I arrived at the ADAMS Center Mosque 15 minutes early for my meeting with the Imam. At the top of the steps to the front entrance, there were multiple shelves holding several pairs of shoes. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do.
I took a peek inside and I couldn’t see anyone walking around, with or without shoes. It would be weird to greet the imam with no shoes on, so I was inclined to just keep mine on. However, I also didn’t want to risk offending him if I was supposed to keep shoes on.
Rather than risking offense, I chose to risk embarrassment instead.
Of course, as soon as I placed my shoes on the rack, I stepped on the wet doormat and began leaving wet footprints on the floor.
Fortunately, a young man saw that I was lost and barefoot and took pity on me.
“Do you need help? You look like you need help.”
“I do; I’m looking for the Imam.”
“Ok, I will take you to him. But first, you don’t need to take off your shoes here. That’s only if you’re going to pray.”
Lesson number one: don’t take off your shoes until you pray.
The young man took me to meet the Imam and we proceeded to have a fascinating conversation.
Arrogance is the root of evil
I told the Imam about my project and mentioned that for my practice, I was planning on doing Salat, or prayer, five times a day. I asked him what benefit he thought I would receive from this.
“Ah, if you perform Salat five times a day, you will know all of Islam!”
Excellent! Prayer is a shortcut to understanding Islam. This sounded good to me, but I wanted to know what traits I would develop if I were consistent with it.
The Imam thought about it, and of course, he listed a number of traits. One in particular caught my attention. The trait was humility.
To explain humility, however, he had to teach me about arrogance.
“I believe arrogance is the root of all evil in the world, and arrogance stems from not knowing yourself.”
I never thought of arrogance in this way, neither in its severity or impact on the world nor its origins.
The Imam explained that arrogance is defined by thinking you are better than other people; you believe that you are of a higher status, you are more righteous, you are more intelligent, etc. Once you become arrogant, you start treating others with contempt. This contempt may not be overt, but it is insidious. You start judging others, instead of being concerned with your own behavior. No one can see it, but you do. But eventually, it might escalate. Your arrogance may prevent you from developing meaningful relationships, or worse, it may cause you to actively harm others.
This makes sense, but what does it mean to say that arrogance comes from a lack of self-knowledge?
Arrogant people have an overly inflated view of the self and their abilities. By definition, this means they have an inaccurate view of themselves. They do not understand their limitations, which means they will potentially make bad decisions and behave poorly. So in order to develop humility, we must develop self-knowledge.
Humility as a muscle
I like the Wikipedia definition of humility:
“Humility is variously seen as the act or posture of lowering oneself in relation to others, or conversely, having a clear perspective, and therefore respect, for one’s place in context.”
Having a clear perspective and therefore respect for one’s place in context: that is a powerful concept, and a type of self-knowledge.
The word Islam is often interpreted to mean “voluntary submission to God” which suggests that the religion’s primary focus is understanding your role in relationship to God.
A manifestation of this is Salat or prayer. Salat is one of the five pillars of Islam, meaning it is pretty important. Islam requires Muslims to pray five time a day using standard movements and recitations. Muslims will prostrate themselves and proclaim the greatness of God. This seems like an excellent way to remind yourself of your place in the world; how small you are in relationship to God.
Islam recognized that you can’t just think your way to humility. It is like a muscle. You wouldn’t try to just think your way into becoming more fit; you have to go the gym and lift weights. In the same way, you must exercise and practice your way to humility.
Why I need humility
I have a sneaking suspicion that much of my work-related frustration (which is a big percentage of my general frustration) stems from a lack of humility.
When I disagree with my colleagues, I think they’re dumb and that I’m smart. I’m quick to criticize without proposing solutions. I think often about what I want at work and how the company is failing to meet those wants. My arrogance is making me an asshole, which in turns is making me unhappy.
Instead of going with the modern solution to workplace unhappiness, which says to quit my job, start a side-business, etc., I’m going to see if Islam can help me develop humility so that I won’t need to leave my job or create an online business (not that those are bad things).
How I’ll do this
The primary way I plan on achieving this is by practicing, Salat, or prayer, five times per day. The prayer ritual is very formalized; there are set times everyday to perform the prayer and a particular way to do it (a series of recitations, bows, and prostrations).
Finally, I’m going to quit drinking for a month. Islam prohibits alcohol consumption, so why not? It has nothing to do with humility, but it’s a good exercise in self-control. I’m doing all of this with the assumption that these exercises will help me develop my humility muscle.
As usual, I promise to honestly report my experience.