قَالَا رَبَّنَا ظَلَمْنَآ أَنفُسَنَا وَإِن لَّمْ تَغْفِرْ لَنَا وَتَرْحَمْنَا لَنَكُونَنَّ مِنَ ٱلْخَـٰسِرِينَ
They replied, ‘Our Lord, we have wronged our souls: if You do not forgive us and have mercy, we shall be lost.’(Qur’an 7:23)
Western psychology’s approach to studying the human condition has expanded over the years into several branches. From forensics to clinical practice, the Western model has become dominant in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. Keeping in mind the rise of psychological disorders in modern times, terms and diagnoses that would typically be discussed within the circles of health practitioners have been appropriated into mainstream popular culture. Without truly understanding the full meaning of these concepts, self-proclaimed healers and self-help gurus have hijacked conditions such as narcissism, codependency, and neuroticism and rebranded them to become digestible Instagram tidbits for an audience that shares in their oblivion. A lot of these influencers, having no background in psychology or therapy, have emerged capitalizing on the human need for a higher purpose and exploiting the traumas of a mentally disturbed generation.
Having practiced in the medical field myself as a surgery nurse, I was constantly surrounded by sorrow and misfortune. From victims of rape and gang violence to cancer patients, I could never bring myself to overlook the wonting spiritual pain that looked me right in the eyes and left me utterly exposed to my patient’s deepest sufferings. The message was simple: beyond these observable physiological processes and meticulously calculated measurements, lies a spirit crying out to be seen, nurtured, and embraced. Having experienced the fragility and vulnerability of human life, I cannot bring myself to ignore the prevalence of the mental anguish that exists in the modern human being. With the explosion of social media, our digital age has offered individuals, who would normally seek professional help, a platform to monetize their traumas and amplify their grievances. Naturally, these influencers can gain massive numbers of followers who find their content relatable to their own sufferings.
Now, I will be the first to admit that the allure of the world of self-help did appeal to me, as it does to many others. This world of pseudo-spirituality offered answers to many deep-seated questions I had about my relationship with myself and with others. In fact, the crossovers between some of these philosophies and Islamic contemplation compelled me to appreciate many of its teachings. Before anyone cancels me, I have always recognized the slippery slope that exists in this world of healing crystals and organic yoga mats. It is evident that the hand of capitalism strips all sacred meaning from whatever it touches. The lucrative nature of this industry involves everything from petty scams to negligent homicide and one could write a whole book on its profiteering schemes. However, I do not intend to delve too deep into this. I do, however, wish to expound on a core doctrine that underpins the world of toxic positivity.
The Deification of the Nafs
Anyone who has dabbled long enough in this world will inevitably uncover a self-aggrandizing language that is branded as life-changing affirmations capable of healing mental disturbances and bringing forth unbelievable material success. On the one hand, you have self-professed therapists advocating for unconditional self-acceptance as a tool to overcome past traumatic experiences. Love yourself unconditionally, you are the creator of your life, give yourself what you desire, be your authentic self etc… are common teachings. In this world, not only does the individual reign supreme but there is no power greater than the self- i.e. the nafs. No other moral authority exists outside the individual. You may now see where my contention lies. A myopic vision of the self, championed by a culture inundated by individualistic ideals, has raised a generation of people too holy to receive criticism and unabashedly demand acceptance and praise. Misconstrued constructs of gender, race and political affiliation have become the battlegrounds for a movement of individuals who believe that their unconventional identities, personal desires and ideological positions should not only be normative in society but to be hailed as heroic. They perceive themselves to be martyrs liberating others from oppressive social structures, a bastion of moral goodness doing what no one else has been brave enough to do- shatter traditional ways of thinking in the name of emancipation. It is not they who have wavered from normative thought, but the rest of society that has unconsciously imbibed these binary social constructs. Their way of thinking is the default and should you not accept that, you are complicit in a system of oppression.
On the other hand, we find popularized “hustle culture” which is essentially rebranded capitalism fused with delusions of grandeur. Both these sides carry an overly exaggerated sense of individual power to materialize their dreams solely on the basis of positive thought and motivation. Sleepless nights, Adderall addictions and cycles of depression and mania all in the name of perpetuating a facade to the world that with relentless striving and unhealthy obsessive behaviours, anyone can have it all. What’s worse than promoting a lifestyle of self-neglect in the name of material gain is the degree of dishonesty that exists. From rags to riches is the anthem to which they march, indulging their audience in a sob story of struggle and perseverance. Many of them are, however, not only highly discreet about the social and economic privileges that opened the doors of success for them, but are also conveniently blind to the systemic racial and economic marginalization that many in their global audience face. Despite this, these charismatic influencers have convinced many of their followers that nothing stands between them and success except negative thoughts and ultimately anointing the individual as the originator of prosperity. We can now see the sources of the psychological pressure and emotional anguish that presides over the lives of those who fail to reach such expectations.
