Jealousy, envy, covetousness. Feeling (perhaps fiercely) protective over one’s own possessions, or, indeed, over one’s perceived possessions – such as social statuses and particular positive characteristics that are heightened, relatively, when compared to those of others. Or, resentfully yearning for the things – or the particular hues and degrees of these things – that others may have. Beauty, wealth, intelligence, material achievements, personality, attention from a particular individual, perceived likability. These are all things one can feel rather jealously protective of in oneself, and/or covetous for, in our perceptions of others.
Almost indubitably, we have all come under the Green-Eyed Monster’s cunning clutch at some point in our lives, becoming either a tad obsessively territorial (maybe following the birth of a new baby sibling, whose newness, whose effortlessly adorable countenance threatened to steal away the parental doting that we had previously held a monopoly over), or feeling rather helplessly inadequate, perhaps when witnessing a crush seemingly flirtatiously conversing with (gasp!) somebody who isn’t you!
Insecurity – that is the word (especially when it comes immoderate levels of jealousy/envy) here. And protectiveness – that is the other word. Feelings of jealousy and/or envy are not, in and of themselves, the worst things in the world. They are actually rather ‘natural’, instinctive, a fairly universal human emotional phenomenon. And, as a matter of fact, such feelings can actually prove fairly useful at times: a jealous protectiveness over one’s academic status at school, for example, can really motivate an individual to work very industriously indeed. Envy can also inspire a little, can motivate people to realise their desires to be better in various ways.
In Islam, for instance, men are indeed encouraged to have Gheerah – a kind of protective jealousy – over their womenfolk. This is not to say that they should be oppressive nor abusive in any way. The term encompasses a sense of earnest care and concern, combined with a certain degree of protective zeal. We should want to protect the things we have rights over and/or responsibilities towards. We should also take inspiration from people who have the things we ourselves wish to have: a good work ethic, a certain professional position…
But these things can, and often do, quickly slip into such uglinesses. Men, for example, can become quite abusive and obsessive under the guise of Gheerah. People can work themselves up into ongoing furies as a result of envy and envy-related ruminations. Jealousy, jealousy, jealousy. It can be a rather suffocating ordeal to be the object of it; it can be a potentially equally torturous thing to be the one whose mind generates it.
In Islam, we accept that all blessings are from God, and that no person is superior to another (not in terms of race, nor ancestry, wealth, gender, or other factors) except as a result of piety and good action. The ultimate objective – Heaven – is open for everyone, non-finite in this regard. This is the ultimate goal, the lasting Peace and Happiness. Everything good in this world (according to a Hadith, is either an adornment or a provision and) can be a tool to getting there; on the flip side, these things can lead to us becoming arrogant, and to our losing sight of what is truly important.
On this Earth, youthful beauty does fade, and intelligence can just become a dormant and futile thing if not used. Wealth does not buy lasting happiness: it can quickly just be wasted, and the super-wealthy can be overcome by intense boredom and restlessness. We can find ourselves piling these things up, spending our time being jealous and envious. But eventually, all of it goes away. In the case of wealth, for example, it all may go to those who come after you, while your corpse rots in its grave [apologies for the morbidity here, but hashtag reality].
“If you are grateful to me, I will surely increase you [in favour]”
– Holy Qur’an, (14:7)
Maybe it is true that we all want to be unique, special, somehow. And when the perceived ‘things that make us special’ come, in our eyes, under attack as a result of competition (or, indeed, if we long to be ‘special’ in a particular way, but feel inadequate, and feel a heightened sense of this inadequacy when we juxtapose ourselves with people who have what we wish we could have had) we become a little hyper-competitive, aggressive, maybe a tad unreasonable.
But if this is a fear of yours (losing your ‘uniqueness’, your ‘specialness’) fear less, for you are you. To quote Dr. Seuss, “There is no one alive who is you-er than you”.
You are entirely unique – in terms of all your experiences, thoughts, the daily reality of being you. It is futile to compare you to another (although it could, at times, be useful to isolate a particular habit or behavioural trait, and look to others’ expressions of the same thing as a source of inspiration).
You must be easier on yourself, and fairer on any person who may be the object of your jealous or envious tendencies, too. Humanity certainly has its good parts – its golden, shinier parts. But all human beings also trip up and fall; must use the toilet on a daily basis; eventually… die. In honouring our humanness, we must know that we – and they – are not computers, nor dolls, nor anything else that is materially possess-able, manufactured via machines, or quite predictable. We are never-ending projects. There is good and bad in you, and the same (but expressed differently) in them.
God has decreed for you to have certain challenges and certain blessings; other people too – irrespective of who they may be – have their blessings and their challenges. Allah (SWT) is the granter of blessings, and He is also the one who is testing us – through our blessings and our challenges: through our intentions and actions.
