It took modern psychology a century to realize that human behavior is not only determined by physiological instincts but that human consciousness also plays an important role. Hence the emergence of cognitive psychology and the acknowledgment that thought can be modified and can serve as a source of therapy for the immoderate emotions of fear, anger, and sorrow, to name a few. This is not a new discovery; reason and its intimate connection with human emotions were central to both Hellenistic and classical Islamic psychology. If it is shown that one’s thinking is factually false, then it will reveal that one’s emotions that are linked to it are inappropriate. Thus, emotions could be rational or irrational, depending on whether they are true or false. Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence
states that this is not a new perspective, “as the virtue of withstanding the emotional storms that the buffeting of Fortune brings has been praised as a virtue since the time of Plato.”
Emotions are feelings about or towards something. They have cognitive and affective aspects that drive one to action, which depend in part on one’s beliefs and perceptions.
Emotions are therefore not blind, animalistic forces but intelligent and discriminating parts of the personality, closely related to certain beliefs and therefore susceptible to cognitive modification. All major Greek thinkers from Plato onward agree that belief is a necessary condition
of emotion in each case. These beliefs could be good or bad. To believe that something has great value is to respond with great joy when it is present, with great fear when it is threatened, with great grief when it is lost, with great anger when willfully damaged, and with great pity when lost due to no fault of one’s own.
The positive appreciation of emotions by Aristotle and their amenability to reason are echoed in the writings of the Islamic philosophers of the eleventh century, including Miskawayh (d. 1030), al-Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī (d. 1040) and al-Ghazālī (d. 1111).
Both the Greek and Islamic philosophers share the paradigm of the tripartite division of the soul, into the rational (reason), concupiscent (desire), and irascible (anger) faculties. The rational faculty enables humans to control the two lower faculties of desire and anger, leading to the four cardinal virtues of the soul: wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice.
The Islamic philosophers of the eleventh century adopted the rider-horse-dog metaphor from Galen and Aristotle. This imagery, with the dog leading the way in hunting, vividly explains the dynamic relationship between the three faculties of the soul. The rider is the metaphor for reason, the horse the metaphor for desire, and the dog the metaphor for anger (or emotions). A person guided by reason coordinates these three faculties in the right proportion. The dog is an apt metaphor for emotions. Just as the dog obeys the rider, the emotions obey reason.
When the rational faculty has control over the two lower faculties of the soul, the soul will be balanced, and the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice will emerge. But if the soul is not in balance, the vices of the soul will emerge. For example, the irascible faculty represents the human emotions, particularly anger. The positive quality that arises out of the control of the irascible faculty is courage. But when the emotions are not in control, the negative qualities of cowardice and rashness emerge. Courage is therefore the mean between these two extremes. However, the focus of my essay is not on the positive virtues that arise from the emotions, but on the vices that arise due to immoderate emotions.
Although the Islamic philosophers borrowed the psychology of the soul from the Hellenistic philosophers, they integrated it into an Islamic worldview that has its own original concepts. I shall deal with the Qur’anic perspective on emotions as interpreted mainly by Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī (d. 1040). He is known for his Qur’anic lexicon Alfāẓ Mufradāt al-Qurʾān
. But less is known about his Kitāb al-Dharīʿah ilá makārim al-sharīʿah
(Book of Means to the Noble Virtues of the Sacred Law). Means to the Noble Virtues
in turn inspired al-Ghazālī’s (d. 1111) Mīzān al-ʿAmal
(The Scale of Action).
I used the word ‘healing’ in the title as al-Iṣfahānī’s focus is on self-healing rather than therapy. A professional therapist is needed when one cannot use the cognitive and spiritual tools oneself but requires a second person’s intervention. The Qur’an’s approach is primarily self-reorientation through ethical and spiritual transformation. Western models do not teach about spiritual well being. The Islamic treatment of irrational emotions applies concepts such as patience, forbearance, remembrance of God, and repentance. These are not intervention-based therapeutic tools but, if need be, they can be used by professional Islamic psychologists.
However, cognition is not the only force that drives emotion as emotion itself can guide human action. The typical classical view is that emotions have an intelligent element and are amenable to control by the intellect. However, there are also atypical cases of emotions that are not directed by reason at all. Nussbaum states: “There are feelings without rich intentionality or cognitive content, let us say, feelings of fatigue, of extra energy, of boiling, of trembling and so forth.”
