Souls Assorted: An Islamic Theory of Spiritual Personality
What is personality?
Personality in the Qur’an and Sunnah
Indeed Allah Most High created Adam from a handful that He took from all of the earth. So the children of Adam come in according with the earth, some of them come red, and white and black, and between that, and the lenient, the hard-headed, the filthy, and the pure.7
I have not seen anyone resemble the Messenger of Allah in disposition (samtan), characteristics (dallan) and mode of conduct (hadyan), in their standing and sitting, than Fātimah, daughter of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ. When Fātimah would enter upon the Prophet ﷺ he used to stand up for her, kiss her and seat her in his place; and when the Prophet ﷺ used to visit her, she would stand up for him, kiss him, and seat him in her place.15
Personality versus moral character
Personality psychology in the Islamic tradition
Lust is a spiritual illness (nafsāni). But when the disease increases in strength it starts to manifest in the body. It can become a mental illness (dimāghi) such as Melancholia. And it is said regarding this that the disease of obsessions (waswāsi) is similar to Melancholia. Lastly, it can be a physical illness of the body manifesting as fatigue, weakness, and symptoms like that.24
People differ in this regard. From amongst people, some find knowledge easier than zuhd, some find zuhd easier than ‘ilm, and some find ibādah easier than both of them. What is prescribed (mashroo’) is that everyone acts according to what they are capable of goodness based on the verse “Have taqwa of Allah as much as you are able” (64:16). So when the branches of faith become crowded, a person proceeds with what is most pleasing to God by acting according to what he is most capable.26
The path to Allah is one path, inclusive of all that which pleases Allah, and what pleases Him is numerous and diversified according to times, places, people, and situations. All of these are Divinely pleasing paths, which God made numerous out of His Mercy and Wisdom for the differences of people in their dispositions (isti‘dadat) and their hearts (qulub). And had God made them all one category despite the differences in people’s minds (adhhān), intellects (uqul), and strengths and weaknesses of their dispositions, none would traverse the path to Him except [a few individuals,] one by one.30
And We have certainly diversified in this Qur'an for mankind from every kind of example. But, mankind has above all else always been argumentative. (Qur'an, 18:54)
And thus we have sent an Arabic Qur'an down and diversified the warnings in it so that they may become conscious (of God) or it would inspire remembrance. (Qur'an, 20:113)
Categorizing spiritual tendencies
Thinking (fikr) is of two types: a type of thinking that pertains to knowledge (`ilm) and recognition (ma’rifah), and a type of thinking that pertains to pursuit (talab) and will (iraadah). So that which relates to knowledge and recognition is thinking which discerns truth and falsehood and matters affirmed and negated, while the latter relates to the thinking which distinguishes that which is beneficial and that which is harmful.35
Knowledge type: experience vs. judgment
In the last century only, two approaches are characteristic: the deductive one, strongly theologically oriented, and the inductive one, starting from lived experience.44
The judging types believe that life should be willed and decided, while the perceptive types regard life as something to be experienced and understood. Thus judging types like to settle things, or at least to have things settled, whereas perceptive types prefer to keep their plans and opinions as open as possible so that no valuable experience or enlightenment will be missed.49
Behavior type: Action vs. restraint
Certainly the believers have succeeded. Those who are humbly submissive in their prayer. Those who turn away from ill speech. Those who observe charity. Those who protect their chastity. (Qur’an 23:1-5).
