In 2009, a 48 year old unmarried man, George Sodini from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania USA, walked into a gym aerobics class and began shooting, killing three women and wounding nine others before turning the gun on himself. What police initially believed was a random ‘murder-suicide’ was soon discovered to have been the carefully pre-meditated action of a man who felt spurned by women for decades. Sodini left behind a nine-month diary chronicling his grievances about being unable to find love: “The biggest problem of all is not having relationships or friends, but not being able to achieve and acquire what I desire in those or many other areas.” He lamented how the “type of life I see is a closed world with me specifically and totally excluded.” It appears that Sodini, who was financially stable and not a complete recluse, felt embittered by what he could not have in life; his resentment thus drove him to destroy himself and what he so eagerly sought.
The envious is the one who does not like to see good in others. It is one of the human being’s most destructive characteristics. It exists in all levels of human society and has the intensity to blind one from the inanity of his or her disposition; the good in others becomes a cause of lamentation and the envious sees only what is enviable and cannot see the other’s shortcomings. As the proverbs explain, “envy can see the ship well enough, but not the leak” and “envy sees only the bridge, not the swamp it crosses” and, most tragically, “envy looks at the swamp and sees a sea”.
The effects of envy have devastating consequences. In his book, The Boat, Walter Gibson recounts an incident in the Second World War after the torpedoing of the Dutch ship Roseboom in the Indian Ocean, carrying 500 evacuees from Malaya. Gibson, one of the 135 survivors, testifies that in one of the lifeboats five soldiers banded together one night and murdered and threw overboard twenty of the survivors. What made the event so hauntingly unforgettable was the fact that even those who were driven by hunger and thirst to jump overboard envied those who wished to remain in the boat – those who still had a chance of survival which they themselves had relinquished. Gibson recalls:
That was a strange feature of every suicide. As people decided to jump overboard, they seemed to resent the fact that others were being left with a chance of safety.
The envy of those who had jumped overboard was further evident when they would try to seize rations and fling them overboard. They would try to make their last action in the boat the pulling of the bung which would let in the water; “their madness always seemed to take the form that they must not go alone, but must take everyone with them.”
In 1953, a middle-aged woman in Munich took her friend’s baby out for a walk in its pram. While walking, she pushed the baby and pram into the Isar river. It was revealed that the culprit was overcome with envy of her friend’s happiness which the child symbolised. Furthermore, in a story published in the New York Times, a man drove his car at the hero of a basketball team who had won a recent college game and was standing with his parents and friends. The murderer was a supporter of neither team but stated that he could not stand seeing the glamour of the handsome athlete. Despite knowing full well the repercussions of his actions, the man could not overcome his instant impulse. He had certainly injured himself because of all the loss he subsequently incurred in his life but he was perfectly prepared to do that if in doing so he could also injure or hurt the object of his envy. In August 2009, a Kuwaiti woman confessed to setting alight a wedding tent that killed 41 people. She was the bridegroom’s ex-wife and, overcome with envious rage, she poured gasoline on the tent and set it alight. The English-language Kuwait Times described the situation as “‘Scorned’ Woman Unleashed Fury.” The perpetrators of the Columbine High School shooting were envious of the social successes of the school’s athletes, and this envy became the impulse that drove them to mass murder. In his journal Dylan Klebold wrote, “I see jocks having fun, friends, women…I hated the happiness that they have.” In 2007 at Virginia Tech, mass murderer Seung Hui Cho’s motives were also fuelled by envious rage, “Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats. Your golden necklaces weren’t enough, you snobs…Oh the happiness I could have had mingling among you hedonists, being counted as one of you.” Aside from these infamous examples that captured the world’s attention, feelings of envy exist in more commonplace settings; in homes, between neighbours, family members and friends.
The first sin committed in the heavens was that of envy, and the first sin that desecrated Earth was also envy. The arrogance of Iblīs was motivated by an envy of Ādam (ʿalayhi salām) since he begrudged the favour Allāh had shown Ādam. On Earth it was the son of Ādam, Qābīl, who begrudged and then murdered his sibling Hābīl. He too could not accept that somebody else had what he so wanted. And here lies the tragic irony. Qābīl did not attain what he was initially deficient in; the envious is not altogether concerned with attaining anything. His satisfaction arises when the blessing granted to the one he envies is removed.
