Ghazali on breaking free from anger
Emily Bronte, noted the damaging impact that anger can have on those around us, while being very self-destructive itself, in Wuthering Heights, she said:
‘Treachery and violence are spears pointed at both ends, they wound those who resort to them worse than their enemies’
We are all familiar with the Marvel figure of the Hulk, the icon of rage – his veins popping out of his neck, his fists clenched his teeth gritted menacingly. His angry figure bursts out of his clothes which hang in tatters around his enraged form. Imagine the venom coursing through his veins. Imagine how the only thought in his mind is to to wreak revenge on the source of his anger. Imagine how he will proceed to overturn a car or smash whatever stands in his way. The Hulk graphically epitomises what we can become when we are angry. Consumed by rage there is no space in his heart or mind for any positive emotion.
Anger is a force that can burn you, drain you, consume you and completely distort your world view, sapping it of any joy, leaving only a bitter taste.
Imam Ghazali’s book, Kitaab Al-Arba’in Fi Usul ad-Din, ‘The Forty Principles of the Religion,’ which he wrote before his death, is a summary of Ihya Ulumuddin, and his life’s works and thoughts.
Anger is a flame of hellfire
The third principle of purifying the heart is ridding yourself of anger. Anger is a flame of Allah’s blazing fire as Allah stated in Surah Humazah, naarul laahil-mooqada Allatee tattali’u ‘alal af’idah
نَارُ اللَّهِ الْمُوقَدَةُ
الَّتِي تَطَّلِعُ عَلَى الْأَفْئِدَةِ
It is Allah’s kindled fire, that will peep into the hearts. (104:6-7)
Whoever is controlled by his anger is following shaytan. When you are angry, and your anger is not in your control, this is an obvious sign it is from shaytan, because shaytan is created from the flame of the fire.
Mr Muscle vs Mr Calm and Controlled
How can you break free from your anger? Ghazali says it is one of the most important matters in the deen to able to get rid of anger. We dedicated a full session to anger in our course How to Keep your Heart Healthy. Anger is part of emotional make up, so how do we manage it?
Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said:
لَيْسَ اَلشَّدِيدُ بِالصُّرَعَةِ, إِنَّمَا اَلشَّدِيدُ اَلَّذِي يَمْلِكُ نَفْسَهُ عِنْدَ اَلْغَضَبِ
“The strong man is not the good wrestler; but the strong man is he who controls himself when he is angry.” (Bukhari)
I love this hadith as it is reflective of the creativity of the Prophet (peace be on him). He often redefined concepts by posing a question and then turning the answer on its head. This was part of his delivery style which engaged his audience and got their full attention. In their minds, the one who is strong was the one one who had the biggest muscles. However the Prophet (peace be on him) changed the definition of the strongest man. He said the strongest man is not Mr Muscle but the one who can stay calm when provoked. Therefore the strong person is Mr Calm and Controlled, as he can keep his anger in check. Every time you hear the adjective strong now, you will think of it differently.
Honey vs vinegar
In another hadith,
Anger spoils imaan as a cactus (aloe) spoils honey. (Al Bayhaqi)
Anger has a bitter taste. It is like aloe and vinegar which can ruin the sweetness of honey. Anger spoils imaan as vinegar spoils honey. Is anger so bad that it can spoil your imaan? We just need to look at angry people to see how negatively anger affects them. Look how many people are in prison because of crimes they committed in fury. Look at incidents of road rage where people have lost their senses and smashed people’s vehicles and injured them for blocking their way. Losing control and becoming violent is obviously haram.
Avoid the wrath of Allah
A man once said: “O Messenger of Allah! What is the fiercest thing in existence?” The Prophet (peace be on him) replied: “The wrath of Allah” The man asked: “What will keep me away from the wrath of Allah?” The Prophet (peace be on him) replied That you do not become angry’. (Ibn Hibban)
Though we have many hadith about men who came to the Prophet (peace be on him) about anger, anger is not just restricted to men. It is a universal emotion and women experience just as much. Anger can range from mild annoyance and frustration, to full blown rage. We all know that some people have more of a fiery temperament than others, and that some people are better at controlling it, than others.
The angry man
In another hadith, we have an interesting insight into the mind of a man who came to the Prophet (peace be on him) to ask for a piece of advice.
عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ رَضِيَ اللهُ عَنْهُ أَنَّ رَجُلًا قَالَ لِلنَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه و سلم أَوْصِنِي. قَالَ: لَا تَغْضَبْ، فَرَدَّدَ مِرَارًا، قَالَ: لَا تَغْضَبْ”
A man said to the Prophet (peace be on him) “Suggest some practice to me, but make it simple,” so the Prophet (peace be on him) said: “Do not become angry.” The man asked again a number of times and each time the Prophet (peace be on him) repeated, “Do not become angry.” (Bukhari)
Here we see the mind of the questioner, who wanted to know how to avoid hellfire but did not the advice to be complicated. You can sense from his question that he lacks patience and is short-tempered. The Prophet (peace be on him) advised him not to get angry. The man was not convinced by the answer so kept repeating the question.
The Prophet (peace be on him) maintained his composure and kept repeating the advice, la taghdab as he had figured out the man’s temperament. He could sense his angry nature from a mile away. When someone with a short fuse speaks you often can suss out their personality from their gestures, facial expression and tone. There are so many indications even before they speak. Unless you can diagnose a person’s issues you cannot treat them. It is an art and sometimes a gift from Allah to be able to pinpoint the crux of someone’s issues and know what to prescribe them to remedy it.
The gravity of being angry
Ghazali said that the sickness of anger must be grave when its outward manifestation is cursing and violence, and its inner manifestation is hatred, envy, harbouring ill feeling, profanity, wanting to expose someone, spread his secrets, feeling joy at his suffering and sadness when he is happy. Each one of these is a filthy characteristic which is self-destructive.
Breaking free from anger
Ghazali talks about the remedy for anger. He says that the prevention is better than treatment. Rather than deal with the consequences of anger, it is much better not to avoid the bitter fallout afterwards. Why do you get a booster? To prevent falling ill, though you may still get sick, but at least you have taken the precautions.
1. Train yourself (riyada)
Some degree of anger is necessary as it is tool of self-protection. If nothing every made you angry, that would be wrong. However we are not free of anger, so we need some way of reining in our anger and preventing it being triggered.
Controlling anger takes practice. This is called riyada in Arabic. (In modern Arabic riyada means sports). Though you cannot remove anger completely, you can minimise it.
Ghazali likens anger to the hunter’s dog. It’s wild until it is tamed. It needs to be disciplined by reason and the shariah. It should only be provoked when signalled or by the shariah. You need to strive continuously and avoid situations where you will be provoked.
Al-Ahnaf ibn Qays was a well-known tribal leader in the community who had mastered the art of staying cool even under extreme provocation. He would hire people to provoke him and train himself not to react emotionally. Sometimes people would offer prizes for the one who could provoke him. People insult him but he remained unruffled. Sometimes he would warn the person following him and badgering him that he should finish off his tirade quickly because they were approaching his tribe and if his tribesmen overheard the insults they chop him to pieces. Such composure does not come overnight. It requires training.
The Prophet (peace be on him) could keep his equanimity unless someone broke Allah’s commands. He would not get riled when uncouth Bedouins would grab him roughly, yank him by the collar of his cloak and demand money, calling him ‘Ya Muhammad’ rather than ‘Rasul Allah’. His companion Omar (may Allah be please with him) would want to teach them a lesson, but the Prophet (peace be on him) would handle the situation himself calmly and through this taught us how to behave.
2. Contain it: Swallow your anger when you are provoked through knowledge and practice.
Your anger will dissipate if you appreciate that everything happens by Allah’s will, not your own. If you missed the bus that was not part of your plan, but Allah’s plan was that you would not catch that bus. So do not get angry.
Know that Allah’s anger is greater than your anger and Allah’s grace is even greater.
How many times have we disobeyed Allah and broken His commands so why should we become angry when someone else opposes our commands, whether it is our spouses, children, colleagues and employees. Is our command greater than the command of Allah? Obviously not. This is a new angle.
Practice and action
When you feel angry you can respond in a few ways:
- Say ‘I take refuge in Allah from Shaytan, the cursed.’ You have to mean it when you say it. Otherwise it will not have any effect. When you say it from your heart with sincerity, you will feel it, even if the veins are popping out of your head in anger.
- Change your position – if you are standing, sit down. If you are sitting, lie down. Of go to the gym, or the mosque or to the park or for a walk.
