Muslims are superficially familiar with the concept of spiritual humility. Our elders often scold us and remind us of the virtues of humility. Nonetheless, a question that is rarely answered (or even asked) is how does one attain spiritual humility? Even further, what is humility? What role does our self-esteem play? The scarcity of these questions and their answers are reflective of the scarcity of humility itself. In an age of depression and ego, where do we begin searching for the answers?
Seldom have I heard an explanation of humility that isn’t vague, convoluted, or meaningless. Spiritual humility is not simple enough to be understood from a platitude or maxim. It requires reflection and a comprehensive definition. I believe that humility can be understood and realized in the following three points:
- That one remains in awe at everything: God, His attributes, and His creations
- That one believes himself to be spiritually lowly compared to everyone else
- That one believes that God will, at some point, elevate him spiritually
The first point implies that one remain enveloped in the grandeur of God and His creations. Captivation by the grandeur of God is a source of protection for the heart, lest it become fixated upon other than God. The best way to accomplish this is by pondering over the many attributes of God.
Some hearts are humbled through their perceiving the Magnificence of Allah, His greatness, and His grandeur, which leads to being in awe of Him and magnifying Him. – Ibn al-Qayyim 
Another route towards achieving awe in Him is to be engulfed in the wonders God has placed upon this earth. When applied to other people, captivation by their status as a creation of God results in natural husn al-dhann, or excellent assumptions, towards others. I recall when I met a new student at my university who was zealous about Islam, but significantly lacked basic knowledge. I would often notice that he performed ablution in the wrong order and prayed his prayers incorrectly. He also greeted Muslim women by extending his hand for a firm shake, which is a forbidden practice in the Islamic tradition. I viewed this person as someone in dire need of direction, confused but dedicated. One day, I learned that this young man would walk nearly two miles daily to the mosque for every prayer–fajr included. I somberly realized that I was the one in need of direction. He already had direction and a level of certainty in his faith that compelled him to make the trek away from campus for the sake of receiving the multiplied reward of congregational prayer. I quickly began noticing positives in all of the supposed faults I had noticed. His ablution would take approximately 10 minutes. He prayed his prayers as soon as the time for them commenced. I slowly developed awe at the spiritual state of this seemingly average layperson, as pop-spirituality, especially in Muslim circles, tends to instill the belief that such a spiritual state is only found in the heart of a sage atop a mountain. God had shown me otherwise. Awe towards others is a shield against arrogance before them, and a step towards God-consciousness.
The second point, that one think of himself as spiritually lowly, is necessary to avoid ‘ujb, or self-awe. A refined way of seeking spiritual lowliness is realizing that we are completely incompetent when it comes to fulfilling religious duties. God’s deservingness of worship is beyond what we can and do perform. His commands towards us remain unfulfilled. We are more obedient to our professors, elders, and parents than we are to the Lord of the universe. When a stranger politely commands us to make way for them, to excuse them, we immediately step aside without fail. When Allah commands us to step aside for Him a mere five times per day, do we bow?
Imam Ahmad, may Allah have mercy on him, records in his book, al-Zuhd, with his isnad to ‘Imran ibn al-Qusayr, who said, ‘Musa ibn ‘Imran said, “My Lord, where should I seek you?” He replied, “Seek me with those whose hearts have broken for My sake. Every day I come close to them by one arm-span and were it not for this, they would surely perish.’” -Ibn Rajab 
We should be distraught at the level of disobedience we exhibit towards our beloved Creator. Never should we be content with our level of worship, as contentment with our actions is a sign of confidence in our ability to attain our own salvation and awe in the station we have supposedly reached. The great erudite scholar of Egypt, al-’Izz ibn ‘Abd al-Salam, wrote:
This is the nature of the heartbroken: restlessness with the state of our relationship with the Divine. However, the aim is not to reach this state and dwell in it. A servant is not a servant because of his restlessness, but rather by his servitude . We must humble ourselves by seeing the state of our servitude towards God, yet heeding His commands and striving for more blessings. Doing so builds upon the first point as the one who sees his incompetence towards the commands of God will never think himself greater than another in spiritual state. We must flee to God in a state of brokenness, for God loves the servant who is aware of his spiritual vulnerability towards Him. The point is to have a yearning for the obedience of Allah–and then to establish it.
Many Muslims today exhibit self-consciousness when it comes to their value as Muslims. This is not to be confused as separate from or opposite to spiritual arrogance. Spiritual arrogance would not occur without self-consciousness and vice versa. To think of oneself as better than another is merely a sign that one is embarrassed before the people about his own spiritual state. ‘Ujb, in totality, is identifiable by stagnation in spiritual progression coupled with comfort in that state. We must concentrate on the reality of our servitude. Our focus should be God, His blessings, and a yearning for the truest of all love.
Despite how essential it is to maintain balance, the third point is often neglected in discussions about humility. To be in awe at God and disgusted with one’s own spiritual state are two things that, in isolation, have the potential to breed self-loathing. Lacking hope that one will improve may cause despair in the path in its entirety, and a total surrendering to the internal vices that were once fought. We must believe, with full certainty, that God will elevate and purify us at some point.
The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Allah says: ‘I am just as My slave thinks I am, (i.e. I am able to do for him what he thinks I can do for him) and I am with him if He remembers Me. If he remembers Me in himself, I too, remember him in Myself; and if he remembers Me in a group of people, I remember him in a group that is better than they; and if he comes one span nearer to Me, I go one cubit nearer to him; and if he comes one cubit nearer to Me, I go a distance of two outstretched arms nearer to him; and if he comes to Me walking, I go to him running.’ 
Real change begins from the inward and then continues to manifest outwardly. Discussions about humility today often focus on “humble” actions like not flaunting wealth, serving others, and treating all people with equal respect. The reality is that it takes effort to reach the sincere manifestation of those actions, wherein their performance is not forced, but rather the natural reflex of the humble servant. As Imam al-Ghazali said, “In you are wonders which point to the greatness of Allah.”  Introspection is the key to establishing humility and the three aforementioned points are all matters of the inward. Only when spiritual humility is established will the arrogance, ostentation, and self-absorbed manifestations of the outward diminish.
- Ibn Rajab ʻAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Aḥmad. Humility in Prayer. Daar Us-Sunnah Publications, 2007.
About the author: Wassim Hassan is a graduate in Biology and Chemistry, with additional interests in political philosophy, philosophy of religion, and the Islamic sacred sciences. He is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Islamic Theology and Philosophy.