Popularity is everything these days. Everyone is vying to be seen, heard, and known. People define their worth by how many followers they have, what venues they are invited to, what connections they have, etc. It is a time of image without substance.
But the Prophet ﷺ gave us a potent antidote to this sickness of mind and heart.
It was narrated from ‘Umar bin Khattab that he went out one day to the mosque of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ, and he found Mu’adh bin Jabal sitting by the grave of the Prophet ﷺ weeping. He said:
“Why are you weeping?” He said: “I am weeping because of something that I heard from the Messenger of Allah ﷺ. I heard the Messenger of Allah ﷺ say: ‘A little showing off [i.e., riya] is shirk and whoever shows enmity towards a friend of Allah [i.e., a wali] has declared war on Allah. Allah loves those whose righteousness and piety are hidden — those who, if they are absent, are not missed, and if they are present, they are not invited or acknowledged. Their hearts are lamps of guidance, and they get out of every trial and difficulty.’” [Ibn Majah]
In this image-obsessed culture, many of us know the feeling of being bypassed, looked over, generally unacknowledged, especially in our younger years. It hurts because that’s what humans naturally crave — to be loved. It starts with our parents. We love our parents and want them to love us, and that parental love is expressed through affection, attention, and acknowledgment. We all want to make our parents happy and proud. But sometimes things don’t work out for whatever reason. Some people have abusive parents. Some people didn’t even get to see their parents. And then, even as we grow into adulthood, our youth can be very lonely times. And some even fall into depression because of that lack of concern from anyone.
But the Prophet ﷺ is informing us that even if it might not seem like there is anyone to acknowledge or appreciate us, Allah, who is Al-Shakur, the Appreciative One, is there and in fact He loves those who cultivate piety (i.e., taqwa) but they are not known to anyone except Him. In contrast, those who attempt to project piety to those around them, especially in order get invited to gatherings, to be acknowledged, to be known in the minds of people, that is shirk.
Reflect on why Mu’adh ibn Jabal was weeping over this statement of the Prophet ﷺ.
Edit: As a beloved teacher of mine pointed out, there is a difference between “minor shirk” and “major shirk,” though there is never anything “minor” about associating with Allah. What that means, as all the ulama have explained much better than someone like me ever could, is a Muslim can show off, not have the purest intention, and that can be a haze of shirk muddying one’s heart, but the person is still a Muslim — he simply has to work on purifying himself and clearing the waters till he is mukhlis. Then there are others, may Allah save us, who they have no concern for Allah in their heart and their showing off is just that — a show. And they are mukhlis for their own nafs, whether they are conscious of this or not. Ikhlas is so so difficult but absolutely necessary. No slacking off, no half measures on ikhlas — if you can’t weep about it, force yourself before it’s too late.