Islam and optimism

Huma Munir, USA

We have always heard our thoughts shape who we are. What we think and how we think determine most of our actions.

This is the reason Islam is so emphatic about purifying one’s thoughts. If our minds are full of ill thinking and negativity, we are most likely to end up depressed or have a pessimistic view of life. Worse, we become our own enemies and view others as despicable and lowly. 

Allah the Almighty says in the Quran, “O ye who believe! avoid most of suspicions.” (Surah al-Hujurat, Ch.49: V.13).

Researchers studying positive psychology agree that being more optimistic has many benefits. And what is fascinating is that Islam is directly aligned with these philosophies. 

Let’s take a deeper look into how positive thinking or optimism has not only physical and mental health benefits but also spiritual benefits.

Positive people have more self-compassion 

What is self-compassion? It’s the ability to forgive yourself and get back up after you make mistakes. The more optimistic we are, the easier it becomes for us to move past our mistakes and keep marching forward. 

Allah declares to the Prophetsa, “Tell My servants that I am surely the One Most Forgiving, the Merciful.” (Surah al-Hijr, Ch.15: V.50)

In the Holy Quran, there is a repeated emphasis on mercy and kindness. Even in verses where believers are commanded to take arms against disbelievers who are oppressing and fighting the Muslims, Allah is quick to admonish that no transgression will be allowed and forgiveness will always be granted to those who seek it. (Surah an-Nisa, Ch.4: V.90-91)

This is why it is so important to believe in Allah’s mercy and think of Him in a positive light. Yes, we will make mistakes, but we can learn from them and move on. 

Famous psychologist, Martin Seligman, speaks of this in his book Learned Optimism. He says that people whose religious beliefs are more optimistic tend to fare better when facing adversities.

There is a beautiful hadith that speaks of Allah’s mercy and gives believers hope: 

وَالَّذِي‭ ‬نَفْسِي‭ ‬بِيَدِهِ‭ ‬لَوْ‭ ‬لَمْ‭ ‬تُذْنِبُوا‭ ‬لَذَهَبَ‭ ‬اللّٰهُ‭ ‬بِكُمْ‭ ‬وَلَجَاءَ‭ ‬بِقَوْمٍ‭ ‬يُذْنِبُونَ‭ ‬فَيَسْتَغْفِرُونَ‭ ‬اللّٰهَ‭ ‬فَيَغْفِرُ‭ ‬لَهُمْ

“By Him in Whose Hand is my life, if you were not to commit sin, Allah would sweep you out of existence and He would replace [you by] those people who would commit sin and seek forgiveness from Allah, and He would pardon them.” (Sahih Muslim, The Book of Repentance, hadith 2749)

If we learn to forgive ourselves, we are more likely to forgive others for their shortcomings as well. We become humble when we make mistakes and when we see others making similar mistakes, we are reminded of our own flaws. Believing that Allah can forgive us and have mercy on us, despite our shortcomings, can have a tremendous impact on our physical, mental and moral well-being.

Positive people give others the benefit of the doubt 

Allah commands us to “avoid suspicion” (Surah al-Hujurat, Ch.49: V.13) and in the same verse, Allah says backbiting and deriding one another is a form of arrogance. To look down on one’s brothers and sisters creates a false sense of superiority. 

According to psychologists, optimistic people give others the benefit of the doubt. Even when someone says or does something hurtful, optimistic people tend to think of others in a more positive light. 

Most of us deal with hurtful comments from people we know or even strangers. Pessimistic people tend to define people by one or two bad qualities. But an optimistic person looks at a shortcoming and separates that flaw from the rest of that person’s character. Positive thinkers can look at a road rage incident and say: “This person is just having a bad day.” But a negative thinker will view such a person as deeply “flawed.”

This is why it is so important for us to train our brains to think more positively. Doing this not only helps us lead happier lives but also makes us better people.

Optimistic people are more resilient 

It takes courage to live as a Muslim in the Western world. We face relentless criticism and scrutiny for our beliefs. Muslim women who wear the hijab face challenges in schools and workplaces. In short, we have to work hard to defend our faith and hold onto our values. 

Optimistic people are more resilient. When they face adversity, they do not give up easily. They look at challenges and realise that perseverance is key. This is why believers are commanded to not give up on praying. 

Allah the Almighty says:

وَلَا‭ ‬تَهِنُوۡا‭ ‬وَلَا‭ ‬تَحۡزَنُوۡا‭ ‬وَاَنۡتُمُ‭ ‬الۡاَعۡلَوۡنَ‭ ‬اِنۡ‭ ‬كُنۡتُمۡ‭ ‬مُّؤۡمِنِيۡنَ

“Slacken not, nor grieve; and you shall certainly have the upper hand, if you are believers.” (Surah Aal-e-Imran, Ch.3: V.140)

Positive psychology has numerous spiritual benefits. It doesn’t end with the few I have mentioned in this article. It is important to realise that we are all imperfect but Islam offers hope. There is no other religion that has offered more profound and insightful ways to deal with human imperfections. We are told to refrain from anger, ill will, resentments and other inclinations that lead us astray. 

But how do we refrain from such evils? How do we deal with everyday temptations that beckon us to leave God and His threshold? How do we purify ourselves so that we can draw closer to God and win His pleasure? 

I believe that if we want spiritual progress, we must be willing to fix our psychology. When we deal with imperfection and are helpless in defeating our inner selves, we are dealing with illnesses of the mind. 

In many cultures, mental health is a taboo topic. People avoid it or look down on others who might be dealing with an “ailment” that they don’t understand. But Islam is a faith that looks upon everyone equally. It reminds us that all of us are flawed and there are ways we can fix ourselves. This is why it is incumbent on Muslims to gain knowledge and strive for knowledge as much as they can. 

Knowledge is power when it comes to defeating our inner demons. Having self-awareness is important in confronting these demons and recognising them. Psychology is big on this: self-awareness. Islam also teaches us to do istighfar; to recognise our flaws and beg for forgiveness. 

The Promised Messiahas reminds us: 

“Do not lose hope and do not be discouraged by the thought: ‘Our souls are so defiled with sin; of what value are our supplications and what impact would they have?’ The human soul has, in fact, been created for the love of God and although the fire of sin may intensely excite him, even then he possesses such power of repentance that it can extinguish that fire. Just as you observe that however much water is heated, when it is poured over a fire it still extinguishes the fire.” (Barahin-e-Ahmadiyya Part V [English], p. 52)

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