engaging in good work privately has developed. Alms used to be left at certain places out of sight and reach of others, so that only the poor could come and get what they needed. Alms columns, for instance, which were around six feet tall with a cavity on top, were erected at certain points in towns; it was not easy to discern who was leaving alms there and who was taking them, so that the poor were not made to feel obliged, their feelings were not hurt, and their envy was not provoked. Foundations were instruments for transferring donations from benefactors to the poor without causing embarrassment or taunting of the latter, while the former were saved from ostentation and arrogance.

In Islam, intending to hide one’s voluntary prayers and alms is very important. The Prophet declared that God does not accept anything from the one who gives in charity to be known by others, someone crazy for show, nor from a philanthropist who taunts the beneficiary of his favors. Performing charity secretly and giving alms without revealing it to others are good ways of being saved from the desire to be praised by others. There are many people who help others secretly and disappear mysteriously without introducing themselves even to the poor person to whom they provided some relief. Many of our noble ancestors made extreme efforts to avoid ostentation, praise, and making others feel indebted; some of them, without being seen, simply left their alms in the path of a poor person or anywhere he or she was likely to sit. Others would place coins into the pocket of a pauper who was sleeping, while some others secretly carried bags of food supplies on their backs and left them on the doorsteps of those in need.

Imam Ali Zaynul Abidin, one of the grandsons of the Prophet, was one of those heroic souls. During the time of this blessed person who devoted his life to true servanthood to God Almighty, society was afflicted by unbearable poverty. Many of the poor would find food and clothes they desperately needed mysteriously left at their doors with a note allowing them to use it at no cost. They did not know who was leaving the bags until one morning, after many years, they found nothing at their doors. Nothing had been left that night for anyone. People were wondering what the reason for that was, and then they heard somebody announcing “Imam Ali has died!” The caretaker who washed the body of this blessed man before his funeral saw a huge callus formed on the imam’s back. The imam had carried bags of food and clothes to the poor for twenty-seven years, and no one had known about it. It did not matter, for it is only God’s pleasure that counts as the goal, and God knew what Zaynul Abidin was occupied with.

People like Zaynul Abidin fixed their eyes on God’s good pleasure and they chose to race without competition along the track of servanthood. Just as they did not envy others, they were also careful not to provoke others by contaminating their donations with ostentation, praise, and indebtedness. This was their way of investing in the afterlife and earning God’s pleasure, and the Qur’an describes it as tanafus.

The Goal is the Drink of Eternity

Tanafus is used in the verse And to that (blessing of Paradise), then, let all those who aspire (to things of high value), aspire as if in a race (with each other) (Mutaffifin 83:26). It refers to admiring a maturity of character displayed by another person, striving to attain the same virtue, and to working as if in a race with others for a lofty purpose. This verse encourages people, who compete with one another to the point of ruining each other for the benefits of this world, to race instead for eternal bliss and to taste from the drink of eternity.

The race for eternity and good work does not allow room for a competition in which uncontrolled admiration or envy is possible. Every contestant is expected to break his or her own record, as they are responsible for accomplishing the level of perfection determined solely for them. In this race, everyone is an escort for each other, for everyone is a member of the collective body.

In the race for eternity, once assigned works are fulfilled, rewards are shared and deposited to everyone’s account. In Bediuzzaman’s most fitting description, serving God is like carrying and protecting a huge and heavy treasure. So, the more people with strong arms join the company, the more those who carry the treasure on their shoulders must be pleased. Far from envying the strength of the helping hands, they must welcome their contribution and applaud them with love. Approaching these people in rivalry will push away sincerity from the work, and the expected result cannot be achieved.

True believers never envy, nor do they stroll within the territories of admiration which borders envy, but they race for good. They see each other as cordial assistants and everyone works to carry out a task they are assigned, or anything they are capable of doing. For instance, in the good work of teaching about God, one person can recite the Qur’an beautifully and soften hearts; another one can sing a religious song and enthuse the audience, paving the way for a third one, who can deliver a speech with wisdom. The task is apportioned, everyone performs his own share, and at the end everyone wins. From the beginning, it is not clear who to credit with this work which is not based on one person. Everyone participates and assumes responsibility. They make the best of what they can, and the end result, which belongs to all, is something more than one person can achieve. The Qur’an encourages such a race, saying, “Strive, then, together as if competing in good works” (Maedah 5:48).

