The Arabic word in the Quran for selfishness is “l-shuḥa” ( الشُّحَّ ). The root of this word is ش ح ح, which has the following derivative meanings: selfish, stingy, greedy, and covetous.

4:128:20l-shuḥaالشُّحَّthe selfishness.
33:19:1ashiḥḥatanأَشِحَّةًStingy / Selfish
33:19:22ashiḥḥatanأَشِحَّةًStingy / Selfish
59:9:27shuḥḥaشُحَّ(from the) stinginess / selfishness (of)
64:16:12shuḥḥaشُحَّ(from the) stinginess / selfishness (of)

Both 64:16 and 59:9 make the identical decleration: ( وَمَنْ يُوقَ شُحَّ نَفْسِهِ فَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ ) “Anyone who is protected from his own selfishness, these are the successful ones.

[64:14] O you who believe, your spouses and your children can be your enemies; beware. If you pardon, forget, and forgive, then GOD is Forgiver, Most Merciful. [64:15] Your money and children are a test, and GOD possesses a great recompense. [64:16] Therefore, you shall reverence GOD as much as you can, and listen, and obey, and give (to charity) for your own good. Anyone who is protected from his own selfishness, these are the successful ones.

 يَاأَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِنَّ مِنْ أَزْوَاجِكُمْ وَأَوْلَادِكُمْ عَدُوًّا لَكُمْ فَاحْذَرُوهُمْ وَإِنْ تَعْفُوا وَتَصْفَحُوا وَتَغْفِرُوا فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ غَفُورٌ رَحِيمٌ 
إِنَّمَا أَمْوَالُكُمْ وَأَوْلَادُكُمْ فِتْنَةٌ وَاللَّهُ عِنْدَهُ أَجْرٌ عَظِيمٌ
 فَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ مَا اسْتَطَعْتُمْ وَاسْمَعُوا وَأَطِيعُوا وَأَنْفِقُوا خَيْرًا لِأَنْفُسِكُمْ وَمَنْ يُوقَ شُحَّ نَفْسِهِ فَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

[59:9] As for those who provided them with a home and a refuge, and were believers before them, they love those who immigrated to them, and find no hesitation in their hearts in helping them. In fact, they readily give them priority over themselves, even when they themselves need what they give away. Anyone who is protected from his own selfishness, these are the successful ones.

 وَالَّذِينَ تَبَوَّءُوا الدَّارَ وَالْإِيمَانَ مِنْ قَبْلِهِمْ يُحِبُّونَ مَنْ هَاجَرَ إِلَيْهِمْ وَلَا يَجِدُونَ فِي صُدُورِهِمْ حَاجَةً مِمَّا أُوتُوا وَيُؤْثِرُونَ عَلَىٰ أَنْفُسِهِمْ وَلَوْ كَانَ بِهِمْ خَصَاصَةٌ وَمَنْ يُوقَ شُحَّ نَفْسِهِ فَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

This indicates that selfishness is a manifestation of the self. The other occurrence in 4:128 states that selfishness was something the self brought forth, which can be understood that this is a human trait.

[4:128] If a woman senses oppression or desertion from her husband, the couple shall try to reconcile their differences, for conciliation is best for them. Selfishness is a human trait, and if you do good and lead a righteous life, GOD is fully Cognizant of everything you do.

 وَإِنِ امْرَأَةٌ خَافَتْ مِنْ بَعْلِهَا نُشُوزًا أَوْ إِعْرَاضًا فَلَا جُنَاحَ عَلَيْهِمَا أَنْ يُصْلِحَا بَيْنَهُمَا صُلْحًا وَالصُّلْحُ خَيْرٌ وَأُحْضِرَتِ الْأَنْفُسُ الشُّحَّ وَإِنْ تُحْسِنُوا وَتَتَّقُوا فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيرًا

18wa-uḥ’ḍiratiوَأُحْضِرَتِAnd [it] was brought forth / presentedح ض ر
19l-anfusuالْأَنْفُسُthe souls / selvesن ف س
20l-shuḥaالشُّحَّthe selfishness.ش ح ح

In this verse it states that a couple should reconcile their differences if they are going through hardship, and in another verse it states that this can be achieved through involving the family members.

