Islamic history is lit up with examples of Muslims who were world class leaders. They sat at the helm of flourishing empires and led on multiple frontiers ranging across medicine, mathematics, natural sciences and legal jurisprudence. In fact many of the inventions, innovations and discoveries that came from the Islamic world constitute much of the foundations of our modern society.
But we don’t see this level of leadership in the Muslim world today, instead we’re seeing a rapid decay of world impact. We’re witnessing a serious inferiority complex growing in our Ummah; As individuals, we feel inferior to non-Muslims. As businesses and organizations, we feel inferior to mainstream corporations. As an Ummah, we feel inferior to other Nations.
Why is this happening and what can we do about it? Read on…
Inferiority Complex is Real
To know your weaknesses in comparison to others is to be insightful and humble but to harbour a lingering sense of inferiority as a result of this awareness is dangerous. For example, knowing that your colleague is great at public speaking is not the same as feeling that your public speaking skills are worthless and will never improve in time regardless of how hard you try.
In today’s world, we’re immersed in a culture whereby looks, wealth, status and all things materialistic are used as the metric for success. Deep down we know that our spiritual values guide us away from idolising or chasing the material world but at the same time we’re saturated on the outside by people seemingly living exciting, glamorous and beautiful lives. It can be all too tempting to compare our own lives with the façade of today’s hyper-airbrushed world and this constant comparison quickly erodes away at our confidence and spirituality.
Post-colonialism seeded the idea that our western counterparts are somehow better. Although this may not be a conscious thought, it can manifest in our thinking and action in many ways. We can look at the lives and success of our western peers and so easily be drawn into the fantasy that they have the upper edge in this dunya. Sadly, left unattended this feeling can develop into an inferiority complex not just on an individual level, but an Ummah level as well.
Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi describes the decline of Muslim leadership and causes in his book Islam And The World (pg 173):
Dazzled by the power and progress of Western nations, Muslims began to imitate Western social and economic institutions regardless of the consequences, although they were much inferior to their own and consisted of little more than the ardent pursuit of material success. The prestige of religon was diminished. The teachings of the Prophet ﷺ were forgotten. All those ideals of life, which truthfully displayed within themselves both the spiritual and the temporal aspects of life and did not subordinate the former to the latter, ceased to impress the minds of the great mass of Muslim society. Their place was taken by ideals far inferior to them. Life was filled with frivolous desires and occupations to a degree that it had to eschew religious and spiritual craving and activities. If one were to compare the daily occupations of present-day Muslims with those of the aforementioned specimens of the old Islamic civilization, one would find it hard to believe that both professed the same ideology or that only a few generations separated one from the other.
Along with the distractions of this dunya constantly tugging at the soul, we’re also subject to the whisperings of Satan, who’s sole mission is to make us unappreciative beings.
[Satan] said, “For leaving me to stray I will lie in ambush for them on Your Straight Path. I will approach them from their front, their back, their right, their left, and then You will find most of them ungrateful.” (7:16-17)
If we’re not mindful of his influence and don’t take precautions to fortify our heart and mind with God-consciousness, we become even more vulnerable to his evil ploys. One of the ways he tries to enter the heart is by weakening the mind.
What is an Inferiority Complex?
An inferiority complex is a feeling of inadequacy that’s not based on any rational judgements. It’s an emotionally-led feeling that holds us captive to constant comparisons which may drive us to wanting to be and act like others, and have what they have in order to feel good enough.
This feeling turns us into thirsty travelers on a desert land, constantly chasing the ‘mirage’ of what others have but never quenching our thirst with the water bottle that’s around our neck.
We can see examples in our Islamic history of people who rather than holding esteem in their faith, turned towards external factors to find a sense of self worth.
When Musa (as) and the children of Israel were saved from the tyrannical grip of Firoun (Pharoah), they witnessed first hand the Divine help of Allah SWT. They were freed from oppression and could live in peace under the prophetic leadership of Musa (as). But not long after the miraculous passage across the Red Sea, they came across a group of people who had taken up idolatry worship and the ignorant amongst them turned to Musa (as) and asked him to “make for us a God just as they have Gods.”
They forgot Allah and fell prey to the insidious idea that the faith they possessed was inadequate in comparison to what they perceived the people they encountered had in terms of faith and provisions. The seeds of inferiority had taken root within them.
