What is Ostentation?

Musa Kâzım GÜLÇÜR

There are five places in the Qur’an where the word “ostentation,” (riya) is mentioned. In two of these verses Muslims are warned about people who give charity solely to be seen and regarded. Two others make it known that there are some people who perform daily prayers or other forms of worship just as an outward show. The last of the five teaches that there are some who will claim to be acting out of religious zeal but only want to put on a show for other people, and we are told what we should do about this. God says in Sura Baqara;

Those who spend their wealth in God’s cause and then do not follow up what they have spent with putting (the receiver) under obligation and taunting, their reward is with their Lord, and they will have no fear, nor will they grieve. A kind word and forgiving (people’s faults) are better than almsgiving followed by taunting. God is All-Wealthy and Self-Sufficient, (absolutely independent of the charity of people), All-Clement (Who shows no haste in punishing.) O you who believe! Render not vain your almsgiving by putting (the receiver) under an obligation and taunting—like him who spends his wealth to show off to people and be praised by them and believes not in God and the Last Day. The parable of his spending is that of a rock on which there is soil; a heavy rain falls upon it and leaves it barren. They have no power (control) over what they have earned. God guides not such disbelieving people (to attain their goals).” (Baqara 2:262–4)

Below are listed the many elements found in this verse:

1. When one gives charity (sadaqa), it is invalid and worthless in God’s eyes if the giver acts as though the receiver is indebted for the gift or says something to them which will make them uncomfortable.

2. It is clearly commanded that believers must avoid such a situation (when they give charity).

3. The verse makes it known that, when charity is given to prompt gratitude or indebtedness, or to raise one’s degree over the receivers of one’s charity, or without belief in God and the Last Day, giving only for human recognition, then the money is given in vain and will never benefit the giver.

4. Such a person’s situation is compared to a rock face that is covered with a thin layer of dust easily washed away by the rain.

Let us dwell for a moment on this image. As is known, one of the fundamental goals of sadaqa or zakat (the annual charity every Muslim gives from their accumulated wealth) is to break down the “walls” between the rich and poor and give assistance to the latter. Thus, even non-material support, such as a kind word or forgiveness of a wrong can be charity and can be better than money given for the wrong reason (such as the desire to “indebt” the receiver.) The comparison is apt: Just as stone covered with dust will be exposed naked when the rain comes, a person with no belief in God and the Judgment Day who gives charity for show has a heart of stone. This will be exposed at the Final Reckoning.

The following verse also says that such people do not love God, but rather they will become friends of Satan: “And those who spend their wealth (in charity or other good cause) to make a show of it to people (so as to be praised by them) when they believe neither in God nor in the Last Day: Whoever has Satan for a comrade, how evil a comrade he is!” (Nisa 4:38).

Another verse regarding ostentation in the Qur’an is this: “The hypocrites would trick God, whereas it is God who “tricks” them (by causing them to fall into their own traps). When they rise to do the Prayer, they rise lazily, and to be seen by people (to show them that they are Muslims); and they do not remember God (within or outside the Prayer) save a little” (Nisa 4:142).

One of the main themes of this verse is that a person who acts in such a way does not believe completely in God, the Prophets, the angels, or the Last Day; this makes them munafiq, or hypocrites. It depicts them doing their prayers and worship for commendation instead of sincerely. Two aspects of this description catch our attention:

1. Such people do daily prayers only in congregation, and they do them reluctantly.

2. When they do perform the prayers it is because they want people to like them; they lengthen their prostrations so others will see.

A similar verse about hypocrites is from Sura Maun: “And woe to those worshippers (denying the Judgment), those who are unmindful in their Prayers, those who want to be seen and noted (for their acts of worship) yet deny all assistance (to their fellowmen)” (Maun 107:4–7).

Here I would like to include the commentary of the scholar Elmalili Hamdi Yazir on these verses. According to Yazir, the word “ostentation and showing off” (riya) has several meanings:

1. Doing something, like daily prayers, not for the sake of God, but for some worldly goal.

2. Doing prayers in places where people will see one but neglecting them in private (when one is alone).

3. Doing the prayers without God-consciousness, simply going through the motions and not thinking of God.

Now let us refer to the following verses from Sura Anfal which clarify the meaning:

