According to my study and my experience, modesty is the most important quality of a human being. This is a law of nature. And since Islam is a religion of nature, modesty has a very special place in Islam.
Without modesty, there is no Islam. Yet, strangely, present-day Muslims generally do not know the value of modesty. According to my experience, almost every Muslim today lives in a sense of pride. Muslims speak the language of pride. They declare, “I am proud I am a Muslim! I am proud I was born in a Muslim family!” Literature penned by present-day Muslims depicts Islam as a religion of pride.
Once, I attended a lecture of a well-known Muslim scholar. After he had finished his speech, wherein he mentioned many things that Muslims usually take great pride in, he was asked what message he had for Muslims living as minorities in different countries. After a pause, he replied, “This is a very difficult question. In Islam, we have the model of strength, but no model corresponding to the position of modesty.”
This answer was very strange, because all the teachings of Islam are based on modesty. The first words we utter when we testify to our faith in Islam are La ilaha ill Allah. In this way, we testify that there is no one worthy of being worshipped but God. This means that greatness is only for God. It means that there is no one who is truly great other than the Great One.
So, greatness is only for God, and we are not great. And when we are not great, it means that we need to recognize how insignificant we truly are—and this means modesty. When we realise that greatness is not our quality, we become modest.
Even the word ‘Islam’ has the connotation of modesty. The word means submission or surrender. And submission or surrender indicates modesty. So, this means that Islam is a religion of modesty.
The most important worship in Islam is salat or namaz. We perform salat five times a day. If you visit a mosque and observe Muslims performing congregational salat, you will find one man, the imam, leading the congregation, and the rest standing behind him in rows. Salat means that except one, everyone must go to the back seat. So, in Islam, agreeing to go to the back seat is the rule, and the position of the imam—in front—is an exception. Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that Islam is a religion of modesty.
Muslims say the phrase Allahu Akbar or ‘God is Great’ numerous times every day in the five times that they pray. When you say that God is great, you are also saying that you are not great. You are acknowledging your insignificance, and that is modesty. You are saying, ‘Greatness is for God, and modesty is for me.’
This is the lesson of Islam. Modesty is the crux of Islam. But what do Muslims say? They declare, ‘I am proud to be a Muslim!’
This is nonsense. It is wrong. It is baseless. It is against the teachings of Islam. It is against the law of nature. We need to discover this principle of nature, this principle of Islam, this principle that modesty is the greatest value in Islam.
In this regard, there is a major issue that needs to be recognised. And that is that Muslim history has been written in the language of pride. So, you have books with titles like Futuh al-Sham (‘Conquests of Syria’), Kitab Futuh al-Buldan(‘Book of the Conquests of the Lands’), and so on. These books are the histories of Muslim military victories. This promotes the wrong notion of Islam as a religion of pride. This understanding of Islam is derived not from Islamic scriptures but from Muslim history. A major tragedy of present Muslims is that their source for knowing about Islam is Muslim history, rather than Islamic scripture.
I have derived my understanding of Islam from Islamic scripture—from the Quran, the Hadith and the life of the Prophet. These are the original sources of Islam. From these texts I have learnt that Islam is a religion of modesty, of patience, of peace, of tolerance. This is the true picture of Islam.
Modesty is the culture of the universe. In the vast space, there are numerous bodies, and all of them are moving according to a destined path. They never stray outside their orbit. All the many planets and stars, including our earth, are moving in a completely controlled and orderly way. They modestly follow the command of God. None of them ever rebels. None of them goes against the law of nature. They all willfully submit to the law of nature.
This is modesty. You cannot find pride and arrogance anywhere in space. The whole universe presents a scene of modesty. The Quran gives us the great news that the whole universe—all the trees, all the stars and other such things—is insajda or prostration to God: “Do you not see that whoever is in the heavens and whoever is on the earth, as well as the sun and the moon, and the stars and the mountains, and the trees and the beasts and many human beings—all submit to God?” (22:18)
Prostration means modesty, submission.
So, submission or modesty is the culture of the universe. This is a most important teaching of Islam. We have to believe this fact, know this fact and mould ourselves according to this fact. We should know that nature is based on modesty, and that as Islam is a religion of nature, it, too, is based on modesty.
The Prophet of Islam is reported to have said: “And one who adopts modesty for the sake of God, God exalts him in rank.” (Muslim) Thus, one who follows the way of modesty will be elevated by God. The same is mentioned in the Quran as as-sulhu khair, or ‘reconciliation is best’ (4:128)
Now, what is reconciliation?
Reconciliation is a method based on modesty. This reconciliation should be on a unilateral basis.
Reconciliation on a unilateral basis is nothing but modesty. If you are proud, you cannot follow this principle, this path of reconciliation on a unilateral basis. It requires modesty to follow this path.
All the teachings of Islam are based on the principle of modesty.
There is a verse in the Quran: “Do not avert your face from people out of haughtiness and do not walk with pride on the earth.” (31:18) It means that true believers are those who walk on earth with modesty.
This is the true picture of Islam, the true picture of a true believer.
“There’s always room at the top”—this is a well-known saying. But I’d like to say that the better formula is quite the contrary: “There’s always room in the back seat.”
Why is this a better formula? Because you need to be a topper in order to be at the top. If you are a topper, you can easily find and occupy a seat at the top. But you can’t manage to do that if you aren’t a topper. The formula “There’s always room at the top” is good for toppers only, not for others. And toppers are very few. This means that this formula works for only very few people.
But the formula “There’s always room in the back seat” is useful for everyone. It means accepting being at the back and availing of the plentiful opportunities that are available to you even in that position.