“We brought the Children of Israel across the sea and they came upon a people devoted to idols. They demanded, “O Moses! Make for us a god like their gods.” He replied, “Indeed, you are a people acting ignorantly!” (7:138)
In the tafsir of Ibn Kathir (r) he said:
“It appears that the Children of Israel probably asked these people why they worshipped these idols, and they most likely told them that whenever they seek help from them they help them, and that they seek their provision from them. The ignorant ones among them may have been tempted to believe it, and so they asked Musa (as) to make a similar god for them as well.”
This is an example of how in the absence of God-consciousness we can falsely conclude that happiness and success lies in the superficial platforms promoted in a Godless society.
We can see parallels of how the inferiority complex is playing out in individuals, organizations and in Muslim society at large today. Let’s take a closer look at each of these levels.
Inferiority complex in Muslim Professionals
Have you ever stepped into work with feelings of trepidation? Feeling very conscious that you’re different; acutely aware that the sound of your name is different, the colour of your skin is different and that you have a set of rules and a value system that is not aligned with your workplace peers.
If we bring sharp focus to this, what can it stir inside a person?
For my client, Aisha, it made her feel like she didn’t belong at her workplace. She was a teacher working in an affluent neighborhood surrounded by a predominantly white upper class community. Rather than seeing herself as the intelligent, capable person that she was, she subconsciously felt second-rate to her colleagues and so therefore always felt inferior. This inferiority complex rooted itself in her words and behavior; she would always aim to be agreeable even if she held a different opinion and felt the need to prove her self-worth in everything she did.
“Never think that you’re not good enough. A man should never think that. People will take you very much at your own reckoning.”Anthony Trollope
As this quote suggests, we teach people how to treat us. If we see ourselves as inferior, it makes it more likely that we will be seen in this way by others too.
Moreover, the state of the believer is to know that there is khayr (good) in every situation as related in the following hadith:
“Amazing is the affair of the believer, verily all of his affairs are good and this is not for no one except the believer. If something of good/happiness befalls him he is grateful and that is good for him. If something of harm befalls him he is patient and that is good for him” (Muslim)
Staying mindful of this helps us to elevate our thinking by the mere act of seeking the khayr in all situations, creating awareness in the heart of the blessings and opportunities present in the moment as opposed to dwelling on the negatives and how we’re perceived.
With this in mind, Aisha and I discussed an alternative perspective; perhaps Allah had given her an opportunity to be a role model and dispel myths surrounding the Muslim stereotype, that she showed great courage by the sheer fact that she goes in to work every day and upholds her values concerning manners and dress code. Immediately, this fresh perspective gave her more confidence in her true identity and strengthened her connection to Allah. The inner critic that would constantly compare her to others started to wane and she no longer felt the compulsion to fit in.
This feeling of not fitting in is all too familiar for the Muslim professional working in a predominantly western environment. The term “cultural cringe” is defined as an internalized inferiority complex that causes people to dismiss their own culture as inferior to the cultures of other countries. Inadvertently, we may feel the “cultural cringe” factor with our religious orientation too. In not wanting to feel alienated from social groups or hindered from potential work opportunities, a person might dismiss some of their spiritual practices and strive to adapt to the more commonplace practices of their environment in order to fit in and feel on par with their colleagues.
Regularly missing prayers, not requesting time out for Jumu’ah, feeling awkward about wearing a hijab or growing a beard, dropping inhibitions and placing oneself in inappropriate environments may be some of the casualties of such sentiment. In reality, this can create an internal conflict between one’s spiritual values and the desire to be like others, resulting in anxiety, stress and internal worry. Social anxiety: the fear of being rejected by others, can be one of the biggest triggers for the inferiority complex.
With these emotions brewing inside, the inferiority complex can feature front and center. Feeling that no matter what you do, you just can’t hit the mark or won’t be seen as worthy by others. Even high achievers can feel like failures and imposters. The constant second guessing and feelings of being a second-rate worker hinders performance levels. Confidence dwindles and this can branch off in two ways.
1. Shying away from opportunities out of fear of being “caught out” and not speaking up with authentic thoughts
2. Overcompensating behavior such as bragging to mask the feelings of insecurity.
Both these positions invite the ego to lead the way and we’re then left with ego-led behavior.
