Description of sorrow
Anger, fear, and sorrow are emotions of the irascible faculty of the soul. If guided by reason, they become moderate emotions; otherwise, they are expressed in extreme and irrational ways. Sorrow is connected to one’s belief that one has lost something valuable; if one is made to realize that that something is not as valuable as one thought, the sorrow will be removed. Sorrow can also be the result of shame for a defect in one’s ability or morality. Sorrow is transmuted into pity if it pertains to the misfortune of another; it becomes envy if it concerns the success of one’s competitor. Sorrow as a result of a sin can become regret.
Al-Iṣfahānī uses the term ghamm
for sorrow, which means to cover up happiness and forbearance. Ghamm
in the heart “veils or precludes happiness: it may therefore be rendered gloominess of mind.” It is synonymous with ḥuzn
Another related term is hamm
, which pertains to anxiety connected to perceived danger of future events. And ḥuzn
(sadness) relates more to sorrow connected to past events. According to Abū Zayd al-Balkhῑ (born 235/849), author of Maṣāliḥ al-Abdān wa-al-Anfus
(Sustenance for Bodies and Souls), a pioneer in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: “If the sadness or grief increases in intensity, it then becomes outright depression and melancholy. A person who suffers from this extreme state will succumb to hopelessness and impatience, described by the Arabic word jaza
Stress and anxiety were to al-Balkhῑ the main causes of psychological illness of the soul, while joy and happiness are the main causes of the health of the soul.33
Webster’s Dictionary defines sorrow as a general term, ‘“implying a sense of loss or guilt.” Synonyms that express the same idea of ‘distress of mind’ include grief, anguish, and regret. Grief denotes intense emotional suffering; anguish denotes distress of mind that is excruciating or torturing beyond bearing, and regret connotes deep disappointment or spiritual anguish.34
Extreme sorrow is called ‘depression’ in modern psychology, which is a despondent condition. One significant variety is endogenous depression, which has the following symptoms: “groundless, deeply-felt sadness (melancholia), anxiety or excitement, and typical, sometimes imaginary, ideas of impoverishment; self-accusation, convictions of sinfulness, depersonalization with a tormenting loss of emotional life… pathognomonic somatic disorders in the form of insomnia, periodical fluctuations of emotional condition with a morning low, loss of appetite and weight, and vegetative disorders… There is an essential danger of suicide in endogenous depressions.”35
According to Professor Badri, endogenous depression requires medication and hospitalization as the patient is psychotic, with symptoms of severe guilt, depressive moods, and false perceptions. But reactive depression is caused by environmental factors and involves morbid feelings about real or anticipated loss or a stressful life event. This is a neurotically depressed person who does not suffer from psychotic symptoms of hallucinations and who has not lost touch with reality. Such a person can respond to cognitive therapy.36
Abū Zayd al-Balkhῑ made this distinction between endogenous depression and exogenous depression in the ninth century. He states:
Ḥuzn, sadness or depression, is of two kinds, The (environmental) causes for one of them is [sic] clearly known, such as the loss of a loved relative, bankruptcy or loss of something the depressed person values greatly. The other type has no known reasons. It is a sudden affliction of sorrow and distress ghummah, which persists all the time preventing the afflicted person from physical activity or from showing any happiness, or enjoying any of the pleasures of shahwah (food and sex). The patient does not know any clear reasons for his lack of activity and distress. This type of ḥuzn or depression with known reasons is caused by bodily symptoms such as impurity of the blood and other changes in it. Its treatment is a physical medical one which aims at purifying the blood.37
Such a person who suffers from reactive depression requires counseling or healing through natural ethical and spiritual concepts and perspectives. Al-Iṣfahānī’s therapeutic counselling is intended for such persons. Our sorrow, grief, or anguish is a result of the stories we tell ourselves, about how we, or the world, are fundamentally flawed. This could be based on mental fabrication, perception, or an interpretation of one’s experience. We may perceive something as right or wrong, and only through applying our reason can we distinguish between them. Sorrow is a natural emotion when we experience loss of life, illness, or some moral failure.
Sorrow takes on different forms and names. Sorrow due to the discovery of some defect of ability is shame. It is the apprehension of something dishonorable in oneself. Sorrow over the calamity of someone else is pity and may arise out of the feeling that such a condition might also befall oneself. Sorrow over the success of a competitor may lead to emulation insofar as one wants to equal or exceed that person in ability, but if it is to hinder the progress of the competitor, then it is called envy.
