“Do not get angry,” is what Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, advised without exception and time after time to a companion who was asking him for advice. But we may ask, how can a person not be angry, when there are multiple reasons to be so? Isn’t it good, when being angry, to release this emotion in words and actions rather than suppress it? Doesn’t it feel good to release your rage and wrath against someone who hurt you?
Allah says in the Qur’an: “Who are patient in misfortune and hardship and during the time of courage. Such are the truthful; such are the cautious” (Surah 2, Ayah 177), and He said “those who are patient will be recompensed in full without count” (Surah 39, Ayah 10). In Islam patience is regarded as one of the greatest values of a believer. But we may ask, “Why should I suppress these ugly feelings of anger that I am feeling and be patient, when I can punish the one who caused me harm and sorrow? It’s hard to be patient in the face of anger and indignitation.
What is patience? And why does it have this great value? Patience in Islam means adhering to follow the obligations and prohibitions of God, as well as restraining and preventing yourself from being angry and complaining about Allah’s predestination. Patience has many benefits for the believer, as it is a proof of the perfection of faith, it brings guidance to the heart, it begets the love of Allah and the love of people, and it brings the mercy of Allah and His blessings upon the patient.
Rage and wrath were present in the pre-Islamic era, as they still are now, and the man in those times who was able to release his rage and wrestle with others and win was admired and regarded as a strong man. Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, changed this value by declaring that: “The strong man is not the one who wrestles, but the strong man is in fact the one who controls himself in a fit of rage.” (Bukhari and Muslim). Moreover he declared that: “If one restrained his anger, Allah will keep His punishment from him (on the Day of Resurrection).” (Related by At-Tabarani in al-Awsat). Thus we see that practicing patience and controlling one’s feelings of anger are highly valued in Islam. Why is that?
Anger and rage prevents a man or woman from making good decisions, as they work as a blinders to the mind. That is why Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, warned even judges from taking decisions in a fit of anger, as he said, “No judge should give judgement between two people while he is angry.” (Bukharin and Muslim). A judge here does not only mean the person who judges in the court, but it includes anyone who is taking any decision, a husband, a wife, a student …etc.
Moreover, Islam gives good advice on how to control and eradicate anger. The Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, said, “When one of you becomes angry while standing, he should sit down. If the anger leaves him, well and good; otherwise he should lie down.” (Sunan Abi Dawud, 4782). Likely this is a God-given recognition that the standing person is in a brain and body activated state in which he is flooded with stress hormones to ready himself to fight or flee and in that state he might act out in rage. However, the sitting person is more likely to calm himself by getting off his feet, taking a few moments rest and hopefully gaining more perspective. Even more so, the laying down person is definitely signaling to his body that whatever the trigger was to his rage, the danger is now past and there is no need to activate into any type of violence or even speak out in anger.
We must remember that anger is usually a secondary emotion that is triggered by fear or a feeling of imminent loss, or threat in having our bodies or boundaries encroached upon. When the emotion of anger is activated by these triggers it means our bodies are also firing up to enact violence if necessary and to enforce our boundaries, protect ourselves, our loved ones and our possessions. And our brains in an angry state are primed to enact violence and less able to think clearly and wisely. It is also important to know that while anger is often a totally legitimate emotion in response to an unjust or threatening situation, anger can just as likely be triggered by misperceptions, misunderstandings, faulty hearing even, as well as by selfish conceptions of what we think we should own and control. Likewise, when anger is triggered the parts of the brain that are likely to engage in violence are highly activated whereas if we sit for a moment or two to calm ourselves or lie down, the activated brain gets a signal that no immediate violent response is necessary and the thinking parts of the brain get a chance to turn back on allowing us to gain perspective, often making it clear no violence is called for and even speaking in anger is a mistake. Thus this advice to slow things down, signal to the brain that no imminent threat requires immediate action and one can sit or even lay down to recover all one’s thinking capacities is good advice.
