Self-criticism: The Eleventh Stop of Your Spiritual Journey to God

By Dr. Jasser Auda

After looking within oneself and discovering its flaws, one has to know the origin of these flaws so that he can get rid of them. This is self-criticism. In this connection, Ibn `Ata’illah says; “The origin of every sin, forgetfulness, and lust is in being self-righteous, and the origin of every good deed, awareness, and chastity is in being self-critical.”

The origin of flaws -sins, forgetfulness, lusts, etc. – is to feel self-righteous, i.e. one tells himself “I am a good believer, and I am doing good deeds. I do not have to worry.” God the Almighty swore by the “Nay! I call to witness the Day of Resurrection! But nay! I call to witness the accusing voice of man’s own conscience!” (Al-Qiyamah 75:1-2) The accusing voice of man’s own conscience is the one that does not feel content with what one does and always blames him.

In another verse we read’ “And yet, I am not trying to absolve myself: for, verily, man’s inner self does incite (him) to evil, and saved are only they upon whom my Sustainer bestows His grace. Behold, my Sustainer is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace!” (Yusuf 12:53) We notice that this statement was said by Prophet Yusuf (peace be upon him), then what about us?

The accusing voice of man’s own conscience will be saved from the Hellfire by God on the Day of Judgment. The inner self that does not blame itself may think that on the Day of Judgment it will be saved from the Hellfire.
In the story of the people of the Cave we read that the owner of the two gardens, who was very content with his inner self, said; “And neither do I think that the Last Hour will ever come. But even if (it should come, and) I am brought before my Sustainer, I will surely find something even better than this as (my last) resort!” (Al-Kahf 18:36) He hoped that on the Day of Judgment he will find a better garden than the one he had in this worldly life.

The original situation according to the Qur’an and the prophetic tradition is not to feel self-righteous. This is what the Prophet taught his companions. Therefore, they doubted even their faith. Hanzalah, one of the Prophet’s Companions, had knowledge about the names of the ten major hypocrites who were unknown to other companions. `Umar ibn al-Khattab used to ask Hanzalah if his name was among the ten people. Why did Umar ask Hanzlaha this question? Because he did not feel self-righteous. Abu Bakr As-Siddiq used to say: “I would not feel safe from God’s deep devising even if one of my feet was in paradise.” Why did Abu Bakr say that? Because he thought that he does not deserve paradise as a reward from God.

This is Abu Bakr about whom the Prophet (peace be upon him) said; “If the faith of Abu Bakr is put on one side of the scale and the faith of all people is put on the other side, the side of Abu Bakr will outweigh that of all people.”(AlBaihaqi, At-Tirmidhi, and Ahmad)

The Forbidden Lust

Feeling self-righteous is the origin of all sins. If you feel self-righteous and think that you have a special status in God’s sight, surely you will commit sins. If you fear God and think that you are a normal believer, you will avoid committing sins.

Ibn `Ata’illah is talking in this word of wisdom about the forbidden lust, i.e. arrogance, miserliness, greed, extravagance, etc. Feeling self-righteous is the origin of every forbidden lust. If you avoid this feeling, you will keep yourself away from committing sins. This was the practice of the prophets, messengers, and righteous people.

However, the believer blaming himself should not come under self-criticism. Self-criticism means that you always blame yourself until you feel desperate. For example, if you keeping telling yourself that you are not a good person, you are not doing good deeds, etc., you will feel hopeless and will abandon everything. This course of action is rejected in Islam.

Moderation is a virtue that lies between two vices, one of blaming oneself until one feels desperate, and the other not blaming oneself at all until one feels self-conceited. With moderation, our inner self will improve and we will advance in the course of our spiritual journey to God.

The article is excerpted from “Some of Al-Hikam Al-Ataiyyah” (The Path to God: A Journey with Ibn `Ata’illah’s Words of Wisdom In the Light of the Quran, the Prophetic Tradition, and Universal Laws of God- By Dr. Jasser Auda

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