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Sacred Tranquility in Our Age of Distress & Anxiety

The main thrust of this piece is a short discussion from Imam Ibn al-Qayyim concerning how his shaykh, Ibn Taymiyyah, would recite the six “Verses of Tranquility” in the Qur’an whenever he would feel under pressure or find himself in straightened circumstances. Ibn al-Qayyim writes that when he tried this spiritual remedy for himself, he too found relief from the agitation or anxiousness he would be experiencing. The post wraps-up by briefly mentioning the two kinds of anxiety that afflict people, and how the Qur’an is a spiritual healing for life’s angsts and anxieties.

In what is possibly his most developed work on Muslim spirituality (tazkiyat al-nafs, ‘ilm al-suluk, tasawwuf), Ibn al-Qayyim commences his discussion on the spiritual quality of tranquility (sakinah) by saying it’s a virtue gifted by God through His unmitigated grace: it cannot be earned or acquired through spiritual works and exertion.1 He then tells us that sakinah is mentioned in six verses of the Holy Qur’an. These verses are:

1. وَقَالَ لَهُمْ نَبِيُّهُمْ إِنَّ آيَةَ مُلْكِهِ أَنْ يَأْتِيَكُمُ التَّابُوتُ فِيهِ سَكِينَةٌ مِنْ رَبِّكُمْ – Their Prophet said to them: ‘The sign of his kingship is that there shall come to you the ark wherein is tranquility from your Lord.’ [Q.2:248]

2. ثُمَّ أَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ سَكِينَتَهُ عَلَى رَسُولِهِ وَعَلَى الْمُؤْمِنِينَ – Then God sent down His tranquility on His Prophet and the believers. [Q.9:26]

3. إِذْ يَقُولُ لِصَاحِبِهِ لَا تَحْزَنْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ مَعَنَا فَأَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ سَكِينَتَهُ عَلَيْهِ وَأَيَّدَهُ بِجُنُودٍ لَمْ تَرَوْهَا – [W]hen he said to his companion; ‘Do not despair, for God is with us.’ Then God caused His tranquility to descend upon him and supported him with invisible forces. [Q.9:40]

4. هُوَ الَّذِي أَنْزَلَ السَّكِينَةَ فِي قُلُوبِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ لِيَزْدَادُوا إِيمَانًا مَعَ إِيمَانِهِمْ وَلِلَّهِ جُنُودُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ عَلِيمًا حَكِيمًاHe it is who sent down tranquility into the hearts of the believers, so that they would have more faith added to their [present] faith. God’s are the hosts of the heavens and the earth, and God is Knowing, Wise. [Q.48:4]

5. لَقَدْ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ إِذْ يُبَايِعُونَكَ تَحْتَ الشَّجَرَةِ فَعَلِمَ مَا فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ فَأَنْزَلَ السَّكِينَةَ عَلَيْهِمْ وَأَثَابَهُمْ فَتْحًا قَرِيبًا – God was well pleased with the believers when they swore allegiance to you under the tree. And He knew what was in their hearts; thus He sent down tranquility on them and rewarded them with a near victory. [Q.48:18]

6. إِذْ جَعَلَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا فِي قُلُوبِهِمُ الْحَمِيَّةَ حَمِيَّةَ الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ فَأَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ سَكِينَتَهُ عَلَى رَسُولِهِ وَعَلَى الْمُؤْمِنِينَ – When the disbelievers had set up in their hearts chauvinism – the chauvinism of the Age of Ignorance. Then God sent down His tranquility on His Messenger and the believers. [Q.48:26]

After listing the verses, Ibn al-Qayyim then goes on to reveal: ‘Whenever matters became intense, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah, may God have mercy upon him, would recite the Verses of Tranquility (ayat al-sakinah). I once heard him say concerning a serious incident that afflicted him during an illness of his …”When the matter became acute, I said to my relatives and those around me: “Recite the Verses of Tranquility.” I would then be relieved from this condition and my heart would be freed of its troubles.”

‘I [Ibn al-Qayyim] also experienced this on reading these verses, when my heart became disturbed over something that troubled it. I experienced their tremendous effect, in terms of the calm and peace they brought to it.

‘The root of this sakinah is the heart’s peace (tuma’ninah), composure (waqar) and repose (sukun) that God causes to descend upon the heart of His servant, in times of disquieting troubles.’2

Of course, such verses should be recited with an overall awareness of what one is reciting, in order for them to yield their true benefits. Ibn al-Qayyim makes this point in another of his works. While teasing out the theological benefits and spiritual fruits of the verse: And remember Job, when he cried unto his Lord: “Affliction has seized me. But You are the Most Merciful of the merciful” [Q.21:83], he notes:

‘This supplication (du‘a) combines in itself the essence of tawhid, manifesting indigence before the Lord, the taste of divine love in the praise and the flattery of Him, affirming His attribute of mercy and that He is the Most Merciful of those who show mercy, seeking the means to approach Him through [mention] of His attributes, and one’s dire need of Him. Whenever the afflicted one feels this, his affliction will be removed. Experience confirms that whoever repeats this [verse] seven times, especially with this awareness, God shall lift from him his affliction.’3

Ours is an age filled with two kinds of angst or anxiety. The first is what is referred to as “existential angst”: an anxiety and despair born from falsely believing that life is devoid of meaning; everything is here by some cosmic “chance”; and that despite our freedom to choose, death is our ultimate end: therefore life is pointless. The believer is shielded from such an anxiety because of knowing that life has a God-centred purpose; that death is not the end; and that the good we do, seeking God’s good pleasure – even if unappreciated by others – is known by God and is accepted and rewarded by Him, through His unmitigated grace. In this way, the believer is known to God and loved by Him.

The other kind of angst can afflict anyone – believer or unbeliever, saint or sinner – and is an intrinsic part of human life. This kind of anxiety is, for a want of a better term, more of a “clinical angst” and is usually experienced in the context of a physical threat, a trauma, or a situational problem or crisis. By clinical, I mean that it may be (and usually is) treated with conventional medicine, or professional therapy, or meditative practices and spiritual healing – or even a combination of two, or of all three. And whilst certain anxieties, such as trauma brought on in childhood, isn’t the individual’s fault, it is their responsibility to try and remedy or cope with it.

For a Muslim, the Qur’an is a powerful shifa’, or healing: And We reveal of the Qur’an that which is a healing and a mercy to the believers. [Q.17:82] And whilst the primary healing of the Qur’an is in curing the intellectual doubts, falsehoods or half truths concerning God, humanity’s true purpose, life’s essential meaning, and our ultimate end; and in providing humanity with a practical and liveable morality suitable for all times or places, it offers psycho-spiritual relief to mind and soul as well. Reciting the words (alfaz) of the Qur’an, and pondering over their meanings (ma‘na), are both a healing – the former is a means to the latter, with the latter being the greater goal and purpose of the Holy Qur’an: Will they not ponder over the Qur’an, or are there locks upon their hearts? [Q.47:24] For some, the six Verses of Tranquility – when recited with an overall awareness of their meanings, coupled with feeling needy and indigent before God – has proven an effective remedy in bringing about relief from the heart’s troubles and the mind’s anxieties. With the correct adab, and mustering enough sincerity and neediness, it could very well do the same for us too?

We ask Allah for His kindness and grace.

1. Madarij al-Salikin (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2005), 2:404.

2. ibid., 2:404-5.

3. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 292. As for the shari‘ah justification of repeating dhikr formulas a specific number of times, when such a number has not been specifically mentioned in a text from the Qur’an or the Sunnah, consult: Dhikr Repetition: Is It Allowed?

The Need to Be Known and to Be Understood

lonely-man-bridge-by-Stefano-Corso-711x460Three core ingredients go into making up the religion of Islam. And they are expressed in three simple words: iman – the “faith” or “belief” one must have in God, His Prophets, as well as in the Afterlife; islam – outward “submission” to God in terms of such things like prayer, pilgrimage or moral uprightness; and ihsan – usually translated as “excellence”, which refers to internalising faith and outward submission, and bringing them to their peak and perfection. The Prophet, peace be upon him, described ihsan in these words: ‘It is to worship God as though seeing Him; and though you see Him not, know that He sees you.’ [Muslim, no.2]

Time and again, the Qur’an speaks of God, of Allah, as being al-Basir – “All-Seeing” and al-Khabir – “All-Aware”. We read in the Qur’an: Nothing in the earth or in the heavens is hidden from God. [Q.3:5] We are also told: He knows what is secret and what is even more hidden. [Q.20:7] And as Edwin Arnold versified in Pearls of Faith:

‘Al-Khabir! Thou Who art ‘aware’ of all,
By this name also for Thy grace we call.
Yes! pardon, Lord, since Thou dost know
Tomorrow, now, and long ago.’

So God sees us at every moment; and is aware of all things, at all times. But we need to tread very carefully here. For allowing hearts to nurture a healthy sense of fear of God, through awareness of Him being All-Seeing, All-Aware, is undeniably part of sound faith. But the notion that God is some sort of “Super-Spy”, eagerly waiting to catch us out and to gleefully punish us when we may slip, stumble, or harbour fleeting, shameful secret thoughts that we dare not acknowledge even to our ownselves, is not what such Quranic verses are about. That God is lying in ambush to see us hopefully slip or sin, so as to then pounce on us with divine punishment – well that sort of idea of God as being some sort of mean-spirited, cosmic Tyrant is utterly alien to Islam!

The Holy Qur’an wishes us to understand that God’s all-seeing presence isn’t suffocating. Rather the believer finds God’s all-knowing presence reassuring and comforting. In their deepest need to be known, the believer is aware that God fully knows them: and that is surely reassuring. And in their deepest need to be understood, the believer realises that God truly understands them: and that is comforting. The sense of loneliness which haunts so many people in our age, cries out for love; for friendship; for companionship. It cries out to be known and to be understood. What a relief, then, to discover that – in the only way it truly matters – we are fully understood, because we are truly known. For He who created us and fashioned us is in the best position to truly know us, meaningfully heal us, and ultimately forgive us. 

But while the divine Mercy cannot wait to forgive us our sins and stupidities, it’s a two-way street. Whilst the Holy Qur’an insists that God’s mercy embraces all things [Q.7:156], it also states: Your Lord has prescribed mercy for Himself, that whoever of you does evil and afterwards repents, and does right, [for them] God is assuredly Forgiving, Compassionate. [Q.6:54] Repentance, or tawbah, doesn’t mean self-pitying guilt. It means turning back to God when we had turned away from Him, admitting the simple truth of our predicament: that we have fallen short of what could reasonably be expected of us.

But if our theology doesn’t help stoke the fire of intimacy with, or yearning for, God, then we are likely going about religion in the wrong way. Does our theology reassure us that we have a God who we can bring our sadness, our sorrows, our loneliness, our fear, our hurt, our shame and sins to, or is it just a case of knowing what Islam has to say about those moments and for us to then mechanically carry out the external processes? When it’s the latter, we’ll always tend to stop there and not voice such feelings to God, thereby denying ourselves the whole point of God’s essential nature: When My servants ask you about Me, I am near, I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he prays to Me. [Q.2:186]

That God is All-Seeing, All-Aware is, therefore to be known and, even more importantly, to be understood. And behind His awareness is the beautiful and comforting religious reality of a God who says: ‘O My servants who have wronged their own souls. Despair not of God’s mercy! For God forgives all sins; He is indeed Forgiving, Compassionate.’ [Q.39:53]

May knowledge of this truth lead to knowing Him more, and being known by Him. May it lead to deepening our awareness of Him, and being understood and healed by Him.

Grief & Loss: How to Cope With Life’s Pitiless Storms

daisy (reduced)The following is less about the reason or meaning behind suffering and loss (which I’ve written about here), and more to do with coping with personal tragedy or grief. It was written for a close family, to help console them on the loss of a dear loved one. I have added a note on the nature of trials, as understood by Islam, and the appropriate faith-based responses it asks of us.