[4:35] If a couple fears separation, you shall appoint an arbitrator from his family and an arbitrator from her family; if they decide to reconcile, GOD will help them get together. GOD is Omniscient, Cognizant.

 وَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ شِقَاقَ بَيْنِهِمَا فَٱبْعَثُوا۟ حَكَمًا مِّنْ أَهْلِهِۦ وَحَكَمًا مِّنْ أَهْلِهَآ إِن يُرِيدَآ إِصْلَـٰحًا يُوَفِّقِ ٱللَّهُ بَيْنَهُمَآ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ كَانَ عَلِيمًا خَبِيرًا

The last occurrence uses the root in the context of stinginess.

[33:19] Also, they are too stingy when dealing with you. If anything threatens the community, you see their eyes rolling with fear, as if death had already come to them. Once the crisis is over, they whip you with sharp tongues. They are too stingy with their wealth. These are not believers, and, consequently, GOD has nullified their works. This is easy for GOD to do.

 أَشِحَّةً عَلَيْكُمْ فَإِذَا جَاءَ الْخَوْفُ رَأَيْتَهُمْ يَنْظُرُونَ إِلَيْكَ تَدُورُ أَعْيُنُهُمْ كَالَّذِي يُغْشَىٰ عَلَيْهِ مِنَ الْمَوْتِ فَإِذَا ذَهَبَ الْخَوْفُ سَلَقُوكُمْ بِأَلْسِنَةٍ حِدَادٍ أَشِحَّةً عَلَى الْخَيْرِ أُولَٰئِكَ لَمْ يُؤْمِنُوا فَأَحْبَطَ اللَّهُ أَعْمَالَهُمْ وَكَانَ ذَٰلِكَ عَلَى اللَّهِ يَسِيرًا

The connection between selfishness and stinginess is that they both focus on one’s own needs and interests to the exclusion of others. This tendency to focus on the self at the expense of others is engrained in day one of life as a human. Even while still in the mother’s womb, babies are only focused on their own needs, such as food, warmth, and comfort, and are not capable of understanding or taking into account the needs and desires of others. As babies grow and develop, they become more aware of the preferences and feelings of others and start to exhibit more cooperative and considerate behavior.

Additionally, to be selfish or stingy requires people to be part of society. In isolation on one’s own, it is impossible to be selfish because there is no one else to be selfish or stingy towards. Selfishness only occurs when we have to decide our own wants with the wants of others. Therefore if selfishness is a human trait, being part of society is also part of being human. This may be part of the reason that God condemns monasticism/hermitism ( rahbāniyyatan / رَهْبَانِيَّةً ).

[57:27] Subsequent to them, we sent our messengers. We sent Jesus the son of Mary, and we gave him the Injeel (Gospel), and we placed in the hearts of his followers kindness and mercy. But they invented hermitism which we never decreed for them. All we asked them to do was to uphold the commandments approved by GOD. But they did not uphold the message as they should have. Consequently, we gave those who believed among them their recompense, while many of them were wicked.

 ثُمَّ قَفَّيْنَا عَلَىٰ آثَارِهِمْ بِرُسُلِنَا وَقَفَّيْنَا بِعِيسَى ابْنِ مَرْيَمَ وَآتَيْنَاهُ الْإِنْجِيلَ وَجَعَلْنَا فِي قُلُوبِ الَّذِينَ اتَّبَعُوهُ رَأْفَةً وَرَحْمَةً وَرَهْبَانِيَّةً ابْتَدَعُوهَا مَا كَتَبْنَاهَا عَلَيْهِمْ إِلَّا ابْتِغَاءَ رِضْوَانِ اللَّهِ فَمَا رَعَوْهَا حَقَّ رِعَايَتِهَا فَآتَيْنَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مِنْهُمْ أَجْرَهُمْ وَكَثِيرٌ مِنْهُمْ فَاسِقُونَ

If we look at the four verses that utilize the root of selfishness, we see a framework in how we may want to balance our needs with our obligation to others.

