The Significance of Emotions in Islam


Screen shot 2013-04-29 at 9.37.14 PMBy Tarek Younis

Emotion: an often-neglected, yet significant component of our psychological configuration

Our psychological configuration consists of several components, all of which are interrelated:

  1. The spiritual component, as we say the fitrah, which naturally predisposes us with an inclination towards God and good.
  2. The cognitive component, which assumes all types of mental processes we can have.
  3. The emotional component, which covers the range of emotions we experience, such as anger, sadness, fear, shame, and guilt.

The purpose of this article is to focus exclusively on the emotional component, as it is oft-neglected amongst Muslims; indeed our community habitually focuses on our spiritual and cognitive components instead. This imbalance is significant for two reasons:

First of all, I contend that many – if not most – of the problems we face as individuals can directly be related to our emotional regulation.

Second of all, by neglecting the emotional component, we undervalue the emotional intelligence of the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him), who was a mercy to mankind on the basis of all three components combined. We consequently overlook his emotional character, perhaps even reducing him to a man of rules and regulations devoid of any feelings at all. An ayah that specifically highlights this trait was revealed after the battle of Uhud, in which Allah says:

“So by mercy from Allah, [O Muhammad], you were lenient with them. And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult them in the matter. And when you have decided, then rely upon Allah. Indeed, Allah loves those who rely [upon Him].”(Quran, 3:159)

The ayah (verse) demonstrates how the Prophet ﷺ was perfectly attuned to the emotional state of his followers– had it been otherwise, his companions would have disbanded. Indeed, the Prophet ﷺ  knew very well the importance of recognizing our emotions; his life was the quintessential example of emotional expression – when and how to express them – with the ultimate objective of developing our emotional intelligence.

What is the emotional component?

The experience of emotions is inevitable. Thus we do not exercise our free will in choosing not to have them, rather we practice free will in deciding what to do with them when they arise. There are several key points with regards to emotional intelligence that must be understood.

First of all, it’s important to realize that if God has created us with emotions, such as anger, sadness, fear, etc., then they must serve a purpose that is ultimately to our benefit. In fact, research has shown that our well-being – how happy you are, how good you feel, etc. – is entirely a function of our emotional make-up. Keep in mind, much like everything else we were given, emotions were created to enhance healthy living but it also carries the potential of being abused.

Second of all, the emotional component is incapable of reason; instead, it requires our rational brain to reflect on the valuable emotional information it produces. For example, when you’re scared, you try to use that information to rationalize what you’re afraid of. It is the collaboration of emotion and reason that results in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Third of all, we use emotions to give meaning to things. People reflect on their emotional feelings to make sense of their experiences. For example, someone may create meaning via the feeling of calmness that they experience when sitting in a religious institution, and they may thus appreciate the experience in a manner that attributes the calmness coming from God. The emotional component indeed plays a major role in our convictions and worldviews, which is quite often neglected in debates and arguments. This is especially important with regards to da’wah (calling people to Islam); the most common da’wah method I see amongst da’iis (those who do da’wah), I would say it’s almost exclusively a rational approach. I personally do not advocate an entirely rational approach to da’wah as that would presuppose that humans are entirely rational creatures. Rather, we must appreciate that our emotions play an equally significant (if not more so) role in the decisions we make. Significantly, if you speak to people who accepted Islam, not everyone will agree that they converted because it was an entirely reasonable choice; many, for example, say it was because of the love they felt for Allah, Islam, or indeed, the Muslim community. Although the general Western population places a superior emphasis on “rationality” than anything else, do not neglect the person’s feelings in the process. The meaning they will construct following your da’wah engagement will almost certainly depend on the emotions they were feeling in the process.