And some people’s ṣabr for good deeds that bring benefit is stronger than their ṣabr against what brings harm. So they will have the ṣabr necessary to do the most difficult and challenging of tasks, but will not have any ṣabr that averts them from their desires.59
Many people have the ṣabr to pray the night prayer in the heat and in the cold, as well as [to endure] the difficulty accompanying fasting. But they can’t seem to control themselves in something as simple as averting their gaze.60
There are many people who have the ṣabr to control their gaze, but they don’t have the ṣabr necessary to preach goodness and discourage vice.61
There is a whole class of men who at the moment of reaction to a given situation at first draw back a little as if with an unvoiced “No,” and only after that are able to react; and there is another class who, in the same situation, come forward with an immediate reaction, apparently confident that their behavior is obviously right...As we know, the former class corresponds to the introverted and the second to the extraverted attitude.68
And of the people is he who worships Allah on an edge. If he is touched by good, he is reassured by it; but if he is struck by trial, he turns on his face [to the other direction]. He has lost [this] world and the Hereafter. That is what is the manifest loss. (Qur’an 22:11)
And when We let the people taste mercy, they rejoice therein, but if evil afflicts them for what their hands have put forth, immediately they despair. (Qur’an 30:36)
O Allah! I seek refuge with You from anxiety and grief, from incapacity and laziness, from cowardice and miserliness, from being heavily in debt and from being overpowered by (other) men.75
A typology of spiritual personality
Example. Ali Ibn Abi Talib is a clear example of this category, known for his incredible passion in serving the truth and performing unmatched feats of virtue (risking his life during an assassination attempt on the Prophet, performing the hijrah on foot, his bravery during the Battle of al-Khandaq and his heroism during Khaybar, etc). When the fitnah (tribulation) occurred after the death of `Uthman, the approach of Ali was to act pragmatically to take the reins of leadership to bring stability and unity to the ummah. According to Ali, “Opportunity passes as quickly as clouds, so make use of opportunities for good.”83
Example. Umar ibn al-Khattab is the obvious example of this category. His relentless commitment to eradicating evil and opposing injustice has been noted by all who have studied his life. He announced his Islam openly in front of the Quraysh chieftains, condemned transgressions, and denounced those who perpetrated them in the strongest of terms. His justice was manifest in his swift retribution punishing the son of a governor who abused a Christian peasant in Egypt, and asking his father, “When did you enslave people when their mothers bore them free?”85 As harsh as he was on those who did wrong, he was always harsher on himself,86 and this in turn led him to soften on others.87
Example. The prime example of this category is Abu Bakr al-Siddeeq. Without hesitation he was the first man to accept Islam, immediately seeing it for the truth that it was. One of the most remarkable aspects of who he was is the role he played in bringing so many of the other leading companions to embrace the faith and the intense amount of striving for good he exemplified.89 His experiential insight revealed to him meanings that were not readily apparent to others; when the Prophet announced that a slave was given a choice between this world and that which is with Allah and had chosen the latter, only Abu Bakr understood that the Prophet was announcing that he would soon pass away. Abu Bakr was a pillar of support for Muslims in the most calamitous moment the ummah experienced, namely the death of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, offering the powerful words that showed his insight: “Whoever worshipped Muhammad, let him know that Muhammad has died. And whoever worshipped Allah, then verily Allah is Ever Living, and shall never die.”90
Example. The example of Uthman ibn Affan shines clearly in this category. He was not the most outspoken companion but rather was a tremendously reflective soul, contemplating the afterlife and punishment in the grave. It is narrated that when he stood over a grave, he would weep until his beard became wet.92 He worried about the negative consequences of seemingly mundane actions.93 His concern for preventing Muslims from differing about the Qur’anic text lead to his commissioning of Zaid ibn Thabit to compile the mushaf.94 He paid tremendous attention to the prophecies of the end-times and, when the rebels surrounded his home, he warned them of the internecine violence it would lead to, and he forbade anyone to shed blood in his defense. In one of his famous sermons, Uthman said, “O people fear Allah, for fear of Allah is a great treasure. The smartest of people is the one who checks himself and strives for that which comes after death, and gains from the light of Allah light to illuminate his grave.”95
Say: Everyone will act according to their nature, and your Lord knows best who is rightly guided (Qur’an 17:84).
1 Susan Cain. Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking. (Crown Publishing Group 2012), pp. 2-3.
2 Funder, D. C. (2015). The personality puzzle: Seventh international student edition. W. W. Norton & Company, p. 5.
3 Philip J. Corr, Gerald Matthews. The Cambridge handbook of personality psychology. (Cambridge University Press 2009), p. xxii.
