Answered by Shaykh Rami Nsour
Question 1: How can we balance self-esteem with humility? To me self-esteem means one loves oneself and consider themselves to be mostly good, yet Islam requires us to consider ourselves weak, broken and full of faults. Is it ok to do ‘affirmations’ by looking in the mirror and repeating statements like ‘I am good’, ‘I am carefree and joyous’ etc. for 2 minutes a day? This is what some self-help non Muslim people recommend.
Answer 1: Before analyzing the various practices that one can do to improve their self esteem, it is important to note the Islamic understanding of how we view ourselves.
The Islamic Understanding of Self-Esteem
There are terms to know and they are arrogance (kibr), vanity (‘ujb), dignity (‘izzah), debasement (dhul), and humility (tawadu’). Knowing these terms and what the definition is is important so that one does not fall into the prohibited. Arrogance (kibr) is when a person deems themselves to be good but in relation to others as in saying, “I am better than him/her/them.”
Vanity is when a person deems them self to have some blessing and forgets that it is from Allah and it does not require that a person is looking down on another person. Dignity (‘izzah) is when a person recognizes the blessings that Allah has bestowed upon them (faith, life, health, beauty, wealth, knowledge, prestige, etc) and walks humbly with a recognition of those blessings while not deeming themselves better than others.
If a person allows others to walk over them and take away their rights, this is called dhul and it is haram. So you have to hold your head up high with dignity, not with arrogance. All people have to remember that they have God-given rights and it is an obligation to protect their dignified state (muru’ah). If a person voluntarily gives up their owed rights and is not demanding, then this is humility (tawadu’) and it is a praiseworthy trait.
A person must therefore protect his self-esteem especially since our greatest enemy, the Shaytan, who has declared war on mankind, hates our God-given dignity. Allah says, “And we have ennobled the children of Adam.” It was this honor, nobility and dignity that cause Iblis to refuse to bow and caused him to become rejected. Iblis hates us for this and will try everything to remove our dignity.
He will make us remove our clothes, tattoo ourselves, wear undignified clothing, speak filth hurt ourselves and others. He works day an night to sink us into a state of depression and then into a state of despair. In the state of despair, we end up hurting ourselves and others, leaving faith, and taking our lives or the lives of others. So, we must have a fortress of strong self esteem to protect ourselves against the shaytan.
Mentioning the blessings that Allah has given us is actually a good practice. In Sura Duha it states, “And as for the blessing of Allah then speak.” At the same time, we do not want to allow a recognition of the blessings of Allah turn into arrogance or vanity. One way to do this is to remind ourselves of our nature, which includes the fact that we carry najasah in our bodies, we create filth in our ears (wax), eyes (sleep), nose (mucous), mouths (saliva), etc.
Hasan al Basri once saw a man he did not know walking with arrogance The many saw Hasan looking at him and said, “Do you know me?” to which Hasan al Basri said, “Yes, you began as a clot of blood, then at the end your life you become a rotten corpse and in between that you caryy filth in your body.”
The science of understanding the intricacies between all of these states is called Tassawuuf and is an accepted part of Ahlul Sunna wal Jama’ah. I encourage you to study this science but to begin by gaining a firm grounding in the science of faith (aqida) and law (fiqh).
Question 2: I understand that Allah tests us with suffering as a trial, but what if it is too much for the person to handle? I suppose I am trying to ask how come we are tested in ways that we can be completely ignorant about? As a child I was beaten, tricked and nearly drowned by other children falsely accused by my parents for things, and told I was stupid. Were these experiences supposed to benefit me in the long run?
Answer 2: We all experience different levels of trials but we have to be firm in realizing that they are all from Allah. Recognizing Divine Decree (qadr) is a pillar of faith as is mentioned in the Hadith of Jibreel alayhis salam. One of the main ways that the Shaytan gets us to question the existence of Allah is to begin by getting us to question Divine Decree.
How to Deal With the Divine Decree
Many people have left faith in God because of not being able to answer the question, “If there is a God, then why is there evil in the world?” For a Muslim, the answer should be automatic and it is, “Allah does whatever He wills” (Quran 85:16). I myself repeat this ayah when I see or hear things I cannot understand such as the death of children, atrocities against people, oppression, etc.
There is another ayah to repeat and reflect on when we think about things we cannot answer and it is the verse, “He is not questioned about what He does, but they will be questioned” (Quran 21:23). Therefore, do not allow yourself to ask about what has happened unless you first accept it and then you are trying to find wisdom in what happen, as the angels were in asking about the creation of mankind. Also, when reflecting on what you experienced think about the prophets and what they experienced
They lived lives like we did as a consolation to us. We cannot fully relate to angels because they do not experience life as we do. Having prophets as examples allows us to be able to relate to them. We will all experience aspects of the Seera of the prophets or the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless them and our Prophet).
If you feel rejected by others, reflect on the people’s rejection of their prophets. If you feel betrayed, think of Yusef at the bottom of the well (and a person can drown in a well). If you feel alone, think about Musa alayhis salam in the land of Madyan. You should not feel stupid by thinking about your life and experiences. Your life is a book that Allah gave only to you and He wants you to reflect on your life. Just as we are to reflect on the heavens and earth, we are to reflect on ourselves as Allah says in the Quran (51:21).
Using Life Experience to Strengthen Faith
You need to use your life experience to grow stronger in faith and not be weakened. If you feel weakened by thinking about your life, then you are reflecting on it in the wrong method. Change the method that you are using to think about your life. Also remember, that we can sometimes get depressed and reflection and dhikr can help. Other times the depression becomes clinical and we need medication or therapy. Do not feel embarrassed about seeking out this type of help. There is no difference between seeking medical help or therapy for physical ailments or mental ailments.