The Messenger of Allah (saw), said, “The strong are not those who defeat people. Rather, the strong are those who defeat their own ego.”Sharḥ Mushkil al-Āthār 1645
A sense of inferiority is not a cognitive thing, it’s an emotional sense that is carried around privately and painfully. The emotions that can arise range from hopelessness and helplessness to anger, resentment, envy and defensiveness.
A person can feel completely incompetent at her job even though objectively they’re great at it but that’s the nature of the beast – there’s no rational thinking. You can be completely disconnected from the objective perceptions others may have of you to the extent that there is an outright refusal to see any evidence to the contrary of your beliefs, placing one squarely in the victim-mindset.
Inferiority complex in Muslim organizations
Muslims look to the west and see successful companies: The Googles, Apples, and Teslas of the world Often these companies adopt practices that are foreign to our traditional ways and sometimes these practices are against Islam – yet as mentioned previously, the generalized feeling of inferiority stemming from the idea that we are inadequate and that our ways of doing things are not good enough, can make us blindly follow in the footsteps of these companies as a result. And in the pursuit of success, we may become negligent of our spiritual obligations.
For example, we’re seeing a burgeoning growth in the Muslim entrepreneurial space. There are now Muslim companies competing in the Fortune 500 arena and the Muslim spend is now worth trillions of dollars and is a recognized sector on the world business platform. Although there is this growth, we can also see symptoms of the inferiority complex growing alongside this trend.
In today’s world, we see Muslim organizations and companies:
- Fully immersed in hustle culture, working staff to the bone
- Relentlessly following formulas of mainstream organizations and copying Silicon Valley and corporate America in hopes of achieving the same high levels of success.
- Feeling a general sense of inferiority to the western world and as a result producing substandard products and services – believing this is all they are capable of?
What if, instead, Muslim companies adopted sunnah practices with yaqeen (certainty) that Ar-Razzaq (The Provider) will deliver barakah-filled results? A few examples of such practices are:
- Adopting an Abundant Mindset of mutual benefit and cooperation when dealing with competitors vs. the Scarcity mindset of cut-throat competiton.
- Adopting a Gardener Mindset with work where you set good intentions, work hard, but detach yourself from the results.
- Fulfilling the Sunnah of paying workers before their sweat dries (a concept now known as Pay On Demand)
- Working with staff to develop them spiritually, just like we develop them professionally.
- Organizing and structuring the day and meetings around prayer times
- Organizing business plans around the hijri calendar (#GoHijri) and even paying staff and offering holidays according to Hijri calendar.
- Being at the forefront to protect female employees from sexual harrassment and ensuring safe and mutually respective working relationships between genders whether online or in-person
- Creating time for employees to take a Qailulah (short mid-day nap) as was the practice of prophet Muhammad (saw).
- Making the intention of the business not purely about financial gain and profit but about service to the community and Ummah at large.
The above ideas may seem ‘crazy’ in our modern corporate world, and may feel “unprofessional” – but what if thinking of the above as ‘crazy’ or ‘unprofessional’ is actually your inferiority complex talking to you? Yes, maybe not all of the above ideas are practical on a day to day level – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be encouraged to explore and experiment with ways to grow our business with Barakah!
My point is this: Instead of feeling like the success formulas of corporate America and the like were the only valid ways to create successful companies, what would happen if Muslim organizations placed more faith in aligning the structure of their company and workday with faith-based practices such as the ones mentioned above? With the doors of barakah opened, imagine how this could yield even greater results.
Inferiority complex in the Ummah on a global stage
In the same way that the children of Israel began to develop a sense of inferiority and feeling “second-rate” to the community of pagans they encountered, we can see parallels in our modern day society with the Muslims of today experiencing similar emotions. The media surrounding our religion is awash with labels such as Muslim terrorists and extremism. Muslims are under constant scrutiny, and this has made us sensitive and defensive. As a nation what impact might this have on our mindset and how are we responding as a result?
Here’s a few ways in which the inferiority complex has taken root in our ummah today. We may find ourselves:
- Desiring to imitate aspects of non-Muslim lifestyles even though it is prohibited for the believer
- Minimizing the importance of certain aspects of our religion because it’s not convenient and feel it will hinder our life goals
- Not standing up for Muslim suffering globally due to political and economic pressure.