To Set an Example and to Encourage

In such a race for good work, it is virtuous to give one’s charity openly to stimulate feelings of benevolence. At a time when people are troubled by slackening, indifference, and hopelessness, open charity can stir them to take part in good work with generosity.

“Giving alms secretly is more virtuous than giving them openly. For the person who wishes others to follow him it is virtuous to give them openly” said the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. When a person who intends to direct his or her friends’ attention to the hereafter performs charity openly, he or she has no intention other than motivating them to engage in good work. By giving the prescribed alms (zakat), which is obligatory in Islam, openly, he or she both obeys the divine rule and reminds others of this duty.

The Holy Qur’an praises those who fulfill the need of any person without delay and encourages believers to run to do charity: “Those who spend their wealth night and day, secretly and in public, their reward is with their Lord, and they will have no fear, nor will they grieve” (Baqara 2:274).

It is reported that this verse was revealed to praise Abu Bakr, may God be pleased with him, the first caliph of Islam, who gave forty thousand dinars all in one day, ten thousand of which he gave at night, ten thousand during the day, ten thousand in secret, and ten thousand openly. Likewise, Ali, may God be pleased with him, also shared his only four dirhams of silver with the poor, giving each dirham either during the day, at night, openly, or secretly. Even though the verse might be indicating these two noble Companions of the Prophet, the ruling of the word of God is universal. Hamdi Yazir of Elmali interprets this verse as defining the types of alms, namely, obligatory (fard), necessary (wajib), and supererogatory (nafila) alms. A time may come when it will be necessary to donate all of one’s property for one’s religion and country, and in such a time of collective mobilization, it will be better to perform it openly to encourage others. Those of us who are in a position to guide our society especially should give in charity most of our property in order to teach people to make a sacrifice for the sake of sublime truths, and doing this openly is absolutely better and we may even consider it a duty.

Yet with a Handful of Dates

The Companions of the Prophet are the greatest examples of charity. Abdullah ibn Masud narrates that when the verse about alms-giving was revealed, all of them quickly went out to find something to give in the way of God: “Some of us worked as porters to earn yet a little. We carried things on our back in the marketplace, and once we were paid we hastened to the Prophet to join in the company of ‘givers.’”

One day, our Blessed Prophet called on his Companions for charity. It was either because he was going to send a contingent to somewhere and he needed equipment, or he was going to feed the poor coming from the desert and see to their needs. Responding to this call, Abdurrahman ibn Awf raised his voice with the valor he always displayed: “O Messenger of God! I have four thousand dirhams. Please accept them.” The Prophet was very pleased, and he prayed for him. After hearing the Prophet’s words of encouragement and seeing the great sacrifices of the generous ones, everyone wished to participate in this race for good work. The wealthy ones gave high amounts, while those with limited means looked for things to donate. Abu Aqil was one of those poor Muslims of Medina; he possessed nothing to give other than two handfuls of dates. But he had to have his name on the list of the “contestants” in good work. So, he spared a handful of dates for his family and gave the rest in charity.

Seeking God’s pleasure is a lofty aim, reaching for it by teaching about God is a holy mission, and racing for this cause without competing is very good work. Those people who are focused on God’s pleasure stay far away from envy and uncontrolled admiration. They are content with their lot and they carry on with the race as far as prevailing conditions allow them. They are not people of desires and misgivings; they do not seek refuge in excuses like “if I had the means, if I were able to….” They do whatever they can with all the means God has provided them with, and in this way they offer thanks in return for the blessings they are granted, and this is in fact an invitation to further blessings. They avoid admiration, just as they avoid leading others to it. Since God’s pleasure is their goal, when necessary they can retreat two steps or move forward one step. They may present their own achievements as if they were accomplished with the help of or completely by others, if this is what they think more proper for God’s pleasure. For them, only the fulfillment of duty matters; who did it is so insignificant as to not be worth mentioning. As long as the spoken words are sublime truths, then it does not matter who is articulating them. Once the truth is victorious, then it is the same whether one’s name is listed or not among the victors. For they are sailors on a ship whose captain is the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Once his ship docks at the land of peace, then everyone on board will step off onto the shores of salvation.