Ramadan Reflection Day 14 - Wrestling with Arrogance

Last night, I went to NJ for a meeting in the afternoon and to do some shopping for my wedding. It ended up getting later than I had expected so I broke my fast in NJ with my parents before come back to NYC. Our very close family friends, the Nisars, were hosting an iftar dinner that my parents were planning on attending and I went with them.

Dr. Nisar, I call him "uncle" out of respect, is the father of one of my best friends whose name is also Khalid. Khalid and I have known each other since we were babies and I spent a lot of time with his family over the years. When I was younger and would go to Khalid's house for a sleepover or to just hang out, I remember Uncle Nisar always encouraging us to pray together. For years, I prayed behind this man at his home as well as when we attended family gatherings and functions. Last night, when we lined up to pray the Maghrib prayer at sunset after we had broken our fast, I stood in line with everyone else waiting for Uncle Nisar to lead us for the part that would be done in congregation. I was surprised when he asked me to lead the prayer -- not because it was unique that he was asking someone else to do it, but rather it was daunting to me. How could I stand and lead this man who I had prayed behind since I was a child? It's not that I didn't know how to lead the prayer -- I do it every day. But leading my community is totally different from leading this man that I've looked up to all my life.

Confidence and arrogance can sometimes be hard to distinguish, especially when we are looking at each within ourselves. How do I know when I am doing something because I believe I am good at something as opposed to doing something because I believe I am good at everything?

Confidence usually stems from an acknowledgment of both strength as well as weakness. I know what I am good at, but I also know what I am not good at it and where I make mistakes. Arrogance usually stems from an illusion that tells the individual to focus on a particular strength that they have in denial of any weakness within themselves while seeing only what is weak or wrong in others in order to further their sense of foolish pride. The overlap of the specific strength that is being valued in both frames is what leads to
potential confusion.

From an Islamic standpoint, simply put, confidence is good and arrogance is bad. The latter encompasses a characteristic that is embodied by Iblees, the proper name given to the devil and eventually leads to his being cast out of heaven. What is important to understand is Iblees never says he is arrogant, the value is assigned to him because of what he does and he doesn't really ask for perspective or feedback on his actions.

If you are aware of your humility, then you are arrogant ~ From the Hikaam of Ibn Ata'illah, 13th century Muslim Theologian

Our understanding of whether we are arrogant or confident, and most other values such as honest, trustworthy, patient, etc., are not able to be self-assigned. It's the world around us that gives us indication as to whether we are good or not, not we ourselves. We should be comfortable in asking those that we trust what they think about the way we treat others or how we carry ourselves. It's not something that should be asked of just anyone, but someone who knows you intimately enough to give you advice where you are coming from, not from what they have been through, and who you respect their opinion and advice enough to not be offended by what they might have to say.

In our tradition, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon, is sitting with a young companion of his by the name of Ibn Umar and others who are elders when a spadix of a date-palm tree was brought to him. The Prophet said "Amongst the trees, there is a tree, the leaves of which do not fall and is like a Muslim. Tell me the name of that tree." Ibn Umar says that everybody started thinking about the trees of the desert areas and I thought of the date-palm tree but felt shy to answer the others. They then asked, "What is that tree, O Allah's Apostle ?" He replied, "It is the date-palm tree."

Later Ibn Umar tells his father who was also sitting there that he knew the answer to the question but did not respond because he was the youngest present. His father offers perspective to him and says that it would have been ok for him to have answered the question and he wouldn't have been out of place for doing so. But when Ibn Umar does not know, he asks. It's not usually the confident one who shies away from asking about what he or she is unsure of - but the arrogant one who thinks their is no need to ask. And when he asks, he asks someone who knows him, in this instance his father who he is blessed to have a good relationship and understanding with. A reason I stress this point is that 1) we don't really ask for advice as much as we can 2) when we do ask, we ask too often from people who don't know us that well and 2) not every father knows his child well enough to give advice unfortunately, so don't walk away thinking that.

The world around me gets to decide if the way I treat it is condescending or compassionate. Sometimes I have to see how the world receives my action once it has been carried out, not out of a hope to feel validated, but in a hope of better understanding myself. It's possible the way I see myself isn't the way that I am seen or the way that I see things can be seen differently. On my train ride home to NYC I ran into four girls from my community in NYC, Sana, Shazia, Shaifa and Aminah, and asked what they thought I should have done when I was asked to lead the prayer by Uncle Nisar. Interestingly, I had run into them earlier in the day, sans Shaifa, when I was trying to get an outfit for my wedding and solicited their advice at that point as well. They joined my mother and I at the store as I tried on shervanis, a more traditional south asian outfit, and let me know what looked good and what I should never wear again. Now when I needed someone to ask about what I was feeling when Uncle Nisar had asked me to lead the prayer, they were there again. Would anyone have questioned me if I hadn't asked them? Probably not. But then the only person who could have answered my questions would have been me - and I'm not really that confident in my own arrogances that they would have let me done as a good job as these young women had.