Again, let me point out the truth: anger and rancor are not good feelings. Which leads to the question of why shouldn’t a person release them? Unless there is something good in keeping them inside? In that regard, Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, said, “There is nothing that is swallowed greater in reward with Allah than a slave of Allah who swallows and contains his rancor out of desire for the pleasure of Allah.” (Al-Adab Al-Mufrad 1318). It seems that anger and rancor are not coherent with modern life and civilization. This is likely because as mentioned above that when the emotion of anger activates certain brain areas, other thoughtful areas may be less well functioning and wisdom may temporarily drop out. This is why we hear about crimes of rage and passion—the person was so angry that they failed to think through what they were about to do, who they would hurt and the consequences of their actions. Rage and rancor might be acceptable in a primitive life, where numerous dangers surround you, like dangerous animals and even dangerous humans, but in our civilized life we should strive to remain calm and to trust in the laws of God and man that will deliver justice should it be needed.
Some might suggest that releasing anger and rancor is healthy and it is needed to attain psychological stability but our God tells us that is not true. Christianity says the same in their Bible (Ephesians 4:26) “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath. And modern science makes clear that while anger is a useful emotion for engaging the body’s fight or flight response in so doing it will likely cause the adrenal glands to flood the body with stress hormones, such as adrenaline, and testosterone, to prepare for physical aggression. While fighting is sometimes unavoidable, often it is not the appropriate response—so one must be careful with engaging and discharging one’s anger because the brain and the body are also activated by this emotion in ways that can be highly destructive to self and others. If engaging in anger can cause our cognitive thinking to be temporarily suspended or clouded, it is great advice to take steps to calm oneself until these stress hormones clear out of the body and only then as the person calms himself will he be able to use his entire brain to think through whatever is vexing him and chose the best response to it.
So, what is the Islamic treatment of anger, or to use a modern phrase, what is the Islamic anger management program? We have a Prophetic treatment or management that was given thousands of years before brain science showed it to be completely wise advice! First of all we have to believe that anger while a normal hardwired response to injustice, affronts, attacks, insults, stealing, bodily threats etc. that Satan is a great deceiver and often causes us to misperceive, as well as tempts us to be greedy or wrongly claim what is not ours and then insist on protecting it. Likewise, Satan will love to see us act on our anger in ways that cause destruction to ourselves and others in our community. So we should acknowledge that anger firing up in our brains is a normal and God-given response to a threat, an injustice etc., but beyond that first signal of anger telling us something is wrong here, we must be very very careful when we feel anger rising. Likewise Islam tells us to be sure to calm ourselves when that first signal of anger occurs so that we can be sure we are perceiving rightly and not being deceived by Satan and as we practice patient to engage in strategies that enact calm thinking to consider our options, one of which may be to use our anger to react in a punitive, angry, threatening or even violent manner, but which will in most cases not be the best response. Acting in anger without first calming the anger opens the door wide open for Satan.
Thus our anger management system in Islam tells us that the person who gets angry should first and foremost seek refuge in Allah, as Allah says in the Qur’an, “When Satan provokes you seek refuge in Allah; He is the Hearing, the Knowing, indeed, when a visitation of Satan touches the cautious (worshipers) they remember, and then see clearly” Surah 7, Ayah 200-201). Thousands of years before brain science showed that anger can cloud our vision our God knew this to be true and we see that these ayahs are viewing misperceiving and responding in anger as a touch from Satan, like a blinders to the eye and to the heart; so, the angry person has to say, “I seek refuge in Allah from the accursed Satan”. Indeed, once a companion of the Prophet named Sulaiman Bin Surad said, “I was sitting with the Prophet, peace be upon him, when two men began to quarrel and curse each other and the face of one of them turned red and the veins of his neck were swollen (from rage). Here we literally see the description of cortisol racing through this man’s body causing a physical response, readying the man’s body to fight. The Messenger of Allah peace be upon him said, “I know of a word, if he were to utter that, his rage would vanish and that is: A’udhu billahi minash-Shaitan nir-rajim (I seek refuge in Allah from Satan, the accursed).” So they (Companions) said to him: “The Prophet, peace be upon him, tells you to utter: ‘I seek refuge with Allah from Satan, the accursed’” (Bukhari and Muslim).