4 Gerlach, M., Farb, B., Revelle, W., & Nunes Amaral, L. A. (2018). A robust data-driven approach identifies four personality types across four large data sets. Nature Human Behaviour, 2, 735-742.
5 Idowu Koyenikan, Wealth for all: Living a life of success at the edge of your ability. (NC: Grandeur Touch, L.L.C., 2016).
6 Nicodemus, K. M. (2012). Personality type and job satisfaction. In R. D. Urman & J. M. Ehrenfeld (Eds.), Physicians’ pathways to non-traditional careers and leadership opportunities (pp. 11-17). New York: Springer.
7 Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, 3213.
8 Mulla Ali al-Qari’. Mirqat al-Mafatih Sharh Mishkat al-Masabih. (Dar al-Fikr 2002). Vol. 1, p. 176.
11 Al-Ayni, Umdat ul-Qari Sharh Sahih Bukhari. Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya. Beirut: 2001. vol. 15, p. 297.
12 Al-Asqalani, Fath ul Bari. Al-Maktabah As-Salafiyya. vol. 6, pp. 369-370. The subsequent statements by al-Qurtubi and al-Khattabi are cited by Ibn Hajar.
13 This statement also points to the value of identifying and altering harmful core beliefs, which is the basis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
14 Al-Asqalani, Fath ul Bari. Al-Maktabah As-Salafiyya. vol. 6, pp. 369-370.
15 Sunan Abi Dawud (Online). For an interesting derivation of 33 lessons from this hadith see al-Jubury, Kehlan. The Prophet and his daughter. Prophetic Guidance blog (June 15, 2013). http://propheticguidance.co.uk/the-prophet-and-his-daughter/
17 See al-Sha’rawi’s comments as cited in Umar Ahmad Zakariyah. Hayat al-Nabi fi baytihi. (Beirut: Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyah 1971), p. 237.
19 The precise personality traits associated with optimism are explored more fully in Sharpe, J. P., Martin, N. R., & Roth, K. A. (2011). Optimism and the Big Five factors of personality: Beyond neuroticism and extraversion. Personality and Individual Differences, 51(8), 946-951.
22Al-Ani, Nizar Muhammad Sa’id. Ash-shakhsiya al-Insaniyya fee al-Fikr al-Islamee. International Institute of Islamic Thought, Beirut: 2005, 2nd edition.
24 Umar Ahmad Ar-Rawi. Tibb al-Quloob. Daar kutub Ilmiyya, 2003, p. 83.
25 The interested reader can refer to a prior article published by Yaqeen on the topic of waswās, https://yaqeeninstitute.org/en/najwa-awad/clinicians-imams-and-the-whisperings-of-satan/
26 Ibn Taymiyyah. Majmoo’ al-Fatawa, vol. 6, pp. 651-652.
27 Madarij as-Salikin, vol. 1, p. 132, as cited in Anjum, Ovamir. Sufism without Mysticism? Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah's Objectives in Madarij as-Salikin." Oriente Moderno, 2010, 1, p. 175.
29 See the discussion of Imam al-Ubbi (d. 827 AH) in his supercommentary on Sahih Muslim; Ikmal ikmal al-mu’lim sharh Sahih Muslim, (Egypt: Matba’ al-Sa’adah), vol. 1, p. 119. Aside from the gate of fasting, however, there is no scriptural proof for which deeds correspond to which gates.
30 Ibn al-Qayyim. Tareeq al-Hijratayn wa Bab al-Sa’adatayn, p. 385.
31 Ibid., pp. 386-388.
33 Of course, it goes without saying that these differences are with respect to voluntary actions, while obligatory actions are required of everyone. Jamaal Zarabozo writes, “This reality is all by the mercy of Allah. Beyond the obligatory deeds, people are free to pursue those good voluntary deeds that they are most attracted to. There are so many areas of voluntary deeds that it seems inconceivable that a person could not find some voluntary deed or deeds that he would like to perform in order to get closer to Allah. Allah's path to paradise is wide enough to accommodate all of those different leanings. However, this is all dependent on the individual first fulfilling, in general, the obligatory deeds. If the person does not do that, then he may not be on the straight path at all.” (Commentary on the Forty Hadith of al-Nawawi, vol. 2, p. 1154).
