Self-Conceit (‘Ujb) – What Is It? [Part 1 of 4]

I will be publishing a 4-part series on the concept of ‘Ujb (self-conceit). The content will essentially be relying on the book Jami al-Sadaat, references from other works where relevant and personal comments on the various points that the author of Jami al-Sadaat (Ayatullah Mahdi Naraqi) raises in his work.

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

True akhlaq (plural of khulq) can be explained away in English as being a disposition (malakah). A disposition is when an action or trait exhibits and manifests itself in a person without the person having to think or ponder over it. It is a property of a soul which comes into existence through tedious amounts of practice, consistency, hard work and of course the Assistance of Allah (swt).

A story has been quoted by Ayatullah Behjat, which exemplifies very beautifully what true disposition is. It has been narrated by him that during the last stages of Sheikh Murtadha Ansari’s life, his close family members began to rotate the bed so that his feet were facing the Qibla – an act which is highly recommended when a person is dying. However, whenever they would do so, Sheikh Ansari would roll himself away from the Qibla. His family members were surprised by this behaviour, but he assured them that what they were doing was indeed correct. However, what he was doing was also his responsibility and he was rolling away from the Qibla due to a certain reason. It was determined that during the later stages of his life, he was affected with a bladder condition and since it is prohibited to relieve oneself while facing the Qibla, he would keep turning away from it.

What this story demonstrates is that while most of us may be aloof to our responsibilities, perhaps many of us not even considering to check the direction of the toilets when purchasing houses, or using the washrooms in our schools or offices, this great Sheikh during his very last moments had the conscious to remember and act upon this – what may appear to some as trivial – ruling.[1] This was a disposition that he had developed after years of self-building and purification of the soul.

One of the main aspects of the religion is the attainment of good akhlaq in its truest sense. Meaning, that our good demeanour should eventually become a disposition, where we don’t have to think twice about what we should do in any given scenario. In this series we will be discussing one of the greatest diseases and vices that prevent a person from attaining true akhlaq in all aspects of their life. ‘Ujb (self-conceit) is a vice triggered by the faculty of anger (al-quwwah al-ghadabiyyah) when it is not kept in moderation (the result of which would be humbleness and modesty). It is a trait that acts as a spiritual barrier and prevents individuals from seeing flaws and mistakes in their selves.

‘Ujb is when individuals magnify their own virtues and good deeds (whether they truly possess them or not) and consider themselves superior due to these traits. This is not accompanied by any sense of humility or humbleness and neither does the individual consider these to be favours of Allah (swt) bestowed upon him or her. Another type of it is when one starts to see their bad traits and deeds in a positive light.

Many may confuse ‘Ujb (conceit) with Kibr (pride), but there exists a minute, yet significant difference between the two. Kibr is one of the effects and off-springs of ‘Ujb. In ‘Ujb, it is enough that a person considers themselves to be special, whereas in Kibr not only does a person consider themselves superior, but they go out of their way to undermine others. It is possible for one to consider themselves special, but at the same time consider certain others to be superior than themselves, and this would still constitute as conceit. It is the feeling of self-love and self-praise that constitutes as ‘Ujb and it is not necessary that such a person puts down another because to this. Meaning, it is possible for one to consider themselves to be special with the traits that they possess, but at the same time consider someone like their father, or a scholar, or an academic to be superior to them otherwise.

Imam Khomeini references Sheikh Bahai in his invaluable work, 40 Hadith, on the topic of ‘Ujb as follow:

There is no doubt that when anyone performs good deeds, like fasting, night vigils, etc., he feels some kind of joy and pleasure within him. This pleasure and joy, if it is on account of the feeling that God Almighty has conferred on him favor and grace, which caused him to perform such acts of piety, while he is afraid of their loss and is anxious about their disappearance, and asks God Almighty for their continuity and abundance-this kind of exultation and gladness is not ‘ujb.

But if the exultation and pride is felt on account of the belief that he is the doer of such deeds and that it is he who possesses all such good qualities, and if he glorifies his own deeds with confidence in his goodness, considering himself to be free from all faults and vices, it reaches such a point that one believes that he is conferring some favor upon God in performing these deeds. This feeling of exultation and pride is ‘ujb.[2]

An extreme stage of ‘Ujb is reached when a person believes that he has some sort of a right on Allah (swt). This is when a person has expectations from Allah (swt) to fulfill his requests or prayers, due to the good traits he or she possesses or the actions that they perform. It is as if he or she feels that they have done Allah (swt) a favour. If their prayers or requests are not accepted, they complain to Allah (swt), or they get upset at Him and feel surprised. This type of ‘Ujb is sometimes referred to as Idlaal (ادلال) – defined as taking liberties by the Hans Wehr dictionary.  Idlaal is also when one has an expectation to be rewarded for their good deeds, as if what he or she had performed was up to the mark, and that there is no way that such worship or good deeds would not be accepted by Allah (swt). This degree of self-conceit is also supported by a narration as follow:

Ali ibn Suwayd said: I asked Abu al-Hasan (as) about the ‘Ujb that vitiates the quality of human deeds. The Imam said: ‘Ujb is of several degrees. One of them is when one’s bad qualities appear to him as good; he reckons them as good ones and congratulates himself imagining that he is performing virtues. Another level of ‘ujb is represented by a person who believes in his Lord and thinks that he has done a favour to Him; whereas Allah Almighty has conferred a favour on him (by endowing him with faith).[3]

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it is greatly emphasized to recite Istighfaar (seeking forgiveness) after Salah. It is to realize that the worship that we just performed could have been filled to the brim with flaws, mistakes, and a complete lack of concentration. It is so that we beg Allah (swt) for forgiveness and realize that we are not even aware of the reality of our worship, we don’t even know whether our actions will be accepted or not and that we are completely worthless in front of Allah (swt). The Qur’an reminds us to be conscious of our actions so that we may not become a victim of `Ujb:

أَفَمَنْ زُيِّنَ لَهُ سُوءُ عَمَلِهِ فَرَآهُ حَسَنًا

[35:8] What! is he whose evil deed is made fairseeming to him so much so that he considers it good?

Different scholars have approached the subject of ‘Ujb in different ways. Some have dissected ‘Ujb into different stages on a scale of extremes and then discussed it, whereas some have discussed it by taking a look at different aspects of one’s life and how ‘Ujb effects them in those areas of life.

In the subsequent posts, I will be publishing various narrations that pertain to the concept of ‘Ujb, discussing its effects, its cure and then taking the latter of the aforementioned approaches where conceit is discussed with regards to different aspects of one’s life (such as being conceited with knowledge, piety, strength, or good looks).

Continue to Part 2

[1] This story was taken from the Rabbee Zidnee blog post titled: The Shaykh Who didn’t Forget, referencing a teacher of the Hawzah in a weekly Akhlaq class

[2] Third Hadith: Self-Conceit, An Exposition on Forty Ahadith, by Imam Khomeini, translated by Ali Quli Qara’i

[3] Usul al-Kafi, Volume 2, Baab ul-Ujb (Chapter on Self-Conceit), Hadith #3

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