Ultimately, the only real competition you have in this life is… yourself. Your own bad habits, your own limiting beliefs, perhaps some of your own delusional ways of thinking [e.g. the quality of my life would be so much better if I just looked like him, or if I were as photogenic as her]. We all want to improve our personal experiences of Life; we are all in this pursuit of Happiness. But drastic changes – like suddenly coming into the possession of much wealth, or becoming the most academically adept person, or beginning to look like an Insta-model: in reality, these things might bring you a high or two. And then, perhaps, some secondary highs from the external validation you may receive. But eventually, our minds seek to normalise all novelties. It all just becomes ‘daily life’, nothing special, to you. You can observe this phenomenon in many people you may admire or envy because they are very beautiful, or very intelligent, or very materially successful. Many of these people just become used to themselves and their lives; what we see as enviable and special in them, they may simply overlook. And likewise, there may be some very wonderful, externally very admirable or enviable things in you that you are prone to overlooking as a result of familiarity with yourself.
Jealousy and envy can push a man – or a woman – to do crazy, heinous things: things like repeatedly violating a partner’s right to privacy by rummaging through their personal belongings; displaying otherwise obsessive and stalker-ish tendencies; displaying abusive behaviours; torrentially slandering the objects of one’s envy, thus leveraging social power over them in their absence, seeking ways to belittle them, to make yourself seem ‘better’ than them, in some respects, by comparison. And, of course, there is that timelessly obnoxious habit that can arise when one becomes a little too intrigued by another person’s being and achievements: interrogation, excessive questioning, wanting to find out about them and their lives, as much as you can…
There is a fine line between sentiments of admiration and those of envy. This line, so it would seem, is remarkably easy to cross. Even when it comes to ostensibly harmless feelings of admiration for a person, one finds oneself treading on dangerous ground. Why? Because when you put human beings upon imaginative pedestals, you essentially dehumanise them. The human imagination is an exceptionally creative thing. You may begin to ascribe features and ideas to this person that are not necessarily true. In doing so, you are not being very fair to them [for they are a fellow human being, and are thus flawed, unbelievably complex, multifaceted] nor are you being very fair to yourself, seeing yourself as being ‘far less’ than they are.
Today’s celebrity culture certainly unabashedly promotes things like the idolisation of people, and envy, and focusing on things like others’ beauty, relationship statuses, and levels of wealth. Audiences wait with bated breath, sharklike, waiting for a person to slip up. Media outlets forever find themselves gathering evidence – reasons to place certain people on some sort of spectacular angelic plane – while also seeking reasons to debase them – perhaps partially as a result of collective envy, to demolish the pillars that might hold these people’s pedestals up. All this happens on this wider scale, and it can tend to happen on far smaller interpersonal ones, too.
“One is not a Muslim until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”
– Prophet Muhammad (SAW)
And, of course, demonstrating the above can be hard at times. If you pride yourself on being the funniest or the prettiest or the smartest in the room (or whatever else) for instance, jealousy can overcome you. You may end up displaying some hostility towards someone else who happens to also be rather funny or beautiful or academically competent. But we need to have faith and trust in Allah. We must seek to overcome our egos and to support others; indeed, according to the Qur’an, the reward for excellence (and of related self-overcoming) is “nothing but excellence”. And we must seek to be good to the people and to be grateful to God; verily, He multiplies blessings.
Interestingly, another Hadith tells us that when we pray for good for others, an angel within our proximity says, “And for you, the same.”
Remember, firstly, that there is more than enough beauty, enough wisdom and intelligence, enough positive character traits, to go around!
And, secondly, know you are the custodian of your own life; spending your time attempting to peer into others’ lives does not really do anything good for yours.
So, the jealousy cure, then: a tranquility-giving concoction of trust; acceptance of Divine Decree; remembrance of the nature of life as being a test (both in terms of our tribulations, and in terms of [what we do as a result of] our blessings); expressing gratitude to God and asking Him for His protection over the blessings we have; accepting that we can be prone to cognitive distortions (e.g. when, as a result of distance, we come to believe that some people’s lives are pretty much perfect; that appearances are more substantial than substance itself); praying for and working towards the things we would like to have (while knowing that we are indeed each unique. One person’s beauty or intelligence will naturally look rather different to another’s); accept that it is okay to take inspiration from others, but you are you:
focus on yourself.
Addendum: I do believe that many jealousy and envy issues can stem from childhood. This is just an observation, but it would appear as though many only children and first children are more territorial – more jealous – than others. This may be because they are more used to ‘not sharing’ things, and to being ‘special’.
Moreover, it may be true that those with envy issues want what others have a lot of the time because they were compared to other children by caregivers in childhood; made to feel inadequate – like they were lacking, while others were not.
Of course, this ties into what I speak about a lot – questions of Free Will and Blameworthiness. Envy is seen as a ‘destroyer of deeds’ [Hadith] in Islam. But to what extent does he or she have agency over such sentiments? Insha Allah I hope to delve further into such questions in a (near) future article.
Sadia Ahmed J., 2020