34 Ibn al-Qayyim. Tareeq al-Hijratayn wa Bab al-Sa’adatayn, p. 403.
35 Ibn al-Qayyim, Madarij al-Salikin, vol. 1, p. 166. Online. He also further classifies a subtype of the second category which is thinking about how best to achieve benefit or avoid harm, or the means to the goal, and then mentions that “These are the six categories of thinking, for which there is no seventh.”
36 Abdul-Latif ibn Abdul-Aziz al-Rabah. Makanat al-’Ulum al-Tab’iyyah fi’l-tarbiyah Islamiyyah. Doctoral dissertation, p. 267.
37 The term ahkām is not used here in its narrow jurisprudential usage to refer to legal rulings but rather linguistically to describe knowledge-related judgments. Being oriented towards ahkām entails a pragmatic approach and focus on structure, decisions, good versus bad, true versus false, etc.
38 Forty Hadith of Imam Nawawi, Accessed Online. The Prophet ﷺ gave this advice to Wabisah ibn Ma’bad and very similar advice to Nawwas ibn Sam’an. Ibn Hajar al-Haytami (d. 974 AH) makes the interesting observation that this advice applies to those persons similar to Wabisah who possess that faculty of inner perception (idrak), while others may need more explicit religious rulings of commands and prohibitions, and thus the Prophet addressed everyone with the advice most suited to them; see al-Haytami, Fath al-Mubin, (Dar al-Minhaj 2008), p. 465. For judgment-oriented people, they may need objective definitive rules to avoid succumbing to personal bias (hawa’) and desires (shahawat).
39 Sahih Muslim, Accessed online. Ibn al-Qayyim cites this hadith as proof in Madarij al-Salikin, and also explains that a certain measure of dhawq is necessary for all people, without which they may succumb to doubts in their faith (vol. 3, p. 92, online).
43 Al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami al-Saghir 2328.
44 Waaijman, K. (2007). What is spirituality? Acta Theologica, 27 (2), 1-18.
45 Buxant, C., Saroglou, V., & Tesser, M. (2010). Free-lance spiritual seekers: Self-growth or compensatory motives? Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 13(2), 209-222.
46 For instance, Hatim al-Asamm described his strategy of attaining khushu’ in prayer: “I stand to pray, imagining that the Ka'bah is in front of my eyes, Paradise to my right, Hell-fire to my left, and the Angel of Death behind me. I imagine that it is the last Salah I am about to perform, stand up in hope (in Allah, His Paradise, and reward) and fear (of Allah’s torment in the Hell-fire) and recite the Takbir with concentration.” (Al-Ghazali, Al-Ihya, vol. 1, p. 179).
47 It might strike some as paradoxical for experience-oriented individuals to have an aptitude for highly theoretical subjects. However, it is their intuitive capacity that enables them to transform the seemingly theoretical into a strong lived experience. People with this approach to knowledge are also not content with merely learning what is; they want to know why it is. They have a strong need for true understanding and a recognition of the wisdom in the rulings and rituals of Islam. This goes back to their desire for experience. Without understanding the wisdom, it is hard to experience what is intended by those religious practices.
48 Roberts, B. W., Chernyshenko, O. S., Stark, S., & Goldberg, L. R. (2005). The structure of conscientiousness: An empirical investigation based on seven major personality questionnaires. Personnel Psychology, 58(1), 103-139.
49 Myers, I., & Myers, P. (2010). Gifts differing: Understanding personality type. Nicholas Brealey, p. 69.
51 McCrae, R. R. (1994). Openness to experience: Expanding the boundaries of Factor V. European Journal of Personality, 8(4), 251-272.