Finally, the emotional component consists of two processes: the facility of experiencing emotions and the capacity to regulate it. Indeed, the over and under-regulation of emotions is a significant cause of psychological distress. Let’s take the core emotion of fear as an example, and briefly examine how the Prophet ﷺ regulated it. Fear is a powerful, adaptive emotion that screams “danger!” It quickly generates a tremendous amount of energy (hence, your heart is racing, adrenaline, etc.) so you can immediately seek protection. In the time of the Prophet ﷺ, there was one context that we’re sure was fear-invoking for his companions: war. How did the Prophet ﷺ show us how to regulate our fear in these unquestionably fearful times? Did he under-regulate it by staying at home in hiding, overcome by the need to protect himself? Did he over-regulate it by running towards the enemy on his own, without any consideration for his own being? Of course not, the Prophet ﷺ was instead the perfect example of emotional regulation. You see, fear is just a warning sign for danger, and this is an incredibly valuable emotional information; instead of attacking the enemy carelessly (ignoring the fear), or staying at home (overcome by fear), he put on body armor and planned his attacks precisely. Hence, fear is a valuable asset from Allah that tells us to be careful. We shouldn’t let it overpower us, nor should we ever ignore it.

This is obviously an enormous topic. Indeed, philosophers and scholars have discussed the significance of the emotional component for millennia. As such, there were but a few thoughts on the importance of emotions, and I pray in the future we can discuss specific emotions – anger, sadness, fear, and shame – individually by reflecting on their purpose and, significantly, their abuse.

Tarek Younis is a fourth year PhD/PsyD psychology student at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and a long-time community activist in Montréal, Canada. For more articles investigating the psychological configuration of Muslims, visit him at www.muslimpsyche.com

The main psychological reference for the above is:

Greenberg, L. (2002). Emotion-focused therapy: Coaching clients to work through feelings. Washington, D.C. American Psychological Association Press.

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9 Comments

  1. JzkA for this great article! I hope to see more articles like this; absolutely agree, emotion is there for a reason sA.

  2. Salma says:

    Beautiful piece mashaAllah. So important to reflect on the concept of emotional intelligence, and unfortunately it is rarely discussed. Thank you for starting the conversation.

  3. Nader says:

    Great intro to such an important topic. I definitely hope inshaAllah that you can elaborate on each of the emotions in future articles.

    JazaakAllahu Khairan!

  4. Soad says:

    Brilliant! Jazakallahu kharyr, such topics really need to be discussed.

  5. Kirana says:

    Agree. ‘Self-mastery’ is the mastery of one’s emotions. Our Prophet was a human example of emotional centredness – the right emotion to the right degree, for the right person, at the right time. i think the ‘middle path’ is all about this judgement and timing. Takes a while to get the hang of it. In addition, self-mastery is a very attractive trait. :) in a man, anyway. I don’t know if men equally find it an attractive trait in a woman.

  6. Hassan says:

    very well articulated. preach on brother!

  7. Azhar says:

    Mashallah Brother,
    Very well put.

    Here is what Quran reflects in different Aya’s General Human Weaknesses and reactive behavior to emotions with our limited reasoning. And many places, it gives the cure.

    4/28 … man was created infirm.

    10/12 … when affliction touches a man, he calls on Us, whether lying on his side or sitting or standing; but when We remove his affliction from him, he passes on as though he had never called on Us on account of an affliction that touched him; thus that which they do is made fair-seeming to the musrifeen (i.e. the extravagant).

    11/9-10 And if We make man taste beneficence from Us, then take it off from him, most surely he is despairing, ungrateful. And if We make him taste a favour after distress has afflicted him, he will certainly say: The evils are gone away from me. Most surely he is exulting, boasting;

    17/83 And when We bestow favour on man, he turns aside and behaves proudly, and when evil afflicts him, he is despairing.

    41/49 Man is never tired of praying for good, and if evil touch him, then he is despairing, hopeless.

    14/34 And He gives you of all that you ask Him; and if you count Allah’s favours, you will not be able to number them; most surely man is very unjust, very ungrateful.

    17/67 And when distress afflicts you in the sea, away go those whom you call on except He; but when He brings you safe to the land, you turn aside; and man is ever ungrateful.

    22/66 And He it is Who has brought you to life, then He will cause you to die, then bring you to life (again); most surely man is ungrateful.

