Religious Narcissism


Aliya Anjum

Narcissism is classified as a Cluster B antisocial personality disorder. The dictionary meaning is stated as low self-esteem countered through selfishness, a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy, and a need for admiration, characterising a personality type.
What better way for a narcissist to gain admirers than to be an evangelist for religion? The selfless calling of inviting others to faith and good works is the ultimate noble endeavour.
In the Islamic world, we wear religion on our sleeves and we love to preach. We have an insatiable appetite for everything linked to Islam.
The prospect of finding this captive audience is music to a narcissist’s ears.
When a certain female evangelist began to preach Islam, women came in droves to the lectures. Urban women turned eager beavers when it came to donning burqas and attending classes, where they filled notebook after notebook with Islamic knowledge.
However, 25 years on, we do not see a spiritual revolution. We do not see an implosion of piety. We do not see Muslims who show the character traits, attitudes and behaviours commanded in the Quran.
What we do see is overtly religious people who are big on clothing and (empty) rituals- who can preach religion for hours- but their faith does not go beyond that.
A few years ago, a neighbour of mine sent me an invitation for Quran tafsir (exegesis) sessions playing the recordings of a popular evangelist’s lectures. At the gathering, I met dars veterans of 20+ years who excelled at knowledge about the trivia of religion. The basic premise of faith was, however, a gigantic blind spot for them. Hence, they did not show any traits of believers.
True faith is solely about forming a relationship with Allah SWT. Once one decides to make Allah SWT a central figure in one’s journey of life, then the relationship begets the question, what can place me in the Creator’s good books?
The answer is found in the Quran and hadith.
The Quran is structured methodically. In the very beginning in Surah Baqarah, Allah defines three kinds of people; namely believers, hypocrites (munafiq) and those who deny the truth (kafir). Allah also states their fate: Only true believers will enter paradise, whereas those who denied the truth (kafirs) will enter hellfire and the hypocrites (munafiqs) will be in the lowest pit of hellfire.
It is a no-brainer then that one who is born a Muslim needs to guard against Nifaq or hypocrisy, which is explained by Allah SWT in the succeeding verses. The Quran says that the hypocrites think that they know the best course of action-an attitude which is antithetical to Islam (submission to God’s will). Hadith, which is a supplementary text for the Quran, rightfully gives further clarity. The four signs of the hypocrite identified by the prophet (PBUH) are lying, breaking promises, betraying trust and exceeding all norms of decency when arguing.
As a natural consequence of the mass appeal of religious lectures, we should have witnessed a social change in the form of honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, decency in communication, impeccable manners and nobility in conduct. However, what we see around us are the four signs of hypocrite in full bloom.
Spiritual growth is realised in people who see faith as a process rather than an achievement. Dars sessions’ notes are not trophies and the terms Alima or Shaykha (spiritual guru) are wrong on all possible levels. A sacred life needs no such affirmation.
Religious knowledge is not for asserting our dominance or special position. However, this motivation is ubiquitous.
Those who apply religious knowledge solely to judge or lecture others-who sin differently than them-are not preparing for accountability before God. They are only using religion for an ego trip. The mass appeal of the drama Ertugul Ghazi is also rooted in Islam allowing us to establish our dominance over the western world.
Religious narcissism is seen everywhere.
The zeitgeist of our times is such that religious garb is a prop for projecting piety, which bolsters the performing art of religious preaching. Piety is additionally established through an extreme emphasis on ritual. Among rituals, foremost are the five daily prayers and true to one of the final Quranic verses, there is an abundance of people whose hearts are remote from their prayers.
The dark heart is busy earning its place in the lowest pit of hellfire.
The Quran points out kufr and nifaq at the outset, to establish the foundation of faith. However, this pivotal element is only given cursory attention in religious lectures. Lectures on the translation of the Quran, thus familiarise one with the text, but cannot make a person internalise the core beliefs and principles needed to establish faith. Any religious instruction devoid of teaching how to avoid becoming a hypocrite is likely to produce them.
The main reason why this faulty mode of instruction thrives is that the motivation of the pupils is perfectly attuned to it. People come to learn about the Quran and Sunnah to cherry-pick what suits them and reject what is hard on their nafs (base desires of the soul).
Religious entitlement is the ultimate entitlement.
Religious knowledge gained in such lectures is hence not internalised but is externalised to become a shield and a weapon. Deen (faith) thus serves the Duniya (worldly life).
Thus, one who attended a lecture on the rights given by Islam will apply filters while listening. He/she would filter out all content that relates to others’ rights upon him/her while memorising and internalising every tiny bit that pertains to his/her rights upon others. Then, this individual would go out and use that knowledge to violate others while aggressively asserting their Islamic rights-feeling emboldened due to religious entitlement.
Both non-muslims and kafirs (those who deny the truth) strive for worldly excellence and because their worldly affairs are in order, there is some merit in both of them. The hypocrite (munafiq) cannot be honest, just, diligent or industrious. He/she uses Islam to live unrighteously.
This is why the munafiq rests in the lowest pit of hellfire, below the kafir.
A classic male case would be a bearded government employee who arrives many hours late to work and ignores his official responsibilities. He instead spends his time emailing hadith to a mailing list of people in his personal and professional circle. He makes no effort to dispense his official duties and gets by doing the least amount of work possible. However, he blatantly lies about non-existent professional achievements. Lying and skilful manipulation are his forte. He is eager to avail any and every perk linked to his job. His office hours allow him to pray after work hours have ended, but he uses official work time to advertise his religiosity. He creates drama about his ritual ablution and loudly issues many invitations to other male co-workers for a group prayer session within the office space.
Oblivious of his nuisance value, such an employee hides his laziness and ineptness behind the shield of religion.
A classic female case would be the woman who asserts that the Muslim women must run independent businesses following the example of the mother Khadija (may Allah be pleased with her) and that the Prophet (PBUH) did his chores and did not make any domestic demands for anything from his wives. Mother Khadija was indeed a wealthy businesswoman when she married the prophet. However, she spent a majority of her wealth on the cause of Islam. Before Muhammad (PBUH) attained prophethood, he meditated and his mother Khadija used to cook meals and carry the food to the cave of Hira, which was far from their house and a steep uphill climb at that. She supported the prophet (PBUH) in his hardest time when all of Makkah was against him (PBUH). She eventually perished as a result of the three years of starvation, during the ostracism of the early Meccan Muslims by their Quresh tribe at Shaib-Abi-Talib.
However, for the woman discussed above, the sole takeaway from the life of mother Khadija is her pre-Islamic status as a wealthy businesswoman. Other facets of the life of the beloved wife of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) are the inconvenient truth best ignored.
Religious narcissism and cherry-picking in faith is the reason religiosity is despised and feared by those who do not need to use it to establish dominance.
Skull caps, beards, burqas and hijabs thus represent stereotypes of rude, selfish, unscrupulous and ill-behaved people.
When western Christians go shopping for religion, Buddhism is the go-to religion for those seeking spiritual enlightenment due to the visceral appeal of its noble eightfold path. Islam is the last option-thanks to the self-serving and wicked attitudes and behaviours of its adherents.