52 Terracciano, A., Löckenhoff, C. E., Crum, R. M., Bienvenu, O. J., & Costa, P. T. (2008). Five-Factor Model personality profiles of drug users. BMC Psychiatry, 8(1), 22.
53 Sahih Bukhari, accessed online. This story demonstrates how this companion had a strong experiential commitment to Islam through the love in his heart that he felt for Allah and His Messenger. The repeated commission of this sin was not interpreted as evidence of a lack of faith. Rather, it was clear that this particular individual had an addiction alongside his strong love for Islam.
54 Allah's Messenger ﷺ said, "O `Abdullah! Have I been informed that you fast all day and stand in prayer all night?" I said, "Yes, O Allah's Messenger ﷺ!" He said, "Do not do that! Observe the fasts sometimes and also leave them (the fasts) at other times; stand up for the prayer at night and also sleep at night. Your body has a right over you, your eyes have a right over you, and your wife has a right over you." Sahih Bukhari, accessed online.
56 Sibley, C. G., & Duckitt, J. (2008). Personality and prejudice: A meta-analysis and theoretical review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12(3), 248-279.
57 Imam al-Juwayni. Al-Waraqaat, (Riyaadh: Dar As-Samee’ee), p. 7. There is also a historical discussion amongst the classical scholars on whether it is worse to do something prohibited or to abandon something obligatory. The former was stated explicitly by Imam Ahmad (d. 240 AH) as noted by Ibn Rajab in Jami al-Ulum, and is the position of the majority as noted by Ibn Hajar al-Haytami in Fath al-Mubeen. Meanwhile, the latter is the opinion of Imam Sahl al-Tustari (d. 284 AH) and advocated by Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn al-Qayyim in al-Fawa’id (1/119). The reality is that both sides have strong arguments and evidences in their favor and are easily reconciled with reference to the concept of spiritual personality such that it may depend on the person in question and their individual weaknesses.
58 Ibn al-Qayyim. Iddat as-Sabireen, (Jeddah: Dar `Alam al-Fawa’id) p. 26.
61 Ibid., p. 27.
64 Ibn Kathir. Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Adheem. (Riyadh: Dar at-Taybah, 1999), vol. 1, p. 164.
65 Ibn al-Qayyim. Tareeq ul-Hijratayn, pp. 373-374. It should be clear that this is not a negative experience of fearing a vengeful and merciless deity. Rather, gathering all of the fears a person may have about the world and recognizing that only Allah is capable of Benefit or Harm, naturally dissipates their fear of this world. Fear of Allah alone becomes a source of immense courage, as a person recognizes that nothing in this world can harm them without the permission of Allah.
66 Sahih Bukhari - Accessed online. Perhaps it was this unique spiritual personality of Hudhayfah that earned him the position of the keeper of the Prophet’s secrets, which meant that the Prophet ﷺ confided in him the names of the hypocrites.
67 Jung, C. (2017). Psychological types. Routledge, p. 307.
68 Jung, C. (2001). Modern man in search of a soul. Routledge, p. 87.
69 Kumari, V., ffytche, D. H., Das, M., Wilson, G. D., Goswami, S., & Sharma, T. (2007). Neuroticism and brain responses to anticipatory fear. Behavioral Neuroscience, 121 (4), 643-652.
70 McGonigal, Kelly. Maximum willpower. (Pan Macmillan UK, 2012). p. 52.
71 This phenomenon has been described in a previous article: https://yaqeeninstitute.org/en/zohair/powerofmotivation/
72 There is an established concept in psychology referred to as ‘moral self-licensing,’ whereby a person’s past good deeds make them feel entitled to indulge in desires or make excuses for unethical behavior. For instance, see A.C. Merritt, D.A. Effron, B. Monin. (2010). Moral self-licensing: When being good frees us to be bad. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(5), 344–357. This effect has also been examined in the context of failure to succeed in dieting: Prinsen, S., Evers, C., & De Ridder, D. (2016). Oops I did it again: Examining self-licensing effects in a subsequent self-regulation dilemma. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 8, 104-126.