    80/17 Woe to man! how ungrateful is he!

    42/48 … surely when We make man taste mercy from Us, he rejoices thereat; and if an evil afflicts them on account of what their hands have already done, then-surely man is ungrateful (kafoor).

    43/15 And they assign to Him a part of His servants; man, to be sure, is clearly ungrateful (kafoor).

    16/4 He created man from Nutfah and lo! he is given to altercation, dispute or litigation.

    36/77 Does not man see that We have created him from nutfah? Then lo! he is given to altercation, dispute or litigation.

    17/11 And man prays for evil as he ought to pray for good, and man is ever hasty.

    17/100 Say: If you control the treasures of the mercy of my Lord, then you would withhold (them) from fear of spending, and man is miserly, (parsimonious).

    18/54 And certainly We have explained in this Quran every kind of example, and man is most of all given to contention.

    21/37 Man is created hasty: soon (enough) will I show you My Signs; then you will not ask Me to hasten them!

    70/19-22 Surely man is created of an impatient temperament. Irritable (discontented) when evil touches him; And niggardly when good touches him; Except Musalleen…

    39/8 And when distress afflicts a man he calls upon his Lord turning to Him frequently; then when He makes him possess a favour from Him, he forgets that for which he called upon Him before, and sets up rivals to Allah that he may cause (men) to stray off from His path. Say: Enjoy yourself in your ungratefulness a little, surely you are of the inmates of the fire.

    39/49 So when harm afflicts a man he calls upon Us; then, when We give him a favour from Us, he says: I have been given it only by means of knowledge. Nay, it is a trial, but most of them do not know.

    41/51 And when We show favour to man, he turns aside and withdraws himself; and when evil touches him, he makes lengthy supplications.

    89/15-20 And as for man, when his Lord tries him, then treats him with honour and makes him lead an easy life, he says: My Lord honours me. But when He tries him (differently), then straitens to him his means of subsistence, he says: My Lord has disgraced me. Nay! but you do not honour the orphan, Nor do you urge one another to feed the poor, And you eat away the heritage, devouring (everything) indiscriminately, And you love wealth with exceeding love.

    96/6 Nay! man is most surely inordinate, (or excessive, immoderate, exorbitant, extravagant in acts of disobedience and wrongdoing; who exceeds the ordinary limits of copiousness)

    100/6 Truly man is, to his Lord, kanood {i.e. ungrateful};
    The Arabic word used in 100/6 is kanood, which means:
    -One who is ungrateful or disacknowledges benefits
    -A blamer of his Lord, who takes account of evil
    accidents and forgets benefits
    -Who eats alone and withholds his drinking bowl
    -Who is niggardly, tenacious or avaricious

    Azhar

  8. Halimah says:

    Alhamdulillah! Allah does things in humorous ways sometimes. Or I like to think. I am a recent convert/revert of less than a year, took my Shahadah with the help of Suhaib Webb and stumbled upon this site not even reading the webpages name. I appreciate brother Tarek Younis writing this, may Allah bless you. I agree Islam in the West seems to be pushed by an emotionless agenda, which I understand to an extent because as a former Christian the emotional side of an argument usually weighed heavier than the rationale. But I was an emotional person and alot of emotions were evoked from me when I began to learn about Islam, an awakening, a fear, a hopeful child that was glad to finally find a place for herself in this world, a saddness for what my Prophet(saw) went through, what the Ummah was facing, and strength to make a difference however Allah would guide me. Inshallah more discussions will come out.

  9. Halimah says:

    Alhamdulillah! Allah does things in humorous ways sometimes. Or I like to think. I am a recent convert/revert of less than a year, took my Shahadah with the help of Suhaib Webb and stumbled upon this site not even reading the webpages name. I appreciate brother Tarek Younis writing this, may Allah bless you. I agree Islam in the West seems to be presented with an emotionless approach, which I understand to an extent because as a former Christian the emotional side of an argument usually weighed heavier than the rationale.. Inshallah more discussions will come out.

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