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Competition and Showing Off – Any Difference?

Many times, we approach faith with a cursory glance and think we have the concept down. It is a mercy from Allah that the core tenets of Islam are easily grasped in this way. God is one: He created and is in control of everything. He sent prophets throughout time to guide us back to Him. Simple.

But there are aspects of our faith that are nuanced and deserve a second look, a deeper understanding. One such concept in Islam that falls into this category is the difference between showing off and competition.

To some, competition and showing off seem to be completely different ideas one bad and one good and never the two meet. To others, these concepts are too closely related and should both be avoided. But the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

What is Showing off

As children, we seek the attention of our parents, so we do anything to try to impress them. When we get a little older, we seek the attention of our peers trying to gain approval and acceptance. Most of us grow up showing off to others.

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But once we reach maturity both emotionally and spiritually, we learn that showing off to the creation is dangerous and misplaced. When we show off to the creation, we seek to please them alone. When gaining the creation’s approval is our goal, then we can be led to do anything, good or bad.

That is why peer pressure is so dangerous for teenagers. Their friends, whom they seek approval from, can easily influence them to do harmful actions.

As mature Muslim adults, we try to redirect that kind of seeking approval by showing off to Allah alone. But still we slip and hope for the neighbors’ approval of our new car, or apply for a job we think will get the attention of our friends, or buy the house that our parents will like, even if doing these things mean doing something that displeases Allah (SWT).

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:

The greatest fear I have for my community is a lesser form of polytheism […] showing off. (Ahmad)

What is Competition

The second concept is that of competition. There are two kinds of competition in this world. The one that pushes us to try to be better than someone else no matter what we have to do. In this way, we care about the opinion of the other person(s). We worry about what they will think of our achievements, purchases, children, spouse, and even our acts of worship.

The one who competes in this way, shows off the gifts Allah has given him/her, hoping the creation thinks he/she is the best or the most. The irony of this kind of competition is that both the gift and the praise belong only to Allah.

This kind of competition is very closely related to showing off because the one who competes in this way is hoping for the reward from the creation. But there is the added element of inviting envy and even relishing in it.

The Prophet said:

You will vie with one another, then you will shun one another and then you will hate one another […]

It is destructive.

The second kind of competition is one where someone sees others doing good and it inspires them to also do good, seeking reward and pleasure from Allah alone.

Allah says about these kinds of competitors:

They are eager to do righteous works; they compete in doing them. (Quran 23:61)

The Prophet (PBUH) said:

“There should be no envy except in two [cases]: [towards] a person whom Allah has given [knowledge of] the Quran and he recites it throughout the night and day, and thus a neighbor of his hears him and says, ‘I wish I was given like so-and-so, and could do what he is doing.’ The second is [towards] a person whom Allah has given wealth and he spends it for the sake of Allah. A man says, ‘I wish I was given like so-and-so to do what he is doing.’”

Commenting on this hadith, Ibn Hajar said:

Competition“The ‘envy’ that is mentioned in the Hadeeth refers to Ghibtah [envy that is free from malice]. It is merely figuratively named as such. Ghibtah means desiring someone else’s blessings without wishing him to be deprived of them. Keenness for this is called competition, and it is praiseworthy in acts of obedience.”

Where the Difference Lies

When we show off and compete with one another only so that it is said of us that we are good or brave or wise, etc. we seek praise from the creation. This is our intention. But when we compete for the pleasure of Allah, we recognize that our ability and our reward is from Allah, and our intentions are for Allah.

Jamal Badawi, professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada, writes:

“Islam does not just look at the deed irrespective of its motives. God evaluates peoples’ deeds according to the intentions behind them. This meaning is referred to in the Quran when it talks about animals which are sacrificed during the rites of pilgrimage, where it says what means:

{It is neither their meat nor their blood that reaches Allah: it is your piety that reaches Him.} (22:37)”

The result of our intentions is demonstrated when the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was asked about people who sacrificed their life and which of them had the correct intentions:

(One who fights) for displaying his valor, (a man who) fights out of his family pride, or (a man who) fights for the sake of showing off, who amongst these fights in the way of Allah?

The Prophet said:

“Who fights that the word of Allah be exalted fights in the way of Allah (Muslim).

Actions are reward by our intention. If one competes or shows off to be said of him or her that he or she had valor, then he or she will get that reward from the creation at the expense of the reward from Allah because this was the intention. But if one keeps his or her intentions pure and competes only seeking Allah’s reward, he or she will attain it.

About Theresa Corbin
Theresa Corbin is the author of The Islamic, Adult Coloring Book and co-author of The New Muslim’s Field Guide. Corbin is a French-creole American and Muslimah who converted in 2001. She holds a BA in English Lit and is a writer, editor, and graphic artist who focuses on themes of conversion to Islam, Islamophobia, women's issues, and bridging gaps between peoples of different faiths and cultures. She is a regular contributor for and Al Jumuah magazine. Her work has also been featured on CNN and Washington Post, among other publications. Visit her blog, islamwich, where she discusses the intersection of culture and religion.