Prophets too were envied by those who believed themselves more fitting to be honoured by Allāh:
“Do they, perchance, envy other people for what God has granted them out of His bounty? But then, We did grant revelation and wisdom unto the House of Abraham, and We did bestow on them a mighty dominion.”
The most elaborate Qur’ānic example of envy and its effects is found in Sūrah Yūsuf. In the case of Yūsuf (ʿalayhi salām) it was his brothers who plotted against him with malicious envious intent. They sulked for not having the same affectionate attention from their father Yaʿqūb (ʿalayhi salām) in comparison to the younger Yūsuf. Theirs is a tragedy on many levels. Embittered by envy they sought to harm their brother, kill him or expel him to a distant land “so that your father’s favour may be all for you…”. The brothers, like Qābīl, were driven by passion. Their envy became pathological.
The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) warned us that “the disease of previous nations has crept on you: envy and hatred”. He reminded us to be on guard against envy because “it consumes good deeds the way that fire consumes firewood”. The instruction was that we should “be brothers” and not envy one another.
There are simple steps we can all take to ensure we do not create a culture of envy around ourselves nor become entangled in a personal state of envy:
1) Always attribute all good to Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿāla). It is He who is al-Munʿim (The Bestower of Blessings) and al-Wahhāb (The All-Giver) and all blessings are from Him. Let us always remember to say MāshāAllāh or Lā quwwata illā billāh, thus attributing the blessing to Allāh. This was the advice the believer gave his wealthy companion who strutted arrogantly on account of his worldly pleasures and consequently lost his faith.
“And he went into his garden, while he (thus) wronged himself. He said: I think not that all this will ever perish/I think not that the Hour will ever come, and if indeed I am brought back unto my Lord I surely shall find better than this as a resort”.
His comrade advised him to consider the One who provided his blessings:
“If only, when you entered your garden, you had said: That which Allāh wills (will come to pass)! There is no strength except in Allāh!”
The mindset of Qārūn was similar. He attributed the accumulation of his treasures to his own knowledge and not to Allāh.
“He said: I have been given it only on account of knowledge I possess.”
Such an attitude would quickly engender jealousy and envy for Qārūn since others would feel as though their knowledge was insufficient in comparison to Qārūn’s. Attributing the blessing to Allāh reminds everyone that it is Allāh who provides and our receiving is not entirely on account of our efforts but by the will and grace of Allāh.
2) Remember that every blessing is a test, that Allāh requires one to be thankful for the blessing and that it is used in a beneficial rather than harmful way.
3) That one can very easily and very suddenly lose a blessing and that nothing is decreed to remain forever in this life. The ephemeral nature of our present life should make us more concerned about striving for an abode that does last forever.
4) The Prophet (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) instructed us to ‘Look to those who have less than you and not to those who have more because it will make you undermine Allāh’s favour upon you.’ Think about the countless blessings we have in life which others so wish they had. Think about the gifts of food, of drink, of health, of family, of a home. Think about your senses of smell, taste and sight. It is essential in the materialistic and competitive climate in which we live that we look to those who have far less than we have, that we teach our children to express gratitude for what they have, however meagre, because there are always those who have far less. Considering the abundant blessings we have in our lives will protect us from harbouring resentful feelings towards others. We must see the working of Allāh’s wisdom in His distribution of provision to His creation. The Qur’ān calls attention to Allāh’s power, wisdom and authority.
5) Ask Allāh for assistance in overcoming negative thoughts and feelings. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) once instructed his companion, “O Ibn Abis! Shall I guide you to or inform you of the best thing that those who seek protection use for protection?” He replied, “Of course, O Messenger of Allāh!” The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said, “Say: ‘I seek refuge with the Lord of Al-Falaq.’’ and “Say: ‘I seek refuge with the Lord of mankind.’” “These two Surahs” (are the best protection). It is in the final verse of Sūrah al-Falaq that believers seek refuge with Allāh from the evil of the envious when he envies (min sharri ḥāsidin idhā ḥasad). This is a daily prescription for believers to be on constant guard against envy and to seek protection from the evil effects of envy – both physical and spiritual harm.
6) Envy is a psychological state; we think our way into becoming envious and we can think our way out of being envious. Remember that all perfection belongs to Allāh and whenever envious insinuations emerge remind yourself that everyone has weaknesses and faults. Though you might admire someone’s physical strength, perhaps there is a spiritual weakness or a physical ailment that one is not aware of. A person might envy someone for the wealth he or she has but perhaps the wealth is not producing the happiness and contentment in that person’s life the way he or she expected.
