When you do an act that falls under the domain of worship (‘ibādah), you can either perform this action for Allah (swt), you can do it for someone or something other than Allah (swt), or you can do it for both Allah (swt) and another entity together. The latter two are called riyā’ (showing-off and ostentation) and Islam clearly condemns this. Allah (swt) says:
أَنَا خَيْرُ شَرِيكٍ؛ مَنْ أَشْرَكَ مَعِيَ غَيْرِي فِي عَمَلٍ عَمِلَهُ لَمْ أَقْبَلْهُ إِلا مَا كَانَ لِي خَالِصاً
I am the best of partners. Whoever associates others with Me in a deed that he has done, I will not accept it except that which is done for Me sincerely.1
Hence, riyā’ is to seek a position and status amongst people through an act of worship. All of us want praise and a reputation in the eyes of others, yet we have to fight and oppose this tendency and make our actions as sincere as possible for Allah (swt). In a tradition attributed to the Prophet (p), it says:
Verily, the first people to be judged on the Day of Resurrection will be a man who was martyred. He will be brought, the blessings of Allah will be made known and he will acknowledge them. Allah will say: What did you do about them? The man will say: I fought in your cause until I was martyred. Allah will say: You have lied, for you fought only that it would be said you were brave, and thus it was said. Then, Allah will order him to be dragged upon his face until he is cast into Hellfire.
Another man studied knowledge, taught others, and recited the Quran. He will be brought, the blessings of Allah will be made known and he will acknowledge them. Allah will say: What did you do about them? The man will say: I learned knowledge, taught others, and I recited the Quran for your sake. Allah will say: You have lied, for you studied only that it would be said you are a scholar and you recited the Quran only that it would be said you are a reciter, and thus it was said. Then, Allah will order him to be dragged upon his face until he is cast into Hellfire.
Another man was given an abundance of blessings from Allah and every kind of wealth. He will be brought, the blessings of Allah will be made known and he will acknowledge them. Allah will say: What did you do about them? The man will say: I did not leave any good cause beloved to you but that I spent on it for your sake. Allah will say: You have lied, for you spent only that it would be said you are generous, and thus it was said. Then, Allah will order him to be dragged upon his face until he is cast into Hellfire.2
As for riyā’ in non-worship acts, such as someone showing off their calligraphy or sports skills, or some other talent they possess, scholars have mentioned some intricate details that are worthy of note, but to put it roughly, riyā’ in those acts is not always condemned, in fact at times it is praised and necessary. The problematic riyā’ is applicable when an act should be done for Allah (swt) alone, but instead people become the Qibla and Ka’ba for one’s act. Often times, people in influential positions – whether on a large communal level, or even within their own smaller social circles – fall prey to riyā’ as all their efforts are in trying to acquire the satisfaction of people or both people and Allah (swt), as opposed to only Allah (swt).
Stages of Riyā’
First Stage: The first, most obvious and apparent stage of riyā’ is to practically perform an act for the sake of people – this is the only reason why one performs this act. In fact, if there are no people to look at him, or hear him, they will not do the act. There is absolutely no intention to reach proximity to Allah (swt) in this act.
Second Stage: This is when the first intended audience for the act are people, but at the same time, there is an intention to perform the act for Allah (swt) as well. Both people and Allah (swt) are placed on the same horizontal plane. The individual will not perform the act if people do not see him, but at the time same he also expects Allah (swt) to accept his actions.
In both the aforementioned stages, one’s act of worship is legally invalidated and incorrect.
Third Stage: At this point the riyā’ becomes more hidden in relation to the previous two stages – though it is still defined as a manifested and conspicuous riyā’. The person intends to do an act of worship for both others and Allah (swt) and this relationship is equal – both have to be there for one to perform the act. If Allah (swt) is there, but people are not there, he will say, “Why should I bother doing it?” On the contrary if people are there, but Allah (swt) is not there, he will say, “Why should I burden myself with worship?” Legally speaking, even in this scenario the worship is invalidated.
Fourth Stage: This is when riyā’ is defined as hidden and inconspicuous (khafī). The intention is primarily for Allah (swt), but people should be there as well. If people are not present, he will perform the act for Allah (swt), but that excitement and delight that would have existed if people were to see him is not present. This is a sign. When people are not present, they are lazy and not very motivated to do the act, but in front of people the worship is more vibrant, longer and so on.