- Judging Islamic principles through a liberal secular lens.
- Find ourselves viewing certain practices as outdated concepts and not fit for purpose in today’s world
- Only valuing a practice in Islam if the science community or an academic validates it. For example, we know that fasting Mondays and Thursdays is a highly regarded sunnah, but did we only take it seriously when western scientists concluded that the 5:2 diet was a legitimate practice?
Very often the inferiority complex is on a subconscious level, so most people are not even cognizant to it. However, we need to take a very conscious look at our intentions, choices and actions in order to determine whether we have mindlessly adopted some of these frames of thinking.
Islam is the last Divine Message to Mankind. We have the blueprint to live a life that is the most balanced, wholesome, and decent. Yet as a nation, we may have drifted away from this way of life because we have fundamentally forgotten who we are, where we came from and our ultimate purpose in this world.
And in this lies the antidote.
The antidote to the inferiority complex
An inferiority complex is fueled by the desire to attain the same levels of power, status and success as those perceived to be in superior positions. In order to shatter this complex, we need to bring our hearts and awareness to the ultimate source of power and honour.
“Whosoever desires honour, power and glory then to Allah belong all honour, power and glory…”?![ 35:10]
For the sincere believer, it is known that only in obeying Allah can one find honour, power and glory in this world but more importantly in the next. Holding tight to this reality, secures the heart of the believer from ever feeling inferior to any other culture or creed. It removes the temptation to yearn for what others have in the worldly sense as faith in Allah is what brings a level of contentment that far outweighs the love for anything else this world has to offer.
We are the children of Adam.
We are from the ummah of Prophet Muhammad (saw).
We can call ourselves Muslims because of the greats in our history; the noble prophets, the companions of the prophet and the generations to follow who sacrificed their lives so that we can practice today.
We have been given tawfeeq (direct guidance) to believe in the Oneness of Allah whose guidance and Help we know is always with us.
With this identity deeply embodied in the very fabric of our soul, we can stand confidently in any environment holding tight to our values and be fearless of worldly judgement. We can navigate any workspace or social gathering with firmness in our Muslim identity. Our hearts will steer away from feeling any form of inferiority complex or victim-mindset or FOMO (fear of missing out) because there is peace and contentment found in the promise of Allah:
“So do not become weak, nor be sad, and you will be victorious if you are indeed true believers.”[ 3:139]
Alongside this understanding, it’s essential to create time for muhasabah (self-evaluation) in order to become more self aware, to be aligned to your fitra and increase in confidence that is rooted in Allah.
And it is for this reason that I developed the Confidence Masterclass – a transformational 6-week journey that combines Islamic spiritual practices with modern psychology to help Muslim professionals develop spiritually-centered confidence and remove any feelings of insecurity and inferiority.
During this masterclass, you will be guided through the Belief Model ™ framework – a systematic process designed to help you strengthen in all aspects of life pertaining to spiritually rooted confidence.
For example, Imran decided to join the masterclass to work on his spiritual confidence using the Belief model framework. Prior to this training and despite having a good job, family and comfortable lifestyle, most days he would wake up feeling uneasy and unsettled. He was feeling the pressure of constant comparisons and spiritually weakened by the busyness of life. However, after he completed this training, he described feeling more internal peace as a result of developing a stronger reliance upon Allah and how increased self-awareness gave him more control, emotional grounding and confidence in himself and life choices.
Let’s take a deeper look at Imran’s outlook before the training and how he felt at the end of the masterclass training…
After working his way through the Belief model, Imran is a more confident, healthy, balanced individual who is still ambitiously working towards his life goals but with an active focus of how his work in this world can connect to the next. He’s no longer as concerned with external judgment or trying to fit in; his heart, mind and soul have found contentment in his deen and his feelings of self worth are rooted internally by his connection to Allah.
“Verily, Allah does not look at your physical features nor your wealth, but Allah looks at your hearts and actions.” (Muslim)
When we keep our sight firmly fixed on Allah, the fear of others dissipates. The inferiority complex disappears and what’s left is an energy, focus and determination to create meaningful lives with the hope that the reward will come in this life and extend to the next.