Riya refers to doing things that are pleasing to Allah with the intention of seeking admiration from others. The intention in such cases, therefore, is usually to show off one’s good deeds to win praise and admiration of others. It amounts to practicing virtue out of vanity, with the aim of achieving popularity among people.
Riya makes us focus on earning appreciation from people rather than seeking Allah’s favor and acceptance. It makes us focus on people’s appreciation of our virtuous acts, which means we give importance to them, and not to Allah the Most Benevolent.
Considering the temporary nature of things, our chief concern instead should be on the long-term rewards, and thus to do good to earn Allah’s pleasure because that can benefit us both in this world and the next.
But Satan knows how easy it is to fill our hearts with vanity and he arouses in us the desire for a good name and reputation, making our deeds fruitless, by distancing us from Allah.
The Prophet (SAWS) described Riya’ by giving the example of a person performing prayer for Allah, and improving his rendering of the Salat when he knows that others are watching him. Allah says:
So woe unto those performers of Salat (hypocrites), Those who delay their Salat (from their stated fixed times). Those who do good deeds only to be seen (of men). And prevent Al-Ma’un (small kindnesses) (Surah Al-Maauun 107: 4 – 7)
Performing worship or a (righteous) deed for worldly reasons is minor Shirk
Any good deed performed with the intention of showing off and pleasing people is not acceptable. For example, if one reads the Quran craving for people’s admiration for the beautiful recitation and not as a duty to Allah but to impress people falls under the category of showing off, and is considered minor shirk. We should, therefore, be aware of such shirk and do every good deed for Allah alone, and not to enhance our image or status among people. (Majmoo’ Fataawa wa Maqaalaat Mutanawwi’ah li Samaahat al-Shaykh al-‘Allaamah ‘Abd al-‘Azeez ibn ‘Abd-Allah ibn Baaz, may Allah have mercy on him, vol. 9, p. 3)
We know that on the Day of Judgment we will be in a desperate need of Allah’s mercy. We can get His mercy on that day by earning it today by focusing to do good deeds only for His sake. Instead, when we do good deeds to seek others’ admiration, Allah will turn us away. The Messenger of Allah, (SAWS) said,
“Verily, what I fear most for you is the lesser idolatry.” And he elaborated, “It is showing off. Allah the Exalted will say to them (who show off), on the Day of Resurrection when the people are being rewarded for their deeds: Go to those whom you wished to show off in the world and look for your reward with them.” (Musnad Ahmad Hadith 23119)
Abu Sa’id Al-Khudri reported: The Messenger of Allah (SAWS), entered upon us while we were discussing the False Messiah. He said,
“Shall I not tell you about what I fear for you more than the presence of the False Messiah?” We said, “Of course!” He said, “Hidden idolatry; that a man stands for prayer and beautifies his prayer because he sees another man looking at him.” (Ibn Majah Hadith 4202)
Punishment in the Hereafter for showing off
Ignorance about how showing off will be punished in the Hereafter can lead one to commit this sin. We must realize that it cancels out the reward of all our good deeds, and brings the wrath of Allah. No sensible person would like to waste energy doing that which doesn’t bring any reward, and certainly wouldn’t like to invite Allah’s anger. One of the greatest ahadith in this connection is the following (part of the long hadith stated below):
Abu Hurairah (RAA) narrated a hadith of the Messenger of Allah (SAWS) that clearly shows how the act of doing things for others can cause some to be enflamed on the Day of Judgment. One of them, for example, will be a wealthy man who will be brought, and Allah will say to him: “Was I not so generous with you that I did not leave you without any need from anyone?” He will reply: ‘Of course O Lord!’ Allah will ask: “Then what did you do with what I gave to you?” He will say: ‘I would nurture the ties of kinship and give charity.’ Then Allah will say to him: “You have lied. Rather, you wanted it to be said that so-and-so is so generous, and that was said. (meaning that you wanted to get appreciated and that’s what happened.)” (Part of a long hadith in Sunan Tirmidhi Vol. 4, Book 10, Hadith 2382).
Again, such are the people who according to the prophet (SAW) will face severe punishment in the hereafter.
Punishment in this world for showing off
Just as there will be a punishment in the Hereafter for showing off, so will there be one in this world. Allah will expose the person and his bad intentions. Allah’s Messenger (SAWS) said:
“If anyone wants to have his deeds widely publicized, Allah will publicize (his humiliation). And if anyone makes a hypocritical display (of his deeds) Allah will make a display of him.” (Sahih Muslim Book 42, Hadith 7115)
Causes and Cures
Before discussing some of the cures for this disease, let us focus on some of what may contribute to Riya in the first place.
Weakness of faith (Eeman) – When a person doesn’t have strong faith in Allah, he’ll prefer the admiration of people over the pleasure of Allah.
Fear of criticism – One might make a display of his good deeds to avoid being criticized. For example, a person might pray in the mosque out of fear of being criticized by people for not doing it.
Envy of people’s possessions – Giving undue importance to worldly possessions and coveting what others have of status, position, or wealth urges one to show off his own acquisitions.
To ward off the temptation of showing off, one should focus on the following:
Remember that Allah is always watching him
Awareness of standing before Allah (SWT) is the status of “ihsaan” (perfection in worship). Abu Hurairah reported that in answer to a man’s question about ‘Ihsaan’ the Prophet (SAWS) explained, “Ihsan is to worship Allah as if you see Him, and if you do not achieve this state of devotion, then (take it for granted that) Allah sees you.” (Sahih Bukhari Vol. 6, Book 60, Hadith 300).
