Self-Esteem in Islam

By Amina Inloes

“Self-esteem” may sound like a modern, even secular concept, and many might question whether it has a place in Islam. After all, Islam teaches humility, not arrogance; and so, surely, the less self-esteem, the better. But while the hadith condemn arrogance, they do emphasize the importance of a healthy sense of self-worth – particularly the hadith from Ahl al-Bayt (A) which link the growth of the self with spiritual development.

In fact, in Islamic ethical theory, both arrogance and low self-esteem are considered two sides of the same coin, since both result from an imbalance in the “power of anger”.[1] Too much of the “power of anger”, and we might become self-obsessed or arrogant. But too little of the “power of anger”, and we might suffer from self-hatred or timidity. Some people actually suffer from both. In situations where they are sure they are in control, they may lord over others; as is narrated from Imam al-Sadiq (A): “A person only acts tyrannically or arrogantly due to an inner sense of disgrace.” [2] However, in situations where they are less sure of themselves, they may exhibit a deep sense of insecurity – so much so that they might avoid psychologically intimidating situations, thus limiting themselves in life.

People generally realize that lack of self-worth can be self-defeating. In addition to feeling too intimidated to try to improve their life situations, some people who do not value themselves may allow themselves to be taken advantage of or be mistreated. This narration from Imam al-Hadi (A) starkly illustrates the danger of low self-esteem:  “Do not feel secure from someone who degrades himself.”[3] Of course, this saying should not be taken as a criticism; the last thing people with low self-esteem need is to be told there is something wrong with them! However, if we do suffer from low self-esteem, this saying should highlight the importance of improving that aspect of our selves just like we would strive to improve any other aspect of our personalities.

Clearly, from a religious perspective, self-esteem is invaluable. But how do we distinguish between self-worth and arrogance? It is narrated that Abu Dharr once asked the Prophet (S) whether it was arrogant for him to want nice things for himself, such as a well-constructed handle for his cane or a beautiful lace for his sandal. The Prophet (S) replied that this was not arrogance, but, rather, arrogance is when we consider our honor to be worthier than other people’s honor, or our blood to be worthier than other people’s blood. He also cautioned that anyone with even a speck of arrogance in their heart would not enter Paradise without repenting first.[4] But despite these dire warnings, people often assume they are more entitled to the blessings of Allah – whether due to culture, nationality, language, wealth, social class, ancestry, profession, or educational level. Not only is such a way of thinking a grave sin, but it is also a false basis for self-worth. Those who value themselves primarily on the basis of external factors – such as wealth – lack true self-worth since true self-worth must come from within.

Of course, external factors can affect our inner sense of worth. Genuine accomplishments can make us feel better about ourselves, and lack of genuine accomplishments can do the opposite. For this reason, Ayatollah Motahhari suggested that Islam emphasizes working (as opposed to living on charity) not only to prevent people from burdening society, but also to cultivate self-esteem.[5] Similarly, how we feel about ourselves on the inside affects how we behave on the outside. A person with a strong sense of self-worth will not stoop to committing animalistic, degrading, or immoral actions. Hadith link self-worth with chastity – for both men and women – since people who respect themselves will not demean themselves with disrespectful relationships.[6] In fact, self-worth is generally linked to control over one’s desires; as is narrated from Amir al-Mu’mineen (A): “When someone maintains his own respect in his own view, his desires appear light to him.”[7]

But despite the relationship between external deeds and inner esteem, self-worth cannot come from external accomplishments alone. Some people appear extremely successful in society and yet, on the inside, experience a deep sense of self-hatred; they may not feel they deserve to exist. Some people also acquire fame for the wrong reasons (Miss USA 2010 comes to mind). So while we should strive towards positive accomplishments, we cannot rely on other human beings to give us self-worth; if we lack a sense of self-worth, we will ultimately refuse to believe their praise. More importantly, we have to remember that, at any moment, we can lose everything external. We can lose our job, our home, our popularity, our families, or our health. Therefore, basing our self-worth on transient things is extremely dangerous – especially since Allah often tests us by taking those things we are most attached to.

Losing worldly things can be particularly challenging for a person with low self-worth since it forces us to face our selves. While some people are comfortable with their selves, others do whatever they can to avoid them – turning to television, music, intoxicants, or other distractions. The self can be a source of pain, especially if someone suffers from self-hatred or is experiencing loss or grief. Nevertheless, sometimes – for instance, during an illness – we are left with nothing but our selves and Allah. If that does not happen to us in this world, it will definitely happen to us in the grave. If we have a difficult relationship with our selves, those moments can be tortuous. But if we have a peaceful relationship with our selves, these too can be times of calm; one is reminded of the stories of prophets, such as Prophet Ayyub (A), who lost everything but continued to praise and thank Allah. In fact, sometimes being forced to abandon distractions can be a blessing in disguise since we are then forced to improve our relationship with our most constant companion, the self.

