By Tarek Younis
Emotion: an often-neglected, yet significant component of our psychological configuration
Our psychological configuration consists of several components, all of which are interrelated:
- The spiritual component, as we say the fitrah, which naturally predisposes us with an inclination towards God and good.
- The cognitive component, which assumes all types of mental processes we can have.
- The emotional component, which covers the range of emotions we experience, such as anger, sadness, fear, shame, and guilt.
The purpose of this article is to focus exclusively on the emotional component, as it is oft-neglected amongst Muslims; indeed our community habitually focuses on our spiritual and cognitive components instead. This imbalance is significant for two reasons:
First of all, I contend that many – if not most – of the problems we face as individuals can directly be related to our emotional regulation.
Second of all, by neglecting the emotional component, we undervalue the emotional intelligence of the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him), who was a mercy to mankind on the basis of all three components combined. We consequently overlook his emotional character, perhaps even reducing him to a man of rules and regulations devoid of any feelings at all. An ayah that specifically highlights this trait was revealed after the battle of Uhud, in which Allah says:
“So by mercy from Allah, [O Muhammad], you were lenient with them. And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult them in the matter. And when you have decided, then rely upon Allah. Indeed, Allah loves those who rely [upon Him].”(Quran, 3:159)
The ayah (verse) demonstrates how the Prophet ﷺ was perfectly attuned to the emotional state of his followers– had it been otherwise, his companions would have disbanded. Indeed, the Prophet ﷺ knew very well the importance of recognizing our emotions; his life was the quintessential example of emotional expression – when and how to express them – with the ultimate objective of developing our emotional intelligence.
What is the emotional component?
The experience of emotions is inevitable. Thus we do not exercise our free will in choosing not to have them, rather we practice free will in deciding what to do with them when they arise. There are several key points with regards to emotional intelligence that must be understood.
First of all, it’s important to realize that if God has created us with emotions, such as anger, sadness, fear, etc., then they must serve a purpose that is ultimately to our benefit. In fact, research has shown that our well-being – how happy you are, how good you feel, etc. – is entirely a function of our emotional make-up. Keep in mind, much like everything else we were given, emotions were created to enhance healthy living but it also carries the potential of being abused.
Second of all, the emotional component is incapable of reason; instead, it requires our rational brain to reflect on the valuable emotional information it produces. For example, when you’re scared, you try to use that information to rationalize what you’re afraid of. It is the collaboration of emotion and reason that results in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Third of all, we use emotions to give meaning to things. People reflect on their emotional feelings to make sense of their experiences. For example, someone may create meaning via the feeling of calmness that they experience when sitting in a religious institution, and they may thus appreciate the experience in a manner that attributes the calmness coming from God. The emotional component indeed plays a major role in our convictions and worldviews, which is quite often neglected in debates and arguments. This is especially important with regards to da’wah (calling people to Islam); the most common da’wah method I see amongst da’iis (those who do da’wah), I would say it’s almost exclusively a rational approach. I personally do not advocate an entirely rational approach to da’wah as that would presuppose that humans are entirely rational creatures. Rather, we must appreciate that our emotions play an equally significant (if not more so) role in the decisions we make. Significantly, if you speak to people who accepted Islam, not everyone will agree that they converted because it was an entirely reasonable choice; many, for example, say it was because of the love they felt for Allah, Islam, or indeed, the Muslim community. Although the general Western population places a superior emphasis on “rationality” than anything else, do not neglect the person’s feelings in the process. The meaning they will construct following your da’wah engagement will almost certainly depend on the emotions they were feeling in the process.
Finally, the emotional component consists of two processes: the facility of experiencing emotions and the capacity to regulate it. Indeed, the over and under-regulation of emotions is a significant cause of psychological distress. Let’s take the core emotion of fear as an example, and briefly examine how the Prophet ﷺ regulated it. Fear is a powerful, adaptive emotion that screams “danger!” It quickly generates a tremendous amount of energy (hence, your heart is racing, adrenaline, etc.) so you can immediately seek protection. In the time of the Prophet ﷺ, there was one context that we’re sure was fear-invoking for his companions: war. How did the Prophet ﷺ show us how to regulate our fear in these unquestionably fearful times? Did he under-regulate it by staying at home in hiding, overcome by the need to protect himself? Did he over-regulate it by running towards the enemy on his own, without any consideration for his own being? Of course not, the Prophet ﷺ was instead the perfect example of emotional regulation. You see, fear is just a warning sign for danger, and this is an incredibly valuable emotional information; instead of attacking the enemy carelessly (ignoring the fear), or staying at home (overcome by fear), he put on body armor and planned his attacks precisely. Hence, fear is a valuable asset from Allah that tells us to be careful. We shouldn’t let it overpower us, nor should we ever ignore it.
This is obviously an enormous topic. Indeed, philosophers and scholars have discussed the significance of the emotional component for millennia. As such, there were but a few thoughts on the importance of emotions, and I pray in the future we can discuss specific emotions – anger, sadness, fear, and shame – individually by reflecting on their purpose and, significantly, their abuse.
Tarek Younis is a fourth year PhD/PsyD psychology student at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and a long-time community activist in Montréal, Canada. For more articles investigating the psychological configuration of Muslims, visit him at www.muslimpsyche.com
The main psychological reference for the above is:
Greenberg, L. (2002). Emotion-focused therapy: Coaching clients to work through feelings. Washington, D.C. American Psychological Association Press.