In the Quran, God has recommended for the believers to compete in righteousness:
[2:148] Each of you chooses the direction to follow; you shall race towards righteousness. Wherever you may be, GOD will summon you all. GOD is Omnipotent.
[5:48] Then we revealed to you this scripture, truthfully, confirming previous scriptures, and superseding them. You shall rule among them in accordance with GOD's revelations, and do not follow their wishes if they differ from the truth that came to you. For each of you, we have decreed laws and different rites. Had GOD willed, He could have made you one congregation. But He thus puts you to the test through the revelations He has given each of you. You shall compete in righteousness. To GOD is your final destiny - all of you - then He will inform you of everything you had disputed.
[23:61] They are eager to do righteous works; they compete in doing them.
What is the Quranic intent of such recommendation? What is God truly advocating by asking us to compete in righteousness? The Arabic word that God has consistently used in this regard is "sabiqu". In Arabic, this verb means spending extra effort to hasten in achieving a specific goal before others - competing
Does this mean that God would want the believers to actually compete against each other- such as in competitive sports- for God's pleasure and approval? In the light of the Quran, it seems that the element of striving and spending an extraordinary effort to do the righteous works rather than competing for winning and doing better than others is all what God is emphasizing by using the word - sabiqu or compete.
Let's take a close look:
If we look at the statements in the above verses about competing in righteousness as an actual competition among fellow believers, this might sound like and lead to an ego-related wars. Please analyze the following statements and see for yourself if you are able to detect some ego-based motives:
- This believer is doing more righteous works than I ! I can and I must do better than him.
- This believer sounds very knowledgeable with the Quran and he memorizes a lot of its contexts and verses! I'm supposed to compete with him to be more knowledgeable and much more righteous than him!
- If she gives $5.00 to this needy person, then I must give $10.00 to feed the homeless person across the street in order to be more righteous and earn more credit than her!
- Another example would be those who participate in competitions for the sake of winning to prove that they are the best while ignoring the spirit of the practice itself and how important to simply work hard, strive, and be honest and sincere in doing what we are doing irrespective of the results. In other words, winning becomes an ego-related issue and not the fruit for sincerity, hard work, practice, and dedication.
In all the above examples, we can easily sense the ego as a motive. We can read between the lines some false superiority and undeserved self recognition. We can feel the " I'm better" theme which originates from nothing but a wild ego. We all know that this is the same exact statement that was once uttered by Satan, the one who never gives up on inflating our egos at all times:
[7:11] We created you, then we shaped you, then we said to the angels, "Fall prostrate before Adam." They fell prostrate, except Iblees (Satan); he was not with the prostrators.
[7:12] He said, "What prevented you from prostrating when I ordered you?" He said, "I am better than he; You created me from fire, and created him from mud."
[7:13] He said, "Therefore, you must go down, for you are not to be arrogant here. Get out; you are debased."
If the Quran is clearly advising the believers to constantly work on killing their egos (2:54, 45:23), then, the ego-based element of doing better than other believers is not really what God is advocating when He tells us to compete and hasten in doing righteous works. It seems that there must be a constant struggle between striving and hastening in doing righteous deeds to attain God's approval and pleasure and killing our egos so we never get caught up in the turmoil of "I must do better" or lose the spirit of simply working harder to be a better human and more righteous believer.
In fact, we are here on earth only to kill our ego since it once made us all commit our very first sin and caused us to hesitate in acknowledging God as the only authoritative and supreme power. Therefore, it is our duty to keep the war on against our egos while hastening in redeeming our souls. This only means that the competition God is advocating is not by any mean against our fellow believers to do better than them, but rather a self strife effort and an endeavor to win God's approval and earn His pleasure.
[2:54] Recall that Moses said to his people, "O my people, you have wronged your souls by worshiping the calf. You must repent to your Creator. You shall kill your egos. This is better for you in the sight of your Creator." He did redeem you. He is the Redeemer, Most Merciful.
[45:23] Have you noted the one whose god is his ego? Consequently, GOD sends him astray, despite his knowledge, seals his hearing and his mind, and places a veil on his eyes. Who then can guide him, after such a decision by GOD? Would you not take heed?
[7:199] You shall resort to pardon, advocate tolerance, and disregard the ignorant.
[7:200] When the devil whispers to you any whisper, seek refuge in GOD; He is Hearer, Omniscient.
[7:201] Those who are righteous, whenever the devil approaches them with an idea, they remember, whereupon they become seers.
[5:35] O you who believe, you shall reverence GOD and seek the ways and means to Him, and strive in His cause, that you may succeed.
Another healthy element when we consider competing in righteousness, is the symbiotic relationship with other fellow believers. Some tiny and peaceful creatures help other fierce or giant ones with cleaning their bodies or removing potentially dangerous micro-organisms/bugs/worms off their systems. Similarly, when God advises us to compete in righteousness, He wants us to look around us and benefit from all the righteous believers, using their knowledge and talents to progress our souls. We look up to them, and follow their righteous examples rather than competing for the sake of doing better than them. It seems that this is one of the benefits of forcing ourselves to be with the believers according to 18:28. Here are some examples we should follow when we compete in righteousness:
[61:4] GOD loves those who fight in His cause united in one column, like the bricks in one wall.
[42:38] They respond to their Lord by observing the Contact Prayers (Salat). Their affairs are decided after due consultation among themselves, and from our provisions to them they give (to charity).
[16:125] You shall invite to the path of your Lord with wisdom and kind enlightenment, and debate with them in the best possible manner. Your Lord knows best who has strayed from His path, and He knows best who are the guided ones.
[17:53] Tell My servants to treat each other in the best possible manner, for the devil will always try to drive a wedge among them. Surely, the devil is man's most ardent enemy.
[25:63] The worshipers of the Most Gracious are those who tread the earth gently, and when the ignorant speak to them, they only utter peace.
In conclusion, the essence of competing in righteousness is not about trying to do better than other fellow believers or about considering them as opponents in a race but it is about a self-striving effort to achieve higher ranks and become better human beings and believers. God wants us to use all the tools and means to become closer to Him, and to redeem our souls. Competing with other believers is one of these tools as it enables us to observe them, and wisely look up at good role models from among them, trying to follow their examples. Ego is an evil intruder which will divert this effort towards self recognition and an urge to do better than others. Once this is sensed, we must declare war against our ego and lean towards the divine and healthy spirit of competing in righteousness.
[3:133] You should eagerly race towards forgiveness from your Lord and a Paradise whose width encompasses the heavens and the earth; it awaits the righteous,
[3:134] who give to charity during the good times, as well as the bad times. They are suppressors of anger, and pardoners of the people. GOD loves the charitable.
[3:135] If they fall in sin or wrong their souls, they remember GOD and ask forgiveness for their sins - and who forgives the sins except GOD - and they do not persist in sins, knowingly.
[3:136] Their recompense is forgiveness from their Lord, and gardens with flowing streams; they abide therein forever. What a blessed reward for the workers!
Peaceful Friday, salaam, and God bless.