Hustle culture never truly appealed to me as a way of life. Working as a nurse, I saw first-hand the strain of physical and psychological stress on the health of my patients. However, ideas of unconditional self-acceptance and individualism have been popularized in modern society to the extent that it forms the very core of globalized culture. In my journey through this world of improvised spiritual healing, I found myself seeking Islam’s place in developing a healthy level of self-esteem and seeking a prophetically inspired path to healing. Not only was I seeking to heal myself from generational trauma but how to break free from a culture of victimhood that consistently misuses these traumas as a reason to avoid truly confronting my flaws. Rather than facing these trauma-bound behaviours and beliefs, positivity culture teaches us to accept ourselves as we are. Islam on the other hand, with its timeless conception of human nature, encourages us to venture into the darkest recesses of our being and confront our demons with both strength and gentleness.
As transcendental spiritual practices have increasingly gained popularity in the West, it becomes abundantly clear that Islamic contemplation, not positivity culture, is the path to true freedom and healing. According to Dr. Malik Badri (may Allah ﷻ have mercy on his soul), the ultimate goal of Islamic contemplation is deeper insightful knowledge of God as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. By accepting and surrendering to a Creator whose omniscience and omnipotence surpass the finite limits of human cognition and ability, Allah ﷻ lifts a tremendous burden off the minds and souls of mankind. Through recognizing that our suffering and pain is not the result of meaningless fate but the result of a Will greater than our own, we are liberated from the mental prisons we’ve caged ourselves in, from being victims of our traumas, and from remaining hostage to our past. Contentment, as Dr. Umar Faruq Abdullah articulates, is accepting that all things that transpire in our lives- the good, the bad, and the ugly- are all from God. To submit to His will and have no complaints against Him is to affirm to our Lord that we have done our best in whatever situation we are in. In this way, Islam alleviates us from the unattainable moral and material values of positivity culture.
In order not to fall into the binary of east versus west, a bridge of reconciliation can exist between the world of Islamic and Westernized spirituality. I mentioned previously the concept of positive thinking. Although highly appropriated by self-proclaimed healers as a means of summoning material success, this idea is not necessarily a contentious issue. Well before western cognitive behaviourists, Abu Zayd Al Balkhi, the 9th-century polymath, delineated the influence of thought on psychological disorders stating that just as one keeps medical first aid ready for medical emergencies, so too should one have positive thoughts to maintain psychological balance. The disharmony presented with the modern popularized version is the issue of affording control of the unseen world to creation. Prosperity and wealth are the domain of Allah ﷻ , and unlike the pervasive protestant-like thinking that exists in some religious circles, we do not believe that wealth is indicative of Allah’s ﷻ pleasure.
Furthermore, developing a positive sense of self is also a critical part of Islamic meditative practice. Imam Al Ghazali in his ihya uloom ad-Din states: “The Muslim who wants to adhere to good behaviour has to first change his ideas about himself and imagine himself in the desired condition. Then he must gradually assume those good manners until they become a part of him.” Islamic contemplation recognizes and utilizes the power of our thoughts and how we speak to ourselves as a means of improving our character. Self-deprecation is just as harmful as self-aggrandizement as our thoughts play a crucial role in regulating our character.
The dynamism that exists within Islamic contemplation and traditional meditative practices as a holistic means of psychological and somatic trauma healing illustrates to us that the Islamic model seeks to find healing at the very root of our collective suffering. Dr. Mazen Atassi and Shaykh Idris Watts, in their rich discussions about Healing and Spirituality, stated that true spirituality is connecting to something greater than ourselves. Trauma blocks us, not only from horizontally connecting with our peers, but from vertically connecting with that greater Transcendental Power, Allah ﷻ . Healing from these traumas not only involves the Haqq of spirituality but the Haqq of our bodies, our families etc… We cannot be spiritual and neglect our needs. Rather, we must create the conditions for healthy spirituality through caring for our physical health, diet, sleep, regulating stress and being in healthy relationships. Our beloved Prophet ﷺ said with regards to the rights of our bodies:
Aisha reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, sent for Uthman ibn Mazh’un and he came. The Prophet said, “O Uthman, do you not desire my practice?” Uthman said, “O Messenger of Allah, no by Allah. I seek your practice.” The Prophet said, “Verily, I sleep and I pray, I fast and I break my fast, and I marry women. Fear Allah, O Uthman, for your family has rights over you and your guest has rights over you. Verily, your own self has rights over you, so fast and break your fast, pray and sleep.”
The way of Islam is one of balance that seeks to elevate the angelic nature within us and regulate the bestial nature that seeks to keep us in a perpetual cycle of gratification and discontentment. Allahﷻ has provided mankind with the blueprint to fulfill the purpose of his or her true nature; that is to draw near to Allahﷻ through submission to His ﷻ Will, not to our whims nor the ever-changing subjectivities of the modern world. The challenge we have in a culture of nafsi-love is to begin with ourselves. Day by day there is an ever-increasing need to recognize that many of us are operating in the world from a place of pain and unworthiness. The glimmering appeal of the world of toxic positivity has pulled us deeper into the delusion of our grandiosity, failing to acknowledge the fragility and utter dependence of our existence on the One Who sees past all our filtered smiles and carefully orchestrated lives. Now more than ever does the world need to reorient its gaze towards authentic spiritual grounding which Islamic contemplation has to offer.
Contemplation by Dr. Malik Badri
Connections Ep. 4 with Dr. Mazen Atassi and Shaykh Idris Watts: