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Our Mandate to Know Ourselves

The purpose of our religious practices is to worship Allah Almighty. Thereby, they are also to the benefit of ourselves – now and in the Hereafter.

This applies to all our practices, whether these practices are obligatory, such as our five daily prayers, giving of Zakah, or fasting during Ramadan, or whether they are voluntary, such as giving Saddaqah or attending more Prayers at the Masjid.

Many of the benefits that we hope to attain from these practices we know, but there are also many benefits that we are still unaware of.  Both, the Qur’an and the Hadith literature tell us repeatedly that if only we would fully understand all the benefits and the magnitude of our prescribed and urged practices, then we would not ever have an atom of hesitation in us to engage in more practices.

Our religious practices, however, are also the working grounds for Iblis, the accursed devil. This argument is one that we may not easily accept. It is perhaps very counterintuitive to us, as we believe that our religious practices serve us as a most forceful protection against the devil’s evil machinations. To be sure, when we carry out our religious practices with sincerity, they are, Insha’ Allah, the ultimate protection.

Nevertheless, until the Day of Judgment, Iblis will always try to use our religious practices towards his evil ends. He will literally try to infiltrate them. Most of us know well, for example, the distractions we’re experiencing in our daily Salahs. Our mind wanders in all kinds of directions. It is Iblis who tempts it there so as to distance us from Allah Almighty.

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The Devil enters our religious practices in yet different ways. Through what is perhaps the worst and most dangerous way, he can compel us to confuse our religious practices with our actual religiosity. Mistaking our mere engagement in religious practices for our actual religiosity is something that the Qur’an warns against, and since its revelation, so many of our religious scholars have also done so. These warnings are complemented by the scholarship in the modern social sciences which show just how easily this confusion can happen.


After our religion, one of our most important possessions is the knowledge we have about ourselves. And it is not for aught that this self-knowledge is such a valued virtue in our religion. In Arabic this knowledge is known as ma’rifatul-nafs. The concern here is not with a superficial knowledge of ourselves, say about our general dispositions, our likes and dislikes, our tastes and our habits. Instead, ma`rifatul-nafsconcerns itself with our most intimate knowledge about our spiritual self, that is, about ournafs.

The nafs, of course, is the devil’s favored target and here he will work to distort our views and our knowledge of ourselves, the very sense we have of ourselves. Indeed, we are always in danger of having an understanding of ourselves that is apart from who and how we really are.

Genuinely knowing oneself, one’s nafs, or coming to know oneself is not an easy task. The task is akin to a journey in which we face manifold hindrances and obstacles as we travel towards our true self.

Of course, we are familiar with the desires situated in our nafs and social psychologists came to add to our understandings of these. They have studied the hindrances to self-knowledge in great detail, but on a general level they identify them as human desires for positive self-images and positive self-esteem. While these desires, in careful moderation, may do us well, an overdose of them may lead us astray, most importantly astray from al-sirat al-mustaqeem, the divine straight path.

These desires are exactly the very opportune entry for Iblis who will work and try to make sure that we do get an overdose of them. If he succeeds, to whatever extent, the result is that we have a distorted view of ourselves and we come to see ourselves as better than we actually are. Social-psychologists identify this as the ‘better-than-average effect’: Subjectively, most of us see ourselves as being better than the average person, but, objectively, that can’t be the case.

It is certainly exactly because of this very fundamental danger that our knowledge of ourselves, and, moreover, our self-reckoning is so imperative in our religion. In Surah Al Qiyamah (75: 2), Allah Almighty is saying to us: {And I do call to witness the self-reproaching spirit.}

The Prophet’s (peace and blessings be upon him) companion Umar ibn Al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him) is reported to have advised: “Call yourself to account before you are called to account.”

Similarly Al-Hasan (may Allah be pleased with him) is said to have cautioned us that “the worshipper will be in a safe position as long as he keeps admonishing his own self and continuously calls his soul to account.”

Coming to know oneself ever more, being self-reproaching and continuously calling one’s soul to account are every-day imperatives for us. The most important knowledge we must have about ourselves is our knowledge about our piety and our religiosity. Of all the things we must be self-reproaching about, most fundamentally, we must be self-reproaching about our assumed religiosity. It is important for us to realize that our religiosity is not a given, that it may depart from us without us realizing it. This is why Surah Aal `Imran (3: 8) has the Believers say: {Our Lord! Let not our hearts deviate now after You have guided us.}


Of course, our religiosity is something that is to be situated within ourselves. It is to be intrinsic and our internal convictions and values are to dispose us to certain behaviors and compel us to our (religious) practices.

Our practices are an external manifestation of our internal religiosity and through them we also seek to reinforce our internal religiosity. Ultimately, however, it is our internal convictions and values that are the scale for our religiousness. Our practices, by themselves, are not an appropriate scale. From those, we cannot infer our, or anyone’s, religiosity.

While this is generally and easily understood, we might be tempted to use it as a scale nevertheless. Many of us know our temptation to view someone who attends many Salahs at the masjid as very religious. But to what extent Islam is not just in his practice, but truly in his hearts, only Allah Almighty knows. Form is not (always) equal to content.

