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Understanding Riya and Approval Addiction

“If you live for people’s acceptance, you’ll die from their rejection.” A friend wrote in a Facebook post. It seems somewhat farfetched, but it kind of captures the extremity of the consequences if you let riya and approval addiction enter your heart.

The more you let them control your mood, the more you suffer when you’re deprived of them, till you let your life and death depend on it.

Productive Approval vs. Addictive Approval

“You are a fighter”, a university counselor once said to me. I had been living a hard life for some time, and it was getting unbearable, when those few words from my kind friend gave me the strength to keep fighting.

A few kind words can make someone’s day, inspire healing in someone who is broken, and encourage an exhausted person to walk a few more steps.

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We human beings are weak by nature. We don’t always have faith in ourselves. We’re not always sure we’re doing a good job. We lose hope. We become pessimistic of our own capabilities, and of our future.

At such times, we need a pat on the back, a few positive words, someone to encourage us and give us a clearer perspective of our capabilities that is not biased by pessimism; someone to tell us, “I believe in you. I know you are really good at this. Just do your bit and trust in God.”

This is the kind of praise and approval that is productive. This is what we deserve from one another.

But there is always the danger, when indulged in excessively, for this productive approval to turn into something negative, an addiction, a disease of the heart.

You’ll know you are addicted to other people’s approval and acceptance of you when:

  1. You make others’ approval your yardstick for how you view yourself.

You become so dependent on other people’s judgment that you lose all self-confidence. You need someone to give you the thumbs up before doing a good job at anything.

  1. You work for getting the ‘high’ instead of for the right intentions.

You no longer perform your office tasks in order to fulfill your work obligations, but rather to impress your boss or co-workers.

This doesn’t seem much of a difference – until you take into account what happens when you don’t get their approval: You no longer feel the urge to do a good job. And that’s a big problem.

  1. Your mood swings like a pendulum depending on people’s approval or disapproval.

Do you constantly check Facebook to see how many likes your status got? And when the number is a zero, does it ruin your day?

Letting other people’s approval, disapproval or ignorance decide your mood is like riding an emotional roller coaster that’s gone out of control.

What is Riya and How it is an Addiction

Riya is when you perform a spiritual action, such as praying or reciting the Quran, in order to get praised by people rather than to please Allah. It is a kind of approval-seeking that is more dangerous than the rest of them – because it jeopardizes not only your life here but also your Hereafter.

Do you stop reciting the Quran when someone tells you your recitation is horrible? Do you need other people around you to perform your prayer at an unhurried pace? Do you have to have a pat on the back to feel good about seeking knowledge?

Riya is a serious spiritual disease and its dangers are stated in the Quran and hadiths:

  1. It is a form of hidden shirk. (Ibn Majah 4204)
  2. It is a characteristic of the hypocrites. (Quran, 107)
  3. It takes one towards the hellfire. (Tirmidhi 2382)
  4. It invokes Allah’s punishment in this world too, by humiliating him in front of people. (Muslim 2986)

How to Overcome AA and Riya

Overcoming the urge to seek approval is a lifelong struggle for everyone. Even the most pious scholars had to deal with it.

Can you imagine a big-shot like Sufyan al-Thawri saying:

“I did not treat anything more difficult than my sincerity”? (Aboo Zayd, 20)

I’m not at all in a position to advice anyone on this, but here are a few ideas out of my personal diary in overcoming AA and riya which you might like to try out.

  1. Find out your Achilles’ heel. Reflect deeply and figure out which areas of life you are most riya-prone: work, marriage, academics, etc.
  2. Make a habit of making du’a before starting any task that falls under your Achilles’ heel.
  3. Seek approval at the right place:
  • From Allah. Seek Allah’s approval by loving and obeying Him and following His Book.
  • From yourself. Build confidence in your abilities to form good judgments. Allah gave you your own intellect, and He wants you to use it. It’s a bit like learning to walk by yourself.
  1. Remove the stimuli. Just like other addictions, you have to remove the thing that feeds AA. If you’re, for example, susceptible to Facebook likes, cut off from Facebook for a while. Expect withdrawal symptoms and try your best not to yield to them.

As long as we are human, there will scarcely be a point in our lives when we can say we don’t care for praise and flattery. What we can do is be constantly vigilant and pray that, whenever death comes to us, we die with hearts that are free of hidden shirk.


Aboo Zayd, Shaykh Bakr. The Etiquette of Seeking Knowledge. Trans. Murad ibn Hilmi Ash-Shuweikh.