Consciousness of Allah arouses in us respect and fear of Allah. What others think then becomes insignificant. Undue concern about this world is fruitless. The more importance we give it, the more it entangles us in a web of never ending desires and ever expanding ambitions that traps one in the fleeting pleasures of this transitory world. With a heart inclined towards preparation for the eternal life, one has to seek the pleasure of Allah before leaving the world and entering the grave.
Conceal worship and not make a display of it
Satan is always on the look out for the one who shows any inclination and weakness towards impressing others and arouses in him the desire for riya. One can counter this by making a conscious effort not to publicize his or her noble deeds unless it is obligatory such as praying in congregation for men, etc. Care should also be taken not to make any difference in one’s prayers in people’s presence or absence.
The Prophet (SAWS) said, “He who lets the people hear of his good deeds intentionally, to win their praise, Allah will let people know his real intention (on the Day of Resurrection), and he who does good things in public to show off and win the praise of the people, Allah will disclose his real intention (and humiliate him).” (Sahih Bukhari Vol. 8, Book 76, Hadith 506)
Reflect upon one’s own shortcomings
Besides not giving importance to the opinion of people, one should keep a constant check on one’s own short comings. Awareness of our weaknesses is a sure way of keeping our feet firmly planted on the earth, not allowing us to get carried away by any praise that comes our way. By thanking Allah All Mighty for our achievements, we become conscious that it is He Alone Who makes us capable of all that we might achieve, and this effectively curbs the desire to take credit for our good deeds.
Seek Allah’s help in overcoming Riya
Allah, the Most Merciful, knows every human’s weakness and has given us the cure as well. The best means is supplication to Him. Allah says that we should say (which means):
“You (Alone) we worship, and You (Alone) we ask for help (for each and everything)” (Al-Fatihah 1:5)
This Aayah from Surah Fatihah should strengthen our faith and make us steadfast. When we say that we worship Allah Alone, we should follow up this assertion with our actions. Worship signifies obedience and trust. It naturally follows that our deeds should have Allah’s acceptance as their only goal. Desire for worldly praise should be discarded.
“Neeyah”, intention – the deciding factor
We should not let fear of riya take us to the other extreme and prevent us from doing good. Just as Satan arouses in us vanity and the yearning for self glorification, he also uses his wiles to make us avoid doing good out of fear of showing off. This suspicion can weaken our resolve and eventually stop us from doing that which pleases Allah. An honest assessment of the purity of our ‘neeyah’ intention can help us in such a situation. We should ensure that the intention to seek Allah’s favor is the only factor that prompts us in the practice of good. As long as we are sincere in our intentions we need not worry about anything that Satan might come up with. A heart fortified with strong faith and sincerity of intention is not troubled by Satan’s whispers when practicing virtues secretly or openly.
Ibraheem Al-Nakha’I said: “If Satan comes to you when you are praying and says, “You are showing off,” then you should make it even longer. Shaykh Ibn ‘Uthaymeen (may Allah have mercy on him) suggested that seeking Allah’s refuge from the accursed Satan, one should go ahead with the good deed and not pay attention to his discouraging waswasaas (whispers from Satan). (Majmoo’ Fataawa Al-Shaykh Ibn ‘Uthaymeen, Question No. 277)
The purpose of a Muslim’s life is to become a “Muhsin” – a doer of good deeds who performs his actions totally for Allah, in accordance with the Sunnah of Allah’s Messenger (SAWS), without any desire for worldly gain, praise or fame. Allah Most Exalted praises such believers in several Ayahs of the Quran. He (SWT) says, (which means):
“… but whoever submits his face (himself) to Allah (i.e. follows Allah’s Religion of Islamic Monotheism) and he is a Muhsin then his reward is with his Lord (Allah), on such shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve”. (Al-Baqara 2:112)[See Tafsir Ibn Kathir ].
“…And who has (in mind) no favor from anyone to be paid back. Except to seek the Face of his Lord, the Most High.” (Layl 92: 19, 20)
Narrated ‘Âishah that the Prophet (SAW) said, “Do good deeds properly, sincerely and moderately, and receive good news because one’s good deeds will not make him enter Paradise.” They asked, “Even you, O Allâh’s Messenger?” He said, “Even I, unless and until Allâh protects or covers me with His pardon and His Mercy.” (Sahih Al-Bukhâri, Vol.8, Hadîth No.474).
Entry into Paradise depends totally on the pardon, mercy and acceptance of Allah Most Forgiving; rejoicing in worldly praise and feeling secure in our virtuous acts is self deception; it is for Allah to accept them.
Finally, we can memorize a Dua to help us stay away from shirk. The Prophet (SAWS) said: “O people, beware of this shirk (form of polytheism), for it is more subtle than the footsteps of an ant.” When a person asked, “How can we beware of it when it is more subtle than the footsteps of an ant, O Messenger of Allah?” He said, “Say:
Allaahumma innee a’oodhu bika min an ushrika bika shai’aun wa ana a’lamu wa astaghfiruka limaa laa a’alamu”
O Allah, we seek refuge with You from knowingly associating anything with You, and we seek Your forgiveness for that which we do unknowingly.” (Musnad Ahmad Hadith 19171)