O you who believe! When you meet a host in battle, stand firm and remember and mention God much, that you may triumph. And obey God and His Messenger, and do not dispute with one another, or else you may lose heart and your power and energy desert you; and remain steadfast. Surely, God is with those who remain steadfast. Be not like those (unbelievers) who went forth from their habitations swaggering boastfully and to show off to people, and bar (others) from God’s way. And God fully encompasses (with His Knowledge and Power) all that they do.” (Anfal 8:45–47)

There are several layers of meaning in these verses, but the relevant point is that doing things for show, swaggering boastfully, exceeding the bounds of decent interaction, and turning people away from the path of God are all forms of behaviour that must be avoided in every arena of society, including cultural, political, economic, and intellectual fields. In other words, we are commanded in all types of conflicts to:

  1. Stand firm,
  2. Engage often in remembrance of God,
  3. Obey God and His Messenger,
  4. Avoid dissention and dispute between Muslim communities,
  5. Remain patient,
  6. Avoid showing off and conceit.

The Subject of Ostentation in The Hadith

It would be appropriate to examine some hadith regarding the subject of hypocrisy here. The Prophet called ostentation (riya), or doing things for show, “lesser shirk.” [Shirk is the unforgivable wrong action of worshipping something or someone other than God or associating something or someone as a partner with Him.] One day, according to a narration, he said to the Companions, “The thing I fear most for you is lesser shirk.” So, the Companions asked, “O Messenger of God, what is lesser shirk?” He answered, “It is ostentation (riya). It is doing worship to be seen by others. On the Last Day, when God is giving everyone what they deserve, He will say to those who worshipped to be seen by others, ‘Go to those you showed off for in the world. See whether they will be able to give you anything now.” [Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, V, 428.]

According to Shaddad ibn Aws, another time God’s Messenger said, “I fear for my community two things: shirk and hidden lust.” So, they asked him, “O Messenger of God! After you, would your community ascribe partners to God?” He answered, “Yes; they will not worship the sun, the moon, rocks or idols (like some ancient people), but they will (commit shirk when they) do deeds for show.” [Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, IV, 124.]

There are more narrations in which hypocrisy is called “lesser shirk,” in addition to some hadith qudsi. Abu Hurayra heard the Prophet say, “God Almighty says, ‘I am the One, One Who does not stand in need of a partner. If anyone does anything in which he associates anyone else with Me, I shall abandon him with one whom he associates with Allah.” [Muslim, Zuhd, 58.]

The next hadith is illuminating because it reveals how a person can be found wanting at the Final Reckoning, having fallen into the trap of desiring the acclaim and admiration of others as their goal, and thereby corrupting their intentions: “The first of men (whose case) will be decided on the Day of Judgment will be a man who died as a martyr. He shall be brought (before the Judgment Seat). Allah will make him recount His blessings (i. e. the blessings which He had bestowed upon him) and he will recount them (and admit having enjoyed them in his life). (Then) will Allah say: What did you do (to requite these blessings)? He will say: I fought for Thee until I died as a martyr. Allah will say: You have told a lie. You fought that you might be called a” brave warrior”. And you were called so. (Then) orders will be passed against him and he will be dragged with his face downward and cast into Hell.

Then will be brought forward a man who acquired knowledge and imparted it (to others) and recited the Qur’an. He will be brought, and Allah will make him recount His blessings and he will recount them (and admit having enjoyed them in his lifetime). Then will Allah ask: What did you do (to requite these blessings)? He will say: “I acquired knowledge and disseminated it and recited the Qur’an seeking Thy pleasure.” Allah will say: “You have told a lie. You acquired knowledge so that you might be called a scholar, and you recited the Qur’an so that it might be said: He is a Qari and such has been said.” Then orders will be passed against him and he shall be dragged with his face downward and cast into the Fire.

Then will be brought a man whom Allah had made abundantly rich and had granted every kind of wealth. He will be brought, and Allah will make him recount His blessings and he will recount them and (admit having enjoyed them in his lifetime). Allah will (then) ask: “What have you done (to requite these blessings)?” He will say: “I spent money in every case in which Thou wished that it should be spent.” Allah will say: “You are lying. You did (so) that it might be said about (You): He is a generous fellow and so it was said.” Then will Allah pass orders and he will be dragged with his face downward and thrown into Hell.” [Muslim, Imara, 218.]

Is it always dangerous than for other people to say, “What a generous man (or woman)!” of others? Or is the fundamental danger the temptation to enjoy the praise in one’s heart, and then to start trying to earn it? The latter is the greater danger; the following hadith shows that great problems can occur when a person is exposed to the praise of others, even when they did not wish to seek acclaim. When the Prophet was asked, “O Messenger of God! What do you think about the community praising someone when he does something good?” he answered, “This is payment in advance for a believer.” [Muslim, Birr, 166.]