There is the nonconscious fear of death in the background, for example. But it is a specific circumstance, such as severe illness, that makes us conscious of our fear of death. The ongoing fear of death is a hidden psychological reality, but it is only in certain circumstances that we notice the fear.
There are also emotional states that are not guided by reason at all, nor by our conscious will. The Qur’an states: “God contracts and expands and to Him you shall return” (2:245). In Sufism, baṣt (spiritual expansion) is a profound involuntary spiritual state that overtakes a spiritual seeker, as a result of which they feel the presence of God. It is accompanied by feelings of joy, hope, and compassion. The person is free of all spiritual blockages.
The opposite state is qabḍ
(contraction of the soul); here the link between the individual and God is cut, causing distress and spiritual blockages. Ironically, contraction is more beneficial as it is by trials and tribulations that one is purified. There is no intentionality nor intelligence in these emotions. They are outside human volition and completely in the Invisible Hand of God, Who directs all things from the heavens to the hearts. We are reminded of this in the Prophetic saying: “The heart is between the two fingers of the All-Merciful. He turns it from state to state and gives it whatever form He wishes.”
Contraction is caused by God’s Majesty, and expansion is by His Grace. The former is accompanied by fear and anxiety and the latter is accompanied by joy and rapture.
Thus, these emotional states of fear and joy, of contraction and expansion, are spiritual states of the heart, controlled by God, not by human reason and volition. These emotions are spiritual states, not rational. They are advanced stages of the human soul. The advanced stages cannot be reached without the earlier conscious struggle of the soul against bodily desires and worldly distractions.
According to Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzīyah (d. 1350), it is important to overcome condemnable habits and mechanical ways of worship, and this can only be done through knowledge and removal of all worldly obstacles to the spiritual path. After all these preliminary modes of conscious action, the spiritual seeker will then tread the path of contraction and expansion, and it is at this level that they will transcend the station of Islam and rise to the station of faith (īmān
) and, from the station of faith, rise to the level of excellence (iḥsān
). It is at the level of excellence that worship no longer becomes a burden or a mechanical exercise, but will emerge spontaneously from the heart. The worshipper at this level will fluctuate between contraction and expansion, between fear and hope. In fear he or she turns to God for forgiveness and in hope he or she remains vigilant to avoid complacency.
As mentioned, the early stage is important for the believer’s struggle with their painful past and the dark side of the psyche. As soon as one weans oneself of the temporal and sensible, one achieves a remarkable independence, and one’s soul is made happy by the Grace of God. It is important to have a realistic appraisal of oneself and not a fictitious self-perception that will impede self-knowledge. When we do not acknowledge the truth of our emotions, we are guilty of spiritual bypassing. Spiritual ascent must take place within the context of our humanity and not by escaping from it. It is only when we come to terms with the painful reality of our emotions that we are able to spiritually transcend our psyche.
Reason alone is not enough to manage the extreme emotions; we also need to turn to the Qur’an as a source of guidance. Believers try to remember God in all of their struggles. The Qur’an is the best form of remembrance of God and its curative properties are mentioned in a few verses: “And We send down the Qur’an as a cure and a mercy for believers” (17:82). Also, the exhortation brought to the Prophet ﷺ is described as, “A cure for that which lies within breasts” (10:57). Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) describes the Qur’an as a healing for all diseases of the soul:
The Qur’an is a cure for all [ailments] of the heart, including the ailments of doubt and passions. It explains how falsehood can be removed from truth, and how the diseases of corrupting doubt can be removed from knowledge, imagination, and apprehension, whereby [the believer] can see things as they really are. The Qur’an’s wisdom and kind preaching instill desire and hope. Desire for that which benefits the heart, and aversion for that which harms it. The heart that used to desire vice and abhor virtue will now desire virtue and abhor vice. The Qur’an removes the diseases [of the heart] that are directed at the corrupted will. It reforms the heart and restores the will [towards what is right], and returns the heart to its original state of fiṭrah (primordial purity) just as the body would return to its original state [of health]. Just as the body is strengthened with nourishing food, the heart is purified with nourishing faith and the [guidance of the] Qur’an. Thus, the increasing purification of the heart is comparable to the increasing maturation of the body.