قال أمير المؤمنين: ثلاث علامات للمرائي: ينشط إذا رأى الناس، ويكسل إذا كان وحده، ويحب أن يحمد في جميع أموره
Imam ‘Alī (a) has said: There are three signs of a show-off, he is energetic when he see’s people, lazy when he is alone, and loves to be praised in all of his deeds.3
In essence, though his purpose is to pray for the sake of Allah (swt), but what is really important for him is his own excitement and happiness.
Legally speaking, there is no verdict here, perhaps very few jurists have said this also invalidates the action. Nevertheless, it does weaken the worship and there is a discussion on whether it is accepted or not in the eyes of Allah (swt).
Fifth Stage: During the act of worship, the intention is that it is only being performed for Allah (swt) and the person is conscious of this. However, after the act is complete, the person brings it up at a later time – even if it happens to be decades later – so that people get to know about it. Satan’s whispers to not let him off even after the worship is complete and follow him for a much longer time. There are different ways to convey this as well – for example, someone who prayed Ṣalāt al-Layl, but later wants people to know about it, says, “can you please pass me some water, my throat is really dry today as the recitation of my Ṣalāt al-Layl took really long.”
It is here where ḥabṭ (fall of a deed) takes place. The act of worship was done correctly, the angels carry the act to Allah (swt), but later it is declined and falls back. ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī and perhaps other scholars believe that when ḥabṭ occurs, it indicates there was definitely a problem when the action was first done, but it was extremely hidden. This stage is difficult to identify, because sometimes you may want to encourage others around you to worship, but Satan is cunning enough to set up traps for us.
أبي جعفر عليه السلام أنه قال: الابقاء على العمل أشد من العمل قال: وما الابقاء على العمل، قال: يصل الرجل بصلة وينفق نفقة لله وحده لا شريك له، فتكتب له سرا ثم يذكرها فتمحى فتكتب له علانية ثم يذكرها فتمحى وتكتب له رياء
Imam Bāqir (a): Preserving a deed is more difficult than performing the deed itself. A man said: “What does preserving a deed mean?” He (a) said: “It is when a man maintains good relations with relatives or spends something just for the sake of Allah – who has no partners. This will be recorded for him as a good deed performed secretly. He then mentions it to people, and the deed is erased and recorded as a good deed performed publicly. Then he mentions it to people again and it is erased and is recorded as an instance of riyā’.”4
Sixth Stage: This is when a person does an act for Allah (swt) and does not mention it himself afterwards either. However, someone else may bring it up and once it is brought up, they feel a sense of happiness and content.
If they are happy because of what they see as Allah’s grace in having hidden their deficiencies and having exposed their goodness, using this as an opportunity to strengthen their relationship with Allah (swt), then they have not only protected their deed, but rather they have further elevated it. This is very difficult to do since it requires for a person be able to see the Act of Allah (swt).
Satan whispers in many ways causing us to show off. When one learns that showing off and ostentation in one’s act of worship causes deficiencies, Satan further uses that as an opportunity to make you think that you might as well abandon the act altogether. Instead of committing to fighting against the whispers of Satan, one ends up abandoning the act completely.
The solution to all of this is developing sincerity (ikhlāṣ), which is nothing but a journey towards Allah (swt) and it sits in contradiction to riyā’, which is a journey towards the self and Satan. In order to develop ikhlāṣ, one needs to see Allah (swt) as Ever-Living (Al-Ḥayy). There is no room for taking into consideration anyone other than Allah (swt) in one’s act of worship. All other lives are nothing but mere subordinates of Allah (swt).
هُوَ الْحَيُّ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ فَادْعُوهُ مُخْلِصِينَ لَهُ الدِّينَ ۗ الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ
[40:65] He is the Ever-Living; there is no deity except Him, so call upon Him, being sincere to Him in religion. All praise is due to Allah, Lord of the worlds.
Featured picture: Masjid Quba, 2006.
Sayyid Ali studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from the Islamic College of London in 2018. In the seminary he engaged in the study of legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is currently completing his Masters of Education at the University of Toronto and is the head of a private faith-based school in Toronto, as well as an instructor at the Mizan Institute and Mufid Seminary.