عَنْ أَبِي ذَرٍّ قَالَ قَالَ رَسُول اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ إِذَا غَضِبَ أَحَدُكُمْ وَهُوَ قَائِمٌ فَلْيَجْلِسْ فَإِنْ ذَهَبَ عَنْهُ الْغَضَبُ وَإِلَّا فَلْيَضْطَجِعْ
سنن أبي داود كتاب الأدب باب ما يقال عند الغضب
Abu Dharr reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said to us, “If one of you is angry while he is standing, let him sit down so his anger will leave him; otherwise, let him lie down.” (Abu Dawood)
- If changing position does not work, make wudu, as Shaytan is created from fire and water extinguishes fire. Scientifically, splashing your face with cold water can bring down your heart rate.
عن عطية بن عروة قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ إِنَّ الْغَضَبَ مِنْ الشَّيْطَانِ وَإِنَّ الشَّيْطَانَ خُلِقَ مِنْ النَّارِ وَإِنَّمَا تُطْفَأُ النَّارُ بِالْمَاءِ فَإِذَا غَضِبَ أَحَدُكُمْ فَلْيَتَوَضَّأْ
سنن أبي داود كتاب الأدب باب ما يقال عند الغضب
‘Atiyyah reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said, “Verily, anger comes from Satan and Satan was created from fire. Fire is extinguished with water, so if you become angry then perform ablution with water.” (Abu Dawood)
4. In another hadith the Prophet (peace be on him) advised placing your cheek on the ground
Surely anger is a hot coal in the heart of the son of Adam. Do you not see the redness of his eyes and the bulging of the veins in his neck? Whoever senses anything of that within himself should put his cheek to the ground. (Al Hakim, Tirmidhi and Ahmad)
This is a position of humility, it breaks the ego and will have some scientific reasons why this brings down feelings of wrath.
In another hadith, the Prophet (peace be on him) said:
‘Verily through forbearance (hilm) a person will attain the same level of reward as the one who stands in prayer (does qiyam) at night and fasts during the day. (Tabarani)
Though these narrations have some weakness in them, their meanings taken together are in line with the main principles.
These are strong incentives to control anger, because you know that when you break free from your anger and cool down, Allah will be pleased with you.
The a further narration, the Prophet (peace be on him) said:
Whoever contains his fury despite having the ability to unleash Allah will fill his heart with security and faith on the day of Judgment. (Tabarani)
It is a not a piece of cake to control anger, but we can see that the rewards are great.
Dua to be rid of anger
The Prophet (peace be on him) would say to Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) when she was angry, ‘Ya Awaysh’ (using a nickname as endearment):
‘Say O Allah, the Lord of the Prophet Muhammad forgive me my sins and remove the anger from my heart and protect me from tribulations.’ (Ibnu Sunni)
Getting to the root of your anger
Psychotherapists have classed anger as a secondary emotion. There are usually other emotions underneath it, which are painful and anger is a way of escaping those feelings of hurt.
Sometimes we have issues which we never resolved with other other people, which left us hurt in the past. These are historical issues which we have buried and we may have forgotten why we have those feelings but we feel anger whenever we see them.
Sometimes you don’t hear what the other person is saying because you fall back on a narrative that you carrying around with you.
Sadness and fear are painful
The idea of sadness and fear are very painful emotions, they can cause us to become paralysed, and when we snap or react sometimes to avoid being with sadness and fear. We are always trying to avoid vulnerability.
Fear and sadness create uncertainty for us, this is because they touch upon the unknown which tends to be scary for most of us. Anything we don’t know, we become fearful of.
When an argument starts, it can lead to fear which can translate into a sense of abandonment and this tends to fuel what appears as anger.
Not feeling in control
When we are not feeling in control, we need to find ways of getting back that sense of control, because when we don’t feel in control it affects our wellbeing; a sense of control correlates with emotional wellbeing.
When you begin to understand what is beneath the feelings of anger, you need to communicate with those around you. Let them know the action that causes you to feel the way you do; it’s only when you communicate your feelings, that you can move beyond the situation and not get angry.
Invest in your relationships
We should really do emotional investment in the lives of people who are very close to us. How we maintain healthy relationships and how we understand their emotions.
Dissect what is beneath your anger
Anger management is about understanding our feelings and developing the ability to communicate that with others in a positive manner and finding the right language to do so.
Shaykh Haytham Tamim – The Thursday Al Ghazali Class 16th December 2021 with additional notes on the psychotherapy by Sister Rahma Abdul Latif, transcribed by F. Qadir.
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