Having examined the Qur’anic verses and hadith on the topic, now let us briefly touch on the teachings of al-Ghazali. According to Imam Ghazali, one form of ostentation (riya) is to worship God for the sake of people, to try to deceive or impress them. He also addresses these issues as subtopics:

1. Ostentation in possessions: This type of riya is ostentatious clothing, huge houses, garish decorations, and so on. This is inclusive of one’s wished to be admired for worldly possessions and achievements, but even worse still is to show off in matters of religion.

2. Ostentation in behaviour: For example, lengthening one’s prayers and prostrations in the hopes that others will see you; hinting that one’s face has gone yellow (looks sickly) because of pious fear of the Last Judgment; trying to make others think one has lost weight because of eating little as a spiritual discipline; trying to appear dishevelled to make people think one is busy with religious activities and service, and so on. This category of behaviour also includes arrogance, swaggering, belittling others, and the like.

According to Ghazali, ostentation and showing off in religion can take three basic forms:

1. Doing actions directly for the sake of being seen to do them. This is the most dangerous category.

2. Wanting to reach a goal through ostentation (riya). This could be a material, immaterial or any type of goal. For example, trying to reach a goal hypocritically by deceiving the community with a sham of “uprightness” or harbouring hatred for different people behind the facade of love for the community.

3. Pretending to believe something one does not believe or performing worship just for others to see (while not actually caring about religious precepts) or performing it in a more serious manner when others are watching.

The clearest sign of showing off and ostentation, particularly in worship, is wanting to be seen by people. This indicates attention not to God (Whom one is supposed to be worshipping), but to the people. However, a true worshipper will not care whether others know that they are worshipping. [Ghazali, Ihya al-Ulum al-Din, 7/433–567.]

Ostentation and Exceptional Circumstances

Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, one of the most influential scholars of Islam in modern Turkey, wrote that some actions, like worship, are not considered to be ostentation, even when done publicly. Generally, he divides acts of worship into two types —musbat or positive, and manfi or negative. The former is those acts of worship we perform regularly, and the latter are the praise and supplications offered when people are afflicted with misfortune or disease, when they think of God and call on Him for help. Since, perceiving their own weaknesses and helplessness, they turn to and seek refuge in their Compassionate Lord, concentrating upon Him and entreating Him alone, this is a pure and sincere form of worship that no hypocrisy or showing off to people can penetrate. [Nursi, Lem’alar, İkinci Lem’a, 581.]

Nursi, further states that practices known as sha’air, or the symbols of Islam, like the call to prayers, the congregational prayers of Jumu’ah and the two Eids, sacrifice, and so on, that identify Islam and the Muslim community should not be thought of as ostentation. Particularly, there are certain duties that fall on the whole community which can be considered to have been fulfilled if one person performs them; if no one completes this action, then the whole community has neglected an obligatory act. Therefore, when someone performs such a deed, far from being “ostentation,” it should be announced, and it is a good deed on behalf of the community. [Ibid., Onbirinci Lem’a, 609.]

Nursi, goes into more detail about this topic in his work Kastamonu Lahikası, giving a fuller explanation. “There is no ostentation (riya), in performing obligatory or recommended acts, following the example of the Prophet, or avoiding what is forbidden. However, if a person with weak faith intends to do ostentation (riya) in performing these acts, (only) then riya can occur.”

According to such eminent scholars as al-Ghazali, in fact, doing an act that has been designated as obligatory practice openly may carry much greater rewards than doing it in private. Allowing the community to see such practices in a time when the Sunna of the Prophet has been lost would not be showing off but would rather be of benefit to the community. Therefore, to perform such acts publicly would be many times more valuable than performing them privately. [Ibid., Kastamonu Lahikası, 1639.]

Nursi, considers any religious responsibility that is carried out with solemnity as being free of ostentation as long as this situation is not abused. For example, when a muezzin who is charged with the task proclaims the call to the prayer or leads the dhikr (remembrance of God), loud enough for the congregation to follow, this is not ostentation. [Ibid.]

Nursi also points out that dissatisfaction and ingratitude can open the door to hypocrisy. On the other hand, qina’a, or contentment, frugality, and temperance, closes the door to hypocrisy and ostentation, opening the door to sincerity. [Ibid, Ondokuzuncu Lem’a, 660.]

Translated by Jessica ÖZALP

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