Sorrow in modern medical terms is called ‘depression,’ which implies treatment through medication. But if the cause of this sorrow is circumstantial, such as in losing a job or a dear one, then medication might only provide temporary relief. It cannot treat the root cause of the problem, which is psychological. We prefer the terms ‘sorrow,’ ‘grief,’ or ‘melancholy’ as they do not imply an unredeemable malady, but are natural human emotions that aid the healing process.
The healing of sorrow (ghamm)38
In a previous article I discussed the concept of happiness39
and the importance of detachment from the material world. We are often disturbed by the loss of material things because we place great value on those things of a transient nature. God states: “Wealth and children are the adornments of the life of this world, but that which endures, [such as] righteous deeds, is better in reward with thy Lord, and better [as a source] of hope” (Qur’an 18:46). The Qur’an reminds us to adopt an attitude of detachment to this world as the material world will not avail us in the hereafter. The pursuit of virtue will lead to enduring happiness. Wise believers are aware of the impermanence of this world. They are satisfied with little, knowing that real wealth awaits them in the hereafter. They say, “Praise be to Allah who lifted our sorrow. Our Lord is indeed All-Forgiving, All-Appreciative” (Qur’an 35:34-35). Such a person is content with God’s gifts.
The rational faculty is key to the attainment of a balanced soul. Through sober reflection we can work through the troubles of the soul and overcome feelings of misery and sorrow. We also need to understand our emotions. We should be open to reflection and insight into our emotional states.
Every situation is different, and every person is faced with a different challenge, but we are not concerned here with specifics, but with a general cognitive Islamic attitude towards emotional distress. If we are engrossed in emotion and cannot step back and reflect on it in an objective manner, then we may need professional therapy to help us understand our experience in light of our own worldview, whether religious or secular.40
The Muslim therapist will consider the Qur’anic worldview of a Muslim patient and use it as a framework for making sense of their emotional experiences and help them move forward in a manner that does not conflict with Islamic values.
Needless to say, the Muslim therapist who is trained in Western psychology, should be able to make the distinction between the Western approach and the Islamic approach to dealing with the psyche. While they are both concerned with the psyche, Islamic psychology goes beyond the psyche, as its main reference point is not the self but God. That is why the spiritual growth of the individual starts with purification of the heart and transcends the psyche spiritually towards God. Once the inner state of the heart is changed, the outward aspect of human behavior changes accordingly.
Victor Frankl is open to spiritual values that help us find meaning in our psychological suffering. Sometimes suffering is unchangeable; we cannot escape illness or death but we can change our attitude towards them. He calls these values “attitudinal values.”41
He acknowledges the central importance of belief in divine providence in psychotherapy, stating: “It is self-evident that belief in a super-meaning—whether as a metaphysical concept or in the religious sense of Providence—is of the foremost psychotherapeutic or psychohygienic importance.”42
We can also benefit from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is the mainstream practice in psychology today, provided it is combined with Islamic guidance. I have alluded to the classical philosophical view on reason’s role in moderating emotions. But this is only a first step in transforming the soul. It is important to work on the psyche, but the person requires a proper regimen for the purification of the soul.
Faith in divine providence enables us to see the bigger picture. We will not be depressed over small harms if we can see the overall good of God’s bounties. This is optimism in the face of misfortune, and involves recognition that what appears evil may be good for a person, as God states: “But it may be that you hate a thing though it be good for you, and it may be that you love a thing though it be evil for you” (Qur’an 2: 216). Believers should be patient in times of misfortune. By accepting divine destiny, they will be able to cope with sorrow. However, a cognitive acceptance of divine destiny is not enough and does not necessarily cure sorrow, which can only come about through accepting divine destiny from the heart, as exemplified by Prophet Jacob عليه السلام.
