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Ostentation in Religious Practices

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Q: I am a regular reader of your column, although I am not a Muslim. I recently came across a Hadith, mentioned by Al-Ghazali, which quotes the Prophet, peace be upon him, as saying in his supplications: “We seek refuge in God from the Chasm of Grief.” When asked about this Chasm of Grief, the Prophet said: “It is a part of hell which God has prepared for the ostentatious reciters of the Qur’an.” It appears that the Prophet himself recognized that overzealous piety is also a sin. Please comment.

A: I am very grateful to you for the kind words you have said about this column. I only try to present Islam as I learned it: a religion revealed by God, Whose wisdom and knowledge are limitless, and Who wants this religion to shape human life in a reasonable manner to bring happiness to mankind. Extremism is alien to the nature of this religion, as it is indeed to all divine messages.
What you have pointed out is certainly correct. Ostentation [display or bragging] is shunned in all matters, but most of all in religious practices. Moreover, we are instructed not to judge people by the appearances they put out. A man spoke highly of a person he knew in front of the Caliph Omar ibn Al-Khattab. Omar questioned him about how well he knew the other person, asking if he was his next door neighbor, or if he had any financial transactions, or gone on a trip with that man.
When he answered in the negative to all three situations, Omar said, “Then you might have seen him in the mosque moving his head up and down as he recited the Qur’an?” This time the man answered in the affirmative. Omar told him: “You do not really know him.”
In this case we have a testimonial rejected by Omar, who was endowed with an exceptional insight into the Islamic faith, simply because it was based on an acquaintance in the mosque where the person concerned was in the habit of reciting the Qur’an.
It had no basis in actions and practices that relate to dealings with fellow human beings. The Prophet, defines true faith as how a believer deals with other people. That is the true test of whether a person is truly religious or not. It is always easy to pray and fast, but to observe a strict code of values in day-to-day affairs, overcoming the natural tendency to put one’s own interest first, is not so easy.
Worship is meant to enhance one’s consciousness of God so that one always remembers that he or she will inevitably face the reckoning on the Day of Judgment when God will ask him/her about his/her actions. Only those actions, which are undertaken purely to please God, earn the highest reward.
Hence the Prophet encourages us to keep voluntary worship private. In Islam, the obligatory part of worship may be done in public. Congregational prayers are held in mosques for the obligatory prayer, but voluntary prayer is better done at home. If you are fasting voluntarily, as all of us are encouraged to do, it is reprehensible to talk about your fasting to others.
The most rewarding voluntary prayer is the one done at night, in the privacy of your own home, when other people are asleep. In such a situation, you appeal to God feeling that you are so close to him. The Prophet says: “The best type of remembering God is that done in secret.” As you may be aware, we are all encouraged to remember God all the time, glorifying and praising Him, but such remembrance produces the best effect on us when no one sees or feels we are doing it. If it is left between a person and his Lord, it is bound to improve his behavior. It also earns the richest reward. All this confirm the view you have expressed that ostentation is shunned. A moderate and sensible approach to religion is the one God wants of all of us.