  • 4:128 it is between a husband and wife (spouse)
  • 64:15 is in the context of a spouse, children, and money (family)
  • 59:9 is in regards to giving refuge to those in need (community)
  • 33:19 is regarding helping the community protect and defend itself (nation)

These can represent the different spheres of life we should prioritize in maintaining their stability over our own needs when the opportunity is required. We should value our spouse, family, community, and nation over our own wants when our wants can cause the dismantling of any of these spheres.

4:128 informs us that selfishness must be put aside for the sake of maintaining a marriage. It is interesting that the verse addresses women, despite the requirement for conciliation being recommended for both. This may be because most divorces in the US are initiated by women. A study led by the American Sociological Association determined that nearly 70% of divorces are initiated by women. And the percentage of college-educated American women who initiated divorce is even higher.

64:14 states that our money and children are a fitna ( فِتْنَةٌ ) this implies that this is a test or trial that can cause a division. As a provider for a family, one has to decide if they prioritize their money or their children. This can be understood in two ways. The first is the act of having children, which is a selfless act, where one has to make a choice do they want to spend their hard-earned money for the sake of another mouth to feed. This may be why twice in the Quran, it states not to kill one’s children from fear of poverty or fear (17:31) of falling into poverty (6:151).

[17:31] You shall not kill your children due to fear of poverty. We provide for them, as well as for you. Killing them is a gross offense.

(٣١) وَلَا تَقْتُلُوٓا۟ أَوْلَـٰدَكُمْ خَشْيَةَ إِمْلَـٰقٍ نَّحْنُ نَرْزُقُهُمْ وَإِيَّاكُمْ إِنَّ قَتْلَهُمْ كَانَ خِطْـًٔا كَبِيرًا

[6:151] Say, “Come let me tell you what your Lord has really prohibited for you: You shall not set up idols besides Him. You shall honor your parents. You shall not kill your children from fear of falling into poverty—we provide for you and for them. You shall not commit gross sins, obvious or hidden. You shall not kill—GOD has made life sacred—except in the course of justice. These are His commandments to you, that you may understand.”

 قُلْ تَعَالَوْا۟ أَتْلُ مَا حَرَّمَ رَبُّكُمْ عَلَيْكُمْ أَلَّا تُشْرِكُوا۟ بِهِۦ شَيْـًٔا وَبِٱلْوَٰلِدَيْنِ إِحْسَـٰنًا وَلَا تَقْتُلُوٓا۟ أَوْلَـٰدَكُم مِّنْ إِمْلَـٰقٍ نَّحْنُ نَرْزُقُكُمْ وَإِيَّاهُمْ وَلَا تَقْرَبُوا۟ ٱلْفَوَٰحِشَ مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا وَمَا بَطَنَ وَلَا تَقْتُلُوا۟ ٱلنَّفْسَ ٱلَّتِى حَرَّمَ ٱللَّهُ إِلَّا بِٱلْحَقِّ ذَٰلِكُمْ وَصَّىٰكُم بِهِۦ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ

The other way it can be understood is if one has children do they spend more time making more money or spending more time with their children?

59:9 describes the family who hosts refugees and goes so far as to state: “In fact, they readily give them priority over themselves, even when they themselves need what they give away.” This shows that when community members are in a dire situation without shelter, we are to step up and provide for them to the best of our ability.

33:19 states that if called up to give money or aid in protecting one’s nation, we should not be so shortsighted to only think about ourselves. Only when one becomes selfless and prioritizes the welfare of others over their own vain desires can one have a fruitful society.

When balancing our wants over the wants of these different spheres in a person’s life, our marriage, family, community, and nation, it is essential that at the risk of the crumbling of these institutions, we sacrifice however we can for the greater good to keep these structures alive when we are required to do so.

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