Prophet Jacob was separated from his son and wept. However, he accepted this loss as part of divine destiny and bore his suffering with forbearance. Jacob عليه السلام exemplifies the Qur’anic attitude towards calamities:
We will indeed test you with something of fear and hunger, and loss of wealth, souls, and fruits; and give glad tidings to the patient—those who when affliction befalls them, say; “Truly we are God’s and unto Him we return.” They are those upon whom come the blessings from their Lord, and compassion, and they are those who are rightly guided. (Qur’an 2: 155-157)
Jacob عليه السلام was tested with the loss of friends and relatives; the loss of ‘fruits’ could mean the death of children.43
In his case, he lost his son, and became so melancholic that he became blind because of his tears. Nevertheless, he had complete trust in Divine Providence; acknowledging from the heart that our return is eventually to God. Al-Iṣfahānī reflects on what is possible and impossible with respect to the causes of sorrow, and reminds the reader that Divine Providence prevails in all matters, including old age and death. He states:
There is anxiety/sorrow [ghamm] over the future in response to three things: the impossible, the necessary and the possible. The impossible is of no concern to the intelligent man. The necessary includes death and the possible is old age. These are all unavoidable. Only the ignorant are anxious about them. If sorrow can be prevented, one should act quickly. If it cannot be avoided, one should have forbearance and be aware of what God has decreed: “No calamity can befall the earth, nor your own selves, unless it be [laid down] in Our decree before we bring it into existence. Verily, all this is easy for God. [Know this] so that you may not despair over whatever [good] has escaped you, for God does not not love any of those who, out of self-conceit, act in a boastful manner” (Qur’an 57:22-23).44
If we know with certainty in the heart that everything happens by Divine decree, we will cope with affliction with patience and acceptance. We should appreciate the fact that we cannot change our birth, our aging, and our death, but we can change our attitude towards them. So that which we can change we must. If we are distressed because we fail to accomplish a particular sound action, then why do we not persist in the action rather than yield to the distress? And it is no use being distressed over that which we cannot change. And that which we cannot change we must learn to accept. We cannot alter the fact that we grow old, but we can gracefully learn to embrace it, as Ulysses counsels his elderly companions, stating:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength in old days moved earth and heaven
That which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.45
Ulysses exhorts his companions to accept their fate; although weak with time, they should continue to strive and fill the time allotted to them to the brim with action and with thought. They should do their duty, avoid useless sorrow, and patiently acquiesce to the inevitable.
In a similar vein, al-Iṣfahānī counsels us to use our reason, and to come to the realization that nothing remains the same, even our age. He cites a passage from a sage:
Sages have said: Sorrow is caused either by the loss of a beloved or by an unfulfilled desire. Nobody is free of such sorrows, because this is a world of change, instability, and impermanence. He who thinks that he can live forever with his family and dear ones is not using his mind. He wishes to own what is not his. The intelligent person is aware that his fortunes will ultimately return to the owner, and those who are attached to these fortunes will inevitably suffer calamities at some stage.46
Thus, there can be no permanence in this material world. Our possessions are not enduring, and our attachment to them will lead to sorrow. If we turn our gaze to the heavens, away from the material world, we will not suffer that much. We can enjoy the material goods of the world, but should not be so attached to them, lest we suffer grief because of their loss. If we realize that our happiness does not depend on the ephemeral things of this world, we will learn to cope with their loss without feeling depressed. These things should be in our hands, but not in our hearts. But if we hanker after these material goods, we will suffer great disappointment, as al-Iṣfahānī states:
It is good for a person to possess fewer of those things that he would be sad to lose. When a sage was once asked why he was not sad, he replied, “Because I do not acquire those things that I would be unhappy to lose.” [Another sage was asked whether we can live peacefully], and he said: “Yes, indeed, provided a person avoids wrong, is content with wealth, and does not grieve over his fate.”47
Why is it that although we know cognitively that God is Wise and All-Knowing, we still find it difficult to cope with the misfortunes that befall us? That is because we either lack conviction in God’s knowledge and power, or we lack insight into the momentary nature of calamities. If we know that afflictions are not a permanent reality, we will have hope that they will go away. And if we are free of afflictions, then we can be happy, but not be too complacent, as the afflictions may strike us, sooner or later. Thus, we should prepare ourselves for tragedies through faith in Divine Providence. This is how we can learn to cope, not only with the losses of the past but also the losses of the future.
