Psychology of anger and Islamic teachings

Huma Munir, USA

We have all felt it – the slow bubbling of pent-up rage rising in our chests, making its way out. Like all emotions, anger serves a purpose and is not always a bad thing. In fact, sometimes anger could be justified. But even when justified, anger should not make us forget who we are as Muslims or hinder us from being equitable and just. The Holy Quran says:

“[…] and, when they are wroth, they forgive” (Surah ash-Shura, Ch.42: V.38)

In the name of “freedom”, Western society often encourages protecting inflammatory speech. But as we have witnessed in recent times, offensive speech has grave consequences. People who are unable to control or suppress their anger can sometimes react to it with violence. We have witnessed tragedies resulting in the loss of lives after the publication of offensive material. While the actions of terrorists can never be justified, there is a lesson here. Why incite people? We don’t live in a perfect world and there can be most unfortunate consequences to protecting inflammatory speech. Is it worth protecting inflammatory speech at the cost of endangering human life?

The Holy Quran says: 

“Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in a way that is best,” (Surah an-Nahl Ch.16: V.126). 

The Quran also admonishes believers to suppress anger (Surah Aal-e-‘Imran Ch.3: V.135). Those who hurt the sentiments of others under the label of “free speech” and those who react with violence are both condemned in Islam. 

The life of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, is full of examples where he showed kindness to his enemies even while facing severe persecution. When he visited Taif, he was met with great hostility. People chased him down and pelted him with stones until his clothes became drenched with blood. Anyone in the Prophet’ssa situation would be angry or resentful. But when an angel came to the Holy Prophetsa and asked if the people of Taif should be destroyed, the Prophetsa showed nothing but kindness and mercy: 

“Nay! Nay! I trust that Allah the Exalted shall give birth to such people from among them who shall worship one true God,” were his words. (The Life and Character of the Seal of Prophets, Vol. 1, p. 255)

Islam is the epitome of tolerance and benevolence. Today, psychology agrees that anger is terrible, not just for the person experiencing it but also because it destroys relationships and disrupts societal peace. With that said, we must acknowledge that anger is a very powerful emotion and sometimes we are swayed by it. Acknowledging this fact is the first step to conquering this beast. 

Here are some ways in which Islam and psychology align to help us combat this negative emotion.

Redirecting anger

Redirecting your anger by focusing on something positive is a great strategy for diffusing negative emotions, according to the American Psychological Association. An article titled Control Anger Before It Controls You, states that anger can actually be converted into “constructive behaviour”. 

Nearly 1,400 years ago, the Holy Quran commanded believers to suppress anger and to do good (Surah Aal-e-‘Imran Ch.3: V.135). We can infer from this that when someone wrongs us, if circumstances allow, it’s best to repay the injury with kindness. Acts of benevolence can have a powerful impact on our hearts and minds and can save us from the damaging effects of anger. 

In fact, the result of such kindness can be that the person who was our enemy becomes like a friend to us. The Holy Quran speaks of this: 

“And good and evil are not alike. Repel [evil] with that which is best. And lo, he between whom and thyself was enmity will become as though he were a warm friend,”. (Surah As-Sajdah, Ch.41: V.35)

Taking active steps to calm down 

The Holy Prophetsa instructed:

“If any of you becomes angry and he is standing, let him sit down, so his anger will go away. If it does not go away, let him lie down.

Many psychologists agree that changing one’s environment or taking a walk can immediately diffuse feelings of anger. The above-mentioned article from the American Psychological Association also mentions techniques that can lower heart rate and blood pressure. Simply stepping away from a frustrating situation or breathing exercises can help us feel better. Neuroscience has shown that lying down can reduce mental activation and lead to calmer brain states.

Islam is also emphatic about monitoring one’s thoughts and changing the way we think. This is why istighfar or seeking forgiveness for one’s sins, is paramount in Islam. Psychologists also believe that paying attention to one’s thoughts can help us move in a positive direction. When we are angry, paying attention to what’s going on in our minds and our senses can help us detach ourselves from the anger. The idea is that we might be feeling an emotion, but we are not defined by that emotion. We can control it and move on.

Suppressing anger and forgiveness 

Forgiving others is a very worthy act in the sight of Allah the Almighty. But forgiveness cannot happen unless we show restraint.

“[…] And if you overlook and forgive and pardon, then surely, Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful,”. (Surah at-Taghabun, Ch. 64: V.15)

A renowned psychologist, Martin E Seligman, talks about the damaging effects of anger on couples and their children. In his book, Learned Optimism, Seligman says that if we care about the emotional well-being of our children, then parents must learn to suppress anger. 

“Therefore, I choose to go against the prevailing ethic and recommend that, if it is your children you care most about, you step back and think twice or three times before you fight. Being angry and fighting are not human rights. Consider swallowing anger, sacrificing pride and putting up with less than you deserve from your spouse. Step back before provoking your spouse and before answering a provocation. Fighting is a human choice, and it is your child’s well-being, more than yours, that may be at stake,” Seligman claims. (Learned Optimism, p. 148)

Living in today’s world, we see the negative effects of divorce on children and families. Most marital issues begin when we are not able to suppress our anger. Children often become the greatest victims of such unfortunate situations. 

Anger is a universal emotion. We all become angry momentarily and feel remorse for our actions and words later on. What is most important is that we continue to try and tame this negative emotion. Uncontrolled anger, unlike other emotions, has far-reaching consequences. It doesn’t just damage our mental and physical health, it hurts others in the process, too.

Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Promised Messiahas says if one’s nature is prone to anger, then we must look for the cause. (Malfuzat, Vol. I, p. 47) We must be willing to look inward and fix ourselves if we want to lead happier lives. Most importantly, we must resist anger because we don’t want to hurt other people in our lives. 

The Holy Quran beautifully teaches us what no discipline in the world can do. It exhorts, “When they pass by anything vain, they pass on with dignity”. (Surah al-Furqan, Ch.25: V.73). 

Next time you are angry, try to redirect, stay calm or suppress this negative emotion. Islam calls on us to display higher morals. We can only do that when we suppress anger and meet injury with benevolence. 

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