Three Roots of Sin
Updated: Feb 14, 2022
The Sufi sages taught there are three sources of sin—pride, envy, and greed.
PRIDE. Pride caused Iblis to disobey God. Iblis was originally an angel who loved prayer and who prayed in every corner of the universe. He was proud that he prayed more than God’s other creatures. He thought he was better than everybody who prayed less than he did else. (His pride meant something must have been lacking in his prayer.)
When God ordered the angels to bow to Adam, Iblis argued with God. “I am made of fire and Adam is only made of clay! Why should I bow to Adam?”
Iblis was mistaken. God created Adam from all the elements—earth, air, water, and fire. Pride distorts your understanding and clouds your vision. Your narcissistic ego judges everyone else as less worthy than you are.
People who are proud of their intellect are generally not that smart. Truly intelligent people are generally more modest. They will say, “I do know quite a bit about one area, but I’m still learning even in my own specialty…” Intelligent people know there is always more to learn.
There are two kinds of people in this world, “knowers” and “learners.” Knowers are proud of their knowledge, which closes them off from learning anything new. If you try to teach a knower, they won’t listen because they believe they don’t have anything more to learn. On the other hand learners always want to discover more. Learners welcome new ideas and knowers would much rather tell you than listen to you.
Be careful of your pride. A real Sufi is humble and open to new learning. And you have to keep working at it.
My Sufi teacher used to say, “Always think of yourself as less worthy than someone older than you because they have had more time to pray than you have; they have had more time to serve others and more opportunities to give charity and serve the world. You should also defer to those who are younger than you because they have had less time to sin or harm others.”
It is healthier to judge yourself to be inferior to others, not above them. Your ego tries to claim you are superior. “I know more than that young person. I’ve prayed longer, and so I’m better. And that old person has been sinning and making mistakes for longer than I have.” Your ego always evaluates yourself as better than others. It distorts everything and that is the great danger of pride.
One remedy for pride is to remember that you are not perfect. Every time you make a mistake, tell your ego, “You see? You’re pretending I’m perfect, and here’s another example that I am not. I feel guilty, I feel terrible because I’m not perfect. Stop telling me I’m perfect!” Also, avoid your tendency to rationalize. Say, instead, “I made a mistake, I’m not perfect, and I need to remember I’m not perfect.” Reducing pride is a long-term project. It really is.
ENVY. The second source of sin is envy. The worst kind of envy is known as hasada in Arabic. It is also called “disgraceful envy.” It leads you to wish to destroy what others have rather than allow them to enjoy it. This kind of envy first occurred in the story of the two sons of Adam and Eve. Abel was a farmer and Cain was a hunter. When they made offerings to God, the offering of Abel was accepted and the offering of Cain was not. Cain became so furious he killed his brother rather than allow him to enjoy God’s favor. His envy destroyed his brother and devastated his own life. God marked Cain, so wherever he went he was shunned as the murderer of his own brother. Envy can drive you toward horrible decisions that may destroy your own life or the lives of others.
Envy leads to criticism, gossip, and negative judgements of others, often without any basis in fact. In Islam if you gossip about someone it’s as though you have eaten their flesh. Imagine for a moment how horrible that would be, how inhuman. Yet how often have you heard nasty gossip about someone behind their back?
I recently read an internet article about Meghan Markle. It included a series of horrible comments made by people who never met her. In their imagination they convicted Meghan of being a terrible, selfish person. Their comments were bitter and nasty, rooted in envy.
That’s how envy can lead you to behave. It’s even worse when you viciously criticize people you know and seek to destroy their reputation with mutual friends or family.
Envy leads to gossip. Some years ago we were having dinner with some old friends. They had also invited a young American Muslim man. We began gossiping about Sufi teachers we knew. All the young man said was, “Only God knows.”
It took me a while to get the message. I finally realized he was right! No one knows whose prayers God accepts. No one knows whether anyone else is sincere or not. Only God knows!
That phrase “Only God knows” is effective medicine. Learn to say “Only God knows,” and remind yourself not to judge. Remember that you don’t know.
GREED. The third source of sin is greed. Greed caused Adam and Eve to eat from the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were greedy for more knowledge. They wanted to grab what was not meant for them. Their greed blinded them. Humanity was infected by greed from the very beginning.
An old classmate of mine is a highly successful, world class scientist who made a tremendous amount of money. He also is an amateur violinist. He bought one of the finest Stradivarius violins ever made. Some years later he bought another famous Stradivarius violin. Each is worth millions of dollars. Now this amateur violinist owns two of the best violins ever made! It is an example of extraordinary greed. For an amateur to own one Stradivarius violin is extravagant; to own two is ridiculous.
Greed can make you crazy. Some people go to almost any extreme to feed their greed.
There is a part of you that always wants more. Healthy children are greedy. Healthy adults have grown out of their childish greed. Many years ago I traveled a lot. My children were young, and I came back from one trip with three or four presents for each. When I opened my luggage I said “Here’s one for each of you.”
They immediately responded, “Do you have any more?”
“Here’s another one for each of you.”
They immediately asked again, “Another one! Another one! Can I get another one?” That was normal behavior for young children. It is not normal for an adult.
Greed is never satisfied. Contentment is an important Sufi virtue but it is hard work to be content with what you have. Your ego is always trying to push you to accumulate more.
I am very fond of a book by a Richard Carlson entitled How to Tame Your Gremlin. In it he describes your ego as a funny little gremlin who keeps trying to increase your pride, envy, and greed. The gremlin often takes different forms. One of its favorite guises is as an artist. Whatever you own it will draw a better picture and tell you, “You’ll only be happy when you have this. Now this is the house you must have; this is the car you need.’
If you manage to acquire this ideal possession, the artist starts drawing again, “No, it really needs to be a bigger house, a bigger car, fancier clothing.” You can never catch up. Your gremlin always tries to prevent you from being content with what you have.
These three tendencies of sin are pride, envy, and greed. They are very strong in many people and it takes years of work to reduce them. It takes effort, patience and perseverance. Lectures alone won’t help. You need to act.
Do not pretend. All three of these tendencies lead you to pretend to be what you are not. These three tendencies can drive you crazy. If you wish to help others, discipline yourself. We learn more by example than by words.
When I was teaching at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the 1970s I became friendly with Mother Jenny, a wonderful healer and spiritual teacher. In the early 20th century she had crossed the United States in a covered wagon. At that time Santa Cruz was filled with hippies who believed it was fine to do as little work as possible and just hang out. Mother Jenny mentioned, “I was talking to some of these kids and I reminded them they have to work. I told them if you’ve got a garden and you don’t take out the weeds, you won’t have a garden very long. You’ll have a yard full of weeds!”
That is part of your work. Of course, you have to do pray, meditate, and serve. You have to love. But you also have to weed, and these are three kinds of weeds it’s best to uproot.