Trust in God and resign yourself to His will, irrespective of the outcome. Matters of a transient nature will not avail us on the Day of Judgment, as God states: “Disgrace me not on the day they are resurrected, the Day when neither wealth nor children avail, save for him who comes to God with a sound heart” (Qur’an 26: 87-89). The ‘sound heart’ refers to knowing that God is real, that the hereafter will come, and that God will resurrect those in the graves. The sound heart is free of polytheism, free of worldly attachments, and free of forgetfulness.48
Al-Ghazālī felt that his heart needed to be purified. He used to impart knowledge for the sake of fame, not for the sake of God. He questioned his intentions and felt guilty. This led to his psycho-spiritual crisis, which manifested in physiological symptoms, such as loss of appetite, speech, and sleep. In his autobiography, al-Ghazālī states:
I also perceived that I could not hope for eternal happiness unless I feared God and rejected all the passions; that is to say, I should begin by breaking my heart’s attachment to the world. I needed to abandon the illusions of life on earth in order to direct my attention towards my eternal home with the most intense desire for God, the Almighty. This entailed avoiding all honors and health, and escaping from everything that usually occupies a person and ties him down. Turning to look inward, I perceived that I was bound by attachments from all sides. I meditated on all that I had done, teaching and instructing being my proudest achievements, and I perceived that all my studies were futile, since they were of no value for the Way to the Hereafter. Moreover, what was my purpose in teaching? My intention had not been pure, for it had not been directed towards God the Almighty alone. Had I not preferred to seek glory and renown? I was teetering on the edge of a precipice, and if I did not step back I would plunge into the Fire.49
The physician could not cure him, as his ailment was not physical, but spiritual. So he sought the counsel of a Sufi Shaykh, who told him: “The way is to detach yourself from the material world to such an extent that your heart does not turn even to family, wealth, country, knowledge, or power.”50
I am not sure if the average Muslim can make such a sacrifice but somehow al-Ghazālī felt compelled to make such a radical move. He did, however, make financial provision for his family before his departure from Baghdad. As seen in the above passage, he was overwhelmed by guilt and thought that he was on the brink of hellfire. This guilt became a redemptive force in his life, inspiring him to break away from worldly attachments and work on the purification of his soul.
People who are unable to forgive themselves for past mistakes by allowing God’s forgiveness to enter into their heart will remain forever tied to their damaging effects, creating for themselves the enormous psychological burdens of guilt, shame, and resentment. For people to change, they must recognize their wrongdoing and that their lives are out of alignment with their deep values and primordial nature. We sometimes escape from the painful reality of our own wrongdoing, resorting to denial, repression, and projection. Awareness of our wrong is the first step to change, but it is not enough. We need to feel a deep sense of remorse, turn to God in repentance, followed by the decision to change our inner state. According to al-Muḥāsibῑ (d. 857), the first step on the spiritual path of return to God is tawbah
(repentance), and he defined it as “regret for past sins and the resolution not to return to those sins.”51
This is not a new idea but is based on the Qur’anic verse to this effect: “And those who when they do an evil thing or wrong themselves remember God and implore forgiveness for their sins, and who forgives sins but God? And they do not knowingly persist in what they did” (Qur’an 3:135). However, al-Muhasibi developed a theory of repentance as the first step on the spiritual path that will rescue one from the inner anguish of guilt and hopelessness.
In traditional societies, if a person has committed a crime, they are banished from society; in modern societies, the person is put in prison. These are both external forms of punishment, but they do not always reform the individual from within. In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, a poor law student, murders an elderly woman and steals her money. He is remorseful and confesses to his crime. His moral conscience rehabilitates him, not the external punishment of the law. This is the ethic of self-imposed accusation (al-nafs al-lawwāmah). This is often more effective than the court’s sentence of incarceration. Prisons tend to be crime factories, but this is not to say that people cannot be reformed in prison. Some people find God in prison. Islam does not shun external forms of punishment, as it is important for maintaining order in society.
In psychoanalysis, catharsis is a purging or release of repressed emotions associated with unacknowledged trauma. The technique of free association allows the patient to express himself freely until repressed material is brought to light.52
We have no issue with it if it is going to cure the patient of certain fears, such as a phobia of snakes. Psychoanalysis has the merit of helping the client develop an emotional understanding of his or her past and allows the client to express himself or herself freely without having to be judged for past mistakes. However, a demerit of psychoanalysis is that it leaves the impression that certain repressions of past sins are dangerous. While there is nothing wrong in retrieving past sins from the unconscious, the point is that religious patients may be ashamed of their sins. From a religious perspective, the sense of shame for sins committed is virtuous, but in psychoanalysis it is considered problematic.