73 Jung, C. (2017). Psychological types. Routledge, p. 4.
74 It is important to distinguish between healthy shame (hayaa’) (“I did something wrong”) which helps one to avoid bad, and toxic shame (“I am a bad person”) where one views oneself with contempt and unworthy of any good, falling into despair (al-ya’s), effectively denying the power of God’s mercy to reach oneself.
76 Jung, C. (2017). Psychological types. Routledge, p.4.
77 There are also specialties that focus on the genetic and biological basis for personality, but this is largely separate from the type vs. trait discussion, which is mainly a statistical issue.
78 Bess, T. L., & Harvey, R. J. (2002). Bimodal score distributions and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator: Fact or artifact? Journal of Personality Assessment, 78(1), 176-186.
80 Pittenger, D. J. (2004). The limitations of extracting typologies from trait measures of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 37(4), 779-787.
82 The names of these categories have been formulated by the authors to capture the central motif embodied in each spiritual personality.
83 Ibn Muflih, Adab al-Shar’iyyah. (Beirut: Mu’assasat al-Risalah 1999), vol. 1, p. 378. Arabic: al-furus tamur mithl al-sahab.
85 Ibn Abdal-Hakam, Futuh Misr, vol. 1, p. 195.
86 Such as Umar’s asking Hudhayfah whether he was mentioned amongst the Munafiqin due to his great fear of being insincere in his faith (Ibn Hajar al-`Asqalani, Matalib al-Aliyah, vol. 14, p. 702, online).
88 The Qur’an actually mentions this combination in 38:45 and mentions Prophet Ibrahim as an example. His strong vision (baseera) and powerful pursuit of good (ayd) play out multiple times in his life. It is what gave him the resolve to withstand the persecution of his people, and trust that his family would grow and prosper in the barren valley of Makkah. We also find a strong drive for action as he built the Ka’ba with his hands, and he physically broke the idols as part of his preaching. The Prophet Muhammad likened Abu Bakr to Ibrahim and Eesa, while he likened Umar to Nuh and Musa (Musnad Ahmad).
89 The Messenger ﷺ asked, “Who is fasting today?” Abu Bakr (radi Allahu anhu) replied, “Me.” The Messenger ﷺ asked, “Who has followed a funeral procession today?” Abu Bakr (radi Allahu anhu) replied, “Me.” The Messenger ﷺ asked, “Who has fed a poor person today?” Abu Bakr (radi Allahu anhu) replied, “Me.” The Messenger ﷺ asked, “Who has visited a sick person today?” Abu Bakr (radi Allahu anhu) replied, “Me.” The Messenger ﷺ then said, “Any person that has done these four things in one day will enter Paradise.” (Sahih Muslim, online).
90 Al-Baghawi, Sharh al-Sunnah, vol. 5, p. 323.
91 A famous example of the contrast between the Hand of Power and the Eye of Vigilance is that of Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak (d. 181 AH), the warrior-scholar defending the frontiers of Muslim lands against the Romans, versus Fudayl ibn Iyad (d. 187 AH) the pious ascetic and bandit-turned-worshipper who was constantly worshipping in the Holy sanctuary of Makkah; the former wrote a well-known poem in this regard.
93 It was narrated from Humayd ibn Nu'aym that 'Umar and 'Uthman were invited to a meal, and when they set out, 'Uthman said to 'Umar: We have come to a meal where I wish we did not come. He said: Why? He said: I am afraid it was prepared in order to show off. (Al-Zuhd by Imam Ahmad, p. 126).
94 For a detailed discussion see al-Azami, M. M. The History of the Qur’anic Text: From Revelation to Compilation: A Comparative Study with the Old and New Testaments. (UK Islamic Academy 2003), p. 88.
95] Saheeh al-Tawtheeq fi Seerah wa Hayat Dhi'n-Noorayn, p. 107 as cited in as-Sallabi, The Biography of 'Uthman ibn 'Affan. Darussalam 2007, p. 132.