Qamar Ahmed Zafar, London
Like me, if you live in the West, you may have experienced the following: our secondary school teacher sat us down, as a guest had been invited to talk about the dangers of indulging in certain behaviours and we were just thrilled we were going to miss geography class. Most of us were staring at the ceiling, trading shiny Pikachu playing cards for a Charizard, or drafting up the lunchtime football teams instead of paying attention to the guest speaker.
After having conducted some research, I now realise that our awareness of these behaviours is largely owed in part to the great awareness raised about them in places such as schools. However, while there is great emphasis on various kinds of behaviours, there is next to no mention of a particular behaviour that is not only an assassin of people’s mental welfare and self-esteem, but also a silent killer of marriages and spiritual progress. Moreover, it enables exploitation, child abuse and human trafficking: I am speaking of pornography.
Consuming such inappropriate content can have a severe effect on mental health. Research shows it can lead to issues such as depression, anxiety and social problems.1 It can lower the self-esteem of not only the consumer but also their partner.2 Once the mind and the soul have been subjected to this vice repeatedly, it can even destroy marriages and lead to divorces, as found in more than half of the cases in a recent study.3
The most alarming research notes that content that depicts sexual activity in an explicit manner can be a gateway to child sexual abuse.4 Another report exposes the same frightening reality, stating that “pornography contributes to sexual assault, including rape and the molestation of children.”5 Dr Mary Anne Layden, psychotherapist and director of education at the Center for Cognitive Therapy at the University of Pennsylvania, who has treated victims of sexual violence for over two decades, states that “I have not treated one case of sexual violence that did not involve pornography.”6 Such content can also facilitate the illegal industry of sex trafficking.7
1. (Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 11, 613244, 12 January 2021), 2. (Journal of Adolescence, Volume 57, 2017, pp. 119-133), 3. (Covenant Eyes, 2022, Josh McDowell Ministries and Covenant Eyes with Barna Group), 4. (Victor Cline, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Utah 1988, Pornography Effects: Empirical and Clinical Evidence, p. 24), 5. (Pornography Victims Compensation Act of 1992, US Senate Comm. on the Judiciary), 6. (endsexualexploitation.org/articles/video-long-term-consequences-pornography-use-mary-anne-layden-phd/), 7. (Cole, S., & Maiberg, E. 2020)
Five practical ways to maintain chastity in the digital world
1. Identify why inappropriate content is viewed – What is the stimulus?
People watch it for different reasons – a report in the Journal of the Society of Psychologists in Addictive Behaviours lists some as boredom, loneliness, emotional distraction, fantasy, stress reduction, carnal pleasure or curiosity. Identify the root cause and stimulus and you are ready to move on to the next step.
2. Respond to the reason with a new action – Rewire your brain!
Your brain has become used to you responding to the stimulus with inappropriate content. Over time, (and this could take time), you will need to respond to your unique stimulus with something other than inappropriate content that brings you joy, e.g. a sport, going out with friends, engaging and enjoyable hobbies, intimacy with your spouse and exercise etc.
Over time, your brain will learn to accept pleasure from these activities instead of watching inappropriate content. This can take a very long time depending on the extremeness of one’s addiction and can also lead to relapse at intervals.
3. Accountability – Do not allow yourself to get away with it!
Set specific and measurable goals for yourself and try your best to achieve them. Create a plan of action to help you achieve those goals. Keep a journal to track your progress. This can help you identify patterns and triggers that lead to your habit, and also serve as a reminder of how far you have come and things that led to failures. This way, you can make necessary adjustments to your environment and your habits.
You may also “reward” yourself for reaching milestones. Setting rewards for yourself can help keep you motivated.
If you are unable to hold yourself accountable, seek professional help from a therapist or counsellor who can provide additional support and guidance. If you are held accountable, you will be less inclined to do it. Specialist counselling groups and therapists are now becoming more and more available. A 2021 report by the NHS on psychological therapies indicated that “51.4% of referrals moved to recovery in 2020-21”. (www.digital.nhs.uk/news/2021/new-statistics-released-on-talking-therapies-in-england)
4. Keep yourself away from the triggers – Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me
Assess whether certain places, devices or online tools trigger your desire to watch inappropriate content. Deleting certain apps or avoiding environments that actively remind you of inappropriate content should become “no-go zones” for you. Technology presents a lot of gifts and a lot of liabilities.
5. Keep yourself busy – An idle mind is the devil’s workshop
Constructing your day in a way that keeps you busy is vital to distracting you from the urge to consume inappropriate content. Waking up early in the morning and having a productive routine will inevitably result in a person being more tired at the end of the day, resulting in less energy to spend consuming inappropriate content.