When a believer commits a wrong, they feel guilt and experience a mild form of anxiety, which is quite normal and appropriate as it produces a feeling of shame which acts as a restraint against repeating the wrong. This sense of shame is borne out of the self-accusing soul (al-nafs al-lawwāmah), which is basically the human conscience. When one feels such guilt, it is prudent to consult a wise elderly person, not necessarily a professional therapist, in order to relieve oneself of the anxiety, as well as to seek advice and guidance. Some people conceal their sense of guilt, and in the process torture themselves, a punishment dealt with by the subconscious. They are always in a state of agitation. The correct way is to confess one’s mistake and to find a way to compensate for it.
It is this sense of shame that prevents a believer from committing immoral acts, or if they do commit sins, it is this sense of shame that drives them to correct their immoral conduct. Religion must strongly disagree with psychoanalysis in this respect for, in trying to extirpate shame it has broken down one of the pillars of morality. Thus, psychoanalysis, like other Western forms of psychotherapy, has serious limitations. It cannot address the problem of sin and when the client has to make a moral choice, it can do nothing for the client and religion has to take over.
But true human melancholia with its characteristic guilt feelings, self-reproaches, and self-accusations would be inconceivable in an animal. The ‘symptom’ of conscientious anxiety in the melancholic is not the product of melancholia as a physical illness, but represents an ‘accomplishment’ of the human being as a spiritual person.53
The guilt of the client cannot be washed away by catharsis, which only helps to retrieve the emotions from the unconscious. The problem of sin is psychospiritual, not merely psychological. Psychoanalysis as a technique can only help the client recollect the sins but cannot deal with the problem of sin, which can only be overcome through repentance. Tawbah
(repentance) comes from the verb tāba
, which literally means: “He repented; or repented towards God; originally, he returned unto God from sin, or from his sin, or from disobedience to obedience… Hence, the noun tawbah
signifies the repenting from sin; i.e., the grieving for it, or regretting it, with the confession of having no excuse for the commission thereof.”54
The verb is also used for God’s response to the repentant one, as in: fa-tāba ʿalayhi
(He accepted his repentance). In turning away from sin, we return towards our fiṭrah
(primordial nature). And we turn to God because He is the Most Forgiving, Most Merciful (Qur’an 4:17-18), and because He instructs us to turn to Him sincerely: “O You who believe, turn to God in true, sincere repentance” (Qur’an 66:8). This sincere repentance depends on three things: an acknowledgment of one’s sin, remorse for the sin committed, and a firm resolution to give up the sin in the future.55
Repentance involves a process of recollection of one’s sins but it also requires self-examination (muḥāsabah
). It is not a matter of just remembering the past but of consciously trying to recollect sinful movements, thoughts, spending, and unjust actions towards others. If believers do not consider their actions in this world, they will be subject to God’s judgment in the next world.56
In this way, they can retrieve from their memory repressed sins from their unconscious. They should have no defense mechanisms or justifications for their moral failings but should strive to rectify themselves firstly through contrition, then turning to God for forgiveness, and finally resolving not to repeat their sins.57
People who become addicted to sin due to its repetition and are enveloped in the darkness of sinfulness do not feel that they are doing something evil. They continue to advance on the path of sinfulness until the agony of death seizes them. Repentance at the moment of death is not accepted. I know a Muslim professor who became an existentialist atheist. After rejection from family, failed marriages, an immoral life, and a humiliating academic career, he suffered from depression and committed suicide. His diary before he died reveals his regret for his past actions. He had no family to turn to for solace, and no God to turn to for forgiveness. His deep anguish and depression compelled him to take his own life. As an atheist, repentance was not an option for him. He had no recourse to repentance (tawbah), which could have saved him from despair. Repentance is a process of psycho-spiritual catharsis. It purges one of repressed emotions and liberates one from anxiety and guilt. The believer is saved through faith in a Merciful God. Faith in God, like a relief valve, helps regulate psychic urges which are themselves the mainspring of our spiritual afflictions. Faith in God gives a visage of perfect beauty to life because when one has the conviction that everything does not come to an end with this life, it creates an inner peace and makes one traverse the entire course of life with steadiness and moderation.