7) What is, in fact, most essential is that we remember that it is Allāh who gifts as He pleases. For somebody to begrudge another person for what Allāh, out of His wisdom, has given them, would suggest a questioning or disliking of Allāh’s decision making. It is essential, therefore, that instead of being displeased because of what somebody else has it is incumbent on us to be pleased with Allāh’s decree.
8) Focus on your own talents and skills rather than looking for what others have. Too often our time and mental exertion is spent worrying about others and what others have. Consider yourself, and think about how you can make a positive difference. If what is being sought is attainable then think about how you can use your own skill, knowledge and determination to achieve it.
9) Always remember that the focus is not on the means but the goal, and the goal is always Allāh’s pleasure. The failing of the man who had two gardens, whom Allāh describes in Sūrah al-Kahf, was that he made the means to his happiness – palm trees, crops, flowing river, fruits – the goal of his endeavours. Once you make Allāh’s worship and pleasure the goal of your pursuits the sweetness of achieving in this life is always counterbalanced with the reminder that what is truly sought is not of this world.
10) Be content with what Allāh has given you and strive to attain that which will benefit you, seek the help of Allāh, and do not feel helpless.
11) Compete for the ākhirah. Rather than ḥasad, let it be munāfasa (competitiveness with a focus on the Hereafter) that drives our actions. We are encouraged to compete for the lasting abode of the Hereafter, to express gratitude in happiness and by bearing patiently in adversity. The Qur’ān calls us to desire the good of the next life:
“For this (paradise) let (all) those strive who strive for bliss.”
On one occasion a group of poor companions approached the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) and complained about not being able, due to their poverty, to give much in charity. The Prophet reminded them that there were other ways in which they too could gain reward and that they could compete to gain Allāh’s favour in different ways.
The competitive spirit to earn rewards and do good actions was demonstrated in many different ways. The Prophet was particularly considerate about teaching children about the values of altruism, belief in divine decree, self-reflection and contentment, and sympathy for others. He once told one of his young companions:
“Young boy, I will teach you some words: Be careful regarding Allāh and He will take care of you. Be careful regarding Allāh and you will find Him in front of you. When you ask, ask Allāh and when you seek refuge, seek refuge with Allāh. Know that if the whole community were to gather together to help you with something, they would not be able to help you in any way unless Allāh had written that for you. And if they were to gather together to harm you in some way, they would not be able to harm you except with something which Allāh had written for you. The pens have been lifted and the pages are dry.”
In a variant tradition he (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) is reported to have said:
“Be careful regarding Allāh and you will find Him before you. Recognise Allāh in ease and He will recognise you in hardship. Know that whatever misses you could never have hit you and what hits you could never have missed you. Know that victory comes with patience, rescue with constriction, and ease with hardship.”
The tradition of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) is monumental in its comprehensiveness and brings together advice and instruction that challenges the envy that might creep upon an individual. Muslims are taught that the good that is bestowed on a person is through the favour of Allāh alone. Acknowledgment of the fact that we will all have our fair share of hardship and that periods of adversity are followed by ease of whatever sort will lead us, not only to persevere, but to adopt a more caring approach towards others who might suffer more, in greater degrees and against greater odds. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) reminded us to “look to the one who has less than you, not to the one who has more than you – because then you would undervalue the favour of Allāh upon you.” George Sodini cocooned himself into a world where only his problems dictated his thoughts and behaviour. He was unable to look to his stability in so many other areas in his life and show appreciation; he could not compare his difficulty with the plight of so many others. Sodini was a victim of envy who taught us all that envy really does cut its own throat.
“Do not be envious of one another; do not artificially inflate prices against one another; do not hate one another; do not shun one another; and do not undercut one another in business transactions; and be as fellow-brothers and servants of Allāh.
 W. Gibson, The Boat (London, 1952), p. 35.
 Helmut Schoek, Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour (New York, 1996), p. 130.
 ‘Youth Is Accused of Killing City College Star with Car’, New York Times, December 16, 1963.
 Al-Qur’ān, 4:54
 Al-Qur’ān, 12:9
 Abū Dāwūd
 Al-Qur’ān, 18:35-36
 Al-Qur’ān, 18:39
 Ibn Mājah
 Al-Qur’ān, 83:26
 Ibn Mājah
 Abū Dāwūd