How religion helps – eight more tips from Islam
6. Subduing the nafs
It is an Islamic principle that one way to control a person’s nafs (desires) is to discipline oneself in daily matters even though one may not want to. The Holy Quran states:
اِنَّ نَاشِئَةَ الَّيۡلِ هِيَ اَشَدُّ وَطۡاً وَّاَقۡوَمُ قِيۡلًا ؕ
“Verily, getting up at night is the most potent means of subduing the self and most effective in respect to words of prayer.” (Surah al-Muzzammil, Ch.73: V.7)
This simple teaching encompasses one simple rule: Do things you do not necessarily want to do on a daily basis – ultimately, it will help you to tame your thoughts and desires. Some activities may include waking up early, praying or meditating, exercising regularly, taking cold showers and fasting or eating clean.
Hazrat Musleh-e-Maud, Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra states:
“Occasionally, that which is lawful and desirable should be voluntarily given up so that the habit of acting against his wishes may be cultivated. […] He should sometimes stay awake when he wants to sleep, or abstain from eating something he much desires to eat. In this way, he will strengthen his will.” (The Way of the Seekers, p. 110)
7. Offering prayers
Overwhelm yourself with positive affirmations and hold yourself accountable to God. The Holy Quran emphatically claims that salat takes a person away from sin. Thus, it states:
اِنَّ الصَّلٰوةَ تَنۡهٰي عَنِ الۡفَحۡشَآءِ وَالۡمُنۡكَرِ ؕ وَلَذِكۡرُ اللّٰهِ اَكۡبَرُ ؕ وَاللّٰهُ يَعۡلَمُ مَا تَصۡنَعُوۡنَ
“Surely, Prayer restrains [one] from indecency and manifest evil, and remembrance of Allah indeed is the greatest [virtue]. And Allah knows what you do.” (Surah al-Ankabut, Ch.29: V.46)
Not only is this indicative of using prayer as a deterrent to sin, but in fact, the verse also reminds people that Allah knows what we do and we should hold ourselves accountable to Him.
8. Adopt good company
Being around the right people with similar objectives can not only increase accountability but also allow you to relate to one another’s struggles. If your circle is motivated to move in the same direction away from sin, chances are you will be on firmer ground when attempting to do so. The Holy Quran states:
يٰۤاَيُّهَا الَّذِيۡنَ اٰمَنُوا اتَّقُوا اللّٰهَ وَكُوۡنُوۡا مَعَ الصّٰدِقِيۡنَ
“O ye who believe! fear Allah and be with the truthful.” (Surah al-Taubah, Ch.9: V.119)
9. Help others to help yourself
People who give up on trying to fight bad habits can end up with low self-esteem and a low sense of self-worth. Not only can doing good to others and helping in the community around you be a source of engaging the mind in positive things but it can also revive one’s sense of self-worth. A person who is struggling may often find themselves thinking, “I’ve been doing so well and I’m having a really positive impact on those around me, why ruin it now by relapsing?”. Having this mindset can strengthen one’s discipline and motivation to rewire their brain. Thus, the Quran states:
اِنَّ الۡحَسَنٰتِ يُذۡهِبۡنَ السَّيِّاٰتِ ؕ ذٰلِكَ ذِكۡرٰي لِلذّٰكِرِيۡنَ
“Surely, good works drive away evil works.” (Surah Hud, Ch.11: V.115)
10. Get married, young
The Holy Founder of Islam, Prophet Muhammadsa instructed that “Those who can afford it among the young people, should get married” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Haith 5066). There is great wisdom in this especially today – the youth are exposed to indecent imagery from an increasingly younger age. The Prophet Muhammadsa advised that those who cannot afford to get married should regularly “fast”. This is useful for subduing the nafs and depleting energy resources to avoid falling into vice.
11. Lower your gaze
The Quranic teaching regarding “lowering one’s gaze” is not limited to physically looking at the opposite gender; in fact, it refers to abstaining from viewing anything that will incite one towards sin, which includes pornography and “thirst traps” i.e. social media posts that are intended to be sexually suggestive or alluring.
12. Seek repentance – istighfar
Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra reminds readers that one way to safeguard oneself from “sin” to “which he is prey” is by engaging the istighfar. This allows one’s previous sins to be forgiven and gives one strength to fight the urge to commit such sins in future. (The Way of the Seekers, p. 91)
The Promised Messiahas states:
“Remember, the Muslims have been bestowed two things; one for obtaining strength and the other for the practical demonstration of the strength that has been obtained. Istighfar is for obtaining strength. It is also called seeking help. The Sufis have said that as physical strength and power is fostered through exercise, in the same way, istighfar is a spiritual exercise. Through it, the soul obtains strength and the heart achieves steadfastness. He who desires strength should do istighfar.” (The Essence of Islam, Vol. 2, p. 246)
13. Get professional help
Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra reminds readers that some sins that attain the form of addiction may need competent professional and psychological help. Therapies and counselling are now available and people struggling with addiction should not feel ashamed to get help. (The Way of the Seekers, p .113)
A sin that destroys spirituality
One thing that may not be so clear to the liberal mind is that consuming inappropriate content is indeed a sin. Not only does it ruin a person psychologically and destroy their relationships, but it also takes a person away from God. Hence, a Muslim cannot take such indulgences lightly and must actively try to quit such a habit.
Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa says:
“Pornography, drugs, online gaming, gambling, immoral and inappropriate relationships, going to nightclubs and many other things are among those satanic influences which are entirely harmful and are taking people away from God Almighty. […]
“If even the noble prophets require Allah’s grace and mercy to be saved, then what can be said of an ordinary person? Surely it is only by turning towards Allah with true sincerity and humility, seeking His forgiveness and compassion that a person can remain on the right path.” (Press Release by Press Ahmadiyya, 11 September 2019, MKA UK Ijtema)
During his Friday Sermon on 6 November 2018, Huzooraa said:
“Many families are destroyed as a result of viewing pornography. The so-called ‘progressive world’ considers such things to be ‘freedom and progress’. However, studies are now proving the harmful effects of pornography and how it often leads to domestic violence and child abuse.” (Press Release by Press Ahmadiyya, 6 November 2018, Friday Sermon at Baitur Rahman Mosque, Maryland, USA)
In his 11 steps to increasing willpower, Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra signifies the incredible God-given power we have within ourselves to give up bad habits. He states:
“The fourth measure to strengthen the will and to remove the obstacle in its way is to launch an all-out attack on the very first day against the fault that has to be got rid of. When an army attacks, it starts the attack at full strength. The same should be done in fighting an evil habit. One’s full strength should be employed against the evil that has to be vanquished.” (The Way of the Seekers, p. 110)
The Promised Messiah’sas advice on how to stay chaste
“Turn to God Almighty and supplicate Him to be safeguarded against stumbling and slipping.
“Another direction [of the Holy Quran] is: Approach not adultery. This means that one should avoid all occasions that might incite one’s mind in that direction, and should eschew all the paths that might lead to this vice. He who indulges in this vice carries his viciousness to the extreme. The way of adultery is an evil way as it obstructs one’s progress towards the goal and is extremely harmful to the achievement of the purpose of life. Those who find no means of marriage should keep themselves chaste through the adoption of other means; for instance, through fasting or dieting or exercise. […]
“God Almighty has not only set forth excellent teaching for acquiring the quality of chastity but has furnished man with five remedies against unchastity. These are:
to restrain one’s eyes from gazing on those who are outside the prohibited degrees;
to restrain one’s ears from listening to their voices and to descriptions of their good looks;
to avoid occasions which might furnish incitement towards this vice;
and to control oneself during the period of celibacy through fasting, dieting etc.
“We can confidently claim that this excellent teaching with all its devices that is set forth in the Holy Quran is peculiar to Islam.
“It should be kept in mind that as the natural condition of man, which is the source of his passions, is such that he cannot depart from it without a complete change in himself, his passions are bound to be roused, or in other words put in peril, when they are confronted with the occasion and opportunity for indulging in this vice. Therefore, God Almighty has not instructed us that we might freely gaze at women outside the prohibited degrees and might contemplate their beauty and observe all their movements in dancing etc. but that we should do so with pure looks. Nor have we been instructed to listen to the singing of these women and to lend ear to tales of their beauty, but that we should do so with a pure intent. Rather, we have been positively commanded not to look at their beauty, whether with pure intent or otherwise, nor to listen to their musical voices or to descriptions of their good looks, whether with pure intent or otherwise. We have been directed to eschew all this as we eschew carrion, so that we should not stumble. It is almost certain that our free glances would cause us to stumble sometime or the other. As God Almighty desires that our eyes and our hearts and all our limbs and organs should continue in a state of purity, He has furnished us with this excellent teaching. There can be no doubt that unrestrained looks become a source of danger. If we place soft bread before a hungry dog, it would be vain to hope that the dog should pay no attention to it. Thus God Almighty desired that human faculties should not be provided with any occasion for secret functioning and should not be confronted with anything that might incite dangerous tendencies.
“[…] It should be remembered that to restrain one’s looks and to direct them only towards observing that which is permissible is described in Arabic by the expression ghadd-e-basar, which is the expression employed in the Holy Quran in this context. It does not behove a pious person who desires to keep his heart pure that he should lift his eyes freely in every direction like an animal. It is necessary that such a one should cultivate the habit of ghadd-e-basar [lowering of the eyes] in his social life. This is a blessed habit through which his natural impulses would be converted into a high moral quality without interfering with his social needs. This is the quality which is called chastity in Islam.” (The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam, pp. 45-49)
Now that you’re here, remember, do not feel ashamed to ask for help if you need it. There are plenty of therapies and counselling groups available to help you get through this, and remember, as Carl Bard once said, though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.