A Wasatiyyah Look at Fear and Hope | Wasat No. 43 / March 2022



A Wasatiyyah Look at Fear and Hope

01 March 2022 12:03 am // Written by Muhammad Shazani Bin Shamsudin

Fear is the most natural instinct to have. It has helped us as a species to survive the many dangers that lurk, hunting down those that aren’t vigilant. It becomes a useful asset to protect one from falling into harm and ruins. To deny the component of fear within us is to deny the very driver that operates us as human beings. We are deeply concerned about our self-preservation; our own needs and wants. We flee from dangers because we desire our own survival.

Whether we want to associate ourselves with Puritans or not, we cannot escape from the existence of our innate desire within us. Any attempt to obliterate the faculty of desire that some spiritual traditions may advocate is in of itself a desire. Thereby, a clear contradiction of the spiritual principle that it upholds. Unless we come to terms with ourselves; that stubborn side of us that persists in our self-centeredness as shown by our experiences and conscious freedom of the choices that we make, we will always be in denial of the truth of our constitution; that we have wants and needs, which theologically speaking, makes us human beings. And it is this iradah (free-will) that differentiates us from angels.

Human beings are selfish creatures that desire to gain and fear to lose. The very theme and motif that the Qur’an employs when it speaks of the pleasures of paradise and the pain of the inferno revolve around the psychology of humankind. Who knows His creature better than its Creator?

It’s precisely the element of fear that is the quintessence of our Islamic faith. For all the worship that we practised is to engender and make increase of our God-consciousness in every moment of our life. Taqwa, often translated as fear of God, is to be aware of His presence and observe His Laws, but all in all, is that desire to protect ourselves from the humiliation and the fire, “O humanity, worship your Lord who created you and those before you, in order for you to realize Taqwa.” (The Qur’an, 2:21)

But often fear in the modern context is taken to be defined as cowardice or timidity. When one is thrust with many self-doubts, it hinders one from performing their responsibilities. It could be a student who is facing stage fright, or it could be a religious scholar who felt incompetent from enjoining good and prohibiting wrong, or it could be the sinner who procrastinates from returning back to Allah.

Overall, these doubts are many and often complex that requires deep reflection and introspection to figure the thoughts within ourselves. The Islamic tradition calls this internal process muhasabah. Although it does require a specialist to understand the cause of the emergence of thoughts in our mind, (traditionally it is used to be the Sufis puzzle out the intricacies of these thoughts), it gives a sense of assurance for one who may have to struggle and handle these thoughts by knowing one golden rule; that we are not our thoughts.

Thoughts are thoughts. We are defined earlier as a creature with iradah and it is up to us on what to do with these thoughts. There is hope in dealing with and controlling these overwhelming emotions. By clearing out the doubts, we can stabilize our fear. Transforming worries into fear that moves us into action like taqwa instead of fear that only incites doubts within us. 

These negative thoughts are translated as shubuhat which could have originated from the whisperings of the devil. They are often devices and stratagems employed by the devil to divert people from performing good deeds. And that is precisely what the devil wants from us; to make the servant of Al-Rahman go astray from the path as mentioned in the Qur’an,

“ [Satan] said, “Because You have put me in error, I shall lurk in ambush for them on Your straight path.

Then I shall come upon them from before them and from behind them and on their right sides and on their left sides, and You will not find most of them grateful [to You].” (The Qur’an, 7:16-7)

In this article, I would like to elucidate the difference between fear that is taqwa and fear that is anxiety or cowardice, or timidity induced by the devil. This is also an attempt to make clear what this disease or illness is, and how we remedy it by utilizing the Islamic principle of wasatiyyah; that is equilibrium, balance, and moderation.

Firstly, we need to ponder the question of what causes the latter to be excessive that it immobilizes a person? There can be many answers to that question given the subtle nature of our self. But it always revolves around these shubuhat that stems from the ego. To get rid of these shubuhat, we have to confront our ego.

Let us take a case study of a sinner that doubts himself from granting the mercy of Allah. Imam Al-Ghazali- May Allah Sanctify His Soul- warn about excessive fear that leads to despair in his book, Ihya Ulumuddin; Despair is a deception from the devil. The word Iblis comes from ablasa which could also mean to cause despair. And those who are depressed often feel these inadequacies. These inadequacies can come in many variations; it could be from the loss of loved ones, or from the loss of a job, from the loss of a feeling, from the loss of chances to perform good deeds. This inadequacy could cause one to feel worthless and self-defeating; which is a victory for the devil. Although one could empathize with someone who has fallen into despair, the proper way to help this person is to see through the trick of the deception in order to save the person from drowning in despair. It seems common to have self-pity or self-doubt, but if we were, to be honest with what is going on inside us, it is that feeling of high hope; that some fate would somehow give them a second chance without making the right repairment. They would often procrastinate until God has changed their state in order to return back to God. But the order of things does not work that way. Allah states in the Qur’an, “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. And when Allah intends for a people ill, there is no repelling it. And there is not for them besides Him any patron” (The Qur’an, 13:11)

You have to face the circumstances, own your mistakes, do the work, ask his forgiveness, and trust in the encompassing mercy of God. Truth is, it takes a lot of hard work to achieve self-acceptance. To accept yourself without changing is self-defeating and self-pity.