This point serves as an illustration of what sometimes are superficial and perhaps incorrect inferences. Yet, the concern here is our own virtues, not those of others. The temptation to use the engagement in religious practices as a religiosity scale, applies also when we evaluate ourselves, not just others. Social scientists who examine the religious practices of Christians, for example, point out that people who attend church regularly come to perceive themselves as religious without necessarily being more religious.  There is a gap between one’s perception of oneself and one’s actual being and, as uncomfortable as it sounds, it can come to be engendered by our religious practices.

This seeming paradox is explained by a rather insightful theory that scholars in social psychology have brought to us, namely self-perception theory. The chief postulate of self-perception theory is counter-intuitive, but simple: We come to know ourselves, or rather, believe something about ourselves, partially by drawing inferences about ourselves from our external behavior.

Thus, our regular attending to religious practices may (and should) be the result of our internal religiousness. In contrast, self-perception theory cautions us that our religiousness may perhaps not be as internal as we like to believe, but that our practices give us some amount of false consciousness about ourselves. They may make us feel more religious or pious than we actually are.

We would be naive to think that all this applies to Christians, but not to us Muslims. While we are convinced that our religion provides us with the blessed path, as humans, we are also flawed and subject to the same desires that the devil aims at manipulating. Some of the arguments presented here may be difficult to accept. But if we are honest we will be inclined to discover the truth in self-perception theory. The cautionary attitude that comes from self-perception theory should be seen as very valuable to all believing persons who take the mandate of being self-reproaching seriously.


Our possibly distorted sense of our religiosity brings immediate and ultimate consequences. The ultimate consequence may be the loss of Allah’s Almighty favor. Among the immediate consequences is the compromising impact on one of the highest virtues in Islam, the virtue of humility. In Surat Al-Furqan (25: 63), Allah Almighty states:  {The servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth in humility.}

Throughout the Qur’an we can indeed find many references to the virtues of humility. Of course, also in the Sunnah we can find many references to this virtue. One of the outstanding ones is reported by Iyad ibn Himar, according to whom the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “Verily, Allah has revealed to me that you must be humble towards one another, so that no one wrongs another or boasts to another” (Sahih Muslim 2865).

Humility has been defined in various ways in Islamic scholarship. These include an emphasis of complete submission to Allah Almighty and knowing one’s position before Allah Almighty.

These understandings are self-evident. Beyond them, however, humility also means a certain amount uncertainty and self-doubt about our own selves and about our words and deeds.  It means, figuratively stated, equipping much of one’s speech with implicit question marks and not with exclamation marks.

It means a sincere acknowledgement of Allahu A`lam (Allah knows best), but also that in conversations with others (especially with others who may have the appearance of less religiosity), we sincerely, and not just seemingly, leave the possibility open for them to be right. It means to position ourselves more often as learners than as teachers.

Our self-perceived religiosity has the potential to stand in the way of these important inclinations towards self-doubt, that is, in the way of humility. It does because self-perceived religiosity is a legitimizing force in itself. Social scientists speak of the ‘holier than thou effect’ – that people who see themselves as religious, may almost automatically see themselves as morally superior and as more righteous.

Speaking figuratively again, it manifests itself when much of our speech is equipped with (implicit) exclamation marks instead of question marks.  It manifests itself when people too confidently position themselves as teachers rather than learners. This is something that we cannot be wary enough of. Confidence in one’s being (vis-à-vis others) should always come in due measure.

Intelligence and Reflections

The remedy for a distorted understanding of ourselves is in the unique qualities that Allah Almighty has imbued us with.  One of the most important qualities that we carry as humans is our intelligence. Through his intelligence, and his heart to be sure, the pious person will study his religion. But through it he may also come to learn the sociology and psychology of humans.

A religious understanding of human nature that is complemented by insights provided in the social sciences about human desires for positive self-images and positive self-esteem, is now perhaps more important than ever, as we have arguably been finding ourselves in increasingly competitive eras of history. Understanding our inherent human desires is always a first step in controlling them.

Of course, closely related to our intelligence is the capacity for self-reflection. The value and the imperative of self-reflection is emphasized in the Quran and was taught to us by our beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), through his words and by his habits of solitary retreat and these must serve as examples more than they perhaps have. Detachment from worldly distractions and impurities is a path towards the depths of one’s soul and at the same time to a super-conscious awareness of oneself. Solitude opens the door for fundamental questions to enter our mind, questions about Allah Almighty, His universe, and ourselves. Beyond, solitary retreat is also a path towards spirituality and an ever more intimate relationship with Allah Almighty.

It is through such intelligent, genuine and sincere engagement with oneself, that one gets to know oneself and that one may come to discover the ongoing work of Iblis in our nafs, how he aims at manipulating and exploiting our human desires and how he deceives us about ourselves. It is through our capacity of self-reflection that we may come to know our religiosity. And it is through our self-reflections that we can endeavor to be self-reproaching and cultivate our humility as an antidote to the devil-nurtured inclinations of self-certainty. A self-reproaching soul and is akin to a compass ensuring that we will always be traveling on alsirat al mustaqim.