This actually shows another concept that has now been discovered in psychological sciences, that when we feel threatened and turn to our attachment figures we can calm ourselves by doing so because we are opening ourselves up to a larger system, one that can protect us. This is a like a little child who under threat turns to his mother to protect him. He doesn’t need to rage or stamp his foot or hit another if he knows his parent will protect him. The same is true with the adult who turns to the protection of God, he can stay calm despite being angered or feeling under threat and in this calmer refuge of seeking Allah’s protection carefully perceive what is actually going on and then make a wise decision versus a biologically triggered and reactive one on how to respond.
Second, the angry person should change his situation, as the Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “When one of you becomes angry while standing, he should sit down. If the anger leaves him, well and good; otherwise he should lie down” (sunan Abi Dawud, 4782). As discussed earlier, this also signals to the brain that there is no threat that is so imminent that the anger needs to be discharged in that moment, and calmer thinking can return to make a wise and reasoned response while the person practices patience, holding the anger at bay or even removing it.
Third, if the anger didn’t leave him/her, then that person should make ablution, Prophet Muhammed peace be upon him said, “Anger comes from the Satan, the Satan was created of fire, and fire is extinguished only with water; so, when one of you becomes angry, he should perform ablution” (sunan Abi Dawud, 4784). While the Prophet instructs to clean the body with water, it definitely has certain spiritual effect, but the metaphorical meaning which can be inferred is to calm the fire in one’s brain by acting in a way designed to calm oneself so that one’s wisdom and ability to think rationally does not flee while the brain and body are activated into an angry state of thinking and functioning.
Fourth, stop talking and remember the bounties of Allah for that. Again, advice to slow down, to stop oneself from acting in anger, to calm and consider with wisdom rather than from a brain activated into a stress state.
Fifth, if you have the authority to punish, then remember what Allah says in the Qur’an, “If you punish, let your punishment be proportionate to the punishment you received. But if you are patient, it is better for the patient” (surah 16, Ayah 126). Again one sees that all of this advice is to slow things down, to allow the anger after allowing it to give it’s initial message, but then to calm the fire down so one can judge, and to ask oneself, ‘Is this from Satan the deceiver, or is it legitimate anger and if legitimate what is a well thought out and wise response?’
So patience is better than punishment, on what level, we might ask? Is it in this life, or the afterlife? Is it psychologically, neurologically, physically, financially or sociologically? The Ayah says “it is better” so this is a general term which includes every level, in this life and in the afterlife. Some of these levels are proved by a psychological study in Harvard in 2008 entitled “Winners Don’t Punish”. So, we need to think twice before making any decision when we are angry, as we would, most probably, be sorry about it after the anger leaves us. We have to remember that Allah said, “Those who spend in prosperity and in adversity, for those who curb their anger and those who forgive people. And Allah loves the charitable” (Surah 3, Ayah 134).
So my dear readers please know that Allah created all your emotions, and all your biological reactions, but in the case of anger, Allah also instructs us to be very, very careful with anger and to slow it down and this is because Allah knows full well how our brains work and how our enemy Satan works to deceive us, fooling us into misperceiving and acting violently or stupidly while in an angry state. Often you anger is totally legitimate and is about unjust situations, but if you follow Allah’s anger management system, you will find that you can pour water on the fire of anger—after acknowledging the message you have received about some real or imagined threat or infraction toward your self, your loved ones, your possessions etc.—and in doing so you can think carefully and quietly before speaking and before acting to make a wise and loving response. Remember always Allah loves the patient and the charitable. Your anger is a signal which you may not be able to stop from triggering, but if you let it grow into a big fire you will likely find it hard to control and it may cause harm to yourself and others. Whereas if you calm it and harness it and let your wisdom and charitable instincts prevail while practicing patience you will reap the rewards of Paradise. There is nothing wrong with anger. It is a signal. But after the signal, one must tamp it down to a small spark, rather than pour gasoline on the fire, and in doing so engage wisdom, charity and love. God’s blessings be upon you in all you think, feel and do.