The modern peril that embraces one to accept themselves, be themselves regardless of the immoralities committed, is in reality a self-defeating notion. It is that laziness and self-entitlement that is slowly creeping out to take no heed of any accountability. But Islam offers self-realization through redemption. This requires one to go against the nature of the nafs; the nafs that does not want to put effort or struggle yet complain of their condition. Hence excessive fear or despair is in fact the nafs talking, making excuses for itself in order not to do the work. Allah says,

“And hasten to forgiveness from your Lord and a garden as wide as the heavens and earth, prepared for the righteous.” (The Qur’an, 3:133)

Do not procrastinate for that opens the doors of doubts to go wider, and any effort to plead for the mercy of our Lord is always answered generously. The Prophet – Peace who be upon Him – said in a hadith al-qudsi,

“Allah, the Exalted and Glorious, said: I live in the thought of My servant and I am with him as he remembers Me. (The Holy Prophet) further said: By Allah, Allah is more pleased with the repentance of His servant than what one of you would do on finding the lost camel in the waterless desert. When he draws near Me by the span of his hand. I draw near him by the length of a cubit and when he draws near Me by the length of a cubit. I draw near him by the length of a fathom and when he draws near Me walking I draw close to him hurriedly.” (Narrated by Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

The next case of excessive fear that I would like to touch on is that of a religious scholar that felt incompetent in enjoining good and forbidding wrong or the seeker of knowledge is too shy to face the crowd.

We know that when we flee or freeze when a task, it is also centred on some shubuhat. But this time around, it is not self-pity, but self-reliance. In both cases, it is the devil that is deceiving us into believing that we need to control the past or future to be enough to perform the task. It tries to deceive us by covering the reality of Al-Qada’ Wa Al-Qadr (Predestination and Decree) by making us discontent and coaxing us into manipulating it according to our ways; thinking that this could be better or otherwise.

It was narrated by Abu Hurairah – May Allah be pleased with him – said that The Prophet – Peace Be Upon Him – said,

“The strong believer is better and more beloved to Allah than the weak believer, while there is (still) goodness in both. Guard over that which benefits you, seek Allah’s assistance, do not be weak (by passing up chances to do good), and if a trial befalls you, don’t say ‘Had I only done such and such, this would not have happened,’ but rather say, “Qadarullaahi wa maa shaa’ fa’al” (This is Allah’s Decree, and He does what He wills), for verily the phrase ‘Had I only…” makes way for the work of Shaytan.” (Narrated by Muslim)

The religious scholar or the seeker of knowledge might feel the limitation of his knowledge, but maybe what he is afraid of is in fact,  the results that might bring in dissatisfaction, rejection or disapproval from the people. Thus, he exerts too much effort that stresses himself out. 

One might assume that to balance off this excessive fear or anxiety is to instil hope into the person. Prescribing a mantra to evoke positive thoughts; What if things could happen, what if things could be accomplished, could succeed, could work out? But it doesn’t dismiss the fact that the reality of the future is still unknown. You might trick the brain into thinking otherwise but having done that only leads to stress as it pushes the person to do more. It is a risky endeavour to take as it could still lead to disappointment and worsen one’s own anxiety.

Just like self-pity is an act of entitlement, so too is self-reliance another type of entitlement. Whose feeling of entitlement is that demand to get the result from the plan that they had laid out. There’s a subtle pride to this as one might feel that his plan is better than the plan of the All-Knowledgeable which makes him rely on his plan more than relying on the plan of the Creator. There is nothing wrong in doing things with excellence itqan and beauty ihsan for we are encouraged to do so. But the problem lies in where we place our reliance. To rely on our meticulous plan instead of His infinite wisdom is a sign of diminishment of our light of faith; to witness the reality of the affair is only His. Allah says,

“Whoever is within the heavens and earth asks Him; every day He is bringing about a matter.” (The Qur’an, 55:29)

“And they planned, but Allah planned. And Allah is the best of planners” (The Qur’an, 3:54)

I would argue in this article that it is not hope per se that could balance off this anxiety of self-reliance but hope onto an All-Wise All-Knowledgeable Benevolent Maker whose perfect design of the universe is due to take course in graceful splendour.

The Prophet pbuh was described as an optimistic man. The religion that he brings is a religion of hope and optimism – an optimism that is not founded on unsubstantial ground but optimism that is grounded in spirituality, faith, and certainty.

Only when one has true optimism, he can one achieve a balance of fear and hope. A hope and fear that is directed towards action instead of hope and fear that dwells in the mind.  

When our hope becomes excessive there is a flaw in our reliance on Allah by doing too little. When our fear becomes excessive there is a flaw in our reliance on Allah by doing too much. We need to observe the spiritual state of our heart from going from one extreme end to another to achieve equilibrium through reliance on Allah. And it is by His grace that one can overcome all the doubts and succeed in accomplishing his noble endeavour. 

Allah says,

“Truly, the human being was created anxious * He is fretful when misfortune touches him * And when good touches him he is stingy * Except those who pray * those that are regular and steady in their prayer.” (The Qur’an, 70:19-23)

Lastly, God’s prescription for anxiety is prayer. The prayer is a connection with Allah. To make peace with our heart by grounding us back, and flow with the natural course of the universe, and glorify the work of a Benevolent Caretaker. 

We need to do muhasabah (self-reflection) on our life but we should not limit ourselves to the level of the common folk; where we reflect on our outward sins. We should look inwards and do muhasabah on the thoughts that infiltrated into our heart and mind. Muhasabah of the common folk is not the same as muhasabah of the elect. The elects are trained to direct their thoughts to witness Reality by constantly remembering Allah. As such should we be concerned of our states, it is through the remembrance of God that one purifies his/her heart.

“Those who believe (in Allah) and whose hearts find rest in the remembrance of Allah. Verily in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest.” (The Qur’an, 13:28)

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