Of course, most of us pray we do not go through such times of trial. How else can we work on improving low self-worth without going through calamity? It is often helpful to pay attention to our “inner voice”. Everyone has an inner voice (which, in the Islamic tradition, is referred to as the nafs al-lawwamah, or critical self). Frequently, our inner voice gives us good advice. “Get up or you’ll be late! Do your homework! Do your salaat!” This advice is helpful because it is based on reality. If we don’t get up on time, we will be late. However, sometimes this voice gets confused and, instead, mimics negative – and, most importantly, untrue – messages we may have heard sometime in our lives. Instead of telling us useful things, it tells us how worthless or shameful we are. If we fail an exam, it might say, “Of course you failed; you’re too stupid to do anything” (a negative message) instead of “Next time you need to study harder and go to a tutor” (a positive message). Despite what the voice may say, no one is intrinsically stupid or ugly or unlovable. Hence, a malfunctioning inner voice needs to be reprogrammed to provide positive and useful messages. One useful tool for this in the ethical toolbox is muhasabah, or daily self-reflection. In addition to reflecting on our deeds, we can also reflect on our inner voice – was it giving us positive advice? Or was it dragging us down? If so, how can we guide it to saying more useful things the next day? Bit by bit, the voice can be retrained.

Anyone can work on their inner voice – regardless of their level of faith. However, faith adds an entirely new dimension to our sense of self-worth. Simply existing should be enough for us to acknowledge our inherent worth. Despite modern advances in technology, we still cannot control life and death, as any childless couple who wants children knows. We exist because Allah willed for us to exist, and we have a purpose in life because He does not create aimlessly. As his representative (khilafah) on earth who has accepted His trust (amanah), we hold an esteemed postion. Furthermore, if we accept the wilayah of Ahl al-Bayt (A) and the leadership of the Mahdi (A), we acknowledge that, even in his absence, he pays attention to what we do and what happens to us. Even if we are not important to ourselves, we are important to him.

The sense of self-worth which emerges from faith transcends individual value since, rather than coming from the human, it comes from the Divine. By focusing inward, each and every human being can connect with the inner source of peace, happiness, comfort, care, hope, and light that characterizes our link with Allah. Despite whatever physical or emotional pain we may be feeling, this “eye of the storm” reminds us that we matter to Allah. Even if no one else seems to care about us, He does, and experiencing His love towards us teaches us to value ourselves. Ultimately, faith and dignity are strongly linked – for instance, it is narrated that the believer would suffer everything except indignity[8] – and so true faith can bring the deepest sense of self-worth.

[1] For more information, see Ayatollah Muhammad Mahdi ibn Abi Dharr al-Naraqi, Jami‘ al-Sa‘adat: The Collector of Felicities (Qum: Ansariyan Publications, no date), p. 59.

[2] M. Muhammadi Rayshahri (ed.), The Scale of Wisdom: A Compendium of Shi‘a Hadith (Mizan al-Hikmah), trans. N. Virjee, A. Kadhim, M. Dasht Bozorgi, Z. Alsalami, & A. Virjee (London: ICAS Press, 2009), p. 937.

[3] ‘Allamah Muhammad Baqir al-Majlesi, Bihar al-Anwar (Ahlul Bayt Library Edition), vol. 72, p. 300.

[4] The Scale of Wisdom, p. 936.

[5] See Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari, Innate Nature (Tehran & Qom: Sadra, 1991).

[6] See Nahj al-Balaghah, sayings 226 & 297.

[7] Nahj al-Balaghah, saying 441.

[8] Jami‘ al-Sa‘adat, p. 67.


    • this information is to the point, easy to understand, commenly taught, superb……………these kind of matters are too valuable for being a thanks to auther ..and requesting to continue ur such writing because u r a real writer…

  1. MA
    Reading your article brought tears to my eyes. The hardest struggle of parenthood is to teach your children their intrinsic self worth. Today on Eid, it reminds me that knowledge is the best gift we can give.

  2. Author, you truly touched a heart which believes he has low self esteem, Thank you for this enlightening article. I re-read this article like 10 over times in the past hour.

  3. I have just realized that Allah and getting closer to Islam is the only way to get inner peace and to remove my low self-esteem. I have been trying to ignore getting closer to Allah for far too long. Now I am at war with my inner self (and shaytan) to truly surrender to his will. It is one of the biggest struggles now in my life. But I will keep fighting until I surrender. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and with Allah’s will I will reach his light.

  4. Mashallah, sister that was a excellent advise.
    Retraining our Nafs al lawwamah to give good advise and accepting that our self esteem used be based on things like as worship of Allah and good deeds we do rather then health, wealth, jobs, house , money and all the other latest gadgets which give people self self esteem from owing. e.g, latest mobile.

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