There are many pitfalls associated with egotism and self-absorption. Ego, however, should not be confused with desirable traits such as dignity, self-respect, and firmness. In the context of this discussion, ego – as defined by the American author, Ryan Holiday – implies an “unhealthy belief in our own importance”. Indeed, an egotistic person is disinclined to admit one’s mistake or apologize, and considers certain desirable actions and kind gestures as beneath oneself. Such a person seldom looks beyond his or her own preferences, and ultimately struggles to maintain healthy relationships.
We sometimes assume that it is acceptable, especially for men, to have a large ego. In fact, in some societies, boys are encouraged to adopt a sense of self-importance and supremacy. But did Prophet Muhammad ﷺ establish an air of superiority about him? On the contrary, a study into the various aspects of his life reveals his humble, forbearing, and selfless nature. Let us explore certain traits of the Prophet ﷺ and incidents from his life that should motivate us to combat our ego and adopt humility.
Humility towards the Family
The Prophet ﷺ never let ego come in the way of his marital life. When one of his wives would be angry, he would let her talk and listen attentively, thus refraining from escalating the situation. Once, the Prophet ﷺ was with Aisha when Umm Salamah sent him some food in a bowl. Aisha, angry at the intrusion, struck the hand of the servant carrying the bowl, which fell down and broke. Instead of rebuking Aisha, the Prophet ﷺ simply got down on the floor and picked up the broken pieces of the bowl and the food it had contained. (Bukhari)
The Prophet ﷺ did not consider small gestures of love and affection as beneath his status. He would go racing with Aisha, and joke with her. Safiya says that the Prophet ﷺ wiped her tears with his hand when she fell off a camel and hurt herself. The Prophet ﷺ would kneel on the ground for Safiya to place her feet on his knees and ascend the camel. He used to serve his family when at home and assist his wives with the household chores. He would kiss his daughter, Fatima, whenever he met her and make her sit in his own place. He used to play with his little grandchildren and carry them to the mosque on his shoulders.
Humility towards Relatives
Ego is there at the root of many family disputes and grievances. Refused marriage proposals can drive a wedge between relatives or friends and create lasting conflicts. When Muhammad ﷺ was twenty years old, he reportedly sent a marriage proposal for his cousin, Umm Hani. However, her father, Abu Talib, decided to marry her instead to a wealthy man of the Makhzum clan, saying, “They have given us their daughters in marriage, and a generous man must requite generosity.” (Ibn Saad) However, the Prophet ﷺ did not take offence at this rejection, and his close relationship with Abu Talib did not falter. The Prophet ﷺ also remained on amicable terms with Umm Hani – in whose house he happened to be staying as a guest on the night of his Isra journey many years later.
Among the individuals who hurt the Prophet ﷺ personally were his own relatives. Abdullah bin Abu Umayya – son of the Prophet’s ﷺ aunt, Atikah, and named after his very father – was a staunch opponent of his. Abu Sufyan bin Harith, a foster-brother and cousin of the Prophet ﷺ, had composed poetry satirizing and ridiculing him. Yet, he forgave them both when they later repented. The Prophet ﷺ similarly forgave and reconciled with Utayba and Utba who were engaged (or possibly married) to his daughters, Umm Kulthum and Ruqayya, respectively, but who broke the engagement (or possibly divorced them) upon insistence from their parents, Abu Lahab and Umm Jamil.
Humility towards Strangers
The Prophet ﷺ would not retort or reciprocate harshness, nor would he ever seek revenge for personal reasons. Once, a Bedouin approached him and pulled at his cloak so violently that its collar left marks upon his neck. The man said, “O Muhammad, order that I be given from the wealth of Allah that is with you!” The Prophet ﷺ merely smiled at him, and ordered that he be given something. (Bukhari) The Prophet ﷺ once saw a woman crying by the grave of her son, and he gently advised her to be patient. But the woman, not recognizing the Prophet ﷺ, burst out, “What do you care about my tragedy?” Instead of expressing anger or telling her who he was, he simply walked away and let her be. (Bukhari)
Once, a group of Jewish men entered upon the Prophet ﷺ, and said, “As samu alaikum” meaning “Death be upon you.” Upon hearing this, Aisha cursed them in reply, but the Prophet ﷺ advised her, “Be calm, O Aisha. Allah loves that a person is kind and lenient in all matters.” (Bukhari) At the time of signing the Treaty of Hudaybiya, the Quraysh envoy, Suhayl bin Amr, demanded that the phrase “Messenger of Allah” written next to the name of Muhammad ﷺ should be cut off as Suhayl did not recognize him as such. Ali, being the scribe, refused to do so, but the Prophet ﷺ took the pen and struck off the phrase himself in the interest of peace. (Bukhari)
Humility in Daily Acts
The Prophet’s ﷺ lack of ego was truly reflected in his simple and unpretentious lifestyle. His eating and other habits were exceedingly simple, and he refrained from demanding any outward show of respect. In fact, he warned his followers against praising him excessively. He forbade others to stand out of respect when he entered a gathering, and would sit wherever he found a spot on the floor. When on the road, he would greet others first, and offer children rides on his camel. He was so humble and accessible that even a slave-girl could approach him and take him wherever she wished. He never considered any courteous deed as insignificant.
The example of the Prophet ﷺ should motivate us to be likewise humble and selfless, and never allow our ego to control our words and actions. Allah states in the Quran that He loves those who are “humble toward the believers” (Quran 5:54), and He has prepared forgiveness and a great reward for the “humble men and humble women” (Quran 33:35). We must remember that Allah has tasked us, as Muslims, with conveying His word and spreading goodness, which requires rising beyond trivial thoughts, vain arguments, and petty notions of self-importance.