Very few people know this formula, though.
This is the formula of nature, as well as of Islam.
In every situation, there are two aspects: actual and potential. People generally focus on the actual, because it is observable. Everyone can see it. On the other hand, the potential is hidden, unseen.
It requires great wisdom to see the potential that lies hidden in any situation. Those who are deprived of modesty fail to see the potentials or opportunities that lie hidden in a given situation. You need to go to the back seat if you want to be able to see and avail of these potentials or opportunities.
The best example of this principle is provided by the Hudaybiyyah peace treaty that the Prophet of Islam entered into with his Makkan Quraysh opponents. The Prophet had wanted to go to Makkah for the Umrah or lesser pilgrimage, but he was stopped at Hudaybiyyah by his opponents. The latter did not allow him and his followers to go to Makkah. As per the agreement that he entered into with them, the Prophet returned to Madinah.
This was like returning to the back seat. But the result of this was miraculous. In two years’ time, the Prophet was able to enter Makkah victorious, and at that time the Quraysh did not have the power to stop him.
This is the miracle of agreeing to go to the back seat.
So, while some people say “There’s always room at the top”, I believe that “There’s always room in the back seat”. According to the law of nature, and also according to Islamic teachings, there’s always room in the back seat.
After the Prophet of Islam, Muslims established a Caliphate, which extended from Madinah to Baghdad, and from Spain to Turkey. For centuries, there was a ‘Caliph of Muslims’ or Khalifat ul-Muslimeen, and he was the virtual ruler of Muslim-ruled territories in Africa, Asia and Europe.
In the final stage, the centre of the Caliphate was in Turkey.
And then what happened?
During the First World War, Turkey joined hands with Germany, and both were defeated. This delivered a blow to the Caliphate. The whole empire was shattered. And then national movements arose that demanded independence from the Caliphate. And so, the Caliphate was drastically reduced in size.
In the wake of this, many Muslim leaders across the world frantically sought to revive the Caliphate. But this proved to be impossible, and in 1924, Kemal Ataturk abolished the institution of the Caliph. The Caliphate had had a long historical tradition, of around 1000 years, but in 1924, it was done away with. So, now there is no Caliph of the Muslims.
Compare the fate of the Caliph with the situation in Christendom. The ancient institution of the Pope is still alive and thriving, but the institution of the Khalifat ul-Muslimeen is dead. Why? The Khalifat ul-Muslimeen was like the Pope of the Muslim world. Why did it happen that the institution of the Caliph or Khalifa was abolished—in 1924—while the institution of the Pope is still alive, even today? It is because the Catholic Pope agreed to take the back seat. Muslims wanted to retain the seat at the top, but the Catholics wisely opted for retreat and took a back seat. And so, they were able to retain the institution of the Pope.
In the Middle Ages, the Pope was the virtual ruler of the whole of Christian Europe. Then, with the Renaissance, there was a revolt against the Church. There was a long war between the Church and secular people. At the end of this, the Church was left with two options—either to abolish the institution of the Pope, or to take a place in the back seat. The Church wisely agreed to the latter course.
This happened in 1929, five years after the abolition of the Muslim Caliphate. After long negotiations between Mussolini, the then ruler of Italy, and the Church, the latter agreed to accept a starkly-reduced position for the Pope and the Church. A small piece of land in Rome, called Vatican City, was allotted to the Church to serve as the seat of the Pope.
Vatican City is an independent country. Do you know what its size is? A mere 109 acres! I have seen it myself.
So, the Church agreed to take a back seat and accept this tiny bit of land, which is now the smallest country in the world, as the seat of the Pope. But in accepting this radically reduced position, in accepting a place in the back seat as it were, the results for the Church proved to be astounding. Today, the Pope is the spiritual head of vast numbers of Christians across the world. From Vatican City, he is able to organize all kinds of Christian activities throughout the world—educational, social, religious and missionary activities. He is the strength of the worldwide Catholic Church, the spiritual power centre of Christendom.
Thus, by agreeing to accept a place in the back seat, the Catholic Church was able to retain the historical title and institution of the Pope and to continue to be able to exercise a vast influence across the world. This was made possible because the Church agreed to follow a policy of modesty, to accept a place in the back seat.
Today, the Pope is a great name for the global Christian community. But Muslims have no such name, no such figure. The Khalifat ul-Muslimeen was a great name for them, but they lost it. The Khalifat ul-Muslimeen had a great historical tradition, from the Abbasid to the Ottoman period. But the Muslims failed to retain this institution. And so, today, while the Catholics still have a Pope, there is no Khalifa or Caliph for Muslims.
This happened because of lack of modesty on the part of Muslims. All the Muslim leaders wanted to jump to the top but failed. Instead of doing that, they should have agreed to take a back seat, just as the Catholic Church did in 1929. Maybe in that way the institution of the Caliph could have been saved. Perhaps the Muslim leaders could have agreed, as the Catholic Church did, to a small piece of land for the Caliph, just like Vatican City. They could have established an Islamic Vatican there in 1924, the year Ataturk abolished the Caliphate. But due to lack of wisdom and refusal to take a place in the back seat, they were not able to avail this opportunity. And so the institution of Caliph was abolished.
Modesty is a great principle—of nature and of Islam. Real achievement is always a result, in part, of modesty. Pride, on the other hand, always leads to destruction and failure.
One who adopts modesty will be successful. So, modesty is the way to success. The Quran says: “Successful indeed are the believers; those who are humble in their prayer.” (23:1-2) Success is for those who have the attribute of khushu, which means modesty.