Many are the emotions that assail the heart, but grief, without doubt, is the hardest of all. The pain felt at the loss of a loved one awakens grief, yet seldom is much gained by yielding too far to grief’s cruelty. Yes, tears must flow. Pain must be endured. Souls must sorrow and be scarred. That you grieve not, none have the right to insist. Weep, then, but wail not; and let not sorrow’s suffering tarry too long. For your loved one would not have you sorrow more than is fitting.

What would he say to you, he whose loss you lament? That he welcomes the love you thus show to him; but that he doesn’t want your grief to be prolonged. He’d ask that you gently put your sorrows to slumber and remember him in the splendour of his days. And that although time will assuage the pangs of grief, he’d want that we move on from such grief by choice.

Remember and recollect: recall the most cherished things about the one who is loved but is lost; of how he enriched our lives and the lives of others too. For this honours our departed loved ones, and consoles us and keeps them with us in our hearts.

If death taketh away, life doth giveth. If so young a life is taken and an older one still remains; but when did death ever promise that it’d take us in order of age?! Now is a time to reflect, not just that all things are mortal, but also that their mortality follows no fixed law.

If tragedy darkens our days, how can we deny that the sun still shines. If destiny deals an unexpected blow, how can we give up on life. If we have buried one of our loved ones, other of our cherished ones still live on. So now is the time to cherish our living loved ones even more: celebrating our love of them and spending time with them. For we cannot love only when we’ve lost.

And while we honour those who have passed on with loving remembrance, we know that such remembrance is not without its bitterness. Yet still, let’s put our sorrows to slow slumber and remember him in the glory of his days.1

And We test you with evil and with good as a trial, states the Qur’an [21:35]. According to Islam, life is not seen as being a random act of chance with no purpose and meaning. Instead, life is a theatre of signs and tests for the life to come. Trials, tests, ordeals and adversity are the inevitable price that we each must pay for the privilege of being born into the human drama. Providence allots to each of us opportunities, circumstances, talents and abilities so as to engage life’s tests and ordeals. Revelation also tells us that what counts, isn’t so much the form or nature of the actual tests, but how we respond to them. Sometimes we are tried with the obvious: hardships, misfortunes, calamities. At other times, with the less obvious: wealth, wellbeing, or material abundance. Both, nonetheless, are seen by the believer as tests.

As for the obvious, Allah says in the Qur’an: We shall indeed test you with something of fear and hunger, loss of property and of lives and crops; but give glad tidings to those who are patient. [2:155] If the one being tried in this way is a person whose faith is generally upright, in terms of observing the religious injunctions and avoiding the prohibitions, then such trials are a sign of Allah honouring them and seeking to raise them in rank. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘When Allah loves a person, He tries them.’2 He ﷺ also told us: ‘No Muslim is afflicted with hardship, pain, anxiety, grief or injury; even to the extent of being pricked by a thorn, without Allah causing it to be an atonement for his sins.’3 This is the case provided they show patience, continue to observe the religious duties, and their conviction in Allah’s essential goodness does not waver.

Those who are not upright, especially those who make little or no attempt at being so, then such trials are the upshot of sins and rebellion against God: Whatever good befalls you is from Allah, whatever ill afflicts you is from yourselves. [4:79] Such ordeals, then, are either a mark of divine wrath and punishment, or a caution from Allah to repent and amend our ways.

