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Chapter 4. Envy Is Permissible In Two Cases

A believer becomes a true believer only when he likes for others what he likes for himself. It is good for a believer to wish for that with which another person has been given if it is beneficial for one's religion. The Prophet (saw) said:

"Do not wish for the likes of anyone except two: a man upon whom Allah bestowed knowledge of the Book [the Quran], who stands up [in salah (prayer)] and recites it during the hours of the night, and a man upon whom Allah bestowed wealth, and he spends it in charity during the hours of the night and the hours of the day." [Bukhari & Muslim]

The Prophet (saw) also said, concerning the person who sees another spending his money according to the prescriptions of Allah (Swt) and says:

"If I had money, I would have spent it in the same way he spends it, "that he would be given an equal reward." [Tirmidhi]

However, one should not aspire to worldly pleasures. This is shown in the following verse in the Quran, in which Allah (Swt) says:

"So, he [Korah] went forth before his people in his pomp. Those who were desirous of the life of the world, said: "Ah, would that we had the like of what Qarun [Korah] has been given! Verily, he is the owner of a great fortune." But those who had been given [religious] knowledge said: "Woe to you! The reward of Allah [in the Hereafter] is better for those who believe and do righteous good deeds..." [Al-Qasas 28:79-80]

As for the Verse in which Allah (Swt) says:

"And wish not for the things in which Allah has made some of you to excel others." [An-Nisa 4:32]

'Wishing has been interpreted here as envy, in the sense longing ardently and wrongfully for something that belongs to another. It has also been interpreted as aspiring to illegal things or things that are decreed by Allah impossible for that person to obtain. By an example would be the desire of women to become men or to have the same religious and/or worldly advantages such as jihad, inheritance of a heritage portion equal to men, having the same degree of manly rationalism, and being equal to men as witnesses etc.

Nevertheless, a believer should regret missing Islamic virtues. Hence, he has been ordered to consider those who are more Islamic than him as an example and compete with them as much as he can. This is revealed by the following verse:

"And for this let (all) those strive who want to strive (i.e. hasten earnestly to the obedience of Allah)." [Al-Mutaffifeen 83:26]

A believer should not dislike for others to have the same Islamic virtues. Rather, he should like all people to compete in attaining such virtues and encourage them to do so. This is part of giving sincere advice to his fellows. If another excels him in good virtue, he should exert his utmost effort to catch up with him. He should feel sorry because he is not doing his best and because he cannot reach him. This is not by way of envy, but by way of competition and aspiring to be at the same level as him, in addition to feeling sorry for his failure to do what ought to be done, and for being inferior to those who are foremost in faith and performing righteous deeds.

A believer should always think of himself as falling short in his seeking the highest degrees. This should lead him to do two precious things: first exerting his maximum effort to attain and build upon his own virtues; and second, to realise his imperfections.

It is permissible for one who is blessed with some favour to tell others about it, so long as he does so for religious interest, and realises that he is deficient in his thanks to Allah (Swt) for this favour. This is supported by Ibn Masud's (ra) saying:

"I do not know of anybody who is more versed in the Book of Allah than myself." This is not to imply that one dislikes others to be granted such blessings, as is indicated by the following saying of Ibn Abbas (ra):

"When I come upon a Verse in the Book of Allah I really wish for all people to know what I know about it."

Further, As-Shafi (ra) said:

"I wish for all people to know this science, and to attribute nothing to me."

By the same token, Utbah, a young man, used to tell his close friends:

"Give me water or dates to break my fast so as to have a [divine] reward equal to mine."