As for the less obvious tests, we read in the Qur’an: If they had but followed the path of rectitude, We would have given them abundant water, so as to try them. [72:16-17] Again, if a person is upright, then the ease, blessings or opulence Allah gifts to them is also a trial, to see if they are thankful; and to see if they enjoy such blessings in a lawful way, utilise them in the worship of Allah, as well as in the service of others. When blessed with Allah’s bounties and blessings, the believer acknowledges: ‘This is the favour of my Lord, that He may try me whether I will be thankful or ungrateful. He who gives thanks, he only gives thanks for [the good of] his own soul, and he who is ungrateful [is so only to his own soul’s hurt], for my Lord is Rich, Generous.’ [27:40] Now those who show gratitude, or shukr, Allah says: ‘If you are thankful, I will increase you. But if you are ungrateful, My torment is indeed severe.’ [14:7]

As for those who aren’t upright, nor attempt to walk the path of rectitude; those who neglect religious observance and who languish in the domains of disobedience, when they are surrounded by ease or blessings, it is nothing but istidraj – Allah seizing them little by little; His punishment coming upon them gradually without them realising it. The Qur’an says: We shall seize them by degrees from whence they know not. And I shall grant them respite; for [assuredly] My devising is firm. [69:44-5] Echoing these words, the Prophet ﷺ warned: ‘If you see Allah granting a servant something of the world that he desires, despite him being deep in sins, then [know] it is istidraj.’4 Indeed what trial could be worse than when blessings are, in reality, nothing but curses?

Allahumma nas’aluka an taj‘alana mimman idha
u‘tiya shakara, wa idha’btuliya sabara,
wa idha adhnaba
istaghfara.
Amin.

1. Adapted and reworked from A.C. Grayling, The Good Book (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011), 93-5.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.5645.

3. Al-Bukhari, no.5641.

4. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Awsat, no.9426. Its chain is hasan, as per al-‘Iraqi, al-Mughni ani’l-Haml al-Asfar (Riyadh: Maktabah Tabariyyah, 1995), no.3772.

Revering the Symbols of God in an Age of Irreverence

Kaaba-7The Qur’an says: Whoever reveres the symbols of God, that is from piety of hearts. [22:32] Symbols (sha‘a’ir) refers to signs, marks or emblems by which something is known to belong to some particular body or group of people. Flags, for instance, are sha‘a’ir; as are those religious rites and practices which are emblematic of, or specific to, certain religious communities.

Here, the symbols of God being spoken of in the above verse refer to those well-known, external commands and prohibitions emblematic of Islam: the prayer, adhan, fasting, pilgrimage rites, the prohibition of pork or of drinking intoxicants, etc. Revering and venerating God’s symbols shows veneration for the One who sent them; which is from piety of hearts.

The signs that one reveres God’s sha‘a’ir are: fulfilling their demands; keeping to their limits; being attentive to accomplishing them correctly; hastening to them when they are due; and to be sad, disappointed or contrite if having missed any of their benefits. Another sign of veneration is to feel anger when God’s symbols are mocked or reviled, and sadness when they are disobeyed.1 Such anger, I must add, isn’t the uncontrolled, egotistical kind that causes faces to be twisted or contorted beyond recognition, and mouths to froth with frenzied rage and pathetic political imbecility. God forbid that the dignity of a believer should be so degradingly compromised.

Revering the symbols of God, and the Sacred Law of God, becomes ever more difficult when one lives in an Age of Irreverence, as we do. For treating someone or something, not just with courtesy, but with deep respect – for that’s what reverence calls for – can be an uphill task. The ego is ever eager to demean the sacred and drag things down to the lowest common doleful denominator. The pursuit of its own diktats, cravings and impulsive desires is what the ego is about; not the pursuit of virtues, or the growth of the Spirit. Whatever good is inherent in any liberal democracy, is being demonstrably erased by the unstoppable entrenchment of an ego culture. Affluenza is what British psychologist Oliver James has named it. For embedded in the philosophy of political liberalism, and consumerism, is the principle of pandering to the ego, and a reverence for irreverence.

As today’s liberal prescriptions become ever more intolerant; and ever more eager to suppress, stigmatise and demonise any significant dissenting voices, honouring God’s symbols (especially in respect to morality and gender relations) becomes much more difficult. Even so, we mustn’t be bullied into failing to state the correct Islamic rulings in such matters, nor be browbeaten into silence: And whoever reveres the sacraments of God, that is better for him with his Lord. [22:30].

1. Cf. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 32, 39.

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